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Will the MTA Waste Its Opportunity to Save NYC Bus Riders a Ton of Time?

B44 SBS upgrades existing limited-stop service with bus lanes and other improvements. Photo: Stephen Miller

Only a few bus routes in NYC, like the B44 Select Bus Service, allow riders to enter at any door. The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system could expand all-door boarding to every route in the city. Photo: Stephen Miller

The MTA’s next-generation fare payment system can greatly speed up buses all over the city by allowing passengers to board much faster, but so far the agency hasn’t required bidders for the fare system contract to include such technology. With proposals due July 13, a coalition led by the Riders Alliance is calling on the MTA to make the most of this opportunity to improve travel times on NYC’s notoriously slow buses.

The system that advocates urge the MTA to adopt, known as “electronic proof of payment,” would allow riders to board without worrying about dipping a farecard or even carrying a paper receipt. Instead, riders could use mobile devices, credit cards, or electronic farecards to pay either before boarding, or by quickly scanning the fare media at any door as they board. The system would be enforced by on-board ticket agents who check whether riders paid their fares.

On crowded bus routes, this would mean a boarding process that currently takes minutes at each stop would only take seconds.

The problem is that electronic proof of payment is not mentioned in the MTA’s request for proposals. Without such a system, the MTA might waste a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve bus service for millions of passengers each day.

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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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Streetsblog USA
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High Transportation Costs Make a Lot of HUD Housing Unaffordable

"Affordable" housing units with excessively high transportation costs shown in red, and affordable transportation costs in yellow in the Atlanta area (left) and Detroit area (right). Map: University of Texas

Maps of Atlanta (left) and Detroit (right) show HUD rental units with high transportation costs in red and those with affordable transportation costs in yellow. Maps: University of Texas

Rental assistance from HUD isn’t enough to make the cost of living affordable when the subsidies go toward housing in car-dependent areas, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Utah. The study evaluated transportation costs for more than 18,000 households that receive HUD rental subsidies, estimating that nearly half of recipients have to spend more than 15 percent of their household budgets on transportation.

HUD generally considers housing to be “affordable” if it consumes less than 30 percent of a family’s income. But that calculation doesn’t factor in the transportation costs that come along with different housing locations. A family that lives in a walkable neighborhood with good transit options will be less burdened with transportation costs — car payments, insurance, gas — than a family with the same income living in an area where they have to drive for every trip.

A broader picture of affordability comes from the “H+T index” popularized by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which holds that if housing accounts for 30 percent of a household’s budget, transportation should not account for more than 15 percent to keep total costs affordable.

In the new study, researchers developed a model to determine how much households receiving HUD rental assistance have to spend on transportation in several cities. They found a great deal of variation across metro areas. In San Antonio, for example, only 13.5 percent of the housing units were in locations where transportation costs would consume less than 15 percent of household income, while in Los Angeles the figure was 97 percent.

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Streetsblog USA
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Sober Non-Partisan Analysis: America Wastes a Ton of Money on Highways

A good deal of the $46 billion the federal government pours into highway spending each year is going to waste, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report [PDF].

The conclusion won’t surprise regular Streetsblog readers, but it’s the source that’s interesting. The CBO is not an advocacy group or an ideologically-minded think tank. It’s a non-partisan budget watchdog charged with evaluating federal spending decisions, and it says federal highway funding is not well-spent.

For one, the CBO thinks too much is spent on road expansion and too little on maintenance. The construction of the Interstate Highway System made freight shipping and traveling between cities much more efficient, the report says, but since the system was completed in the 1970s spending on highways has been subject to diminishing returns. Current spending “has not shifted” to account for the “the importance of maintaining existing capacity,” the CBO writes.

Compounding the problem is induced demand. CBO points to a recent study finding that “the addition of new lanes is likely to have little effect on congestion within 10 years” as highway lanes fill with new drivers.

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Streetsblog USA
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Study: “Shared Space” Slows Drivers While Letting Traffic Move Efficiently

The idea behind “shared space” street design is that less can be more. By ditching signage, traffic lights, and the grade separation between sidewalk and roadbed, the shared space approach calms traffic and heightens communication between drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Instead of following traffic signals on auto-pilot or speeding up to beat the light, motorists have to pay attention to their surroundings.

A "shared space" in Austria. Image: Transportation Research Board

A shared space in Graz, Austria. Image: Transportation Research Board

Shared space design has been shown to calm vehicle traffic and allow more freedom of movement for pedestrians with no increase in traffic injuries. A new study from professor Norman Garrick and Benjamin Wargo at the University of Connecticut finds that in the right conditions shared space won’t cause traffic jams — in fact it makes intersections more efficient for both pedestrians and motorists.

The study examined six sites around the world that have some degree of “shared space” and where each approach to the intersection has one lane of motor vehicle traffic. Because of the limited number of shared space designs in the U.S., only one American example is included: Uptown Circle in Normal, Illinois.

Using video, the researchers measured driver speeds and pedestrian and vehicle delay. The authors then compared those observations to computer-simulated estimates of how much delay would occur if the streets were designed with more conventional traffic control measures, like stoplights or roundabouts.

They found that in this context, shared space design calmed traffic while also creating less delay for both pedestrians and motorists than traffic signals.

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Streetsblog USA
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Highway Boondoggles: Ohio DOT’s $1.2 Billion Portsmouth Bypass

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2, U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Today we highlight Ohio DOT’s $1.2 billion Portsmouth Bypass, the most expensive and, arguably, least-needed transportation project in the state’s history. 

A major highway project that scored near the bottom of the state’s priority list is under way in a county, and a state, where driving has declined and existing roads are in desperate need of repair. In June 2015, a private contractor for the Ohio Department of Transportation began preliminary work to build a 16-mile, four-lane highway bypassing Portsmouth, a 20,000-person city across the Ohio River from Kentucky in southern Ohio.

Portsmouth, an Appalachian city of about 20,000, is in line for a $1.2 billion creatively funded bypass from the state of Ohio. Map: U.S. PIRG

Portsmouth, an Appalachian town of about 20,000, is where Ohio DOT wants to build a $1.2 billion bypass subsidized by the state’s taxpayers. Map: U.S. PIRG

It would roughly parallel State Route 335/489 from Sciotoville as far north as Shumway Hollow Road, and then cut northwest to Lucasville. The department claims no transportation outcomes or benefits, apart from allowing drivers to avoid several traffic lights, but nevertheless says the project would forestall feared future congestion at several intersections on U.S. 23 by building a road to draw traffic elsewhere.

The Portsmouth Bypass, recently officially renamed the Southern Ohio Veterans Memorial Highway, would be among Ohio’s most expensive road projects ever and its first ever public-private partnership for highway construction.

The corporate partner is the Portsmouth Gateway Group, led by a construction firm called Dragados, the company in charge of a multi-billion-dollar tunnel-boring project that stalled under Seattle in 2013. The construction is slated to cost $429 million, and the company expects to spend $557 million over 35 years of operating and maintaining the highway. State funds spent over that period will total $1.2 billion.

The money will primarily come from taxpayer subsidies, in the form of direct government investment, government loans, and tax-advantaged bonds. Those subsidies would encumber future budgets, eating up money that could be used in the future for education, health care, and other necessities.

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TA: Quicker Action on Vision Zero Can Save Thousands of Lives

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At the current rate of improvement, the de Blasio administration is 31 years behind schedule on Vision Zero. Image: Transportation Alternatives

The de Blasio administration is making progress on street safety, but not fast enough to achieve the mayor’s Vision Zero target of eliminating traffic deaths by 2024, Transportation Alternatives says in a new report. At the current rate of improvement, it will take nearly 40 years to reach that goal.

Advocates from TA, Families for Safe Streets, and other groups took to the steps of City Hall this morning to call for swifter, more aggressive action from city and state officials.

TA Executive Director Paul Steely White said the city needs to cut traffic fatalities by 40 percent per year — as opposed to the present rate of 10 percent.

“We’re here to say that Vision Zero is working, but Vision Zero isn’t working fast enough,” White said, adding that there are “scores of ways the mayor, his agencies, and other key players can do a better job implementing Vision Zero and deliver Vision Zero on time so we can save lines.” Among those recommendations — budgeting more resources for DOT to implement street redesigns.

Released this morning, TA’s 2015 Vision Zero Report Card grades elected officials and public agencies on their street safety performance.

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Streetsblog USA
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Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-95 Across Connecticut

Photo: Doug Kerr

Bucking the state’s longstanding recommendations, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy says widening I-95 will fix congestion. Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr via U.S. PIRG

Last year Congress passed a multi-year transportation bill. Like previous bills, it gives tens of billions of dollars to states every year to spend with almost no strings attached. How much of this federal funding will state DOTs devote to expensive, traffic-inducing highway projects that further entrench car dependence and sprawl?

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2 (the original came out in 2014), U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up to profile the most egregious examples of state DOTs that can’t shake the road expansion habit. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report, starting with this excerpt about Connecticut, which just lost GE to Boston

A long-dormant idea for a multi-billion-dollar expansion of I-95 is being promoted by the state’s governor as a fix for congestion, despite official studies dating back to 2002 recommending against any expansion of the highway, saying it would make congestion worse, extend traffic delays, and increase pollution.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has proposed a 30-year, $100 billion plan to invest in transportation across the state. More than 10 percent of that spending, $11.2 billion, is dedicated to reversing decades of Connecticut’s planning priorities by adding an additional lane to I-95 across the entire state — 110 miles from the New York state line to the Rhode Island border.

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Streetsblog USA
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Study: Sharrows Don’t Make Streets Safer for Cycling

Sharrows are the dregs of bike infrastructure — the scraps cities hand out when they can’t muster the will to implement exclusive space for bicycling. They may help with wayfinding, but do sharrows improve the safety of cycling at all? New research presented at the Transportation Review Board Annual Meeting suggests they don’t.

Sharrows are useless and perhaps even harmful, a new study found. Photo: University of Colorado Denver

Sharrows without traffic-calming won’t do much to make cycling safer. Photo: University of Colorado Denver

A study by University of Colorado Denver researchers Nick Ferenchak and Wesley Marshall examined safety outcomes for areas in Chicago that received bike lanes, sharrows, and no bicycling street treatments at all. (The study was conducted before Chicago had much in the way of protected bike lanes, so it did not distinguish between types of bike lanes.) The results suggest that bike lanes encourage more people to bike and make biking safer, while sharrows don’t do much of either.

Ferenchak and Marshall’s study divided Chicago into three geographic categories using Census block groups: areas where bike lanes were added between 2008 and 2010, areas where sharrows were added, and areas where no bike treatments were added. They then looked at how bike commuting and cyclist injuries changed in these areas over time.

They found that bike commute rates more than doubled in areas with new bike lanes, compared to a 27 percent increase in areas with new sharrows and a 43 percent increase in areas where nothing changed.

Meanwhile, the rate of cyclist injuries per bike commuter improved the most where bike lanes were striped, decreasing 42 percent. Areas that got sharrows saw the same metric fall about 20 percent –worse than areas where streets didn’t change (36 percent), although the difference was not great enough to be statistically significant.

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