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Tesla’s Vision for the Future of Autonomous Cars Should Scare Us

What impact will self-driving cars have on cities?

Will self-driving cars be part of shared fleets or have the old individual ownership model? The answer will be important to the health of cities. Photo: Flickr/David van der Mark

Will self-driving cars also bring about shared fleets or will they operate in the old individual ownership model? Photo: Flickr/David van der Mark

The range of potential outcomes is enormous. In the best-case scenario, private car ownership gives way to shared fleets of autonomous cars, freeing up vast amounts of land that used to be devoted to vehicle storage.

Then there’s the scenario promoted by Tesla, in which everyone owns their personal autonomous vehicle. The consequences would be frightening, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic:

Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, has laid out an intuitive way of understanding this issue using a binary “heaven or hell” construction (note: I’ve interviewed her in the past on how autonomous cars will impact the transit system). According to this formulation, we could have “heaven” if we had fleets of shared, electric, driverless cars powered by renewable energy, plus a redistributive economy that ensures that people who once had jobs in the transportation sector have access to a minimum income. On the other hand, we could have “hell” if everyone owns his or her own driverless car that does our errands, parks our cars, and circles the neighborhood waiting for us to need it again.

Tesla seems to be resolving this issue for us.

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Center City Philadelphia Commuters Increasingly Arriving by Bike

Where bicyclists were once a trickle in Philadelphia, they are now a steady stream.

Bike commuting in central Philadelphia is on the rise, according to a recent report by the Center City District, which found about 1,400 cyclists entering the center city from the south during the peak rush hour.

Thousands of cyclists pour into Center City Philadelphia daily, largely on two buffered bike lanes. Graph: Center City District

Thousands of cyclists pour into Center City Philadelphia daily, largely on two buffered bike lanes. Graph: Center City District

Randy LoBasso at the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia explains the increase is happening even though the infrastructure is less than ideal:

In their new report, “Bicycle Commuting,” Center City District reports that cyclists entering Center City on northbound streets during rush hour (8am-9am) “was up 22 percent over the … last count in 2014” and up 79 percent since 2010.

According to CCD’s bike counts, cyclists are using Center City lanes specifically engineered for high bike rates — like Spruce Street and 13th Street, which have wide, buffered bike lanes.

And Center City residents and commuters agree that motor vehicles parking in those bike lanes is especially annoying for Philadelphia road users. A Transportation Priorities Survey, also released by Center City District, found that the most important issues hindering mobility are vehicles blocking lanes, lack of enforcement and poor street conditions.

Cyclists are well aware of the problem of people in motor vehicles thinking they can pull over into a bike lane without fear of being ticketed, and without care for the other road users who can get injured when they do so.

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When People Aren’t Afraid to Walk in the Street With Cars

Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz wasn't design to be a shared space where pedestrians have priority, but Richard Masoner says that's how it functions on weekends. Photo: Cyclelicious

Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz wasn’t designed to be a “shared space” where pedestrians have priority, but Richard Masoner says that’s how it functions on weekends. Photo: Cyclelicious

“Shared spaces” are streets where driving is allowed but walking and biking take priority. They are designed without curbs, signage, and other typical markers that separate cars from people on foot. The design cues are subtler. Everyone mixes together in the same space, and drivers travel slowly enough that they can make eye contact with pedestrians.

Can you have an “accidental” shared space — a street with curbs where people are still comfortable walking in the road? Richard Masoner at Network blog Cyclelicious says Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz functions as a shared space on weekends even though it wasn’t planned as one:

Most of those driving — even tourists with out-of-state license plates — take care to watch for people meandering into the street from arbitrary locations.

This kind of slow traffic naturally improves safety for people on bikes. I’ve talked to people who strongly dislike riding with traffic, but feel perfectly fine biking through downtown.

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You Don’t Have to Trash BRT to Make the Case for Light Rail, and Vice Versa

In cities considering a light rail project, it’s common for transit opponents to suddenly cast themselves as big believers in bus rapid transit. They don’t really want to build BRT, they just want to derail the transit expansion. The light rail advocates then have to make their case not only on the merits of the project, but also in relation to the strawman BRT project.

That’s the position supporters of Seattle’s big transit expansion ballot measure, ST3, find themselves in right now. Taking on the faux pro-BRT crowd in a recent post, Anton Babadjanov at Seattle Transit Blog argues that building a BRT equivalent of the proposed light rail lines wouldn’t be that simple or cheap:

How do we get this? We can’t simply reallocate a general purpose lane for this. This is a political non-starter. While it is relatively cheap to implement, no car commuter wants to lengthen their commute so that “somebody else” can have a better transit or carpool trip. People have never supported this en masse.

The only option we have is to build the new right-of-way — either widen the freeway or build the lanes in a separate structure using viaducts and tunnels as appropriate.

Babadjanov concludes that building BRT with new rights-of-way could save 20 percent compared to light rail, but its capacity would be lower. It’s a reasonable argument for the specific situation Seattle transit advocates are in right now. But I’ve seen the post’s headline — “BRT Is Not Cheaper Than Light Rail” — shared online as though it applies in every situation, which is just not true.

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How Cities Like Cleveland Can Grow and Tackle Climate Change

City leaders from around the world are meeting right now in Quito, Ecuador, for the summit known as Habitat III — convened by the United Nations to map out a strategy for sustainable urbanization as more people flock to cities.

If the next 1 billion urban residents live in sprawl like this, the planet is in serious trouble. Photo: Future Atlas via Flickr.

If urban growth is funneled into sprawl like this, the planet is in serious trouble. Photo: Future Atlas/Flickr

Demographers forecast enormous populations shifts to urban areas in the coming decades. The nature of this growth will have profound effects on the climate. Will it be walkable and served by transit? Or will it be haphazard sprawl?

Another factor is whether a region’s ecology is well-suited for a bigger population. Marc Lefkowitz at Network blog Green City Blue Lake says cities like Cleveland have the right natural characteristics to sustain more people. But regional growth isn’t happening the right way:

In an article, “Where to put the next billion people” Harvard’s Richard Forman and Arizona State University professor of sustainability science, Jianguo Wu, note that “for people and nature to thrive, the arrangement of land systems and water across the urban region must be managed holistically.”

For water-rich regions like Cleveland, this holds true. But a regional plan should probably be developed this time to “limit the loss of valuable (farm) land.”

A temperate climate, abundant water and rich soils are assets that Greater Cleveland has. By contrast, the authors predict that water stress in the West and Southwestern U.S. and Mexico will limit their growth.

Cleveland could play a significant role in the fight against climate change by developing a strategy for more compact communities and with a more open and encouraging immigration policy, the report concludes.

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Affordable Transportation and Affordable Housing Need to Go Hand-in-Hand

In Pittsburgh, combined housing and transportation costs are still lower in urban areas. Map: Center for Neighborhood Technology

In Pittsburgh, combined housing and transportation costs tend to be lower in central areas, but rents are rising in central neighborhoods. Map: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Rents continue to rise in cities across the U.S., and Pittsburgh is no exception. Noting the escalating housing costs in walkable neighborhoods, Alex Shewczyk at Bike Pittsburgh looks at how transportation and housing policy can coordinate to make places more affordable.

We know from resources like the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing+Transportation Index that transportation costs are a large household expense and closely tied to housing location. If you live somewhere with good options besides driving, you can save a lot. But these places are where housing costs are rising. To address the challenge of affordability, cities need to use both transportation strategies and housing strategies — and there’s a lot of overlap between the two, Shewczyk writes:

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Guidebook for Creating Connected Communities, typical households in auto-dependent neighborhoods spend about 25 percent of their income on transportation costs, but this number drops to 9 percent in neighborhoods that are more connected with a variety of mobility options.

Recently, the Obama Administration’s “toolkit” on housing development made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue. The White House reports, “Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher — paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality.”

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Does WMATA Have Enough Credibility to Avoid Doomsday Service Cuts?

A proposal from Washington's WMATA suggests closing 20 Metro stations, outside of rush hour, cutting bus service and raising fares to close a $275 million budget gap. Image: WMATA via Greater Greater Washington

WMATA says that without new revenue it will have to close 20 Metro stations outside of rush hour and cut bus service. Image: WMATA via Greater Greater Washington

WMATA, the DC region’s transit agency, is in crisis.

DC is a rarity among major American cities, with transit mode share declining over the last decade. In the past year, the federal government took over WMATA’s safety oversight authority after a number of embarrassing failures, culminating in the whole Metro being temporarily shut down. Confidence in the agency is in short supply.

On top of everything, WMATA now faces a $275 million budget shortfall. Jonathan Neeley at Greater Greater Washington reports that the agency just outlined an alarming doomsday scenario, including cutting service on high-profile recent expansion projects:

On Thursday, WMATA’s staff will give a presentation to the Board of Directors on potential ways to close a $275 million budget gap. Or, put another way, staff warn the board that without more money, some drastic measures may be inevitable.

The draft presentation that came out on Tuesday lists options like closing 20 stations during off-peak hours (nine of them on the east end of the Orange, Blue, and Silver Lines, along with three on the west end of the Silver Line) and shutting down a number of bus lines, including the brand new Potomac Yard Metroway.

The first thing to remember is that this isn’t an official proposal; it’s a cry for help. It’s WMATA saying that it needs more money to operate the entire rail system, and if that money doesn’t come in, these are possible options for cutting costs to a level commensurate with current funding.

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Pittsburgh and the Challenge of Changing a City’s Car Culture

Since Mayor Bill Peduto assumed office in 2014, Pittsburgh has been a city that doesn’t shy away from changing its streets. Most recently, two more protected bike lanes are now slated for downtown, and of course Peduto made a splash partnering with Uber to test autonomous vehicles on city streets.

The "City of Bridges" is becoming a better place for cyclists. Photo: Mobility Lab

The City of Bridges is becoming a better place to bike, but aggressive driving remains prevalent, says Paul Mackie. Photo: Mobility Lab

Paul Mackie at Mobility Lab (a think tank headquartered in Arlington, Virginia) recently visited the Steel City and was eager to see how its new reputation holds up in person.

He says Pittsburgh has a lot going for it:

  • Mayor Bill Peduto is a real mover-and-shaker, something any city that wants to retrofit its car culture must have.
  • Pittsburgh made it into the final seven for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge (which was awarded to Columbus, Ohio).
  • Mayor Peduto is hiring for a director of the just-announced city Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, which will think more holistically about the ways Pittsburgh uses its streets and public spaces.

But even so, Mackie says, the city has a long way to go:

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There Will Never Be “Enough” Parking

Graphic: DMC

To accommodate everyone expected to come to downtown Rochester, Minnesota, by building more parking, you would have to pave over downtown Rochester. Graphic: DMC

Employees at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, have to accumulate 13 years of service time before they get an on-site parking permit. To get a sense of how much employees become invested in this system, check out this YouTube video of one man’s elation the day he gets his parking privileges (and notice how towering parking garages dominate the landscape).

With the clinic planning a major expansion, the days of convenient downtown parking are never coming back, writes Adam Ferrari at But some people are still going through the five stages of grief — denying that transportation problems have to be solved without relying on more car storage, and lashing out in anger at people who suggest otherwise. It’s time to accept that parking isn’t the answer, Ferrari says:

Here me out: there will never be enough parking.

What isn’t unique to Rochester, is that there is actually far more parking than there are people. In America, the estimate is roughly 800 million parking spaces (for a population slightly over 300 million in our country, and far fewer drivers than that).  We don’t have a supply problem. This is a demand problem…

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How Many Americans Are “Captive Drivers”?

The concept of the “captive” transit rider — the idea that there is a fixed number of people who ride transit because they have no alternatives — is deeply flawed. Among other problems, it overlooks how low-income people without cars are sensitive to the quality of transit and will choose not to use poor service. And yet discussions of “captive” vs. “choice” transit riders persist.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

In a recent Twitter conversation, John Halverson suggested a twist: “how about calling people in the burbs with no choice but to drive ‘captive drivers?'”

At his blog Human Transit, transit consultant Jarrett Walker  says “sometimes the best way to undermine a misleading or prejudicial term is to promote an analogous term.” He embraces the “captive driver” concept:

Yes, much of my life I’ve been a captive driver, in that I’ve been forced to live and work in landscapes where there are no reasonable choices for how to get around.

One of the worst things about being a captive driver is having to drive when you know you really shouldn’t. I’m careful with alcohol, but there are times when I’m just tired, or irritable, and there’s no choice but to drive.

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