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Senators Seek to Shield Motor Vehicle Crash Data From Public View

A new bill introduced by Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) would further entrench rules that make it difficult for crash investigators to access black box data from cars.

Sen. John Hoeven is again championing drivers' rights, even at the expense of crash investigations. Photo: ##http://sayanythingblog.com/entry/senator-hoeven-convinces-feds-to-withdraw-calorie-limits-from-school-lunches/##Say Anything Blog##

Sen. John Hoeven is again working, now at the federal level, to limit access to key data about car crashes. Photo: Say Anything Blog

Nearly all light passenger vehicles have event data recorders (EDRs) installed in them, which record everything from speed to seat belt use, though the data is erased almost immediately unless a crash is detected. As we’ve reported in the past, with current EDR technology, a collision with a person that isn’t in a car often isn’t forceful enough to trigger an event record at all.

But EDRs that do record crash events can take some of the “he said, she said” out of the ensuing investigation and provide some needed accountability for dangerous driving. As it happens, a lot of politicians are mobilizing to limit that accountability.

Hoeven and Klobuchar introduced a bill last week (though they previewed it in the fall) that would make all data collected by a car’s black box the property of the car owner. The data could only be accessed by anyone else on the order of a judge or for a small number of other scenarios.

In a proposal last year to make EDRs mandatory in all new cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also emphasized that the data is the sole property of the car owner. That rule is expected to take effect this fall.

Currently, 14 states have passed laws restricting black box data to the car owner. Bill sponsor Hoeven signed one of those into law when he was governor of North Dakota. The national bill would force this approach across the country and make it that much harder for investigators to promptly access crash data.

Cars are increasingly connected to the digital world, and drivers routinely allow detailed information about their movements to be accessed by third parties. Google’s traffic reports, for instance, are crowd-sourced from information from millions of drivers’ smart-phones, and the company can now let you know when the restaurant you’re passing has a happy hour special you might like.

The information collected by EDRs is actually much less invasive — it just records the moments leading up to a collision. About the only thing that data can be used for is to determine the cause of a crash and who was culpable, and for some reason a lot of senators want to make that harder for law enforcement.

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In Austin, a Protected Bike Lane Built to Help Kids Get to School

The Bluebonnet protected bike lane in Austin serves children riding to Zilker Elementary. Image: ##http://www.peopleforbikes.org/blog/entry/what-if-bike-comfort-is-more-important-than-bike-safety## People for Bikes##

The Bluebonnet protected bike lane in Austin serves children riding to Zilker Elementary. Photo: People for Bikes

What does it look like when a city gets serious about giving kids the freedom to get to school on their own? Austin, Texas, is showing people what’s possible with a protected bike lane that serves an elementary school.

With the help of the Green Lane Project, the capital of the Lone Star State has really been stepping up its bike infrastructure lately. The city has been looking for strategic places to add protected bike lanes whenever it has the opportunity, says Bike Austin Executive Director Tom Wald, whether it’s resurfacing a street or making some other physical or design change.

One of the more interesting protected bike lane projects in Austin is Bluebonnet Lane, which was redesigned in 2012 with a two-way bikeway separated from traffic with flexible posts. What’s especially notable about this piece of bike infrastructure is that it runs through a more residential area, as opposed to the typical highly-trafficked downtown thoroughfare.

Chad Crager, Austin’s bicycle program manager, says the project, the first of its kind in Austin, was planned in part to create a safe environment for children to bike to Zilker Elementary, located on the same street. And it’s working.

“The school and surrounding neighborhood have seen increases in bicycling since the protected bicycle lane was installed,” Crager said. “Bicycle counts at the school showed that before the facility was installed two kids rode to school and afterwards this number rose to 40.”

Zilker Principal Randall Thomson said at first some parents opposed the idea of the bike lane, which removed a lane of parking in front of the school. Some students use the district’s “voluntary transfer” program to attend the school from outside the immediate area, and their parents have to drive them. But since the bike lane was installed objections have dissipated, he says, and most parents see it as a positive amenity.

“Some of the children ride by themselves or in groups,” Thomson said. “It’s definitely used every day.”

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Will Old Transit Systems Eat Up All the New Starts Grants?

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago's red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/##http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/how-to-fix-the-el-cta/Content?oid=3473194##Chicago Reader##

The first Core Capacity grant of the New Starts program will ease overcrowding on Chicago’s red and purple lines. Photo: Michael Boyd/Chicago Reader

One of MAP-21’s many mixed blessings was the New Starts Core Capacity program. It expanded eligibility for New Starts grants — normally reserved as capital assistance for new transit lines — to existing corridors. To qualify, the system just had to show that the improvements would expand the capacity of the line by at least 10 percent.

The double-edged sword is this: The expanded mission didn’t come with any more money. In fact, the Federal Transit Administration saw its funding for New Starts/Small Starts frozen for several years, and then faced a 7 percent cut with the sequester for 2014. Luckily, the budget deal appears to have saved them from that, and though details are still forthcoming, it may mean a more modest 2 percent cut. Less horrific than was feared, perhaps, but still less money for more eligible projects.

That’s led some people to fear that the smaller, newer systems New Starts has traditionally targeted could lose out to legacy systems in major transit markets like New York and Boston. Those concerns came out last week during a Highway and Transit Subcommittee hearing in Congress, focusing on the new program.

“With the expanded eligibilities, one could see a potential situation in which a handful of expensive projects in large urban areas could monopolize the New Starts funding over several years,” said subcommittee chair Tom Petri (R-WI) in his opening remarks. “This could come at the expense of funding opportunities for new public transportation systems in the rest of the country.”

The first New Starts Core Capacity grant to an existing line was put in the project pipeline last month — for Chicago’s red and purple lines, a $4 billion project.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Get Off My Lawn

Jeff Wood and I talk about the news of the week that most tickled us or burned us — the BBC’s exposé of anti-social urban design features intended to repel people, San Francisco’s social tensions over the Google bus, and the decision by Cincinnati’s new mayor and City Council to “pause” construction of the streetcar.

Meanwhile, I wax nostalgic for public space in Havana and Jeff laments slow progress on San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard BRT.

You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes. And participate in the conversation by commenting here.

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It Could Cost More to Shut Down Cincy Streetcar Than Finish It

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory is frustrated that all his work to bring the streetcar to fruition might be for naught, now that anti-streetcar John Cranley has been elected to take his place. “I’m from the tough part of town,” Mallory joked. “I will take the guy in a dark alley. I’m not afraid to use the threat of physical violence.”

Streetcar project manager John Deatrick told Cincinnati's City Council today what it will cost to abandon the project now.

Streetcar project manager John Deatrick told Cincinnati’s City Council today what it will cost to abandon the project now. Add to that the money already spent and the returned federal grant and it climbs much higher.

All jokes aside — assuming Mallory was joking — it’ll cost the city of Cincinnati up to $125 million to halt progress on its streetcar project now — but that’s just what Mayor-elect John Cranley plans to do. It was his campaign promise.

“We’re going to have to keep this fight going,” Mallory said yesterday at Transportation for America’s re-launch event. “We’re probably going to have to go to court.”

Obstacles like this are extremely frustrating to local officials trying to improve their cities. At Tuesday’s event, a celebration of local control over transportation projects, the panel on “barriers to success” became a bit of a support group for Mallory.

“At the state level, I don’t have a partner on this project,” Mallory lamented. Well before he had John Cranley to worry about, he’s had to battle the state over transportation investment, regarding the streetcar and more. “My governor gave back $400 million to the federal government for high-speed rail and took away $52 million that a previous governor put into my streetcar project and spread that around the state for other highway projects.”

The story gets even worse. “Insult to injury,” Mallory said, “the state legislature in Ohio passed legislation specific to the Cincinnati streetcar project that you can’t get any state money for this project. And that’s an assault.”

“It’s punitive,” piped in Urban League CEO Marc Morial, in solidarity.

“For me, it’s not a matter of a lack of support,” Mallory said. “I have adversaries on this project. That doesn’t bode well if talking about the advancement of our region, driven at the local level.”

That was the theme of the day: Transportation for America is trying to empower mayors and other local leaders who are trying to innovate in their cities, adding transit and infrastructure that invites people to bike and walk more.

It’s probably safe to assume John Cranley won’t be joining T4America’s new alliance of innovative mayors. But Mallory is a natural. He listened to the 14 economic development studies that all came to the same conclusion: Cincinnati needed to link downtown with uptown and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. So he went to work rebuilding the streetcar network, which existed in his city from the 1860s until 1951, running on 220 miles of track. He can’t recreate that system overnight but he’s starting in the urban core, with the hope of bringing it outward to the neighborhoods.

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Transformation for America: T4A Reemerges With Focus on Local Control

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America. Photo by Stephen Lee Davis.

John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, helped unveil the new Transportation for America. Photo courtesy of T4.

Transportation for America has been in hiding. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

The coalition of over 500 organizations that came together to advocate for policy reform and adequate funding in the transportation reauthorization seemed to disappear for a little while after the dust settled on MAP-21. T4America, often called simply T4, provided analysis of the bill and helped reformers figure out how to make the most of it. And then T4 kind of went away.

The coalition was technically a campaign of Smart Growth America, and once the bill it was organizing around had passed — and was a pretty big disappointment — the group tried long and hard to figure out its next move.

Yesterday, Transportation for America announced that it had figured it out.

During the four-hour re-launch event T4 hosted in Union Station’s Columbus Room yesterday, there wasn’t much talk about organizational restructuring. Instead, panel after panel of mayors, MPO executives and other local officials talked about the challenges they faced and the solutions they’ve discovered as they sought to build stronger, more sustainable urban places. (More on that in a separate post.) But if you listened closely, you would learn all you needed to know about T4’s new direction.

“Some of the best decision-making and most courageous leadership is occurring at the local level,” said John Robert Smith, former Republican mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, and co-chair of Transportation for America. “That’s why we believe that more of the decision-making — and authority and accountability — should rest at local leadership.”

In the last go-round, Transportation for America tried to frame itself as a middle-of-the-road, agenda-free big tent, a broad coalition of disparate organizations asking for common-sense solutions for the nation’s transportation — and fiscal — problems. But somehow, it didn’t work that way. On the Hill, they were still seen as liberals trying to get everyone out of their cars.

They realized that their message resonated a lot more, and they made more inroads, when they brought local leaders to talk with their members of Congress.

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Blumenauer, Bipartisan Co-Sponsors Set Out to Improve Street Safety Metrics

After a long period of inaction on Capitol Hill, the wheels are beginning to turn again. Lawmakers introduced not one but two good transportation-related bills yesterday: one that aims to improve the safety of walking and biking and one that would establish a national infrastructure bank.

A new bill could mean fewer ghost bikes. Photo: ##http://photoblog.statesman.com/a-ghost-bike-and-a-memorial-bike-ride-for-andrew-runciman-hit-and-run-victim##Collective Vision##

Better performance measures could mean fewer ghost bikes. Photo: Collective Vision

We’ll get into the infrastructure bank bill in a separate post. First, let’s look at the bill Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced last night. The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act (HR 3494) would establish performance measures for pedestrian and cyclist safety.

Specifically, it would direct U.S. DOT to create metrics for states to assess and address “serious injuries and fatalities per vehicle mile traveled” and “the number of serious injuries and fatalities” for “non-motorized transportation” — a.k.a. walking and biking. Current law has no such emphasis on active transportation.

Reps. Howard Coble of North Carolina and Mike McCaul of Texas — both Republicans — co-sponsored the bill, along with Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat. They are all members of the Congressional Bike Caucus, which Blumenauer founded.

In his statement on the bill, Blumenauer noted that the number of bike commuters has increased by more than 60 percent over the last decade. “As transportation systems adjust to handle different types of road users, the federal government must encourage appropriate standards to ensure road user safety,” he said.

Pedestrians and bicyclists accounted for 17 percent of traffic fatalities last year — a proportion that’s on the rise. But less than 1 percent of transportation safety funds support infrastructure for walking and biking.

“While overall traffic deaths are down, the number of bicyclists dying on our roadways has increased by nine percent and pedestrian deaths have gone up by three percent recently,” said Coble in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation strives to reduce the number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed and injured on our roadways. It will help protect all users of our transportation system, while giving states flexibility to enact measures that make sense for them.”

Indeed, the legislation preserves state control by allowing states to set their own safety targets, with “the flexibility to choose the best methods to meet them,” according to the press release. Tellingly, the bill “encourages states to make their roadways safer without diverting funding from other safety needs,” according to the press release. There is no funding component in the legislation.

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Streetsblog’s Brand-New Podcast: Episode 1

Behold, Streetsblog’s brand-new podcast! In what we aim to turn into a recurring feature, Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and I recently chatted about the week’s news in livable streets, urbanism, and sustainable transportation. The topics are drawn from Jeff’s excellent daily compendium of transportation and planning links, The Direct Transfer, and from stories we’re tracking at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. It’s a treat for me to get back to producing audio — I was a radio reporter before joining Streetsblog.

This podcast is still very much in beta — we haven’t even settled on a name for it yet (suggestions welcome). But we want to share it with you and get your feedback and ideas about where to take it.

This week, Jeff and I discussed whether regional planning matters, the odd timing of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reject federal high-speed rail funds, and drawing fantasy maps for the transit and bike infrastructure your city needs. Have a listen, let us know what you think, and join the conversation in the comments.

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How to “Build a Better Burb”: Advice From Author June Williamson

The suburbs are changing. As cities grow in population and the poverty once associated with urban areas becomes more widely dispersed, even the meaning of “the suburbs” is evolving in the popular consciousness.

June Williamson is a leading expert in suburban design solutions. Photo: OWA

Architect June Williamson has studied suburban evolution and adaptation for more than a decade now. She was co-author, with Ellen Dunham-Jones, of “Retrofitting Suburbia.” Her new book, “Designing Suburban Futures, New Models From Build a Better Burb,” draws on her experience leading the “Build a Better Burb” design competition, which engaged top urban thinkers and designers in strategizing to revitalize greyfield spaces around Long Island.

We caught Williamson by phone recently to ask her what she learned about successful 21st century suburbs through the competition and the process of writing her new book.

Angie Schmitt: What are some of the factors that are compelling change right now in American suburbs?

June Williamson: The need to combat climate change and high carbon footprints that are more typical of suburbanites than urban or downtown dwellers. Increased acknowledgement of the eventual approach of peak oil conditions. The need to not only reduce demand for energy, but also find more renewable resources. A third might be the demographic change in suburbia that is happening because of longer lifespans and the aging of the baby boomers, which is leading to a decreased percentage of the population comprised of households with children. You have a large supply of detached houses and a shrinking supply of households with children to inhabit them. There’s also the proliferation of immigrant suburbs or ethnoburbs combined with the recent rise in suburban poverty.

And I think these are all things that are contributing to change happening, whether people desire it or not. And then there’s the aging of the physical fabric of, especially, the post-war suburbs. The areas that were all built out 50 or 60 years ago. And a lot of them, especially the commercial structures, were relatively cheaply built. They weren’t built to be durable. That is also creating conditions for change but also opportunities for physical transformation.

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Spend 30 Minutes Watching This Doc and You’ll Spend the Next 30 Walking

Every Body Walk!, the new campaign spearheaded by Kaiser Permanente and a host of other organizations — including the Office of the Surgeon General — is on fire. Two weeks after hosting its first sold-out conference in Washington, DC, the campaign has put out this excellent documentary on the importance of integrating walking into our daily lives.

It includes tips on things like mall walking and parking in the farthest-away space in the lot, but at the heart of the documentary (and the campaign) is a focus on healthy cities and transportation systems that encourage physical activity. Every Body Walk! recommends 30 minutes of moderate-to-brisk walking, five days a week, for a 30-40 percent decrease in cardiovascular problems and a whole host of other ailments, from diabetes to dementia.

“If there were a pill that people could take that would nearly cut in half their risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes; reduce the risk of cognitive decline and depression; reduce stress; improve emotional well-being — everyone would be clamoring to take it,” said Harvard Medical School’s Dr. JoAnn Manson in the documentary. “It would be flying off the shelves. That magic potion really is available to everyone in the form of 30 minutes a day of brisk walking.” More and more, doctors are literally prescribing walking to treat all of these conditions.

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