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How Much Can Bicycling Help Fight Climate Change? A Lot, If Cities Try

A new study from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy attempts to measure the potential of bikes and e-bikes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Buenos Aires has been ambitiously building out a network of well designed, separated bike infrastructure. If this kind of commitment were employed worldwide, the environmental and financial repercussions would be enormous. Photo: ITDP

Buenos Aires has been building out a network of protected bike infrastructure. If this kind of commitment were employed in cities worldwide, the climate benefits would be huge. Photo: ITDP

ITDP’s conclusion, in short: Bicycling could help cut carbon emissions from urban transportation 11 percent.

The authors calculated the carbon emissions reduction that could result if cities around the world make a strong, sustained commitment to promoting bicycle travel.

In a scenario where 14 percent of travel in the world’s cities is by bike or e-bike in 2050, carbon emissions from urban transportation would be 11 percent lower than a scenario where efforts to promote sustainable transportation sidestep bicycling.

The ITDP scenario calls for 11 percent of urban mileage by bike by 2030 before hitting 14 percent in 2050. For many big American cities where bicycling accounts for a small share of total travel, that may sound like a high bar — and that was part of the point. The ITDP targets will require a significant public policy commitment. But the goals are achievable and aren’t as daunting as they might seem, the authors say.

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The Looming Transit Breakdown That Threatens America’s Economy


Categories of maintenance needs, in billions of dollars, for America’s large transit agencies. Graph: RPA

While federal transit funding stagnates, the nation’s largest rail and bus systems have been delaying critical maintenance projects. Without sustained efforts to fix infrastructure and vehicles, the effects of deteriorating service in big American cities could ripple across the national economy, according to a new report from the Regional Plan Association [PDF].

RPA focuses on ten of the nation’s largest transit agencies — in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Between them, these agencies face about $102 billion in deferred maintenance costs. To bring the systems into a state of good repair will require about $13 billion in maintenance spending per year — more than twice the current rate of investment.

These regions house about one-fifth of the country’s population and produce about 27 percent of the nation’s economic output. They also carry about 60 percent of the nation’s total transit ridership, up from 55 percent 20 years ago. That’s a reflection of how transit has become increasingly important in these regions, with passenger trips growing 54 percent over the same period.

That level of ridership growth can’t be sustained if the transit systems aren’t maintained properly. RPA cites a 2012 report from San Francisco’s BART that says if the system is allowed to deteriorate…

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More Evidence That Helmet Laws Don’t Work

There was a correlation between living in an area with high cycling rates and low levels of hospitalization. Graph: University of British Columbia

Living in an area with high cycling rates is linked to lower levels of hospitalization for bicyclists. There is no similar link for helmet laws. Graph: University of British Columbia

If you want to increase cycling safety in your city, drop the helmet law and focus on getting more people– particularly women — on bikes, with street designs that offer separation from vehicle traffic.

That’s the finding of a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia [PDF] evaluating safety outcomes for cyclists across Canadian provinces and territories.

Lead author Kay Teschke and a team of researchers looked at cyclist injuries requiring hospitalization in 10 Canadian provinces and three territories between 2006 and 2012. They checked to see if hospitalization rates were linked in any way to helmet laws and cycling rates, and they checked for variations in hospitalization rates by sex and age.

Helmet laws were found to have no relationship to hospitalization rates. That was true even though self-reported helmet use is higher in areas of Canada that mandate it (67 percent) than in areas that don’t (39 percent).

But having a higher rate of cycling in one’s community does seem to have an impact on safety. Using Canadian government data on cycling activity, researchers found that men and woman were both less likely to be injured while biking in communities where more people bike.

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3 White Elephants That Help Explain America’s Infrastructure Crisis

American spends billions of dollars widening roads that don't need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23.

America spends billions of dollars widening roads that don’t need widening, like Wisconsin State Route 23. Image: Google Maps

A new report by the Center for American Progress zeros in on an under-appreciated culprit in America’s much ballyhooed infrastructure crisis: All the money we waste on useless roads.

CAP highlights three “white elephant projects” that illustrate how billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funds are squandered thanks to a lack of accountability in the transportation funding process.

“States receive federal highway funding based on formulas set in law, which reflect political negotiations as opposed to objective measures of need or return on investment,” writes CAP’s Kevin DeGood. “This means that states are not required to demonstrate the social, environmental, or economic value of their projects.”

These three projects represent about $1 billion in frivolous spending — and that’s only a small fraction of what’s squandered on dubious road projects each year.

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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:

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

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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WE ACT Climate Plan Calls for Better Upper Manhattan Bicycling, Walking

While most of Northern Manhattan escaped the harshest ravages of Hurricane Sandy, there was some flooding along the waterfront, including inside the 148th Street subway station. Next time around, a severe storm could take a different turn and things could be worse for waterfront areas in Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood. WE ACT for Environmental Justice has developed a climate action plan for those neighborhoods — and it includes some recommendations for walking, bicycling, and transit.

The plan proposes more than just new infrastructure to limit the damage of severe weather. Building social capacity to make sure people have access to resources and are able to ride out storms is an important component, as is retrofitting the neighborhoods to reduce their contribution to climate change. Addressing inequality is at the heart of the report’s recommendations, since low-income populations are most at risk from environmental hazards.

“For many communities, the emergency has existed throughout their history,” said Aurash Khawarzad, policy advocacy coordinator at WE ACT. “Climate change just compounds it.”

The report began to take shape after the People’s Climate March in September 2014. “After the People’s Climate March, a lot of people we were working with were really excited about working on climate change,” Khawarzad said.

WE ACT held seven workshops with more than 100 local residents during the first half of 2015. “All these ideas came out of a community-based planning process,” Khawarzad said. “It’s meant to be comprehensive plan.”

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


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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New Jersey Squanders Transit By Surrounding Stations With Sprawl


Too many transit stations in New Jersey, like Princeton Junction, are surrounded by parking and single-family housing, reports NJ Future. Image: Google Maps (h/t @traininthedistance)

New Jersey is the most population-dense state in the country, and many residents get to work via one of its several transit systems. But too many of New Jersey’s transit stations are surrounded by single-family housing, severely limiting the number of people — especially low-income people — with convenient, walkable access to transit. Some entire transit lines are out of reach for people of modest means.

New Jersey Future, a smart growth advocacy group, examined the neighborhoods around all 244 of the state’s rail transit stations, commuter ferry docks, and major bus terminals to get a sense of whether transit access is equitably distributed among residents.

In a new report, “Off Track? An Assessment of Mixed-Income Housing Around New Jersey’s Transit Stations,” NJ Future Research Director Tim Evans finds that transit access could be far more equitably distributed if New Jersey weren’t squandering the land near stations.

In 109 of the 244 station areas he studied, Evans found a higher percentage of single-family detached housing than the statewide average. In 54 of them, single-family detached homes make up more than 70 percent of the housing stock. That kind of land use severely limits the number of people who can have convenient access to high-quality transit.

As it stands, New Jersey’s transit abundance is going to waste, with nearly half its stations surrounded by spread-out housing. “The way you maximize the number of people who have transit as an option is by putting as many people within walking distance of transit as you can,” said Evans. “And the way you do that is by increasing housing density, not by building a lot of single-family detached housing.”

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Hunter Students Offer a Multi-Modal Vision for Queens Boulevard

The students propose bus lanes, curbside protected bike lanes, and a large median park for Queens Boulevard. Image: Hunter College

The students propose bus lanes, protected bike lanes, and a linear park in the median of Queens Boulevard. Image: Hunter College

About a year ago, the Transportation Alternatives Queens activist committee approached the Hunter College urban planning program about Queens Boulevard. The advocates wanted help jumpstarting real-world changes on the street known as the Boulevard of Death.

It was just a few months after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic deaths. If there was ever going to be an ambitious redesign of Queens Boulevard, this was the time to make it happen. The TA activists wanted to show people how Queens Boulevard could be transformed.

“One of the obstacles we always faced was, ‘Okay, how would you do that?'” said TA Queens committee co-chair Peter Beadle. “There was a real inertia to overcome.”

So the advocates got to work with a small team of Hunter graduate students under the leadership of professor Ralph Blessing. Over the course of two semesters, they surveyed people on the street, hosted workshops, reviewed crash and traffic data, and crunched Census numbers.

Then something interesting happened. In January, DOT announced that it would make Queens Boulevard a Vision Zero priority and hosted a workshop to gather ideas for how to redesign the street.

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Envisioning a New Purpose for the Space Beneath NYC’s Elevated Structures


Space beneath the elevated train along Rockaway Freeway reimagined as a safe place for walking and bicycling. Image: Rockaway Waterfront Alliance

There are nearly 700 miles of elevated highways, rail lines, and bridges crisscrossing New York City. They tend to be dreary places, but they don’t have to be. A report released today by the Design Trust for Public Space and DOT, Under the Elevated, envisions new uses for the spaces beneath these elevated structures.

Already, land beneath elevated structures in HarlemDumboLong Island CitySunnysideNew Lots, and the Rockaways is being repurposed. To keep a good thing going, the report provides a toolkit the city can use to reinvigorate more of these spaces.

Map: Design Trust for Public Space

There are nearly 700 miles of elevated structures in New York. Rail lines are in red, and highways are in blue. Map: Design Trust for Public Space

There are approximately 7,000 miles of elevated structures in cities across the nation, mostly highways, according to dlandstudio principal Susannah C. Drake, who served as a fellow with the Design Trust. DOT and Design Trust staff said they aren’t aware of another city that had taken such a comprehensive look at the spaces beneath elevated structures.

“You can reclaim that space. You can do some beautiful things with it,” DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said at an event this afternoon announcing the report. “We’re really going to put some resources into improving these spaces.”

The possibilities include building greenways, adding retail, livening up spaces with events, and implementing permeable surfaces to absorb stormwater.

One of the report’s major recommendations is the “El-Space Program,” a DOT initiative that will focus specifically on under-the-elevated projects. DOT’s four-person urban design staff, led by Neil Gagliardi, will take the lead. “This is really a comprehensive approach, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time,” Gagliardi said.

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