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What Would a National Vision Zero Movement Look Like?

About 300 street safety leaders attended Transportation Alternatives’ first-ever Vision Zero symposium last Friday. Photo courtesy of TA.

Earlier this week, New York-based Transportation Alternatives released a statement of 10 principles that emerged from the Vision Zero symposium the group sponsored last Friday. It was the first-ever national gathering of thought leaders and advocates committed to spreading Vision Zero’s ethic of eliminating all traffic deaths through better design, enforcement, and education.

I caught up with Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, to hear more.

First, let’s talk about last Friday’s event. What was the best thing that happened there?

Noah Budnick. Photo courtesy of TA

Noah Budnick. Photo courtesy of TA

The momentum that was built was incredible. To me, that was the highlight. This was kind of the coming-out party for Vision Zero as a national movement.

What do you see as the goals of a national movement? Would that mean lots of cities working on this, or is there actually a role for the federal government? What could they do to promote Vision Zero?

The federal government could set federal goals and benchmarks in line with Vision Zero, creating policies that require states and cities and metro areas to set goals to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. And it’s really important that that’s tied to funding.

It starts with a simple matter of leadership, which is stating that traffic deaths and serious injuries are preventable. They’re not accidents. That change in thinking is an incredibly important first step.

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Federal Housing Administration Still Tips the Scales Toward Sprawl

Federal subsidies for housing flow disproportionately to single-family homes. Image: Smart Growth America

The vast majority of federal subsidies for housing flow to single-family homes. Image: Smart Growth America

There’s a notion that remains very pervasive in certain quarters — *cough* Joel Kotkin *cough* — that the reason so many American cities are sprawling and suburban is the natural result of market forces. Essentially, Americans love driving and big yards and so that’s what we get.

But it’s a mistake to characterize American housing markets as anywhere close to perfectly market based. The federal government subsidizes housing to the tune of $450 billion a year. The vast majority of that money is reserved for sprawling, suburban housing.

Mary Newsom at Network blog The Naked City carried this update from Governing Magazine. Even after the housing market collapse, the Federal Housing Administration is still promoting sprawl at the expense of, well, anything else. Here’s how Governing’s Scott Beyer sums up the situation:

Since its 1934 inception, the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] has insured mortgages for more than 34 million properties, facilitating mass homeownership over several generations. But only 47,205 of these plans have been for multifamily projects. This is due to longtime provisions that make it harder for condos to get FHA certification. As late as 2012, 90 percent of a condo’s units had to be owner-occupied and only 25 percent of its space could be for businesses.

Newsom notes that “the FHA has eased that rule a bit in the past two years” — after persistent prodding, FHA relaxed restrictions against mixed-use buildings. The rules that remain, however, are still wildly unbalanced, Beyer says:

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Today’s Headlines

  • New Divisadero Commercial District Designation Removes Parking Minimums for Businesses (Hoodline)
  • SFMTA Now Allows People to Protest Parking and Transit Citations Online (Muni Diaries)
  • Flywheel Taxi App Gets New CEO (SF Examiner); Uber’s PR Problems Are Chronic (SF Examiner)
  • Submission for Market St Prototyping Festival to Display Transit Info Through Lit-Up Totems (Curbed)
  • BART’s Oakland Airport Connector Opens Tomorrow (ON); TransForm: Hooray for 1% of BART Riders
  • Transbay BART Riders Suffer Major Delays Due to Equipment Problems (SFGate)
  • Developer Envisions Future Transit Village on Millbrae BART Station’s Parking Lot (Biz Times)
  • VTA’s BRT Proposal for El Camino Real Faces Concerns Over Traffic Impacts in Palo Alto (NBC)
  • People Behaving Badly: Burlingame Drivers Make Strange Excuses for Violations
  • Mountain View Parent Looks to Make Biking Safer for Kids at Two Schools (Peninsula)
  • Golden Gate Mendocino Ferry Gets $3.6M Interior and Water Jet Upgrades (Marin IJ)
  • Driver Who Struck Special-Needs Teens on San Mateo Sidewalk in Sept Arrested and Charged (SFGate)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

Note: Streetsblog may be offline for maintenance this evening, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. PST.

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Muni Delays “Double Berthing” Until December, Citing Sunset Tunnel Work

Muni has once again pushed back its launch of “double berthing” — simultaneous loading of two trains in its Metro stations — until December. SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said that plans for a live test and launch in November were thwarted by recent weekend construction on the Sunset Tunnel.

“Because of rail improvement project work for Sunset Tunnel in November for three weekends, we had to postpone the live demo of double berthing to [the] first weekend of December,” Rose wrote in an email. “Double berthing will be released into revenue service once we run tests; we expect this sometime in December.”

When asked why work on the Sunset Tunnel would impede double berthing tests in the subway under Market Street, Rose only said they can’t happen at the same time. It’s unclear why the two conflict: The two N-Judah stops at the tunnel’s portals in Duboce Park and Cole Valley wouldn’t see double berthing, which can only be implemented at stations with platforms long enough to fit two two-car trains.

A construction project in the Sunset Tunnel has closed it to N-Judah trains (bus service runs as a substitute) over 15 weekends to replace rails, upgrade the overhead wire system, refurbish water safety valves, and install seismic safety retrofits. Outside of the tunnel, the N-Judah project will also include upgraded traffic signals with transit signal priority at nine intersections, and new wheelchair-accessible platforms at 28th Avenue and Judah Street.

The SFMTA says the weekend tunnel construction work will be suspended over the holidays, from Thanksgiving through early January, and that the entire project is expected to be finished by June.

Double berthing was originally supposed to launch in October 2012, but the SFMTA has cited difficulties in upgrading train control and signage software for the delays until this month.

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The Great Traffic Projection Swindle

This is the final piece in a three-part series about privately-financed roads. In the first two parts of this series, we looked at the Indiana Toll Road as an example of the growth in privately financed highways, and how financial firms can turn these assets into profits, even if the road itself is a big money loser. In this piece, we examine the shaky assumptions that toll road investments are based on, and how that is putting the public at risk.

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A consultant predicted traffic on the Indiana Toll Road would rise 22 percent in seven years. Instead, traffic fell 11 percent in eight years. Photo: Jimmy Emerson/Flickr

For privately financed toll road deals, traffic projections are critical. These forecasts tell investors how much revenue a road will generate, and thus whether they should buy a stake in it, and what price to pay. While traffic projections have underpinned the rapid growth in privately financed highways, the forecasts have a dismal track record, consistently overstating the number of drivers who will pay to use a road.

Private toll roads have been sold to the public as a surefire something-for-nothing bargain — new infrastructure with no taxes — but it turns out that the risk for taxpayers is actually substantial. The firms performing traffic projections have strong incentives to inflate the numbers. And the new breed of private finance deals are structured so that when the forecasts turn out wrong, the public incurs huge losses.

Given the huge sums of money involved, even small errors in traffic projections can result in huge problems down the line — and, as Streetsblog has reported, traffic projections everywhere have tended to be wildly off-target. A whole financing scheme, meant to last for generations, can easily be sunk in just a few years by exaggerated traffic projections. The Indiana Toll Road, purchased in 2006 for $3.8 billion, is a great example. The firm that owned it, ITR Concession Co. LLC, declared bankruptcy in September.

Wilbur Smith Associates had predicted that traffic volumes on the Indiana Toll Road would increase at a rate of 22 percent over the first seven years. Instead, traffic volumes shrank 11 percent in the first eight. The result was financial disaster for the concession company, owned jointly by Australian firm Macquarie and Spanish firm Ferrovial. By the time they filed for Chapter 11, debt on the road had ballooned to $5.8 billion.

The company blamed the recession for putting a damper on truck traffic. The same story was offered on another bankrupt Macquarie-owned project, San Diego’s South Bay Expressway. But is that explanation sufficient?

UK-based consultant Robert Bain literally wrote the book on traffic projections, warning in 2009 against forecasters who blamed faulty predictions on the economy [PDF]. Commenting on the flurry of global toll highway bankruptcies that was just starting then, Bain said they had “less to do with the present economic climate, and more to do with a market readiness to be seduced by hopelessly optimistic traffic and revenue projections.”

Bain went on to list 21 ways in which forecasters systematically overestimate future traffic. Each one may tilt the forecast by a tiny amount, but cumulatively they result in huge errors. Some of the errors indicate that forecasters have not yet acknowledged the broader decline in driving and sprawl underway, while others “underestimate the reluctance of some to paying tolls” a phenomenon we’ve noted before. Bain argued for a paradigm shift in the use of traffic projections, recognizing that many of them “resemble statements of advocacy rather than unbiased predictions.”

Phineas Baxandall, a senior researcher with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who’s written extensively for Streetsblog on trends in driving, says the engineering firms that provide the figures know how things work. “Companies seeking investment for privatized toll roads shop for the forecasting they want,” he said. “[There's] no incentive to tell bad news. And if the deal appears promising, then the forecasting company gets other opportunities to sell further analysis, legal advice, raising debt, selling equity, etc.”

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Talking Headways Podcast: I’m Not a Scientist

podcast icon logoDo you ever think about the ecology of the city you live in? Not just the parks and the smog. Scientists are starting to examine urban ecosystems more holistically: the trees and the concrete, natural gas lines and soil, water pipes and rivers. The natural and the synthetic feed off each other in surprising ways. We’re not scientists, but we found it interesting.

Then we move from the ecosystem to the highway system — specifically, the argument made by Evan Jenkins in The Week to abolish the National Highway System. Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns thinks it’s a good idea. Jeff and I aren’t so sure. Could rail really pick up the slack? Would states make better decisions? What funding source would replace the federal gas tax?

Enjoy this, our 42nd episode of Talking Headways. Find us on the Twitters already. And oh yeah, also on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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The Idea That Families Don’t Belong in the City Is Antiquated and Harmful

The notion of cities as playgrounds for the young and unattached remains a pretty pervasive concept.

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

The blogger at Family Friendly Cities has encountered it plenty. A young parent, he says that in his circles, the social stigma against raising children in the city remains irrationally strong:

As a young couple we lived in a garden style apartment in a car dominated city with two automobiles in what is one of the most sprawling cities in the country. We wanted more. So after we married we moved to a more urban city, one that still gets a rather unfortunate rap for sprawl but has a thriving urban core. We also dropped one of our cars. We primarily relied on transit except for our grocery store trips. Our home was more urban, and so was our neighborhood. That was fine, we were still young and childless, and we were constantly reminded of it. “Good thing you are doing it now before you have children” was a common sentiment, as if our urban lifestyle had an expiration date. It was set to die the moment we added a new family member. So we did, and it didn’t. Despite the auto-centric place we lived we walked to the hospital to give birth, and to the horrified look on the nurses’ faces we walked our newborn home. Even when we proclaimed that you could probably see our home from any of the windows in the maternity ward they thought we were crazy. Crazy to choose to walk her home the equivalent of three city blocks, rather than drive. And so came more of the comments once she was home; advice, and questions: “Have you looked for a house outside the city,” “Once she gets older you are going to need more space,” “You will need a yard,” “Living in the city is fine while she is so young, but not when she gets older” and the always important “The schools are better in X County.” So we followed their advice. We packed up a yellow truck and moved: to the second most dense census tract in the city smack dab in the heart of downtown, across the country.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Central Subway Now on Schedule and Under Budget, Says Controller Audit (SFGate)
  • Alley Plaza Opens on Annie Street Next to SPUR, at Mission Near New Montgomery (Curbed SF)
  • More on Van Ness BRT Approvals (SFBay); CBS Reporter Barbara Taylor: “The Losers are Motorists”
  • Costs for MTC’s New Headquarters in Rincon Hill Jump Another $32 Million (SFGate)
  • CA Supreme Court Denies Challenge to “Transit-Friendly” Parkmerced Redevelopment Project (SFGate)
  • Facebook Shuttle Drivers Unionize to Demand Higher Pay (KQED)
  • Uber Executive Tracked Journalist’s Movements in NYC, Against Company Rules (Biz Times, Examiner)
  • Golden Gate Bridge Car, Bus, Ferry Traffic Increase as Economy Booms (Marin IJ)
  • Some Find Walnut Creek’s New Pedestrian Scrambles Confusing (KRON)
  • Traffic Violation Crackdowns on Peninsula are Apparently Reducing Injuries (People Behaving Badly)
  • Caltrain Clips Bumper of Car Sticking Past Crossing Gate in Menlo Park, Causing Delays (Almanac)
  • Bike/Ped Bridge Over Hwy 101 in East Palo Alto Enters Design Phase (Palo Alto)

More headlines at Streetsblog USA

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SF Hotel Council on Board With Market Street Car Restrictions, Transit Lanes

Market Street, looking east at Seventh Street. Photo: Sergio Ruiz/Flickr

The SF Hotel Council supports the SFMTA’s proposals to extend transit-only lanes and ban private cars from mid-Market Street, said the council’s chief.

“We looked at all the proposals to try to vet out any potential issues, and [the SFMTA has] been wonderful to work with,” said Kevin Carroll, the Hotel Council’s executive director, at an SFMTA open house meeting yesterday. The proposals will bring ”faster transit times for everybody — our visitors, our employees,” he said. ”Our visitors will have a better experience on Market Street. It’s safer, easier, more understandable.”

The project, presented under the banner of Vision Zero, will make Market a safer street to walk and bike on. SFMTA’s Project Manager Mari Hunter said that idea seems to be easy for many to support.

City studies have also shown that most drivers who get on Market only travel for a block or two. “That’s enough to create conflict,” said Hunter. ”Market Street is unique in that, while in other parts of the city, the majority of collisions occur at the intersections, we’re finding just as many mid-block.”

Many drivers on Market seem to simply be lost, and making it clearly car-free may simplify the street network for drivers. Taxis and delivery vehicles would still be allowed, though Hunter said the SFMTA has worked with hotel managers to create more loading zones on side streets, which will reduce the need for curbside stops on Market.

“People get into these loops,” circling around blocks, Carroll said.

The project is expected to be approved by the SFMTA Board in March, and would be implemented over the next spring and summer.

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How Pittsburgh Builds Bike Lanes Fast Without Sacrificing Public Consultation

pfb logo 100x22 Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Four months — that’s how long it took Pittsburgh to announce, plan, and build its first three protected bike lanes.

One of the country’s most beautiful (and probably still underrated) cities has proven this year that it’s possible for governments to move fast without neglecting public outreach. Instead of asking people to judge the unknown, the city’s leaders built something new and have proceded to let the public vet the idea once it’s already on the ground.

That’s part of the magic of the simplest protected bike lanes: unlike most road projects, they’re flexible. The construction phase can come at the middle or the beginning of the public process rather than the end of it.

For a city full of hills, narrow streets and short blocks, building a great bike network isn’t easy, a point acknowledged by Mayor Bill Peduto in the above video.

“We have all of the detriments to building a bike system that people could argue,” Mayor Bill Peduto says in the video above. “But we’re still doing it. And we’re going to beat every other city.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.