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Midwest Rail Advocates Take the Fight to Scott Walker

Rail advocates place this billboard along the corridor where Governor Scott Walker rejected a high-speed rail line. Photo: Environmental Law and Policy Center via The Political Environment

In November, voters in 36 states will head to the polls to choose governors. Among the state leaders up for reelection is Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who faces a strong challenge from Democrat and former Trek Bicycle executive Mary Burke.

Walker is one of three Republican governors who rejected high-speed rail funds from the Obama administration in 2010 and 2011. Now rail advocates are looking to remind Wisconsinites of what they lost out on. James Rowen at the Political Environment writes:

Readers of this blog over the years have probably seen innumerable posts — many rolled into or referenced in a comprehensive, summary 2013 item — about Wrong-Way Walker’s reversal of federal funding for Amtrak service from Milwaukee to Madison.

Also lost after the 2010 gubernatorial election: years of good-paying rail line construction jobs and a now-shuttered train assembly factory and maintenance base in a low-income Milwaukee neighborhood, all victims of Walker’s “No-train,” Tea Party-inspired, self-serving and partisan attack on the federal government, out-going Gov. Jim Doyle and Pres. Barack Obama.

Rail transportation advocates haven’t give up, as seen in this billboard along the now-lost rail corridor between Madison and Milwaukee. Hats off to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, (ELPC), in Chicago, for the activism and media campaign.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network today: Dan Malouff at Beyond DC suggests keeping cars out of transit lanes using some of the same techniques cities employ to make protected bike lanes. BikeWalkLee has the numbers to prove that recent transit cuts in Lee County, Florida, are depressing ridership. And Bike Portland posts photos of the best bike parking at a Portland retail business.

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How Can Suburban Communities Repair Disconnected Streets?

Though there might be plenty of reasons to extend a cul-de-sac and convert it to a through street, the politics can be a tricky. Photo: Wikipedia

Winding, suburban-style streets that end in cul-de-sacs make it harder for people to walk in their communities and funnel traffic to a few major thoroughfares, leading to dangerous street designs and mounting congestion. But the people who live on dead-end streets tend to like the fact that they don’t have to deal with much traffic. 

Mary Newsom shares how this dilemma is playing out in some Charlotte-area communities at her blog, the Naked City:

One of the most politically fraught decisions any elected or government staff officials can make is to connect streets that used to be dead-ends. It’s easy to understand why residents protest, as the Floral Lane residents are doing.

The first house I bought was on a dead-end block in Charlotte’s Chantilly neighborhood, where my street ended at Briar Creek. I liked the lack of traffic on the street, with only residents and their guests traveling in front of the house. I felt my cats were safe to go outside there. People who live on cul-de-sacs have the same welcome lack of cars going past.

But when a whole city is overloaded with dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, that sends huge numbers of cars onto the few streets that do connect. The result: far more congestion than you’d otherwise have.

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The Problem With “Share the Road” Safety Campaigns

After this taxi rushed past him with only six inches to spare, Robert Wright snapped this photo “with a shaky hand.”Photo: The Invisible Visible Man

Appeals for courtesy between drivers and cyclists and pedestrians are pretty standard fare for traffic safety campaigns. In London, it’s “Share the Road.” In Utah, they have “Respect is a Two-Way Street.” Is this the best we can do?

Robert Wright at the Invisible Visible Man was thinking this over after a taxi driver nearly struck him while he was biking in Brooklyn, prompting him to yell at the driver in a burst of adrenaline. There’s a big problem, he writes, with safety messages that divide the world into drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, then assign equal culpability to each group:

A “leave it on the road” approach to road safety suggests that the real problem is people’s malice towards each other or negative perceptions. It ignores the evidence that negligence, inattention and poor risk assessment are significant causes of car crashes. It puts the focus on vulnerable road users’ reaction to negligent driving. It suggests that all cyclists and pedestrians are somehow collectively responsible for each others’ behaviour. Motorists are helpless vessels full of potential rage that cyclists or pedestrians can make explode or safely depressurize. The approach serves no conceivable purpose other than to comfort people like the taxi driver who put me at risk. “Yes,” is the hidden message. “The real problem is those nasty, lippy cyclists.”

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Atlanta’s Parking Problem Isn’t a Lack of Spaces

Downtown Atlanta has 93,000 parking spaces, according to a new report. Photo: ATL Urbanist

Downtown Atlanta has 93,000 parking spaces, according to a new report. Photo: ATL Urbanist

A group of Atlanta business leaders recently commissioned a report examining the parking situation in the city’s downtown [PDF]. Aimed at “facilitating future growth in a sustainable manner,” the report found that there are 93,000 parking spaces in Atlanta’s central business district.

Darin at ATL Urbanist says the document has some good ideas — most notably the mention of car sharing as a way to reduce the need for parking — but it still misses the mark in many ways:

Obviously, the set of documents from the parking assessment has the sole aim of improving the experience of parking for drivers. In its place, that’s a valid pursuit (though it still doesn’t excuse the bizarre “A person’s first and last impression of a city begins and ends with parking”).

My complaint is that the assessment is happening in a silo — it doesn’t seem to be tied to an overall plan that includes sensible goals for downtown such as:

  • Encouraging new housing stock that accommodates use of alternative transportation
  • Reducing the truly soul-crushing amount of land devoted to parking here
  • Establishing the primary importance of improving the experience of walking, cycling and using transit here

Goals such as these should be front and center in the thoughts and actions of city leaders, taking precedence over concerns about improved parking and strongly informing any initiative regarding automobile use. That they are not present in the recommendations of this report is telling.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Reinventing Parking evaluates Seattle’s low-tech efforts to manage street parking prices. Rights of Way reports that Portland, Maine, finally has a sidewalk to its train and bus terminal. And Rails-to-Trails looks at what the short-term federal transportation funding extension means for biking and walking.

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What If We Paid the Full Cost of Driving?

Driving is too cheap in the United States. It’s a complicated thing to unpack, but David Levinson, engineering professor at the University of Minnesota and blogger at the Transportationist, attempted to analyze the cost per-minute.

Car sharing service Car2Go charges on a per-minute basis. What if we made all out transportation decisions that way? Photo: Wikpedia

Levinson estimates that the true cost of driving — including vehicle purchase price, insurance, taxes, repairs, and costs like parking and air pollution that are not borne by individual drivers — is about 34 cents per minute.

Unfortunately, the cost we’re most likely to consider when making a discretionary trip — gasoline — adds up to only about 5 cents per minute. If we made driving decisions based on the incremental costs, and drivers bore the full cost of driving, our behavior would change a lot, Levinson says:

Economists use the elasticity of demand with respect to price to estimate this. This tells us how much demand drops as prices increase. The short run elasticity of demand for driving (measured in vehicle miles traveled) with respect to the price of gas is about -0.05, meaning for every 100% increase in the price of gas, there is a 5% decrease in gasoline consumption (which correlates to driving in the short run, in the long run there is also a shift in vehicle fuel economy). So if we hold that to be true for all costs, going from $0.05 per minute to $0.34 per minute is 676% higher cost (a 576% increase), leads me to expect about a 29% reduction in fuel use (mileage) in the short run if people paid their roughly fixed costs plus infrastructure plus externalities of vehicle ownership as variable costs instead. Of course at the magnitude of shift, the elasticity values may no longer hold. In any case, this is no small matter. Certainly the direction is right, countries with much higher fuel taxes see much less driving in general.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns examines the personal impact of one car crash. The Transport Politic considers how to make transit-oriented development work around the Metro stop at DC’s Dulles Airport. And Steven Can Plan singles out some of Chicago’s worst red-light-running offenders.

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Transit Speed and Urbanism: It’s Complicated

There’s been a rollicking online debate the past week on the subject of “slow transit.” Matt Yglesias at Vox and Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic noted the downsides of two transit projects — the DC streetcar and the Twin Cities’ Green Line, respectively — arguing that they run too slowly to deserve transit advocates’ unqualified support.

Matt Yglesias called the DC Streetcar the “worst transit project in America,” kicking off a debate about the importance of speed in public transportation. Image: Better Cities & Towns

Robert Steuteville at Better Cities & Towns! — a publication of the Congress for New Urbanism — responded by defending slow-moving streetcars, saying they help create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that make fast, long-distance trips less necessary. Then Jarrett Walker ran a response from a Human Transit reader questioning whether streetcars are a worthwhile way to achieve Steuteville’s goal of increasing access to a wide range of destinations.

Jeff Wood, co-host of Streetsblog’s Talking Headways Podcast, wades into the debate today at his blog, the Overhead Wire. He says there’s some tension between a walkable urban fabric and surface transit that moves through places as quickly as possible:

By trying to maximize connections to the community, the transit line has to stop more often, slowing speeds. And if built into a legacy urban fabric, this also includes negotiation with tons of cross streets where designers don’t give priority to the transit line. This happens in Cleveland on the Health Line BRT as well as the Orange Line in Los Angeles, even though it has its own very separated right of way. The Gold Line Light Rail in LA and the Orange Line originally had the same distance, yet one was 15 minutes faster end to end. A lot of this had to do with less priority on cross streets given to the Orange Line, not because it was a bus or rail line.

Wood says that while Portland’s streetcar certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for the development of the Pearl District, it’s hard to argue that the project didn’t help construction, overcoming zoning and NIMBY barriers. But that type of transit doesn’t work everywhere, he says, listing a few ways to harmonize fast transit with walkable urbanism:

Read more…

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Want to Improve Traffic Safety? Let People Get Around Without Driving

This ad is being aired across Missouri to convince voters to OK a three-quarter-cent sales tax that would raise $5.4 billion for transportation projects — mostly highways — over 10 years. The spots have been airing heavily in the run-up to the August 5 election, supported by millions of dollars from construction companies that hope to cash in.

It was smart of the construction lobby to zero in on the issue of safety, says Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns. But will spending billions on highway expansion make anyone safer? Marohn doesn’t think so:

We can have a lot of conversation about what makes a transportation system safe — and we have had that conversation here in multiple ways – but few people ever talk about the safest option: reducing the amount people are forced to drive.

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Senate Tees Up Last-Minute Showdown on Transpo Funding

With just two work days left before the federal transportation funding source dips into the red, Congress is moving toward a high-stakes showdown over how to close the gap.

Yesterday the Senate passed a bill to transfer $8 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund, which would keep things running until December 19 — meaning the next deal would be struck before a new Congress is seated. The House, meanwhile, has a different idea — using unpopular budget gimmicks to extend transportation funding until May 31, when both houses of Congress may be controlled by the GOP.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the Senate bill is an improvement in a few ways:

Late Tuesday evening, the Senate modified and approved a measure transferring about $8 billion from the general fund to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent until the end of the year. But because two amendments were made, it’ll return to the House for further action before any final deal can be approved on postponing insolvency of the nation’s transportation program. The House will have to act fast: the long August recess is scheduled to begin in just three days.

Conventional wisdom had held that the Senate would adopt the House-passed bill as-is so they could finish up well before recess begins later this week. However, a strong bipartisan group supported amendments to eliminate the most controversial accounting gimmick and cut the length of the patch in half to keep the pressure on to find a long-term fix as soon as possible.

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Long Beach Gets Moving on Southern California’s First Highway Teardown

Removing a piece of the Terminal Island Freeway (red) would free up acres of land for new park space. Map: Longbeachize

This week, Long Beach put out a request for bids to tear down a stretch of the Terminal Island Freeway, opening up 20 to 30 acres for new park space. Brian Addison at Longbeachize explains why it’s a long time coming and very good news:

It’s been named one of the top  “Freeways Without Futures” in the nation and described as a “perfect example of obsolete infrastructure.” It has been a blight on a neighborhood that sees some of the least amount of park space in the entire city.

Now, the project to remove a large portion of the Terminal Island (TI) Freeway in West Long Beach has officially gone out to bid in an RFP… It marks a major event in Southern California’s urban design history, being the first freeway removal project that mirrors existing projects such as the removal of both of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway.

The project is simple: the existing northern length of the freeway, following the development of the 20-mile long Alameda Corridor and the still-underway modernization of the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) by Union Pacific Railroad, is redundant. Not only do shipping companies use it less and less, the traffic itself matches those of 4th Street along Retro Row (some 13,700 [motor vehicle trips per day]). And if plans for ICTF follow through, you can drop that down to 8,700 [trips per day]–less than the traffic 3rd Street receives in the quiet neighborhood of Alamitos Beach.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Human Transit runs a response to a defense of slow-running transit projects. Greater Greater Washington shares research showing how Capital Bikeshare users change their transit habits. And the Bike League offers some suggestions for legal reforms that can help boost bicycling rates.

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9 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Transit Still Struggling to Recover

Image: Ride New Orleans

The frequency and coverage of New Orleans transit service is nowhere close to pre-Katrina levels. Maps: Ride New Orleans

Next month will mark nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, flooding nearly 80 percent of the city. In the wake of disaster, the city has demonstrated remarkable resilience. Its population has rebounded to about 86 percent of where it stood before the flooding.

But a new report from transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans [PDF] shows the city’s transit system is nowhere near its pre-Hurricane strength. Evan Landman at Human Transit shares the details:

Some key points from the report:

  • In 2004, RTA’s peak fleet was 301 buses. By 2012, that number had dropped to just 79.
  • Revenue hours declined from over 1 million prior to the storm to fewer than 600,000 in 2012.
  • By 2012, only 36% of the pre-storm daily trips had been restored.
  • In 2012, no bus routes in the entire system operated at 15 minute or better frequency, down from 12 previously.
  • Meanwhile, overall service level on the city’s historic streetcar routes declined by only 9%, and the number of available vehicles (66) is the same today as in 2005.

What accounts for the difference between the relatively robust network of 2005 and today’s service offering? Obviously no transit agency would have an easy time recovering from the damage done to its vehicles and operational infrastructure by a catastrophic event like Katrina. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. But nearly a decade on, something has prevented RTA from ramping back up to its prior service level.

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