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Posts from the "Commuting" Category

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The Parking Tax Benefit: A $7.3 Billion Subsidy for Traffic Congestion

Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

Not only does the parking tax benefit pay people to drive during the most congested times of day, the whole system of commuter benefits functions as a gigantic transfer from poor workers to affluent workers, who have greater access to subsidized travel to work. Graph: TransitCenter/Frontier Group

The federal government spends billions of dollars a year on tax subsidies that make traffic congestion worse, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis by TransitCenter and the Frontier Group. The culprit is the parking commuter tax benefit, which costs taxpayers $7.3 billion in foregone revenue each year, all while adding more than 800,000 cars to rush-hour traffic on the nation’s roads each workday, the authors estimate.

The parking tax benefit allows people to claim up to $250 in parking expenses as tax-free income per month. It originated in the late 1970s, when, in the name of fairness, Congress prevented the IRS from taxing the free parking perks that employers gave their workers, without any thought to the effect on transportation. The new report shows that not only does the parking tax benefit have a disastrous effect on traffic, it’s not even fair to car commuters — amounting to a gigantic transfer to the most affluent drivers.

Most advocacy efforts centered on commuter tax subsidies attempt to raise the transit benefit — currently capped at $130 per month. Last week, for instance, two members of Congress pledged to fight for an equal commuter benefit for transit and parking. TransitCenter and the Frontier Group argue that this is the bare minimum to strive for. The real impact lies in simply getting rid of the parking benefit.

The transit benefit, they write, is a “relatively inefficient tool for motivating changes in transportation behavior” and “only weakly counteracts the negative impact of the parking tax benefit” — and should be thrown out, as it were, with the bathwater. If commuter benefits are retained, however, they recommend some key reforms: equalizing the transit benefit, and mandating that employers who offer parking benefits also provide the option of receiving a cash equivalent instead.

TransitCenter and Frontier Group estimate that while most people don’t change their commuting behavior based on the incentives created by these tax benefits, about 2 percent do — and that 2 percent drives 4.6 billion additional miles per year.

To make matters worse, they do that extra driving at peak hours, in crowded downtown areas, worsening congestion that the country’s transportation policy is supposedly oriented toward fixing.

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Census Finds DC and NYC Bike Commuting Has Doubled in Four Years

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

For the first and second U.S. cities to start building networks of modern protected bike lanes, the payoff seems to have arrived.

In both Washington, DC, and New York City, the rate of bike commuting has doubled since 2009, according to Census figures released Thursday.

Powered by one of the country’s most successful bike-share systems, a solid network of painted lanes, a handful of protected lanes, and the burgeoning bicycle culture that resulted from those changes, Washington’s bike commute mode share vaulted to 4.5 percent in 2013, up from 2.2 percent in 2009. Among major U.S. cities, that estimate would place DC second only to Portland, Oregon, as a bike commuting town.

“DC has been coming up strong for several years,” said Darren Flusche, policy director for the DC-based League of American Bicyclists. “It’s the nation’s capital; I keep waiting for someone to say they’re the nation’s bike capital.”

New York City, meanwhile, has a lower biking rate — just 1.2 percent, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. But that comes out to 46,000 daily bike commuters, about as many as Portland and DC combined. New York added an estimated 10,000 bike commuters in 2013 alone, its fifth straight year of growth.

Flusche credited the Michael Bloomberg administration, led by former Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, for rapidly dedicating space on New York streets for painted or protected bike lanes.

“I think we’re finally seeing the benefits of those decisions made as far back as ’09, ’10, ’11,” Flusche said.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Crown Prince of Fresh Air

podcast icon logoWhat would you think of a city planner, out ruffling feathers with his bold ideas about density and urbanism — who commutes to work an hour each way from his ranch way outside the city? Ironic — or hypocritical? That’s the question we wrestle with in our discussion of Brad Buchanan, the head honcho at Denver’s Department of Community Planning and Development.

And then we head from Denver to Dallas, where MPO chief Michael Morris has unilaterally declared that the plan to convert I-345 into a boulevard is going nowhere. Trouble is, he doesn’t actually have the authority to say that, and his facts are wrong. But by asserting it, will he make it true?

Say your piece in the comments. And subscribe to this podcast on iTunesStitcher, or our RSS feed.

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Apple Transportation Program Stuck in the Past

Tom Fairchild is the director of Mobility Lab. This article was originally published by METRO Magazine.

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Apple’s new Cupertino HQ will force its thousands of employees into long commutes, many of which will undoubtedly be made by driving alone. Photo: Chris/flickr

As an avid iPhone user, I have bought into the sense that Apple could literally peer into the future and deliver me technology that I never realized I would so desperately need.

For years, Steve Jobs and company seem to have been our reliable guides to a better tomorrow. For new technology, Apple’s vision towards the future seems nearly flawless. But for corporate responsibility? Well, that’s a different story.

Apple’s decision to build a mammoth new headquarters in Cupertino, California — miles from public transportation and adequate housing — amounts to a corporate denunciation of sustainability and a giant corporate shrug to Mother Earth.

Leadership for the tech giant maintains that the new campus will offer “a serene environment reflecting Apple’s values of innovation, ease of use, and beauty.” But the simple fact is that many of Apple’s 13,000 employees will now be commuting to an isolated location 45 miles south of San Francisco.

This reality seems a world apart from Apple’s corporate communications, which state:

Our commute programs reduce traffic, smog, and GHG emissions by providing incentives for biking, using public transportation, and reducing the use of single-occupancy vehicles.

How exactly is this possible when the new headquarters is being built on a location without any existing public-transportation options?

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Five Ways Colleges Are Coaxing Students Out of Their Cars

104 colleges and universities around the United States provide free or reduced-price transit service to students. Map: U.S. PIRG

The University of Wisconsin-Madison provides bike valet at its football games. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill supports free transit for everyone in the region. The University of California, Irvine launched a bike-share system in 2009, long before any major city in California had done so.

American colleges and universities are leaders in reducing driving and promoting sustainable transportation. It allows colleges to make good on their commitments to protecting the environment. It makes life easier for students and staff. And, perhaps most critically, it’s saving schools big money on parking. Stanford University estimates its efforts to reduce solo car commuting have saved the school from sinking $100 million into the construction and maintenance of parking facilities.

Here are some of the smart ways universities have been able to reduce solo car travel, according to a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. PIRG is recommending cities hurry up and follow their lead.

1. Discounted or free transit passes

Among the most common and effective strategies colleges employ to reduce driving to campus is providing free or reduced transit fares. PIRG reports 104 universities around the country offer this perk, often called “U-Pass,” to students and/or staff. Universities typically fund the program with fees collected from students or with revenue from parking permit sales.

After the University of Missouri at Kansas City adopted a U-Pass program in 2011, transit use by students climbed 9 percent. Now other universities in the Kansas City region are looking to replicate that success, PIRG reports.

Chapel Hill took it one step further and made transit free for everyone. As a result, transit use by students more than doubled between 1997 and 2011, from 21 to 53 percent.

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Study: All Across America, Car Commuting Is Dropping

Driving is declining and non-driving transportation is increasing in urbanized areas. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

Since 2000, car commuting has dropped across the board while other forms of travel have tended to increase in America’s 100 biggest urban areas. Image: U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group are on a mission to explore the downward trend in driving. In a series of reports, they point to evidence that it isn’t just a temporary blip, but a long-term shift in how Americans get around. Today, the two organizations released a new report, “Transportation in Transition: A Look at Changing Travel Patterns in America’s Biggest Cities,” which shows that these changes are happening in regions all over the country.

In 99 of the nation’s 100 largest regions — the cities and suburbs that are home to more than half the U.S. population — fewer people got to work in a private vehicle in 2010 than in 2000. In the vast majority of those areas, households are shedding cars while more people are getting on the bus and taking up biking. These 100 regions are the engines of the U.S. economy and where most of the nation’s population growth is happening.

Since state DOT data collection leaves much to be desired, PIRG and Frontier Group encountered some situations where they couldn’t do an apples-to-apples comparison. As a result, they examined vehicle miles traveled trends in only 74 of the 100 largest urbanized areas. In 54 of those, VMT had dropped. Across the country, mileage is down 7.6 percent per capita since 2004.

“Each city has a different story,” U.S. PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall said in an email. “Sometimes the stories are hard to see because the data is messy, but the overall picture suggests real changes in how people get around.”

The report kicks off with a lovely tale about one city’s fight to keep a highway from destroying downtown:

When Madison, Wisconsin, was given the opportunity to bring the interstate into the city in the 1960s, local officials decided to keep its downtown highway-free — they believed that a highway running through Madison’s narrow downtown isthmus would make the city less attractive. But without the Interstate, city officials needed to make sure that residents had access to other modes of transportation to travel down-town. So city planners sought to build a multimodal transportation network that promoted bicycling, public transit and walking.

And guess what? Those investments are still paying off. As attitudes about transportation and urban living shifted over the past decade and more people decided to explore life outside the automobile, Madisonians had lots of good options to choose from. On average, each city resident drove 18 percent fewer miles in 2011 than in 2006 — from 8,900 miles down to 7,300. Meanwhile, biking to work soared 88 percent in the last 11 years, and bus ridership is way up.

U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group encourage other places to follow Madison’s lead. Madison started investing in multi-modalism in the 1960s and 70s, when driving was still ascendant. Today, as Americans embrace transit and active transportation in greater numbers, driving declines, and new roads become increasingly poor investments, those same strategies should seem like ordinary common sense.

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Talking Headways: A Streetsblog Podcast, Episode 3

This week, Jeff and Tanya take on the Atlanta Braves’ terrible, no-good, very bad decision to move their stadium to Cobb County, Georgia. We discuss cities that are (and are not) shaped like wedding cakes, and whether that means you need to smoosh your spouse’s face in it. Tanya makes a pedestrian-rights argument against high-heeled shoes (and Jeff abstains from taking sides). We parse the differences between “shared streets” — without marked-out space for cars, bikes, and people on foot — and vehicular cycling.

In between, we speculate on what DC would look like without height limits, make fun of neighborhood parking bullies, pity the mega-commuters, and most importantly, shame the transit riders who fail to cede their seats to those who need them because they have their heads stuck in Angry Birds.

By the way, if you don’t subscribe yet to Jeff’s daily headline roundup, The Other Side of the Tracks (also known as The Direct Transfer), you’re missing a lot. Sign up here.

And PS — I promised we would have an iTunes RSS feed available for you by now and we are this close. Soon, I promise.

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Study: For Americans With Lower Incomes, Long Commutes Sap Will to Vote

For decades, researchers going back to Robert Putnam have drawn connections between total leisure time and individuals’ level of political and community involvement. New findings published in American Politics Research say the amount of time spent commuting is especially important in determining whether Americans vote, take part in political campaigns, and otherwise engage in politics.

Long commutes impact voting behavior, a new study finds. Image: ##http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/transportation/commuting-distance-fitness-metabolic-risk## Journalist's Resource##

Long commutes impact voting behavior, a new study finds. Photo: Journalist’s Resource

Researchers Benjamin Newman, Joshua Johnson, and Patrick Lown examined survey data from 590 working adults. Overall leisure time, they found, was actually not a very good determinant of political involvement. For example, part-time workers were no more likely to vote or otherwise participate in politics than those who worked full time. In fact, those who worked the longest hours were among the most likely to be politically engaged.

Rather than focus on what activities take the most time, researchers explored which activities drain individuals of the most energy that might otherwise be devoted to political behavior. They found that long commutes were actually far more exhausting than working.

“Time spent commuting,” they wrote, “involves a higher degree of depletion of psychological resources and incurrence of negative emotions than time spent on the job.”

The results were not consistent across socioeconomic groups. Newman and his research team found that the effect was most pronounced in workers who make less money. Those who earned higher incomes actually skewed the opposite direction: They were more likely to vote and participate in politics the longer they commuted.

Researchers theorize that higher-earning workers were better able to shake off the stress of long commutes. They might have more comfortable cars. They can eat out if they get home late. And they’re more likely to listen to the news while commuting — a factor that might have something to do with their increased political involvement.

The researchers speculated that higher transit use among people with lower incomes might add stressors like overcrowding and noise — but, they noted, “higher-income commuters are no less dissatisfied or frustrated with their commuting than low-income commuters.”

Newman and his team say their findings should worry us as a society. Lower political and civic engagement among people who make less money and have long commutes translates to less political power for those who already have too little. It means that job sprawl and poor transportation options end up costing them a voice in their own communities. And their lower participation rates could very well have an impact on who ends up getting elected to public office.

Wrote the researchers: “The societal processes increasingly forcing commuting on individuals, and leading to longer commuting times, are working to further distance an already weakly active and often marginalized segment of the populace from the democratic process.”

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Streetsblog’s Brand-New Podcast: Episode 1

Behold, Streetsblog’s brand-new podcast! In what we aim to turn into a recurring feature, Reconnecting America’s Jeff Wood and I recently chatted about the week’s news in livable streets, urbanism, and sustainable transportation. The topics are drawn from Jeff’s excellent daily compendium of transportation and planning links, The Direct Transfer, and from stories we’re tracking at Streetsblog Capitol Hill. It’s a treat for me to get back to producing audio — I was a radio reporter before joining Streetsblog.

This podcast is still very much in beta — we haven’t even settled on a name for it yet (suggestions welcome). But we want to share it with you and get your feedback and ideas about where to take it.

This week, Jeff and I discussed whether regional planning matters, the odd timing of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s decision to reject federal high-speed rail funds, and drawing fantasy maps for the transit and bike infrastructure your city needs. Have a listen, let us know what you think, and join the conversation in the comments.

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Commuting Tips for the Incrementalist: Small Changes, Big Savings

Rural commuters drive much more than their fair share of miles. Could a few small changes have a big impact? Image: NRDC via the 2009 National Household Travel Survey.

Rob Perks couldn’t understand why his friend, Megan, drove to work every day instead of taking public transportation. She said driving was cheaper and more convenient, but Perks had almost an identical commute and he was pretty confident he was saving a lot by taking transit. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation of all Megan’s driving costs showed that even paying $6.00 for the park-and-ride was cheaper than driving all the way in to the office. (Just imagine how much she could save if, like Perks, she could walk to the metro!)

Still, Megan wasn’t ready to lay down her car keys and embrace the transit commuter lifestyle altogether. She wanted to start slow, a couple days a week. That’s great, Perks said: Even a couple days a week can save a lot of money, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions.

But how much would she save? It’s a good thing Perks works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which allowed him to research the question. His findings, released this week in a study called “Driving Commuter Choice in America,” attempt to quantify how much people can save by making modest changes in their commuting habits.

The report is at times is more confusing than enlightening. First, Perks and his co-author, Craig Raborn, categorize commuters by where they live: urban, rural, and suburban. They also looked at non-urban non-commuters — those who don’t travel to a job every day. Then they looked at a few different ideas for reducing driving — carpooling, taking transit, trip-chaining, telecommuting, and moving closer to work. And they attempted to arrive at a dollar figure for how much any of those four types of commuters would save if they supplanted various amounts of driving with various alternatives.

“We originally, in doing this project, wanted to build out some sort of a calculator to mix and match whatever their preferences were,” Perks told Streetsblog. “Somebody could say, ‘I’m going to work from home once a week, and I’m going to take transit twice a week, and I’m going to drive the rest of the time.” He’s still hoping they’ll have funding to do something like that in the future, but for now they were stuck with more static estimates.

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