Volunteers Drive, Yankees Ride

Volunteers Drive, Yankees Ride

Data from the American Community Surveys of the U.S. Census bureau revealed that the states of Tennessee and New York hold the extreme positions on the commuting scale. New York residents take transit the most and Tennessee residents drive the most. Exempting personal choice as an explanation, the lion share of the causes can be distributed among planning, policy and geography. Availability of services and space, density levels in the CBD and policy choices weigh considerably in their contributions to commuters’ decisions on how to transport themselves to and from work each day.

Polarized Landscapes

The south has traditionally been an incubator for a high concentration of factories, producing a veritable mix of goods from air compressors, medicine bottles and faucets to automobile brake components and home appliances. Southern states and municipalities tend to be very friendly to this industry, offering tax breaks and the like for the sake of adding jobs to the local economy. A bonus for the employers is that labor unions typically don’t exist in the region. With these incentives, manufacturers flock to the south. Industrial parks filled with cinder block buildings blot out swaths of land on the outskirts of towns where people don’t live. Workers are expected to shoulder the full burden of getting to work and back. Providing commuting options is not a critical factor, if considered at all, when terms of agreement between the business and government are established. They simply don’t have to because the problems that fit a transit solution are not there. Without a viable alternative though, many workers are simply forced to drive themselves even if they wanted to take transit. However, driving is not such a bad thing when you don’t have to endure the twice a day gauntlet morning and evening peak rush hours and on top of that pay for parking once you arrive at your destination.

In contrast, the northern metropolitan areas have both push and pull factors at work instead of just one or the other. There is a high density of traffic and a higher concentration of offices and buildings. The streets are congested and costs and hassles of owning a car can be overwhelming. Meanwhile, via one mode or another, the commuter has several options when deciding how best to plan a trip. While a large portion of the population uses transit, ridership is still increasing due in part to the fact that Yankees tend to pay higher gas prices while Volunteers pay the lowest in the nation. Yankees are continuously being pushed from many sides to find alternatives. When they’re available, those options pull commuters to the services.


The wide open spaces of the south still embody the American spirit. Driving your own car on long stretches of road is a quintessential symbol of personal freedom in the US. It will take painful conditions similar to the north to abandon such nostalgic notions. It can be expected that these sorts of statistics won’t see any significant variations soon unless congestion, space limitations and related problems force leaders in the south to put emphasis on mass transit as part of a comprehensive solution.

Rail and Port Activities Buoy Economy, Top Priority

In an earlier post, an alternative to rebuilding the areas hit by Sandy was posed. In addition to storm resistant building materials and construction, a revamping of zoning laws that respected nature’s sheer destructive capabilities, by restricting housing developments, was offered. As a nyportqualification to that idea, economic engines such as ports, rails and others should be the first, if not the only sector, to be rebuilt in the same locations. Ports are inherently exposed to the risks associated with coastal environments. Although the situation is not the greatest, the site is superb, enabling commerce that is a cornerstone of many port cities’ and regions’ economies. It could be argued that housing development also generates revenue, but where is the analysis that proves the cost of this storm is not outweighed by those revenues. Generating upwards of hundreds of billions of dollars annually in New York alone, the economic impact of ports and related infrastructure is proven to be more valuable.

New York officials will meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill (Hearings – U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation) in the coming hours to discuss the damages incurred from the storm and appeal for support in the effort to rebuild. The congressmen should be prudent and not write blank checks. While the wish to restore everything and everyone back to the day before Sandy touched shore is admirable, it would be more gallant to consider the future.

Rebuild versus Relocate

imagesandyUpon all the wrath meted out by Hurricane Sandy and with billions of dollars expected to be the cost of recovery, decision makers insist on building back in the same areas that suffered the biggest blows. They are convinced that they can build “better” and develop “climate resistant” infrastructure. These concepts are futile since they assume that the worst has past. Meanwhile, the full potential of the earth’s destructive potential hasn’t materialized. They also assume that the most recent phenomenon on record will be the measure by which these concepts are applied.

According to a piece from the World Resources Institute, damages have averaged a hefty $34 billion annually over the past three decades. The costs will only increase as weather patterns change and deadly storms increase in frequency and intensity. Eventually, the cash won’t be able to compete with grand scale catastrophe. In his appeal for federal aid, the governor of New York has pointed out that the value of the damage from this storm far outweighs the value of Katrina and therefore must be rebuilt, this time better and stronger.

After Katrina, there was no urgency among the coastal cities and states to evaluate and respond to their vulnerabilities to extreme weather. If Sandy posed a greater threat than Katrina, then what rules out the possibility that another one can come along and be even stronger than Sandy? In that case, the attitude of build bigger and stronger deserves a challenge from modified zoning policies and minimum, environmentally synced resistance. Building specifications may be upgraded to withstand a stronger wind but if the rating is say,100 mph and the next “hurri’easter” exceeds that, then you’re back where you started. It’s time that rezoning and moving out of harm’s way are considered. Living on the coast is a personal choice, facilitated by zoning laws, that allow developers to build in places that they know are subject to major damage as a result of major exposure to coastal storms. Planning and zoning polices, rather than or in addition to, increased spending on weather resistant building material, need to recognize the risks to developed coastal property and adjust accordingly to effectively reduce damage, saving lives and property.

Mass Transit Offers Economic Relief

Too often the proposed remedy for reducing traffic congestion is to increase highway capacity by adding more lanes, constructing more bridges and building new roads. Funds are provided annually at state and local levels and occasionally through federal bills. Without much deliberation or opposition, the money is used to expand and upgrade existing roads and cut new ones. Ask yourself this question the next time you have a clog in your kitchen or bathroom drain:  Should I install bigger pipes or reduce the amount of matter flowing through at once? I’m confident that the majority of us would immediately resort to the latter solution while announcing to all the occupants in the house, “don’t clog the drain with too much (insert appropriate matter here) at once!” I would think that this simple idea could be applied to a problem of greater negative consequences than clogged pipes or a wet floor. Too many single occupancy vehicles creating bottleneck nightmares also increase the demand for fuel. News flash: fossil fuel supplies are finite. At some point in the future, the supply will be even more limited than it is today, potentially causing more wars and costing more money, while demand perpetually increases considering the rate at which people buy cars. On practically every continent, owning a car is fast becoming a reality for the masses. Places like India and China, who are much more populous than the US, are building smaller and cheaper cars to expand their markets. It is preposterous to imagine a belt of asphalt that connects all the continents but the length of roads covered with tar could wrap the earth several times. While the number of cars on the roads increases, so do the costs of road maintenance. Fewer cars would mean less usage leading to a reduction in those costs.

Build and Persuade

When transit is available and reliable, ridership is substantial because it’s simply a better option in many cases. For example, driving into the Central Business District (CBD) of any locale is a costly annoyance. Finding a place to park will cost energy, time and gasoline in addition to the cost of the parking itself. Why bother with the stress if you could take a train into the city that stops a few blocks from your destination? According to a GasBuddy.com map, the northeast, specifically the state of New York, has the highest gas prices in the nation. Not surprisingly, the northeast also records some of the highest usage of transit. Gas prices and ridership have a tendency to experience a direct relationship. However, Michael Melaniphy, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), notes that the tipping point of gas price is around $4 per gallon. That is when the number of transit riders experiences significant increases. More practical transport options should be available, enabling people to make wise choices about when to drive and when to take transit.

At a time when a change in the climate is undeniable, the environmental costs and benefits are many. One such benefit of an increased use of transit is less pollution. I visited Los Angeles recently and saw for myself the haze that hovers over the city. Several people agreed that smog poses a very dangerous threat to the health and quality of life for people. Fresh air leading to fewer consequential and costly illnesses would be positive inputs to a healthy citizenry and economy.

Finally, I’m not advocating that everyone should get rid of their cars and take the train, the bus, walk or bicycle to work. However, many in the US recognize the importance of transit. From coast to coast, citizens across the nation have consistently supported ballot measures in favor of transit initiatives. Whether in Los Angeles or Virginia Beach, what is left is more political will in the investment and development of mass transit. Instead of spending money on the extraction and refinement of crude at any volume or cutting new roads that end up just as congested, those resources should be used for other deserving, beneficial programs and transportation initiatives.

Benefits and Magnitude of Mass Transit’s Impact

This post about transit leads in to tomorrow’s weekly discussion on the same topic. Transit is rarely featured in the news in terms of its ability to aid a very stressed economy. Absent the sensationalism of sex scandals and intrigue, you don’t find it presented that much in your evening local news or on the talking head shows that come on the television on Sunday mornings. That’s unfortunate because mass transit is proven again and again to be a worthy weapon in combating a host of projectiles. Air pollution and dependency on oil costs billions of dollars a day in wars and healthcare. Increased costs in infrastructure maintenance straps states and municipalities leading to neglect or at worst the failure of a bridge. Mass transit is one solution for primary as well as secondary economic liabilities. Below are a couple of infographics (one from Transportation Issues Daily and the other from Dialogue 4 Health) that give an overview of what transit has to contribute to solving an economic crisis from many different angles.

Infographics: Public Transportationhttps://i0.wp.com/api.ning.com/files/pPXcnoF7O4unmOyUrayPuxnfF1K3MrlCnXvZFog1o3w04c4gwiIUXFCxKBOLlieA5RALAu6kRGekluqKgYIgF6YJcQjEda6y/InfographicRoleoftransportationinphysactivityALRRWJ.jpg

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