Letter to America: Some lessons from Europe

Just back from the USA and have put together a few ideas for our friends at DOT and other agencies and groups in the States who seem to be struggling with these issues. Europe in all its rich diversity definitely has a few lessons of hard-earned experience that need to be examined by US policy makers and researchers more closely. Let’s have a look at a first handful that come to mind.

Philippe Crist from the OECD Joint Transport Research Centre


Laying the base:

Tax base – Having those that benefit most from high quality public transport( i.e., employers) pay for the service is a good start. Why more countries/regions have not put in place something analogous to the long-standing French “redevance transport” (a hefty regular contribution by employers to cover the cost of public transport) is beyond me…. It has to be one of Europe’s worse kept secrets. Still a good idea and ones that our friends at DOT and our cities should be looking at.

Land value taxation/value capture: Close the financial circle. Have those that benefit most from improved public transport services — land owners in the privileged service area — pay for them. In this way each successive round of improvements can be financed from the land value gains from the previous round. This idea has been around for a long time, but is only rarely implemented in our cities and regions.

Planning: ISTEA and its successive successors have had pretty good planning provisions re. MPO taking account of non-road investments. But nowhere to the extent that the French PDUs (mandated urban mobility plans). So what can be done in order to ramp up these provisions in the name of greater energy independence (since that is what will likely have the greatest traction in the USA)?

Long-term: Clearly, we are talking about planning and infrastructure changes that will take one or two generations to pan out. Having a long term plan and sticking to its key principles is essential. This is still lacking in the USA (and many EU countries).

The USA is not Europe: Paying for public transport of Zurich, Helsinki or Barcelona-type quality in Atlanta is going to be very costly — even for a wealthy country like the US. Without discounting the role of public transport, in the medium term US responses to reduce traffic impacts will likely be different than EU responses. And they are, if anything, even more needed.

Principles of policy:

There are three fundamental principles which policymakers should be looking at in light of international experience in leading edge:

1st Principle: Do no (more) harm. Look at planning/transport decisions and evaluate them on their GHG/other environment and economic impacts and act on those that that leave people (incl. those that are 1-2 generations down the road) better off. Here, standard discount rate approaches may not be sufficient (see Weitzman’s arguments re. how to evaluate high impact, uncertain probability events: http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/weitzman/files/REStatModeling.pdf and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Weitzman.

2nd Principle: Make places better to live, work, play – This will involve some thinking that involves the communities re. what kind of place they wish their region to be.

3rd Principle: Make sure that administrative structures and money flows are in adequation (sorry for the frenchisism) with what the scale and scope of responsibilities necessary to bring about #2 and #1.

And let’s not forget about:

Streets support many non-transport uses – So where appropriate, they should be managed and built to facilitate all uses. Caveat – this may not be possible on many US “streets” which are in fact mono-use facilities that may prove very difficult to retrofit. But still, the momentum is gathering in many places.

Much of US (sub)urban transport will take place in cars for years to come – despite increases in the cost of car use. This is a shame, especially for the young and elderly but one that can difficultly be avoided given the momentum embodied in the built stock. What EU policies likely to work best in the immediate are the type of policies that are being deployed at the periphery of large EU conurbations where many of the conditions are identical to the US. Look here and not at the EU city centers for what can best be copied or modified for US use (caveat – not many EU places are dealing with these spaces well)

Most US buses are substandard. They must be improved (low floors, adequate maintenance, dedicated facilities, extensive network coverage, etc…) in order to become an attractive option for commuting and to open the doorway to the later deployment of light or heavy rail. Starting with rail investment is ass-backwards in most US cases. As long as buses are still essentially the same rattling models (or their most recent iterations) that have plied the roads since the 1960s, there is no hope for large-scale uptake of PT.

Buses must look and feel like something completely new and better. Here, looking to the changes undergone by EU buses can help. Better real-time info, coordinated routes and higher frequencies must also be part of the solution. (I say this as someone who has grown up in the US without driving, relying solely on walking, cycling and bus transportation – so you can believe me when I say that this is important!)

Next US fact finding tour to Europe:

If DOT or any city or agency in America is planning a fact-finding tour to Europe – I would plan one for them that spends 80% of the time outside of city centers… no Vélib, no Amsterdam tram, no anything except what seems to be working in the low-density suburbs of cities over here. Not only will they learn more, they might also feel more at home!

Philippe Crist, Administrator, philippe.crist@oecd.org
OECD International Transport Forum, Paris, France

April Streeter reports on 50,000 public bikes in Hangzhou

Here you will find a bit of lively four continent viral reporting, rounding up news from numerous sources on the Hangzhou, China public bike project that has most of us non-Chinese speaking observers blinking in ignorance.

– April Streeter reporting from Gothenburg Sweden


Powering Past Paris, Hangzhou Will Have 50,000 Bike-Share Bikes

Tucked at the end of this great post about Hangzhou, China at the blog Code for Something was some pretty big news about the city’s bike share. Hangzhou, with roughly the same number of inhabitants as Paris, is planning to whiz by the City of Lights (which has approximately 20,000 Vélib bike share bikes) by beefing up its offering from 16,000 to 50,000 bright orangey-red bikes by year’s end.

Solving the ‘final kilometer’ puzzle

Tracing back to Paulo De Maio’s Bike-Sharing blog for some more information, it seems the Hangzhou Public Transport Corporation set up the city’s bike share scheme last year to aid, according to China.org.cn: “seamless connection of bicycle-based slow-speed traffic with metro and bus-based public traffic facilities,” said Huang Zhiyao, general manager of Hangzhou Public Transport Corporation (HPTC).

Higher daily usage than Vélibs

The story goes on to describe how citizens and tourists alike have taken to the bike share scheme, which (even better than Vélib) offers users the first full hour of service for free. After that the next hour costs a modest one yuan ($.15), two yuan for the following hour and three yuan for every additional hour up to 24 hours. Hangzhou bikes don’t have the flair of Vélib but are definitely serviceable, with plastic front baskets, a bike skirt, and a bell. By March of this year, the service was claiming each bike was used an average of 5 times daily. While it aims to be tourist friendly, it may take up to 10 days to get the bike deposit back for travelers.

But what, no vandalism?

In the most incredible piece of information in the China.org story, HPTC claims that not a single bike has been stolen in the service’s first year of operation, and very few bikes (0.5%) are damaged or vandalized. Contrast that with the tale of woe told by JCDecaux, Vélib’s operator, which claims that at least half of the original Vélibs were stolen, wrecked, or defaced. HPTC puts users who do not return bikes onto a black list and they are denied the ability to be part of the system for life! Pretty harsh.

Better technology than Vélib

HPTC claims that it has simplified the rental process compared with European bike share systems, by installing simpler POS systems that makes it easier for a user to end a rental and reportedly reduces rental time from about five minutes to just one minute, HPTC said. HPTC plans to become economically solvent by putting advertisements on
the bikes and at bike return spots.

To get more information on the Hangzhouz bike share, try going here to the (challeging but amusing) official site of the program and translate using Google Translate – http://www.hzzxc.com.cn/

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In this slot at the end of contributed articles, we generally try to place a few sober words that will permit our readers to know a bit about the author. But this time the temptation is too great, so now you have a short bio note in April’s own words.

“April is a former bilingual cocktail waitress who left the warm beaches of Hawaii to pursue an upstanding career as reporter on the new and exciting digital world for MacWEEK magazine in San Francisco. When she finally couldn’t stand the thought of writing about one more wireless local area network router, she recast herself as an environmental and sustainability journalist for Tomorrow magazine in Stockholm, Sweden. A few years later, she escaped the Scandinavian chill to become editor of Sustainable Industries magazine in Portland, Oregon. But eventually, the lure of endless months of darkness and sleety rain beckoned her back to Gothenburg, Sweden where she today is a freelance writer and Hatha yoga teacher forever on the lookout for a good/local/organic/sustainable/fair trade Swedish burrito.”