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Margaret Chin: Toll Reform Will Protect New Yorkers From Truck Traffic

Photo: Brad Aaron

Photo: Brad Aaron

City Council Member Margaret Chin today introduced legislation to require the city to examine the effects of New York City’s dysfunctional bridge toll system on traffic safety. The bill would also mandate regular DOT safety audits for all city truck routes.

Trucks account for 3.6 percent of vehicles on city streets but are involved in 32 percent and 12 percent of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities, respectively, according to city data cited by Chin. At a press conference outside City Hall this morning, Chin said her bill “should be welcomed by the [de Blasio] administration as a component of Vision Zero.”

Chin cited the un-tolled Manhattan Bridge as a major cause of traffic chaos on Canal Street, which cuts through her district. Drivers have killed at least four pedestrians on Canal Street since 2012, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog.

Chin’s bill would have DOT conduct studies at five-year intervals to “examine the impact of tolling policies on the city’s network of truck routes,” according to a press release. Crashes and traffic violations would be measured, with information collected on whatever street safety measures are implemented on each route. DOT’s last comprehensive truck route study dates to 2007, the press release said.

It's free

Trucker’s special: It’s free to drive over the East River, barrel across local Manhattan streets, and take a tunnel under the Hudson, but sticking to the highway and going over the Verrazano will cost a five-axle truck $80. Map: MoveNY

DOT would also be required to “develop new strategies” to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety along the city’s 1,000-plus miles of truck routes. Council Member Brad Lander pointed out that current truck route design — speed-inducing expanses of asphalt — leads to reckless driving regardless of vehicle type. Chin emphasized that the reports should lead to physical street safety improvements. 

City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez joined Chin to announce the legislation, along with Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer. Representatives from Transportation Alternatives, Families For Safe Streets, Move NY, the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, and Manhattan Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 also appeared in support of the bill.

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Streetsblog USA
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The Feds Quietly Acknowledge the Driving Boom Is Over

DOT_forecasts

After years of erroneously predicting rapid growth in driving, the FHWA finally made significant downward revisions to its traffic forecast last year. Graphic: U.S. PIRG/Frontier Group

The Federal Highway Administration has very quietly acknowledged that the driving boom is over.

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of rapid driving growth, the agency’s more recent forecast finally recognizes that the protracted post-World War II era has given way to a different paradigm.

The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

The forecast is a big step forward from the FHWA’s past record of chronically aggressive driving forecasts. Most recently, in February 2014 the U.S. DOT released its 2013 “Conditions and Performance Report” to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles (VMT) will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the “Conditions and Performance Report” issued at the beginning of 2014 to the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate by between 24 percent to 44 percent.

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Streetsblog USA
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The Importance of Driving to the U.S. Economy Started Waning in the 70s

dafs

Americans drive much less per unit of economic output than we did a generation ago.

Earlier this year, following a slight uptick in U.S. traffic volumes, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release, “More people driving means our economy is picking up speed.” He’s not the only person to equate traffic with economic growth. Even former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once said, “We like traffic, it means economic activity,” before his administration began to tackle traffic as a drag on the economy and embraced ideas like congestion pricing, bus lanes, and protected bikeways.

In fact, the amount Americans drive is an increasingly poor reflection of the nation’s economic output. A forthcoming analysis from Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (sorry, no link available yet) finds that by some measures, driving has been “decoupling” from U.S. economic growth for a generation.

Sivak looked at two measures of driving activity in relation to economic growth: mileage per unit of gross domestic product and fuel consumed per unit of GDP. On both of those metrics, when GDP is adjusted for inflation, the amount of driving relative to economic output peaked in the 1970s.

Distance driven relative to economic output was highest in 1977. After that, it more or less plateaued until the 1990s, when it began to decline sharply, Sivak reports. Today it stands at about where it did in the 1940s.

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Cheaper Gas and Uber Have Manhattan Gridlock Poised to Get Worse

Traffic gridlock in Manhattan has been on the wane for some time. Newly released 2013 traffic counts from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council show 747,000 motor vehicles entering the Manhattan Central Business District on a typical weekday. While that still constitutes a crushing load, it’s 5,000 fewer cars each day than in 2012 and a drop of 80,000 daily vehicles from the apparent peak year of 2004. As a result, average CBD traffic speeds are on an upswing, from 8 mph in 2006 to 9-9.5 mph in 2012. (Sorry, no figures available for 2004 or 2013.)

A one mile an hour rise is just statistical noise on a fast highway, but summed across hundreds of stop-and-go city blocks over thousands of hours it generates genuine value and significant time savings. Not surprisingly, public aggravation over traffic congestion appears to be less pronounced today than a decade ago. And tellingly, the Move NY toll-reform plan is making headway as much for its promise to fill the funding gap in the MTA capital plan and to bring about “toll equity” by lowering tolls on the MTA bridges, as for its potential to bust gridlock by charging a fee at every CBD entrance and exit.

Nevertheless, I’m betting that Manhattan traffic is about to worsen. The reasons can be spelled out quickly: cheaper gasoline and Uber.

Let’s start with the price of gas, which has already fallen below three bucks a gallon after averaging about $3.60 nationally in 2013 and $3.70 in 2012. Unlike some prior falls that proved transitory, this one looks like it could have staying power owing to the boom in U.S. production, the stutter-stop world economy, and Saudi Arabia’s disinclination to curb production to stabilize prices.

Though conditions vary greatly (especially parking costs), I estimate that a dollar a gallon drop in pump prices would shave 6 percent off the cost of a typical CBD commute. That correlates to an additional 12,000 or so motor vehicle trips to the CBD, on top of the current 640,000 baseline. (My baseline figure differs from NYMTC’s 747,000 because I adjust for through-trips that NYMTC counts as two entries; note also that the rise would be 20,000 but for the “rebound” effect of new trips crowding out some current trips.)

Then there’s Uber. Smartphone-hail services like Uber and Lyft have established a beachhead in the for-hire vehicle industry in New York and other cities. Though solid data isn’t available, these companies appear to be expanding rapidly, and not necessarily at the expense of the traditional yellow-cab and livery sectors or the new green cabs that have expanded the zone of legal street hails. Rather, Uber appears to be creating brand-new demand for travel by motor vehicle, especially within the high-gloss citadel of finance and fashion, the Manhattan CBD.

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Streetsblog USA
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Great Cities Don’t Have Much Traffic, But They Do Have Congestion

Image: Tomtoms 2013 via Cityclock

Places with less traffic have more congestion. Graphic: City Clock

Here’s a great visualization of what cities get out of the billions of dollars spent on highways and road expansion: more traffic.

Justin Swan at City Clock made this chart showing the relationship between congestion levels, as measured by TomTom, and car use. (Yes, it has no X axis — here’s Swan’s explanation of how to read his chart.) The pattern that emerges is that the places with the most traffic and driving also have the least congestion.

We know from the work of Joe Cortright that the traditional definition of congestion is a poor way to measure people’s ability to get around their city — because it doesn’t reflect the actual time people spend traveling. Drivers in Dallas and Houston may stew in gridlock less than people in other cities, but they spend more time on the road.

Swan notes that the most congested places are also the places where people have good travel options that don’t involve driving. His chart suggests that car congestion itself is not the problem that needs to be solved — as long as there are other ways to get around, in a congested city few people will actually have to sit in traffic.

Streetsblog USA
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It’s Happening: Washington State Revises Traffic Forecasts to Reflect Reality

Washington State has revised traffic projections downward, to reflect changing patterns. Image: Washington State via Sightline

The Washington State Office of Fiscal Management has revised its traffic projections downward to reflect changing patterns. Graph Washington OFM via Sightline

The amount that the average American drives each year has been declining for nearly a decade, yet most transportation agencies are still making decisions based on the notion that a new era of ceaseless traffic growth is right around the corner.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, for example, has overestimated traffic on its roads by an average of 73 percent, according to a recent study. And Dallas-area planners recently produced traffic projections that predicted a much larger increase in driving than the state DOT was even predicting.

That’s why a new traffic forecast from the Washington State Office of Fiscal Management is so interesting: It actually acknowledges how travel habits are changing. Seattle-based environmental think tank Sightline spotted the above traffic projection in a new government report. In its most recent financial forecast, the agency has abandoned the assumption of never-ending traffic growth that it employed as recently as last year. Instead, the agency has responded to recent trends, even projecting that total traffic will start to decline within the next ten years.

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry says that’s huge:

By undermining both the rationale for new roads and the belief that we’ll be able to pay for them, a forecast of flat traffic should help inject a needed dose of reality into the state’s transportation debates.

Of course, there’s no telling whether this forecast will be right. As Yogi Berra allegedly said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if it turns out that this forecast underestimates traffic growth, budgeters won’t find it such an unpleasant surprise, since more traffic will bring more revenue from drivers.

Streetsblog USA
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Not Just a Phase: Young Americans Won’t Start Motoring Like Their Parents

Image: U.S. Public Interest Research Group

Young adults in 2009 were driving less and walking, biking, and riding transit more than young adults in 2001, according to the National Household Travel Survey. Chart: U.S. Public Interest Research Group

A raft of recent research indicates that young adults just aren’t as into driving as their parents were. Young people today are walking, biking, and riding transit more while driving less than previous generations did at the same age. But the vast majority of state DOTs have been loathe to respond by changing their highway-centric ways. 

A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group points out the folly of their inaction: If transportation officials are waiting for Americans born after 1983 to start motoring like their parents did, they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

Though some factors underlying the shift in driving habits are likely temporary — caused by the recession, for instance — just as many appear to be permanent, the authors found. That means American transportation agencies should get busy preparing for a far different future than their traffic models predict.

“The Millennial generation is not only less car-focused than older Americans by virtue of being young, but they also drive less than previous generations of young people,” write authors Tony Dutzik, Jeff Inglis, and Phineas Baxandall.

There’s a good deal of evidence that the recession cannot fully explain the trend away from driving among young people. Notably, driving declined even among millennials who stayed employed, and “between the recession years of 2001 and 2009, per-capita driving declined by 16 percent among 16 to 34 year-olds with jobs,” the authors write.

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Fair Tolls: Fixing NYC’s Gridlock and Transit Shortfall in One Fell Swoop

moveny_graphic

The Move NY Fair Plan sets tolls at all East River crossings and 60th Street at the same amount, while lowering tolls on four outlying MTA bridges. Graphic: Christina Roman, Sam Schwartz Engineering

When Governor Nelson Rockefeller merged New York’s commuter rail lines, the NYC Transit Authority, and Robert Moses’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to form the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 1968, he had several motives. The new agency consolidated political power, made more efficient use of regional infrastructure, and devoted surplus bridge and tunnel toll revenues to rescue a faltering transit system.

That last idea, making drivers pay for transit, had a powerful logic, since drivers themselves benefit from viable transit that prevents stifling traffic jams. But the original set-up had a built-in flaw: New York’s tolled crossings compete with free bridges.

Today, almost half a century later, this formula is broken. “Toll shopping” is exacerbating gridlock in communities on both sides of the free East River bridges and throughout the Manhattan central business district while eroding MTA revenues. Meanwhile, the MTA needs a new revenue stream to fund its next capital plan, but current users of its crossings are balking at soaring tolls while adjacent bridges remain free.

Excluding the Port Authority-controlled Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, an estimated 1,733,000 car and truck trips are made into or out of the CBD or on a major MTA bridge each weekday. Each trip that crosses the CBD boundary imposes, on average, two hours of aggregate delay on all other drivers (more during rush hours, less during off-peak hours). Yet only 604,000 — 35 percent — of those 1.7 million-plus trips are tolled: 458,000 on the MTA bridges plus 146,000 through the MTA’s Queens Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel (see graphic).

The remaining 1,129,000 trips — of which 445,000 enter or exit the CBD via an East River bridge while 684,000 cross 60th Street — pay nothing. (These and other figures in this post are derived in my Balanced Transportation Analyzer Spreadsheet [PDF].)

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Streetsblog USA
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FHWA Gleefully Declares That Driving Is Up, Calls for More Highway Spending

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA's own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/14juntvt/figure1.cfm##FHWA##

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA’s own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels — even if you’re just looking at total miles-driven. Chart: FHWA

Well, so much for the predictions that changing preferences and new technologies will lead to a car-free utopia. The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that after nine years of steady decline, vehicle-miles-traveled in the U.S. was 1.4 percent higher this June than last June. Apparently, red-blooded Americans everywhere are finally getting back to their Hummer habit after a few years of diminished driving and rising transit ridership and bike commuting.

Except one thing: Driving is still way down from peak levels. While the FHWA’s press release trumpets that “American driving between July 2013 and June 2014 is at levels not seen since 2008″ — adding, alarmingly, a call for “greater investment in highways” — that’s not the whole story. Yes, the total driving rate now approximates where it stood in 2008, when VMT was in freefall. But it’s still way down from the peak — 3.05 trillion miles — in 2007.

Since the end of the recession, total VMT has fluctuated within a fairly constrained range, remaining well below the 2007 peak. And that’s just total driving. If you look at the per capita driving rate, it’s still dropping. In fact, it’s as low as it’s been in nearly 17 years.

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Streetsblog LA
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California Has Officially Ditched Car-Centric “Level of Service”

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation changes promise to drive it even lower. Photo: ##http://www.peaktraffic.org/graphics/vmt-california.jpg##Peak Traffic##

Vehicle Miles Traveled in California has been on the decline for a couple of years. Changes in how the state manages transportation projects promise to drive it even lower. Graph: Peak Traffic

Ding, dong… LOS is dead. At least as far as the state of California is concerned.

Level of Service (LOS) has been the standard by which the state measures the transportation impacts of major developments and changes to streets. It is basically a measurement of how many cars can be pushed through an intersection in a given time. If a project reduced a street’s Level of Service it was considered bad — no matter how many other benefits it might create.

Under the previous CEQA regs, the transportation mitigation for a development such as this would have been sprawl-inducing road widenings. Image:##http://blog.archpaper.com/wordpress/archives/67469#.U-OVrI1dUs0##Arch Paper##

Until now, California regulations made it much easier to build this kind of sprawl than compact, people-friendly places. Photo: Arch Paper

Now, thanks to legislation passed last year and a yearlong effort by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), California will no longer consider “bad” LOS a problem that needs fixing under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). OPR today released a draft of its revised guidelines [PDF], proposing to substitute Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) for LOS.

In short, instead of measuring whether a project makes it less convenient to drive, the relevant question is now whether a project contributes to other goals, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions, developing multimodal transportation, preserving open spaces, and promoting diverse land uses and infill development.

“This is exciting,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, principal and director of strategy at Nelson\Nygaard. “Changing from LOS to VMT does away with a contradiction that applicants currently face under CEQA. The contradiction between the state’s greenhouse gas reduction requirements and the transportation analysis requirements is no more.”

This revision in state law promises many positive changes.

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