Apr 29, 2008

"Metered Access" to Cars - could this become the norm?

Imagine a future where most of us have easy access to cars whenever we want but few people have a car of their own. Does that sound horrifying or wonderful to you?

Chris Bradshaw is an imaginative thinker about urban transport. A retired planner form Ottawa in Canada, he has long been an advocate for pedestrian rights. More recently, he has made car-sharing a passion.

Bradshaw's vision for the role of carsharing is ambitious and striking. He envisages a future in which having a car of your own becomes the exception. The normal way to get access to a car would be through what he calls MASC, or 'metered access to shared cars'.

This would make car-sharing, taxis and car-rental much more central to urban transport policy making than they are now. [Note: Carsharing enterprises are sometimes called car-clubs or car co-ops but don't confuse carsharing with ride-sharing or car-pooling.]

He explains his ideas in a paper entitled, 'How Carsharing Can Reduce the ''Drive to Drive'' and Improve Walkability', which he presented at the Walk21 conference in Toronto last year.

Bradshaw doesn't exactly tell us how to get there from here (although he has some suggestions). But the benefits he paints of the MASC approach are intriguing. He contrasts it with our current One-Person, One-Car Orientation (OPOCO).

Here is part of his summary:
Since society provides shared rights-of-way but leaves car-access up to the individual, we have created a feast-or-famine proposition in which there are too many cars, the cars are poorly utilized, and they are much larger than the vast majority of trips require.

In the last 15 years carsharing has joined taxis, car-rental, and ridesharing as ways to share cars: together I call them Metered Access to Shared Cars (MASC). They jointly represent a way to not only greatly reduce peak demands for both roads and parking lots – which increases sprawl – but to make the way cars are driven more pedestrian-friendly.

MASC reduces OPOCO’s “drive to drive” by:

a) shifting costs from fixed to variable, eliminating car-owners’ efforts to do extra driving to amortize $6000-12,000/year invariable costs, while making the whole cost of each trip more readily apparent;

b) having shared cars everywhere people need to be so they don’t have to take a car around everywhere just to have one available if the need arises; and

c) increasing the “fuss” of car access by requiring a short walk and some planning. MASC also reduces the amount of car – weight, power, rigidness of its shell – used for each trip by making the vehicle choice a trip-by-trip decision, rather once-every-five-year decision.

It is striking that this perspective does not see cars themselves as the problem. Instead, it focuses attention on the problems created when our main way to get access to a car is by having one of our own. This view might seem anathema if you see car ownership as a right. It might seem heretical if you see cars as inherently evil.

Bradshaw is not the first to paint such a vision. I have seen similar ideas from John Adams, Hartmut Topp and Rolf Monheim. But this seems to me the clearest and most persuasive vision so far for turning cars into a service not a possession, and solving many urban transport problems in the process.

It certainly makes me wonder.

Would it really work as described? In what circumstances can you imagine it being adopted as policy in any real urban area? Is there a feasible and plausible pathway towards this vision? Are these ideas relevant to rapidly motorizing Asian or Latin American cities? Are they relevant to highly motorized western cities?

Apr 26, 2008

Delhi BRT Safe for Now

It has been a dramatic week.

Last week I wondered if the Delhi BRT project would be given a chance.

Well, the initial BRT corridor does seem safe, for now at least.

Today, Delhi's Chief Minister was quoted as announcing that the initial BRT corridor project will continue but that further expansion of the BRT network is on hold until this part is made to work properly.

This is according to early reports (such as this and this) of the result of the meeting today that was called to decide the immediate fate of the project.

The Times of India coverage has been especially hostile and this continued throughout the week. This included new vicious attacks on the credibility of the IIT-Delhi academics, Geetam Tiwari and Dinesh Mohan.

By mid-week the project seemed to be under siege from all sides and few would have predicted a reprieve at that time.

However, by Friday, enormous efforts at enforcement and to correct signal problems were reported to have eased the delays and reduced the chaos at the scene.

Furthermore, a number of important voices, including the Centre for Science and Environment, spoke up on Friday in support of bus priority and of the BRT project itself.

Apr 22, 2008

Will Delhi's BRT be given a chance to prove itself?

{Update 26 April: Delhi's BRT seems safe for now}

Bad press and teething problems seem to be putting Delhi's ambitious BRT plans in danger.

Map of BRT proposals from TRIPP, IIT-Delhi

Delhi's BRT pilot phase has entered a trial period since Sunday. The first 5.6 km is due to start formally on 1 May.

Unfortunately press coverage of the project continues to be extremely hostile. Reading some of the articles on this in the Indian media one could be forgiven for thinking that Delhi's entire congestion problem is caused by 5.6 km of busway.

All this looks worrying for Delhi's BRT. If politicians cave in and abandon the project now it would be a huge setback for public transport in India. A hasty, low-quality start in Pune didn't help either.

Ahmedabad's BRT which is under construction is aiming at a much higher standard of BRT implementation than any other Indian proposal so far. It has benefited from technical assistance from ITDP. But I fear even that project might be harmed by any implosion of Delhi's high-profile (albeit lower standard) effort.

Visualising BRT in Ahmedabad, India. Rendering by: CEPT University, Ahmedabad (Source: ITDP)

It would be a great shame if a lack of patience to sort things out in Delhi turns BRT into a dirty word in India. Few of Delhi's media opinion leaders seem to be willing to give it any chance to prove itself.

From negativity to constructive efforts to improve?

As I have mentioned before, Jakarta's busway (a closed system, unlike Delhi's open one) has also seen its share of controversy. But the debate there seems to be gradually shifting. Instead of "let's get rid of this catastrophe" the main question seems increasingly to be "How can we make this work better?" Progress is slow but that seems like progress to me and a great sign for the future of Jakarta's public transport system, which needs all the help it can get.

Meanwhile, BRT in China is expanding with systems of various levels of ambition that are succeeding in both very large cities and smaller ones. New corridors in Beijing will be on show during the Olympics.

What does successful BRT look like?

If you are having trouble visualising successful BRT here are a few links to videos and pictures:

Can Delhi's BRT be turned into a success?

I am not sure. I don't know enough of the local details. But having come this far, surely it needs a sporting chance.

{Update 26 April: Delhi's BRT seems safe for now}

Apr 21, 2008

Escaping the "all you can eat" motor insurance buffet

The Freakonomics guys have just given Pay As You Drive (or PAYD) insurance some much-needed publicity.

Also called 'distance-based insurance', this turns motor insurance payments, which are usually a fixed cost, into a variable cost. This makes it possible to save money by driving less.

They write in their April 20 column in the New York Times Magazine.
Imagine that Arthur and Zelda live in the same city and occupy the same insurance risk pool but that Arthur drives 30,000 miles a year while Zelda drives just 3,000. Under the current system, Zelda probably pays the same amount for insurance as Arthur.

While some insurance companies do offer a small discount for driving less — usually based on self-reporting, which has an obvious shortcoming — U.S. auto insurance is generally an all-you-can-eat affair. Which means that the 27,000 more miles than Zelda that Arthur drives don’t cost him a penny, even as each mile produces externalities for everyone. It also means that low-mileage drivers like Zelda subsidize high-mileage drivers like Arthur.

They report that next month the large US insurer, Progressive, will actually start a comprehensive PAYD plan called MyRate.

The column offers some perspective on the slow progress of this seemingly obvious winner of an idea:
If PAYD is such a great idea, why has it taken so long? There are at least three reasons: the tracking technology has only recently become affordable; insurers were anxious about drivers’ privacy concerns; and there was a substantial risk for whichever company was first to offer PAYD on a large scale.

They also provide background and links on the issue at their blog.

For more background on PAYD insurance see also Todd Litman's efforts to promote the idea.

Many tonnes of greenhouse gases depend on how this plays out!

"Performance-Based Parking Pricing" - Don't Yawn! It could be the next big thing.

[Update: Looking for more parking policy information?  
Try Reinventing Parking.]

If the topic of parking pricing makes you yawn then think again! This is a hot topic in urban transport policy at the moment.

Lately, I have been asking students and training groups these questions about on-street parking:

What is the right price of kerbside parking in a busy shopping street in a city? And how can we tell when we have the wrong price?

I have tried this with three groups so far. With a little prodding they agreed that (if pricing is to be the main mechanism to encourage turnover):
The price is too low if there are no empty spots, so most motorists take a long time to find a vacant parking place. The price is just right if there are just enough vacancies so that most people can find a park very quickly (zero search time). And the price is obviously too high if a large number of vacancies can be seen.

They were actually working out for themselves (with a little guidance) the principles of 'performance-based parking pricing'. This innovation has been emerging recently at the urging of UCLA Professor, Donald Shoup.

I am beginning to think that it has huge potential to improve busy city streets everywhere, including Asian cities.

Here is an excerpt from a Shoup article on this in Planetizen:
We can call this balance between demand and supply the Goldilocks principle of performance-based parking prices: the price is too high if many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant. When a few vacant spaces are available everywhere, the prices are just right. If prices are adjusted to yield one or two vacant spaces in every block (about 85 percent occupancy), everyone will see that curb parking is readily available. In addition, no one can say that performance-based parking prices will drive customers away if most curb spaces are occupied all the time.

Image source: Donald Shoup (2006) The High Cost of Free Parking (APA)

This last point is crucial. This objection appears EVERY TIME anyone proposes increasing the price of parking near businesses. It emerges too when performance-based parking is discussed. For example, New York's Columbus Avenue Business Improvement District is considering trying it out. and a Chamber of Commerce spokesperson has already raised fears that customers will go elsewhere. But that makes no sense. If the price is right, there will be high turnover of parked vehicles. No one can say people are no longer coming to the area. In fact, likely more can come because they can now find a space to park and the cycling, pedestrian and bus conditions will also improve by getting rid of all the cruising for parking.

More from Shoup's item on Planetizen:

Prices that produce an occupancy rate of about 85 percent can be called performance-based for three reasons. First, curb parking will perform efficiently. Most spaces will be occupied, but drivers will always be able to find a vacant space. Second, the transportation system will perform efficiently. Cruising for curb parking will not congest traffic, waste fuel, and pollute the air. Third, the economy will perform efficiently. The price of parking will be higher when demand is higher, and this higher price will encourage rapid parking turnover. Drivers will park, buy something, and leave quickly so that other drivers can use the spaces. For parking, transportation, and economic efficiency, cities should set prices to yield about an 85 percent occupancy rate.

New York's StreetFilms has produced a great 5 minute on-line video to illustrate these ideas.

So far, the best known (and very successful) implementation of this has been in the downtown of the City of Redwood, which is in the San Francisco Bay area.

Now the City of San Francisco is planning the largest trial yet of performance-based parking pricing, under its SFPark pilot project.

Here is an excerpt from a recent SFGate article on the planned pilot:

The program does nothing to expand the parking supply. San Francisco's long-entrenched policy calls for reducing reliance on the private automobile.
As SFpark is envisioned, parking rates would be adjusted based on time of day, day of week and duration of stay. People would be able to pay not just with coins, but with credit cards, prepaid debit cards and even by cell phone. If a meter is set to expire, a text message could be sent to the driver. More time could be purchased remotely.
People also would be able to check parking availability before arriving at their destination via the Internet, handheld devices such as BlackBerrys, or cell phone. Sensors would be embedded in the asphalt to keep track of when a parking spot is empty.
The technology isn't new, but San Francisco would be the first American city to apply it on such a broad scale. That's one reason federal transportation authorities took an interest and decided to help pay for the experiment.
"The idea is to give people more choice, more convenience and to reduce congestion," said Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Under the program, which will focus on 10 neighborhoods, the city will adjust hourly parking rates based on demand - the price will go up when spaces are scarce and go down when plenty are available.

These ideas seem to me to be highly relevant to parking-scarce Asian cities. The idea does not just have to apply to on-street parking. It could also be used for off-street parking that is owned by local governments.

Does anyone know of any attempts to price parking in this way anywhere in the Asia Pacific region?