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DeFazio, Norton, and Larsen Take on Dangerous Street Design

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is already proving that he’ll put some muscle into the fight for bike and pedestrian safety in his new post as ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Before even starting his new job as Ranking Member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2012/03/27/rep-defazio-takes-us-inside-the-transportation-fight-and-the-republican-psyche-69482##Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland##

Before even starting his new job as ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio is going to bat for bike and pedestrian safety. Photo: Jonathan Maus/Bike Portland

DeFazio and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), top Democrat on the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, have signed on to fellow T&I Democrat Rick Larsen (D-WA)’s letter asking the Government Accountability Office to look into the recent rise in bike and pedestrian fatalities, which increased 6 percent between 2011 and 2012.

At the state and federal level, efforts to improve the safety of walking and biking often blame the victim — as the Governors Highway Safety Association did when it flagged the recent increase in cyclist fatalities without noting that biking rates have gone up much more. DeFazio and company are emphasizing a much more fundamental problem: street design.

In their letter, they state:

[W]e are concerned that conventional engineering practices have encouraged engineers to design roads at 5-15 miles per hour faster than the posted speed for the street. This typically means roads are designed and built with wider, straighter lanes and have fewer objects near the edges, more turn lanes, and wider turning radii at intersections. While these practices improve driving safety, a suspected unintended consequence is that drivers travel faster when they feel safer. Greater speeds can increase the frequency and severity of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists who are moving at much slower speeds and have much less protection than a motorized vehicle affords.

The GAO responds to lawmaker requests like these by investigating the matter and reporting back to help members of Congress develop a deeper understanding of the issues so they can set better policy. The GAO itself makes recommendations for improvement in the reports.

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Kentucky Threatens 17 Louisville Street Trees, Citing Safety [Updated]

The Kentucky Department of Transportation objects to street trees on this stroad. Image: Google Maps

The Kentucky Department of Transportation says trees make this road dangerous. Image: Google Maps

Here’s a classic story of traffic engineering myopia. Officials at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet are threatening to remove 17 newly planted street trees in a Louisville suburb.

As reported by Next City and Louisville’s Courier-Journal, the trees had been selected and planted in part to ameliorate the area’s growing urban heat island problem. Louisville has lost 9 percent of its tree cover over roughly the last decade.

But Kentucky officials say the trees are a hazard to motorists along Brownsboro Road in Rolling Hills.

“We are not anti-tree at the Transportation Cabinet,” state highway engineer Matt Bullock told the Courier-Journal. “We are pro-safety.”

The state has given the city until Christmas to remove the trees. Local officials have accused the state of “selective enforcement” and even “harassment.”

Charles Marohn, the civil engineer who founded Strong Towns, said Kentucky is looking at the problem in the wrong way. ”Street trees are dangerous,” he said, but only if “you have fast moving traffic.”

“They’re focused on the street trees and not the speed. Street trees are not a problem at reasonable speeds.”

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5 Techniques That Guide the Best Regional Planning Agencies

“Metropolitan Planning Organization” is the wonky name for an obscure but oh-so-important breed of public agency — the regional planning bodies charged with distributing federal transportation funds. MPOs can be powerful, transformative agencies that enhance economic growth, save people time, and improve public health. Or they can do the bare minimum required by law and continue to collect federal money year after year, merely serving as one more level of bureaucracy. Even worse, they can distribute funds in a way that hastens sprawl and urban decline.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments conducting community outreach. Photo: MWCOG via T4A

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments conducting community outreach. Photo: MWCOG via T4A

If you look at healthy, growing regions like Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, they tend to have more enlightened regional planning agencies. Still, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Many MPOs — and their close cousins, councils of government, or COGs — have been slow to adapt to the 21st century, with its new and more complicated set of transportation demands that extends far beyond highway construction.

To help regional planners catch up on best practices, Transportation for America has released a new guide, The Innovative MPO. Here’s some of the sage advice inside.

1. Don’t limit the job to managing congestion.

Federal laws actually specify that MPOs should address a broad range of goals, including safety, accessibility, and quality of life. Still, many MPOs have zeroed in on eliminating congestion, which isn’t even one of the eight factors the feds recommend focusing on. The problem is that addressing congestion, without a thought to how those decisions may lead to more sprawl and generate more traffic, can undermine other goals like improving public health.

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Hastily-Debated Collins Measure Could Put More Tired Truckers on the Road

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from ##http://6abc.com/traffic/police-truck-driver-fell-asleep-prior-to-crash-on-i-95-in-del/144318/##6ABC##

Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from 6ABC

It just wouldn’t be Congress if we weren’t trying to debate substantive policy changes, with drastic implications for public safety, with a government shutdown deadline fast approaching.

As Congress tries to wrap up the hideously-named “cromnibus” (continuing resolution (CR) + omnibus) spending bill for the rest of FY 2015 by Thursday, one provision is attracting a heated debate over road safety.

An amendment introduced over the summer by Maine Senator Susan Collins would repeal elements of a 2011 U.S. DOT rule requiring truck drivers to get adequate rest. The two basic pillars of that hours-of-service rule are: 1) drivers have to take a 30-minute rest break within the first eight hours of their shift, and, more contentiously, 2) drivers have to take a 34-hour “restart” period once every seven days. That 34-hour rest period must include two consecutive overnights between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. According to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “The net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.”

The Collins amendment would maintain the 34-hour rest mandate but would remove the requirement that it include two overnights, and it would allow drivers to take more than one restart in a seven-day period, thereby starting a new 70-hour workweek.

Truck crashes caused 3,921 deaths in 2012 [PDF]. Bloomberg News reports that the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend.

Sec. Foxx noted in his blog post that most truckers “behave responsibly and drive well within reasonable limits,” but that the rules guard against those “who are tempted to push the limits.”

“Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue,” Foxx wrote. “That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly.” He added that drivers often can’t accurately assess their own fatigue.

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Congress Gives Itself More Free Parking Than Its Own Rules Allow

How much are these free parking spots worth? Probably more than the $250 parking benefit Congress allows. Photo: ##http://www.jmt.com/project-portfolio/us-senate-parking-lot-study/##JMT##

How much are these free parking spots worth? More than the $250 per month in tax-free parking benefits that Congress allows. Photo: JMT

As TransitCenter and the Frontier Group reported last week, the federal government pays a huge $7.3 billion subsidy to people who drive to work by making commuter parking expenses tax exempt. There are countless reasons for Congress to scrap this poorly-conceived, congestion-inducing subsidy. While policymakers consider the big picture, they also ought to examine how their own parking benefits are administered.

Here’s the short version: Congress is breaking its own law, and it’s shorting the Treasury hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, by providing free parking far in excess of the allowable limits.

USC 26 Section 132f of the tax code allows employers to provide each worker with up to $250 in free parking per month tax-free, which can add up to $3,000 in tax-free perks per employee each year. That’s a pretty big amount to pay people for exacerbating congestion, but the parking at the U.S. Capitol is worth significantly more than that.

It’s hard to know exactly how many free parking spaces we’re talking about. The Architect of the Capitol and relevant committees don’t like to talk about it, but Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper a few years ago that a plan for the southern part of the Capitol complex completed in 2005 shows that the House office buildings alone have 5,772 parking spaces assigned to them.

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Talking Headways Podcast: I’m Not a Scientist

podcast icon logoDo you ever think about the ecology of the city you live in? Not just the parks and the smog. Scientists are starting to examine urban ecosystems more holistically: the trees and the concrete, natural gas lines and soil, water pipes and rivers. The natural and the synthetic feed off each other in surprising ways. We’re not scientists, but we found it interesting.

Then we move from the ecosystem to the highway system — specifically, the argument made by Evan Jenkins in The Week to abolish the National Highway System. Chuck Marohn at Strong Towns thinks it’s a good idea. Jeff and I aren’t so sure. Could rail really pick up the slack? Would states make better decisions? What funding source would replace the federal gas tax?

Enjoy this, our 42nd episode of Talking Headways. Find us on the Twitters already. And oh yeah, also on iTunesStitcher, and the RSS feed.

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Lawmakers Could Finally Equalize Benefits for Transit and Parking This Year

It’s time to rev up the annual fight over parity between federal transit and parking benefits for commuters. Members of Congress hope this might finally be the year to get it done.

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RTD_Bus_%26_Light_Rail#mediaviewer/File:Denver_light_rail_train_at_16th-California_station.jpg##Wikipedia##

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: Wikipedia

This morning, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) announced that they will, again, push to equalize the tax benefits available to transit commuters and car commuters.

Right now, people who drive to work can get up to $250 a month in tax-free earnings to pay for parking. The monthly tax-free income available to the 3 million Americans who use the transit benefit, meanwhile, is capped at $130.

With the passage of the 2009 stimulus law, parity was implemented between the parking benefit and transit benefit for a brief while. After extending the higher transit benefit a few times, however, in recent years Congress has failed to take the necessary action to do so.

At today’s press conference, Washington Metro Board Chair Tom Downs noted that Metro ridership had stagnated since transit benefits dropped. “If you’re providing a $1,500-a-year incentive to drive your car over taking transit, you’re probably going to have an impact on mode choice,” Downs said.

Increasing the transit benefit makes the law more fair, but it probably won’t make a big impact on how people get to work. Studies show that providing parking benefits always increases solo driving rates, whether or not the workplace also offers transit perks. Better to do away with all commuter benefits than to provide both [PDF]. Besides, most transit commutes cost far less than $235 a month. A monthly New York subway pass costs $112. In DC, you’d have to travel from one end of the system to the other every day during peak hours to make use of the full $235 transit benefit Blumenauer proposes.

Though Blumenauer’s plan only cuts the parking benefit by $15, it’s deficit neutral (at worst), since so many more people drive than use transit.

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Top House Dem on Transportation, Nick Rahall, Lost His Seat. That’s OK.

Four years ago, another stunning night of GOP victories took out Representative Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chaired the House Transportation Committee. Had Oberstar kept his seat, the new GOP majority would have cost him the gavel, but he would have continued as ranking Democrat. Instead, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia coal country took his place. Now, Rahall is out the door too.

Rep. Nick Rahall has lost his seat -- and therefore, the top Democratic slot on the House Transportation Committee. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/wvablue/4881172202/in/photolist-bNm6xB-bzrrBo-nsdn5i-6d1Czb-4xP9zC-8hCPic-6P37qR-8rkhrq-6c4GBK-bW5ytt-cdrUgm-cds5Bu-bW5JKr-bNm6uM-bNm6zk-bNm6wT-nsNNfk-naZTcU-nsd33m-84nx5z-8pSiyH-pEx3WD-dWfTqE-dWafwH-dWfTkJ-dWafyF-h7vzsH-6azXT5-6azXZu-6azXM1-i2DqiM-i2Co6V-i2DoT2-i2CK3J-i2CJJs-i2CKDJ-i2Dot4-i2CJPY-i2CBDN-i2CErb-i2CLoQ-i2DpZv-i2CDew-5JAgy7-9v2hNn-7WiCH2-edYuhG-jrwMxe-5UAApN-9hwquQ##West Virginia Blue/flickr##

Rep. Nick Rahall has lost his seat — and therefore, the top Democratic slot on the House Transportation Committee. Photo: West Virginia Blue/Flickr

Rahall has represented southern West Virginia for as long as I’ve been alive, and has served on the Transportation Committee the entire time. But State Senator Evan Jenkins easily unseated him last night, winning 55 percent of the vote.

In the long run, Rahall’s loss might be good news for sustainable transportation. Rahall was always more at home on the Natural Resources Committee, where he could subvert Democratic environmental goals by defending coal every chance he got. Insofar as he was interested in transportation, it was more about highways than transit, which is scarce in his district.

Recreational biking and walking, however, was a passion of his. Rahall was an architect of the federal Recreational Trails program, which was created in 1991 as part of the ISTEA transportation bill. He understood the economic value of active tourism. But that hasn’t always translated into a firm defense of active transportation. In 2012, when bike/ped provisions were watered down in MAP-21, first in the Senate and then in conference with the House, he didn’t hold the line.

The negotiation of MAP-21 in 2012 was a low point for bipartisanship on the House Transportation Committee. Though the Senate carefully crafted language both parties could agree to, the House wanted to start over with its own bill, was unable to, and instead went to conference with nothing but the Senate bill and a hatchet. And House Democrats — even Rahall — were completely shut out of the process.

It was infuriating to watch, but insiders say a different leader would have fought harder and raised a bigger stink about the exclusion. For example, Peter DeFazio of Oregon.

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Talking Headways Short: The Real News About America’s Driving Habits

Consider this a bonus track. A deleted scene at the end of your DVD. Extra footage.

Or, consider it what it is: A short podcast episode Jeff and I recorded two and a half weeks ago that never got edited because I went to Pro-Walk Pro-Bike and he went to Rail~Volution and we recorded (and actually posted) a podcast in between and basically, life got in the way.

But better late than never, right? Here is a Talking Headways short in which we discuss the Federal Highway Administration’s recent (er, not so recent anymore) announcement that Americans are driving more than any time since 2008 and so we’d better spend lots more on highways. Here are two quick visuals to help you understand just one reason we thought their reasoning was flawed:

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA's own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/14juntvt/figure1.cfm##FHWA##

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA’s own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: FHWA

fred

Even more dramatic: Check out how much per capita vehicle miles traveled has dropped. Image: St. Louis Fed

You’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear the rest. It’s a short one; you can listen to the whole thing while you fold the laundry. And there’s something extra-adorable in there as a special prize for putting up with our tardiness.

Jeff will be back soon from Rail~volution and then we’ll get to hear all about that, and then we’ll be back to normal podcasts on, we hope, a more normal schedule.

You’ll be the first to know when that happens if you subscribe to Talking Headways on our RSS feedStitcher or iTunes.

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U.S. DOT to Publish Its Own Manual on Protected Bike Lanes

FHWA's Dan Goodman pointed to before-and-after images from New York's First Avenue retrofit to show how separated bike lanes can improve safety. Photos: ##http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/First_Avenue_in_New_York_by_David_Shankbone.jpg##Wikimedia## and ##http://www.streetsblog.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Downtown-First-Avenue.jpg##Streetsblog NYC##

FHWA’s Dan Goodman pointed to before-and-after images from New York’s First Avenue redesign to show how protected bike lanes can improve safety. Photos: David Shankbone/Wikimedia and NYC DOT

Before the end of this year, the Federal Highway Administration will release its own guidance on designing protected bike lanes.

The agency’s positions on bicycling infrastructure has matured in recent years. Until recently, U.S. DOT’s policy was simple adherence to outdated and stodgy manuals like AASHTO’s Green Book and FHWA’s own Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) — neither of which included protected bike lanes.

In 2010, the department developed a policy stating that “every transportation agency, including DOT, has the responsibility to improve conditions and opportunities for walking and bicycling and to integrate walking and bicycling into their transportation systems” and that they should “go beyond minimum standards to provide safe and convenient facilities for these modes.” That was the first hint that the agency was looking beyond the Green Book and the MUTCD, which were (let’s face it) the very minimum of standards.

The department’s new strategic plan, released last year, emphasized pedestrian and bicycle safety and highlighted the need to create connected walking and biking networks that work for all ages and abilities, which is also a focus of the secretary’s new bike/ped safety initiative.

Then last year the agency explicitly endorsed “design flexibility,” unshackling engineers from the AASHTO and MUTCD “bibles” and encouraging them to take a look at the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ urban bikeway guide and the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ manual on walkability.

Now, with a secretary at the helm who’s determined to make bike and pedestrian safety his signature issue, the agency is going further. First, the next edition of the MUTCD (expected to be released in 2016 or 2017) will have a slew of new signage and markings recommendations for bicycling. FHWA’s Dan Goodman told an audience at Pro-Walk Pro-Bike earlier this month that the updated MUTCD is expected to have everything from signage indicating how bikes should make two-stage turns using bike boxes to stripes extending bike lanes through intersections — and, of course, guidance on buffered and protected bike lanes.

But perhaps more important than the changes to the MUTCD is the fact that FHWA is publishing its own manual dedicated to the design of protected bike lanes. (Despite the fact that the guide will deal exclusively with bike lanes that are protected from traffic with some kind of vertical barrier — not just paint — they still insist on calling the designs “separated” but not “protected” bike lanes, out of recognition of the fact that even what passes for “protection” in the U.S. these days — like flexible plastic bollards — don’t offer much protection against a moving car. Streetsblog calls these lanes “protected,” however, as a way to distinguish them from regular painted lanes, which are also “separated” from traffic.)

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