Automobile Paris

Car Sharing 2.0 Leaps Forward in Paris

» An all-electric, point-to-point system could revolutionize how we think about the automobile and significantly reduce the need for private cars in our cities.

American urbanites have already become quite familiar with the concept of car sharing through the rapid expansion of companies like ZipCar and I-Go; the ability to rent a car at a reasonable price at any time from a location within walking distance of home or work has dramatically reduced the need for at least some people to own private vehicles, since it covers the gap in service not provided by transit: Trips that are out-of-the-way, that require moving heavy goods, or that occur at inconvenient times. This is great for cities and for people, since not only does it reduce the need for parking, but it reduces vehicle capital expenses for everyone, since the cost of purchasing the car is effectively shared among many households, not just one.

But car sharing has always been limited in one significant way: It forces users to return cars to the place where they found them. This makes it impossible to use car sharing for one-way trips and makes it difficult to use a shared car for trips that last more than a few hours — because it simply becomes too expensive. And the environmental credentials of existing systems are limited: They mostly rely on the same old gas and diesel-powered cars regular automobile users own.

In several cities around the world, however, a new form of car sharing is being developed that offers users both one-way trips and electric vehicle fleets. Together, these advances could increase the number of people choosing to abandon their private vehicles in favor of shared cars.

Paris took the most significant — and most visible — step forward this week with the introduction of its new Autolib’ service, modeled after its highly popular Velib’ bike sharing system. A fleet of dedicated electric cars (called “Bluecars”), manufactured by French company Bolloré and featuring two doors, four seats, and a GPS system, have been distributed across the city; by June next year, there will be 1,740 such vehicles spread across Paris and 45 suburban cities and towns (eventually, 3,000 vehicles are planned). Cars will have the ability to travel up to 250 km on one four-hour charge.

Unlike most other car sharing networks, but like Velib’, Autolib’ vehicles will have to be parked in dedicated parking spaces that feature electric plug-ins. In other words, while the system will allow travel from one point to another, at each end people will have to find a specific station where charging is possible, since users will be required to plug the cars back in once they arrive. There will be 1,120 stations by next year (up from 33 currently), with 508 planned in the city itself. Some of these locations will feature distinctive booths (such as the one pictured above) that allow people to scan in their IDs, driver licenses, and credit cards in order to get started using the network.

Users will be charged higher annual fees (about €140/year) than do services like ZipCar, but will be compensated with relatively lower hourly fees, which will run about €10/hour.

The City of Paris has contributed the funds to install these stations, with Bolloré covering the costs of the cars. The service is expected to be operationally profitable over the medium-term; risks are being covered by Bolloré.

Paris is not the first to pioneer point-to-point car share at a large scale, though it is the first to do so with a fully electric fleet.* Car2Go, a subsidiary of car manufacturer Daimler, has since 2008 provided such a car sharing option first in Ulm and then in Austin, Hamburg, and now Vancouver with two-seater Smart Cars, which Daimler makes. The expansion of Car2Go suggests that the point-to-point model is economically profitable and that people appreciate the concept.

Unlike in Paris, where expensive installation of electric charging devices and station street furniture has been part of the process, Car2Go allows users to leave cars in any parking spot in the city, not a problem since users can simply fill up the cars at gas stations.**

Car2Go, however, plans a move into electric vehicles, beginning with a 300-vehicle fleet in San Diego at the end of this year. Though Car2Go will not be installing charging stations there itself, another company, Blink EV, will be plugging 1,000 stations in for any users with electric vehicles (Autolib’ will allow people with private electric cars to charge in Autolib’ spaces as well, as long as they’re signed up for the service). Customers using Car2Go there will not be required to plug the cars in (they will have to be charged every two days or so), which leads to questions about who will do so. More maintenance staff to do such work will ultimately mean higher prices for the customer.

For both systems, important questions need to be answered: How can we prevent people from using these networks for one-way trips to work, instead of the public transportation system? Will cars become physically concentrated in some areas of the city and have to be redistributed, as are the bikes in most bike sharing schemes?

The pricing system in Paris will likely disuade people from using the cars to get to work — unlike with bike sharing, which generally has no fee for members in the first half hour of use, Autolib’ requires payment for any use. Thus cheaper transit will remain the most appealing option for people in cities with good rail and bus networks. In less well-served markets, like Austin, one can imagine more people who can afford it using this type of car share for daily commutes.

What is clear is that the networks will have to be constantly monitored to ensure that everyone has easy access to vehicles at any location and at any time. After all, the primary users are people who would have taken their own cars or hailed a taxi otherwise. People are paying significant sums to become members (certainly more than they are for most bike share programs), so they need to be able to rely on the network.

One thing these systems could do is make way for more public space. Paris expects each Autolib’ vehicle to effectively substitute for five private cars. With 3,000 vehicles planned to be included, these would in theory substitute for 15,000 private cars — meaning that if each car accounts for about 1.5 parking spaces, the region could eliminate 18,000 spaces ((15,000-3,000)*1.5). If parking spaces are on average about 180 square feet, that’s a not-insignificant 3.24 million square feet of urban space that can be reused for something else, like parks or in some cases new buildings. The €56 million public subsidy to install the stations (at €50,000 each) seems a small price to pay to free up all that room.

* Other providers, such as Nice’s Auto Bleue, have offered all-electric fleets, but they require users to return vehicles to the places where they picked them up.

** This difference is similar to the contrast between Paris’ Velib’ and Montréal’s Bixi bike sharing networks. Whereas Paris invested in stations that required tearing up the street, Montréal’s system relies on a series of pods that are set down impermanently on basically any flat surface and which can be later moved. The latter approach is cheaper, less physically intrusive, and more adaptable. On the other hand, the physical presence of the built stations of Autolib’ signify a permanence and easy-to-find nature that cannot be replicated by park-where-you-want systems like Car2Go.

Image above: An Autolib’ station under construction in Paris, from City of Paris


Ridesharing as an Alternative to Transportation Capacity Increases

» To what degree can we rely on people getting into strangers’ cars to reduce the congestion on our highway networks?

Outside of the biggest, densest cities, transit generally underperforms; with smaller populations, less significant destinations, more diffuse congestion, and far more available parking, there is often little motivation for people to abandon their cars in favor of jumping on the bus or the train. As a result, the work commuting mode share for public transportation in most metropolitan areas in the less than 5% (only five regions have shares above 10%).

Carpooling, on the other hand, attracts more than 7% of work trips in all major metropolitan areas. In many places, where public transportation options just are not particularly appealing, sharing an automobile with another person can be an excellent commuting alternative, especially for people who cannot afford to own their own vehicles.

But how useful can carpooling be in answering a city’s transportation demand? Could its use be expanded significantly to encourage more people to get out of their single-passenger automobiles — without having to set down the millions of dollars required to build and maintain transit systems?

Last weekend at the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Madison conference, Paul Minett of New Zealand’s Trip Convergence made a compelling case. Most people drive their cars to and from work, but leave them sitting unused 95% of the time, he argued — we should make their use more efficient. In many cities like his own Auckland, 94% of road space is used by single-occupancy automobiles. And transit’s frequently minuscule mode share means that even if it doubled its capacity over the next ten years, it would still account for few overall commuters.

Mr. Minett advanced the notion that ridesharing — a system by which people get out of their own cars and essentially share a vehicle with other commuters taking similar routes to work — could triple or quadruple the capacity of existing roads, all without any added physical investment, the stuff no one can afford anymore. Unlike traditional carpooling, which requires people who know each other to share itineraries, ridesharing allows trusting strangers to save the cost of commuting.

From an urban environment perspective the benefits of encouraging more people to choose to ride together rather than drive separately are indeed significant: Just like with transit, reducing the sheer number of cars entering the central business district at rush hour can play an important role in cutting the number of lane-miles required on the roads downtown and throughout the city, and it opens up more developable land for buildings rather than parking. And the reduction in overall transportation infrastructure necessary to keep a city functioning means fewer expenditures by local governments.

Problems that have made ridesharing difficult for many people to adopt in the past have revolved around the issue of coordination. Finding people who share similar routes is not always easy, and the result can be frustrating waits on the side of a busy road, hoping someone with a sign advertising a similar destination shows up. But new technologies that virtually everyone can take advantage of through devices like smart phones solve many of those problems. They allow people to find others who are traveling the same routes as they are, thus reducing the difficulty of aligning origins and destinations.

In some cities like Washington, D.C., where ridesharing is referred to as “slugging,” as a mode it has made a successful dent into congestion and reduced the individual cost of toll roads. In the San Francisco metropolitan area, 10,000 people “casual carpool” everyday. If a lack of tax funds for capital investments in transportation is a problem, thus encouraging the charging of people to use highways, making ridesharing work well in places with few transit alternatives could reduce opposition to tolling.

Cheaper “transit” options, like downtown circulators and bike and car sharing, could ensure that in central city areas people are able to get around during the day without automobiles. As part of any city’s overall effort to encourage transportation alternatives, ridesharing should clearly be considered.

In his speech, Mr. Minett admitted that there remain significant obstacles to the wide-scale introduction of ridesharing. The ease of jumping in a car or — when it’s available — catching the next bus or train is partially based on the independence of others those modes afford.

The effort to expand ridesharing’s use has other structural difficulties, namely the fact that any corridor that works well for ridesharing would probably work better for a good transit line. Fundamentally, a place where ridesharing is appealing is one where either significant congestion exists and thus where a city or state implements carpool-only lanes or where traffic control measures like tolling are implemented. In the first case, people want to share a ride because it reduces their trip times (because they can travel in the free-flowing carpool lanes) or because it reduces their costs (because they can split the toll with the others in their car).

In other words, cities that suffer from few highway backups (and which therefore have no carpool lanes or tolls) provide their citizens few incentives to share rides (or use transit).

On the other hand, in most corridors where there is significant congestion, good transit is arguably in demand and necessary to attract people out of their cars. Is it a surprise that the cities with the lowest carpooling mode shares in the U.S. are those with the highest transit mode shares? As long as it is appropriately designed, with high frequencies of service and good accessibility, transit is the more popular option.

Finding the right spot for a ridesharing program, then, is likely no simple matter.

Image above: Carpools only sign, from Flickr user Richard Drdul (cc)

Automobile Bikes Light Rail Urbanism

Transit Mode Share Trends Looking Steady; Rail Appears to Encourage Non-Automobile Commutes

» Results of the 2009 American Community Survey show major declines in carpooling, significant increases in biking.

Just how effective have new investments in transit been in promoting a shift of Americans towards public transportation? Has the recent livable communities movement resulted in increased commuting by bike or by foot?

The Census’ American Community Survey, released at the end of last month with the most recent 2009 data, provides a glimpse of what can change over nine years. These data are approximations in advance of the much bigger (and more accurate) sample set that is Census 2010, whose results will be released next year. The information detailed here applies to commutes only, not all trips.

By looking at America’s 30 largest cities — from New York to Portland — we can get some idea of how people are choosing to get to work, and how patterns are changing based on the availability of alternative transportation modes. I have chosen not to analyze metropolitan regions as a whole because I want to focus on the effects of improvements to transit systems and increasing walkability, two characteristics common to center cities but not necessarily to their suburbs. This biases the information, especially for places like Washington or Boston, where the central city represents a relatively small percentage of the overall regional population.

Nevertheless, the data demonstrate a number of interesting trends. Most notable are the huge declines in carpooling and large increases in biking noted over the largest cities. As the chart below shows, over the past nine years, carpooling’s mode share decreased on average by 25.9% and biking’s share increased by 58.5% (note that these are percent changes, not point changes, which are documented in a chart at the bottom of this article). The declines in carpooling were matched with a slight uptick in single-person driving, a 1.5% increase, and a decrease in transit share of 6.4%. These mode shares are not the same as total modal use; it is possible for transit ridership to increase even as modal share goes down (for instance, if city population increases), and vice-verse.

% Change in Mode Share, 2000-2009, Averaged Across America’s Biggest Cities
 Total AutoTotal Non-AutoDriving AloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
All Cities-3.4-2.01.5-25.9-6.458.51.8
Cities with no rail-1.4-6.32.9-23.9-8.040.3-2.7
Cities with rail, but no major new rail investment-
Cities with major new rail investments-
Non-Texas Cities with major new rail investments-5.95.4-0.1-

Overall, the percentage of people commuting by automobile declined by 3.4%, and the mode share of those using non-automobile modes decreased by 2.0%. It was possible for both to decline because of an increase in people not traveling to work at all but telecommuting.

Though these numbers show little change in use for automobile and transit overall, they do provide some clue as to the effects of rail investments. When comparing cities that have no rail lines with those that have existing lines or have invested in new ones, a correlation between rail and transit use is apparent. Cities with no rail saw far smaller declines in automobile mode shares than their rail counterparts; they also saw declining non-automobile mode shares, compared to increases in the rail cities. These differences were especially considerable when considering rail cities outside of Texas; excluding them, transit saw no mode share change, whereas single-person commuting by car decreased (albeit by a minuscule amount).

This may indicate that rail lines can play an important role in encouraging the population to try modes other than the automobile. The non-automobile mode share, which includes transit, biking, and walking, is particularly interesting from this perspective because it may reflect the number of people choosing to live in areas where it is acceptable to use transportation other than the private car. Is this conclusive evidence that rail works better than bus service to encourage people out of their cars? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly a part of the overall equation.

Looking city-by-city, modal share changes reflect some overall trends. Automobile usage continues to decrease in the nation’s older, densely developed cities: The places recording the largest declines in overall car share were, in order, Washington, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Chicago. Those with the largest declines in non-automobile share were largely sprawling cities, including, in order, Columbus, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Las Vegas, and Nashville.

% Change in Mode Share, 2000-2009 in America’s Biggest Cities
 Total AutoTotal Non-AutoDriving aloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
El Paso-2.414.44.3-35.02.547.826.5
Fort Worth-1.5-16.44.7-29.91.5-18.2-31.5
Las Vegas-0.1-13.75.5-27.5-28.5-10.718.7
Los Angeles-
New York-12.63.3-5.6-
San Antonio-0.6-9.94.2-24.6-12.0-11.7-6.2
San Diego-1.5-13.23.5-31.4-12.414.6-19.6
San Francisco-9.66.2-3.9-
San Jose-2.1-2.10.0-13.3-21.343.132.8

The places recording the largest increases in transit modal share were Nashville, Washington, Austin, Seattle, Los Angeles, Charlotte, and Boston. All but Austin, Boston, and Nashville have spent hundreds of millions of dollars investing in expanded rail transit systems; Boston already has a large one. Portland, unsurprisingly because of its municipal investment decisions, had the largest modal increase in bike usage, but other cities less known for biking like Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago also saw significant increases as well.

How can we explain the significant public transportation mode share declines in Houston and Dallas, two cities that invested considerably in their respective rail transit systems? Both saw increases in ridership of their transit systems between 2000 and 2008: Houston saw a 1.05% increase, Dallas a 11.7% jump. Those increases, however, were entirely lost by 2010, which has been a terrible year for transit in the two cities. At the same time, their city populations increased by 15.7% and 9.3%, respectively; transit improvements couldn’t keep up. This may be because of poor choices in public transportation investments or de-densification in the urban cores of these cities (or annexation, spreading the population out), but either way these are not model cities for transit investments.

I’ll conclude with the below table, which documents mode share in 2009 in the biggest cities of the United States. As the chart shows, automobiles have a majority share in all cities except New York, Boston, Washington, and San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, these are dense cities and the places in the United States with the most complete transit systems.

2009 Mode Share in America’s Biggest Cities
 Total workersTotal AutoTotal Non-AutoDriving AloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
El Paso25587590.15.079.810.
Fort Worth33189492.32.880.611.
Las Vegas24568588.86.377.910.
Los Angeles174841977.615.767.110.511.31.03.4
New York373191728.765.823.55.354.90.610.3
San Antonio60644690.25.578.811.
San Diego62612684.97.476.
San Francisco43707346.445.138.97.431.83.010.3
San Jose44298088.56.076.412.

Louisville, the nation’s 29th-largest city, is not included here because it merged with the surrounding county, significantly changing demographics, in 2003. I have calculated “averages” not in terms of total trips, but city-by-city; thus modal share in Portland is considered just as important as that in New York, despite the latter being much bigger. Note city classification in the first table based on changes during the 2000-2009 period:

  • No Rail: Austin, Columbus, Detroit, El Paso, Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Memphis*, Milwaukee, Nashville*, San Antonio.
  • No new significant rail investments: Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia*.
  • New significant rail investments: Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington.

* The minimal nature of Nashville’s Music City Star means I won’t include it as a “significant” rail investment here. Nor will I include streetcar projects in such cities as Memphis and Philadelphia.

Update: Mode Share Changes 2000-2009 by Point Change
(One Point = 1% of All Commuting Trips)
 Total AutoTotal Non AutoDriving aloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
El Paso-2.240.633.29-5.530.060.060.52
Fort Worth-1.38-0.543.60-4.980.02-0.02-0.54
Las Vegas-0.07-1.004.07-4.14-1.36-0.040.40
Los Angeles-2.921.321.31-
New York-4.132.11-1.39-2.742.090.14-0.12
San Antonio-0.54-0.613.19-3.74-0.46-0.02-0.13
San Diego-1.27-1.132.56-3.83-0.520.11-0.72
San Francisco-4.912.62-1.57-3.340.641.000.98
San Jose-1.90-0.13-0.04-1.87-0.870.270.47
Mode Share in Nation’s Largest Metropolitan Areas – 2009
Metro Area (MSA)Total WorkersDriving AloneCarpoolingTransitBikingWalking
Kansas City100355382.478.881.230.211.48
Las Vegas87444979.4710.333.180.341.78
Los Angeles580665573.6210.806.200.862.63
New York876535650.397.0230.500.406.28
St. Louis132869182.258.952.550.301.64
San Antonio91934879.3511.402.320.182.02
San Diego140641175.809.873.080.622.80
San Francisco208377561.8610.1914.591.544.40

Image at top: San Francisco’s Market Street, by Yonah Freemark

Automobile Bikes Paris Washington DC

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare Launches, Bringing Biggest-Yet System to the U.S.

» Nation’s first modern bike sharing city replaces its fleet. Program could bring dramatic change to one of the nation’s more vibrant inner cities.

When Washington’s SmartBike DC system began operating in 2008, the city was doing something no U.S. municipality had yet attempted: Betting that locals and tourists would excitedly jump onto public bicycles, encouraging the growth of a transportation mode that has too often been left behind by automobile-oriented planners.

Unfortunately, that bet failed to come through: The system was never frequently used, with an average of only about one hundred daily riders. For those of us used to using bike sharing networks, there were good explanations for the system’s difficulties: It was confined in too small of an area; it only offered about 100 bikes total; and it only had ten stations. European standards, grounded in model schemes in Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris, suggested that the most promising systems were those with thousands of bikes spread out over whole sections of the city. Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to use public funds for the ad-sponsored SmartBike project.

But the city’s progressive leadership learned its lesson and has launched Capital Bikeshare, a network that will soon feature 1,100 bikes that will be accessible from 114 stations in the District of Columbus and Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river. The network opened today with 49 operating stations and 400 Bixi bikes imported from Montréal’s successful program. By the end of the year, the system will be the largest in the United States. Moreover, if it receives a federal government TIGER grant this fall, it could feature more than 3,500 vehicles throughout the region by next year.

I argued earlier this summer that bike sharing may be technically difficult to implement in American cities thanks to their monofunctional job centers; in addition, Washington’s network specifically may suffer because of the lack of density planned for the first phase of stations, which could cause difficulties for average riders.

Nonetheless, will Capital Bikeshare “change everything,” as local website Greater Greater Washington proclaimed this morning? It all depends on what kind of expectations we have for this system.

Despite what is often said about investments in bike sharing, the program is unlikely to dramatically reduce rates of automobile use in the nation’s capital. A review of similar systems suggests that only five to ten percent of trips made on public bikes would have otherwise been made by car. Indeed, the vast majority of travel replaces transit or walking trips. This means that from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions or eliminating traffic, bike sharing doesn’t seem likely to produce many significant benefits directly.

On the other hand, the systems seem to be increasing the mobility of their users dramatically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if most of the riders otherwise would walk or take transit, they don’t possess or cannot afford automobiles. For the District of Columbia, this represents quite a large share of the population: 35.5% of households, according to the most recent Census estimates. In some cases, this means bikes provide more direct transportation than existing transit; in others, it means bike sharing can serve as one part of a multi-modal trip, perhaps replacing slower walking. About 70% of travel on existing systems are to and from work, so the bikes are not being used mainly by tourists.

For non-work trips, bike sharing can play a very important role in the life of a city’s residents by providing fast travel without forcing them to keep their vehicles with them at all times. This reduces the fight for parking in popular places experienced by both bikers and drivers, and it eliminates a fear that someone will steal one’s vehicle — in bike sharing not a problem for any individual, since the system is public. (Of course, there are cases of vandalism, but that affects the system, not the user.) In addition, it encourages freedom of movement throughout the city for people who have previously been constrained by sometimes limited bus and rail routes.

What studies thus far have failed to demonstrate is whether the presence of bike sharing system prevents the future purchase of cars by users. It is quite possible that the option to use a bike in most places in the city decreases the demand for automobiles for people who are looking for an easier way to get around. The more extensive a system is, likely the greater this effect.

For the city in general, though, bike sharing’s biggest advantages may come from the fact that it prioritizes biking as an acceptable mode of travel. The installation of bike docks at hundreds of prominent intersections throughout the region promotes the idea that just like cars, which get parking on every block, cycling has an important role in the broader mobility system.

Image above: Capital Bikeshare Station at Dupont Circle, still without bikes (but in front of SmartBike DC station), from Flickr user DC9T (cc)

Automobile Finance High-Speed Rail President

President Obama Promotes $50 Billion in Transportation Investments, Again Emphasizes Rail

» Plan, yet to be fully laid out, would devote billions to 4,000 miles of new railways, in addition to roads, air traffic, and transit. Congressional approval is unlikely to be easy.

President Obama, at least, is not yet willing to give up on his Administration’s hope to eventually connect 80% of the American population to intercity rail service. After committing $8 billion to such services a year and a half ago during negotiations for the stimulus, the President announced today that he would campaign to devote $50 billion to an improved transportation system, including more spending on high-speed rail, road maintenance, local transit, and better runways. Any such program would require Congressional approval before moving forward.

The Administration’s new proposal seems to be an attempt to accomplish the goals of a new transportation bill without actually passing reauthorization legislation. The previous bill expired in 2009; spending is now being determined year-to-year and being partially sponsored by general income tax revenues, rather than being determined over a six-year period being sponsored entirely by fuel tax revenues, as was until recently the modus operandi.

The federal government currently spends about $50 billion annually on all forms of transportation.

At this time, it is not clear how much enthusiasm the Congress holds for what is being portrayed as a second stimulus, nor how much can actually be built with the money, which would be invested over a period of six years though mostly at the front end. Neither the House nor the Senate, both under Democratic control but threatened in this fall’s elections by increasingly popular anti-spending Republicans, seem particularly thrilled about the idea of voting for a new government program. Few specifics of the proposal have been revealed, other than that the Administration is again promoting its idea for a national infrastructure bank, a program it has had in mind since assuming office in early 2009.

Nor has the President addressed the all-consuming question of how many jobs this program will produce. Despite the fact that there is evidence that investment in public transportation operations is one of the most effective ways to get people back to work, what little has been said about this new spending seems to indicate that it would only go to capital investments. Funding will not be debt-based, the President said, though the exact mechanism to raise the needed dollars has yet to be worked out.

Mr. Obama’s framework, he claimed today, would result in the renovation of 150,000 miles of existing roadways, the construction of 4,000 miles of new railways, and the rehabilitation of 150 miles of runways. Evidently, money is also to be earmarked for the public transit New Starts program, which funds major expansion programs, usually in the form of rail rapid transit. The exact distribution of funds has not been addressed, nor has a decision-making process about worthy projects been established.

The proposal, though certainly a refreshing move from an Administration that over the last few months had threatened a “freeze” on spending, may simply not go far enough to produce effective change, especially for the national high-speed rail program. Even if all the money were spent on fast trains, the majority of money would have to be devoted to just one corridor: the California High-Speed project, which is in need of $20 to $30 billion in federal funds to be completed, depending on the level of private investment pinpointed. As things stand, with the $50 billion to be spread out between all modes in the transportation system, far less will actually be spent on any one mode. This means that smaller, incremental projects are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries here.

Mr. Obama, mimicking what has become standard industry commentary, suggested again that a national infrastructure bank be created to fund transportation projects. It’s a problematic concept from a variety of perspectives, including the fact that unless it is used purely on projects that make money in the long term (generally not rail or transit), it isn’t actually a new funding source, it’s just a different way of distributing existing money.

This second stimulus could be structured to include what the Administration is calling a “long-term framework” for national transportation policy, arguably vital for a country that lacks true goals for the future of its mobility system. Mr. Obama stated his desire to put high-speed rail “on an equal footing” with the rest of the transportation system. The program would also consolidate 100 transportation programs, supposedly with the goal of streamlining operations in the Department of Transportation, a move that was suggested by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) more than a year ago.

Instead of relying on a transportation reauthorization bill to accomplish a change in policy, the Congress may have an opportunity to promote similar goals if it moves forward with the passage of this bill. For those promoting alternatives to an automobile-centric transportation network, that may be a good thing, since this program will not rely on an increase in the gas tax to fund new spending, arguably a necessary change if we are to accept the fact that the current user fee model for funding is not only obsolete but inappropriate for today’s needs.

Most importantly, though, despite its optimism Mr. Obama’s proposal is coming at the exactly wrong time from a political perspective. Democrats have been slow to embrace significant spending even on transportation, arguably a matter that is of bipartisan interest. Why will they do so now? And if they do, will they choose to advance the policies the President has suggested are most important to him, like high-speed rail and transit, or will they attempt to placate suburban and rural interests with more highway spending?

Update: As commenter Jim points out, the Administration may be suggesting this proposal as the transportation bill reauthorization itself, which would add a total of $175 billion over the next six years, not just $50 billion. Whether that is true remains to be seen — we have yet to see the actual plan.