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The Koch Brothers Win: Nashville Abandons “Amp” BRT Plans

Nashville’s bid to build its first high-capacity transit line is dead, the Tennessean is reporting today. It’s a victory for the Koch brothers-funded local chapter of Americans for Prosperity and a defeat for the city’s near-term hopes of transitioning to less congested, more sustainable streets.

Nashville's 7-mile "Amp" BRT was part of a larger vision for a better connected, more efficient region. Image: AMP Yes

Nashville’s 7-mile “Amp” BRT was envisioned as the beginning of a more connected transit network and less car dependent city. Image: AMP Yes

The project, known as the Amp, called for a 7-mile busway linking growing East Nashville to downtown and parts of the city’s west end. Civic leaders hoped it would be the first of many high-capacity bus routes that would help make the growing city more attractive and competitive.

But Mayor Karl Dean, facing organized opposition to the project, announced late last year that he would not try to start building the project before he leaves office later in 2015.  This week the city’s leading transit official made it official and stopped design work on the Amp, The Tennessean reports.

The opposition group “Stop Amp” was led by local car dealership impresario Lee Beaman and limousine company owner Rick Williams, according to the Tennessean. The group also had help from the Koch brothers, with the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity introducing a bill in the State Senate that would have outlawed dedicated transit lanes throughout  Tennessee. Opponents fell short of that, but Republicans in the legislature were a constant obstacle to the project’s funding.

Transit supporters in Nashville are now left to pick up the pieces and figure out what comes next. “We’ve never come so far in bringing this level of mass transit to Nashville, and we have to continue the conversation to make it a reality,” Dean said in a statement last week.

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Stuck in the Middle: When Transit-Dependent Communities Lack Good Transit

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NYC neighhorhoods with low household incomes and high unemployment lack the excellent transit access to jobs available in the city’s most affluent areas. Chart: NYU Rudin Center

New Yorkers who live close to the center of town are mostly affluent and have great transit options connecting them to a wealth of job opportunities. On the edges of town, people are not quite as well-off, and most can get to work by driving their own cars. In between are the least affluent neighborhoods, where New Yorkers rely on transit but the number of jobs accessible by train or bus is much smaller than in the city core.

A new report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation [PDF] identifies this middle band of neighborhoods as the area where transit improvements can do the most to connect more people to more jobs.

The study ranked the city’s 177 zip codes by the number of jobs accessible by a transit trip lasting 60 minutes or less at 9 a.m. on a weekday. Grouping the neighborhoods into three tiers of transit access, the authors then at income and commute data for each tier.

The top third of transit-accessible neighborhoods have high incomes, and 79 percent of commuters travel by foot or transit. Not surprisingly, the highest-ranked neighborhoods are in or near major employment centers in Manhattan. In the top 59 neighborhoods, the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and average household income is $108,209.

Things look different in the city’s least transit-accessible neighborhoods, where 53 percent of residents drive to work. These areas, mostly beyond the reach of the subway, include neighborhoods as diverse as the low-income southern reaches of East New York and the wealthy south shore of Staten Island. Combining this mix of demographics, the unemployment rate in these neighborhoods averages 9.7 percent and the average household income is $61,381.

Then there’s the middle third of neighborhoods, where people are heavily dependent on transit but access to jobs via train or bus is mediocre. In this band of New York, 67 percent of workers commute by transit, the unemployment rate, at 11.7 percent, is higher than the rest of the city, and average income is lower, at $46,773.

It’s exactly these commuters, who live just beyond the reach of convenient transit but lack the resources to own a private car, who could benefit most from improvements to the city’s transit network.

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Vote to Decide the Best Urban Street Transformation of 2014

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If you’re searching for reasons to feel positive about the future, the street transformations pictured below are a good start. Earlier this month we asked readers to send in their nominations for the best American street redesigns of 2014. These five are the finalists selected by Streetsblog staff. They include new car-free zones, substantial sidewalk expansions, superb bike infrastructure, awesome safety upgrades, and exclusive transit lanes.

Which deserves the distinction of being named the “Best Urban Street Transformation of 2014″? We’re starting the voting today and will post a reminder when we run the rest of the Streetsblog USA Streetsie Award polls next Tuesday. Without further ado, here are the contenders:

Western Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Before

Before

After. (We're using a rendering because the project is not quite yet 100% complete.)

After. (We’re using a rendering because the project is not quite 100 percent complete.)

The Western Avenue road diet narrowed dangerously wide traffic lanes on this one-way street to make room for safer pedestrian crossings, a raised bike lane, and bus bulbs. Brian DeChambeau of the Cambridge Community Development Department, the lead agency on the project, adds these details about the redesign:

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The Most Important Bus Routes in NYC Tend to Perform the Worst for Riders

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The M79 moves slower than flowing lava, reports the Straphangers Campaign. Photo: Kris Arnold/Flickr

The slowest bus in New York City is the M79, and the least reliable is the local M15, according to the Straphangers Campaign and Transportation Alternatives, which today awarded these two routes the “uncoveted” Pokey and Schleppie awards, respectively.

On weekdays at noon, Straphangers measured the crosstown M79 at an average speed of 3.2 miles per hour, slower than many people walk. On the M15 local, meanwhile, 33 percent of buses don’t arrive anywhere close to the posted schedule, meaning they’re either bunched tightly together or spread far apart, forcing riders to wait.

The Pokey and Schleppie call attention each year to bus service that gets bogged down by city traffic or delays caused by an inefficient fare payment system. Usually, it’s the bus routes with the most passengers that rank lowest in terms of speed and reliability, because they tend to travel on highly trafficked streets and spend a lot of time stopped as people pay to board.

The M15 local has some of the highest ridership of any local route in Manhattan, and the bus routes that Straphangers and TA singled out for poor performance in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island (the Bx19, Bx15, B41, B44, Q58, S48/98, and S78) all have a lot of passengers relative to most other routes in those boroughs. (With about 17,000 average weekday trips, the M79 has substantial but not exceptional ridership for Manhattan.) The takeaway is that the most important bus routes in the city tend to perform the worst for transit riders.

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A 90-Second Appeal to Fix Woodhaven Boulevard With BRT

The BRT for NYC coalition recently released this short video that succinctly makes the case for change on Woodhaven Boulevard in southeast Queens. If you haven’t personally experienced Woodhaven as a pedestrian or bus rider, it’s a good introduction to what’s at stake as NYC DOT and the MTA move forward with a project to improve transit service and street safety along more than 14 miles of this major corridor.

Improving travel times and reliability for the tens of thousands of people who ride the bus on Woodhaven every day will have to go hand in hand with improvements to the pedestrian environment. As you can see in the video, Woodhaven is so wide that people have to run to reach the other side of the street. All of the design options that NYC DOT has shown add more space for walking.

With Donovan Richards, Eric Ulrich, and every other City Council member whose district touches the project on the record supporting major changes, there’s a chance to do something bold and great on Woodhaven. The next round of design work for the project may be released early next year.

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First Look: Woodhaven BRT Could Set New Standard for NYC Busways

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In one option, “Concept 2,” buses would run in dedicated lanes next to through traffic, keeping local traffic, drop-offs, and deliveries to service lanes and out of the way of buses. Image: NYC DOT

NYC DOT and the MTA have developed three design concepts for Select Bus Service on Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard in southeast Queens, and two of them go further than previous SBS routes to keep cars from slowing down buses [PDF]. All of the options include some measures to shorten crossing distances for pedestrians on one of the city’s widest and most dangerous streets.

The Woodhaven SBS project, which covers a 14.4-mile corridor running from the Rockaways to Woodside, is the biggest street redesign effort in NYC right now. All the City Council members along the route have said they want big changes, and the concepts on display last night indicate that DOT and the MTA can deliver.

Agency representatives showed the three designs at an open house in Ozone Park where residents could leave written comments on posterboards. City Council Member Eric Ulrich told me he liked what he saw, and bus riders and transit advocates were especially keen on “Concept 2″ and “Concept 3,” which would create clearer paths for buses. Here’s a rundown of how each option would work.

Image: NYC DOT

Image: NYC DOT

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Council Members Line Up in Support of Woodhaven Bus Rapid Transit

Council Member Donovan Richards calls for center-running Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards at City Hall this morning. Photo: Stephen Miller

Council Member Donovan Richards calls for center-running Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevards at City Hall this morning. Photo: Stephen Miller

Council Member Donovan Richards stood on the steps of City Hall this morning, asking DOT to move ahead with full-fledged Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven Boulevard and Cross Bay Boulevard. Six other Queens council members have joined Richards on a letter to DOT and the MTA asking for center-running bus lanes, station-like bus shelters, and pedestrian safety improvements.

In addition to Richards, council members Eric Ulrich, Elizabeth Crowley, Karen Koslowitz, Julissa Ferreras, Daniel Dromm, and Jimmy Van Bramer – whose districts all include the potential BRT route — want DOT and the MTA to “consider implementing full-featured Bus Rapid Transit” on Woodhaven [PDF]. There is now a united front of support for BRT from city elected officials in advance of the anticipated rollout of a bus improvement plan from DOT and MTA this fall.

The agencies have been hosting workshops in the area and have already outlined a first phase that includes minor bus upgrades. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has said the budget for future phases of the project will be significant, and Richards hopes the city uses those funds to create a robust BRT line. “We look forward to a full-fledged BRT service in Queens,” he said. “We’re closer than many of us anticipated to pulling this off now.”

That’s due in no small part to the work of the Riders Alliance, which has spent months organizing bus riders. Stephanie Veras, a Woodhaven resident who volunteers with Riders Alliance, relies on buses to get to Queens Center Mall and to access the subway. Too often the bus is slow and unreliable, she said. Veras presented 5,000 petition signatures she and other volunteers had gathered in favor of center-running BRT. “It’s about time that Queens get better buses,” she said. ”Queens bus riders deserve better.”

Richards said he endured long bus rides on Woodhaven when commuting to Vaughn College of Aeronautics in Elmhurst as a student. Better buses can create better economic opportunities, Richards said, especially for residents in his transit-starved district. ”We stand with those families who have had a hard time just connecting to the other side of Queens,” he said. “This is an economic justice issue. This is an environmental justice issue.”

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Sustainable Transportation Could Save the World (and Save $100 Trillion)

A protesters gathered in New York City to demand action on climate, a new report shows exactly what that action could offer us. Photo: South Bend Voice via Flickr

As protesters gathered in New York City to demand action on climate change, a new report shows how smart transportation policy can play a major role in reducing carbon emissions. Photo: South Bend Voice/Flickr

Dramatically expanding transit and active transportation over the next few decades could reduce urban vehicle emissions 40 percent more than following a car-centric trajectory. And it could also save the world economy $100 trillion.

That’s according to a new report presented recently to the United Nations by researchers at UC Davis and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy [PDF]. The team modeled the cost and greenhouse gas impacts of two scenarios for the future of world transportation up to the year 2050.

The baseline scenario assumes a business-as-usual approach to transportation. Following this path, transit systems across the globe would grow modestly over the next few decades, while driving would grow considerably, especially in developing nations.

Urban transportation produced about 2.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2010, or about a quarter of total transportation emissions. This is expected to double under a business-as-usual approach by 2050.

Following a different path — which the authors call the “high shift” scenario — by 2050, countries around the world develop high-quality transit systems and bikeable, walkable street networks on par with today’s leading cities.

In the “high shift” future of 2050, most countries will have doubled or tripled their total rapid transit capacity. The authors modeled a dramatic increase in urban rail systems and even bigger growth in bus rapid transit systems. In the model, most major cities in the world would have BRT systems as extensive as Bogota’s TransMilenio.

This scenario also assumes more compact walkable development and increases in cycling — particularly e-bikes in developing nations. ”Most cities could achieve something approaching average European cycling levels,” according to the authors, but still below global leaders like the Netherlands. The “high-shift” scenario also projects the effect of widespread road pricing or other financial incentives that favor sustainable modes. As a result, urban vehicle traffic would only reach half the level projected in the business-as-usual scenario.

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On Webster Avenue SBS, Buses Run 20% Faster and More People Are Riding

Bus lanes and off-board fare collection have resulted in big speed increases for Bx41 SBS riders on Webster Avenue compared to the old limited-stop service. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Last June, DOT and the MTA cut the ribbon for Select Bus Service along Webster Avenue in the Bronx. Now the agencies have released a status report showing the impact of the 5.4-mile, $9 million project [PDF].

The bottom line for bus riders is that, as on other SBS lines, trips are faster and more predictable. The previous Bx41 Limited, with no bus lanes or off-board fare collection, averaged seven miles per hour and was unreliable, with trip times fluctuating by up to 20 minutes.

Trips on the Bx41 SBS are 19 to 23 percent shorter. Northbound evening trips now take 40 minutes instead of 52 minutes. Local service on the route has benefitted from the bus lanes, too, with trip times dropping by 11 to 17 percent. The share of total trip time that SBS buses spend immobile at stops and red lights is down from 49 percent to 39 percent

Opening up bottlenecks with new bus lanes helped eliminate many of the old delays. Northbound riders saved an average of nearly two minutes on each morning trip between 187th and 195th Streets, while southbound riders saved nearly four minutes on evening trips between 179th and 173rd Streets.

Bus lanes and off-board fare collection are responsible for the lion’s share of the speed improvements. These gains are all the more impressive considering that, unlike other SBS routes, Webster Avenue’s bus lanes are not camera-enforced. (Albany restricts the number of bus lanes that NYC can enforce with cameras; a change in state law would lift that restriction.) Trips are likely to get faster after DOT and the MTA install concrete “bus bulb” curb extensions and signal technology that gives buses priority at traffic lights, beginning next year.

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What’s Next for Select Bus Service in New York?

Select Bus Service is a big step up from the pokey local bus, but what's next? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Select Bus Service is a big step up from the pokey local bus. What’s next? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Last night, Streetsblog and the New York Transit Museum hosted a discussion on the future of Bus Rapid Transit in New York. Mayor de Blasio has pledged to implement “world-class” BRT, and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has promised a stepped-up timetable for expansion of Select Bus Service, New York’s brand of enhanced bus. But what will it take to get us there? Joan Byron of the Pratt Center for Community Development, Eric Beaton of NYC DOT, and Robert Thompson of New York City Transit joined Streetsblog Editor-in-Chief Ben Fried to talk about how Select Bus Service has progressed in NYC and where the program is headed.

SBS has its origins in studies that DOT, the MTA, and New York State DOT began in 2004. Today, the program has become a fixture, outlasting electoral changes and turnover at the top of agencies, Beaton noted, but at first it was a tenuous proposition, involving collaboration between government bureaucracies that rarely spoke to each other.

New leadership at DOT gave the program a jolt in 2007. “When suddenly there was a decision at the tops of the agencies that ‘Let’s do something,’ people were ready to go,” Thompson said. In 2008, the first SBS route went live on Fordham Road. Now there are seven SBS lines in all five boroughs, with several more in the planning phases.

SBS routes include a mix of camera-enforced painted bus lanes, off-board fare collection, signal priority for buses at intersections and curb extensions at bus stops. This suite of improvements has been deployed, to varying degrees, on each SBS route since 2008, and transit speeds have increased 15 to 23 percent on those corridors. More full-fledged BRT alignments separate buses from private car traffic to a greater degree, but last night’s panelists offered some reasons why that model may not work on many streets.

New York doesn’t have the street width that cities like Bogota can use to carve out space for separated busways with express and local service, and the city’s lack of side alleys means curb access for necessary deliveries like oil trucks has to be maintained. Center-running transit lanes are an option, but present downsides for local bus service. DOT had considered center-running BRT on Webster Avenue in the Bronx, which would have involved more left-turn restrictions on other traffic, then opted for “offset” bus lanes next to the parking lane. “At least for that particular corridor, the downsides were not worth the upsides,” Beaton said.

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