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Posts from the Transportation Policy Category

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Confounded by Spike in U.S. Traffic Deaths and Injuries? Look Around

Why are so many people killed in traffic? Hmm, what could it be... Photo: Transportation for America/Flickr

Why are so many people killed in traffic? Hmm, what could it be… Photo: Transportation for America/Flickr

Traffic fatalities in the U.S. increased by 14 percent through June of this year compared to the first six months of 2014, and serious injuries jumped by 30 percent, according to the National Safety Council [PDF]. At the current rate, the group says, nationwide road deaths would top 40,000 for the first time since 2007.

The NSC announced Monday that, by its estimates, nearly 19,000 people died in traffic through June, and more than 2.2 million were seriously injured.

Fatalities rose in 34 states. Several states saw increases of 20 percent or more — fatalities were up 59 percent in Oregon, and between 26 and 29 percent in Georgia, Florida, and Minnesota. Not every state had six months of data, so in all likelihood the numbers are higher than what the NSC was able to report.

Deborah Hersman, president of NSC, told the AP the increases can’t be accounted for by vehicle miles traveled.

The nation’s driving steadily increased for 15 consecutive months through May, the Transportation Department said in July. Americans drove 1.26 trillion miles in the first five months of 2015, passing the previous record, 1.23 trillion, set in May 2007.

However, the cumulative increase in vehicle mileage this year through May is 3.4 percent, far less than the 14 percent increase in deaths, Hersman noted. Also, the estimated annual mileage death rate so far this year is 1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from the preliminary 2014 rate of 1.2 deaths.

The AP cited higher speed limits and driver distraction as potential factors, and said the NSC reported earlier this year that 25 percent of all crashes in the U.S. involve cellphone use.

“For many years people have said, ‘If distraction is such a big issue, why don’t we see an increase in fatal crash numbers?’” said Hersman. “Well, we’re seeing increasing fatal crashes numbers, but I think it’s complicated to tease out what that is due to.”

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Streetsblog USA
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The Key Human Factors That Can Lead Any City to Transform Its Streets

tc_cycle_of_change

Graphic via TransitCenter

How did Portland get to be a national model for sustainable transportation and walkable development? Yes, Mayor Neil Goldschmidt stopped the Mount Hood Freeway from being built in 1974 and began negotiations that eventually led to the implementation of the urban growth boundary. But Goldschmidt didn’t do it alone.

Grassroots activists from a group called Sensible Transportation Options for People (STOP) — which included Goldschmidt’s chief of staff when he was city commissioner — helped him get elected and formed the ideas and policy proposals that the mayor embraced. Goldschmidt, in turn, appointed reformers to key posts in his administration

Look at other cities that are moving beyond the 20th Century legacy of cars-first planning, and odds are you’ll come across a similar story of grassroots activism merging with political power. In a new report, “A People’s History of Recent Urban Transportation Innovation,” TransitCenter’s Shin-pei Tsay tells those stories in six cities.

The Portland story is exceptional in that the state of Oregon worked with the city in the 1970s as a close partner on land use and transportation policy, helping to build the region’s light rail system. But even without state cooperation, cities around the country are showing the way toward a more multi-modal, less car-dependent future. And as in Portland, this progress can be traced to the links between advocates and government.

Take a more recent example: New York’s street transformations under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When people think of changes like the pedestrianization of Times Square and the construction of protected bike lanes, they think of Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan — and for good reason. But these leaders also had the benefit of a deep and increasingly sophisticated advocacy scene, exemplified by Transportation Alternatives, with its roots stretching back to the early 1970s — as well as groups like the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the Regional Plan Association (and new arrivals like, ahem, Streetsblog).

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Streetsblog USA
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WaPo Transpo Forum: America’s Mayors Aren’t Waiting for Washington

Atlanta’s BeltLine of bike and pedestrian trails is raising property values in every place it touches. Denver’s new rail line will create a much-needed link between Union Station downtown and the airport, 23 miles away. Miami is building 500 miles of bike paths and trails. Los Angeles is breaking new ground with everything from rail expansion to traffic light synchronization. And Salt Lake City’s mayor bikes to work and, by increasing investment in bike infrastructure, is encouraging a lot of others to join him.

At this week’s Washington Post forum on transportation, five mayors from this diverse set of cities spoke of the challenges and opportunities they face as they try to improve transportation options without much help or guidance from the federal government.

Speaking of the feds:

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta is tired of Congress not doing its job. “Cities don’t get to kick the can,” he said. And even if the feds aren’t ready to make big investments, private and foreign investors are reportedly itching to get a crack at U.S. infrastructure, but there’s been no good process for doing so. Reed wants the federal government to play a convening role, bringing mayors together with private investors they can pitch projects to.

And either way, he said, if the federal government is providing less funding to cities for transportation, “we think they need to have a little less say” — except when it comes to safety. But Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says there’s an upside to the gridlock in Washington: “Cities are being more creative.” And Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker says the Obama administration has been a great partner — pointing especially to the TIGER program and the HUD/DOT/EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities.

New projects:

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is excited about intelligent transportation technology, like the traffic signal synchronization his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, pioneered. And LA’s Expo line — which he dubbed the Beach-to-Bars line — opens soon, turning a two-hour slog through traffic into a 45-minute pleasure cruise. He says it’ll open up access to the Philharmonic and sports venues that, these days, are often avoided because the trip is too hellish.

But Garcetti is already on to the next thing. To him, that thing is autonomous cars. He thinks LA will be a natural home for those. In fact, he openly acknowledges that his push to build BRT lanes is all in the interest of turning them into autonomous vehicle lanes a few years down the road. That’s right — despite the visionary strategic plan LA just released, Garcetti wants to turn road space over from efficient modes to less efficient ones.

Streetsblog USA
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DOTs Now Have No Excuse for Ignoring Changing Transportation Trends

As report titles go, you could hardly get less sexy than “NHCRP Report 750: Strategic Issues Facing Transportation, Volume 6: The Effects of Socio-Demographics on Future Travel Demand.” But buried within this wonky new document from the Transportation Research Board are ideas that can — and should — upend the way local, state, and federal officials plan for future transportation needs.

Two different scenarios foretell two very different futures for the Atlanta region. Image: NCHRP

Two different scenarios foretell two very different futures for the Atlanta region. Image: NCHRP

It’s no secret that our current transportation models have done a lousy job of accounting for the recent decline in driving in the United States. The most glaring example is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s biennial “Conditions and Performance” report to Congress, which has repeatedly forecast a return to rapid growth in driving that has repeatedly failed to materialize.

Bad forecasts lead to bad decisions – specifically, the investment of vast amounts of public resources in new and expanded highways that we probably don’t need (e.g. in Wisconsin).

At first, the transportation policy establishment chalked up the decline in driving to the economic recession and assumed it was only temporary. That is despite the fact that, as Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institution pointed out as early as 2008, the drop in per-capita driving began well before the recession. And it’s continued during the recovery.

Over time, however, experts have come to recognize the multiple factors – including changes in the composition of the workforce, an aging population, technological changes, and shifts in housing and travel preferences among Millennials — that have contributed to the recent fall in driving and that make further stagnation in vehicle travel likely.

The new TRB report (which we could refer to by the catchy acronym SIFTV6:TESDFTD, but won’t) explicitly acknowledges these fundamental changes, identifying eight socio-demographic trends that will influence demand for vehicle travel through 2050. Of those eight trends, only one (changes in the nation’s racial and ethnic mix) is expected to contribute to an increase in per-capita driving, while at least five (the “graying” of America, technological change, workforce change, the “blurring of city and suburb,” and slow growth in households) will tend to reduce per-capita driving. (The impacts of the other two trends are ambiguous or unspecified.)

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Beyond “Level of Service” — New Methods for Evaluating Streets

Streetsblog reported earlier this month that transportation agencies are increasingly aware of the insidious consequences of using “Level of Service” as the primary metric for their projects. Because Level of Service only rewards the movement of motor vehicles, it promotes dangerous, high-speed streets and sprawling land use.

The question remains: How should streets and development projects be measured?

If this is what you want for your street, Level of Service won't get you there. You need a different performance measure. Photo: Lancaster Online

We mentioned that some places are switching to an analysis called multi-modal Level of Service. But Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard, says there are problems with that approach as well.

Multi-modal Level of Service, he says, takes “all of the narrow thinking around delay for cars and applies that same thinking to all the other modes.” For example, MM-LOS assumes pedestrians and transit riders have the same need as vehicles: “lack of congestion,” or space between others who travel the same way.

But what works for cars isn’t necessarily what works for other modes. For example, MM-LOS views “transit crowding” as a wholly negative thing. On this measure, an infill development might be penalized for leading to “crowding,” but a sprawling greenfield development would face no penalty, since it would produce fewer transit riders.

According to Tumlin, searching for a direct replacement for Level of Service is the wrong way to go, because part of the problem with Level of Service is the narrowness of its scope.

“LOS tells us about one thing [vehicle delay at intersections], but it doesn’t tell us about anything else,” says Tumlin. “What are all of the things we want our transportation system to do, and how do we measure whether it’s doing that or not?”

Tumlin’s advice to transportation professionals and public officials is to adopt performance measures based on expressed community values as well as the specifics of the project at hand.

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The Beginning of the End for Level of Service?

There are three little words that will make any livable streets advocate groan: Level of Service.

"Level of Service" is the metric that, perhaps more than any other, fuels the decimation of walkable streets. Image: Andy Singer

Level of Service, simply put, is a measure of vehicle congestion at intersections. Projects are graded from “A” to “F” based on how much delay drivers experience.

That’s all it measures: the free motion of motor vehicles. And that’s the problem. The safety of people on foot and on bikes doesn’t enter into the equation at all, and transit vehicles carrying dozens of people are subjugated to the movement of private cars. In fact, a high “level of service” generally makes for a much more stressful and dangerous street, since speeding traffic, and the wide lanes that facilitate it, is a leading cause of traffic injuries and deaths.

Last month, livable streets advocates in California finally made progress in a long battle to reform the state’s environmental laws, which perversely rewarded projects that cater to cars and maintain a certain Level of Service. When, for instance, San Francisco went to add a bike lane or a bus lane, the city first had to show — as part of environmental law — that drivers would not be inconvenienced. Then on September 27, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law saying that Level of Service requirements would no longer factor into the state’s environmental review process — at least in “transit priority areas,” which will incorporate sections of all the state’s urbanized areas.

The Natural Resources Defense Council celebrated the bill’s passage, writing that it will “have the potential to shape California’s future in a big way.”

California isn’t the only place rethinking its reliance on Level of Service to grade transportation and development projects. Portland, Oregon, issued an RFP last summer asking for help developing new performance measures to replace Level of Service. The RFP read: “The existing LOS standards and measures, which focus only on motor vehicle levels of service, do not reflect the City of Portland’s current practice which emphasizes and promotes a multi-modal approach to transportation planning and providing transportation services.”

Meanwhile, other cities that want to build better streets for walking, biking, and transit are finding ways around Level of Service without changing laws.

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Motor Mouths: Send Us Clueless Transportation Quotes From Public Officials

Before he gained worldwide notoriety as the mayor allegedly caught on tape smoking crack, Toronto’s Rob Ford was perhaps best known as the mayor who said, “Bicyclists are a pain in the ass!

Perhaps no public official will ever top that combination of brevity and mindless hostility toward non-automotive transportation. But there’s a lot of competition out there.

Recently, we asked our Twitter followers to share quotes from state and local transportation officials that reveal an underlying contempt for walking, biking, and transit. Below are three examples that readers sent to us. Each comes from an official agency spokesperson, so you can only imagine what gets said behind closed doors. If you’d like to add to this initial collection of Motor Mouths — and we hope you do — send your example of car-centricity to angie@streetsblog.org or tell us about it in the comments.

Without further ado, our first round of Motor Mouths.

St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic

The Offender: David Wrone, spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Highways and Traffic, as quoted by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and a local CBS affiliate.

The Evidence:

Exhibit A: “As a matter of policy, we don’t build dedicated bike lanes. St. Louis County salutes the bike-riding community, but we manage our system in the knowledge that motor vehicles comprise the vast majority of our customer base.”

Exhibit B: “We’re a highway department, not a bicycle department.”

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A Golden Opportunity for Congress to Avoid the Transportation “Fiscal Cliff”

The Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to slip into negative territory in 2015. Estimates are based on CBO's February 2013 baseline projections. Image: CBO

MAP-21 expires in a year and five months. When it does, if lawmakers haven’t already found a solution to the “transportation fiscal cliff,” they’ll have to do one of three things, according to a report issued last week by the Congressional Budget Office [PDF]:

  • Transfer $14 billion more in general funds
  • Raise the gas tax by 10 cents a gallon
  • Cut the authority to obligate funds in 2015 from about $51 billion projected under current law to about $4 billion

“If lawmakers chose to wait until fiscal year 2015,” wrote CBO analyst Sarah Puro, “at the expiration of MAP-21, to reduce spending, those cuts in 2015 would need to total about 92 percent for the highway account and 100 percent for the transit account.”

It couldn’t be clearer. Congress has to stop dithering and start working on a revenue solution, stat. Oh, and the president and his new secretary of transportation have to get behind it, guns blazing.

Congress has three potential vehicles for a revenue solution: 1) a “grand bargain” on the deficit, the sequester and the fiscal cliff, 2) tax reform, and 3) the next surface transportation bill.

And what will that “revenue solution” be? The simplest, most easily implemented fix is a gas tax hike, but over the long term, taxing fossil fuels as a way to pay for transportation infrastructure just won’t cut it.

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A Better Way to Grade City Transportation Systems

How should we grade America’s transportation systems?

Measures of accessibility -- like the number of jobs in metro Minneapolis within a 20-minute morning drive -- can assess transportation systems without leading to the conclusion that highways and sprawl are the answer. Image: University of Minnesota

The big, headline-grabbing transportation metric right now is the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report, which holds up the lack of congestion as the ultimate sign of a well-functioning transportation system. By that measure, cities like Kansas City, Phoenix, and Detroit — where car commutes can be free-flowing but tend to cover long distances — come out looking great, while large metros that do a better job of providing non-automotive transportation options — like Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York — look like failures.

But TTI’s narrow focus on congestion has come under increasingly intense scrutiny in recent years, with critics pointing out that it is used to justify road-widening projects that purport to reduce congestion but mainly serve to encourage sprawl and lengthen commutes.

A study recently released by the University of Minnesota presents an interesting alternative to the TTI’s metrics. UMN Transportation Engineering Professor David Levinson recently analyzed metropolitan commuting according to a very different criterion: accessibility, or “the ease of reaching desired destinations.”

Levinson attempted to improve on the TTI report by tracking the time it takes for people in the 51 largest U.S. metro areas to reach jobs. His findings stand in stark contrast to the TTI’s report. Large metros like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Chicago offered the greatest number of jobs within a 10-minute car commute, Levinson found.

While TTI’s methodology penalizes cities for locating homes and businesses close together, because that increases congestion, in Levinson’s analysis, higher concentrations of destinations are rewarded for helping to reduce travel times.

“There are two ways for cities to improve accessibility—by making transportation faster and more direct or increasing the density of activities, such as locating jobs closer together and closer to workers,” Levinson writes.

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Streetfacts: Americans Are Driving Less

We continue our Streetfacts series by looking at the data on driving in the U.S. Per-capita driving has declined every year since 2005. That’s not a blip, it’s now an 8-year trend.

The reason? Neither the state of the economy nor changes in gas prices offer a satisfactory explanation. Social preferences and demographic shifts seem to be playing a role. Young people today are less likely to own a car or have a driver’s license than young people several years ago. At the same time, America’s growing population of seniors are no longer in their peak driving years.

Whatever the combination of factors, people are riding transit, walking, and bicycling more. Even Motor Trend is examining the shift away from cars.

The upshot is that we need to start making smart transportation investments that align with the new reality: Americans are driving less.