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Posts from the Traffic Category

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Shutting the Midtown Stables Won’t Do Zilch for Manhattan Traffic

Mayor de Blasio’s newest rationale for his deal to shutter the horse-carriage stables in the West 50s is that it will alleviate traffic congestion in Midtown. At an MLK Day event yesterday in Brooklyn, the mayor told reporters:

The value we’re getting here for the people is to address the congestion issue, again when the horses are coming from the West Side to Central Park, to address the congestion issue along all the routes that the horse carriages ply, to address the safety issue, because there have been a number of crashes. I think it’s a good long-term investment to get the horses off the streets.

Subtracting a few horses won’t help. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr

Yet carriage traffic on the streets between the stables and Central Park now makes up such a tiny share of overall vehicle travel that eliminating it would barely register on the traffic meter. There are a mere 68 carriages, and each travels around five miles a day (that figure assumes that each carriage makes one to two 3.2-mile round trips daily between its stable and the park). Total daily carriage-miles traveled, or CMT, is around 340 miles.

By comparison, cars, taxis, trucks and buses rack up 3.3 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) each weekday in the Manhattan Central Business District. Against that figure, the 340 miles of CMT are just one part in 10,000.

That ratio would shrink by three if we limit the comparison to Midtown, which occupies the northernmost one-third of the CBD. We could also charge each horse carriage with several times the traffic impact of a taxicab or car, due to larger size and lesser maneuverability. But even accounting for those factors, shutting down horse-carriage traffic still leaves in place the equivalent of at least 999 of every 1,000 vehicles on Midtown streets.

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Inside the City Hall Uber Traffic Study: Where’s the Beef?

Deliberately or not, the year-to-year VMT differences are impenetrable.

Deliberately or not, the report makes it very hard to discern how the mileage of different traffic sources is changing. Graphic via nyc.gov

What Gertrude Stein said about Oakland is what must be said about City Hall’s new traffic study: There’s no there there.

A research effort that was going to explain how congestion in Manhattan has increased even as vehicle trips to the core have dropped has shrunk to a 12-page report bereft of conclusions supported by evidence.

It may be true, as the report claims, that increases in Uber traffic in the Central Business District (CBD) have been largely offset by decreases in trips by traditional yellow cabs, leading to little or no net traffic impact. But as best as I can tell, that assertion is based on hypothetical 2010 and 2020 traffic estimates plucked from a NYC travel model and interpolated to 2014 and 2015.

Not only is this kind of interpolation volatile and unreliable, it should have been unnecessary since yellows are fully (and competently) tracked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission while Uber was opening its books to the city’s consultant.

The question of Uber “substitution” or “additionality” vis-à-vis yellow cabs was the presumed fulcrum of the $2 million study. Ignoring the wealth of data tailor-made to answer that question, and relying on constructed numbers instead, as the study appears to have done, is dumbfounding.

The City Hall report is almost as opaque in its asserted findings of factors that have contributed to increased congestion. Here’s a rundown:

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Streetsblog USA
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Congress Expected to Level Tax Benefit for Transit and Car Commuters

A federal policy that has encouraged Americans to drive to work instead of taking the bus or the train won’t tilt the playing field toward car commuters so much.

Those who take the bus or train to work will soon enjoy the same tax benefits as those who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

People who take the bus or train to work should soon be eligible for the same tax benefits as people who drive. Photo: Wikipedia

A bill that extends provisions of the tax code will permanently set the maximum transit commuter tax benefit at the same level car commuters get for parking expenses. Both classes of commuters can now pay for those costs with up to $255 in pre-tax income per month. The tax deal is expected to clear Congress this week, reports Forbes.

Currently, the monthly pre-tax expense for transit riders is capped at $130, while the cap for parking is set at $250. The mismatch primarily works against commuter rail and express bus services, which can easily cost more than $130 per month.

In recent years, lawmakers went back and forth between temporarily leveling the playing field and stiffing transit riders.

Jason Pavluchuk of the Association for Commuter Transportation applauded the measure, which would take effect in 2016. “This provision will eliminate the financial incentive to drive alone and will increase transit,” he said. “Further, this will help both transit riders as well as drivers who will benefit from less congested roads.”

While commuter tax benefit parity is an improvement, eliminating the benefit entirely would be better.

A report released last year by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group pointed out that commuter tax benefits amount to a gigantic transfer from low earners to high earners, who are best positioned to take advantage of them. Also, the maximum benefit may now be level for individual commuters, but in the aggregate the vast majority of these tax incentives will continue to go toward driving, an enormous subsidy that makes rush hour traffic congestion worse.

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Tell Cornell — and Electeds — How You Want to Fix NYC Congestion

Want to tell elected officials what you think should be done about New York City traffic? Here’s a way to pool your policy suggestions with other New Yorkers and reach elected officials beyond your district.

smartparticipation

Image via SmartParticipation

The Cornell eRulemaking Initiative, or CeRI, hosts a moderated forum called “SmartParticipation,” developed to make it easier for people to weigh in on obscure federal rules. Now researchers want to see if the platform can help shape broader public policy initiatives, and the first issue they decided to tackle is “how to solve NY’s congestion problem.”

The hook is a little off-putting — the experts have had their say, now let’s hear from real New Yorkers! — but the discussion so far is largely on-point. The moderators respond to individual commenters with facts and data, and the site features a good bit of background info, including a Move NY video explainer.

Cornell’s Joshua Brooks told WNBC the comments will be collected in a report and sent “to every lawmaker in New York.” With the window of opportunity still open for Move NY as Governor Cuomo searches for ways to make good on his MTA funding pledge, it wouldn’t hurt for Streetsblog readers to get in a word or two.

You can comment on the site through December 1.

Streetsblog USA
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Planning for Less Driving, Not More, Would Lead to Big Savings

masspirg-chart

Chart: MassPIRG

What if, instead of basing policy around the presumption that people will drive more every year, transportation agencies started making decisions to reduce the volume of driving? And what if they succeed?

A new report from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group quantifies what would happen in that state if driving rates come in one percentage point lower than the state DOT’s current annual projections. For instance, in a year that the DOT forecasts 0.49 percent growth in driving, MassPIRG hypothesizes a 0.51 percent decrease. MassPIRG estimates that the statewide effect from now until 2030 would add up to about $20 billion in savings and 23 million metric tons of carbon emissions avoided.

The effects grow as the decline compounds over time. In the first year, a one percentage point change in driving rates would save about $167 million in avoided costs of gas, road repairs, and traffic collisions. By 2030, the savings would rise to $2.3 billion per year.

Broken down by category, the state would save about $1.9 billion on road repairs over the 15-year period. Drivers would net $3.8 billion in savings on car repairs and another $7.7 billion on gas purchases. And auto collisions would cost $6.7 billion less to society, as people avoid medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages.

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Streetsblog USA
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Why Creating Meaningful Transportation Change Is So Hard

Cross-posted from City Observatory.

At his blog, The Transport Politic, Yonah Freemark pushed back this week on the idea that we’re seeing a revolution in the way people get around cities and suburbs, largely thanks to new transit-and-bike-friendly Millennials.

In fact, he cites one of City Observatory’s posts as an example of a narrative he doesn’t think is quite right: that despite an uptick in driving as a result of dramatically cheaper gas prices, economic and preference-based fundamentals suggest that we are still in the midst of a historic decline in driving after generations of consistently rising car dependence.

Freemark, who also works at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, is an excellent commentator on transportation and urban development, and we are all very much on the same page in believing in diverse, inclusive cities whose transportation systems contribute to walkable, integrated, sustainable neighborhoods.

Moreover, the central point of his post is not just correct, but hugely important for all transit advocates and urbanists to understand. As we’ve written, changing preferences are not enough to change transportation behavior, because a person’s behavior heavily depends on their options. Those options, in turn, depend on available transit services and land use patterns.

If the only available public transit is a very slow bus that comes once every 30 minutes—or the only bike route is along a high-speed stroad without a bike lane — it’s likely that even the most car-hating Millennial will get behind the wheel to get to work. Land use is similarly important: if your job isn’t anywhere near a transit station, it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be able to avoid driving, even if you’d really like to. In effect, land use patterns lock in place the mode choice preferences of previous generations and changes in behavior can happen only slowly. We can’t have a transportation revolution without major improvements to transit services and road design, and major reforms to our land use laws.

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Streetsblog USA
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The End of Peak Driving?

Cross-posted from City Observatory

A little over a year ago, a gallon of regular gasoline cost $3.70. Since then, that price has plummeted, and remains more than a dollar cheaper than it was through most of 2014.

Over the same period, there’s been a small but noticeable uptick in driving in the US. After nearly a decade of steady declines in vehicle miles traveled per person, car use has suddenly pushed upwards. Average miles traveled per person, which were 25.7 a year ago, have jumped up to 26.4 in July—the first sustained increase in driving in more than a decade.

Some in the highway community have heralded the growth in driving in recent months as a sign that we need to invest much more in road construction.

The increase isn’t very big, however. In historic terms, Americans are now driving at about the same rate as they were in 2000. It would take nearly a decade of growth at the current rate of expansion just to get back to the level of driving of 2004. But there’s little reason to believe anything like that is in the cards.

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Pope Francis and the Flexibility of Our Streets

pope_in_cppopeless

Add Pope Francis’s tour of New York to the long list of carmageddon scares that successfully frightened off would-be motorists. I grabbed these two shots of traffic from Google Maps, and despite all the alarming car detour icons, you can see that traffic was lighter during peak Francis than it normally is on a New York City weekday.

While the pope’s motorcade was wending through a crowd of 80,000 people in Central Park Friday afternoon, typical pre-weekend traffic bottlenecks were eerily quiet. The approach to the Holland Tunnel, usually a non-stop symphonic blast of car horns at that time of day, looked like this:

Meanwhile, if you were on the Upper West Side that afternoon, you could walk anywhere in the road on your way to see the pontiff, or learn to ride a bike on 72nd Street. There was a de facto bikeway down the middle of 57th Street for much of the pope’s visit, space cleared away for emergency access that people on two wheels gravitated to immediately, happy not to mix it up with 30-foot long flat-bed trailers.

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Streetsblog USA
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Without Transit, American Cities Would Take Up 37 Percent More Space

Even if you never set foot on a bus or a train, chances are transit is saving you time and money. The most obvious reason is that transit keeps cars off the road, but the full explanation is both less intuitive and more profound: Transit shrinks distances between destinations, putting everything within closer reach.

A new study published by the Transportation Research Board quantifies the spatial impact of transit in new ways [PDF]. Without transit, the researchers found, American cities would take up 37 percent more space.

Transit-oriented development in Portland's Pearl District. Photo: Smartgrowth.org

Transit-oriented development in Portland’s Pearl District. Photo: Smartgrowth.org

The research team from New York, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City modeled not just how many driving miles are directly averted by people riding transit, but how the availability of transit affects the way we build cities.

By allowing urban areas to be built more compactly, the “land use effect” of transit reduces driving much more than the substitution of car trips with transit trips. Total miles driven in American cities would be 8 percent higher without the land use effect of transit, the researchers concluded, compared to 2 percent higher if you forced everyone who rides transit to drive.

On average, the study found, the land use effect of transit is four times greater than the “ridership effect,” or the substitution of car trips with transit trips. But the land use effect of transit varies a great deal across urban areas. In places like Greenville, South Carolina, it’s responsible for reducing driving 3 percent, the researchers estimate, while in San Francisco and New York City, it’s 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

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Why Is There So Much Traffic in NYC? It’s the Free Roads, Stupid

Since the de Blasio administration attempted to cap for-hire cars this summer, the debate over Manhattan traffic has gotten louder, but not more productive. Uber claimed it definitely wasn’t the problem. Some council members wondered if bike lanes were slowing down cars. Amid all the noise, something important got lost.

When roads are free, traffic is clogged. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr

When New York streets are free, New York streets are clogged. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr

At a hearing about Manhattan traffic this morning convened by Borough President Gale Brewer, a simple consensus emerged: The fundamental issue is the limited amount of street space in the Manhattan core and the practically unlimited demand to use it. Unless New York puts a price on roads, traffic congestion is going to remain intense.

“We can’t unsnarl our streets unless vehicles that take up the space on the street are charged a price. Otherwise, the space that we clear out today — by capping tour buses or Uber cars or 18-wheelers — will be filled tomorrow by other vehicle owners,” said transportation economist Charles Komanoff. “And the price needs to apply to all vehicles… based on the space that they take up. Because space is a finite resource.”

“The least efficient mode of transportation is the single-occupant car,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, who in addition to his Move New York toll reform proposal, backed the elimination of parking placards for most government employees. “There is no reason to be parking for free on the most valuable land possibly on Earth.”

Others proposed more aggressive ideas, like banning personal cars completely. “Private vehicles coming into Manhattan is insanity,” said Steve McLoughlin, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 15, a union for black car drivers. “I don’t think that Manhattan can handle much more than the professional drivers, than the trucks that are necessary to supply our businesses, and the first responders.”

McLoughlin, who commutes from Monmouth County each day, backed Move New York toll reform as a step in the right direction for reducing congestion.

Uber also backed Move New York, which would include surcharges for taxi and for-hire vehicles below W. 110th and E. 96th streets. (The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents medallion owners, backs the plan too.)

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