All posts in Transportation

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Like a Rising Phoenix

Waymo faces tech hurdles as self-driving taxi deadline looms
As the technology propelling autonomous vehicles lurches forward, car companies have been struggling to make the leap between fundamental research and a marketable product. After an Uber test car struck and killed a woman in March of this year, the ride-sharing company abruptly shut down their self-driving program in Arizona. Now Waymo, the Alphabet-owned self-driving car company that had pledged it would launch a fleet of autonomous taxis in Arizona by the end of 2018, has reportedly been running into issues of their own. According to The Information, residents of Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, have become fed up with Waymo’s testing. The year-long process has seen cars stop without warning while making right turns at a T-shaped intersection, and sources have told The Information that the human safety drivers stationed in the passenger seat have routinely been forced to take manual control of the car. As with most other autonomous vehicle companies, Waymo uses safety drivers to take over when the car is in an unsafe or illegal position; the disengagement rate, or how frequently the human driver needs to take over per miles driven, is generally indicative of how well a self-driving car can move around on its own. The cars in Chandler have been deployed within a geo-fenced area–a location with GPS-defined boundaries–around Waymo’s office. Even in this small area, residents have complained that the abrupt stopping at intersections has caused them to nearly rear-end the test cars or to illegally drive around them. Waymo wouldn’t comment specifically on The Information’s report, but a spokesperson has said that Waymo’s cars are "continually learning" and that "safety remains its highest priority." The company hasn’t backed down from its ride-hailing plan either, though it may be some time before a truly autonomous taxi service hits the streets. Waymo plans to station a human chaperone in each taxi, and the cars will operate within a set area where the streets have been thoroughly mapped. Early adopters will (maybe) be able to hail a ride in Waymo’s fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans at the end of the year, but the company eventually hopes to roll out 20,000 electric Jaguar-built SUVs by 2020.
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Hometown Hero

Renzo Piano offers his expertise to rebuild collapsed Italian bridge
Renzo Piano has volunteered to help rebuild the recently collapsed Morandi Bridge in his hometown of Genoa, Italy. The world-renowned architect, who serves as a senator for life in the Italian Parliament, told the Observer last week that it’s his duty to respond to the national disaster and that he’d be happy to be further involved not only as an architect but as a citizen of Genoa. Earlier this month, part of the 51-year-old bridge snapped during a rainstorm, causing cars to freefall to the ground and killing 43 people total. The cable-stayed bridge was designed by structural engineer Riccardo Morandi and was considered an engineering marvel in its time. The August 14 tragedy raised worldwide concern over the functional lifespan of many bridges built in the mid-20th century. The Morandi Bridge was one of countless major pieces infrastructure in Italy, the U.S., and across the globe that have become dangerously fragile. Because the bridge was part of an arterial road in Italy, the A10 motorway, it must be rebuilt and has the potential to stand for unity and hope, according to Piano. “A bridge is a symbol and should never fall, because when a bridge falls, walls go up,” he said to the Observer. “So it’s not only physical but metaphorical—walls are bad, we should not build walls, but bridges are good, they make connections.” The architect, who lives in Paris, has an office that he designed in Genoa’s western seaside village of Punta Nave. In conversation with the Observer, Piano recounted growing up in the port city and visiting various construction sites with his builder parents. As a native, he knows what Genoa needs during this time of crisis and wants to offer his expertise. Though it’s too soon to talk about the specifics of a redesign, Piano said he believes a new bridge should convey a message of truth and pride. “It must be a place where people can recognize the tragedy in some way, while also providing a great entrance to the city,” he said. “All this must be done without any sign of rhetoric—that would be the worst trap. But I think we will stay away [from that] and instead try to express real pride and values. That is what Genoa deserves.”
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Face/Off

Los Angeles's first roundabout is a psychedelic sustainable landscape
Roundabouts are all the rage in Europe, but Americans have been slow to adopt this particular form of street design. Despite Los Angeles’s car-centric culture, the glitzy city is no exception, but that might start to change following the success of Riverside Roundabout, a stormwater-retaining traffic island at the intersection of Riverside Bridge, San Fernando Road, and Figueroa Street. The city’s first roundabout definitely brings the spectacle. Greenmeme, a studio working at the intersection of art and architecture, brought nine eye-catching granite sculptures to the site and created a resilient, varied landscape. The egg-shaped pods, ranging from 8 to 12 feet tall, each feature a face from a randomly-chosen local resident. Designers used 3-D scanners to capture the faces of the selected volunteers, and the sculptures bear the likenesses on either side, displaying 18 individuals in total. The sculptures were carved in slices by fabricator Coldspring using a CNC mill, with three sculptures carved from one block of granite. The end result, Faces of Elysian Valley, joins a proud tradition of face-based decorative art. The remaining granite offcuts were used to form a sculptural barricade around the center of the island and protect the “eggs” from traffic. Elongated faces have been stretched into the granite ring as well, creating a perspective trick that reveals undistorted visages as drivers circle the roundabout. Greenmeme worked with Ourston Roundabout Engineering to determine the sculptures’ size constraints, as the team needed to preserve sightlines across the island for drivers without distracting them. In designing the traffic island’s topography, Greenmeme sought to channel stormwater away from the street and adjacent bridge. The landscaped areas have been planted with native plants, and a 25,000-gallon cistern is buried underneath the roundabout, which uses captured rainwater to irrigate the green spaces and feed a water feature. Everything is powered by sun-tracking solar voltaics, including the lights used to illuminate the sculptures at night. The entire roundabout is ringed with permeable green pavers for drivers who need to pull off, and overall the landscape can handle and treat up to 500,000 gallons at a time (a once-every-ten-years rainfall event). Riverside Roundabout and Faces of Elysian Valley opened to the public in February of 2017.
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Hyper Loop-The-Loops

Catch up on Elon Musk's summer rollercoaster ride
Elon Musk has had a summer of ups and downs in 2018, even after putting aside all of the twists-and-turns of his personal life and turmoil at Tesla. In May, Musk announced that The Boring Company would be turning its excavated dirt and rock into bricks for low-cost housing. What started as an attempt to sell more Boring Company merchandise ala their flamethrower—in this case, “giant Lego bricks”—soon morphed into an unspecified commitment on Musk’s part to build future Boring Company offices from muck bricks. Future Hyperloop tunnels might be able to swap out concrete for the seismically-rated bricks, but they’re unlikely to lower affordable housing costs much; land and labor are the most expensive aspects of new construction. While The Boring Company hasn’t actually constructed much except for a short test tunnel in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, Musk scored a win when the City of Chicago chose the company to build a high-speed train route connecting the city's Loop to O’Hare International Airport. Or did they? After a lawsuit was filed against the city in mid-August by the Better Government Association (BGA), the city claimed that the plan was still “pre-decisional” and that no formal agreement had been struck yet. If the loop is ever built, The Boring Company would dig two tunnels under the city and connect Block 37 in the Loop to O’Hare. Electrically-driven pods, with capacity for up to 16 passengers, would arrive at a station every 30 seconds and complete a one-way trip in 12 minutes. There are still major concerns over the project’s feasibility and cost, as Musk had pledged that construction would take only one year if the company used currently non-existent (and unproven) tunneling technology. The project could cost up to $1 billion, which The Boring Company would pay for out of pocket and recoup by selling $20 to $25 tickets, advertising space, and merchandise. On Tesla’s end, problems with the company’s much-vaunted solar roof tiles have bubbled over. Production has slowed at Tesla’s Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, New York, as equipment problems and aesthetic issues have prevented the factory from rolling out tiles on a large scale. Tesla is pledging that they can ramp up production at the state-owned factory by the end of 2018, as the company tries to fulfill the $1,000 preorders placed after the tiles’ reveal nearly two years ago. Not to let the end of summer slip by without one last announcement, Musk took to Twitter to release a Boring Company proposal for an underground “Dugout Loop” in L.A. Several conceptual designs were included for different routes between the Red Line subway and Dodgers Stadium that would use technology similar to what Musk has proposed in Chicago to ferry passengers along the 3.6-mile-long trip in only four minutes. It’s unlikely that the Dugout Loop will come to pass, as L.A. is already looking to realize a $125 million gondola system that could carry up to 5,000 passengers an hour. What the fall will bring for Musk, we can only guess.
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The Trolley Problem

New York's BQX streetcar on hold as de Blasio appeals for federal funding
The saga of New York City’s proposed Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) streetcar has taken yet another turn, as Mayor Bill de Blasio placed responsibility for funding the $2.5-billion project on the federal government. At an August 24 media roundtable, de Blasio dodged questions about how much the city would be contributing to the project and claimed that while a detailed BQX plan was incoming, federal subsidies were necessary to move things along. “When we have a more detailed plan we'll speak to it,” said de Blasio, “but the primary focus I have beyond the resources that would be created via its very existence because of increased property taxes for that area, is the need for federal support. I don't think it's doable without federal support, but we'll speak to the details.” It looks like the federal government is throttling back its investments in mass transit, as the Federal Transit Administration has been consistently decreasing the amount of money allocated to intra-city projects. Still, it might not be impossible for the city government to secure federal funds for the BQX; the Gateway rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey, long maligned by President Trump, has seen a consistent trickle of money through Congressional action. While the city still has yet to release a draft report of the BQX’s route, there has been no mention of changing the 2019 groundbreaking. The de Blasio administration was (and seemingly still is) shooting for a 2024 completion date, but even if funding is secured in time, the reconstruction of the decaying Brooklyn-Queens Expressway could alter any previously proposed route. De Blasio added that details on the BQX’s next steps would be forthcoming. “Figuring out how to do it is what we've been working on cause it is complex, we're going to have an announcement soon on the details. But, you know, bottom line is the original concept makes sense, we believe there will be some real funding created by its presence but, we're gonna need some additional support.” The nonprofit Friends of the BQX declined to comment.
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You've Been Grounded

Kansas City International Airport tones down design in new renderings
Progress on the $1.3-billion Kansas City International Airport (KCI) is moving along after delays and a brief developer kerfuffle in December that saw AECOM attempt to win the project back from the Maryland-based Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate/SOM team. After soliciting community feedback, the SOM-led design team has released another round of renderings and revealed a more subdued version of the curvy terminal buildings seen previously. Voters initially approved the $1 billion replacement of the aging KCI last November. The clover-shaped airport originally opened in 1972, and its three drive-up, horseshoe-shaped terminals were rendered difficult to navigate following the release of new airport security requirements the same year. SOM’s H-shaped airport will consolidate all three terminals into a single building while keeping the curbside access that Missourians are used to. The original renderings, revealed after Edgemoor and SOM had secured the project, depicted a light, glassy building with a rippling roof and sail-like fins. In the updated designs, the roof has been smoothed out and flattened, a two-story fountain originally located in the departure and arrivals area has been removed, and a 4,500-square-foot lounge for frequent fliers has been added. Instead of the indoor fountain in the check-in area, which SOM removed to speed up arrivals, an outdoor water feature has been proposed for the area in front of the parking garage. A centralized “cul-de-sac” with retail and dining options along with a round performance space has also been replaced with a more rectangular "town square," which will feature local businesses and a teardrop-shaped performing area. The number of bathrooms will more than double, from the current 63 to 130, and SOM has used community feedback to design wide, accessible bathrooms for those traveling with baggage. Seven more community meetings have been scheduled for this September as Edgemoor continues to solicit stakeholder feedback. Demolition of KCI’s Terminal A is currently on hold while the Federal Aviation Administration conducts its environmental assessment, which should be complete sometime in September or October. The airport has already pushed its opening back from November 2021 to fall 2022 as the number of gates has risen from 35 to 39­­—the KCI currently has 31 gates in operation. While no budget has officially been set yet, the cost estimate has risen from $1 billion to $1.3–$1.4 billion, with the airlines pledging to pay for any additional costs.
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Vote Down

Foster + Partners' Mexico City airport could be cancelled by referendum
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president-elect of Mexico, recently announced that the fate of the new Mexico City airport designed by Foster + Partners will be decided by a public referendum to be held in October of this year. Mexican citizens will be able to decide in a vote whether or not the airport should be canceled. López Obrador, or AMLO as he is also known, led a fiery campaign for president. He trumpeted leftist and populists messages while attacking corruption that he said was endemic in the Mexican government. The New Mexico City International Airport (NAICM) was, he said, mismanaged and marked by excessive and wasteful spending, and he promised to shut down the project if elected. López Obrador has proposed that an existing military airbase be converted to civilian use instead of completing construction on the new airport. The vote is scheduled for the last week of October even though López Obrador will not formally take office until December 1 of this year. The project, which was won by Foster + Partners in 2014, is well under construction, and stopping it now would mean losing about US$5 billion already spent. The project is estimated to cost US$13 billion in total, and its first phase has been scheduled to open in 2020. Foster + Partners' design features a massive undulating canopy with an exposed space frame underneath. In renderings, the roof surface allows dappled light to come through large open spans between large footings where the canopy touches down to the ground. Arup is the project's structural engineer, Mexican firm fr-ee is the local collaborating architect, and Grupo de Diseno Urbano is the landscape architect. The airport is planned to handle 66 million passengers annually and cover an area of approximately eight million square feet.
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Boring Plans

Boring Company unveils Hyperloop route for L.A.’s Dodger Stadium
The Boring Company has released yet another underground transit proposal for Los Angeles.  Wednesday night, embattled Boring Company CEO Elon Musk announced the so-called Dugout Loop, a proposed “zero-emissions, high-speed, underground public transportation system” that could potentially ferry passengers between the Red Line subway and Dodgers Stadium. The company released a series of possible proposals, with variations on route length and station origination point.  The ultimate aim of the proposal is to improve travel times between the East Hollywood, Los Feliz, and Rampart Village neighborhoods and the stadium, which is roughly 3.6-miles away. Boring Company estimates that the proposed loop would be able to complete a one-way trip in roughly four minutes and carry between 1,400 and 2,800 passengers per day, roughly the same number as are currently transported by the express Metro buses that currently operate between the stadium and Union Station using dedicated bus lanes. Here’s the hitch: Unlike conventional transportation systems that convey passengers in both directions simultaneously, Musk’s link would only be able to operate in one direction at a time. The limiting arrangement is a result of the small diameter tunnel that is being proposed for the route, similar to that of other Boring Company tunnels proposed for western Los Angeles and Chicago. The proposal comes after a week of questionable business decisions and erratic tweetstorms from Musk, and as L.A.’s Metro makes plans to embrace a proposed $125 million gondola system connecting the Union Station in Downtown L.A. with the stadium. Backers for the gondola plan include former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt; Estimates for the transit link indicate the gondolas could ferry as many as 5,000 passengers per hour, with traffic moving in both directions simultaneously.  Musk recently drew criticism and accusations of project “segmenting” for bypassing environmental review as the Boring Company attempts to move forward with a portion of a proposed Hyperloop route through L.A.’s Westside neighborhoods. Neighborhood groups outraged by the effort successfully sued to block the project.  The proposal also comes as the Boring Company faces legal challenges for a similarly-vague proposal issued for Chicago that would link the city with O’Hare Airport. 
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Off the Rails

New York’s subway temperatures surge past 100 degrees
A study released by the nonprofit Regional Plan Association (RPA) last week found that temperatures in New York City’s busiest subway stations are soaring and that the average temperatures hover around 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Although temperatures climbed past 104 degrees at the Union Square station on 14th Street, solutions are stymied by the design of each station, aging infrastructure, and the trains themselves. The RPA surveyed 10 of the busiest stations in New York and found that the sweltering temperatures were exacerbated by the heatwaves that much of New York (and the world) have been experiencing this summer. The constantly late trains aren’t helping commuters either, as passengers have been forced to wait for longer periods of time on the platforms. Why exactly are these stations so hot? As the Village Voice explains, the city’s busiest stations are often its oldest and their design precludes centralized climate control; this is also the official reason given by the MTA. The trains themselves output a large amount of heat as well, both through their air conditioners as well as braking. Each full train weighs around 350 to 450 tons depending on the make and length, and the kinetic energy required to brake is converted to heat when a train stops at a station. The hottest stations surveyed were where trains idled the longest. The Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop in Tribeca was unsurprisingly featured as well, as the 6 train makes its last stop there then idles before departing on its uptown route. When WNYC surveyed 103 of New York’s stations during the July 2015 heatwave, the Brooklyn Bridge stop clocked in at 107 degrees. For its part, the MTA has pledged to keep the trains running more efficiently to reduce the time passengers have to wait on these overheated platforms. While the MTA tests new communication and signal technologies that could improve wait times and braking efficiency, New York City Transit Authority President Andy Byford has pledged that most of the subway system will use communications-based train control by 2030. Still, as the climate warms, these types of heat waves are only going to become more common, and the fixes required to keep the city’s subway stations tolerable are solutions that will require long-term investments on par with the MTA's other sustainability initiatives.
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Preventative Measures

Suicide barrier controversy envelops Golden Gate Bridge
Forbes recently reported on the controversy surrounding a suicide barrier that will be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. The barrier is projected to cost $211 million of public money, which some say is too high, while others say that the landmark's iconic appearance should not be changed. The barrier will consist of a net extending 20 feet horizontally out from the bridge's deck, held up by steel members painted the same color as the bridge's main structure. The net will be about 20 feet below the bridge deck's top surface, so anyone falling onto it would still sustain injuries, but much less severe ones than they would receive from a fall to the water below. The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, the authority responsible for overseeing the barrier's construction, refers to the net as a "deterrent," and says that similar structures have been successful in hindering suicides related to other structures around the world. According to Forbes, the bridge is the second most popular suicide destination in the world, and the LA Times has reported that dozens of people die from jumping off the structure every year. Forbes also reported that the $211 million bill is almost three times the original $76 million estimated price for the project. The barrier should be in place in 2021.
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Transit Check

Almost 10 percent of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient
News of the bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, has urbanists, lawmakers, and everyday citizens alike rethinking the safety of aged infrastructure across the globe. A reported 39 people were killed on Tuesday when part of the cable-stayed Morandi Bridge snapped during a torrential downpour, causing dozens of vehicles to fall 148 feet to the ground. Completed in 1967, the 0.8 mile-long bridge underwent a restructuring effort two years ago and work on the foundation was underway this summer when the collapse occurred. Experts say both the design and maintenance of the 51-year-old bridge may be at fault for the catastrophic event. Many of the 614,387 bridges in the United States are nearing the end of their useful life, says to the American Society of Civil Engineers. Nearly four in ten are 50 years old or more, according to an ASCE report updated last year, but some significant repair work has been done over the last decade to ensure the future safety of a few of these structures. The ASCE reported that the percentage of structurally-deficient bridges in the U.S. has decreased from 12.1 percent to 9.1 percent since 2009 and that about 13.6 percent of the nation’s bridges are functionally obsolete. The ASCE also estimated that 15 percent were built between 40 and 49 years ago and will soon reach the end of their functional lifespan. With 188 million people traveling across poor bridges each year, these figures beg the question: How can the U.S. maintain its aging infrastructure? Though the U.S. has made advances on the state of its bridges, there’s still a long way to go. The ASCE said that it will cost $123 million to fix the nation’s deteriorating bridges and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association adds it will take nearly 37 years to do so. In January, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced the Bridge Investment Act in Congress, a $75 million measure that would help fund a 10-year federal grant for state bridge repairs, reports Construction Dive. The proposal is currently being reviewed by the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.
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Clarification Station

Elon Musk's Chicago tunnel targeted by a new lawsuit
Elon Musk’s plans to build an underground express system for Chicago are super vague and people are mad about it. The Illinois-based Better Government Association (BGA) announced in a report yesterday that it’s filed a lawsuit against the city to release public records behind its $1 billion deal with the Tesla CEO. In June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Musk unveiled their grand vision to create a tunnel that would allow commuters to traverse 15 miles from the Loop in downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport in just 12 minutes. Musk promised to use untested digging equipment to build it and to introduce the new electric rail system in as little as 18 months. But that’s pretty much all that's been publicly revealed about it. The BGA argued that the secrecy behind the proposal’s logistics goes against the statutes of public policy that require such developments to solve clear problems in a clear way before receiving approval or funding. The watchdog organization reached out to the Emanuel administration to obtain public records detailing the meetings between the mayor and Musk, but the city simply claimed the initial discussions on the project were “pre-decisional.” This means no firm deal has been struck between the two parties even though the plan went public this summer. The BGA also pointed out that Musk has already completed a short tunnel project beneath Los Angeles’s Hawthorne neighborhood, but used conventional sewer drilling technology to make it, not the as-promised, untested tech. Musk claims that he can begin construction on the Chicago tunnel by the end of this year and complete it quickly thanks to the new (non-existent) digging equipment. But the head of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, which green-lighted the project according to the BGA, said a more realistic construction time is four years. Even so, major infrastructure projects generally take a decade or more to finish (see: New York’s Second Avenue Subway) and Chicago has already spent over $250 million under former Mayor Richard M. Daley on a failed plan to complete an underground superstation on the way to the airport. Improving upon the 45-minute commute via rail from the Loop to O’Hare is a top priority for the city, but no real plans from Musk or the mayor have been outlined as of late for locals to review. If the BGA’s lawsuit moves forward, Chicagoans could get a peek at the plans sooner rather than later.