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Austin’s Emerging Bipartisan Coalition for Walkable Housing

Kathleen Hunker from the conservative think thank Texas Public Policy Foundation supported the "granny flats" legislation, as did some of the most liberal members of Austin's City Council. Photo via Austin on Your Feet

“Granny flats” legislation sponsored by liberal Council Member Greg Casar was also endorsed by Kathleen Hunker (above) from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. Photo via Austin on Your Feet

Last week, the Austin City Council voted to allow “granny flats” — small accessory dwellings — in some areas zoned for single-family housing, and to reduce parking requirements along transit corridors. These types of reforms make housing more affordable and make neighborhoods more walkable and transit-friendly.

Dan Keshet at Austin on Your Feet said the vote highlights new political dynamics in the city. For one, it didn’t break down along party lines:

The granny flat resolution was introduced by Greg Casar, whose main claim to fame before City Council was as a labor rights activist. It was supported by the Republicans on City Council: Zimmerman and Troxclair, as well as Sheri Gallo (who has previously run as a Republican) [edit: I previously listed CM Gallo as a Republican, but now I’m not so sure] and three other Democrats: Adler, Rentería, and Garza. The four democrats who supported are definitely not “conservative” democrats in any meaningful sense. To understand land use politics, it’s best to set aside party labels.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Report: Transportation Planning Isn’t Keeping Up With the Times (Governing)
  • Why Do Most Northeast Travelers Still Choose Driving? (CityLab)
  • Transit Takes Front Seat in Talks on Atlanta’s Future (AJC)
  • Montgomery County, MD, to Start Building BRT on Its Own (WaPo)
  • How Will Low-Income Commuters Deal with Fare Hikes in Denver and Bay Area? (Next City, SF Gate)
  • A Healthier Future for Disappointing Commercial Corridors (Urban Land)
  • Strong Towns Maps Cities That Ditched Parking Minimums
  • How Can We Reduce Air Pollution Risks for Cyclists? (CityLab)

Planning for Less Driving, Not More, Would Lead to Big Savings


Chart: MassPIRG

What if, instead of basing policy around the presumption that people will drive more every year, transportation agencies started making decisions to reduce the volume of driving? And what if they succeed?

A new report from the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group quantifies what would happen in that state if driving rates come in one percentage point lower than the state DOT’s current annual projections. For instance, in a year that the DOT forecasts 0.49 percent growth in driving, MassPIRG hypothesizes a 0.51 percent decrease. MassPIRG estimates that the statewide effect from now until 2030 would add up to about $20 billion in savings and 23 million metric tons of carbon emissions avoided.

The effects grow as the decline compounds over time. In the first year, a one percentage point change in driving rates would save about $167 million in avoided costs of gas, road repairs, and traffic collisions. By 2030, the savings would rise to $2.3 billion per year.

Broken down by category, the state would save about $1.9 billion on road repairs over the 15-year period. Drivers would net $3.8 billion in savings on car repairs and another $7.7 billion on gas purchases. And auto collisions would cost $6.7 billion less to society, as people avoid medical expenses, property damage, and lost wages.

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TIGER Restored, Transit Expansion Funds Cut in 2016 Spending Bill

As the House and the Senate get to work on hashing out a multi-year transportation bill in conference committee, Congress is also putting together its annual spending package for transportation. The annual bill decides the fate of several discretionary programs, and earlier this year it looked like US DOT’s TIGER grants, which tend to fund multi-modal projects at the regional or local level, might not survive.

TIGER funding provided $10.5 million to build a network of biking and walking facilities in Lee County, Florida, one of the most dangerous areas for walking and biking. Image: Lee County MPO via Bike Walk Lee

TIGER funding provided $10.5 million to build a network of biking and walking routes in Lee County, Florida. Image: Lee County MPO via Bike Walk Lee

Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America says the final bill keeps TIGER but still represents a step backward for transit:

Good news: the new bill proposes no changes to what kinds of projects can apply for TIGER funding, and increases funding for the program by $100 million this year.

The Senate’s initial bill introduced this summer provided $500 million for TIGER — the same amount as the just-ended fiscal year — and the House version of this bill provided far less at $100 million. It’s encouraging to see the Senate appropriators increase funding for this important program in the newest draft proposal, and that there are no changes to what kinds of projects can apply. This is a hopeful sign that for future House-Senate negotiations on the final transportation spending bill for 2016.

The funding for building new transit service — New Starts, Small Starts and Core Capacity — was increased by more than $300 million from this summer’s Senate THUD bill up to $1.9 billion, just $24 million less than the proposed House levels of $1.92 billion. That sounds like good news, but it’s still represents a $200 million cut from last year for this program.

Amtrak funding was unchanged: $289 million for operating and $1.1B for capital projects, which is slightly more ($39 million) than this year.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network today: Jarrett Walker at Human Transit says transit doesn’t have to be designed to serve a single “downtown” focal point — in fact there are major benefits to having multiple clusters of destinations. Also at Human Transit, a guest author asks whether autonomous cars will lead to a big boost in vehicle miles traveled. And BTA Blog writes that a group of victims’ families is speaking up for safer streets in Oregon.

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Today’s Headlines

  • The Fed Balks as Congress Aims to Take Billions for Transpo (Politico)
  • The American Highway Users Alliance Wants You to Know About These Traffic Tie-Ups (WaPoCBS News)
  • How a Giant Highway Wrecked Syracuse (Atlantic)
  • “Layer of Government Legitimacy” Added to Vegas-to-SoCal High-Speed Rail (AP)
  • WaPo Chronicles Five Myths About the DC Metro
  • Heritage Foundation Picks Out Five Gimmicks in the Transpo Bill (The Hill)
  • CTFastTrak Plans to Expand East (Hartford Courant)

Zig Zag Road Striping Calms Traffic in Virginia

Virginia Department of Transportation installed these zig zag pavement markings to caution drivers about the potential for pedestrians and cyclists by a popular trail crossing. Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation

Virginia DOT installed these zig zag markings to caution drivers approaching the intersection of a popular walking and biking trail. Photo: Virginia DOT

At 11 points in northern Virginia, the familiar straight dashed lines on the road gives way to a series of zig zags. The unusual markings, the result of a pilot project from the Virginia Department of Transportation, are meant to alert drivers to be cautious where the Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail intersects with the road — and bicyclists and pedestrians frequently cross.

After a year-long study of this striping treatment, Virginia DOT officials say the markings are effective and should become part of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices — the playbook for American street designers.

This photo shows another style of zig zag pavement marking tested in Virginia. Photo: VDOT

This photo shows another style of zig zag pavement marking tested in Virginia. Photo: VDOT

VDOT found the zig zag markings slowed average vehicle speeds, increased motorist awareness of pedestrians and cyclists, and increased the likelihood that drivers would yield. They also noted that the effects of the design change didn’t wear off once motorists became used to the it — they still slowed down a year after installation.

VDOT says the results indicate that zig zag markings are a more cost-effective solution for conflict points between trails and high-speed roads than the current treatments: flashing beacons placed above the road or off to the side.

The zig zag concept was imported from Europe. It is currently used in only two other locations in North America: Hawaii and Ottawa, Ontario. It was one of more than a dozen European traffic management techniques VDOT zeroed in on to test locally.

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Oregon DOT Chief Under Fire for Claiming Highways Cut Emissions

How often do state DOTs lie with numbers to justify building highways?

Oregon DOT Director Matt Garrett could lose his job for being dishonest about emissions projections. Photo: Jonathan Maus, Bike Portland

Oregon DOT Director Matt Garrett could lose his job for misleading the public about the effect of highway building on emissions. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

There’s so much funny math buried inside air quality formulas or traffic projections, a better question might be: Do these agencies ever tell the truth?

Here’s a case where a dishonest case for highways was flushed out into the open. David Bragdon, former chief of Portland’s regional planning organization, recently accused state DOT director Matt Garrett of “incompetence or dishonesty.” (Bragdon now directs the nonprofit TransitCenter, based in New York City.) He charged that bogus emissions data from ODOT helped sink a $350 million transportation funding deal in the state legislature.

Michael Andersen at Bike Portland explains:

Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett is facing criticism from both sides over the incident, earlier this year, when his office and Gov. Kate Brown’s temporarily claimed that tens of millions of dollars in freeway investments would be part of reducing long-run carbon emissions in Oregon by more than 2 million metric tons.

Garrett was forced to admit in a legislative hearing that this number was way off-base. There is now a revolt against his leadership, Andersen writes:

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Today’s Headlines

  • Senate Sends Transpo Funding Band-Aid Over to Obama (The Hill)
  • Shuster Vows It’s the Last Short-Term Extension (Equipment World)
  • Former FTA Head Peter Rogoff Takes Charge of Seattle’s Transit Growth (Seattle Times)
  • Rand Paul’s Syrian Refugee Amendment Complicates THUD Bill (Roll Call)
  • Charlotte NC’s Great Train Debate (Politico Mag)
  • DC Metro’s New Boss Faces Mountain of Frustrations (WaPo)
  • A Big Step Back for Texas High-Speed Rail (CityLab)
  • Why Aren’t California’s New Train Stations Attracting More Retail? (USAPP Blog)
  • Working to Make Tampa Less Scary for Pedestrians (Creative Loafing Tampa)
  • A Civil Rights History of Atlanta, By Bike (Next City)

The High Price of Cheap Gas

At least on the surface, the big declines in gas prices we’ve seen over the past year seem like an unalloyed good. We save money at the pump, and we have more to spend on other things, But the cheap gas has serious hidden costs—more pollution, more energy consumption, more crashes and greater traffic congestion. There’s an important lesson here, if we pay attention.

US macroeconomic forecasters are usually very upbeat about any decline in gasoline prices.

Because the US is a big importer of petroleum, a decline in oil prices benefits the US economy. Lower oil prices reduce the nation’s balance of trade deficit, and effectively put more income into consumer’s pockets, which helps stimulate the domestic economy. In theory, declining gas prices should have the same stimulative effect as a tax cut. Whether that’s true in practice depends on how consumers respond to changing gas prices. Some of the positive effect of the decline has been muted by consumer disbelief that price reductions are permanent. Earlier this year, surveys by VISA showed that 70% of consumers were still wary that prices could rise.

Low gas prices: worse news than you think. Credit: Minale Tattersfield, Flickr

Low gas prices: worse news than you think. Credit: Minale Tattersfield, Flickr

But cheaper gas has does free up consumer budgets to spend more in other industries. Using data on credit card and debit card purchases of households, and looking at variations in spending among households that spent a little and a lot of their income on gasoline, and observing how spending patterns changed as gas prices fluctuate led the JP Morgan Chase Institute to predict that the bulk of savings from lower gas prices go to restaurant meals, groceries and entertainment.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Gabe Klein’s Start Up City

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Gabe Klein joins us this week to talk about how to get things done and make big changes to improve city streets and transportation. Gabe has served as the transportation chief of both Chicago and Washington, DC, and prior to his stint in government was an executive with Zipcar (he is also currently on the board of OpenPlans, the organization that publishes Streetsblog USA).

Gabe is out with a new book, Start Up City, about creating change through local government. He shares his insights about the interplay of the public and private sectors, how to push people to overcome a fear of failure, and cutting across the siloes of city departments. Gabe also talks about how he got into transportation, and why Vision Zero is a powerful idea for cities.

All of this and more (including our debate over whether a hot dog is a sandwich) on Talking Headways.