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Progress on Parking Reform Could Make DC More Walkable and Affordable

A few key changes to the DC zoning code could help make housing more affordable, streets more walkable, transit more convenient, and healthy foods more accessible. Years of debate and delay have watered down the reforms somewhat, but they still represent substantial progress. And now it looks like they will pass.

New zoning rules will cut parking requirements in half near metro stops and frequent bus corridors. Photo: Virtual Tourist

Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth files a status report at Greater Greater Washington:

The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning’s proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP’s recent steps backward.

Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that’s otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.

This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.

After a few more discussions, a new draft zoning code will be prepared for the city and presented for public comment. These reforms sound like no-brainers to help increase the number of housing units available at lower prices and reduce the share of valuable transit-accesible land consumed by parked cars.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Indy thinks that Indianapolis should hesitate to gloat about all the riders Pacers Bikeshare is attracting six months after opening. ATL Urbanist reports that Atlanta’s MARTA will use elements of tactical urbanism to incorporate public feedback into the redesign of two stations. And FABB Blog shares new data showing how residents of metro DC are flocking toward transit hubs.

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How the Lure of “Free Money” Leads to Highway Boondoggles

Northeast Ohio has lost 7 percent of its population since the 1970s, but has continued to steadily add highway miles. Chart: NEOSCC

Why do transportation agencies spend so much money building new highways while letting their existing roads and bridges fall apart?

Jason Segedy, the head of Akron’s metropolitan planning agency (AMATS), shared a few thoughts on that question at his blog Notes from the Underground. A big problem, he says, is that regional and state agencies see federal transportation funding as “free money” for highway expansions:

I think that the federal government should transform most (if not all) of the [Surface Transportation Program] into a road and bridge maintenance program. I don’t think much (if any) of this funding should be available for highway capacity expansion projects.

I think that if state or local governments want to do those projects, it should largely be on their own dime. Too many states and local governments see the federal dollars as “free money” and undertake capacity expansions that they probably wouldn’t embark upon if these federal funds were unavailable for this purpose.

While there are always individual project exceptions, I think that most roadway capacity-adding projects (especially in a shrinking region like ours) are not cost-effective, especially given our changing demographics and our increasingly precarious fiscal position at the local, state, and federal level.

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Suburbs in the Twin Cities Feel Persecuted — Here’s Why They’re Not

Suburban Woodbury is one of the communities complaining about how Minneapolis and St. Paul are supposedly raking in the transportation dough. Photo: Twin City Sidewalks

Suburban leaders in the Twin Cities region are angry. They believe too much money is being spent on transit in the city and not enough is being spent on highways in the region’s outer reaches.

Political leaders from the five outlying suburban counties recently laid out these concerns for regional planners in what Twin City Sidewalks blogger Bill Lindeke calls a “manifesto” [PDF]. Lindeke went ahead and translated the document into less technical language here.

Lindeke says he’s actually thrilled the suburban leaders brought up this fascinating topic:

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St. Paul Sets Out to Make Streets Safer for Young and Old

Now here’s a public works concept that holds a lot of promise.

A proposed downtown St. Paul bike loop would get an $8 million boost from the mayor’s “8-80″ plan. Rendering: Streets.mn

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has proposed a $42 million “8-80 Vitality Fund,” the goal of which is to make local streets safe places for physical activity for people of all ages and abilities, whether they’re 8 years old or 80.

Anne White at Streets.mn says the seed of the idea came from livable streets visionary Gil Peñalosa:

If approved, the fund will invest $42.5 million in infrastructure projects designed to promote economic development by enlivening Saint Paul’s streets and public spaces. The idea for the fund was inspired by Gil Penalosa’s presentation at the Great River Gathering last May, where he urged Saint Paul to embrace a bold vision of a city that works for everyone, from 8 year olds to 80 years olds.

The Mayor introduced the initiative in his 2015 budget address on August 13th, as part of a proposed $54 million investment in street repair and transportation upgrades. The goal, he said, is to “create places where people feel safe to walk and bike, businesses feel confident in investing, and all means of transit and travel, including cars, work harmoniously together.”

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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.