Monthly Archives: January 2017

Identity is Fractal

It is one of the unfortunate aspects of human nature that it is not difficult to build a political movement centered on the idea that different ethnic or religious groups are responsible for the socioeconomic problems in a society. This is the essence of what propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. All politics is identity politics at some level. Liberal politics are oriented around respecting and including different groups; Trump’s politics are oriented around division and exclusion.

Identity, though, is fluid, and this goes in both directions. We can build larger identities, both with the intent of inclusion, such as inviting more people to become Americans, and the intent of exclusion and oppression, such as expanding the definition of white in order to allow continued oppression of other groups. We can also build smaller identities, again either with the intent of inclusion, such as helping people feel accepted and supported, or the intent of exclusion and oppression, such as creating a new out group to be discriminated against.

Exclusion and oppression are inseparable. The exclusive identity will fall apart in the absence of the oppressed group. The founders of the Confederacy understood this: the status of poor whites above enslaved blacks was necessary to maintain the white unity that enabled the Southern aristocracy to exist.

If the oppressed group is ever successfully expelled, the exclusive identity will soon find itself in need of a new scapegoat, which must be created from within. If a white nationalist state were ever created, it would still find itself beset by the same socioeconomic problems that exist in all human societies. And in the same way that it became necessary for new ethnic groups to become white, it would become necessary for a group to be stripped of its whiteness. Blaming the other guy for your problems requires there to be an other guy.

This explains why there are generic white nationalists in the US, but European nationalism exhibits smaller divisions (French nationalists, British nationalists, and so on). There’s no need to invent a larger white identity in the UK, so eastern Europeans don’t get to be part of the exclusive identity there.

Aside from being cruel, Trump’s Muslim ban is not going to solve the opioid epidemic. It’s not going bring back coal mining jobs in Appalachia or factory jobs in the Midwest. It’s not going to make America safer, and may very well put us at increased risk of attack.

And because of that, it’s just the beginning. They will come for someone else, and the only question is who. It’s up to Americans who care about creating an expanding, inclusive country to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Trump: The First 5 Days

The first 5 days of Trump’s presidency have passed in a blizzard of news, rumors, and outlandish statements. The circus atmosphere that has carried over from the campaign has made it hard to keep up with what’s important, and what’s actually been done versus what’s rumor. So it seems like we should summarize what’s happened, because Trump’s first 5 days have been about as bad as could be expected. Trump has acted, or is expected to act, to make good on many of his worst campaign promises:

  • Authorized Health & Human Services to delay or waive any Obamacare provisions that could be construed as a financial or regulatory burden on states or individuals.
  • Blocked any aid from going to foreign non-governmental organizations that even mention abortion.
  • Ordered expedited review and approval for the Dakota Access Pipeline and invited resubmittal of permit application for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
  • Directed Homeland Security to begin planning and constructing a border wall on the Mexican border, along with additional detention facilities.
  • Prohibited federal grants to sanctuary cities.
  • Expanded the priorities for deporting undocumented migrants.
  • Ordered the creation of anti-immigrant propaganda in the form of a weekly list of crimes committed in sanctuary cities and the creation of a special office for victims of those crimes.
  • Declared his intention to launch an investigation into baseless lies that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote in the election.

In addition, four leaked executive orders suggest Trump will take the following actions:

  • Suspend entry into the US from several Muslim nations, and suspends all refugee admissions into the US for 120 days.
  • Repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shielded people who came to the US as children from being deported.
  • Take several actions to reduce legal immigration and expand workplace raids on places that employ workers using visa programs.
  • Take several actions to make social services unavailable to immigrants.

On top of all of that, there have been troubling actions to remove research on climate change from government websites, and order that basic government research go through political reviews before being released.

The actual impact of some of these orders is hard to tell, because they are vague or because Congress would have to appropriate funds. But it seems unmistakable that other than locking Hillary up, Trump intends to carry through on his campaign promises, and many of these actions, particularly those pertaining to deporting, rejecting, and demonizing immigrants, can be carried out without Congress.

In light of all that, it again seems a little ridiculous to talk about transportation and housing, but let’s have a go for old time’s sake:

  • The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, & Urban Affairs voted to confirm Ben Carson as HUD secretary, with all the committee’s Democrats voting in favor. What they are getting in exchange for voting for a wildly unqualified candidate, other than a share of the blame for screw-ups, is beyond me. I guess all that remains to be seen is if he screws up through benign neglect or malign neglect.
  • About a week ago, it was reported that Trump’s first budget would draw from a Heritage Foundation plan that would zero out funding for the Federal Transit Administration, the New Starts transit capital investment fund, and Amtrak. Then yesterday a leaked document listed 50 priority infrastructure projects, including Amtrak’s Gateway project and 2 Ave Subway Phases 2 &3 (and more mysteriously, the privately funded Cadiz water export project and Huntington Beach desalination plant in southern California). Then that document was claimed to not be from the transition team, just from a consulting firm, and then others insisted it was from the transition team.

So, whatever, believe whatever you want on transportation and infrastructure. That won’t be funded by executive order, so Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will have some say in what it is.

As for me, if the price of getting a few transit lines built is total surrender on climate change, immigration, health care, reproductive rights, and basic decency, count me the fuck out.

 

The Hollywood Strangler – Part 1

The Ventura Freeway, running from Woodland Hills to Pasadena, is the Valley’s main – only, really, since the 118 is so far north – east-west freeway. In typical LA fashion, much of the Valley is car-oriented despite the paucity of freeway capacity: just one east-west freeway for nearly 2 million people. The freeway is the famous 101 from Woodland Hills to the Hollywood Split, and the much less famous 134 from the Hollywood Split to Pasadena.

The Ventura Freeway is newer than some of LA’s first freeways, like the 110, the 10, and the Hollywood Freeway portion of the 101, so it doesn’t suffer from the problem of short interchange spacing. However, it’s old enough to have underpowered freeway-to-freeway interchanges at the 405, the Hollywood Split, and the 5. Let’s take a closer look at these three interchanges, as usual with an eye on rationalizing the freeway facility and improving the local streets in the vicinity. For this post, we’ll look at the Hollywood Split, saving the 405 and the 5 for another day.

Before diving in, let’s think about what makes a good freeway-to-freeway interchange. First, these interchanges have larger ramp volumes than typical interchanges, which makes the weaving conflicts worse. That suggests an increased need to avoid conflicting local ramps (a local on-ramp right before the freeway off-ramp, or a local off-ramp right after the freeway on-ramp). Second, these interchanges take up more space than typical interchanges. Therefore, in order to maintain functionality for local traffic distribution, it often makes sense to have an interchange serving local traffic integrated somehow. This can take the form of half diamonds or a full diamond interchanged arranged so that its ramps don’t cause any weaving conflicts. I like to call this an “inside interchange”. Here’s an example: the 134 and the 2, with inside diamonds on the 134 at Harvey and the 2 at Holly.

Now, we don’t want to go blowing massive holes in North Hollywood to drop in 65 mph ramps and create interchanges like they have in undeveloped parts of Fontana. However, these principles can still help us figure out what will work for these cases. We’ll do our best to keep improvements within available right-of-way, compromising on speed where needed. Alright, on we go.

The Hollywood Split is the somewhat confusing junction of the 101, the 170, and 134 in North Hollywood. The 101 enters from the southeast on the Hollywood Freeway and departs to the west on the Ventura Freeway. The leg to the northwest is the 170, and the leg to the east is the 134, both of which end at the interchange.

hollywoodstrangler-aerial

Despite being signed as the mainline freeway, the 101 exits on the right and merges on the right going east/south, and exits on the right and merges on the left going north/west. This is contrary to modern design standards, which require that the mainline freeway stay left, with exits and entrances to the right.

On the other hand, the interchange also reflects downtown-oriented design, with the movements to/from downtown emphasized at the expense of other movements. This reflects the thinking of the era, that people would drive to a downtown central business district (CBD) in the morning and out to suburbs in the afternoon. With LA’s polycentric development, downtown is not as dominant as it is in many cities. The Ventura Freeway provides important east-west connectivity to outlying CBDs in Sherman Oaks, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena. Thus, if one considers the Ventura Freeway the mainline – an argument for which there is a good case, as we shall see – there are only two through lanes, which is also substandard for this location. The Ventura Freeway through movements stay left at the splits entering the interchange, but merge to the right departing the interchange. This means that depending on which movements dominate, we might make different decisions about what to consider the mainline freeway, and which ramps to reconfigure.

Looking at the freeway-freeway ramp layout, we can see that the northwest and southeast quadrant ramps are missing (north to/from west, south to/from east). Again this was fairly typical for that era of freeway design, but leaving out ramps is frowned up these days as it is confusing for motors and shunts high speed traffic onto local streets. The southeast quadrant ramps are more consequential, because they would connect major nodes (Hollywood to Burbank & Glendale), while the missing northwest quadrant ramps would connect lower density areas. However, it’s obvious that there’s very little right-of-way available for the missing ramps, and it might be hard for the southeast quadrant ramps to compete with Barham and Forest Lawn, which make a relatively uncongested shortcut serving these movements.

Lastly, looking at the local street ramps, things are actually in pretty good shape. The 170 has a half-diamond to the north, and the 101 has a half diamond to the west. The 134 has a half diamond to the east, though there’s a little friction between the Vineland on-ramp and Cahuenga off-ramp going east. One notable gap is that there’s no on-ramp to the Ventura Freeway west between Pass Ave and Tujunga Ave or Moorpark St, almost 2 miles, so that might be something to try to fix. Going south on the 101, the Vineland Ave off-ramp is uncomfortably close to the 101/170 merge, something we looked at fixing in a post that feels like it was written century ago.

Now, to look at the deficiencies of the interchange, it’s helpful to look at a stylized diagram showing the number of lanes and traffic volumes. Note that the ramps are drawn as simply as possible, ignoring loops and bridges, to make things easier to look at.

hollywoodstrangler-exist

(Note: traffic and ramp volumes from Caltrans. Asterisk indicates volumes I increased by 10,000 to get consistent results.)

It’s readily apparent that the central deficiency of the Hollywood Split is that there are only 2 through lanes on the Ventura Freeway (the 134 west to the 101 north and the 101 south to the 134 east). The traffic volumes are more or less evenly split between the 134 and the 101: 68,000 from the 101 south to the 134 east and 62,700 remaining on the 101 south; 63,000 from the 134 west to the 101 north and 64,400 continuing from the 101 north. In order to handle their traffic volumes, these 2-lane ramps would have to flow full for 16 hours a day. Meanwhile, the ramp volumes between the 134 and the 170 are about half of what the movements are in the other directions.

For the purposes of this post, let’s do an updated stylized diagram showing a simple solution for this bottleneck, taking the easiest approach. Let’s bump up the ramps between the 101 and the 134 to three lanes each way. Going west on the 134, that means we just get rid of the lane drop and extend the third lane through the interchange, which would be a basic bridge widening project. This would leave us with 6 lanes going north on the 101 instead of 5 lanes; the sixth lane could be dropped at the next off-ramp, Laurel Canyon Blvd.

Coming the other direction, let’s pick up the southbound onramp from Laurel Canyon Blvd to the 101 south as a sixth lane. We can then split and have 3 lanes go to the 101 south and 3 lanes to the 134 east. We eliminate the 134 east offramp to Riverside Drive, which has relatively low volume, and let that traffic be picked up by the Tujunga Ave and Cahuenga off-ramps. That clears space for the bridge widening for the third lane to the 134 east. With 2 lanes merging in from the 170 south, we have 5 lanes on the 134 east. Rather than drop the right lane and add the HOV lane on the left, let’s just turn the left lane into a carpool lane and force ramp traffic from the 170 over, since it has a lower volume anyway.

hollywoodstrangler-prop

Note that we also cleaned up the 101 north to the 170 north transition, making it 3 lanes instead of 4 lanes and eliminating the need for a lane drop on the ramp from the 134 west to the 170 north. In this instance I left the right-side lane drop and added the HOV lane on the left, but maybe the opposite approach would work.

In a future post, I’ll lay this out on an aerial, and take a deeper look at some of the other possibilities for improvements discussed above.

Do Pedestrian Scrambles Make Sense?

Pedestrian scrambles have enjoyed some increased popularity lately, popping up at Hollywood & Highland in LA and Brand & Harvard by the Americana in Glendale. This arrangement is also known as a Barnes dance after the traffic engineer who promoted it. Note that diagonal crossing is permitted at these locations.

There are several advantages to the scramble:

  • Pedestrians have their own phase, with no traffic movements, which decreases the likelihood of drivers crashing into pedestrians.
  • People wishing to cross both streets can do so in one crosswalk phase.
  • There are no pedestrians during the auto phases, which increases the throughput of the turning movements for cars.

However, there are also several disadvantages to the scramble:

  • If the scramble is added at the expense of left turn arrows, the capacity of left turn movements will be negatively impacted.
  • If the scramble is added but the other phases of the light cannot be shortened (i.e. the walk movement was not the constraining factor on phase length), the cycle time will increase.
  • Vehicular capacity in general may be reduced, simply by reducing the percentage of green time in the cycle (g/C ratio).
  • Pedestrians only wishing to cross one street may see an increased delay.

My hunch is that, in general, pedestrian scrambles only make sense where pedestrian volumes are very high. Otherwise, the increased pedestrian wait time (which encourages jaywalking) and reduced vehicular capacity may offset the benefits. Note that even the world-famous scramble in Shibuya only allows the shorter of the two diagonal crossings.

The reason scrambles make sense when pedestrian volumes are very high is that large pedestrian flows will crush vehicular turning capacity, especially for right turns, which rarely have their own turn arrow. When pedestrian volumes are low or moderate, all pedestrians can step off the curb at more or less the same time, leaving the tail end of the green cycle for right turns. When there are huge numbers of pedestrians, though, pedestrian flow will continue right until the end of the cycle, and almost no traffic can turn. This leads to dangerous turns by frustrated drivers and more congestion on city streets. Anyone who has spent time in Manhattan has probably noticed congestion fomented by vehicles stuck trying to turn – and nearly been clipped by a driver turning on their heels.

The scramble solves this by eliminating the conflict for turning vehicles; despite the lost green time in the cycle, this may improve vehicular capacity by preventing gridlock from forming. This is not the only way to address turning vehicle congestion; some traffic lights in downtown LA (east side of Figueroa at 6th and west side of Flower at Wilshire, for example) have a lagging right turn arrow that comes after the pedestrian interval clocks out.

In a future post, we’ll dive a little more into the weeds to compare these options.

Parcel Taxes are Better Than Impact Fees

A short note on housing development impact fees. These fees are popular with California cities for a variety of civic improvements, like parks and affordable housing. They owe their popularity to two facts: one, thanks to Prop 13, cities have the ability to levy them more easily than property or sales taxes, and two, the public sees the tax as falling on Big Bad Developers™ and on people who don’t even live in the city yet.

Unfortunately, because they fall on such a small portion of the city’s land and on such a small number of housing units, impact fees are a poor way to fund civic improvements, and have undesirable externalities. On the first count, the fees will never generate very much money relative to the city’s budget and needs. On the second count, because the fees will be set relatively high compared to the value of the housing in an attempt to at least get some improvements out of them, they will drive up the cost of housing. In the case of affordable housing impact fees, the resulting increase in rents makes impact fees somewhat self-defeating as method of achieving the goal.
The unavoidable problem of impact fees is that unless we are developing a large greenfield master plan housing subdivision in a new suburb, they inevitably place a heavy burden on a small portion of the housing and land.

Consider trying to build 10,000 affordable housing units in LA County – a small number relative to the total number of housing units in the county, which is over 3.5 million. Even when development in the county was occurring at a relatively quick pace in the 1980s, at 75,000 new units per year, the cost per unit would be huge. At an affordable unit cost of $300,000, each of the 75,000 new units would be saddled an impact fee of $40,000; at 4% for 30 years, this is higher mortgage costs of about $200/month. There’s simply no way this fee can be assessed without depressing new housing construction.

On the other hand, if the fee is assessed on all 3.5 million housing units in LA County, the assessment will be about $850 per unit, or about $4/month for 30 years. This will have practically no impact on the cost of housing. Thus, it may even be possible to increase the affordable goal.

Lastly, consider a tax on assessed value, also known as a property tax. The current assessed value of LA County is roughly $1.264 trillion dollars. The tax to fund the affordable units would be about $1 per $100,000 of assessed value, reducing the burden on each unit even further.

Simply put, if we have worthwhile community goals, we should fund them in a way that’s fair and that works. Parcel and property taxes are not as popular, but they are much better, and we should fight to do things that way when we can.

The Money’s in the Infrastructure

This is just a short thought on the economics of transit capital costs and operations, which has been bouncing around in my head in the wake of service reductions at many agencies.

As any transit planner would tell you, reducing service can lead to a vicious cycle, where less frequent and therefore less convenient service causes ridership to drop, which becomes justification for further cuts. This is bad enough in a generic bus system, but at least in that case there’s little capital infrastructure that goes to waste, since most city buses just run on regular streets that are already there.

However, for something like rail transit, it’s truly crazy to cut service (unless you’re forced to by maintenance needs) due to the relative magnitude of capital investment. A brief example shows why.

Consider a 10-mile rail line built at a cost of $150m/mile, a total of $1.5b. Spread out over 30 years at 3%, the cost of construction is about $76m/year. If we run the line for 20 hours a day (4am – midnight) with 6 minutes headways, with reasonable cost per revenue-mile, it costs about $24m/year to run the line. This assumes 320 weekday equivalents, representing slightly reduced service on the weekends. The total cost is about $100m/year, of which capital costs are 75% and operating costs 25%.

money-infra

Now, let’s impose an austerity plan on the line, reducing service to 16 hours a day (6am – 10pm), cutting frequency in half to 12 minutes, and further reducing weekend service to get weekday equivalents down to 300. The operating cost is reduced by over 60%, but the capital costs cannot be changed. The total cost is about $85m/year, only a 15% reduction from the base plan. As a result, passengers will get much less useful service and some will quit riding the line altogether, further worsening the financial position. And the austerity plan will likely reduce the efficiency of labor and equipment usage, again cutting into the savings.

We can see how illogical this is by considering some simple analogies to driving. Once you have bought a car and committed yourself to monthly auto loan and insurance payments, you can’t cut your costs very much by not driving. In fact, not driving may worsen your position by depriving you of employment. The capital costs are large relative to operating costs.

Likewise, if Caltrans is short on money for maintenance, it would be silly to try to rectify that problem by simply closing one or two lanes on the freeway. No one would ever suggest this because it would be considered intuitively obvious that closing freeway lanes constructed at great capital expense to save a few dollars on maintenance is not in the public interest.

The wrinkle here is that transit agencies often don’t pay for the full cost of capital projects, or don’t account for it out of the same pot of money. In that case, there really should be some mechanism to ensure that adequate operating funds are secured so that the public’s capital investment isn’t wasted. I believe the FTA requires recipients of New Starts funding to demonstrate this in a finance plan, but the enforcement may not be there. The FTA has sometimes demanded that funds be returned when not used for the capital improvements promised – see ARC and Cleveland for examples – so maybe service spans and frequencies should be spelled out in funding agreements as well.

Do Park and Ride Lots Make Sense?

Park and ride lots for transit are common in the US, especially on commuter rail systems and outlying stations of rapid transit systems. Many urbanists do not like park and ride lots, seeing them as a waste of space that could be better used for housing, which would not only provide riders, but reduce car dependence and avoid the capital costs of parking. So, I thought a brief look at the economics of park and ride lots from an agency perspective might be interesting.

Suppose we have a site adjacent to a transit station. We could build a parking lot or garage, and let drivers park for free, in which case a portion of the transit fare is actually covering the cost of parking construction. We could build parking and charge enough for parking to cover the cost of parking construction, so none of the transit fare is subsidizing the parking. Finally, we could build housing, at some density – single-family houses, townhouses, podiums, or hi-rises. In that case, some of the residents would become riders, and the transit agency may be able to collect some profit on the housing.

The analysis below runs the numbers on 8 hypothetical scenarios for a 10 acre transit-adjacent site: free parking lot, $3.00 parking lot, $5.00 parking garage, $10.00 parking garage, single-family subdivision, townhouses, podium-style apartments, and hi-rise development. The assumptions are all laid out in the spreadsheet. Housing profit margin is based on what the National Association of Homebuilders reports. The equivalent zone is what the development would be per City of LA zoning. Transit fare and service cost are per LACMTA data for heavy rail.

analysis3

As one might expect, free parking loses money for the agency. Since the service cost is greater than the fare, the cost of building the parking is entirely a loss. If the agency can charge a modest amount for parking, in this example $3, the surface lot turns into a little bit of a money-maker. $298k/year is not a huge amount of money, but it’s something, and this option actually performs better financially than the single-family housing or townhouse options.

Due to high capital costs, a parking garage can be either a big winner or a big loser. If the agency can charge $5 for garage parking, the result is a loss of over $8m/year, but if it can charge $10, the result is almost $4m/year in profit, by far the best option. Note, however, that this is dependent on the ability to consistently fill a nearly 1100-space parking garage at $10/day. There are some locations where this will pencil out, towards the edges of the city and some commuter rail stops. (People might pay $10 to park downtown, but then they won’t even bother to ride transit, which is sort of self-defeating from a transportation and land use policy perspective.)

All of the housing options are guaranteed to generate at least some money by virtue of the profit from selling the housing. Obviously, the podium and hi-rise options do best and beat surface parking in nearly any scenario. If you are in a neighborhood where podium or hi-rise development pencils out, you probably don’t want your transit agency to be in the business of building parking garages anyway.

One thing to note here is that the analysis is quite sensitive to the interest rate. This is because the parking options have large up-front costs, while the housing options have large up-front profits. An increase to 5% turns both garage options into big losses, with even a $10/day garage swinging from $3.8m gain to a $1.1m loss. In contrast, the financials of the housing options improve.

analysis5

Lastly, please note that this is a very rudimentary analysis and does not account for benefits and impacts to other policy goals. For example, a 5445-space parking garage might be a winner for the agency, but if it’s not located close to a freeway, it may cause a lot of neighborhood congestion. Building housing creates the opportunity for more people to live in the city, while building parking only creates the opportunity to live somewhere else and drive. And of course, parking lots and garages create border vacuums and dead zones in the city fabric, which is undesirable.

Bottom line: park and ride lots may make sense in suburban and exurban areas if parking fees are enough to cover the cost of lot construction and help subsidize transit operations. Otherwise, build more housing.