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True Story: Ratings Agency Pins Dangerous Roads on Car-Free Young People

The financial ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has a new report out that presents a bizarre theory about dangerous conditions on American streets. It’s the Millennials’ fault, “but not in the way you think,” they say. Prepare yourself for some ratings agency clickbait!

Millennials, causing crashes by riding the bus! Photo: US PIRG

Millennials, creating danger by riding the bus! Photo: US PIRG [PDF]

Standard & Poor’s blames Millennials not only for the poor state of transportation infrastructure but also the impending decline of the entire American economic enterprise. Here’s why: They’re driving less.

Richard Masoner at Cyclelicious has more:

A new report from Standard & Poors Credit Research (“Millennials Are Creating Unsafe Conditions On U.S. Roads–But Not In The Way You Might Think, purchase for $850 if you want to read the whole thing) claims this new trend of driving less, and driving in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, leads to less gas tax revenue (which is true), which in turn leads to less funding for road projects (also true), which in turn makes driving more dangerous! (ummmm… what?)

Because Millenials choose to spend their money on locally built housing instead of imported cars and fuel, S&P predicts financial doom for America:

“This drop in funds available to construct and repair the country’s infrastructure could, in our view, weigh on growth prospects for U.S. GDP, as well as states’ economies, and, in some cases, where states and municipalities choose to replace the lost federal funds with locally derived revenues, could hurt credit quality,” said Standard & Poor’s U.S. Chief Economist Beth Ann Bovino.

Masoner couldn’t plunk down $850 to read S&P’s illuminating study, so he has to speculate somewhat:

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A Conservative Case for Truck Tolls

Republican lawmakers in Rhode Island are trying to pay for roads and bridges without new tolls on trucks.

"The real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels," says conservative blog Strong Towns. Photo: Transport PVD

“The real welfare Cadillacs have 18 wheels,” says Strong Towns. Photo: Transport PVD

James Kennedy at Transport Providence is wondering what’s so conservative about giving a free pass to the interests that inflict the most damage on roads, since everyone else will have to pay instead:

One way we can assess the usefulness of a piece of infrastructure is to think of how much it costs, how much wealth it produces, and what people are willing to pay for it. Anti-tollers are saying that the price they’ve set is zero.

People will respond that we pay for roads through gas taxes. That’s only partially true. Road infrastructure is paid for in this country through a variety of means, and only about half of road cost is covered by gas taxes. That is both a function of the gas tax being low, and our spending being too high.

Gas taxes also have the fault of charging higher fees to users of local roads, and then essentially turning much of their funding over to highways, interchanges, and bridges. This is one reason tolls make sense: assigning a cost to going on a particular piece of infrastructure is more optimal than having a kind of gas tax slush fund that RIDOT can use at its discretion. The tolling requires, by federal law, that those bridges that are tolled are the only ones that can be paid for. This is truly GOP thinking if ever there was such a thing.

Tolls also make sense because they charge the users that use the most, in terms of weight. The proposal to toll trucks comes in the face of the fact that a single truck does 10,000 as much damage to roads and bridges as one car.

All sorts of scare tactics have come forward about the effect of tolls. It’s true, in a matter-of-fact sense, that truckers will try — to the extent that the market allows — to pass the cost of tolls on to consumers. But not to toll is also to pass that cost, just through some other means.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike PGH reports that air pollution levels on neighborhood streets dropped dramatically during an open streets event. And Seattle Bike Blog has an update on the city’s efforts to encourage biking and walking to school.
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Are Streets Full of Traffic Good for Elderly People?

Following an eye-opening three-day experience with a car-free center city — a byproduct of Pope Francis’s visit — many Philadelphia residents are beating the drum for more large open streets events to provide some relief from traffic.

Joseph Martin, an engineering professor at Drexel University, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that open streets events would cause traffic outside the zone. Photo: Haverford School District via This Old City

Drexel University’s Joseph Martin, open streets curmudgeon. Photo: Haverford School District via This Old City

A recent Philadelphia Inquirer story explored the idea, and playing the role of curmudgeon was Joseph Martin, an engineering professor at Drexel University who gave some rather feeble reasons why another big open streets event in Philadelphia would be a total disaster.

Patrick Miner responds to Martin at This Old City:

When Martin does get around to remotely substantive assertions, they’re focused on scaring people into opposing Open Streets – dramatic traffic jams! stranded elderly relatives! – rather than making a serious case that the logistics are unworkable.

First, while seniors are the most vulnerable to being killed by cars while crossing the street legally (see pg. 25) – and may have the most to gain from car-free streets – it is true that restricting vehicle access could cause a temporary inconvenience to the small minority of people who have no other choice but to use a car in city neighborhoods on Sunday mornings.

The idea that this is an insurmountable obstacle to hosting Open Streets, however, is ridiculous. It barely takes an engineer to devise a scheme in which people can walk freely while simultaneously making arrangements for the few people who truly need vehicle access to their homes.

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Is This a Downtown Street or a Surface Highway?

These plans for roads new downtown Indianapolis aren't much of an improvement for pedestrians. Image: Urban Indy

This is the plan for West Street in a part of Indianapolis that’s supposedly becoming more pedestrian-friendly. Image: Urban Indy

Indianapolis recently decided to convert two downtown streets — West New York and West Michigan — from one-way speedways to calmer, two-way streets. The changes should help make the city’s downtown campus area more walkable, but now it looks like the city is compensating for those traffic changes by turning another street — West Street — into even more of a surface highway.

Joe Smoker at Urban Indy was expecting that “with all of the energy devoted to pedestrian improvements, connectivity and safety, we would see the great way in which DPW is creating a more functional West Street to tie into the work on New York and Michigan.” Instead, he writes, the city is not actually tackling its legacy of creating “a confusing and frustrating one-way web of high-speed streets through our urban core.”

The plan for West Street calls for widening it so it can continue to serve as a feeder road to the interstate — and a barrier to walking. Smoker walks us through the design:

Check out this traffic pattern. The two dedicated left turn lanes on West, the ones that started at New York Street, cross over the south bound lanes of West Street creating a block long contraflow leading to an otherwise unrestricted inside turn, always works out great as a human or someone traveling by bike. The landscape medians, the small signs that life exists in this area, are otherwise obliterated and replaced with…umm…red area. Automobiles traveling southbound become the middle lanes of a traffic engineer’s boyhood dream. After getting through that mess, you will notice that we are introduced to a dedicated right turn lane from vehicles traveling east on New York Street to Southbound West Street. Don’t worry, DPW made sure it was a wide enough turn that cars need not hesitate as they motor through. Another item that always works out well for humans.

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In Oakland, a “Green Street” That Doesn’t Live Up to Its Name

Harrison Street in downtown Oakland is a barrier for pedestrians. Unfortunately, even after a "Green Streets" makeover, it will mostly stay that way, says Ralph Jacobson. Photo: Google Streetview via GJEL Accident Attorneys

Harrison Street in downtown Oakland cuts people off from the lakefront. Even after a “Green Streets” makeover, it will mostly stay that way. Photo: Google Streetview via GJEL Accident Attorneys

Downtown Oakland is growing and changing. Earlier this year, Mayor Libby Schaaf said it’s time for the city to “re-envision our roads.” That’s easier said than done, however, and it looks like Oakland is about to blow its chance to re-envision a major downtown street.

Ralph Jacobson at GJEL Accident Attorneys blog takes a close look at plans for Harrison Street, which runs along Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. Voters approved a measure intended to improve the downtown waterfront area, and while several of the resulting projects have been quite admirable, Jacobson says Harrison Street will remain a dangerous barrier between downtown and the lake:

The existing highway design of Harrison Street predates Oakland’s freeway system. Harrison was widened to six lanes in the 1930s, and widened again to eight lanes in the 1950s during the construction of the Kaiser Center to accommodate projected traffic growth (filling in part of Lake Merritt in the process, as shown in the image below). However, this traffic never materialized: freeway construction rendered the eight lane highway obsolete, and it has remained half-empty over the past sixty years.

Local planners have missed a prime opportunity to correct past mistakes, Jacobson says:

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How Portland (Maine) Pairs Car-Share With Parking Reform

Is your city skittish about reducing parking minimums? Here’s one way to ease people into the idea that new buildings shouldn’t be forced to include lots of parking along with housing, and it comes from Portland — Maine.

The expanding number of places you can pick up a shared car in Portand, Maine. Image: Rights of Way

Portand, Maine’s car-share fleet is growing as its parking mandates shrink. Image: Rights of Way

Network blog Rights of Way reports that this city of 66,000 pairs the reduction of parking mandates with the expansion of car-share. C Neal MilNeil writes:

It’s hard to believe, but UhaulCarShare has been operating in Portland for over six years now.

They started with four cars parked near Monument Square and the ferry terminal.

As of this fall, they’ve doubled the local fleet to 8 cars and expanded into South Portland with a car parked at the Southern Maine Community College campus.

A lot of UhaulCarShare’s success here comes from a helpful new reform of parking rules in the city’s zoning requirements. For the last few years now, city planners have allowed a reduction in developers’ expensive parking-construction mandates if the developers agree to sponsor a carsharing vehicle on-site.

Several new apartment buildings have taken advantage of this incentive, most recently Avesta Housing’s 409 Cumberland Avenue apartment block, which built only 18 basement parking spaces for its 57 new apartment units and sponsored a new UhaulCarShare vehicle to be parked on-site. This arrangement benefits everyone: reduced construction costs for the developers, reduced housing costs and more mobility options for residents, and a more convenient carsharing network for neighbors.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Portland reports from Mayor Charlie Hales’ bike commute yesterday, his fourth Monday in a row riding to work. Urban Review STL photo blogs the experience of navigating the way to St. Louis’s new Ikea store by wheelchair. And Plan Philly wonders if SEPTA should provide all the city’s students with discount transit passes.
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The Cafe Table Test — What Outdoor Seating Tells Us About Places

You can tell a lot about a place by its outdoor seating. So says Darin Givens at ATL Urbanist, who compares a sidewalk in Atlanta where cafe seating looks inviting to a place where it essentially fails.

In downtown Atlanta, outdoor seating is natural and inviting. Photo: ATL Urbanist

In downtown Atlanta, the outdoor seating is inviting. Photo: ATL Urbanist

The first photo he shares is from Broad Street in downtown Atlanta:

Most every weekday afternoon office workers, GSU students and even a residents like me all descend on the restaurants here. Many people have their lunch on the inviting sidewalk cafe tables al fresco style.

This is the kind of street-level activity you can find in many cities wherever there are buildings that predate cars (the ones in the background above date to the 1880s). Having these tables and people and stores all together serves as a type of signifier of urban vibrancy. You look at this and think, “yep, this is what a city is supposed to look like.” It looks alive.

Darin compares that scene with a Starbucks on Howell Mill Road in Northwest Atlanta:

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Boulder’s New Bike Lanes Work Well, But the City May Yank Them Anyway

Boulder, Colorado, is considered one of the best cities for biking in the U.S. But the car is still king on Boulder’s streets, and designs like road diets and protected on-street bike lanes are still new concepts for people to digest.

The Folsom bike lane via People for Bikes.

The Folsom bike lane when it was under construction, via People for Bikes.

This summer, the city embarked on a plan to “right-size” four major streets by adding bike lanes and four-lane-to-three lane road diets, which have been shown to minimally affect traffic congestion. The idea was to start with Folsom Street as a one-year pilot project, collect data on the effect of the new design, and go from there.

But after some initial blowback, city staff have recommended scaling back the Folsom redesign just a few months into the pilot phase, reports the Daily Camera. (In addition to citing “community input,” officials bizarrely said they expect a harsh, snowy winter thanks to El Niño, and are worried the bike lanes won’t be cleared well.)

The decision now goes to City Council, where members seem to be okay with backsliding on this major street safety project.

Eric M. Budd at Articulate Discontent says that if the city caves, it will be especially troubling because the initial data from the redesign has come in, and it’s working well:

The Folsom project, after eight weeks, is coming in-line toward the desired metrics—travel times have moved closely to the modeled projections, reducing speeds (but the 85th percentile speed is still 20% above the speed limit), and data so far showing reduced crashes. The staff recommendation discussed none of these improvements our community has gained through the street change.

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Cities Won’t Mainstream Cycling By Going Halfway With Infrastructure

Like any city, Atlanta needs real bike infrastructure to make cycling an appealing option for most people. But like many other cities, a lot of times Atlanta only seems to be able to muster the will to designate leftover, marginal spaces to cyclists, putting them in potentially dangerous, or at the very least, highly uncomfortable positions.

With facilities like these, it's no wonder cyclists stick to the sidewalks. Photo: ATL Urbanist

With bike lanes like this one on Highland Avenue, it’s no wonder some people bike on the sidewalks. Photo: ATL Urbanist

Darin at ATL Urbanist says there’s a real political battle happening right now with respect to bike lanes on an important thoroughfare: Peachtree Street in the Buckhead neighborhood. The local media, of course, is completely incapable of covering the issue:

These days in Atlanta, bike lanes are part of a local culture war, with opponents demonizing “road diets” that allow new lanes for cyclists because they take away car capacity; instead of making it safer to cycle via a little diet for drivers, it seems like these people would prefer to simply starve cyclists.

A writer for the AJC recently went on a tirade against the proposal to put in a bike lane on Peachtree Road while removing some car lane. I won’t even bother quoting from it. The nadir was when he describes the way he drove alongside cyclists with his car window down and shouting at them to try and get their opinion. Real nice.

So will the city be able to make the leap?

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Is Houston Serious About Becoming a Multi-Modal City?

There’s been a fair amount of fanfare recently about the news that Houston is likely to surpass Chicago sometime soon as America’s third largest city. You can debate whether the comparison is very useful, due to variations in land area. But there’s no denying that Texas is growing fast. The Lone Star State is attracting two-and-a-half times more new households from other states than the next biggest gainer: Florida.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Will Houston adapt its transportation infrastructure to accommodate its growing population? Despite smart long-term goals, regional planners are still dumping the vast majority of funding at their disposal into highways, Caitlin McNeely at Houston Tomorrow reports:

The Houston – Galveston Area Council Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) has approved recommendations to spend 90% of regionally discretionary transportation improvement funds on roadway projects mostly for cars.

$783,265,000 is being allocated by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council (TPC) and the TAC as part of the 2015 Call for Transportation Improvement Projects (TIP). Current recommendations propose the region spends roughly $700,000,000 of that on highway and roadway projects. $86 million, or about 11%, of funds will be spent on pedestrian, bike, livable centers and transit projects. These allocations could be decided by the TPC on Friday, Sep 25.

The vision of H-GAC’s 2040 Regional Transportation Plan is that “In the year 2040, our region will have a multimodal transportation system through coordinated investments that supports a desirable quality of life, enhanced economic vitality and increased safety, access and mobility.”

It is unclear how funding cars and highways at 90% over pedestrian, bike and transit infrastructure achieves this goal and whether this proposed decision would make the region’s TIP and RTP out of sync.

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