All posts in Transportation

Placeholder Alt Text

Tolls Are Coming

Possible congestion pricing plan for Los Angeles takes a step forward
A plan to bring congestion pricing to Los Angeles County has taken a tentative step forward, The Los Angeles Times reports. In an effort to reduce traffic while also raising funds for new mass transit projects, next month the board of directors for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) will take up an initiative to study the issue. The initiative, if approved, would allow the board to assemble a panel of experts to investigate how congestion pricing might work in Los Angeles County, where The Los Angeles Times reports nearly three-fourths of commuters drive to work. According to Metro, it could take up to two years to study possible congestion pricing plans. Metro’s consideration of congestion pricing comes as the transit authority gears up for its “28 by 28” initiative, a plan that seeks to bring over two dozen transformative transportation projects to fruition before the city hosts the 2028 Olympics. The 28 by 28 plan would build-out L.A.’s planned public transportation system as envisioned by the recent Measure M initiative. The 2016 measure raised county sales tax rates to partially fund system expansions to the tune of $860 million per year. That’s a sizable chunk of what’s needed to bring many projects to life, but ultimately not enough to have them completed before 2028, hence the need for additional funding. Metro is expected to tap federal and state funding sources—including California’s gas tax funds—to fill in funding gaps for projects that include a new transit route crossing the Sepulveda Pass, the completion of the Purple Line to Westwood, and a new transit line connecting Downtown Los Angeles with the southeastern suburb Artesia. Congestion pricing could help bridge the gap for the agency, however. According to The Los Angeles Times, a recent Metro report indicates that a per-mile tax on driving could raise $102 billion over ten years and that a fee to enter Downtown Los Angeles could bring in an additional $12 billion. Metro officials claim that congestion pricing could bring in enough new funding to lower base transit fares or even make the entire system free to ride. It’s possible that with the right congestion pricing plan, Metro could make transit more affordable and useful as it makes driving more expensive and difficult in tandem.
Placeholder Alt Text

State of Trains and Trust

High-speed rail plan for Pacific Northwest takes a step forward
A fledgling plan to bring high-speed rail (HSR) service to the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and parts of southwestern Canada is moving closer to becoming a reality. The Urbanist reported that this week, the Washington State Legislature introduced legislation that would create a new interstate high-speed rail authority for the region that could begin to take the first steps toward making the Cascadia Rail plan a reality. According to The Urbanist, the new rail authority would be in charge of coordinating high-speed rail efforts across Washington, Oregon, and Canadian jurisdictions while also setting requirements for contracting operations and other issues. The authority would also be responsible for ensuring that the trains and routes selected for the project could deliver service at 250 miles per hour, a key stipulation for making the project economically viable across the region. The authority would also provide a singular contact point for communities along the proposed routes and would handle the preparation of environmental impact reports at the federal and local levels. A preliminary plan for the Cascadia Rail service was unveiled in 2018 that proposed a coastal line connecting Portland, Oregon, with Vancouver, Canada. The plan includes an eastern spur connecting Spokane, Washington, with Seattle. The plan has support from the Washington State business community as well as a growing set of local officials who see the prospect of reliable, high-speed rail service as a key way of reducing automobile traffic along Interstate-5 while also helping to address growing transportation emissions across the region. Several high-speed rail plans are making progress around the country, including in California, where the nation’s first true high-speed rail network is currently under construction. After years of planning and partisan bickering, the controversial plan is finally in full-swing and a line running through central California between Bakersfield and Madera is expected to open by 2022. Along the Florida coast, the privately owned Brightline route made its debut this year connecting West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Though the train is not truly a high-speed rail corridor—it runs at top speeds of roughly 80 miles per hour—the train has cut travel times between the two cities by over an hour. The line is expected to expand to serve Miami and Orlando by 2020. All Aboard Florida, the company that owns and operates Brightline, is also moving toward a second train venture connecting Las Vegas, Nevada, with the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. The company recently purchased XpressWest, a struggling venture that was aiming to deliver service between the two cities following the Interstate-15 corridor, Urbanize.LA reported. Like the Florida line, however, trains will not exactly run at high speeds; projected service is expected to begin in 2022 and will run at around 92 miles per hour. This might sound like a good bit of progress—and it is—but recent rail development in the United States pales in comparison to the many ambitious rail projects under construction around the world. China, for example, plans to build over 2,000 miles of true high-speed rail lines in 2019 alone. That’s enough track to connect Philadelphia to Phoenix.
Placeholder Alt Text

Can You Wait for It?

The longest bridge in the world will be finished this year in Kuwait
What will soon be the longest bridge over water in the world is nearing completion in Kuwait, according to KHL. The Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah Causeway will stretch over 30 miles total in two parts, spanning Kuwait Bay to shorten the travel distance between Kuwait City and a planned megadevelopment in Subiya to the north. The $2.6 billion project is part of a massive development effort that could link Kuwait City to a new port and the Subiyah megadevelopment. Now the drive around the bay takes over an hour, but the bridge could shorten that time to less than twenty minutes. The causeway features a 1,100-foot-long span with an asymmetric cable-stayed construction that will be the most visually recognizable part of the bridge, aside from its miles and miles of road. Korean company Hyundai E&C and local consortium Combined Group Contracting Company won the project in 2013, and the project is scheduled to open this year. The extremely short construction time frame for a project of this scale was ambitious and unusual, but Hyundai says that it has met and exceeded timeline expectations. Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the span of the bridge to be about 22 miles, when the total span is over 30 miles. The main segment of the bridge is about 22 miles long.
Placeholder Alt Text

More Than Meets the Eye

A Tesla struck and "killed" a robot at CES—or did it?
It’s either a documented case of robot-on-robot violence or an elaborate self-perpetuating hoax. At the January 7 opening of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a Tesla in “self-driving mode” struck a Russian Promobot, and the event was captured on video. Or did it? The story seemed too good to be true, and touched a nerve over fears that autonomous vehicles could be dangerous (see the case of Uber’s Arizonan test car that got into a fatal crash last March). In the video, a Tesla Model S can be seen cruising by a robot standing curbside, at which point the Promobot falls over and its arm falls off. Promobot’s manufacturer, also called Promobot, posted footage of the incident to Twitter, tagged Elon Musk, and “Promobot was killed by a self-driving Tesla car” racked up over a million views. Promobot claims that its robot was damaged beyond repair and that they would be filing a police report. How did the robot manage to “run off” to the far side of the road without anyone noticing? How did Promobot seem to know that the Tesla was in self-driving mode? Why was the scene being filmed in the first place? The company has thus far been unable to provide answers, but tech writers and Twitter users were quick to point out the inconsistencies in Promobot’s story. Tesla’s cars, while equipped with an “Autopilot” mode that assists drivers on highways, lacks a fully-autonomous self-driving mode. When the driver, George Caldera, was asked for a comment by the Daily Mail, he allegedly told the British tabloid that he had shifted to the passenger seat and handed over control to the vehicle. “I switched this Tesla into a self-driving mode and it started to move. And wow! A robot on the track! I thought the flivver would come round, but it bumped straightly into it! I am so sorry, the robot looks cute. And my sincere apologies to the engineers.” Other than the strange quote, a rope can be seen on the far side of the road near the robot, and Promobot appears to fall over slightly before being passed by the car. Robots and self-driving cars have captured the public’s imagination, but confusion over the capabilities of each have at times also served to confuse. For instance, the robots deployed to ward off homeless people in San Francisco and Waymo’s self-driving cars in Arizona, have both elicited visceral responses from the public. The integration of artificial intelligence into the urban fabric has a long and bumpy road ahead.
Placeholder Alt Text

LongPoint Bridge

CRÈME proposes floating timber bridge to connect Brooklyn and Queens

Currently the only link between the rapidly developing neighborhoods of Long Island City, Queens, and Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is the Pulaski Bridge, a six-lane drawbridge with a narrow pathway where pedestrians and bikers jostle for space. Brooklyn-based CRÈME/Jun Aizaki Architecture & Design wants to change that by proposing the LongPoint Bridge, a 250-foot-long crossing dedicated to foot and bike traffic.

The bridge is distinguished from its counterparts across the city for its lightweight, floating timber construction. It is anchored on either end by a concrete and steel mast embedded into the waterbed of Newtown Creek (the East River canal that divides Queens and Brooklyn). Glulam beams joined by galvanized steel braces and pins rise in two trussed peaks of armature around the nearly 50-foot-tall masts. The structure is a nod to the area’s industrial past and present while also referencing the iconic profiles of other bridges in the city. Its height above the canal allows smaller vessels to pass underneath, but for larger boats, the bridge pivots open in the middle, with each section moving on propeller-driven pontoons. This floating feature also allows the bridge to rise and fall with the tides.

According to Jun Aizaki, the firm’s founder and principal, the bridge’s design and timber composition allows it to be assembled off-site and installed quickly and inexpensively; in the long term, it will require only minimal repairs. CRÈME also proposes public parks and loading docks to flank the bridge on both ends, along with a pedestrian crossing over the Long Island Railroad commuter rails just beyond the canal. Together with the timber bridge, the pathway would connect commuters to the G and 7 trains on either side.

With the impending L train shutdown in 2019 and the predicted growth of Long Island City as it hosts Amazon’s HQ2, the timing of a quickly constructed, relatively affordable bridge seems ideal. Aizaki and his team, which includes a community organizer, are busy raising support and funds through meetings with public officials and local community members. For Aizaki, the bridge is intended as “a grassroots, rather than developer-initiated, project,” which he hopes will “be a symbol of something the community can be proud of."

Placeholder Alt Text

A More Perfect Union

Amtrak plans major update for Union Station in Washington, D.C.
Last week, Amtrak announced a call for contractors to bid on a proposal to modernize and expand the railroad’s main concourse at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Union Station is Amtrak’s headquarters and the second busiest train station in the country, yet its cramped and narrow concourse has been in desperate need of a face-lift since it was built in the 1980s. While the station has retail and food options, it is plagued with long lines and overcrowding, and lacks bathrooms. Union Station, which is swamped by nearly five million passengers each year, is known for its infamous train boarding process, where riders are forced to wait on the concourse instead of the platform of their specific train. The disorganized space often creates winding lines and very confused passengers. Amtrak's project aims to double the capacity of the 70,000-square-foot space by creating a more open, flexible, and spacious interior layout. The scheme will undoubtedly modernize the space which will no longer be confined by restrictive walls, doors, and hallways. Passengers will be able to flow freely throughout the open concourse, which should alleviate congestion and minimize the stress associated with boarding and queuing. The plans also involve a generous amount of glass and natural light, which will both brighten the space as well as improve overall aesthetics and comfort. The addition of more bathrooms and a luxury, 10,000-square-foot lounge will further provide visitors with a more positive, streamlined experience. This isn’t the first time Amtrak has sought to revamp Union Station. In 2012, the railroad service unveiled a multi-billion-dollar proposal to remodel the concourse. Without proper funding, the plans were scrapped. Construction of Amtrak’s most recent vision is anticipated to begin this fall, and completion is slated for 2022. While the news may be exciting for frequent passengers of Union Station, it still will not fix Amtrak’s inconvenient boarding process.
Placeholder Alt Text

Eliminating Elevation

Seattle set to finally close Alaskan Way Viaduct and open new tunnel
The aged elevated highway that famously borders downtown Seattle along its waterfront is set to officially close this Friday as part of the city's multi-pronged tunnel replacement project. The two-mile Alaskan Way Viaduct, also known as State Route 99, has blown past its recommended lifespan and has long been considered a major hazard to the city and its drivers. Its upcoming closure marks the beginning of a new transportation system for the whole city, but the saga leading up to this point has been harrowing. After a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Seattle in 2001, causing widespread panic about the then 48-year-old highway’s structural safety, the city and state began more seriously studying options to replace the viaduct. The Washington State Department of Transportation settled on a plan in 2004 that would include the build-out of a shallow, six-lane tunnel, but opposition soon arose over the project’s exorbitant cost and lengthy proposed construction timeline. After years of arguments, the most dangerous part of the highway, which sat south of downtown, was eventually demolished in 2011. Two years later, Seattle began making way for the tunnel, but the boring machine used to burrow the tunnel’s diameter broke down four months into its 1.7-mile journey underneath the city. It took another two years to repair the machine and digging began again in late December 2015. Despite more setbacks, including a large, unexpected sinkhole, the tunnel boring project was completed in spring 2017. It’s expected to open up to vehicular traffic in four weeks. Next steps include the demolition of the remaining standing viaduct and the construction of a street-level boulevard along its footprint. Dubbed the New Alaskan Way, it will line the edge of Elliot Bay. Once that's complete, the entirely revamped highway system will stretch northbound in two directions starting from Seattle’s major sports stadiums, CenturyLink and Safeco Fields, which are situated south of downtown. The SR 99 tunnel route begins adjacent to the arenas and runs northeast underneath the city toward a northern portal near Seattle Center, the home of the Space Needle. Drivers will be able to bypass downtown through the tunnel or the waterfront street-level surface highway or simply exit onto city streets. The decision to build both an underground highway and an elongated boulevard is an unconventional approach to mid-century transportation replacement projects. Cities around the country are currently grappling with similar situations revolving around dilapidated infrastructure, but Seattle’s struggle has been on the global stage for quite some time. After all, the Alaskan Way Viaduct should have come down decades ago when experts first saw signs of damage. It’s interesting to see a major metropolis, one sitting at sea level no less, choose this multi-project plan that for years created a mess of construction chaos and citywide debate. Though the pedestrian-friendly New Alaskan Way will likely do wonders to connect downtown Seattle with its industrial waterfront—a much-needed intervention—at a total of $3.3 billion it’s hard not to see this decision as both a big win for the city's future and a big burden for its present. 
Placeholder Alt Text

Cooler Transit

Hyperloops and wheelchair bikes: Cooper Hewitt explores the future of mobility
In The Road Ahead: Reimagining Mobility the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, presents a variety of concepts from around the world that ask the question: how will we move in the future? With concepts from firms like Höweler + Yoon, design studios like IDEO, and companies like Waymo, the exhibition suggests a range of possible futures instead of painting a holistic vision. Making the case that transportation options are multiplying as data and technology take to the roads (and tunnels, and skies), the show's organizers present a world on the cusp of transit change, change that could make cities not only more efficient but also a happier place for all their inhabitants. Hopefully. It's certainly a buzzy topic, given Elon Musk's constant parade of revelations and updates on his many ventures and self-driving cars taking to the street (at their own peril). Visitors to the show, up now through March 31, have just one obstacle in their way: the government shutdown. As part of the Smithson Institution, the museum is at the mercy of the federal government, which does not show any sign of ending its shutdown soon.
Placeholder Alt Text

Hitting Benchwallmarks

Governor Cuomo presents plan to prevent L train tunnel closure
At a 12:45 p.m. press conference Thursday afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled plans to prevent the 15-month-long L train shutdown that was set to begin on April 27. Seated between a panel of engineering experts from Cornell and Columbia Universities and representatives from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), Cuomo repeatedly touted the innovative nature of the proposed solution—as well as his success in building the new Mario Cuomo Bridge. After Hurricane Sandy struck New York City in 2012, the Canarsie Tunnel that runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn was flooded with salt water. The L line, which ferries 250,000 riders a day between the two boroughs, still requires extensive repairs to fix the corrosion caused by the storm. The concrete bench walls lining the tunnel were damaged, as were the wires and other electrical components embedded behind them. The MTA was scrambling to implement alternatives for commuters, including turning an east-west stretch of Manhattan's 14th Street into a dedicated bus lane, but it now looks like the planning was for naught. The new scheme presented by Cuomo, a joint effort between the governor’s engineering team, WSP, Jacobs Engineering Group, and the MTA, restricts the slowdowns to nights and weekends. Instead of removing and rebuilding the tunnel’s bench wall, and the components behind it, only the most unstable sections will be removed. Then, a fiberglass wrapper will be bonded to the tunnel’s walls via adhesive polymers and mechanical fasteners. A new cable system will be run on the inside of the tunnel via a racking system and the old wiring will be abandoned. New walkways will be added to the areas where the bench walls have already been or will be removed. Finally, a “smart sensor” network of fiber-optic cables will be installed to monitor the bench wall’s movement and alert the MTA to potential maintenance issues. Governor Cuomo hailed the move as innovative, saying that this cable racking system was commonplace in European and Chinese rail projects but that this would be the first application in America. He also claimed that the fiberglass wrapping would be a “structural fix”, not just a Band-Aid, and that it was strong enough to hold the new Mario Cuomo bridge together. To increase the system’s sustainability, floodgates would be added to the First Avenue station in Manhattan and the Bedford Avenue station in Brooklyn. After the presentation was complete, Cuomo passed the microphone to MTA acting chairman Fernando Ferrer, who said that the agency would be implementing the changes immediately. Still, skepticism over whether the MTA would be able to implement the plan quickly bubbled up from the members of the press in attendance and on social media. Because this method of tunnel repair has thus far been untested in the U.S., the question of whether the MTA would be able to find skilled workers to implement the plan was raised. Cuomo, for the most part, brushed the concerns off, claiming that each piece of the repair scheme has been conducted individually before. If the L train repair plan proceeds as scheduled, one track at a time will be shut down on nights and weekends for up to 20 months. To offset the decrease in service, the MTA plans on increasing service on several other train lines, including the 7 and G.
Placeholder Alt Text

Man vs. Machine

Waymo's self-driving cars in Arizona elicit violence
Residents of Chandler, Arizona, are waging war against the city’s new fleet of self-driving cars. Distraught locals have slashed tires, pointed guns, and thrown themselves in front of Waymo vehicles in order to prevent them from transporting passengers, according to The Arizona Republic. In April 2017, technology development company Waymo started a trial of self-driving taxis in Phoenix, the first of their kind. This past month, the service continued to expand as it launched its first commercial self-driving car service called Waymo One, where people of the Phoenix metropolitan area can request a driverless car through the simple use of a cell-phone app. Since Waymo vehicles took to the streets some two years ago, 21 rioting incidents have been reported to the police, particularly in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. While safety concerns seem to have triggered many of the violent outbursts, other locals see Waymo as a threat to their livelihood. People are worried that technology is going to replace them in the workforce. Taxi drivers across the world, for instance, have fought against the rapid dissemination of Uber and other ride-hailing services. Waymo's current controversy is just the latest in a series of incidents where autonomous vehicles or ride-sharing companies are getting into trouble. Last March, the self-driving car industry as a whole suffered the ultimate backlash when a self-driving Uber SUV mindlessly hit and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona.
Placeholder Alt Text

Building Bridges

Renzo Piano reveals replacement for collapsed Genoa Bridge
The Italian government has sped up plans to rebuild the Morandi Bridge that collapsed in Genoa this August, and taken up the Genoa-born Renzo Piano on his offer to design the replacement for free. Salini Impregilo, the country’s largest contractor, and Fincantieri, a state-run shipbuilding company, have been chosen to build the new bridge and will be forming a new conglomerate, “PERGENOVA” to do so. During a heavy storm on August 14, the concrete-and-cable-stay Morandi Bridge was hit by lightning and collapsed, killing 43 and injuring dozens more. The bridge originally opened in 1967 to span the Polcevera Viaduct and connected the coastal area with Genoa’s port. The Renzo Piano Building Workshop leaned heavily on steel for the replacement bridge, and Piano claimed in September that, “This will last for a thousand years and will be built of steel,”  and would “have elements of a boat because that is something from Genoa.” The final design seems to bear that out. A 3,600-foot-long main steel deck will run across 20 spans, supported by 19 concrete piers. For the most part, the piers will be spaced out in 164-foot increments, except for a pair that has been placed 328 feet apart on either side of the Polcevera River. The bridge will literally be a shining beacon, as it’s expected to reflect sunlight during the day and use stored solar energy to power its lights at night. Fincantieri will be building the structure’s steel elements at its Genoa-Sestri Ponente shipyard and may spread the work to its other shipyards if necessary. The steel deck will be assembled in parts and welded together on-site to reduce costs and speed up construction. The project is estimated to cost $229 million, and construction is expected to take 12 months once the site is cleared.
Placeholder Alt Text

A Subway, But For Cars

Elon Musk unveils prototype Boring Company tunnel under Los Angeles
After over two years of internet-fueled hype and fast-paced construction, erratic billionaire Elon Musk has unveiled a prototype tunnel outside Los Angeles that aims to test his far-fetched vision for a new urban transportation network below the region’s notoriously traffic-choked streets. The so-called Loop project is envisioned as a series of tunnels that could ferry private automobiles, and pods carrying pedestrians and bicyclists at speeds approaching 150 miles per hour. The tunnels, accessible from a network of parking spot-sized lifts, could eventually connect the city’s major landmarks and neighborhoods, according to a preliminary map unveiled last year. https://twitter.com/boringcompany/status/1075318894871470081?s=21 The Boring Company–backed test tunnel took shape beneath a neighborhood sandwiched between a municipal airport and Interstate 110 in Hawthrone, California, where several of Musk’s companies are headquartered. Although the test tunnel debuted with several key design changes—including the elimination of so-called “skate” platforms that private automobiles would ride on and actual travel speeds that barely approached 50 miles per hour—the bumpy debut was met with cautious optimism by observers, according to The Los Angeles Times. With a reported cost of about $40 million, the roughly mile-long test tunnel was built for a fraction of the cost of conventional subway technologies, though that is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, given the tube’s diminutive size relative to conventional transit routes, the fact that it was not built with unionized labor, and its overall reduced passenger capacity. According to The New York Times, Musk referred to the tunnel as “a real solution to the traffic problem we have on earth,” adding, “It’s much more like an underground highway.” The opening of the test tunnel follows the high-profile setback for Musk’s plan to build a second tube underneath the streets of the City of Los Angeles that came last month. The Boring Company is also working on a tunnel that would connect downtown Chicago with O’Hare Airport as well as a more modest loop that could potentially link L.A.’s existing subway system with Dodger Stadium.