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City Streets in State Officials’ Hands Can Be a Recipe for Disaster

Cyclists rally for a safer Carson Street in Pittsburgh. Photo: Bike PGH

People rally for a safer Carson Street in Pittsburgh. Photo: Bike PGH

Cities shouldn’t have to fight with state departments of transportation to ensure streets are safe for their residents. But too often that’s exactly the case, and when cities lose, the result can be deadly.

A tragic story from Pittsburgh illustrates the problem. Just a week after Pennsylvania DOT debuted a car-centric redesign of iconic Carson Street, a motorist struck and killed cyclist Dennis Flanagan there. More than 1,200 people have now signed a petition demanding a safer design. Here’s an excerpt from a letter from Bike PGH Executive Director Scott Bricker to PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards:

West Carson was closed for approximately two years, and while inconvenient for many, it did not create the predicted traffic nightmare associated with a typical blocked arterial. In the lead up to the closure and during construction, Mayor Bill Peduto, Councilwoman Kail-Smith, Senator Wayne Fontana, Representative Dan Deasy, community leaders, residents, City of Pittsburgh Departments of City Planning and Public Works, and Bike Pittsburgh unsuccessfully lobbied PennDOT District-11 to create a more inclusive design that would connect these communities via bike to other bicycle facilities only a stone’s throw away, namely the Station Square Trail and the Montour Trail to the Pittsburgh International Airport. In fact, the City of Pittsburgh pitched PennDOT District-11 a conceptual design eliminating the needless turning lane for most of the distance and using the remaining width for bike lanes, only to be silently rebuffed. Instead, PennDOT’s engineers decided to go against these wishes and charge ahead with a design that only exacerbates the speeding problem, and which gave no dedicated safe space for people who ride bikes to get around.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Clinton vs. Trump on Infrastructure (The Hill)
  • White House Expands Smart Cities Focus
  • Aging U.S. Transit Systems to See Rise in Federal Funding (WSJ)
  • Paris Bans Vehicle Traffic Along Seine Riverbank (Guardian)
  • Lower Speed Limits Approved in Seattle (Seattle Times)
  • In Boston, Advocates Push for Late-Night Bus Service (Boston Globe)
  • The Success Story of Denver Transit (WSJ)
  • Majority of Maine Voters Support Transportation Bonds (Portland Press Herald)
  • Dallas Leaders Prioritize Downtown Subway Above Suburban Service (Dallas News)
  • Who Pays for Detroit Streetcar If Transit Tax Fails in November? (Crain’s)
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White House: Make Cities Affordable By Building for Walkability, Not Parking

The Obama administration is taking on the crisis of rising rents in American cities, releasing a series of recommendations today to spur the construction of more affordable housing. Among the many ideas the White House endorses: allowing more multi-family housing near transit and getting rid of parking minimums.

Rising rents are putting pressure on American families. Graph: White House

Rising rents and stagnant incomes are putting pressure on American families. Graph: White House

Since 1960, the share of renters paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing — the baseline for what is considered “affordable” — has risen from 24 percent to 49 percent, the White House reports in its new Housing Development Toolkit [PDF]. There are now 7.7 million severely rent-burdened households, defined as those paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent — an increase of about 2.5 million in just the past 10 years.

In the toolkit, the Obama administration acknowledges the links between housing and transportation, saying that “smart housing regulation optimizes transportation system use, reduces commute times, and increases use of public transit, biking and walking.”

The toolkit is full of policy recommendations to make it easier to build multi-family housing, incentivize the construction of subsidized housing, and shift away from the single-family/large lot development paradigm.

The document is merely advisory — federal officials don’t have the power to supersede most local zoning laws. But the White House does say that U.S. DOT will evaluate cities’ approaches to new housing development when it considers awarding major grants for new transit projects.

Here are a few of the highlights from the recommendations.

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More Evidence That Speed Cameras Work

The evidence is clear: Speed cameras save lives.

Photo: PBOT via Bike Portland

Photo: PBOT via Bike Portland

Here’s the latest success story — an update from Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland on the city’s first speed camera, which was installed on Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway last month:

Here are some facts about the BHH camera released by PBOT today:

  • Before the cameras were installed, an average 1,417 vehicles a day traveled 51 mph or faster, according to readings by a pneumatic tube laid across the roadway.
  • During the warning period from Aug. 24 to Sept. 18, an average 93 vehicles a day were found traveling 51 mph or faster — a 93.4 percent reduction from the tube count.
  • In the first week of the warning period, cameras recorded an average 115 violations a day. Violations dropped to an average 72 a day by the week of Sept. 12 to 18.

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Today’s Headlines

  • To Understand the Rage in Charlotte, Look to the History of Its Roads (ThinkProgress)
  • G-7 Welcomes U.S. Driverless Car Guidelines (Seattle Times)
  • Voters in NJ, Illinois Could Opt to Protect Transportation Funds (Governing)
  • BRT Posed as Answer to Miami’s Traffic Congestion (Miami Herald)
  • If DC Metro Cancels Late-Night Service, Can Uber and Lyft Fill the Gap? (WaPo)
  • How Building Bigger Roads Actually Worsens Traffic (Wired)
  • Land Disputes Complicate Plans for Dallas-Houston Rail (Houston Chron)
  • Feds Sign Off on Milwaukee BRT Plans (Milwaukee Biz Journal)
  • Bike Lanes Coming to Evanston Road Where Driver Killed Student Cyclist (Streetsblog Chicago)
  • Philly Ends Status as Largest U.S. City Without Protected Bike Lanes (Philly Voice)
  • Ashland, VA: The Railroad Town That Doesn’t Want Another Train (WaPo)
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Talking Headways Podcast: The City of Los Angeles Is Full

Shane Phillips, who writes at the blog Better Institutions, joins the podcast this week to discuss housing issues in Los Angeles (and everywhere else), and what to make of the “Neighborhood Integrity Initiative.”

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Why a Struggling Industrial City Decided Bikes Are the Way Forward

Reading, Pennsylvania, isn’t your stereotypical biking mecca. It’s a low-income, largely Latino, post-industrial city of almost 90,000 people.

But without much of anything in the way of bike infrastructure, Reading has the third-highest rate of bike commuting in Pennsylvania and is among the top 15 cities on the East Coast.

Some civic leaders in Reading have seized on the idea of better serving people who bike as a way to improve safety and community, as well as to help reverse the legacy of sprawl and disinvestment.

We’re excited to be the first to post this video from the Portland-based publishing crew Elly Blue and Joe Biel.

The film is part of a short series that Elly and Joe produced to show a broader cross-section of regions and people working on bike issues. They made the films while traveling around America on their Dinner and Bikes Tour.

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Restrictive Housing Policies in a Few Cities Hurt the Whole U.S. Economy

The San Francisco Bay Area is not building nearly enough housing to keep pace with job growth. The result is an affordability crisis. Graphic: Plan Bay Area 2040 via Kim-Mai Cutler

The San Francisco Bay Area is not building nearly enough housing to keep pace with job growth. The result is an affordability crisis. Graphic: Plan Bay Area 2040 via Kim-Mai Cutler [PDF]

It’s no secret that major coastal cities are dealing with a housing shortage that’s causing runaway rents. What’s less well understood, however, is how low-density zoning not only limits the supply of housing but affects the U.S. economy more broadly.

Pete Rodrigue at Greater Greater Washington points to a study estimating the economic impact of policies like single-family zoning and height limits, which restrict access to places where economic opportunity is greatest. Even looking at just three regions, the effect is huge:

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009—about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker…

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn’t necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Rodrigue suggests how the implications of this work should be applied in the DC region:

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Today’s Headlines

  • New Bill Could Bring Airport-Like Security to U.S. Rail (Skift)
  • Study: Personal Car Ownership Will Peak by 2021 (WaPo)
  • Older Adults Are the Fastest-Growing Group of U.S. Drivers (Orlando Sentinel)
  • Lawmakers Debate Fuel Efficiency, Greenhouse Gas Standards (The Hill)
  • Meet Some of DC’s Ex-Metro Riders (WaPo)
  • House Bill Would Reimburse Federal Workers for Ride-Sharing (The Hill)
  • Transit Advocates Critical of Baltimore Bus Route Overhaul (Baltimore Sun)
  • Why Doesn’t London Join in on Car-Free Day? (Guardian)
  • Transit Proximity Was Good for DC Real Estate Even 150 Years Ago (GGW)
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Will US DOT’s Self-Driving Car Rules Make Streets Safe for Walking and Biking?

This week, U.S. DOT released guidelines for self-driving cars, a significant step as regulators prepare for companies to bring this new technology to market. Autonomous vehicles raise all sorts of questions about urban transportation systems. It’s up to advocates to ensure that the technology helps accomplish broader goals like safer streets and more efficient use of urban space, instead of letting private companies dictate the terms.

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

The rules that the feds put out will be revised over time, and the public can weigh in during that process. With that in mind, I’ve been reviewing the guidelines and talking to experts about the implications for city streets — and especially for pedestrian and cyclist safety. Here are a few key things to consider as regulations for self-driving cars get fleshed out.

Fully autonomous cars can’t break traffic laws.

The feds say self-driving cars should adhere to all traffic laws. In practice, this means they’ll have to do things like obey the speed limit and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Following the rules may be a pretty low bar to clear, but it’s more than most human drivers can say for themselves.

Transit advocate Ben Ross points out, however, that this standard will only apply to “highly automated vehicles” (HAVs). Cars that are lower down on the autonomy spectrum — where a person is deemed the driver, not a machine — wouldn’t need to have features that override human error.

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