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TTI: Mass Transit Saved Drivers 45.4 Million Hours Last Year

Last year, the D.C. region ran away with the dubious honor of Most Congested Metro Area. D.C. area drivers wasted 74 hours and 37 gallons of fuel sitting in traffic last year, which would have cost about $100 over the course of the year. But the gasoline cost is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the 2011 Urban Mobility Report, released today by the Texas Transportation Institute, this delay cost the average D.C. driver $1,495 once you factor in lost productivity and increased trucking times. In Chicago, it’s $1,568. L.A., $1,334.

Every year, TTI puts out their Urban Mobility Report, and every year we criticize it for its autocentrism. After all, its sole measure is how fast a vehicle can speed down a given mile of roadway. Maybe your city is dense and friendly to pedestrians and bikes, so that it’s easy to glide past the automobile gridlock on your short commute to work. Or maybe transit provides an excellent and affordable alternative to traffic jams. None of that matters to TTI. If someone, somewhere, is sitting in traffic, that’s all that matters. All other measures and modes of urban mobility are ignored.

TTI doesn’t bother to figure out how much time is saved if one avoids that congestion by taking transit, but they do examine how much time transit riders save drivers by taking vehicles off the road.

How public transportation reduces delays for drivers, 2010. Source: 2011 Urban Mobility Report, via APTA.

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Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

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Chamber of Commerce: Empty Asphalt = Good Transportation Performance

The Chamber of Commerce report states that American transportation performance has been through the roof lately, a finding that should lead the Chamber to question some of its assumptions. Source: U.S. Chamber TPI 2011 Update

The Chamber of Commerce released its annual Transportation Performance Index (TPI) last week [PDF], and you can tell it’s due for a total overhaul, because according to the Index, recession-battered 2009 was a banner year for transportation performance.

Using 2009 data, the Chamber, a powerful lobbying group that represents millions of American businesses, determined that the performance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure is improving. However, even the Chamber dismisses the significance of its own results, saying the “improvement” is illusory — due to the decline in driving, and thus congestion, during the recession. But there’s another good reason to dismiss the results: The Chamber is measuring the wrong things.

The Chamber uses the TPI “to track the performance of transportation infrastructure over time… and demonstrate the connection between infrastructure performance, rather than spending, and the economy.” It claims to be the first organization to ever measure the correlation between the quality of transportation systems and economic growth.

But the Chamber’s metrics produce some truly baffling results. During the economic torpor of 2009, the index experienced its greatest improvement in a single year since 1990. Despite the nonsensical figures, the Chamber uses the report release as an opportunity to call for renewed infrastructure investment.

“By all accounts, the nation’s transportation networks continue to languish.” said Janet Kavinoky, head lobbyist for the Chamber’s infrastructure program. “The improvement of the TPI is not sustainable and does not represent a long-term trend… It is due to the economic downturn, rather than strategic policy and regulatory reforms or new investment.”

That’s all true, but that’s not the only reason to question the results of the TPI.

Of the 21 indicators the Chamber uses in its complex formulas, none deal with emissions. Of all of the ways the Chamber chooses to evaluate the U.S. transportation system, none investigates the effect on air and water quality. They certainly don’t take public health into account, ignoring the effect of our transportation choices on our waistlines or our lungs. In fact, the Chamber completely glosses over non-motorized transportation. Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure doesn’t count as one of the “fixed facilities” the Chamber examines.

Here’s all you need to know to be convinced that the Chamber’s measurements of transportation performance don’t add up: Though it didn’t name the top states for transportation performance this year (that listing only comes out every other year), these were the top winners last year:

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce TPI 2010

Maybe that’s what you get when you evaluate performance on congestion based on “route-miles per 10,000 population” — the higher the better. That’s right. The Chamber judges congestion using a simple formula: asphalt divided by people.

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The Sinister Logic of Old-School Traffic Engineering, in XtraNormal

There is a strange world where up is down, in is out, right is wrong, and black is white. I’m not just talking about the San Francisco Planning Department’s indefensible trip-generation analysis for new parking spaces.

No, I mean the world of old-school traffic engineers, where improving safety on the streets means reducing conflicts with cars (you know, like pesky pedestrians), widening lanes and softening turning radii to allow traffic to move more freely. This is the world of Caltrans, for one, and it’s antithetical to making your city more livable.

Though the state has started to reform its highway and street design guidelines, city planners throughout the Bay Area can attest to the difficulty of adding bus bulbs, traffic calming or bicycle infrastructure in the face of engineers with their traffic bibles telling them there is no such thing as an acceptable green bike lane.

This excellent XtraNormal cartoon, which was produced by Strong Towns, lays out the problem, complete with jargon that will make your head spin.

If you have eight minutes and a wonky sense of humor/indignation, I recommend you watch. If eight minutes seems like a long time, imagine going up against these guys for a decade to reverse the violent upheaval perpetrated on your neighborhood decades prior in the name of progress.

Gives me chills.

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New Study Analyzes Traffic Around Former Central Freeway

Traffic on Octavia Blvd at Market St. SFCTA

Traffic on Octavia Blvd at Market Street. Image: SFCTA

The Central Freeway sections damaged by the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 have been replaced by such a distinctive Octavia Boulevard, for many San Franciscans the double-decked behemoth that used to dominate the neighborhood has become a distant memory. Most of the traffic the freeway carried, however, has not disappeared and now city planners are tracking its displacement on city streets and devising scenarios for reducing it to make surrounding neighborhoods more hospitable to transit, pedestrians and cyclists.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) this week released baseline traffic information as part of the ongoing Central Freeway and Octavia Circulation Study and proposed solutions for improving the situation locally and regionally [pdf].

The most obvious finding in the study is that traffic levels, while somewhat reduced on Octavia Boulevard itself since the freeway came down, nonetheless continue to choke the study neighborhoods and affect numerous areas further afield.

The Central Freeway Circulation study area is roughly from Noe Street and 18th Street to the southwest, up to Turk Street and Franklin Street to the northeast, with some of the numbered streets in SOMA to the east and as far as Scott Street to the west. The neighborhoods include Hayes Valley, SOMA, The Mission, Duboce Triangle, Civic Center and the Upper Market/Castro, though it also attempts to measure impacts in neighborhoods as far south as Glen Park and the Mission, which have been dealing with commuter traffic that started using detour routes like San Jose Avenue and Guerrero Street to access downtown after the earthquake.

Despite the ubiquity of transit lines serving the Market Street/Octavia and Hayes Valley neighborhoods, most people traveling to and through the area use a car. While slightly below the city average for auto trips (59 percent), 50 percent of the study area’s 340,000 daily trips are by car, 21 percent by transit, and 29 percent by foot or bicycle.

“This study is like a microcosm of the city’s challenges,” said Tilly Chang, SFCTA Deputy Director for Planning. “If you look at mode share, it’s under-performing even the citywide average in terms of auto modes and non-auto modes.”

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Advocates: CityPlace EIR Highlights Need for Level of Service Reform

What the view of CityPlace from Mason Street would look like. Image: Market Street Holdings LLC

What the view of CityPlace would look like from Mason Street. Image: Market Street Holdings LLC

At the heart of the San Francisco Planning Department’s 328-page Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for CityPlace, sustainable transportation advocates have pinpointed one glaring flaw. In assessing the impacts of new off-street retail parking, the environmental analysis [pdf] concludes that building a 167-space garage will have the same effect on traffic as building no garage at all.

“This environmental analysis has really pitted this project against pedestrian safety and the livability of this neighborhood,” said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City.

CityPlace is a 250,000 square foot retail project planned for Market Street that the Mayor has trumpeted as essential for the area, “a key pillar in the continuing revitalization of Mid-Market that will bring hundreds of jobs and new revenues to boost our City’s economy and thousands of new pedestrians and shoppers to activate one of the most blighted blocks of Market Street.”

Radulovich along with attorney Arthur Levy and Walk SF had filed an appeal of the Planning Commission’s certification of the DEIR, arguing that it failed to adequately address and mitigate the dangers to pedestrians and bicyclists. Levy was also concerned the St. Francis Theater, designed by architect John Galen Howard, will be demolished and that the glass structure won’t fit in with the visual and historic character of Market Street.

Supporting the appeal seemed politically impossible for the Board of Supervisors. Instead, Supervisor Chris Daly, who represents the area, with help from Judson True, an aide to Supervisor David Chiu, brokered a deal [pdf] before the supervisors meeting Tuesday.  Market Street Holdings LLC (Urban Realty), the project’s sponsor, agreed to charge a 20 cent per vehicle exit fee at the CityPlace garage that would eventually add up to $1.8 million for “bicycle and/or pedestrian and/or transit improvements.” That pleased the supervisors and the DEIR was certified on a 9-0 vote, giving the final clearance.

The rejection of the appeal followed a public hearing in which the advocates laid out their case, and the project’s sponsors were allowed a rebuttal.

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Advocates Call on SFMTA to Take Immediate Steps to Fix Masonic Avenue

_2.jpgA ghost bike at Masonic and Turk in memory 21-year-old Nils Linke, who was killed by a drunk driver one week ago. Photo: Michael Helquist of BIKE NOPA.
A week after a 21-year-old German tourist on a bicycle was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver on Masonic Avenue, the first death of a bicyclist in the city this year, advocates who have been working for years to calm the major arterial are calling on the SFMTA to make immediate safety improvements.

The SFMTA recently unveiled four long-term options to fix Masonic, but in light of Nils Linke's death Friday night, and with the bike injunction finally lifted, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Michael Helquist of BIKE NOPA and other advocates are urging the agency to take action sooner rather than later.

"We've been really happy and encouraged to see the long-range vision the MTA is putting forward in terms of the four options that have been presented at the community meetings. We think this is really going in the right direction but with the recent tragedy this past weekend we feel like it really underscores the need to make some immediate improvements," said Renée Rivera, the SFBC's acting executive director.

She would like to see buffered bike lanes installed immediately, on a trial basis, in both directions of Masonic Avenue between Ewing Terrace and Fulton Street.

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Jack Fleck on Market Street, Muni, Global Warming and Traffic

Jack_Fleck_.jpgPhoto: Bryan Goebel.

What does San Francisco's retired top traffic engineer think about Market Street, Muni and global warming? We sat down with Jack Fleck recently for an extended interview. The 62-year-old retired last week after more than 25 years with the former Department of Parking and Traffic and the current San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

Fleck expounded on a number of topics and his answers offer some insight into his thinking over the years as the city's lead traffic engineer.

On cars and driving:

As a student I started connecting all these problems with the automobile and the first one was related to the urban riots, I mean the fact that at that time equal housing laws didn't exist. So, African Americans were pretty much confined to the inner city, at the same time the freeways were crisscrossing the cities and making them much less livable, destroying neighborhoods and creating noise and pollution and all of that, and they became like pressure cookers and they exploded, and so the inner city blight and the white flight were something I paid a lot of attention to in the '60s. But then also reading Jane Jacob's book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," and how she contrasted Robert Moses, who was the big freeway builder. His vision of how the freeway was always good versus the reality, and not just freeways, but parking lots and widening streets and all the things that she talked about to create the fabric of a city and the way that the automobile was part of the problem. It wasn't like that was the only problem, but that was something she talked a lot about and I learned the word 'livability' I think from Don Appleyard when I took classes at Berkeley. I went to grad school in City Planning at Berkeley.

So that sort of struck home as that's what I want to do, make cities livable and I don't know that it was really a word that was used a lot until more recently, but it does make sense. That's from all the days that I've been involved in this is trying to make this city a better place to live. But then there were other problems with cars obviously, the wars for oil and I think I learned the word ecology in about 1969, it was the first time I heard that word. I was like 'oh, that's a good one', because air pollution, oil spills which obviously are still a problem. So all of that sort of compounded to make me much more anti-automobile, but still, I was like 'yes, cars are still convenient and people love cars.' I was never a person that loved cars like they were my baby or something, like some people their whole identity is caught up in their cars and that's still true today, but they are very convenient to get around and so it's a love/hate thing.

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Traffic Engineer Jack Fleck Looks Back at 25 Years of Shaping SF Streets

Jack_Fleck_1.jpgJack Fleck, who retired yesterday after 25 years with the SFMTA, has been pondering the city's streets from his 7th floor office above Van Ness and Market Streets. Photos by Bryan Goebel.

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on the past, present and future of traffic engineering in San Francisco. 

Jack Lucero Fleck remembers his teenage years as a sputnik, the kind of kid who was as "nutty as a slide rule," loved math and science, and knew he was headed in that direction. It was the summer of 1965, and living in Peoria, Illinois, the same town where US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood grew up, Fleck couldn't quite peg what he wanted to do in life. And then there were the Watts riots.

"I got kind of interested in, 'well, what caused that? Why were people burning down their neighborhood?'," Fleck, 62, explained during a recent interview. "I decided I would go into civil engineering because I liked to do math and science and engineering and I would combine it with city planning to make cities better places to live, so people wouldn't want to burn them down."

For the last 25 years, Fleck, who retired yesterday from his job as San Francisco's top traffic engineer, has had a hand in almost every major transportation project in San Francisco, from the demolition and boulevard replacement of the Embarcadero and Central Freeways, to helping in the design of the T-Third line and Central Subway, to crafting a controversial proposal to remove the bike lane at Market and Octavia Streets.

He has sometimes been the bane of transit advocates for defending post-World War II traffic engineering orthodoxy favoring one-way street networks, such as those that roar through neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and SoMa. While some advocates have been working to dismantle some of the one-way arterials, Fleck, who became lead traffic engineer in 2004, is a firm believer in them. Still, those advocates and transportation professionals who have worked with Fleck (none we contacted would go on the record with their criticisms) say he has been a true professional and easy to work with.

"His views are very progressive and he's very environmentally conscious," said Bond Yee, the interim Director of Sustainable Streets at the SFMTA who has been at the agency four years longer than Fleck. "He epitomizes what the new generation of transportation professionals is becoming. He's a little bit ahead of his time."

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San Francisco Moves to Lessen the Impact of Truck Traffic

SFTruckTrafficRoutes_002small.jpgClick to enlarge: The revised San Francisco truck route map. Image: SFMTA

In a city as dense as San Francisco, it's inevitable that truck traffic often travels along streets where people live. But public health and environmental justice groups, the MTA and the Department of Public Health are now collaborating to ensure that the impact of that traffic is mitigated as much as possible, and doesn't continue to disproportionately affect the southeast section of the city.

To this end, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell called for an update on the collaborative effort at a hearing last week.

"Southeast San Francisco bears a significant burden of the city's traffic volume," said Maxwell. "Much of city's local traffic is disproportionately through communities of color."

A survey of the city's southeastern communities found that 46 percent of respondents said they smell pollution on their block every week, and 44 percent live within 500 feet of a high volume roadway, said Charlie Sciammas of People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER). In addition to greatly increased asthma rates, a recent study found that living within close proximity to such streets correlates with higher body mass indexes in kids.

The MTA has a three-prong approach to solving the problem: the first is an update to the San Francisco truck traffic routes map, which the MTA's Sam Fielding said hadn't been revised since before the Embarcadero Freeway and a spur of the Central Freeway were torn down.

"We created a newly updated truck route map and asked for feedback from the public and 40 trucking companies," said Fielding. "It's advisory, and isn't incorporated in the General Plan yet, but we're talking to City Planning to incorporate it in the next update."

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