News Article | January 12, 2016
It would be a logical guess to believe that financial giant Citigroup owns New York City’s bike sharing system. It is, after all, called "Citi Bike," and every Citigroup-blue bike is plastered with the bank’s branding. But the company—which has a $111.5 million sponsorship commitment to the program—does not own it. Navigate to the Citi Bike website, and you’ll see that "Citi Bike is operated by NYC Bike Share LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Motivate," and that "Motivate is a unique company focused solely on operating large-scale bike-share systems." This might look like an answer. But NYC Bike Share LLC is actually just the first in a nesting doll of nomenclature that—intentionally or not—obscures a brilliant business move by one of the country’s largest real estate investors. In October 2014, Citi Bike’s parent company, Motivate, then called Alta Bicycle Systems, announced that it had changed ownership. Its new owner, the press release explained, was "Bikeshare Holdings LLC," which is a holding company created by the CEO of Related Companies, one of the largest real estate firms in New York City; the CEO of Equinox, a chain of luxury gyms that Related Companies owns; and Jonathan Schulhof, a founding partner of a New York- and India-based investment firm whom the Wall Street Journal once described as "a mystery to many." While the three principals were exploring the investment, they had created a temporary placeholder company called REQX Ventures, a combination of the names "Related" and "Equinox." The group of investors had become interested in bike sharing at a time when its future looked bleak. By January 2014, when REQX incorporated in Delaware, the Canadian company that supplied Citi Bike with equipment, PBSC, had been struggling financially, and the auditor general of Montreal had commented that he seriously doubted the company could continue operations. Meanwhile, Alta Bicycle Share (today called Motivate), which operated Citi Bike along with bike sharing programs in San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and six other cities, wasn’t faring much better. It had, the month before, failed a New York City audit that uncovered shoddy maintenance and equipment. As REQX began negotiations to buy Alta, it also attempted to buy PBSC, a major supplier of its equipment. In April 2014, the investment company put in a bid for the by-then bankrupt company, but failed to acquire it. By May, the Wall Street Journal reported that "an affiliate of a major real estate developer" was negotiating an acquisition of Alta. And in October, Bikeshare Holdings (originally named REQX Bikeshare Holdings) announced that it had, indeed, purchased the bike sharing company. To cut out the layers of legal entities and put in practical terms, three investors—two with ties to real estate firm Related Companies—now owned the company that operated bike sharing programs in nine major cities, including New York (today it operates programs in 11 cities). Bike sharing systems carry with them the promise of more sustainable, accessible cities and healthier city residents. But perhaps more compelling to the CEO of a real estate company is the possibility that they will raise property values. These aren't necessarily competing motives. "As cities do well," Related CEO Jeff Blau told Fast Company, "we do well." A study published in the journal Transport Policy last year found that home values in central Montreal increased on average 2.7%—$8,650 on average—after the city launched its bike sharing system. "We expect studies on other cities will also find a positive impact on house sales," the study’s lead author, Ahmed El-Geneidy, told Science Daily. Jeff Gardner, a real estate broker at Corcoran, says he's used Citi Bike as a selling point for a listing in Bed Stuy, a Brooklyn neighborhood that is underserved by the subway. "In the vernacular of selling Brooklyn to Manhattanites," he says, "I have to explain how they can get places quickly, because they’re very hesitant. When Citi Bike came in, I was thrilled, because it's one block away and then you're at the train in three minutes." On pamphlets he hands out to interested buyers, he includes a map of Citi Bike stations. Proximity to public transit boosts property values. Real estate companies also often invest in attractions near their properties in order to make the area more compelling. Related, for instance, owns the gym chain Equinox. It also has a partnership stake in Danny Meyer's catering and events spinoff Union Square Events. "We look forward to fully integrating their experiential concepts into Hudson Yards," Related founder Stephen Ross said in a statement, referring to the company’s largest real estate development, an entire neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. Citi Bike and bike sharing programs like it, then, are a double win—both public transit and an attractive neighborhood amenity. The promotional website for Hudson Yards lists biking as an attraction. Jay Walder, the former CEO of the MTA and Motivate’s current CEO, recently explained how biking also shapes public transportation. "The patterns where we’re living and working have become completely different than what was imagined 100 years ago when the subway was created," he told me in November. "Bike sharing is creating effectively the frame that allows everybody to use it in a way that is one system, but it is being personalized to their needs." Related can't, through Motivate, just locate Citi Bike stations near its buildings at will. Bike sharing companies typically operate in partnership with cities, which permit them to use public land for stations. "We conduct extensive outreach and planning when siting bike share stations for all community boards," a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Transportation told Fast Company. "This outreach includes workshops and meetings with community boards and other local stakeholders. DOT [Department of Transportation] greatly values community board and stakeholder input and relies on it to guide the general emphasis for bike share station siting in different neighborhoods and prioritize potential sites." But Related certainly has an interest in making sure that the planned Citi Bike expansion, which will double the program's size, actually happens. It owns at least eight properties in the Upper East and Upper West sides of Manhattan, where Citi Bike expanded last summer. Though the lion’s share of properties Related lists on its website are located in Manhattan, where Citi Bike is already well established, recently, the company has acquired a string of buildings in New York’s other boroughs, where there are few subway stops but many plans for new Citi Bike stations. The company’s portfolio of real estate assets is valued at more than $15 billion. Bike sharing’s promise of increased sustainability, accessibility, and health in cities, then, may be fulfilled at least partially by its promise for real estate. Paul Steely White, the executive director of a biking, walking, and public transit advocacy organization called Transportation Alternatives, says he thinks Related's private interest in bike sharing has only been beneficial to the public. "It has meant an infusion of much-needed expertise and capital," he says. "We’re watchdogs, and if we saw any developments that were going to harm the integrity of the system or create less than an inclusive system, we would sound the alarm."
« Technavio forecasts 45% CAGR in automotive fuel cell market through 2019 | Main | Schaeffler P2 high-voltage hybrid module expected in North American light-duty truck by 2020; also 48V applications » The Maryland Transit Administration is now in line to receive $97,845,148 to invest in 172 40-foot advanced clean diesel buses after receiving approval from the Maryland’s Board of Public Works. The Maryland Transit Administration contracted a price of $556,774 per bus New Flyer Industries, plus additional costs for services such as training. MTA specified an IT package that cost $46,000 per bus. The IT package includes Clever Devices’ Global Positioning System, Automatic Vehicle Locator, Automatic Passenger Counter, high definition video monitor and destination signs, and operator interface module. These components increase the efficiency, safety and operational effectiveness of the MTA transit system. The board also approved an $840,500 MTA to retrofit 41 Hybrid Beltless Alternators on model year 2012 New Flyer Diesel Electric Hybrid buses. The retrofit will include the removal of the existing alternator and equalizer systems and the installation of a HBA, compatible voltage equalizer, current sensors and one voltage/temperature sensor. Replacing the traditional alternators with HBA’s will allow for improved fuel economy, reduced emissions, reduced belt failures and reduced alternator maintenance.
News Article | March 24, 2016
Last week, San Francisco residents found that their regional rail service, the BART, was experiencing systemwide delays and thwarting commutes. Such service problems aren't unusual. In response to the news, for example, one rider tweeted, “we've come to expect rush-hour equipment problems and train delays from you [BART]. What you're saying is that today ends with '-day'.” What was uncommon was the response from @SFBART, the service's official Twitter account, which happened to be run that day by employee Taylor Huckaby. Instead of merely apologizing, Huckaby explained. “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality,” he tweeted. “We have 3 hours a night to do maintenance on a system built to serve 100k per week that now serves 430k per day. #ThisIsOurReality” While Huckaby’s response was taken by many as a refreshing bit of candor from a public agency, others were more cynical. SF Weekly's Chris Roberts equated Huckaby’s BART sanctioned “real talk” to a long con on the part of BART designed to raise enough political will to pass a $3.5 billion dollar bond measure which BART says it needs to overhaul the system and make critical maintenance changes. The problems that Huckaby highlighted are real, however, and they aren’t limited to BART or to San Francisco. Nationwide mass transit systems are faltering. Washington, D.C. shut down its Metro for 29 hours last week, citing the need for critical repairs after an electrical fire halted its rail system. The shutdown left 700,000 commuters scrambling for alternative transportation and exacerbating the city’s already awful traffic. Over the next year, New York City's MTA is closing 30 subway stations to fast track overdue repairs. Boston’s T is plagued with maintenance problems that became particularly acute during the winter of 2015 when snow and cold crippled service for a month. And all of this is happening at a time when more of us are riding public transportation than ever before. In 2014 Americans took 10.8 billion rides on mass transit—the highest number of rides in 58 years, according to the American Public Transit Administration (APTA), a mass transit advocacy group. APTA’s data reflects much of what Huckaby tweeted: Between 1995 and 2014, mass transit ridership increased 39 percent nationwide, while driving peaked in the mid-2000s. This shift to mass transit isn’t happening just in cities with established mass transit systems like New York and San Francisco. It’s also happening in cities that we don’t necessarily equate with mass transit—cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Salt Lake City. If BART and Huckaby are trying to manipulate riders into voting for increased financing—and they claim they're not—you can hardly blame them. Mass transit is starved for cash. The money that funds mass transit, whether it's bus, train, light rail, or trolley, comes from a mix of four sources: riders, federal subsidies, state subsidies, and local transit support, usually through property taxes. And all of them are shrinking. On the federal side, most of that money comes from the federal gas tax: 18.4 cents on a gallon of regular gas 24.3 cents on the gallon for diesel, with 81-percent going to fund highways and the remaining 19 percent going to mass transit. That’s right—mass transit depends on people driving cars for a significant portion of its federal funding. Unfortunately the Highway Trust Fund is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. The fund was designed to collect the gas tax and dispense it to states and municipalities to spend on their transit projects. The money collected was to roughly equal the money dispensed minus reserves. Since 2008, however, the fund has spent more than it's received. The issue is that while costs, partly due to inflation, have increased the gas tax has remained the same since 1993, not keeping pace with inflation. At the same time, cars become more efficient, which means people are buying fewer gallons of gas. The end result is less funding for transit, and a find that's only managed to stay afloat this far through congressional dispensation. “There have been substantial declines in the gas tax between 2002 and 2012,” said Phil Oliff, a manager at The Pew Charitable Trusts and an author on a 2014 Pew study that looks at transportation funding. “When you adjust for inflation, the gas tax has declined about 31 percent at the federal level and 19 percent at the state level.” This leaves little money for the maintenance necessary to keep mass transit systems going, nevermind the expansions necessary to move increasing numbers of riders. This isn’t a problem just for mass transit, but when you’re drawing from a smaller pool of money in the first place, its impact is more acute. When combined with the fact that, at every level of governance the percentage of dollars we direct to highways exceeds what we spend on mass transit, it becomes apparent that not only does mass transit receive a smaller percentage of the pie, but that pie is shrinking. This isn’t just a problem for mass transit riders, it's a problem for drivers too. Quality mass transit trumps road building when it comes to reducing traffic. In fact, planners and economists call road building “induced demand” because it encourages people to hop into their cars instead of walking or taking mass transit. Cities like New York don’t have high rates of mass transit ridership simply because they have broad comprehensive systems, but because driving in New York City is frequently more expensive and slower than alternatives. “Bringing cars off of the roads, both saves money in terms of road building and road requirements,” said Glen Weisbrod, whose company, Economic Development Research Group, Inc., researches the economic impact of a range of development projects including mass transit. Each time mass transit proves itself be less reliable, however, it creates an incentive for people to take to the roads. Why not simply have the riders bear the full cost of the system? After all on average, the cost of a BART fare covers 68 percent of the cost of a ride, more than that of most transit systems. Subsidies make up the rest. But even if riders bore 100 percent of the cost, this would only cover the cost of daily ridership, not long-term maintenance and capital improvements. Additionally, there’s a tipping point at which transit costs will push people back into cars, and road building as already mentioned does nothing to combat traffic while also being still more costly. Finally, there’s the issue of fairness: Drivers don’t bear the full cost of roadways, so why should mass transit riders bear the full cost of mass transit? A 2015 US PIRG study found that user revenue only covered 48 percent of the costs of roads. General taxpayers, and bond dollars filled in the remaining 52 percent. The way we talk about mass transit funding could leave one with the distinct impression that it’s a burden, not a boon. “Public transportation is seen as having three kinds of benefits social, economic, and environmental,” said Weisbrod. Socially, mass transit benefits the many people who can’t (or shouldn’t) drive: children, the elderly, the blind, and St. Paddy’s day revelers. Environmentally, it reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and economically, Weisbrod found that for every $1 billion of annual investment in public transportation leads lead to more than $1.7 billion of net annual additional GDP, most of which stays in the local community. To get those benefits, we need to have mass transit that’s reliable and responsive to people’s needs. And for that, we need proper funding. “It’s important to understand financing isn’t funding,” said Oliff. “Financing measures like municipal bonds, infrastructure banks, and public private partners are not by themselves the solution to the country’s transportation funding challenges. Financing is an important tool, but at the end of the day they need to be repaid using revenue sources like taxes tolls or fees.” And that means getting serious about funding mass transit.
News Article | February 6, 2016
In a $2.2 billion proposal, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio looks to begin installation of a 16 mile streetcar line connecting Brooklyn and Queens via the East River. The idea is to facilitate transportation for some of New York’s growing, yet still transit-deficient, areas. Imagine a trolley system lining the East River and delivering a long-awaited public transit connection between the bordering boroughs. Burgeoning industrial urban areas of Queens and Brooklyn are in desperate need of public transit as residents are growing less dependent on commuting to Manhattan – and desire less and less to pass through the island at all. Sunset Park in Brooklyn and the outer reaches of Astoria in Queens remain relatively isolated from MTA subway transit but are growing in prosperity and industry. “In a major re-imagining of the New York City waterfront, Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to propose a streetcar line that would snake along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens, linking the industrial centers of Sunset Park to the upper reaches of Astoria,” reports Michael M. Grynbaum. Running on rails, alongside car traffic, the streetcar line may be a costly proposal, but the de Blasio administration believes the cost will be offset by an increased revenue stream generated by increased values of property along the route. Noted neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Brooklyn Navy Yard have already advanced development. City planners have always held hope of a Brooklyn–Queens connection, as a proposed map for the connection can be seen here. The billion dollar proposal may seem like a lot of money but it is significantly less than laying a new subway line. However, the investment would be just that – with construction starting as early as 2019 and travel not beginning until almost 2025. Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development, acknowledged “some significant engineering challenges when you are putting a modern system like this in a very old city.” She continued, “The old transportation system was a hub-and-spoke approach, where people went into Manhattan for work and came back out,” she said. “This is about mapping transit to the future of New York.” As New Yorkers commute into the future, surely the structure of public transit will need to adapt to new ventures and growth. Get CleanTechnica’s 1st (completely free) electric car report → “Electric Cars: What Early Adopters & First Followers Want.” Come attend CleanTechnica’s 1st “Cleantech Revolution Tour” event → in Berlin, Germany, April 9–10. Keep up to date with all the hottest cleantech news by subscribing to our (free) cleantech newsletter, or keep an eye on sector-specific news by getting our (also free) solar energy newsletter, electric vehicle newsletter, or wind energy newsletter.
Wi-Fi service will be extended to all underground subway stations by year's end, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday. Cellphone service will be offered early in 2017. Thirty subway stations will get complete overhauls to make them cleaner, safer and better lit. Cellphone charging stations will be installed on subway cars and some 1,500 new Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses. "It has to be more reliable. It has to be more comfortable," Cuomo said of the transit system during his announcement in Manhattan. "We want people getting out of cars and getting into mass transit. And we want to make that as easy as possible." The upgrades are part of a $29 billion plan to modernize the MTA system, which also includes subway countdown clocks, mobile ticketing, better signaling and repairs to bridges and tunnels. "These are vital investments to modernize subways and buses and make the daily commute less awful," said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, an organization that advocates on behalf of transit users. The five-year MTA capital plan isn't as ambitious as many transportation advocates had wanted, and won't make up for decades of disrepair. But Lou Riccio, a former city transportation commissioner and past MTA board member, said it's still an "essential" move by Cuomo and the MTA. "The customer experience must be inviting and pleasant, not like going down into a dungeon," said Riccio, who now lectures at Columbia University and New York University. "This is necessary, but not sufficient. I want to see a commitment for a new subway line every decade ... and a funding source that can make it a reality." Renovation of the 30 stations will be completed by 2020. Each project is expected to last between six months and a year, and will force some stations to close completely during the work. Earlier plans had called for renovations at 20 stations, to be done on nights and weekends. By allowing crews to work through the week the work can be done faster, Cuomo said, and at a lower cost. The announcement came as Cuomo continues to unveil his priorities for 2016 ahead of his state-of-the-state address on Wednesday in Albany. His speech, delivered at the New York Transit Museum, was filled with allusions to New York's engineering past: the Erie Canal, ports, bridges, tunnels, skyscrapers. "We built this entire place out of bravado, skill and daring," he said. "... That is the DNA we are made from. That is the blood that is in our veins. We are New Yorkers. We don't take no for an answer."