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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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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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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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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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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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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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Social Engineering! Cities That Build More Parking Get More Traffic

Cities like Hartford that added a lot of parking over the last few decades saw driving rates increase. Graph: McCahill/TRB

Cities like Hartford that added a lot of parking over the last few decades saw driving rates increase more than in cities where parking volumes stayed flatter. Graph: McCahill/TRB

Build parking spaces and they will come — in cars. New research presented this week at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board finds a direct, causal relationship between the amount of parking in cities and car commuting rates.

University of Wisconsin researcher Chris McCahill and his team examined nine “medium-sized” cities — with relatively stable populations between 100,000 and 300,000. They compared historical parking data with car commuting rates beginning in 1960, finding “a clear, consistent association” between parking levels and car commuting that has “grown stronger” over time.

Using an epidemiological research method, McCahill’s team determined that the relationship was causal. For example, data indicated that increases in parking tended to precede growth in car commuting.

The study brings home the point that by inflating the parking supply via minimum parking mandates and other policies, cities are leading more people to drive and making conditions worse for transit, biking, and walking. It’s what you might call “social engineering.”

Researchers compared five cities with low car commuting rates (Arlington, Virginia; Berkeley, California; Silver Spring, Maryland; and Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts) to four cities with relatively high car commuting rates (Albany, New York; Lowell, Massachusetts; and New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut).

McCahill and his team found that for every 10 percentage point increase in parking spaces per capita, the share of workers commuting by car would be expected to increase by 7.7 percentage points. So if a city increased its per capita parking from 0.1 spaces to 0.5 spaces, car commute mode share would rise about 30 percentage points.

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Federal Report: Bad Street Design a Factor in Rising Ped/Bike Fatalities

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A new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office [PDF] examines why people walking or biking account for a rising share of traffic deaths in the United States. While the conclusions aren’t exactly earth-shattering, one culprit the GAO identified is street design practices that seek primarily to move cars.

The investigation was ordered by U.S. representatives Rick Larsen (Washington State), Peter DeFazio (Oregon) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) in response to increasing pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Between 2004 and 2013, traffic deaths dropped steadily for drivers, but inched up for people walking or biking, according to the GAO. The cause of the discrepancy isn’t clear.

The GAO interviewed officials from state and local transportation agencies, U.S. DOT, and bike and pedestrian advocacy groups about obstacles to safety. Its conclusions reflect the attitudes of the institutions that were interviewed, without adding much in the way of data analysis.

One factor the GAO points to, for instance, is “alcohol use” — a favorite of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (one of the groups interviewed). This can refer to both drunk driving or a victim who was struck while drunk. The GAO notes that in 14 percent of pedestrian fatalities, the victim was drunk or high. But the report presents no data to support the notion that intoxicated pedestrians account for the rising share of pedestrian fatalities. Nor is it clear why alcohol-related fatalities would increase for pedestrians and cyclists while declining in the aggregate.

Another part of the report, however, does delve into institutional obstacles to safer streets. The GAO notes that many transportation agencies, especially state agencies, still don’t see protecting pedestrians and bicyclists as a priority.

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Real Estate Giant: Suburban Office Parks Increasingly Obsolete

What tenants want in an office building is changing, and the old model of the isolated suburban office park is going the way of the fax machine. That’s according to a new report from Newmark, Grubb, Knight and Frank [PDF], one of the largest commercial real estate firms in the world.

Suburban office parks are losing their luster, industry analysts say. Photo: Wikipedia

Suburban office parks are losing their luster, industry analysts say. Photo: Wikipedia

The old-school office park does “not offer the experience most of today’s tenants are seeking,” according to NGKF. As a result, the suburban office market is confronting “obsolescence” on a “massive scale.” More than 1,150 U.S. office properties — or 95 million square feet — may no longer pencil out, the authors estimate, though a number of those can be salvaged with some changes.

“Walkability and activated environments are at the top of many tenants’ list of must haves,” the report states. Office parks in isolated pockets without a mix of uses around them must have “in-building amenities” –including a conference center, a fitness center, and food service — to remain competitive, according to NGKF: “If tenants are not going to be able to walk to nearby retail or a nearby office property to get lunch, they had better be able to get it at their own building.”

The study took a close look at suburban office submarkets in and around Denver, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. In the “southeast suburban” Denver office district, for example, office buildings within a quarter-mile of the new light rail line had a 1.7 percent vacancy rate. For those outside a quarter-mile, vacancy rates were nine percentage points higher.

NGKF’s findings don’t mean that office tenant preferences are in perfect alignment with walkability, however.

Parking was also important to the marketability of buildings in suburban Denver. The report notes that a lot of older management personnel prefer to drive, while younger workers want transit access. So buildings that offered both were in the highest demand.