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Why Federal Efforts to Link Transportation to Climate Change Matter

Cross posted from the Frontier Group

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

Twenty-five years ago this spring, I was a fresh-faced undergrad at Penn State enrolled in a course on existential threats to civilization, including climate change. We knew then (and yes, with a reasonable degree of certainty we did know) that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were causing the earth to warm in ways that could prove catastrophic.

We also knew that travel on America’s roads was a leading source of greenhouse gases on a global scale, and that transportation infrastructure decisions were capable of encouraging the use of high-carbon modes of travel that contribute to the warming of the planet.

Since then, an entire generation of Americans has been born, grown up, and sat through unnerving college lectures. America has added more than 715,000 new lane-miles of public roads (the rough equivalent of building a 255-lane wide road from New York to Los Angeles), and we have spent an additional $2.6 trillion (2014$) in capital expenditures on our highway system. Since those sunny spring afternoons in 1991, America’s transportation system has spewed more than 43 billion metric tons (carbon dioxide equivalent) of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to the mounting damage from climate change that is now being experienced around the world.

So, how then to take the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) move last week to begin consideration of rules that would set non-binding performance measures for greenhouse gas emissions from transportation? Does it represent an important policy opening or a huge disappointment, given the scale and speed of climate change?

Time will tell and, as NRDC’s Deron Lovaas suggests in the comments to this Streetsblog post, the Obama administration’s announcement last week is merely the opening bell in what is sure to be an intense fight over how strong the new greenhouse gas performance measures will be and what format they will take.

Regardless of the ultimate form of the rules, however, the Obama administration’s action is significant, if only because it signals the renewal of public debate around the connection between transportation infrastructure decisions and global warming.

Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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Are Millennials Racing to Buy Cars? Nope

Crossposted from City Observatory.

Hot on the heels of claims that Millennials are buying houses come stories asserting that Millennials are suddenly big car buyers. We pointed out the flaws in the home-buying story earlier this month, and now let’s take a look at the car market.

The Chicago Tribune offered up a feature presenting “The Four Reasons Millennials are buying cars in big numbers,” assuring us that millennials just “got a late start” in car ownership, but are now getting credit cards, starting families and trooping into auto dealerships “just like previous generations.”

Similar stories have appeared elsewhere. The Portland Oregonian chimed in: “Millennials are becoming car owners after all.”

Not quite a year ago, we addressed similar claims purporting to show that Millennials were becoming just as likely to buy cars as previous generations. Actually, it turns out that on a per-person basis, Millennials are about 29 percent less likely than those in Gen X to purchase a car.

We pointed out that several of these stories rested on comparing different sized birth year cohorts (a 17-year group of so-called Gen Y with an 11-year group of so-called Gen X). After applying the highly sophisticated statistical technique known as “long division” to estimate the number of cars purchased per 1,000 persons in each generation, we showed that Gen Y was about 29 percent less likely than Gen X to purchase a car.

More generally though, we know that there’s a relationship between age and car-buying. Thirty-five-year-olds are much more likely to own and buy cars than 20-year-olds. So as Millennials age out of their teen years and age into their thirties, it’s hardly surprising that the number of Millennials who are car owners increases. But the real question—as we pointed out with housing—is whether Millennials are buying as many cars as did previous generations.

The answer is no.

Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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Tell the Feds: Don’t Turn City Streets Into Highways

Will the Obama administration prod state DOTs to abandon the destructive practice of widening roads and highways, or will it further entrench policies that have hollowed out cities and towns, increased traffic and car dependence, and made America a world leader in carbon pollution?

Should state transportation departments be encouraged to speed cars through a street like Broadway in downtown Nashville the same way they would a more rural highway? New federal rules might. Photo: Google Maps via T4A

New federal rules threaten to give state DOTs more license to treat urban streets like Broadway in downtown Nashville like highways. Photo: Google Maps via T4A

That’s what’s hanging in the balance as U.S. DOT opens public comments on its newly released “performance measures” that states will use to assess their transportation policies. The rules proposed by DOT take the same basic approach to traffic congestion that American transportation agencies have taken since the 1950s — a strategy that usually concludes more asphalt is the answer. And they don’t do much of anything to address greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s important to weigh in and tell the feds that the draft rules need to change, says Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America:

There’s a direct connection between how we decide to measure [congestion] and how we choose to address it. If we focus, as this rule does, on keeping traffic moving at a high rate of speed at all times of day on all types of roads and streets, then the result is easy to predict: our solutions will prioritize the investments that make that possible, regardless of cost vs. benefits or the potential impacts on the communities those roads pass through.

USDOT plans to measure vehicle speed and delay seven different ways, while ignoring people carpooling, taking transit, walking & biking or skipping the trip entirely.

A host of people and groups from all across the map, including T4America, have already explained in detail how a singular focus on delay for drivers paints an incredibly one-dimensional picture of congestion. Focusing on average delay by simply measuring the difference between rush hour speeds compared to free-flow 3 a.m. traffic fails to count everyone else commuting by other modes, rewards places with fast travel speeds at the expense of places with shorter commutes and less time spent behind the wheel overall, and completely ignores how many people are actually moving through the corridor.

By reinforcing the old approach to congestion, U.S. DOT’s rule could give states more license to widen main streets in urban areas, Davis writes:

Read more…

Via Streetsblog California
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California Legislative Update: Bikes, Transit, Environmental Justice, More

bikeatCapitollabel2Today is the deadline to pass any policy bills that have a fiscal impact out of all California legislative committees, so the last two weeks have seen a flurry of long hearings. Here’s a quick recap of pertinent bills.

BIKES

Riding side-by-side is okay: Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) has a bill, A.B. 2509, that would clarify existing law that it is not illegal for bikes to ride side-by-side in certain circumstances. It passed the Assembly and now awaits its assignment to Senate committees.

TRANSIT

Transit passes for veterans: S.B. 951 is also known as the Golden State Patriot Passes Program from Senator Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg). The bill would use money from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to develop a pilot transit pass program for veterans. The bill unanimously passed the Environmental Quality Committee this week.

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

Fair representation: The issue of environmental justice, and the effects of policies on low-income communities in the state, seems to be gaining some traction in the California legislature, at least among some Democrats. Republican lawmakers, however, are sticking to the party line that the economy trumps fairness, and also, usually, the environment. Unfortunately some members who aren’t Republicans are also falling into that trap, including people wielding power as committee chairs.

For example, two bills that would have reconfigured major decision-making bodies to include representatives of low-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities were shot down in the Assembly Transportation Committee. They got a hostile reception from committee chair Jim Frazier (D-Oakley), and some Democrats on the Committee were not willing to stand up to him. The two bills, A.B. 1982 and A.B. 2382, would have added representatives to the California Transportation Commission, which allocates the state’s transportation funding, and to the High Speed Rail Authority.

On the other hand, the Senate Environmental Quality Committee was much more receptive to several similar bills. S.B. 1387 from Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) easily passed that committee with a 5-2 vote, which fell along party lines. That bill, in addition to forcing the South Coast Air Quality Management District to consider the impacts of its actions on disadvantaged communities, would add three new members to the SCAQMD board, all representatives of environmental justice organizations.

Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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Insane Comic Books Warn Phoenix Children That Biking Will Kill Them

This comic book was produced by the Phoenix Street Transportation Department to warn young children about the dangers of not wearing a helmet. Retrieved from the Arizona Republic

This comic book was produced by the Phoenix Street Transportation Department to warn young children about the dangers of not wearing a helmet. Via The Arizona Republic

Hey kids, the Phoenix Department of Street Transportation has a fun message for you: Riding your bike is likely to result in a gory horror scene. If you don’t wear your helmet, of course.

This is the cover of a comic book being distributed to third and fourth graders in Phoenix.

This is the cover of a comic book being distributed to third and fourth graders in Phoenix.

That’s the gist of an over-the-top “bike safety” comic book that has alarmed parents of third and fourth graders in Phoenix. The comic shows a cyclist with his brain exposed and blood dripping down his skull on the cover. The inside is equally horrifying, conjuring a world where kids get run over and lose the use of their legs because they pop wheelies.

The books were produced by the Phoenix Street Transportation Department with a $18,700 grant from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. An illustrator hired by the transportation department explained to the Arizona Republic that they were meant to scare children into wearing helmets.

Helmets can protect against head injuries in the event of a crash or fall, but the idea that helmet use is the one true answer for bike safety is cartoonishly simple.

Gory comic books about bike helmets are not the kind of thing you see in places with excellent bike safety records. It is basically an admission that public agencies have failed to create safe streets and an indictment of the prevailing safety culture.

At a time when kids are developing chronic disease at an alarming rate thanks in part to the lack of physical activity, Phoenix is sending the message that something as normal as riding a bike will cause you to resemble an extra from the Walking Dead.

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Streetsblog USA
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In Rainy Areas, Protected Bike Lanes can Cut Road Construction Costs

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

As protected bike lanes arrive in American suburbs, some city builders are making an unexpected discovery.

Not only are protected bike lanes by far the best way to make biking a pleasant transportation option for shorter trips — sometimes they can also significantly cut the cost of constructing new roads from scratch.

In the central cities where protected bike lanes first arrived, brand-new roads are rarely built. But now that many suburbs are upping their own game on bike infrastructure, a protected bike lane is being planned into streets from the get-go.

“It’s definitely something that we’re seeing more of,” said Zack Martin, engineering manager at the Washington State development consulting firm MacKay Sposito. “It’s coming up on I’d say most of the new arterial roads we’re looking at.”

In a blog post last month, Martin explained the unexpected reason protected bike lanes can save construction costs: rainwater.

Curb-protected bike lanes, his firm realized, can reduce the huge cost of managing rainwater that falls on pavement and then flows into streams and rivers. That runoff is a major source of water pollution, which is why the federal Clean Water Act requires local governments to minimize it. But in rainy parts of the country, preventing excess runoff from pavement that cars are driving on has also become a major cost factor in road construction.

Read more…

Via Streetsblog California
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Transportation Equity Bills Defeated in Assembly Transpo Committee

Asm. Richard Bloom testifying at the Assembly Transportation Commitee. Image: Screengrab from CA TV

Asm. Richard Bloom testifying at the Assembly Transportation Committee. Image: Screengrab from CA TV

Two bills that had the potential to increase equity in transportation planning died yesterday for lack of support.

A.B. 1982 would have created two positions on the California Transportation Commission (CTC) for representatives of low-income communities. A.B. 2332 would have required Caltrans to follow its own guidelines on incorporating complete streets concepts into all projects, with a focus on accessibility for low-income communities.

The second bill was withdrawn by the author, Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), without being voted on.

Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), who is a member of the committee, introduced A.B. 1982 as a solution to inequities in transportation planning that have begun to be acknowledged in higher levels of government. “The CTC plays a critical role in transportation funding allocations, as you know, and currently none of its eleven voting members is specifically required to have expertise in environmental justice,” said Bloom. “That’s problematic when you consider that transportation investment has historically been a major factor in segregating and disrupting disadvantaged communities and exacerbating their health disparities.”

The bill would have created two new commissioners, one to be appointed by the Senate and one by the Assembly, to represent low-income communities of color on this major decision-making board. Jeanie Ward-Waller of the California Bicycle Coalition, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it would have been a first step towards righting the mistakes of past investments. “We must very intentionally prioritize the needs of and address the impacts on low-income communities of color in our future investments,” she said. Roughly ten million Californians don’t drive, she said, because they can’t afford to—so they walk, bike, and take transit because they have no choice.

“Without representation that understands the specific needs of Californians that don’t drive, and that are burdened by rather than benefiting from our current transportation system, we will continue to marginalize and ignore the needs of these residents.”

But the bill received a somewhat hostile reception from the committee chair, Assemblymember Jim Frazier (D-Oakley). Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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U.S. DOT Blows Chance to Reform the City-Killing, Planet-Broiling Status Quo

The Obama administration purportedly wants to use the lever of transportation policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently said he’d like to reverse the damage highways caused in urban neighborhoods, but you’d never know that by looking at U.S. DOT’s latest policy prescription.

U.S. DOT has drafted new rules requiring state DOTs to track their performance. Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, U.S. DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.

Is U.S. DOT teeing up a lot more projects like Houston's Katy Freeway? Photo: Wikipedia

U.S. DOT isn’t taking steps to hold transportation agencies accountable for building ecological disasters like the Katy Freeway. Photo: Wikipedia

But the rules released yesterday are a big disappointment, say analysts. While it will take a bit more time to fully assess the 423-page document [PDF], advocates are already going on the record panning U.S. DOT’s effort.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

On the question of whether state transportation agencies should be required to at least report the emissions impact of their transportation plans, U.S. DOT “whiffed,” writes Joe Cortright at City Observatory:

There’s nothing with any teeth here. Instead — in a 425 page proposed rule — there are just six pages (p. 101-106) addressing greenhouse gas emissions that read like a bad book report and a “dog-ate-my-homework” excuse for doing nothing now. Instead, DOT offers up a broad set of questions asking others for advice on how they might do something, in some future rulemaking, to address climate change.

This is hugely disappointing, considering that anonymous Obama administration officials were bragging about the impact of these reporting requirements to Politico earlier this week. At the rate things are going, half of Florida will be under water before American transportation officials acknowledge that spending billions to build enormous highways serving suburban sprawl is broiling the planet.

Traffic Congestion

There was also some hope that U.S. DOT would reform the way congestion is measured. Current measures of congestion emphasize vehicle delay, which leads to policies that actually promote more driving and more total time spent in cars, as agencies seek to temporarily reduce delay by widening roads. Policies that reduce traffic by improving transit or enabling people to live closer to work don’t rate well under this measure of congestion.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the new rule “would still push local communities to waste time and money attempting to build their way out of congestion by using a measure of traffic congestion that’s narrow, limited and woefully out of date.”

Read more…

Streetsblog USA
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U.S. DOT Wants States to Disclose Climate Impact of Transportation Projects

The Obama administration wants state DOTs to report on the climate impact of their transportation policies, reports Michael Grunwald at Politico, and the road lobby is dead set against it.

Dallas' "High Five" Interchange. Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

As part of the implementation of the MAP-21 federal transportation bill, U.S. DOT officials are preparing a new rule that would require states to set goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and report their progress, according to Grunwald.

It’s the same idea behind similar rules requiring states to track progress on traffic congestion and walk/bike safety. No penalty would apply to states that fail to attain their goals, but the rule would increase transparency and enable advocates to hold transportation agencies accountable for their climate performance.

The road building lobby appears to hate the idea. From Grunwald’s piece:

Nick Goldstein, vice president for regulatory affairs with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, warned that a mandate for agencies to set climate targets could be used as a pretext to discourage highway construction at a time when America desperately needs better infrastructure. He suggested the Obama administration has embraced an anti-asphalt mentality.

The draft rule has yet to be released by U.S. DOT. Once that happens, it will be subject to a period of public comment, and that feedback could shape the final form of the rule.

The climate rule is definitely one to keep an eye on. We’ll post more details as they become available.

Streetsblog USA
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A New Blueprint for Streets That Put Transit Front and Center

This template shows how transit could be prioritized on a wide suburban-style arterial. Image: NACTO

A template for transit-only lanes and floating bus stops on a wide street with parking-protected bike lanes. Image: NACTO

The National Association of City Transportation Officials has released a new design guide to help cities prioritize transit on their streets.

How can cities integrate bus rapid transit with protected bike lanes? How can bus stops be improved and the boarding process sped up? How should traffic signals be optimized to prioritize buses? The Transit Street Design Guide goes into greater detail on these questions than NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide, released in 2013.

Before the publication of this guide, city transportation officials looking to make streets work better for transit still had to hunt through a few different manuals, said NACTO’s Matthew Roe.

“The kinds of problems that the guide seeks to solve are exactly the kinds of design problems and questions that cities are trying to solve,” said Roe. “How do you get transit to get where it’s going quicker, without degrading the pedestrian environment? Some of that has to do with the details of design.”

Read more…