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Toronto’s Simple Measure to Cut Traffic and Improve Transit: Toll Highways

Tolling Toronto's Gardiner Expressway and one other highway could help the city function better. Photo; Wikipedia

Tolling Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway and one other highway could help the city function better. Photo: Wikipedia

American elected officials are notoriously skittish about turning freeways into toll roads, but in Canada’s biggest city the political stars are aligning to put a price on two major highways.

Toronto Mayor John Tory, facing intense budget pressures, has proposed tolling two urban freeways: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Tory is proposing a $2 flat fee, which would generate some $200 million in net annual revenue. While the political decisions to implement tolls are getting made right now, implementation is not expected until 2024.

As a measure to reduce traffic on the highways — and the city streets those highways funnel into — the plan could be better. The tolls would do more to cut traffic congestion if Toronto opted for dynamic pricing that charges drivers more during peak periods. But even if the initial toll is flat, the government could convert it to a sliding scale later on, transportation engineering professor David Levinson told the Globe and Mail.

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America Has a Terrible Traffic Safety Record Because We Drive Too Much

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Traveling by car is much more dangerous than traveling by train or bus. Table: APTA

Even though the U.S. traffic fatality rate per mile driven has fallen by two-thirds in the last 50 years, America today still has the deadliest road system per capita in the developed world. Much of the improvement from safer driving and better emergency care has been wiped out by increases in total traffic.

U.S. traffic fatalities have improved a lot on a per-mile basis, but not so much on a per-capita basis. Graph: APTA

Per mile, the traffic death rate in America has improved a lot, but per person, the nation has fallen far behind other developed countries. Graph: APTA

The American approach to traffic safety has emphasized seatbelt use, vehicle standards, and reducing drunk driving. What has been lacking is any effort to reduce driving mileage and enable more people to get around by safer means. And that’s exactly what the U.S. needs to do to make further gains in safety, according to a new report from the American Public Transportation Association [PDF].

Riding transit is much safer than getting around in a car. According to APTA, the fatality risk per mile traveled for bus passengers is 30 times lower than car occupants. For rail passengers, the risk is 20 times lower.

But federal safety policy has largely neglected how transit — or policies aimed at reducing driving in general — can play a role in reducing America’s staggering traffic death toll.

APTA argues that it’s time for a new approach. Here’s why.

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Study: High-Traffic Arterial Roads Reduce Quality of Life, Even Blocks Away

A famous 1970s study by researcher Donald Appleyard found that people who lived on streets with lighter traffic had more frequent social interactions with their neighbors. Image: Safe Street Strategies

Research by Donald Appleyard in the 1970s found that people who lived on streets with lighter traffic had more frequent social interactions with their neighbors. New research shows that nearby streets impact quality of life, too. Image: Safe Street Strategies

Seminal research by Donald Appleyard in the 1970s found the volume of traffic on a street affects quality of life for residents in profound and unexpected ways. For example, the amount of social contact people had with their neighbors was curtailed for those who lived on high traffic streets compared with those living on quieter streets. People even defined their “home area” much more narrowly if they lived on a busy road.

A new study from the University of Colorado Denver [PDF], sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, builds on Appleyard’s research — finding that high traffic on your street isn’t the only type of traffic affecting what you think of where you live. Researchers Wesley Marshall and Carolyn McAndrews found that living near, but not on, a wide, high-traffic arterial can also reduce residential satisfaction.

The research is a repudiation of the suburban style of traffic calming that dominated the U.S. for decades, where cul-de-sacs and lack of through streets limits traffic on residential streets by diverting cars to major arterials. It turns out, pouring traffic onto inhospitable arterial roads is negatively impacting nearby residential areas, too.

The research team interviewed more than 700 people in Denver living within a half-mile of 30 major arterial roads. The survey, controlled for income, explored residents’ concerns about noise, pollution and safety. Like Appleyard’s research, this survey also asked residents to define their “neighborhood.”

Across the board, people who lived on lower-traffic streets reported better outcomes — no surprise there. But the presence of a nearby high-traffic arterial was also an important factor.

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Ryan Russo on DOT’s “Mobility Report” and the Need for Better Bus Service

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Using vehicle location data from MTA Bus Time, DOT is able to analyze where bus routes need a speed boost with a greater level of specificity. Graphic: NYC DOT

DOT’s “New York City Mobility Report” [PDF], released earlier this week, is the agency’s first overview of NYC transportation trends in three years. As the number of people and jobs in the city has grown prodigiously in the past five years, DOT reports, the subway system and, increasingly, the bike network have allowed more New Yorkers to get where they need to go. But there are signs of strain — bus ridership is declining and bus speeds are slowing, and traffic congestion in the Manhattan core is rising.

Streetsblog spoke with DOT Deputy Commissioner for Transportation Management & Planning Ryan Russo, who oversees the agency’s long-term strategy and the projects that bring that strategy to fruition, about the report and its implications.

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo

DOT Deputy Commissioner Ryan Russo.

Russo told us what he sees as the big takeaways from the report, why it lends more urgency to the agency’s efforts to improve bus service and bicycling, and how DOT is applying the information it contains. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

What are the key themes that come out in this report? Were any of the findings surprising or unexpected?

We think of New York as a built-out place, right? I don’t think people think of it as changing so quickly. And just this half-a-decade is kind of astounding in terms of 500,000 new jobs. You know, many states don’t even have 500,000 jobs, and those are our new jobs. You know, 370,000 new people. And the number of new tourists we have are all the tourists who go to the city of New Orleans in a year.

So that jumped out, that this city’s changed a lot. While we did have the slow down on the streets, all of those new residents, new jobs, new tourists, they all have to move around the city. We did it really on the backs of some wise decisions we made recently, but also decisions that were made a generation ago to reinvest in the transit system.

The subway system has clearly been the workhorse here in serving that growth. We think we’ve been smart and wise in terms of emphasizing the pedestrian environment which helps support transit, building out a bike network, adding bike-share, trying to keep buses moving with the Select Bus Service program and our partnership with New York City Transit. We think DOT has been a pretty big part of this, but it’s really kind of an amazing story that we did all this growth without — you know, we didn’t develop on greenfields in the suburbs, we didn’t build a boatload of parking, and we didn’t add a lot of traffic trips particularly in the core.

I think that’s really the main theme there, but there are these harbingers or challenges that this frames. We all know that the subway system is pretty strapped. And seeing the data now — seeing bus ridership going down, seeing congestion go up — we’re starting to become victims of the success, so we all have to decide together how we’re going to keep this going.

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DOT Mobility Report: As NYC Grows, So Are Transit and Bicycling

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More people and jobs, more subway and bike trips. Note that the subway and bus ridership numbers are annual figures. Graphic adapted from NYC DOT’s Mobility Report.

With New York City’s population swelling to a record size, subways and bikes now account for about 700,000 more trips each day than 16 years ago, according to a new report from NYC DOT [PDF]. Car trips into the Manhattan core, meanwhile, are declining, but so is citywide bus ridership.

DOT’s “New York City Mobility Report” follows in the footsteps of the Bloomberg-era “Sustainable Streets Index” — an annual update on city transportation trends. After skipping two years, DOT is out with its first edition of the report under Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, adding some interesting data.

The stats are a testament to the importance of transit and bicycling to New York’s ability to welcome more people and sustain more economic activity. They’re also sobering. What happens if the subways and streets can no longer keep up with the city’s growth? And why are New Yorkers abandoning the bus?

Ridership is straining the limits of several subway lines, with crowding a frequent source of delays. But capital improvements to increase subway capacity take too long to complete, cost too much, and are backed by a mountain of debt. (Don’t worry, Governor Cuomo’s got this — Wi-Fi and USB ports are on the way.)

The subways are, by and large, beyond the city’s control. But NYC DOT does control the streets, and while the Mobility Report isn’t prescriptive, if you read between the lines the implications are pretty clear.

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Seattle’s “Viadoom 2016” — Another Carmageddon That Wasn’t

Source: Seattle Bike Blog

Bike trips on Seattle’s Spokane Street Bridge spiked the first Monday when the Alaskan Way Viaduct was out of commission. Meanwhile, car commutes haven’t gotten much worse during the highway closure. Graph: Seattle Bike Blog

Heard this one before?

The temporary closure of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct to accommodate construction — code name: “Viadoom” — was going paralyze the city. The elevated highway carries about 110,000 vehicles a day. Without it, travel times would soar 50 percent, predicted the traffic analytics firm Inrix.

The highway was closed from April 29 to May 8, and we now have a solid read on the effect. Wouldn’t you know it — Viadoom, like so many Carmageddons before it, didn’t live up to the hype.

“Commute times have not dramatically increased and several of the major routes into the city have been only moderately affected,” the company’s Lytang Kelley told Crosscut. Commuters on these routes only spent a few more minutes in traffic, Crosscut reports.

The fact that Viadoom turned out to be much milder than expected carries special significance because right now Seattle is spending $4.2 billion (expected cost overruns notwithstanding) to replace the viaduct with an underground highway.

Five years ago, highway opponents argued that a surface street with better transit could handle the travel demand just as effectively as the $4.2 billion megatunnel. But they were marginalized by highway boosters in city and state government who backed the project and said the underground highway was absolutely essential to keeping the city running.

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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.”

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Robert Rodriguez Introduces Toll Reform Bill in State Assembly

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Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez announced his toll reform legislation under the train at 125th Street and Park Avenue this morning. Photo: Charles Komanoff

For the first time, a state legislator is sponsoring legislation in Albany to enact the Move NY toll reform plan. By creating a more rational toll system in New York City, the plan would significantly reduce traffic and raise revenue to invest in improving transit.

Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez introduced a bill today, A09633, that would toll the four East River bridges and a cordon across 60th Street in Manhattan while reducing tolls on crossings farther from the city core. Rodriguez represents East Harlem and has agitated for timely completion of phase two of the Second Avenue Subway, which would serve his district.

The new tolls around the Manhattan core would be set at the same rate as the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and Queens Midtown Tunnel — currently $5.54 with E-ZPass — and would be issued without tollbooths. Taxis and for-hire vehicles would be assessed additional fees per mile when traveling in the area of Manhattan below 110th Street on the West Side and 96th Street on the East Side, but would be exempt from the new tolls.

Creating a consistent price to drive into the Manhattan central business district will cut traffic on and around the East River bridges, where motorists currently get a free ride, with congestion-reducing ripple effects throughout the city’s street network. Additional revenue from the new toll structure would be plowed into fixing up, modernizing, and expanding the New York region’s transit network, and into maintaining the East River bridges.

At a press conference this morning, Rodriguez framed Move NY as a fairer plan than using general state revenue to fill the gap in the MTA capital program. “As legislators, we need to fund the MTA capital plan,” he said. “And we will, but we don’t have to do it solely on the back of taxpayers who don’t have to use the system.”

Under the legislation, additional revenue would be divvied up among a few agencies and authorities, with most of it being bonded against and allocated to the MTA:

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More Driving, More People Dying on America’s Streets

On Friday, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration released new data [PDF] showing that traffic deaths are up. Up quite a bit.

More driving, more problems. Photo: Wikipedia

More driving, more problems. Photo: Wikipedia

During the first nine months of 2015, 26,000 Americans were killed in traffic collisions — a 9.3 percent increase over the same period in 2014. According to Autoblog, that would work out to the highest one-year percentage increase in traffic deaths since the 1940s if the trend continued through the end of 2015.

The most obvious reason is that cheap gas is prompting people to drive more. Indeed, during the first three quarters of 2015, drivers logged 80 billion more miles than the same period the previous year — a 3.5 percent increase.

That means the increase in driving doesn’t account for all the increase in fatalities. One theory, courtesy of David Levinson at the University of Minnesota, is that when gas prices fall, collisions rise faster than mileage because people who don’t ordinarily drive much, like teenagers, start driving more.

In its messages, NHTSA keeps hammering “behavioral” issues, like drunk driving and failing to wear seatbelts — which certainly are big contributors to traffic fatalities. But when you get down to it, driving itself is the source of risk, and NHTSA won’t address the systemic factors that compel Americans to drive instead of taking transit, walking, or biking.

You’ll never see NHTSA mention the disaster that is low-density, single-use zoning, which lengthens the distances people have to travel in cars. Or the way state DOTs keep building bigger highways even though they don’t maintain the roads they already have.

In a statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the new data “is a signal that we need to do more,” but he did not specify what, exactly, we need to do more of.

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The Feds Want to Reform the Cult of “Level of Service”

FHWA is trying to encourage states and localities to move away from using Level of Service. Cartoon by Andy Singer, via PPS.

The old way of making transportation decisions prioritized the movement of cars above all. The Federal Highway Administration will encourage local agencies to shift to other methods. Cartoon: Andy Singer via Project for Public Spaces

“What you measure is what you get,” the saying goes.

That’s certainly true for transportation policy. And for a very long time one metric has reigned supreme on American streets: “Level of Service,” a system that assigns letter grades based on motorist delay. Roughly speaking, a street with free-flowing traffic gets an A while one where cars back up gets an F.

Level of Service, or LOS, is what traffic engineers cite when they shut down the possibility of transitways or bike lanes. It also leads to policy decisions like road widenings and parking mandates. Even environmental laws are structured around the idea that traffic flow is paramount, so they end up perpetuating highways, parking, and sprawl. Because if the top priority is to move cars — and not, say, to improve public safety or economic well-being — the result is a transportation system that will move a lot of cars while failing at almost everything else.

The good news is that there’s a growing recognition inside some of the nation’s largest transportation agencies that relying on LOS causes a lot of problems.

Just last week, the state of California introduced a new metric to replace LOS in its environmental laws. Instead of assessing how a building or road project will affect traffic delay, California will measure how much traffic it generates, period. Car trips, not car delays, will be the thing to avoid. This is likely to have the opposite effect of LOS, leading to more efficient use of land and transportation infrastructure.

Change is afoot at the federal level too. Officials at the Federal Highway Administration are looking at how they can spur changes like California’s LOS reform in other places.

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