Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of newsworthy transportation developments.
As just about everyone knows, the United States is way behind the curve on developing high-speed rail transport. Most of the developed countries of Europe and Asia have high-speed rail networks tying their cities together, while this country has only one such line that just barely qualifies. Some of those other countries, most notably China and Japan, are also investing in magnetic levitation, the next generation of superfast rail travel. To date, proposals to build a maglev line in America have not advanced past the “vaporware” stage, but that’s about to change, now that the Federal Transit Administration has released a preliminary review of a plan to build a 40-mile maglev line connecting Washington and Baltimore, the first leg of a possible maglev line connecting all the cities of the Northeast Corridor.
If maglev represents the future of intercity transport, micromobility represents the much closer future of urban circulation. Actually, it represents the very real present, thanks largely to the spread of urban bikeshare systems across the land. Those systems have transformed bicycles from purely recreational vehicles to practical city transport for a sizable number of city residents, and several mass transit agencies have also turned to bikeshare systems as first- and last-mile feeders to mass transit services. Because of this, a bill introduced in Congress would make bikeshare systems eligible to receive federal transit assistance.
The rise of bike-sharing has also spawned an entire micromobility industry. Many of the companies in this industry have developed shared scooter services that allow users to borrow foot-powered scooters, some with electric motor assist, for short hops around town. Scooter-sharing has brought with it some problems, especially where to put the idle scooters, but other companies are working on ways to make those problems less problematic. The latest development on this front: Scooter-share services that would let users summon a remote-controlled scooter to wherever they may be and send them to docks via remote control once they’re done using them. One of the bigger players in the shared-scooter space plans to roll out these self-positioning scooters in several North American and European cities this year.
Feds Releaae First Review of Baltimore-Washington Maglev Proposal
The Washington Post reports that Northeast Maglev’s proposal to build a 40-mile magnetic-levitation rail line connecting downtown Washington with downtown Baltimore has cleared a critical first hurdle in the form of a preliminary review by the Federal Railroad Administration.
The review examined the economic and environmental impacts of the two proposed routes for the line, which would zip passengers between the two cities in just 15 minutes. That’s half the time it takes Amtrak’s Acela to cover the distance and one-quarter of the time MARC regional trains take.
The strongest argument for the project, which would put the entire line in a tunnel between the two cities, is that high demand and aging infrastructure make some sort of new infrastructure necessary. The two existing freeways between the two cities frequently jam, and the two rail lines operate through a roughly 150-year-old tunnel beneath West Baltimore that severely restricts their operating speed. The FRA report concluded that the maglev line “supplements other planned and programmed projects and helps alleviate transportation concerns in the region.”
That recommendation, however, will most likely not put a dent in strong opposition to the project from many living along its two proposed alignments. Some, like Prince George’s County Council member Jolene Ivey, quoted in the story, point to its high proposed fares and lack of intermediate stations as reasons to oppose the project. The route would have stops at Mount Vernon Square in Washington and Cherry Hill in Baltimore, with one intermediate stop at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. One-way fares would run anywhere from $27 to $80, with an average one-way fare of $60; by comparison, an Amtrak Acela ticket costs $46 and a MARC ticket $8. In addition to criticizing the line as a plaything for the wealthy thanks to its high fare, the opponents also say it will have little or no benefit for the communities beneath which it runs. (The two proposed routes roughly parallel the Baltimore-Washington Parkway on either side.)
And even though it would be entirely tunneled, there would still be disruption on the surface from the construction of excavation, ventilation and exit shafts. The FRA report states that local businesses could lose anywhere from $18.5 million to $311.3 million from these disruptions. The route to the Parkway’s east could also have negative impacts on several parks and federal government facilities while it is being built. Offsetting these losses would be the 161,000 to 195,000 jobs and $8.8 billion to $10.6 billion in potential wages the project would generate over its seven-year construction period. And once it opens, the report adds, the line would support 390 to 440 jobs and $24.3 million to $27.4 million in worker earnings each year as well as increase property values around the stations.
Those high construction-job and wage figures help explain the project’s high price tag, currently estimated at $13.8 billion to $16.8 billion. The Japanese government, which has supported the development of the maglev technology being used, will chip in $5 billion towards the project. The private group backing it would need to raise the rest from private and possibly public sources.
Legislation being pushed by some state legislators in Annapolis could also throw a monkey wrench in the project by prohibiting the line from running through certain communities. And recognizing the high level of controversy surrounding it, the FRA has extended the period for public comment on its report from 45 to 90 days, giving residents until April 22 to give feedback. Some community activists want the period extended to 180 days.
If the project clears all hurdles, the line could open for service as soon as 2030, the report says.
Bill Could Lead to Federal Transit Assistance for Bike-Share Systems
As things stand now, mass transit agencies can get funds from the Federal Transit Administration to build parking facilities for privately owned bikes at transit stations and transportation centers, but not to install docks for publicly accessible shared bikes. Streetsblog USA reports that three members of Congress have dusted off legislation that seeks to correct this imbalance.
The bill, known as the Bikeshare Transit Act, was reintroduced last week by U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla.) The bill would make not only bike-share but also scooter-share infrastructure projects eligible for funding from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program.
Supporters of the bill include bicycle advocates, activists for transportation equity and the companies that have gotten into the still-fledgling scooter-share business. The Streetsblog report presents evidence that they are justified in seeking that support: Even though bike- and scooter-share networks cost less to set up than other forms of local transit, they still cost enough to operate that many proposed systems in medium-sized and even large cities fail to launch. Those that have gotten off the ground, however, have triggered a boom in usage and a jump of 4 to 7 percent in rail transit ridership. Advocates say that with public assistance, those gains could have been even greater as existing systems would get a measure of stability and more new systems could launch successfully.
Russell Murphy, a spokesperson for Lime, one of the two major private scooter-share companies, told Streetsblog USA, “If we’re serious about tackling climate change, road safety and congestion, the least Congress needs to do is bring commutes via micromobility to parity with car commuting. Cities have adapted to accommodate cyclists and other micromobility users as a result of COVID-19 and it makes sense that how we think about commuting should change too.”
A companion bill introduced by Blumenauer would reinstate a pre-tax commuter benefit for bike-share users that was eliminated by the Republican-controlled Congress in 2017. The Streetsblog article states that both bills enjoy a greater chance of passage with both houses of Congress and the White House under Democratic control.
Scooter-Hailing, Coming to a City Near You?
Smart Cities Dive reports that technology being deployed this year would make it possible for riders to summon a scooter just by opening an app.
According to the article, Spin, the scooter-share operator owned by Ford Motor Company, has entered a partnership with software company Tortoise that will allow it to place remote-controlled scooters in cities across North America and Europe this year. The Spin S-200 scooter, developed jointly with Segway-Ninebot, has turn signals, three separate braking systems and two front wheels for greater stability. The new model also comes with hardware that allows a remote operator to deliver scooters to riders and return them to their original stations using Tortoise’s positioning software and the scooter’s built-in cameras.
The first 300 S-200 scooters will go into service in Boise, Idaho, this spring. Later in the year, Spin will release a new version of its app that includes a “scooter-hailing” feature that will let users request a scooter at their location or schedule a delivery in advance as long as they live within a several-block radius of the scooter location.
This new technology promises to improve the reliability and availability of scooters while reducing the costs associated with retreiving and relocating misplaced scooters. The article notes that in San Francisco, it takes 52 minutes on average for Spin staff to retrieve and relocate misplaced scooters, long enough for the company to rack up thousands of dollars in tickets. The remote-control technology would reduce this lag time significantly.
Spin Chief Business Offcer Bill Bear told Smart Cities Dive that he was skeptical at first that any city would take the company up on its offer to place remote-controlled scooters on local streets, given the way micromobility companies have unleashed unfamiliar technologies on ill-prepared cities in the past. But he then said that he was surprised to learn that 12 cities had expressed interest in taking Tortoise’s technology for a test spin.
Know of a development that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.
Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.