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Transit Speed and Urbanism: It’s Complicated

There’s been a rollicking online debate the past week on the subject of “slow transit.” Matt Yglesias at Vox and Yonah Freemark at Transport Politic noted the downsides of two transit projects — the DC streetcar and the Twin Cities’ Green Line, respectively — arguing that they run too slowly to deserve transit advocates’ unqualified support.

Matt Yglesias at Vox called the DC Streetcar the "worst transit project in America" and kicked off an interesting debate about the importance of speed in public transportation. Image: Better Cities & Towns

Matt Yglesias called the DC Streetcar the “worst transit project in America,” kicking off a debate about the importance of speed in public transportation. Image: Better Cities & Towns

Robert Steuteville at Better Cities & Towns! — a publication of the Congress for New Urbanism — responded by defending slow-moving streetcars, saying they help create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that make fast, long-distance trips less necessary. Then Jarrett Walker ran a response from a Human Transit reader questioning whether streetcars are a worthwhile way to achieve Steuteville’s goal of increasing access to a wide range of destinations.

Jeff Wood, co-host of Streetsblog’s Talking Headways Podcast, wades into the debate today at his blog, the Overhead Wire. He says there’s some tension between a walkable urban fabric and surface transit that moves through places as quickly as possible:

By trying to maximize connections to the community, the transit line has to stop more often, slowing speeds. And if built into a legacy urban fabric, this also includes negotiation with tons of cross streets where designers don’t give priority to the transit line. This happens in Cleveland on the Health Line BRT as well as the Orange Line in Los Angeles, even though it has its own very separated right of way. The Gold Line Light Rail in LA and the Orange Line originally had the same distance, yet one was 15 minutes faster end to end. A lot of this had to do with less priority on cross streets given to the Orange Line, not because it was a bus or rail line.

Wood says that while Portland’s streetcar certainly doesn’t deserve all the credit for the development of the Pearl District, it’s hard to argue that the project didn’t help construction, overcoming zoning and NIMBY barriers. But that type of transit doesn’t work everywhere, he says, listing a few ways to harmonize fast transit with walkable urbanism:

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Want to Improve Traffic Safety? Let People Get Around Without Driving

This ad is being aired across Missouri to convince voters to OK a three-quarter-cent sales tax that would raise $5.4 billion for transportation projects — mostly highways — over 10 years. The spots have been airing heavily in the run-up to the August 5 election, supported by millions of dollars from construction companies that hope to cash in.

It was smart of the construction lobby to zero in on the issue of safety, says Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns. But will spending billions on highway expansion make anyone safer? Marohn doesn’t think so:

We can have a lot of conversation about what makes a transportation system safe — and we have had that conversation here in multiple ways – but few people ever talk about the safest option: reducing the amount people are forced to drive.

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Senate Tees Up Last-Minute Showdown on Transpo Funding

With just two work days left before the federal transportation funding source dips into the red, Congress is moving toward a high-stakes showdown over how to close the gap.

Yesterday the Senate passed a bill to transfer $8 billion from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund, which would keep things running until December 19 — meaning the next deal would be struck before a new Congress is seated. The House, meanwhile, has a different idea — using unpopular budget gimmicks to extend transportation funding until May 31, when both houses of Congress may be controlled by the GOP.

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the Senate bill is an improvement in a few ways:

Late Tuesday evening, the Senate modified and approved a measure transferring about $8 billion from the general fund to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent until the end of the year. But because two amendments were made, it’ll return to the House for further action before any final deal can be approved on postponing insolvency of the nation’s transportation program. The House will have to act fast: the long August recess is scheduled to begin in just three days.

Conventional wisdom had held that the Senate would adopt the House-passed bill as-is so they could finish up well before recess begins later this week. However, a strong bipartisan group supported amendments to eliminate the most controversial accounting gimmick and cut the length of the patch in half to keep the pressure on to find a long-term fix as soon as possible.

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Long Beach Gets Moving on Southern California’s First Highway Teardown

Image via Longbeachize

Removing a piece of the Terminal Island Freeway (red) would free up acres of land for new park space. Map: Longbeachize

This week, Long Beach put out a request for bids to tear down a stretch of the Terminal Island Freeway, opening up 20 to 30 acres for new park space. Brian Addison at Longbeachize explains why it’s a long time coming and very good news:

It’s been named one of the top  “Freeways Without Futures” in the nation and described as a “perfect example of obsolete infrastructure.” It has been a blight on a neighborhood that sees some of the least amount of park space in the entire city.

Now, the project to remove a large portion of the Terminal Island (TI) Freeway in West Long Beach has officially gone out to bid in an RFP… It marks a major event in Southern California’s urban design history, being the first freeway removal project that mirrors existing projects such as the removal of both of San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway.

The project is simple: the existing northern length of the freeway, following the development of the 20-mile long Alameda Corridor and the still-underway modernization of the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) by Union Pacific Railroad, is redundant. Not only do shipping companies use it less and less, the traffic itself matches those of 4th Street along Retro Row (some 13,700 [motor vehicle trips per day]). And if plans for ICTF follow through, you can drop that down to 8,700 [trips per day]–less than the traffic 3rd Street receives in the quiet neighborhood of Alamitos Beach.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Human Transit runs a response to a defense of slow-running transit projects. Greater Greater Washington shares research showing how Capital Bikeshare users change their transit habits. And the Bike League offers some suggestions for legal reforms that can help boost bicycling rates.

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9 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Transit Still Struggling to Recover

Image: Ride New Orleans

The frequency and coverage of New Orleans transit service is nowhere close to pre-Katrina levels. Maps: Ride New Orleans

Next month will mark nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, flooding nearly 80 percent of the city. In the wake of disaster, the city has demonstrated remarkable resilience. Its population has rebounded to about 86 percent of where it stood before the flooding.

But a new report from transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans [PDF] shows the city’s transit system is nowhere near its pre-Hurricane strength. Evan Landman at Human Transit shares the details:

Some key points from the report:

  • In 2004, RTA’s peak fleet was 301 buses. By 2012, that number had dropped to just 79.
  • Revenue hours declined from over 1 million prior to the storm to fewer than 600,000 in 2012.
  • By 2012, only 36% of the pre-storm daily trips had been restored.
  • In 2012, no bus routes in the entire system operated at 15 minute or better frequency, down from 12 previously.
  • Meanwhile, overall service level on the city’s historic streetcar routes declined by only 9%, and the number of available vehicles (66) is the same today as in 2005.

What accounts for the difference between the relatively robust network of 2005 and today’s service offering? Obviously no transit agency would have an easy time recovering from the damage done to its vehicles and operational infrastructure by a catastrophic event like Katrina. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. But nearly a decade on, something has prevented RTA from ramping back up to its prior service level.

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What’s the Best Way to Tax Parking?

Taxing parking, the way Pittsburgh does, can make downtowns livelier and encourage a healthier mix of transportation options.

A visual inventory of parking in downtown Providence. Image: Greater City Providence

An inventory of parking in downtown Providence. Image: Greater City Providence

Of course, implementing these policies can get tricky. A recent report from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute [PDF] delves into the issue and sorts out the best way to go about it.

At his blog, Transport Providence, James Kennedy considers what the conclusions mean for his city:

The long and short of it is that it’s politically easiest to tax parking on dedicated lots, rather than to do a “per space” tax on all parking, but this way of taxing parking has problems. We might be tempted, for instance, to tax the lots in downtown Providence but not tax the lot attached to, say, the Whole Foods, because our instinctive thought would be that though we don’t like a surface lot next to a grocery store, it’s much better than a bare lot serving nothing but parking alone.

The problem comes with the fact that the lot parking attached to businesses is free to customers and employees. Of course, it’s not actually free. It costs money which is passed into lost wages or higher prices. But to the worker or consumer, it appears free. When the price of commercial parking, i.e., the lots downtown that charge per hour, becomes more expensive without putting an equal burden on these other parking lots, it gives a stronger incentive for businesses to include free parking into their design as a benefit to customers or workers. This is not what we want.

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How to Breathe Cleaner Air While Biking: Ride at 11 MPH

Portland State University Ph.D candidate Alex Bigazzi has been biking around Portland with a $300 homebuilt air quality monitor. His goal: to get a sense of how much pollution he was breathing and how to minimize exposure to harmful fumes. Bigazzi has recently been sharing his findings around Portland.

Riding on the slow side reduces the amount of pollution you breathe. Image: Alex Bigazzi via Bike Portland

On a flat (zero percent) grade, riding at 11 mph minimizes the pollution you breathe. On uphills, the optimum speed is slower. Graph: Alex Bigazzi via Bike Portland

Michael Andersen at Bike Portland reports today that Bigazzi’s first tip is to not ride very fast:

The biggest contributor to pollution intake, Bigazzi found, isn’t actually how dirty the air around you is. It’s how much of it you breathe.

“Ventilation completely dominates the exposure differences,” Bigazzi said. “The exposure differences are not that big.”

That creates an interesting mathematical puzzle: the harder your body works, the more pollution you breathe in. But the faster you move, the less time you’ll spend in the dirty air.

So assuming you’re headed to a place where the air is cleaner than it is along a roadway (Precision Castparts commuters, take note), here’s a curve Bigazzi constructed that shows the optimum speed to ride for various bikeway slopes. It’s expressed in kilometers per hour; the 17.5 kph “minimum ventilation speed” for a flat 0 percent grade is 11 mph.

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Why People Who Love Nature Should Live Apart From It

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If you care about the natural environment, where should you live?

Surrounding yourself with the trappings of nature, writes Shane Phillips at Better Institutions today, is a far cry from respecting and protecting the wilderness: 

Much like the flower, for many of us, to love nature is to destroy it. We move from the city to the suburb or the rural town to be closer to nature, and to make it habitable (for us) we clear-cut it for new development, pave it over and turn woods and grasslands into manicured lawns, pollute it with our vehicles, etc. In our efforts to possess a small slice of “nature,” we change the meaning of the word, leaving us with something beautiful, perhaps, but far from natural. This strain of thinking is very popular in places like the Bay Area, where there’s a belief that we have to sharply limit development in cities in order to preserve some semblance of nature — ”how can a place so gray possibly be green?”

But environmentalism is about much more than surrounding ourselves with greenery; in fact, its true meaning is exactly the opposite. Real environmentalism means surrounding ourselves with steel, concrete, and other human beings, leaving nature to itself instead of attempting to own it and shape it to our own selfish needs. What makes cities so important is that they allow us to express our love and appreciation for nature in a healthy way: from a distance, as a societal and environmental resource that can be preserved far into the future.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Seattle Transit Blog says the city’s efforts to secure a streetcar are gaining momentum. The Transportationist prices out the economic costs of slower-than-expected travel times on the Twin Cities’ new Green Line. And This Big City looks at the impact of AirBnB on cities.

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America’s Myopic Public Debate About Tolling Roads

A tolling holiday on the SR 520 bridge in Seattle would likely make traffic worse during a construction project, but that's what some have demanded. Photo: Marc Smith, Flickr

Suspending tolls on the SR 520 bridge in Seattle would likely make traffic worse during a construction project, but that’s what some motorists say they want. Photo: Marc Smith/Flickr

Seattle is getting ready to embark on a construction project that will put the squeeze on a few of its major highways. This event, ironically, served as a jumping off point for local media to indignantly demand a tolling “holiday” on the SR 520 floating bridge.

Martin Duke at Seattle Transit Blog said the episode illustrates the absurdity of the debate about highway tolling:

The idea that tolling is some insidious stealth tax, or a fundamental violation of the inalienable right to drive anywhere, for free, with unlimited subsidy is a well-established cancer on the Puget Sound’s discourse.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand our highway capacity and “ease congestion” does massive damage to the environment and ends up inducing the same congestion. But in that debate, the establishment wrings its hands about the economy and the need to move freight around, because time is money. When maintenance dramatically reduces highway capacity, however, no one cares enough about businesses to do the one thing that might help.

I agree that freight operators, the handyman with his tools, and so on need uncongested highways. And because shorter trips on the highway feed directly into their bottom line, tolls are but a fraction of the cost of sitting in traffic because there’s no alternative. The answer, if policymakers really care about businesses like PCC Logistics, is not to suspend the toll but raise the toll to whatever level keeps 520 free-flowing this week.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Counting Pantographs offers an interesting discussion about how sprawl affects the Mormon Church. Greater Greater Washington talks to activists trying to improve the impact of a Metro construction project on public space in Silver Spring. And the City Fix explains how congestion pricing could help reduce inequality in Beijing.

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Will Texas DOT Gouge Another Highway Through Dallas?

A proposal for the $1.3 billion Trinity Toll Road in Dallas. Image: North Texas Tolling Authority

A proposal for the $1.3 billion Trinity Toll Road in Dallas. Image: North Texas Tolling Authority

The Trinity Toll Road embodies Texas’s destructive compulsion for expanding highways.

The proposed $1.3 billion highway project will likely increase sprawl and weaken central Dallas. It’s part of a $5 billion package of road projects to ostensibly reduce congestion. Because tackling congestion by building always works out well.

If you need another reason to feel leery of the Trinity Toll Road, here’s a good one: The Dallas region can’t afford it. But while it looks like local agencies may never put together the money to make the project happen, now the state — which also can’t afford it — may get involved, reports Brandon Formby at the Dallas Morning News’ Transportation Blog:

TxDOT’s involvement could move the long-delayed and consistently divisive project closer to completion if the [North Texas Tolling Authority] and the city can’t come up with the money needed to build it. So far, a source for the bulk of construction costs hasn’t been identified. But TxDOT chipping in would also push the project farther, once again, from the narrative city leaders sold to voters who narrowly approved the project seven years ago. The road was portrayed in 2007 as a project that would largely be paid for by the drivers who would eventually use it.

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