Transportation and Energy: Two Things That Could Be Done But Won’t Be

Notice how all that talk of global warming and energy independence goes away once price of gasoline goes up?  The real policy, and the real values, may be found when scarce resources are being allocated, not when politicians are just talking — or pretending unlimited money can just be borrowed and never paid back.  The policy is to discourage conservation, alternative energy, and domestic fossil fuel production and make energy imports more affordable – by cutting the gas tax.  And to defer the cost of this, along with the cost of everything else, to a point in the future when today’s Generation Greed decisionmakers won’t be around anymore.  

Ignore global warming if you want.  The economic and national security consequences on our dependence on the global fossil fuels market has reared its head repeatedly for five decades and is now coming home to roost again, as the autocrats and dictators who control those resources (and hold our ever-growing debts) hold them over our heads.

In addition to what is being done, there is what is not being done.  I already pointed out that anyone could cut the cost of gasoline per passenger in half almost immediately by carpooling.   This post is about two more things that could be done in the intermediate term, but probably won’t be.  Using some of the increasingly less valuable central business district office space for bicycle and e-bike parking.  And expanding the rail system into a national conveyer belt, with platoons of self-driving flatcars with containers on top, powered by electricity from a third rail, circulating between intermodal terminals.  Where trucks could pick them up and drop them off without having to drive long distances, solving a labor shortage and job quality issue in addition to an energy issue.  These could be self-funding private initiatives with a little public help (or even just no excess bureaucratic hassle and tax burden), but that means there would be no special interest group cashing in.  Therefore, there is no interest.


Let’s start by posing a question?

How can we have a CBD without a subway system that anyone other than low-income workers with no choice would be willing to ride?  

Because beyond the subway’s role as a homeless shelter and wild west, the subway’s signal system and other infrastructure falling farther and farther behind.  The result will be miserable commutes for those living in NYC and working in Manhattan, unless they can find another way to get there – or unless they end up working remotely and have to go there at all.  

Elsewhere, people can respond to the policy that the public realm is the private property of whoever is violent and troublesome enough to seize it, by driving their own private cars.  And that is what people are choosing.  But in New York City having everyone drive is not an option, unless two-thirds of the buildings are going to be torn down and replaced by parking garages and additional highways.  Four-wheel motor vehicles weighing ten times their passengers or more simply take up too much room.  Consider the 1990 data in this spreadsheet, one I compiled while working at NYC planning. 


At that time the Manhattan CBD already had 281,500 workers driving in, more than in any other CBD in the U.S.  But it also had nearly five times that number arriving by other means.  Basically, to become like other CBDs and have most people drive, employment in Manhattan would have to fall by more than 80 percent. From 1990 levels, not from the much higher level of 2019.

No wonder the vacancy rate for Manhattan office space is heading for 20 percent.  Sound high?  The vacancy rate in and around Chicago has been about that high for two decades, even as new modern space continues to get added, because that is what the large firms who have located in the CBD want.  That is where Manhattan is heading.

As migration patterns from high-cost markets to the Sun Belt have entrenched alongside attitudes around remote work, familiar, ominous music is playing for owners of older office buildings in Chicago and New York City.  In the last two weeks, owners of Class-B office properties in both cities have handed the keys to their buildings over to their lenders, much as owners of Class-B malls have elected to do in recent years.

Higher-cost markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco lost a combined 700,000 residents between July 2020 and July 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By contrast, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Atlanta and Austin gained a combined 300,000 residents.

The higher costs would be housing costs and taxes.  As I’ve noted, the Millennials who moved to New York in droves from 2000 to 2019 were squeezed by falling wages, soaring rents, rising taxes and fees, and diminished and inadequate public services as retiring public employees benefitted from one pension increase after another.  This was followed by falling public safety, still not as bad as some would have you believe, but getting worse, and a school system that still owes the children nothing after having its inflation-adjusted per student spending double, because those who work in it are “cheated out of $billions.”

Pointing to “alarming obsolescence,” Zisler Capital Associates released a report of a new economic analysis stating that “as much as 70% of the total inventory faces an alarming period of repricing due to fast-paced obsolescence, accelerated by COVID but exacerbated by evolving environmental and health standards.” The report also suggests that for 30% of the existing office stock, retrofitting and upgrades may be economically unfeasible.

The report continues to note that “strict new government standards for energy efficiency and growing tenant demands for healthy, safe, and energy efficient office environments with ample modern amenities” will grow over time, adding pressure to office properties.

The real estate industry is donating money to ensure that new space will be subsidized by not paying property taxes.  And eventually the existing buildings that will be abandoned won’t pay property taxes either.,of%20the%20space%20is%20available

The fortunes of Manhattan’s office market are coming down to old versus new.

Glassy skyscrapers that have popped up in recent years are luring companies seeking new space and preparing for the hybrid-work era, a sign of New York’s revival from the depths of the pandemic. Left behind are countless older buildings that haven’t been modernized in the past decade, presenting a costly problem for landlords.

The question for owners of those buildings is whether it’s worth pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a full gut-renovation — a gamble at a time when office use is down in general, available space is piling up at a record rate and high-profile companies such as Deutsche Bank AG and HSBC Holdings Plc are shrinking their global footprints.

As I pointed out in this post, however, there was, until recently, a large population of potential office workers living within biking – and certainly e-biking – distance of the Manhattan CBD, if bicycle parking were available.  

Unlike four wheel motor vehicles, many bicycles and be locked to vertical, high density racks in very little space, putting very little weight on the floor.  There can’t be many more SUVs driving to Manhattan, but there could be many more biycles.

Office space can’t be converted to SUV parking because the floors can’t hold the weight.  But office space could be converted to dense bike and e-bike parking.  At $20 per month for the customer – perhaps a little more if charging is included – dense vertical bike racks could probably provide a landlord with $30 psf per year in rent or more.  With double racks in the middle of the floors.

And single racks with electric charging along the walls.

Plenty of office space isn’t going to be worth that for something else. Which office space?  

Newer space with lots of amenities is likely to continue to attract office tenants.

Converted industrial space, in large originally industrial buildings such as the Starrett-Lehigh building, might be converted back to industrial as e—commerce firms seek locations for “fulfillment centers” near customers. Server farms are another possibility.

Pre-WWII office buildings relied on windows for light, air and ventilation.  Unlike large floorplate buildings, where a conversion to housing would provide windowless hellholes, many pre-WWII buildings have been and could continue to be converted to apartments, hotels, and residential hotels.  (If NYC stopped banning new hotels and residential hotels).

That leaves office buildings constructed in the 1960s and 1980s booms, specifically their second, third and perhaps fourth floors.  All that would be required is ramps to allow customers to walk their bicycles or e-bikes up to those floors, racks to lock them to, a security guard next to the ramp, and a security system to ensure those who leave with a bicycle previously brought one in.  

It may be that bike and e-bike parking is now the highest and best use of lower floors in aging but difficult to convert office buildings, and this investment is something that the real estate industry should be willing to do itself.  But if the City of New York wanted to provide an incentive – and was prepared to do continual audits to avoid getting scammed – it could exempt floors used for bike and e-bike parking – with limits on the monthly and daily charge for the service – from property taxes.  

What would the cost the city?  I’d say nothing.  The space is going to be vacant anyway.  And having a bicycle parking garage available to allow those living within 9 miles travel to work by bicycle – and those within 18 miles travel to work by e-bike – should raise the value of the rest of the building, and all the buildings nearby. The city would just have to make sure it wasn’t scammed by having landlords get the tax exemption and then not provide the bicycle parking, the way it provided a zoning floor area bonus for public plazas that there then turned back into private space.  Or have a $300 per month charge per bicycle so no one uses it, like almost all of the city-mandated bike parking in parking garages.  Or have the few bicycle spaces on a loading dock that can’t be accessed after 5 pm, like 7 WTC.

From the Biznow article.

“I can no longer just buy office and expect just natural lift because I’m in that area… I have to be able to buy it and execute the business plan where I can put the right amenities, I can put the right ESG factors to future-proof that office building and make it more attractive.”

Nuveen’s 730 Third Ave. in the Midtown East area of Manhattan pulls out all the stops in the so-called amenities arms race. In addition to the 6K SF sky lounge, 8K SF fitness center and 9K SF for rotating food vendors the renovated 27-story tower boasts, Settles said the Gensler-designed, LEED Gold-certified building has a golf simulator, providing all the amenities an employee may need throughout a day.

How about parking?  You wouldn’t have a suburban office building without it.  There are these small, light, two-wheeled vehicles that work in cities.  How about parking for them? 

Now for a second question.  

How are goods going to be moved around the United States, and into New York, without fossil fuels and without long distance truck drivers?

Even before the recent run up in fuel prices, there are those who were trying to create robo-trucks with no driver to drive down our highways — and streets.

Shipping companies and software developers are experimenting with self-driving trucks as a way to solve a driver shortage worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, drawing fire from safety advocates who call the technology a risk to motorists.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc.., Uber Technologies Inc.’s freight division and FedEx Corp. are among the operators testing automated big rigs as a lack of drivers has caused ports to back up and intensified the supply-chain squeeze gripping the U.S. economy. While self-driving trucks are still years from winning regulatory approval, pioneers of the technology see it as a long-term solution.

Drivers of passenger cars are afraid that sharing the road with automated vehicles so much larger than their own would be a threat to them, while also seeing no problem with the threat that SUVs pose to pedestrians and bicycles. 

But I have the same question about robo-trucks and railroads that I do about robo-taxis and the MTA.   

If the IT industry will eventually be capable of creating automated vehicles with technology sophisticated enough to ride on local streets, where children and old people cross and bicycles and e-bikes are also ridden, making turns and merging with other vehicles, with lane markings in poor repair and traffic signals and signs located in various locations.  Then how is it that MTA can’t run automated trains right now, even on tracks with regular signals, with a limited number of signals and signs in standard locations, no need to make turns or merge (because track switches take care of that), on an exclusive private right of way?  Why will the MTA have to borrow $50 billion and take 30 years to do this?

Because those who will be getting the $50 billion are blackmailing us by making sure the transit system will collapse unless (and perhaps even if) they get it?

And if IT industry can safely run robo-trucks in mixed traffic, with intersections, turns, pedestrians and bicycles, then why aren’t there robo-trains on private railroad rights of way right now?  They wouldn’t have to be long trains.  Just a few flatcars linked together moving across the country, with trailers or shipping containers on them.  Five or six trucks show up in St. Louis with trailers or containers that are bound for metro New York?  Put them on the robo flatcars, hook them up, and send them out to another location where other trucks could pick them up for final delivery.

Right now, trains travel on something less advanced than the roads that preceded the interstate systems.  With intersections, instead of the interchanges and exits modern highways have.  They run trains in both directions on one track, because state and local governments tax their rights of way, and the railroads keep their investment as low as possible to reduce their property tax bill, especially in New York.  So trains have to pull over and let other trains pass.  And they double stack containers on the trains, making it time consuming to load and unload them.  As a result, intermodal freight moves across the country at 30 miles per hour or less, and takes an average of one full day in a rail yard on each end of the trip.  And intermodal freight shares that one track with bulk products such as grain, building materials, chemicals or garbage, rolling along at 10 miles per hour. Because that’s the majority of rail freight traffic today.

Imagine, instead three tracks — one for the bulk products and two others for intermodal freight -with no grade crossings.   With the intermodal tracks used by self-driving platoons of vehicles rolling across the country by themselves at 50 or 60 miles per hour.  Goods delivered to stores, or even homes, in New York City could be put in containers filled at a warehouse in Buffalo and delivered downstate in less than 24 hours.  Today, this requires trucks to take the goods the entire way.  But if the truckers were dropping off and picking up containers and trailers at railports, then every truck driver could sleep in their own bed almost every night.

Is anyone thinking about this?  Yes.

Parallel Systems is decarbonizing freight by building a cleaner, automated rail future. Parallel’s zero-emissions rail vehicles are more flexible than traditional trains, allowing railroads to open new markets, increase infrastructure utilization, and improve service. We enable railroads to convert part of the $700 billion U.S trucking industry to rail.

Like those designing autonomous passenger vehicles and autonomous trucks, this company imagines no change in the existing railroad rights of way, because railroad companies see their infrastructure as cash cows with no future that is worth investing in.

Parallel is developing a new patent-pending vehicle architecture to increase utilization of today’s rail network. The autonomous battery-electric rail vehicles transport standard shipping containers as a single or double stacked load. The vehicles can self-assemble en route as platoons on the nation’s existing rail infrastructure. More flexible than traditional trains, the rail vehicles enable more responsive service and a wider range of routes.

If the rail rights of way were grade-separated and had third rails, the autonomous rail vehicles wouldn’t have heavy batteries and use much of their energy used to transport the batteries rather than cargo, and wouldn’t have to stop to recharge.  But that would require coordination with, investment by, and a change in strategy for the government, the railroads, and the freight companies alike.  Public employee pension increases (here) tax cuts for seniors and more money for services and health care for seniors (all over), and share buybacks and higher executive pay at railroad companies are a greater priority.  So it won’t happen.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about this a long time, as noted in a series of posts from 11 years ago, staring with this one.

Where did I get these socialistic, left wing, enviro-terrorists ideas?  From Texas, a place where at least some public policies have a purpose other than to line the pockets of some campaign-contributing interest group.

Researchers say the FSS borrows the best characteristics from both truck and rail transport, and uses only about one-third the energy required by diesel trucks. Additional benefits of the FSS include:

Zero point-of-service emissions – dramatically less pollution than from trucks.

Reduced roadway congestion.

Reduced potential for truck-related highway crashes.

Improved delivery time reliability.

Reduced infrastructure damage.

The FSS is being introduced at a time when the freight industry faces mounting challenges –strained rail and roadway system capacity, environmental concerns, and a chronic shortage of truck drivers, to name only a few.

There you have it.  I wouldn’t make the same suggestions that I did 11 years ago. There is no reason to use scarce resources to try to have the rail-to-truck transfer for metro New York take place east of the Hudson River, rather than in New Jersey.  Instead some space on our existing highways should be set aside exclusively for trucks, buses, emergency vehicles and taxis instead — the way the parkways are set aside for passenger cars only.

That money could be better used buying rail rights of way and eliminating their grade crossings, adding space for two tracks with higher overpasses down the middle or the Thruway, and then leasing this tax-free “road” back to something line Conrail Shared Assets — which operates tracks used by both CSX and Norfolk Southern.  But with Canadian Pacific involved and allowed to use the tracks as well.  Conrail Shared Asssets would then install the rails, third rails, signal infrastructure for robo-trains, and the private railroads would install “railports” every 150 to 250 miles.  From that point on the private sector would operate the system, and no public money would be required.

It could happen.  In fact it will probably happen outside of states like New York, where anything requires a payoff for existing interests.  Too bad New York is in the way of such a system connecting with New England.  Perhaps the connection could be made through Canada.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.