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Bus Lanes Worked Wonders on East 125th. Now What About the West Side?

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, bus trips are now a third faster than before. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

On the section of 125th Street with new bus lanes, transit speeds increased by a third. Image: DOT/MTA [PDF]

Since debuting last year, Select Bus Service on 125th Street has dramatically improved transit speeds, especially on the section with dedicated bus lanes east of Lenox Avenue, according to NYC DOT and the MTA. The results strengthen the case for adding bus lanes west of Lenox, which DOT had scuttled in 2013 in response to resistance from local electeds. With more favorable politics prevailing today, the agency could revive bus lanes for West Harlem and greatly extend the impact of 125th Street SBS.

The improvement in bus service thanks to camera-enforced transit lanes, off-board fare collection, and other SBS features is impressive [PDF]. From end to end, the M60 bus from 110th Street to LaGuardia Airport now travels 11 to 14 percent faster than it did before. On 125th Street between Second and Lenox Avenues, the only part of 125th to receive dedicated bus lanes, the M60 is now 32 to 34 percent faster, an improvement that MTA bus planner Evan Bialostozky called “shocking, to even me.”

The M60 isn’t the only route to benefit from the new bus lanes: Local bus trips on the M100 and Bx15 are 7 to 20 percent faster between Second and Lenox.

“That’s helping a lot of people,” Bialostozky told the Community Board 9 transportation committee last Thursday. Crosstown buses on 125th Street serve more than more than 32,000 riders every day. Before the dedicated transit lanes debuted last year, these routes had been among the city’s slowest buses, crawling through traffic and around double-parked cars.

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Will Maryland Gov-Elect Larry Hogan Kill the Red and Purple Lines?

The Purple Line, which Governor-elect Larry Hogan has threatened to kill, is seen as key to Montgomery County’s long-term economic viability.

Seeing shovel-ready transit projects destroyed by petty politics has been all too common the last few years (see: Scott Walker and Wisconsin high-speed rail, or Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel). Even so, this one’s a doozy.

The fate of two of the country's biggest planned transit projects rest in this man's hands: Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan has the power to halt two major urban transit projects that have the planning and funding all lined up and and are all but ready to go: suburban DC’s 16-mile Purple Line as well as Baltimore’s 14-mile Red Line. More than a decade of planning has gone into each of these transit lines, and each has been awarded a competitive federal New Starts grant for $900 million [PDF], accounting for about a third of the total $5.5 billion combined cost.

Early in his gubernatorial campaign, Hogan promised to kill the projects, saying the money would be better spent on roads and that the western, eastern, and southern parts of the state deserved more attention. But closer to the election he moderated his views, saying the lines were “worth considering.”

Since winning the race, he has mostly kept mum about his intentions. When asked recently about the plans, he demurred, according to the Washington Post.

“They should just keep on guessing, because I’m going to be governor January 21, and we will start talking about policy then,” he said.

Although Hogan won’t take office for a few weeks yet, his indecision is already affecting construction timetables. Bids were due this month for the Purple Line project, but were delayed until March, after the swearing-in.

Maryland spent more than $170 million planning and purchasing right-of-way for the Purple Line and another $230+ million on planning for the Red Line. That work will go to waste if the projects are killed. Plus, because the Red Line has already gone out to bid, the state would be responsible for another $8 million in payments to the engineering firms that have prepared detailed, long-term plans to build the line.

Of the most concern to transit advocates is all the federal funding that would likely be lost if the state were to abandon or dramatically alter the plans at this late stage. In addition to the New Starts grant, the Purple Line has received $900 million in federally backed loans. None of the federal money could be used for other projects in the state.

Business groups in both the DC area and Baltimore strongly support the projects and have been urging the governor to continue with the plan.

Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect who served as a consultant and planner on the Red Line, said dirt could start flying this year in Baltimore. The $2.9 billion Red Line was expected to not just attract new passengers, but greatly expand the usefulness of the city’s existing two rail lines by creating a more extensive network. It was also expected to be a boon for struggling west Baltimore, where intensive community planning processes sought to get the most out of the stations for local neighborhoods.

“The hope is that with the Red Line [Baltimore’s rail transit] would start to become a real system and we’d have a quantum leap in connectivity,” Philipsen told Streetsblog.

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Stuck in the Middle: When Transit-Dependent Communities Lack Good Transit

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NYC neighhorhoods with low household incomes and high unemployment lack the excellent transit access to jobs available in the city’s most affluent areas. Chart: NYU Rudin Center

New Yorkers who live close to the center of town are mostly affluent and have great transit options connecting them to a wealth of job opportunities. On the edges of town, people are not quite as well-off, and most can get to work by driving their own cars. In between are the least affluent neighborhoods, where New Yorkers rely on transit but the number of jobs accessible by train or bus is much smaller than in the city core.

A new report from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation [PDF] identifies this middle band of neighborhoods as the area where transit improvements can do the most to connect more people to more jobs.

The study ranked the city’s 177 zip codes by the number of jobs accessible by a transit trip lasting 60 minutes or less at 9 a.m. on a weekday. Grouping the neighborhoods into three tiers of transit access, the authors then at income and commute data for each tier.

The top third of transit-accessible neighborhoods have high incomes, and 79 percent of commuters travel by foot or transit. Not surprisingly, the highest-ranked neighborhoods are in or near major employment centers in Manhattan. In the top 59 neighborhoods, the unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and average household income is $108,209.

Things look different in the city’s least transit-accessible neighborhoods, where 53 percent of residents drive to work. These areas, mostly beyond the reach of the subway, include neighborhoods as diverse as the low-income southern reaches of East New York and the wealthy south shore of Staten Island. Combining this mix of demographics, the unemployment rate in these neighborhoods averages 9.7 percent and the average household income is $61,381.

Then there’s the middle third of neighborhoods, where people are heavily dependent on transit but access to jobs via train or bus is mediocre. In this band of New York, 67 percent of workers commute by transit, the unemployment rate, at 11.7 percent, is higher than the rest of the city, and average income is lower, at $46,773.

It’s exactly these commuters, who live just beyond the reach of convenient transit but lack the resources to own a private car, who could benefit most from improvements to the city’s transit network.

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More People Get to Fulton Street By Bike Than By Car

Is parking really that important for merchants? Not according to surveys of their customers. Image: FAB Alliance [PDF]

Is car parking really that important for merchants? Not according to surveys of their customers. Image: FAB Alliance and Pratt Area Community Council [PDF]

When shop owners oppose new plazas or protected bike lanes, even in the city’s most walkable neighborhoods, they often say their businesses rely on street parking to attract customers. Removing even a handful of spaces, they claim, would lead to economic ruin. The reality, of course, is that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers don’t drive to do their shopping, and making streets better for walking and biking tends to pay off for merchants even if some parking spaces are removed. A new survey shows that Fulton Street in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill is another New York City shopping street where the vast majority of people arrive without taking a car [PDF].

The Fulton Area Business Alliance and the Pratt Area Community Council partnered on a survey of 477 neighborhood residents, shoppers, and visitors between June and August this year. People responded to the survey online and in live interviews along Fulton Street between Ashland Place and Classon Street. One of the survey questions asked respondents how they “typically access Fulton Street,” giving the option to choose more than one mode of travel.

Of the 401 people who responded to that question, 75 percent said they typically walk to Fulton Street. About 59 percent said they take transit, about evenly split between the bus and subway, and 16 percent said they bike, either on their own bicycles or with Citi Bike. Just 15 percent said they take an automobile to Fulton Street regularly. The survey did not distinguish between taxis, liveries, and private vehicles, which all fall under the “automobile” category.

More than half of the respondents said they visit Fulton street at least twice a week. Two-thirds of respondents live nearby in Fort Greene or Clinton Hill.

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It’s His Commission: Blame Cuomo for MTA’s Underwhelming “Reinvention”

The MTA Reinvention Commission report, the product of months of work from a panel of experts, was unceremoniously dumped to the press by the governor’s office at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, shortly before Thanksgiving. While the document [PDF] includes a number of worthwhile suggestions, it fails to seriously grapple with the biggest challenges facing New York’s transit system. The MTA’s astronomical construction costs and the substantial systemwide benefits of funding transit with road pricing get only cursory mentions. This is disappointing, but not surprising, since the report is a reflection of the man who created and controlled the commission: Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Photo: MTA/Flickr

Cuomo’s disinterest in transit goes back to the start of his administration. After a campaign where he cast doubts on the Payroll Mobility Tax that stabilized the MTA’s finances in 2009, Cuomo followed through in first year in office by cutting the PMT.

Cuomo has dipped into the MTA budget multiple times by diverting dedicated transit funding to the state’s general fund. When the legislature passed bills to require more disclosure of raids, Cuomo blew open a loophole and vetoed an effort to close it, all while denying that his financial maneuvers amounted to transit raids at all.

In an election-year stunt this February, Cuomo gave Staten Island voters drivers a 50 cent toll cut in February — a political ploy that came at transit riders’ expense.

When Cuomo worked out a labor agreement to avoid a Long Island Rail Road strike earlier this year, he hosted a press conference where smiles were in abundance but details about how much the deal would cost were not. Months later, it was revealed that new labor deals would cost the MTA at least $1.28 billion through 2017, paid for by cuts to retiree fund contributions and the authority’s own capital budget. Absent from the new labor agreements: Work rule reforms to ensure that, in addition to compensating employees well, operating funds are spent efficiently.

All the while, costs and delays continue to spiral upwards on the authority’s big-ticket projects, leading MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast to admit that large-scale capital construction might not be one of the authority’s “core competencies.”

Why does it takes so much time and so much money for the MTA to do things compared to its peer systems? The report acknowledged these problems but failed to offer much in the way of critical analysis or specific solutions, similar to how it failed to zero in on road pricing as an ideal revenue stream that can both lower the agency’s debt load and dramatically improve systemwide bus performance. (For some more food for thought about what’s missing from the report, read Alon Levy’s post at Pedestrian Observations.)

Don’t blame the commission for these shortcomings though. Blame Andrew Cuomo. He created the commission, so it’s no coincidence that it produced a document that skirts the most politically sensitive issues. The report is another sign that Cuomo’s interest in transit doesn’t extend deeper than press releases and photo-ops. The governor has no intention of confronting contractors, unions, or motorists to make a transit system that works better for all New Yorkers.

Streetsblog will not be publishing on Thursday or Friday. Happy Thanksgiving, and we’ll see you on Monday. 

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Citizens Budget Commission: MTA Capital Program Must Change Course

The fight over how to fund the MTA’s next capital plan is just starting to heat up, with worries over disappearing federal dollars, ever-expanding debt, and proposals for new revenue sources. Before the funding discussion gets going in earnest, a new report from the Citizens Budget Commission [PDF] begs the region’s transportation policymakers to take a step back and consider a more fundamental question: Does this plan prioritize the right things?

A new report raises concerns about the MTA's commitment to state of good repair projects. Photo: Gerhard Bos/Flickr

A new report raises concerns about the MTA’s commitment to state of good repair projects. Photo: Gerhard Bos/Flickr

CBC offers some harsh, if unsurprising, words for the MTA. The think tank says the authority isn’t focused enough on state of good repair and modernization, and instead pours too many resources into poorly-managed system expansion. CBC says the authority doesn’t have a clear process for selecting which of the region’s many worthy transit expansion projects move forward. Once a project is underway, the MTA has a poor track record for keeping costs and construction schedules under control.

The report has three main points: The authority is systematically scaling back its state of good repair targets and investments, is not investing enough in signal upgrades that could boost capacity on existing train lines, and needs to rethink its approach to large system expansions.

The report’s most damning conclusions raise questions about the MTA’s “declining ambition” to keep the transit network in a state of good repair. Looking at previous capital plans and the “needs assessment” documents that precede them, CBC found that the MTA is failing to meet many of its state of good repair targets from previous capital plans, and has lowered its investment targets in more recent documents. “The needs assessment set a low bar,” the report says, “and the approved plan does not meet even that low bar.”

Echoing a report from the Regional Plan Association earlier this year, CBC also urges the MTA to pick up the pace of investment in Communication-Based Train Control, which upgrades signals to allow for more frequent trains. The L train already has CBTC; installation is underway on the 7 train, and the Queens Boulevard subway is next. Despite the big benefits CBTC can bring to system capacity and operations, it’s proceeding at a snail’s pace.

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Streetsblog USA
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By a Wide Margin, Americans Favor Transit Expansion Over New Roads

It's not even close. Americans prefer transit spending to road spending. Photo: Wikipedia

It’s not even close. Americans prefer transit spending to road spending. Photo: Wikipedia

If only our nation’s spending priorities more closely tracked public opinion: A new poll [PDF] from ABC News and the Washington Post finds that when presented with the choice, Americans would rather spend transportation resources expanding transit than widening roads.

In a landline and cell phone survey that asked 1,001 randomly selected adults how they prefer “to reduce traffic congestion around
the country,” 54 percent said they would rather see government “providing more public transportation options,” compared to 41 percent who preferred “expanding and building roads.” Five percent offered no opinion on the matter. The survey had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Attitudes varied by political leaning, place of residence, and other demographic factors. Urbanites were most likely to prefer transit spending (61 percent), followed by suburbanites (52 percent), then rural residents (49 percent), indicating that transit may be preferred to roads in every setting, though the pollster’s announcement doesn’t include enough detail to say so conclusively.

Among college graduates, racial minorities, people under 40, very high earners, and political liberals and independents, majorities favor transit expansion. Meanwhile, strong conservatives, evangelical white protestants, and white men without college degrees are more likely to favor road spending.

The poll release was timed in conjunction with Tuesday’s Washington Post forum on transportation issues.

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De Blasio Signs Transit Benefit Bill, Says 25 MPH Limit Will Save Lives

This afternoon, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation requiring companies with 20 or more full-time employees in New York City to offer the federal transit tax benefit to their workers. The measure, which takes effect in 2016, is expected to save employers and workers millions of dollars each year. He also held a hearing on New York City’s new default speed limit of 25 mph, which goes into effect November 7. The mayor will hold a formal bill signing before that date.

Mayor de Blasio speaks at today's bill signing. Photo: NYC Mayor's Office/YouTube

Mayor de Blasio speaks at today’s bill signing. Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office/YouTube

“Reducing speed is a key part of Vision Zero,” de Blasio said, thanking advocates and families of traffic violence victims for their efforts to get the speed limit bill through Albany. He noted that traffic fatalities are down more than 8 percent since last year, and pedestrian deaths have fallen 23 percent. “That’s before we put the default speed limit into place. The 25 mph speed limit will make our streets even safer,” he said. “Speeding is fundamentally dangerous and can, in fact, be deadly.”

Council Member David Greenfield proposed lower speed limit legislation in the City Council in 2013. “I don’t like to call them accidents, because when someone speeds and gets into what people call an ‘accident,’ it wasn’t an accident,” Greenfield said at today’s hearing. “You shouldn’t have been speeding.”

At the hearing, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White urged de Blasio to ensure that the 200,000 drivers under city purview, either as municipal employees or licensed livery drivers, set the tone on the city’s streets by obeying the new 25 mph speed limit. He also made the case for capital funding for reconstruction of major arterial streets, where half of all traffic fatalities occur in New York.

The mayor will sign the speed limit bill before it takes effect November 7, a tactic City Hall has used before to generate more media coverage for Vision Zero bills.

The transit benefit bill requires companies with 20 or more full-time staff in New York City to allow employees to pay for transit commuting costs using pre-tax income. Someone making an average NYC wage who purchases a monthly unlimited MetroCard could save $443 annually, according to Riders Alliance, while the average employer would save $103 per employee per year [PDF].

By saving commuters money, tax-free transit helps boost ridership. A 2004 survey of NYC employers by Transit Center, which administered transit benefits on behalf of employers, found a 16 percent increase in transit ridership among employees after companies started offering transit benefits [PDF].

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Streetsblog USA
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Got Transit Troubles? The Problem Could Be the Chain of Command

Boston's MBTA enjoys unique consolidation, but that hasn't spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

Boston’s MBTA consolidates the entire region’s transit network, but that hasn’t spared it from grave funding challenges. Photo: Eno

If you still have to juggle multiple farecards for the various transit systems in your area — or if urgent maintenance issues in the city core are going unattended while the suburbs get a shiny new station — the problem might run deeper than the incompetence everyone is grumbling about. The root of it all might be embedded in the very structure of the agencies that govern your transit system.

Last year, infighting among members of Chicago’s Regional Transportation Authority about how to distribute funds led the agency to seek outside help. A team of researchers, including the Eno Center for Transportation, came to try to figure out what the trouble was. “It soon became clear that RTA did not actually have a funding distribution problem,” Eno wrote in its report.

In fact, the authors concluded, RTA had a governance problem, which in turn had far-reaching consequences beyond funding battles: Governance issues impeded RTA’s ability to coordinate regional transit services and investments and contributed to “chronic underinvestment” in Chicago’s transit network.

The Chicago area is home to three major transit operators: the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra (a regional rail agency), and Pace (a suburban bus agency), all members of the RTA. While the RTA has the power to distribute funding, that’s about all it can do. Even those funding decisions are largely based on outdated formulas set by the state. When there is some money that RTA has the discretion to allocate as it chooses, bitter disputes ensue among the three agencies — disputes like the one Eno and company were called in to mediate.

The RTA doesn’t coordinate or steer Chicago’s transit providers, so all three essentially operate separate fiefdoms. “The inherent problem is that RTA occupies an ambiguous middle ground where it is powerful enough to create challenges and bureaucracy, but not powerful enough to be productive in pursuing regional goals,” reports Eno. The Chicago officials and transit experts Eno interviewed wanted to see RTA either strengthened or eliminated, but they agreed the status quo is not productive, leading to jurisdictional battles without building regional partnerships.

Meanwhile, the state is all but absent in Chicago transit governance, which Eno says is “shortsighted” when “transit has such a large impact on the economic success of the state.” Aside from helping with coordination and regional visioning, the state could be providing needed funds.

Intrigued by the findings in Chicago, Eno then partnered with TransitCenter to study five other cities to see how transit governance structures affect operations.

Here’s a cheat sheet before we go on:

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The 10 Best and Worst Cities to Catch a Bus to Work

This chart shows the number of jobs accessible by transit in Atlanta. Red indicates better accessibility by transit. Image: University of Minnesota

This map shows the number of jobs accessible by transit from a given point. Few parts of Atlanta have good transit accessibility compared to the nation’s top performing cities. Map: University of Minnesota

It’s been called “the geography of opportunity.” And David Levinson is trying to make a science of it.

In a new analysis, Levinson, a University of Minnesota transportation engineering professor, and his colleague Andrew Owen have ranked the 50 largest U.S. metro areas based on job accessibility by transit [PDF].

Levinson and Owen used transit schedules and walking routes to chart how many jobs are accessible in each region from a given point within a given amount of time. Adding Census data about where people reside, they were able to calculate the number of jobs the average worker in each region can reach via transit within 10-minute intervals. The rankings are based on those stats — the more jobs a typical resident can reach via transit in a short amount of time, the higher a region performed.

This chart shows job accessibility by 10-minute intervals for the Charlotte region. Image: University of Minnesota

This chart shows the number of jobs accessible via transit for an average worker in the Charlotte region, within 10-minute intervals of travel time. Graph: University of Minnesota

The top 10 cities for job accessibility by transit, according to Owen and Levinson, align fairly well with what you would expect:

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