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Will Politicians Fund America’s Most Important Transit Project?

Amtrak's proposed Gateway project would enter Manhattan under Hudson Yards, pictured here.

Amtrak’s proposed Gateway project would enter Manhattan under Hudson Yards, pictured here. Photo: MTA via The Transport Politic

Last week, Amtrak announced that because of damage suffered during Hurricane Sandy, its infrastructure connecting New Jersey and New York City below the Hudson River will have to be repaired. Each of its two tubes will have to be closed, in turn, for a year or more, which would reduce capacity by around 75 percent on a rail link that carries some 400,000 passengers a day.

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic writes that the situation wouldn’t be as dire if New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had not killed the Access to the Region’s Core project, which would have provided additional rail capacity under the Hudson.

Amtrak’s Gateway project could be the solution — one without some of the shortcomings of ARC, which would have dead-ended deep underground – but it’s still the type of infrastructure that America’s political system rarely musters the will to build, writes Freemark: 

From several of these perspectives, the Gateway Program, which Amtrak revealed just months after ARC’s cancellation, would be more effective [than ARC]. The project would connect to existing tracks, allowing all operators to use the tunnel. And it would bring customers to a station far closer to the surface than ARC would have allowed. Gateway also integrates several positive investments that were elements of ARC, including the replacement of the Portal Bridge east of Newark, which is more than 100 years old and a significant cause of delays, and the construction of two new parallel tracks that will allow faster trains.

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Shhh! $1.5 Billion Dallas Freeway Won’t Actually Reduce Gridlock

Graphic: Dallas Morning News

There’s been a heated debate in Dallas the last few years about whether to build the $1.5 billion Trinity Parkway.

While some early backers now oppose the project, key supporters like Mayor Mike Rawlings and North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation director Michael Morris have insisted that the road is absolutely necessary to prevent a complete traffic apocalypse.

But guess what? According to the project’s own environmental impact statement, the road won’t actually do anything to reduce congestion. On the Dallas Morning News transportation blog, and in a longer piece that ran in the paper, reporter Brandon Formby says that since this information came to light, supporters of the project have been tongue-tied:

Some of the Trinity Parkway’s most influential supporters have been virtually silent since The Dallas Morning News reported last month that the controversial $1.5 billion toll road isn’t expected to significantly help traffic congestion by 2035.

North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation director Michael Morris, perhaps the project’s most influential cheerleader, hasn’t been available to discuss the project for two weeks. But an agency spokeswoman said late Thursday that he was not dodging the issue. Dallas City Council member Vonciel Jones Hill, a proponent who chairs the Transportation and Trinity Project Committee, hasn’t returned phone calls.

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Deranged Traffic Projections Could Cost Wisconsin $3 Billion

To justify highway expansions, Wisconsin DOT issues traffic projections that far exceed the actual change in traffic volumes in recent years. Source: 1000 Friends of Wisconsin

The advocates at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin recently completed a report [PDF] evaluating the Cheese State’s traffic projections. The organization compared actual traffic levels with Wisconsin DOT projections on 11 highways where the state has proposed adding lanes. The total cost of the proposed expansions is $3 billion.

Source: 1000 Friends of Wisconsin

Something has changed, but Wisconsin DOT remains the same. Source: 1000 Friends of Wisconsin

The report found that the state’s professional traffic modelers are, to put it nicely, off — way, way off. Here’s an excerpt:

Our analysis indicated that in every single case, WISDOT based the need and purpose of the highway expansion project on projected trends that were much higher than that of the last decade. The average difference in projected trends, after removing outliers was 73%. In most cases WISDOT projected annual growth rates of over 2%, while most corridors in the study saw either negative or no growth.

We found that, after removing for outliers, WISDOT projected an average growth rate of 2.96% annually, while in reality, traffic declined, on average 0.55% annually. In the case of Wisconsin 241 in Milwaukee, WISDOT projects a bizarre 12% annual rate of growth – leading to a 1328% difference in projected trends.

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Is Austin’s Central Corridor a Smart Transit Bet?

This November, Austinites will be asked to vote for a $600 million bond issue to bring a new rail line to the Texas capital. Unfortunately, a lot of local urbanists aren’t that enamored with the $1.4 billion Central Corridor plan.

This map shows the relatively low density development surrounding Austin's proposed $1.4 billion Central Corridor rail. Image: Carfree Austin

Development surrounding Austin’s proposed $1.4 billion Central Corridor rail line tends to be relatively low-density. Map: Carfree Austin

Network blog Carfree Austin has been taking a hard look at the proposal in a four-part series (1, 2, 3 and 4). The gist is that the route would run through a lot of very suburban areas that aren’t well-suited for rail service, and where denser development will be tough to build in the future.

Here’s Carfree Austin on the pros and cons of the southern leg of the corridor, for example:

What it’s got going for it: There are plenty of apartment buildings. The new ones being built are denser than those they are replacing. Current residents ride transit more than average Austinites.

What it’s got against it: Existing single family neighborhoods are a substantial part of the station areas. They will likely fight against density, constraining transit oriented development to only certain areas. The Grove Dr. station is basically in an open field. (Austin’s first rural rail station will presumably feature the train yard where vehicles will be stored and serviced.) Other station areas have patchy development with large open lots in between. Existing apartment complexes are sparse and surrounded by seas of parking. Dense development can still be car dependent, and the existing density is decidedly not transit-oriented.

The conclusion? There are smarter ways to spend $1.4 billion to make Austin a less car-dependent, more walkable city:

No route in Austin is going to be perfect or even close to perfect. The city has been damaged by decades of near car-dependence, and that will take time to heal. However, there are opportunity costs for every dollar spent. If our goal is to get people out of their cars and getting around via more sustainable and healthy modes, could we spend $1.4 billion more effectively? Maybe completing Austin’s dismal sidewalks would get more people walking and allow them to better access existing transit. It would certainly spread the benefits of such a mammoth investment more evenly. Maybe more frequent bus service with additional dedicated lanes could accomplish more for less. There is a saying about putting all your eggs in one basket. Without support from the state government, and with limited federal funds to go around there just aren’t that many eggs. Prop. 1 indeed asks Austin voters to put all of our transit eggs in the central corridor basket. This line is not good enough for that kind of high stakes bet.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Forward Lookout says a proposed constitutional amendment to “protect” Wisconsin’s transportation funds is unnecessary, given how general taxpayer dollars have subsidized roads recently. Notes for the Underground issues an admirable manifesto on how a regional planning agency should operate. And Delaware Bikes reports that a driver who killed a young cyclist and then fled the scene may escape jail time entirely even if convicted of criminally negligent homicide.

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Mapping Accessibility: What Can You Get to in 20 Minutes?

The map on the left shows the number of destinations available in the Minneapolis region in 20 minutes by car. The map on the right shows the same data but by 20-minute transit trip. Image: Streets.mn

The map on the left shows the density of destinations accessible in the Minneapolis region in a 20-minute car trip. The redder the map, the more stuff you can reach. The map on the right shows what’s accessible in a 20-minute transit trip. Maps: Streets.mn

In the U.S., one metric dominates the public discussion about transportation: traffic congestion. Rankings are published every year assessing how clogged the streets are in different cities, and transportation agencies devote a great deal of resources trying to reduce congestion.

The outcome of all this effort, however, doesn’t even help people get places. In metro areas like St. Louis, for example, average commute times have increased as congestion has fallen. That’s because all the infrastructure devoted to relieving congestion also encouraged people to live farther from work. So now people drive longer, faster — not much of a win no matter how you slice it.

David Levinson, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has developed a different metric — a way to assess “accessibility,” or the ease of reaching destinations.

Andrew Owen, a graduate researcher at UMN, writes at Streets.mn about efforts to formalize the concept so it can be used by local transportation agencies:

The goal of the “Annual Accessibility Measure” project was to develop a method that MnDOT could use on an annual basis to measure accessibility in the Twin Cities. The idea is that it would be a useful performance metric to measure over time. If, in 2013, MnDOT is able to say that more people in the Twin Cities are able to reach more valuable destinations more easily than in 2012, that would be a pretty clear sign that our transportation system is serving us well.

As part of the project, Owen developed the above maps. He explains:

The map [above] shows the number of jobs reachable within 20 minutes of travel by car. People who live in red areas can drive to over a million job locations in 20 minutes, while people in blue or green areas can reach only a fraction of that. This is measured during the AM peak period (7:00 – 9:00), and it accounts for average speeds on roads and highways during that period.

Taking a look at accessibility to jobs by transit, we see a strikingly different picture.

At any given location in the Twin Cities, the transit network provides only a very small fraction of the jobs accessibility that can be achieved by driving. Due to the lower speeds of transit compared to driving, accessibility by transit is less continuous across the region, forming distinct clusters around major job centers. When speeds are low, proximity becomes a more important determinant of accessibility.

It will be interesting to see how accessibility changes for drivers and transit riders in the Twin Cities over time.

Elsewhere on the Network today: West North looks at how the protests in Hong Kong have gravitated to city streets. Strong Towns challenges readers to walk to the grocery store and document obstacles they encounter along the way. And the State Smart Transportation Initiative wonders whether a downturn in carpooling is linked to growth in commuting without a car.

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A Milwaukee Suburb Turns to Complete Streets to Spur Business

The redesign of North Avenue in Wauwatosa, just outside Milwaukee, is being credited with spurring a business boom. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

The redesign of North Avenue in Wauwatosa, just outside Milwaukee, is being credited with spurring a business boom. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

North Avenue in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa is in the final stages of a redesign. The safety improvements include curb extensions, shorter pedestrian crossings, green-painted bike lanes, and bike boxes.

Dave Schlabowske at Urban Milwaukee calls the 16-block stretch through a neighborhood business district the most bike-friendly street in Wisconsin, outside of Madison. He says even before the redesign is finished, businesses have been flocking to the street, knowing that it would become a better place for people:

This project is a great example of how place-making roadway design combined with demand from residents and a progressive business community can work hand-in-hand with government to spur big gains in economic development. The project all started with a few good businesses on North Ave. and nearby residents who wanted to walk and bike there instead of drive. It was probably five years ago when East Tosa resident Ed Haydin, an architect who specializes in community sensitive design and economic development, came to me to get ideas on how Wauwatosa might improve North Ave. for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Ed is a bike guy, but he was very clear about his goals: “This isn’t a bike project, this is a neighborhood development project. Our goal is to spur new development on North Ave. to improve our neighborhood. I want my property value to go up and have more places to go where I live.”

I live in the area, and I have been trying to remember the timeline for all the businesses that have gone in since, but there are so many, it is hard to do! I think this is the order of development: Il Mito, Juniper 61, Mekong Cafe, Cranky Al’s, BelAir Cantina, Rocket Baby Bakery, Red Dot, and Hue and Camp are going in, and those are just the restaurants. That’s not all, we have new businesses like fitness centers, guitar stores, etc. going in as well. I am friends with Scott Johnson and Kristyn St. Denis, two of the owners of BelAir, and they told me business was off the hook when they opened, busier than any of the numerous other restaurants they have owned over the last 20 years or so.

Kristyn St Denis is the owner of BalAir Cantina on North Avenue. Business owners such as she were strong proponents of the streetscape overhaul. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

Kristyn St Denis is the owner of BalAir Cantina on North Avenue. Business owners like her were strong proponents of the street redesign. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

Elsewhere on the Network today: World Streets shares a report examining the state of bike-share around the globe. Walkable West Palm Beach writes that a group is trying to demand a bike path along the planned passenger rail connection between Miami and Orlando. And PubliCola at SeattleMet reports that a zoning rule requiring developers to pay a fee to build tall buildings is facing an interesting legal challenge.

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Do Drivers Cover the Cost of Roads? Not By a Long Shot

This chart shows what percent of different kinds of roads is paid for by the gas tax. Image: Pew Research Center

All charts: Pew Charitable Trusts [PDF]

David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington shares this fantastic chart from a new study of transportation funding by the Pew Charitable Trusts [PDF]. Alpert explains:

This chart from Pew shows where the transportation money comes from; it’s not all drivers.

Basically, the bluish areas are revenues which come specifically from drivers: gas taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls. The greenish ones are other revenues: property taxes, general fund transfers, and other funds.

In this chart, you can see that the levels of government that subsidize roads the most — state and local — also spend more on transportation overall than the feds:

The federal government shares the costs of building and maintaining roads with state and local governments.

And here you can see that at all levels of government, roads get the lion’s share of transportation funds:

Elsewhere on the Network today: Human Transit compares commute times in some of the world’s major cities. This Old City discusses how U.S. DOT’s new guidance on protected bike lanes could improve street safety in Philadelphia. And Treehugger reports that truck sideguards — a piece of safety equipment that can save pedestrians’ and cyclists’ lives — are now required in Boston.

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Portland Tries Out “Advisory Bike Lanes”

"Advisory bike lanes," like the one in the Netherlands, allow drivers to drive in the bike lanes only if there are no cyclists there. Photo: Bike Portland

“Advisory bike lanes,” like this one in the Netherlands, allow drivers to cross into the bike lane when it’s necessary and can be done safely. Photo: Portland Bureau of Transportation via Bike Portland

Portland is importing a new kind of bike lane design from the Netherlands. “Advisory bike lanes” allow drivers to use the bike lane space if they have to — and if it’s safe. Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland reports that advisory bike lanes are intended for streets with high bike traffic but not a high volume of car traffic, where there otherwise wouldn’t be room for bike lanes:

According to PBOT project manager Theresa Boyle, the city is prepping a project that will create “advisory bike lanes” on Caruthers between SE Water and SE 7th.

Boyle says the new bike lanes will be eight-feet wide (compared the existing five-foot wide lanes) and there will be one, 16-foot wide “through auto lane” in the middle. Along the southern curb (where the encroachment problems now occur), PBOT will mark an additional four-foot wide buffer zone.

Advisory bike lanes are not a PBOT invention. They are widely used in Europe (especially The Netherlands) and the City of Minneapolis also uses them. A presentation put together by PBOT Bike Coordinator Roger Geller (PDF here) explains that advisory bike lanes are typically used when standard bike lanes don’t fit. They’re also a good solution, he says, when there is a higher volume of auto traffic than a neighborhood street.

Maus says the city will conduct a public education campaign to inform drivers of how to use them properly.

Elsewhere on the Network today: As Honolulu makes progress on building an elevated, computer-operated rail system, Market Urbanism makes the case for a widespread transition to driverless trains. And BikeWalkLee explains Florida’s new pedestrian and bicycle education program.

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Over Time, Will More Streetcars Get Their Own Lanes?

Atlanta’s 2.7-mile streetcar system is expected to start doing test runs in November. Image: Atlanta Streetcar

CityLab ran an article yesterday describing how Seattle’s new streetcar addition breaks the mold of its peers in one key way: It runs on dedicated lanes, rather than in mixed traffic.

The new wave of streetcars are often criticized for slow average speeds. If the political will doesn’t exist to provide the systems with dedicated right of way, streetcars can get bogged down in vehicle traffic and offer little time savings compared to walking.

Darin at ATLUrbanist writes that Atlanta’s under-construction streetcar won’t run on dedicated lanes, but he thinks it won’t stay that way forever:

The Atlanta Streetcar’s 2.7 mile downtown loop will travel in mixed-traffic lanes with a low operating speed. Because of that, it’s much more of a development tool at this point for places like the long-struggling Auburn Avenue corridor, as well as a means of transporting tourists to major sites. It is, to a lesser degree, a source of effective everyday transportation (though it can certainly serve that purpose for some workers, as well as GSU students, residents and visitors).

In a way, pitting these two streetcar functions — development vs. transportation — against each other is a false argument because nothing stays the same in cities. The development-tool streetcar line of today, if successful in building walkable density around it, could end up becoming an exclusive-lane route of tomorrow, with a focus on transportation.

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Why Cities Should Strive for Streets That “Fail”

What makes a good street? Wide, tree-lined sidewalks? A concentration of businesses and activity? Or an unobstructed path to speed through in a car?

This street probably gets an “A” for Level of Service. Photo: Andy Boenau via Urban Times

Influential engineering metrics only grade streets according to the last question. But Dave Cieslewicz at the Wisconsin Bike Federation writes that if you want walkable, safe urban streets, that’s a test you should fail:

How do we measure a successful street? Well, traditionally we’ve allowed traffic engineers, focused on moving cars, to create that measure. They’ve developed a grading system for streets called “Level of Service” or LOS.

But here’s the problem. If you look at a LOS map of many of the downtowns and neighborhoods that we love the best you’ll see almost nothing but level of service “D” and “F”. In other words, by the measure of moving cars our streets are failing or nearly failing. And if you ranked streets by friendliness to bicyclists and pedestrians the maps would look very different.

At the Pro Walk/Pro Bike conference in Pittsburgh last week I heard a compelling argument to forget about LOS in most urban environments altogether. After all, a city is not a place for cars to move efficiently. And if you make it that you’ve almost certainly lost all the things that make your city a good place to be.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Grist says electric cars aren’t making California’s air any cleaner. And Copenhagenize rips a feel-good street safety PSA that targets pedestrians rather than drivers.