Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How do we use bikeshare in the Sun Belt?

The Kinder Institute at Rice University has an interesting report out comparing four Bike-Share Systems in four "Sun Belt" cities.  Three are in Texas (Austin, Houston, Fort Worth), while the other is in Colorado (Denver).  The report's central idea is to get a snapshot of bike share in newer cities with lower density and planning optimized for the automobile -- in contrast to the old urban areas in the Northeast with high density.

The study, which covers the first five months of 2015, notes that most kiosks and most trips are still of the two-way weekday variety (i.e. from one-Kiosk to another), indicating that most users use the system for work trips.  However, there is a greater percentage of users in Houston and Fort Worth -- especially Houston -- who use the systems for round trips (i.e. they start and end at the same Kiosk). I'd be interested to see how this compares with bike share systems in older, denser cities.

The study is a good first stab and thinking about how we use bike share in newer cities, but I do have several additional points to make here, including a criticism or two. 

First it's interesting to note that the broad pattern of trips in these Sunbelt cities still is two-way weekday trips, which indicates that many residents here use the program for similar purposes to those in older cities -- though the report doesn't explicitly compare the two.

Second, I think that the report misses a rather obvious explanation for the differences in trip types between the cities. The authors do suggest several useful variables to explain the differences in usage across kiosks and cities. For example, they note that cities with greater numbers of kiosks have more two-way work trips. Also, the kiosks with more round-trips tend to be located near bike paths or in large parks. Also, Houston allows for a full hour of use before additional surcharges kick in, unlike the traditional pay system which gives a free half hour to the first members.

However, the report misses the idea of density.  Denver's and Austin's systems seem at first glance to be more closely spaced in a tight network, facilitating two-way commuter or errand trips. In contrast Houston and Fort Worth's systems are more spread out, limiting the utility of the system and leading to people treating it like a bike rental than bike share. They don't have any measurements on density, which would be interesting to see as well (maybe a median distance between adjacent kiosks, or a distribution of distances would be a good measure here....)

Density of the network is also rather valuable to total usage, as a National Association of City Transportation Professionals study has noted. So as Houston looks to expand this year, while I hope officials expand the scope of the bike share (please, please come to Rice Village!), I also hope they reinforce its density in its existing footprint (more stations in the Museum District!). This will expand its utility as a short-distance commuting tool.

And it goes without saying that expanding the bicycle infrastructure on the ground (more and better bicycle lanes please...) will help bring more cyclists on to the roads and keep cars moving at more reasonable (and safer) speeds.

But with this gripe aside, the report is a nice initial foray into how bike share works, and has nice nuts-and-bolts data on the use of each kiosk in all the cities and some good basic visualizations of usage in each city's network.

The invaluable Charles Kuffner, as always, has a summary and extensive analysis of a Houston Chronicle article on the subject.  He also makes the trenchant point that while knowing how people use bike share is useful, the fact that they are using it widely is the most important point.

Amen to that.

Union contracts, what are they good for?

Last week, Erik Loomis posted a summary of an article about the ongoing pilots' union negotiations with Southwest.  Loomis' point (and the excellent article he links to) are that union negotiations are about more than money -- they are also about the conditions under which employees work.  In this case, pilots voted down a proposed contract that offered them a large raise in part because Southwest demanded far more flexibility on duty hours to match other airlines  (which had managed to force those concessions from bankruptcy judges).

With the constant refrain we hear about unions being all about grabbing money, this idea of the employment environment is extremely important. I would also add that rules about firing and hiring are very important as well. My old union at the University of Michigan just settled (and essentially won) a grievance filed by a Graduate Student Instructor named Alex Chen who was offered and accepted a job in the bargaining unit, before having that offer yanked by her supervisor for spurious reasons. 

Of course, Chen lost her health insurance and tuition waiver in addition to her salary. This situation is deadly to a graduate student, who probably would have to drop out of school facing a tuition bill of more than $10,000. I've known several students in situations like this; and the psychological stress they face is extreme.

Chen reached out to the union and found out that not only did contract language back her position, but that she also scores of fellow members willing to protest on her behalf.  That article, which details what happened in the meeting, contains several fabulous anecdotes about a department program chair behaving like a stubborn child who has been caught lying about doing her homework.

An interview with Chen outlining her particular situation is here.

Anyhow, I highly recommend Loomis' post -- and the excellent comment thread, which features a really good discussion of the nuts and bolts of work rules in a contract led by a freight pilot (Major Kong) who is often found in the comment threads of progressive blogs. The thread is doubly worthwhile because it brings in information from the union and not just from Southwest, as well as discussing how issues like codeshare and subcontracts with regional airlines can undercut airline unions.

And remember -- work rules and hiring practices are just as important as wages.

Monday, November 23, 2015

With Bel Edwards win, Louisiana set to expand Medicaid

A quiet legislative maneuver from last Spring combined with an unexpected triumph of Democrat John Bel Edwards in the governor's race makes it nearly certain the Louisiana will become the 31st state -- and second in the former confederacy --  to expand Medicaid.

On Saturday, Edwards, who strongly favors expansion, easily defeated sitting U.S Sen. David Vitter in Louisiana's gubernatorial run-off election (after throwing this haymaker on the airwaves). Edwards' replacement of Bobby Jindal in itself removes a massive obstacle to the Medicaid expansion, as Jindal is an implacable (and inexplicable) foe of covering 242,000 uninsured Louisianans.

However, the state legislative majorities remain firmly in GOP hands in Louisiana. This phenomenon has stalled governors who have wanted to accept the expansion: just ask Jay Nixon in Missouri, Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and (until recently) Steve Bullock in Montana.

But the good news is that the legislature in Louisiana already has acted. Well, sort of. The legislature has rejected multiple bills expanding Medicaid in 2013, 2014 and 2015. However, in 2015 both houses passed a joint resolution laying out circumstances under which the state can expand Medicaid. The resolution creates a mechanism under which -- if a new governor assents -- the department of health and hospitals will set a fee on hospital systems to fund any state portion of the Medicaid expansion. Hospitals will likely be fine with this, as the bill exempts the smallest providers and in any case accepting federal Medicaid dollars will pump a much greater amount of funding back into the system.

In short, the legislature isn't exactly pushing for an expansion, but it is devolving its power to set up a mechanism under which a governor can chose to take it. That's exactly the opposite of what Texas did in 2013, when it took away the governor's power to accept the expansion in order to make it less likely that the state would take it.

So in any case, at least we're stumbling forward toward doing the right thing -- after we've tried everything else, of course, but I'll take it.  

Finally, note that this happening is further evidence of two important points.

First, Republican resistance to the Obamacare remains strong and widespread, but continues to slowly erode at the state level.

Second, quite simply is that elections still matter. Each of the four major contenders in the Louisiana gubernatorial race, including the three Republicans, expressed openness to expanding Medicaid. However, Edwards was the most consistent and strident supporter of expansion and is the least likely to impose conditions on expansion that would hurt recipients.