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Posts from the "Traffic" Category

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After the Addition of Bike Lanes and Plazas, Manhattan Traffic Moves Faster

Car traffic into Manhattan has basically stayed flat since the recession, while transit ridership has started to rebound. Image: DOT

After several blocks in the heart of Times Square were pedestrianized and protected bike lanes were added to five avenues in the middle of Manhattan, motor vehicle traffic is actually moving more smoothly than before, according to the latest release of NYC DOT’s annual Sustainable Streets Index [PDF].

The report, which gathers data from the MTA, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and DOT’s own counts, also shows that the volume of traffic entering Manhattan has basically stayed flat since 2009. At the same time, transit ridership has started to rebound from the recession and service cuts.

Even with population and employment levels increasing after the recession, car traffic into the Manhattan CBD declined 1.7 percent in 2011. Since 2003, traffic volumes are down 6.5 percent, while transit trips to the area have increased 11.3 percent.

The drop in Manhattan-bound traffic has come primarily from the Hudson River tunnels, which have seen a 3 percent drop since 2008, while volumes on the free East River bridges remained flat and traffic over the free Harlem River bridges inched up 1 percent. (It’s no surprise why: Port Authority tolls encourage people to take transit or carpool, while the city’s free bridges offer no such incentive.)

In Manhattan below 60th Street, predictions that reallocating space to walking, biking, and transit would only worsen traffic have not come to pass. In fact, average traffic speeds have picked up. GPS data from yellow cabs below 60th Street show that average speeds are up 6.7 percent since 2008. The average speed of a taxi trip, which was 8.9 mph in 2011, inched up to 9.3 mph last year. (Note that these average speeds don’t mean, as Matt Flegenheimer put it in the Times this morning, that “drivers in much of Manhattan can rarely flout the law, even if they try.” In addition to aggressive and dangerous behavior like failing to yield to pedestrians, speeding in Manhattan is still very common even if average speeds are well below the limit.)

Manhattan’s business districts aren’t the only places where transit is on the rise as driving volumes fall. According to metrics incorporating car crossings between boroughs other than Manhattan, citywide traffic volumes declined 1.8 percent in 2011 from the previous year, while transit ridership increased 0.4 percent, despite service cuts and fare hikes implemented the year before. The most recent numbers are in line with a long-term trend: Since 2003, NYC transit ridership is up 9.5 percent, while driving counts have fallen 3.9 percent.

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More Evidence That Unemployment Doesn’t Explain the Decline in Driving

Only one state shows up on the Top Ten lists for both VMT reduction and unemployment increase: Florida. But Nevada, whose jobless rate has tripled, actually increased driving. Source: U.S. PIRG

For those who say driving rates will pick right back up again when the economy’s really humming, here’s something to chew on: In a report released this morning, “Moving Off the Road,” U.S. PIRG presents further evidence that unemployment rates and driving rates have changed independently of each other.

Transportation reformers have made the case that there are multiple reasons behind the dip in driving rates, and that many of these factors will continue to have an impact long after this economic slump is over. If the change is in fact a lasting one, it signals that conventional forecasts of escalating traffic are wrong, strengthening the case for overhauling car-centric transportation policies in favor of transit, biking, walking, and more efficient land use.

Today’s report from U.S. PIRG builds on their previous, groundbreaking research showing that young people are leading the reduction in driving rates and that the Driving Boom has decisively ended. These findings have become common knowledge, frequently referenced by top federal officials, members of Congress, and even international credit rating agencies.

The Drop in VMT Isn’t About Unemployment

The PIRG report compares changes in driving and joblessness in all 50 states from 2005 to 2011. The authors call it “a useful natural experiment to examine different factors behind America’s reduction in driving,” and it provides ample evidence that unemployment doesn’t explain the drop in VMT. If the Americans were driving less because jobs are scarcer, for instance, it would stand to reason that the states hardest hit by unemployment would be those with the biggest drops in VMT. But that’s simply not true.

For example, the top state for unemployment growth was Nevada, whose jobless rate tripled between 2005 and 2011. And Nevada is one of just four states that’s actually driving more now than during the peak years of 2004-2005. (Two of those four states are in the Gulf South — Alabama and Louisiana — where the devastating Hurricane Katrina obviously affected travel during the driving peak year of 2005.)

And the number one state for VMT drop? Alaska, which has reduced its mileage by a whopping 16.23 percent since 2005. So Alaska must be suffering with staggering unemployment, right? Not so. Every state in the union experienced some growth in unemployment, but in Alaska it was just a 10 percent increase — from 6.9 to 7.6 percent.

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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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How Better Traffic Models Can Lead to More Mixed-Use Development

Here’s another obscure but significant obstacle to building walkable places in America: the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ shoddy traffic generation models for mixed-use development.

The model used by traffic engineers around the country to measure “trip generation” at new developments consistently overestimates the amount of motor vehicle traffic produced by mixed-use projects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This often increases the cost of building mixed-use projects, because the developers are asked to take steps to compensate for the added traffic. To address this problem, the EPA worked with transportation researchers around the United States to develop a better traffic prediction model.

Current traffic modeling overestimates the traffic caused by mixed-use development by about 35 percent, on average. Image: Kyle Gradinger on Twitter

Reid Ewing, a transportation engineering professor at the University of Utah, helped develop the new model to forecast the traffic generation of walkable development. I caught up with him at the Congress for New Urbanism conference last week in Salt Lake City.

Angie Schmitt: Can you explain the new method?

Reid Ewing: There’s a current methodology, which is the Institute of Transportation Engineers’, and it overestimates the number of external vehicle trips generated by a development if the development has mixed uses. If it’s got residential, retail, and office, those uses interact and a lot of trips stay within the development. And if it’s a development downtown, a lot of those trips that leave the development are walk and transit trips. ITE doesn’t account for that, it doesn’t account for the full number of trips that will stay within a development or the use of alternative modes for those that leave the development. So we developed a methodology.

AS: How many trips are reduced by mixed-use development?

RE: It varies from almost zero to over 50 percent. In a master planned community, it’s huge — a lot of the trips are going to stay within the community. If you have a stand-alone, freeway-oriented community that happens to have mixed-used, a much smaller percentage will stay within the community. But on average, about 35 percent. So the ITE method seems to overestimate by, on average, about 35 percent.

AS: So, how does the ITE method cause problems?

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Seven Ways Technology Is Rendering the Automobile Obsolete

As we try to understand why young people are so much less jazzed about driving than previous generations, one possible explanation always comes up: Kids today just love their smart phones.

That is part of it. But the full picture is far more nuanced.

The internet, and the ability to carry it wherever you go, has changed society in so many profound ways it’s no surprise that transportation is among them. A new study by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “A New Direction,” illustrates the myriad ways mobile technology has transformed young people’s relationship with transportation.

Yesterday, we covered the report’s critique of government travel forecasting and its analysis of why young people’s driving rates will probably remain lower than those of previous generations. Technology is one of the biggest reasons. Here’s why:

Go ahead, check your stocks online – but not if you’re behind the wheel, please. Photo: PC Mag

Constant connectivity. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed at the dinner table or on city sidewalks, people have trouble putting down their phones. It’s not just compulsive Facebook status checking that keeps people glued to their devices. People perform an increasingly broad assortment of tasks on phones: make travel reservations, go through work email, catch up on the news, diagnose children’s ailments — the list is nearly infinite. While car companies are trying heartily to incorporate digital connectivity and social media into their cars, they still need to battle the fact that such technology is dangerously distracting for drivers. Given the option, many young people would rather take transit, where they can use their phones harmlessly, making far better use of their commuting time.

Alternative social spaces. Older adults may think it’s weird when teens would rather text each other than see each other, but hey, the world is a weird place. “A survey by computer networking equipment maker Cisco in 2012 found that two-thirds of college students and young professionals spend at least as much time with friends online as they do in person,” write report authors Phineas Baxandall and Tony Dutzik.

Online shopping. More and more people are making purchases online rather than in stores. Young people are leading the way on that, too. And it can be greener than going to the store yourself.

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Millennials Will Drive More as They Age, But Still Less Than Their Parents

At some point over the past few years, a lot of my friends started moving to Silver Spring and Takoma Park and Falls Church. These inner-ring, transit-connected suburbs of DC are still far less compact and walkable than the neighborhoods my friends moved from. So they bought cars.

Many young people still opt for urban living in walkable, compact neighborhoods -- even once they have kids. Photo: Let's Save Michigan

Why did they do this? They’re entering peak driving age, which is historically between 35 and 54. They have more money than they did in their early 20s. But mostly, they had kids. Of all my friends, I now have exactly one that is still proudly car-free with kids.

In light of the new U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group report on changing driving habits, led by young people, the question arises: Won’t those young people also drive more as they get older?

Reports of diminished interest in driving focus on two groups: baby boomers, the generation that came of age with the automobile and settled in car-dependent suburbs, who are now retiring and driving less; and millennials, the oldest of whom are in their early thirties now and the youngest of whom aren’t even old enough to drive.

Millennials’ shift away from automobile travel is well documented, especially in last year’s report, “Transportation and the New Generation,” by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. That report found that between 2001 and 2009, annual driving by the 16-to-34 age cohort decreased 23 percent, from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita. The same age group also made 24 percent more trips by bike and 40 percent more trips by public transit.

With more people having children later in life, the vast majority of millennials are still childless. They also haven’t hit their prime earning years, which tend to be prime driving years.

That’s true, said U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall, co-author of the new report on driving trends, but the expected increase in driving by millennials had already been factored into the reports forecasts — all of which entail far less driving than government models predict. “Our scenarios all assume that millenials will drive more when they get older,” Baxandall told Streetsblog. “The real question isn’t, ‘Will millennials drive more as they get older?’ It’s, ‘Will they drive more than their parents as they get older?’”

There are persuasive reasons to think they won’t.
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U.S. PIRG: The Driving Boom Is Over But the Road-Building Binge Continues

All government forecasts predict far more driving than even the most conservative scenario envisioned by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group. Image: A New Direction

The driving boom is over.

After decades of steady growth, U.S. driving rates have stagnated and even fallen. Per capita driving is as low as it was in 1996. And yet, federal and state government estimates continue to predict inexorable growth, relentlessly building expensive new highways for drivers who might not materialize.

A groundbreaking new study from U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group shows that any of three likely scenarios for future U.S. driving trends show far lower vehicle miles traveled than any of the principal current government estimates. That creates a disconnect between the kinds of transportation Americans are choosing with their feet and the kinds of transportation the system is designing for them.

Transit ridership is rising steadily – Americans took 10 percent more transit trips in 2011 than in 2005 – yet more than half of U.S. transit systems have been forced by budget constraints to either raise fares or cut service – or both – since the beginning of 2010. Meanwhile, although Americans are showing a flagging interest in automobile travel, states are breaking the bank to build shiny new roads.

Here are the three possible future scenarios for driving behavior that authors Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG and Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group laid out:

Back to the Future: This scenario assumes that the decline in driving is a temporary “blip,” largely due to the economic recession, and not a lasting trend. It assumes driving rates will soon pick right up where they left off. In this scenario, driving rates by age cohort and sex return to 2004 levels by 2020 and continue marching upward.

Enduring Shift: Under this scenario, the last decade’s shift in driving behaviors is real and lasting, with people continuing to embrace different forms of transportation and more compact communities. Gas prices stay high, the economy bounces back without leading to a huge jump in VMT, and the digitally-connected world continues to reduce the need for travel. This assumes each age and sex cohort keeps driving at lower rates than the same cohort did in previous generations. “For example, if 20 year-old males in 2009 drove 20 percent less than 20 year-old males did in 2001, it is assumed that eleven years later in 2020 they will similarly drive 20 percent less than 31-year-old males did in 2001,” Baxandall and Dutzik write.

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How Green Is Grocery Delivery in Cities?

Grocery delivery can cut carbon emissions compared to driving your car to the store and back. But delivery services also replace walking, biking, and transit trips. Image: Transportation Research Forum

In a recent study out of Seattle, researchers Erica Wygonik and Anne Goodchild found that having groceries delivered by truck can cut mileage by up to 85 or 95 percent compared to driving a car. ”It’s like a bus for groceries,” Goodchild told NPR. ”Overwhelmingly, it’s more efficient to be sharing a vehicle, even if it’s a little larger.”

The most efficiency can be squeezed out of grocery delivery when dispatchers can design short routes that serve many people. When customers can choose their delivery times, however, the routes become significantly less efficient.

But in urban areas, where houses are close enough together that delivery might be relatively efficient, not everyone drives to the store. And people without access to a car might be the most likely to use a delivery service. In these locations, perhaps delivery services are replacing walking, biking, and transit trips more than driving trips.

It looks like more research is needed to evaluate the full impact of grocery delivery services on travel choices and carbon emissions. “We don’t have great data about how people get to the store,” Goodchild said in an email exchange. “We also don’t know to what extent these shoppers (bike/ped) might choose to shop online, versus those who drive to the store.”

She said she and her co-author have talked about conducting simulations where they consider biking “but would need to estimate calorie burn.” Yes, calorie burn — but hopefully not “increased respiration.”

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Counting Bikes and Cars Without a Clipboard

Making your own traffic counts could be this easy. Photo: Kickstarter

Liberate yourself from government transportation data that doesn’t tell you what you need to know!

Break the chains of ignorance about how streets in your town are being used!

Declare your independence from five-year-old data sets in PDF spreadsheets!

Advocates have for too long been at the mercy of the limited data on travel patterns they get from places like the American Community Survey and the National Household Travel Survey. And don’t even get me started on the Federal Highway Administration, which is about as transparent as a cataract. The information federal agencies provide is often out-of-date by the time it’s released, and simply doesn’t ask the right questions to find out how much people really use non-motorized modes of transportation.

TrafficCOM can't differentiate between a bike and a car in a mixed lane, but it can provide counts from the bicycle lane and the car lane. Photo: Kickstarter

“Traditionally the people that have had the data are the people in power,” Nick Grossman of the MIT Center for Civic Media said. “And we’re seeing, across society, the democratization of access to data.”

When it comes to transportation, the democratization Grossman is talking about could come in the form of a small cylinder attached to a long cable that you can lay across a street or bike lane to quickly and easily conduct your own traffic count. You can even track vehicle speeds. Then you plug it into your computer and it creates a database and even maps the data for you. It’s called TrafficCOM, and its creators are trying to kick-start $50,000 right now to produce them.

Mary Lauran Hall of the Alliance for Biking and Walking was impressed when TrafficCOM developer Aurash Khawarzad gave a demonstration at the Alliance office:

The visit got me thinking about how helpful a low-cost traffic measuring device could be for biking and walking advocacy organizations. A simple $200 portable device for measuring traffic and speed could make it much easier for advocates and community leaders to make data-based arguments about street safety. Imagine being able to easily measure average car speed on a particularly problematic street, or being able to quantify just how popular a new bike lane is.

Anyone who pledges $200 or more on Kickstarter will receive one of the devices. For that price you get up-to-the-minute, easy-to-obtain information about how people are using your local streets. It’s a whole lot cheaper than this fancy bike counter Copenhagen installed a couple years ago, and a whole lot simpler than standing out there with a clipboard and a clicker.

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Mott Haven Residents Rally for Safe Streets and Truck Enforcement

South Bronx Unite and Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito rallied against deadly truck traffic in Mott Haven on Saturday. Photo: Stephen Miller

Early Saturday afternoon, about 25 people gathered at the corner of St. Annes Avenue and East 138th Street in the South Bronx, protesting heavy truck traffic and deadly driving in the Mott Haven neighborhood.

A series of pedestrian deaths in recent months and the lack of truck route enforcement from the 40th Precinct — as well as a city-subsidized Fresh Direct distribution center planned for the neighborhood — have many residents concerned about the safety of crossing the street.

On December 13, Ignacio Cubano, 69, was killed in crosswalk at 138th Street and St. Annes Avenue by a semi truck driver. On January 7, an elderly woman was critically injured crossing at the same location. Six days later, a taxi driver ran over a man at 138th Street and Brown Place. Most recently, on April 1, a hit-and-run SUV driver killed two pedestrians on Bruckner Boulevard at 138th Street. On Saturday afternoon, an elderly driver injured four people on the sidewalk near The Hub, a busy commercial area at the north edge of the neighborhood.

At the rally, convened by the environmental justice group South Bronx Unite, participants handed out fliers to people walking along the bustling commercial street. ”We walk these grounds with our feet — we hope that we can get safe streets!” the group chanted.

East 138th Street is designated as a local truck route, which means truck drivers should be heading to or from a destination in the neighborhood. But residents say many truck drivers use the street as a through route to Manhattan to avoid traffic on the Major Deegan and the Bruckner Expressway.

In 2012, officers from the 40th Precinct did not write a single ticket for truck route violations, while issuing 2,272 tickets for tinted windows over the same period [PDF]. Responding to a January letter from resident Monxo Lopez, the precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack, said that citations are often issued for tinted windows because officers need to see inside a vehicle during car stops.

At a precinct community council meeting in January, after the two crashes at 138th Street and St. Annes Avenue, McCormack told residents that “most of the victims are elderly, and they are making mistakes,” according to the Mott Haven Herald. In an interview last week with DNAinfo, McCormack noted that some of the victims were not using crosswalks.

“He has a 1950s mentality,” Lopez said on Saturday. “He’s blaming the pedestrians for their own deaths.”

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