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Posts from the "Transportation Policy" Category

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DOTs Now Have No Excuse for Ignoring Changing Transportation Trends

As report titles go, you could hardly get less sexy than “NHCRP Report 750: Strategic Issues Facing Transportation, Volume 6: The Effects of Socio-Demographics on Future Travel Demand.” But buried within this wonky new document from the Transportation Research Board are ideas that can — and should — upend the way local, state, and federal officials plan for future transportation needs.

Two different scenarios foretell two very different futures for the Atlanta region. Image: NCHRP

Two different scenarios foretell two very different futures for the Atlanta region. Image: NCHRP

It’s no secret that our current transportation models have done a lousy job of accounting for the recent decline in driving in the United States. The most glaring example is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s biennial “Conditions and Performance“ report to Congress, which has repeatedly forecast a return to rapid growth in driving that has repeatedly failed to materialize.

Bad forecasts lead to bad decisions – specifically, the investment of vast amounts of public resources in new and expanded highways that we probably don’t need (e.g. in Wisconsin).

At first, the transportation policy establishment chalked up the decline in driving to the economic recession and assumed it was only temporary. That is despite the fact that, as Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institution pointed out as early as 2008, the drop in per-capita driving began well before the recession. And it’s continued during the recovery.

Over time, however, experts have come to recognize the multiple factors – including changes in the composition of the workforce, an aging population, technological changes, and shifts in housing and travel preferences among Millennials – that have contributed to the recent fall in driving and that make further stagnation in vehicle travel likely.

The new TRB report (which we could refer to by the catchy acronym SIFTV6:TESDFTD, but won’t) explicitly acknowledges these fundamental changes, identifying eight socio-demographic trends that will influence demand for vehicle travel through 2050. Of those eight trends, only one (changes in the nation’s racial and ethnic mix) is expected to contribute to an increase in per-capita driving, while at least five (the “graying” of America, technological change, workforce change, the “blurring of city and suburb,” and slow growth in households) will tend to reduce per-capita driving. (The impacts of the other two trends are ambiguous or unspecified.)

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A Bipartisan Policy Breakthrough That Could Save Local Economies

Beth Osborne was deputy assistant secretary for policy, and then acting assistant secretary, at the U.S. Department of Transportation from 2009 until March, when she joined Transportation for America.

Members of Congress love to talk about local control. And with good reason: American voters tell pollsters over and over again that they trust the elected officials closest to them more than any others.

Local communities do a good job channeling limited federal funds into small-scale, big-impact projects like this streetscape project in Bayonne, New Jersey. Photo: ##http://images.ta-clearinghouse.info/1-Ped-Bike-Facilities/Bayonne-StreetscapeBayonne-NJ/##TrADE##

Local communities do a good job channeling limited federal funds into small-scale, big-impact projects like this streetscape project in Bayonne, New Jersey. Photo: TrADE

Not only that, but most Americans live in cities, towns and suburbs, with 85 percent in metropolitan areas, according to recent census estimates. And 90 percent of gross domestic product — the economy — is generated in those places.

So why is rhetoric so far from reality when it comes to transportation funding?

When the federal transportation program was up for renewal two years ago, members of Congress from both parties repeatedly invoked “local control” as a goal. But the resulting law, MAP-21, actually reduced local latitude over transportation spending.

Pots of money that had been available to fix local bridges, provide alternatives to congested corridors, make better connections to transit or address safety issues for kids on their way to school — as just a few examples — were consolidated and shrunk. When all was said and done, local communities had access to less than 15 percent of the money in the bill. Metropolitan areas over 200,000 — where 65 percent of Americans live — got only 8 percent, according to federal data.

As a result, the one small pot of discretionary money available to local communities — the TIGER program — has been wildly oversubscribed, as I saw firsthand as one of the leaders at the U.S. DOT overseeing the program from 2009 until last March.

My time at DOT taught me two big lessons: First, the innovative solutions are coming from locals. And second, they have nowhere near enough resources to implement them.

Across the country, communities and regions are developing forward-looking plans to squeeze efficiencies out of transportation networks expected to move growing numbers of cars, pedestrians, transit riders, bicycles and freight. They are struggling to fund unmet repair needs. They worry that the economic potential they see will evaporate unless they can invest in a high-quality transportation network.

That’s why the bipartisan Innovation in Surface Transportation Act (HR 4726) is so important. The bill, introduced by Representatives Rodney Davis (R-Illinois) and Dina Titus (D-Nevada), would make good on the MAP-21 authors’ promise of more local control by reserving a share of each state’s federal dollars for grants to local entities. It would ensure that at least an additional $5 billion of the roughly $50 billion sent to states each year will be used to support local priorities.

Grants would be awarded by a committee of state and local officials along with a range of stakeholders, based on the strength of the proposal: Will the project yield a strong return on investment? Does it improve safety and reliability? Does the community have its own funds committed to the plan?

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Will DC’s Streetcar-Weary Council Embrace the Ambitious MoveDC Plan?

How much does the moveDC plan relieve congestion? Not much, actually. Image: DDOT

How much does the moveDC plan relieve congestion? Not much, actually. The map on the left assumes moveDC is implemented; the map on the right is the baseline. Image: DDOT

Yesterday, we ran the first part of my conversation with some of the architects of moveDC, the new long-range plan from the District Department of Transportation. MoveDC calls for the implementation of congestion pricing, 69 miles of high-capacity transit in addition to the 22 miles of streetcar already planned, a new downtown Metro loop, 72 miles of protected bike lanes, 136 miles of painted bike lanes, and 135 miles of off-street trails over the next 25 years.

In yesterday’s installment, I talked to Matt Brown, DDOT’s new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT’s Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA, about the prospects for the most dramatic changes envisioned in the plan, the pitfalls of a focus on Complete Streets, and the reality that cars will not win every tradeoff anymore.

Here we pick up where we left off.

In the plan, there are two side-by-side maps (above) of future road congestion: with the changes laid out in the plan and without. And they’re very similar. Not identical, but very similar.

SZ: They’re not identical. But you have to remember, this removes a lot of vehicular capacity in exchange for some other things. So in order to create the space to provide more options, there was a need to manage the person-carrying capacity of the roadway system. And there were two principles that went along with that.

One is that there’s always a way to not pay the charge. The way we modeled it, it’s roughly equivalent to a round trip metro fare.

I thought that was interesting, to basically say you’re not going to pay any more to drive than to take the metro.

SZ: And carpools might be free. But everybody’s paying. District residents have to pay. And as we look at the whole system, we’re accommodating the same number of car trips in a day in 2040 as we are today, even as the District grows by 170,000 residents and a couple hundred thousand jobs.

CH: And we could have made these colors [on the map] pretty much whatever we wanted to. If we add more roads that would be tolled, like Massachusetts Avenue and Connecticut Avenue, we could get different colors in here. But it didn’t seem like we needed that to keep the network moving. This seemed to be a sweet spot in terms of the size of the cordon charge.

SZ: In the region, we’re starting to get experience with tolls. People ride the ICC [which is tolled and free-flowing]; they take 495 [which is free and congested]. They start to see what that means.

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“Every Street’s Going to Prioritize Pedestrians”: MoveDC’s Lovely Fine Print

Those dotted purple lines are protected bike lane the city plans to build. This is just the downtown zoom, but other maps show plans to build these lanes all over the city. Image: DDOT

Those dotted purple lines are protected bike lane DC plans to build: 72 miles of them, all over the city. This is just the downtown zoom. Other cities, be jealous. Image: DDOT

Livable streets advocates all over the country are buzzing about DC’s far-sighted new transportation plan, called moveDC. So yesterday Streetsblog sat down with some of the people responsible for writing and implementing the plan. I spoke to Matt Brown, the District Department of Transportation’s new acting director; Colleen Hawkinson, strategic planning branch manager at DDOT’s Policy, Planning and Sustainability Administration (PPSA); and Sam Zimbabwe, associate director of the PPSA.

MoveDC is an ambitious and wide-ranging plan that calls for overhauling streets to improve walking, biking, and transit. If you want to absorb it all, here’s the whole, massive document.

What’s your favorite part of this plan? What do you brag to other cities about and say, “DC’s gonna do this and it’s gonna be amazing”?

DDOT Acting Director Matt Brown. Photo: ##http://ddot.dc.gov/biography/matthew-brown##DDOT##

DDOT Acting Director Matt Brown. Photo: DDOT

MB: I’m struck by the comprehensive nature of it all. It speaks to new investments, but it also speaks to state of good repair for what we have, and really trying to maximize the road system we have so that it accommodates all choices of travel.

I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing plan. I don’t think it’s: “We have a vision, we need whatever dollars and without that it’s going to fail.” Certainly there are dollars that are needed to implement, and we can’t realize the full capacity of the plan without doing that.

But I think this is a plan for the future of the District, and also for our agency. I mean, there are recommendations in here about how to prioritize sidewalk repairs better. One of the recommendations is to better prioritize how we make investments with the baseline money that we have.

So I guess it’s not one policy element I’m excited about. I’m excited there’s so much, and they’re interrelated but they’re not dependent on each other. We can make a big impact even if we can’t build a downtown metro loop, or pick your favorite infrastructure investment from the plan.

SZ: Or a downtown congestion charge!

[All laugh.]

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DC Region’s New Long-Range Plan Fails to Meet Its Own Climate Goals

Image: ##https://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/YV1aVlhZ20131218092900.pdf##MWCOG 2013 Constrained Long-Range Plan##

While the Washington, DC region has set of a goal of reducing carbon emissions to 10 million tons by 2040, current transportation plans show emissions increasing to 26.5 million tons by then. Image: MWCOG 2013 Constrained Long-Range Plan

If sea levels rise just one foot in the Washington, DC, area, nearly 1,700 homes could be lost. Is the region’s transportation planning agency doing enough to stop that from happening? Several environmental and smart-growth organizations in the region are saying no. Seventeen groups have signed on to a letter, being delivered today, urging the agency to take action. The comment period on the agency’s latest long-range transportation plan closes tomorrow.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments committed in 2008 to an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions below a 2005 baseline by 2050. Two years later, the agency added a goal of 20 percent reductions by 2020. But according to its own analysis, the agency’s current transportation plan doesn’t get the job done.

The chart above is from last year’s long-range plan, but the picture hasn’t changed much with this year’s additions. While three of the 11 projects MWCOG has added for 2014 are streetcars and another two are commuter rail, the list also includes a new highway to Dulles airport, an interchange, two road widenings, and the removal of bus-only lanes.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has asked MWCOG to reopen the plan and shift “significantly more funds to key transit projects,” said CSG Director Stewart Schwartz. He says MWCOG’s long range plans have an “artificial transit constraint,” since the plan can only include projects that have reasonably identified financial resources. However, existing funds could be shifted to transit projects. Schwartz would like to see more money go toward Metro’s Momentum 2025 plan to increase capacity.

MWCOG's ##http://www.mwcog.org/clrp/projects/highway.asp##2013 long-range plan## calls for spending significant resources on road expansions.

Major highway improvements in MWCOG’s 2013 long-range plan

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: U.S. DOT Fails to Get Travel Forecasting Right

The U.S. Department of Transportation seems to be stuck in a bizarre time warp.  For nine years in a row Americans have decreased their average driving miles. Yet U.S. DOT’s most recent biennial report to Congress on the state of the nation’s transportation system, released last Friday, forecasts that total vehicle miles will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030.

Times have changed. Why hasn't DOT gotten the memo? Image: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/x-ray_delta_one/5124536635/##Flickr/James Vaughan##

Times have changed. Why hasn’t DOT gotten the memo? Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Just how out of whack is that forecast? Consider the following:

  • Vehicle travel hasn’t increased by even 1 percent in any year since 2004. Yet the U.S. DOT assumes that driving will increase at a rate significantly faster than that every year on average through 2030.
  • The new report uses for one of its two scenarios the same flawed forecasting model that has overestimated vehicle travel 61 times out of 61 since 1999.
  • In a particularly absurd twist, the U.S. DOT forecast doesn’t even get the past right. The report “projects” (based on 2010 data) that Americans drove 5 percent more miles in 2012 than they actually did. To hit the DOT forecast for 2014, Americans would need to increase their driving by 9 percent this year alone.

Why should we care about all this? With transportation funds increasingly scarce — and especially with Congress due to reauthorize the nation’s transportation law — policy-makers need good guidance about where to invest. A sensible approach, especially given the recent decline in driving and increasing demand for transit, would be to plow a greater share of those limited resources into expanding access to public transportation and active transportation modes while focusing highway spending on fixing our existing roads and bridges.

Instead, the U.S. DOT’s travel forecast is used as justification to propose a dramatic increase in highway spending to fund all the new and expanded highways that the DOT presumes we’ll need to accommodate all of those imagined new cars and drivers. The agency asserts that the nation would need to spend between $124 billion and $146 billion each year to maintain and improve the highway system — numbers that are sure to find their way immediately into highway lobby press releases and be repeatedly cited in congressional hearings.

What makes the DOT forecast so bewildering is that the agency — elsewhere in the very same document — acknowledges the strong possibility that many of the factors that have caused the recent drop in driving may be long-lasting. The report states:

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The End for LOS in California? State Wants Input on a New Planning Metric

With little fanfare, California is considering a change in how it measures transportation impacts that could herald a major change in environmental law. SB 743, passed and signed into law in September, is a potential game changer because it could completely remove LOS — Level of Service, a measure of car traffic congestion — from the list of tools that must be used to analyze environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act. As the state contemplates a broader, more sustainable metric to use for smarter urban planning, the public is invited to weigh in on what the LOS replacement should look like.

Streetsblog USA doesn’t pull punches when describing why many oppose”Level of Service” metrics. Image: Andy Singer

CEQA requires new projects, be they highways or housing units or basketball stadiums, to analyze potential environmental changes created by the proposed project. In copious detail. Water, air, land, noise, plants, animals: any physical aspect of the existing area that might be affected negatively must be analyzed.

For a variety of historical reasons, traffic congestion has crept into this group of environmental impacts under CEQA and become part of the law. Congestion is analyzed by measuring the flow of traffic at intersections (how many vehicles get through in a set amount of time) and grading those intersections on their performance. Planners refer to this as LOS, for Level of Service.

The irony of LOS is that CEQA requires mitigation when projects cause delay to automobile traffic—even if the projects create better conditions for other road users, such as transit riders, bicyclists, or pedestrians. Thus the San Francisco Bike Plan was held up for years because of a lawsuit claiming the city did not take into account the negative effects bike infrastructure would have on LOS.

Streetsblog covered SB 743 as it was passed last year, but at the time we missed a nuance that makes it an even bigger potential change for CEQA and planning. At first read it looked like the LOS provision, tacked onto a bill written to streamline environmental review for a new Sacramento Kings basketball stadium, applied only to areas designated as “Transit Priority Areas,” defined as within a ½ mile of high quality transit. In some places, this covers very large areas: for example, most of San Francisco is so designated because of its dense transit networks. This alone could make a huge difference in the way environmental impact reports are handled for many projects.

Neither Streetsblog nor many advocates monitoring the legislation realized on the first read that the new law gives the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) the discretion to come up with a substitute for LOS and apply it throughout the state—not just to urban areas “well served by transit,” but everywhere. And to all projects.

The long-term results of using LOS as a measure of environmental impact have been argued about for years and explained well elsewhere. Removing it from the CEQA process has the potential to profoundly affect the way cities are planned and built. And while some of the larger cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, actively pursue the question of whether traffic impact is an appropriate measure of environmental impact (and working on their own substitute measures), not every locale is happy about it.

OPR is asking for early feedback on two items: a draft list of goals it wants the new criteria to meet, and a preliminary list of possible replacement measures for LOS. These are both described in detail in this report, and summarized below. The deadline is this Friday, February 14, and comments can be sent to: ceqa.guidelines@ceres.ca.gov. Future drafts will incorporate feedback received now, with the goal of preparing a final draft by July 1, 2014.

Below is an explanation of why many people oppose using LOS as a measure to analyze environmental impacts. Streetsblog is also reaching out to municipal leaders who use LOS for a future story explaining why they may not want to remove it entirely from CEQA.

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New Partnership Brings Together “Strange Bedfellows” For Active Transpo

The gospel of active transportation has spread. Thanks to a number of concurrent crises, from obesity to climate change to the “silver tsunami,” it’s become clear to more and more people that the simple act of walking and biking can have a major impact on averting some of the biggest problems America faces. So over the past several years, several different sectors have joined traditional biking and walking advocates in taking up the mantle of active transportation. And now those relationships have been consecrated into a new union: the Partnership for Active Transportation.

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton helped introduce the new Partnership for Active Transportation today on Capitol Hill. Photo: Tanya Snyder

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton helped introduce the new Partnership for Active Transportation today on Capitol Hill. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Some of the biking and walking groups you might expect to see in a coalition like this are notably absent, because the convening organization – the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy – didn’t want to fill it up with the usual suspects. Instead, they brought in organizations that aren’t obvious allies: the American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the LOCUS project of Smart Growth America that represents real estate developers. AARP is a key player in the new partnership too, though they haven’t quite said “I do,” yet.

“We’ve been making the public health argument for years,” said RTC president Keith Laughlin, “but we are bike advocates. We don’t have the right initials after our names.”

That’s where this partnership comes in. All the groups involved will more or less keep doing the same work they’ve always been doing, but now they can show the formal participation of people “who have all the right credentials” and can make a compelling argument from the point of view of the health or real estate sector that walking and biking are critical components of the transportation system. Showing lawmakers that active transportation has support from these sectors could help broaden the base of support for these programs on Capitol Hill.

The groups launched the partnership this morning on Capitol Hill, in one of the House office buildings, under the banner “Safe Routes to Everywhere,” a spin on Safe Routes to School. Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), a longtime bike advocate and chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) made some opening remarks cheering on the group. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) stopped by later and gave his congratulations.

Susan Polan, there representing the American Public Health Association, acknowledged that it’s unusual for her group to sit down with real estate developers and agree on anything. “It’s a strange bedfellows coalition,” she said, “and that’s one of the reasons why it works.” She said this year is “the year of health,” with the rolling out of the health reform law, and that supporting communities to walk and bike more fits right in with that mandate.

The message the partnership will take to Capitol Hill has three parts:

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Will Obama’s SOTU Pledge to Flex Executive Power Extend to Transpo?

Maybe it doesn’t matter what President Obama says in his State of the Union. According to a Washington Post analysis, his batting average for last year’s SOTU proposals was a .208. In 2013, the president pleaded for tax reform, an American Jobs Act, $50 billion for a Fix-It-First infrastructure repair binge, a “Partnership to Rebuild America” to lure private capital to infrastructure projects, and an Energy Security Trust to use oil and gas revenues for technology to “shift our cars and trucks off oil for good.” None of that went anywhere.

In last night's State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama indicated he'll bypass Congress to get things done. Do those things include transportation? Photo: ##http://www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2013## the White House##

In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama indicated he’ll bypass Congress to get things done. Do those things include transportation? Photo: The White House

But this year, perhaps Obama’s most significant promise was to flex his executive muscle and stop waiting around for Congress. “America does not stand still, and neither will I,” he said. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” Going it alone, Obama has a much better shot at fulfilling his priorities.

Streamlining

The only transportation-related promise Obama made that he can accomplish with his own executive power is to continue streamlining environmental review and permitting for key projects. While you may get your back up when politicians talk about streamlining environmental review — some call it “steamrolling” — executive action on this front is more short-term and more tactical than across-the-board legislation. By picking specific projects, the administration has been able to shepherd them through the process.

House Transportation Committee Chair Bill Shuster seems to have forgotten that initiative. In a statement this morning, Shuster said the president has been talking about streamlining for two years “but we are still waiting for action.”

Other administration initiatives, like the partnership between U.S. DOT, HUD and the EPA, happen without the need for Congressional approval.

But if Obama wants to take his promise to use the full extent of his executive power seriously, there’s more his administration can do.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Vision Zero

The best thing about hosting a Streetsblog podcast is getting to call on other Streetsblog reporters for the lowdown on the biggest news of the week. In this case, Jeff Wood and I called Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s editor-in-chief based in New York, to provide some context for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s big announcement of the campaign to eliminate traffic deaths in the city. Note that the podcast was recorded before the recent outbreak of jaywalking tickets in Manhattan.

We also took a look at how California is changing its environmental laws to stop considering vehicular Level of Service as something to strive for — and how some people miss the nuances of how population density affects transportation planning.

As always, the podcast is also available on iTunes.