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When Cities Force Developers to Widen Roads, Everyone Loses

vermont_wilshire

At L.A.’s Vermont-Wilshire Towers, the city made the developer cede land and pay for 6,000 square feet of road widening. Photo: Google Maps

It’s a common practice for cities to make developers widen a street when they put up a new building. The thinking is that development creates car trips that must be accommodated with more asphalt.

But new research suggests these policies don’t help anyone. The main effect is to increase the cost of building, making housing less affordable.

“As traffic management exercises, many widenings appear unnecessary,” concludes UCLA researcher Michael Manville in a paper published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use [PDF].

Manville looked at how this policy is carried out in Los Angeles. In L.A., all multifamily housing projects (and some other types of construction) are assessed by city traffic engineers to determine whether the developer should widen nearby streets. This is like “blaming Disneyland for increased air travel, and forcing the theme park to expand runways whenever it adds attractions,” he argues.

Manville spoke to developers compelled by the city to pay for various road widenings. The costs varied. In one case, the street widening added an estimated $11,000 to the cost per unit of a multifamily housing development. In another case the figure was $50,000. In another, just $65 per unit. Where the costs of street widenings are substantial, the policy drives up costs for renters and buyers.

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The “Choice” vs. “Captive” Transit Rider Dichotomy Is All Wrong

The conventional wisdom about transit often divides riders into two neat categories: “choice” riders — higher-income people with cars — and “captive” riders — lower-income people who must use transit because they don’t own cars.

Transit riders are more conscious of time than they are of features like wifi. Drawing via Transit Center

Transit riders are more conscious of time than they are of features like Wi-Fi. Graphic: TransitCenter

But this framework can undermine good transit, according to a new report from TransitCenter [PDF]. In the attempt to cater only to “choice” riders or “captive” riders, public officials often make decisions that don’t accomplish what everyone wants from transit — fast, frequent, reliable service that takes them where they want to go.

TransitCenter surveyed more than 3,000 transit riders across 17 regions — and conducted focus groups in three major cities — to get a better picture of why people take transit. The responses were combined with data from All Transit, a tool that assesses the quality of transit service in different locations, to inform the report’s conclusions.

While having access to a car does influence how much people use transit, other factors are more important. In walkable neighborhoods with frequent transit service, people with and without cars both ride transit more than people in areas with poor transit.

Far from being “captive,” transit riders without cars are in fact very sensitive to the quality of service. So-called “captive” riders have other choices available, like biking, taxis, and borrowing cars, and most do take advantage of them — almost two-thirds of car-free transit riders had done so in the last month.

A big problem with the “choice/captive” rider dichotomy, says lead report author Steven Higashide, is that it prompts planners to invest in “sexy” features aimed at luring “choice” riders out of cars — like Wi-Fi or comfortable seats. The notion of the “choice rider” has been used to justify mixed-traffic streetcar projects that operate slowly and don’t actually serve many people.

Regardless of whether transit riders own a car, what actually matters to them aren’t the bells and whistles, or even the type of vehicle, but the basics: service they can depend on to get places on time.

“Transit has to compete for every rider,” Higashide told Streetsblog. “There’s often this assumption that people without cars have no choice, have to ride transit. People are sensitive to transit quality regardless of car ownership.”

TransitCenter suggests another way to frame how and why people use transit — by looking at the types of trips they use it for:

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7 Steps to Phase Out Carbon Emissions From American Transportation

Eliminating carbon emissions from the American transportation system can be done, according to a new report from the Frontier Group [PDF]. The tools to reduce energy use from cars and light trucks at least 90 percent are at our disposal or in advanced stages of development. The remaining 10 percent could be supplied by renewables like wind power.

The U.S. transportation sector produces about 28 percent of domestic GHG emissions and 4 percent of total global emissions. Here's how we compare to other nations right now. Graph: Frontier Group

The U.S. transportation sector produces about 28 percent of domestic GHG emissions and 4 percent of total global emissions. No other nation produces more transportation emissions per capita. Chart: Frontier Group

“We have the technical capacity to do all of these things,” Frontier’s Tony Dutzik told Streetsblog. Here’s how it would work, if we can muster the will.

The first step is to reduce driving. Frontier Group estimates that the following four strategies could cut miles driven per capita by 28 to 42 percent, which amounts to a 10 percent total decline by 2050 when accounting for population growth.

1. Walkable Development: We have to build more walkable places where people don’t have to hop in a car for every trip. People living in compact neighborhoods drive 20 to 40 percent less than people living in spread out areas. If 60 to 90 percent of new construction between now and 2050 is walkable development with good transit connections, it could reduce total GHG emissions from transportation 9 to 15 percent.

To accomplish that, Frontier says big coastal cities like New York and San Francisco need to “build up” and make room for more people. Meanwhile, sprawling places like Atlanta and Houston need to seize opportunities to redevelop existing space — parking lots or closed malls, for example — in a compact form.

2. Pricing Roads: Pricing parking alone could reduce total vehicle miles traveled by up to 3 percent. A blanket vehicle miles traveled tax, meanwhile, could reduce mileage by 10 to 12 percent. Congestion pricing, which puts a higher price on road use where and when traffic is most intense, is another avenue to cut mileage. London’s congestion pricing system, which only covers the central city, has helped reduce driving 10 percent even as the population has grown, Frontier reports.

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Sober Non-Partisan Analysis: America Wastes a Ton of Money on Highways

A good deal of the $46 billion the federal government pours into highway spending each year is going to waste, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report [PDF].

The conclusion won’t surprise regular Streetsblog readers, but it’s the source that’s interesting. The CBO is not an advocacy group or an ideologically-minded think tank. It’s a non-partisan budget watchdog charged with evaluating federal spending decisions, and it says federal highway funding is not well-spent.

For one, the CBO thinks too much is spent on road expansion and too little on maintenance. The construction of the Interstate Highway System made freight shipping and traveling between cities much more efficient, the report says, but since the system was completed in the 1970s spending on highways has been subject to diminishing returns. Current spending “has not shifted” to account for “the importance of maintaining existing capacity,” the CBO writes.

Compounding the problem is induced demand. The CBO points to a recent study finding that “the addition of new lanes is likely to have little effect on congestion within 10 years” as highway lanes fill with new drivers.

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Study: “Shared Space” Slows Drivers While Letting Traffic Move Efficiently

The idea behind “shared space” street design is that less can be more. By ditching signage, traffic lights, and the grade separation between sidewalk and roadbed, the shared space approach calms traffic and heightens communication between drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Instead of following traffic signals on auto-pilot or speeding up to beat the light, motorists have to pay attention to their surroundings.

A "shared space" in Austria. Image: Transportation Research Board

A shared space in Graz, Austria. Image: Transportation Research Board

Shared space design has been shown to calm vehicle traffic and allow more freedom of movement for pedestrians with no increase in traffic injuries. A new study from professor Norman Garrick and Benjamin Wargo at the University of Connecticut finds that in the right conditions shared space also makes intersections more efficient for both pedestrians and motorists.

The study examined six sites around the world that have some degree of “shared space” and where each approach to the intersection has one lane of motor vehicle traffic. Because of the limited number of shared space designs in the U.S., only one American example is included: Uptown Circle in Normal, Illinois.

Using video, the researchers measured driver speeds and pedestrian and vehicle delay. The authors then compared those observations to computer-simulated estimates of how much delay would occur if the streets were designed with more conventional traffic control measures, like stoplights or roundabouts.

They found that in this context, shared space design calmed traffic while also creating less delay for both pedestrians and motorists than traffic signals.

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Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-70 in Denver

The unnecessary widening of I-70 in Denver would cost an additional $58 million. Image: Colorado DOT

Widening I-70 in Denver instead of just repairing it will cost an additional $58 million. Image: Colorado DOT

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2 (the original came out in 2014), U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up to profile the most wasteful highway projects that state DOTs are building. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report. Today, we look at the widening of I-70 in Denver, a project with a potentially high social and economic cost. 

The need to tear down the viaduct carrying I-70 through the center of Denver is clear, but widening it while while it undergoes much-needed replacement would waste tens of millions of dollars.

The bridge, which was built in 1964, first had detectable cracks in 1981. Since then, it has required many repairs. A major 1997 project installed rods intended to reduce cracking. In 2005, the weight of vehicles on the viaduct was limited in hopes of extending the bridge’s life.

But the bridge continued to crumble. By 2010, the bridge was considered “structurally deficient,” a federal designation indicating significant problems in its structure. A $30 million maintenance project in 2010 was expected to give the viaduct another 10 to 15 years of service. But just four years later, the Colorado Department of Transportation announced that some of the work done in 1997 was failing. The repairs themselves needed to be repaired.

The viaduct is also an eyesore whose removal has been sought by the local community for many years. Since it was built, neighbors have complained that it divides their community, which is one of Denver’s poorest.

The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has proposed replacing the viaduct with a trench for the highway, and partially covering the road with a park. In September 2015, CDOT put out a formal call for private companies willing to finance and build the project. However, CDOT is also proposing to widen the highway.

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Highway Boondoggles: Widening I-95 Across Connecticut

Photo: Doug Kerr

Bucking the state’s longstanding recommendations, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy says widening I-95 will fix congestion. Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr via U.S. PIRG

Last year Congress passed a multi-year transportation bill. Like previous bills, it gives tens of billions of dollars to states every year to spend with almost no strings attached. How much of this federal funding will state DOTs devote to expensive, traffic-inducing highway projects that further entrench car dependence and sprawl?

In a new report, Highway Boondoggles 2 (the original came out in 2014), U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group teamed up to profile the most egregious examples of state DOTs that can’t shake the road expansion habit. Streetsblog will be serializing the case studies in the report, starting with this excerpt about Connecticut, which just lost GE to Boston

A long-dormant idea for a multi-billion-dollar expansion of I-95 is being promoted by the state’s governor as a fix for congestion, despite official studies dating back to 2002 recommending against any expansion of the highway, saying it would make congestion worse, extend traffic delays, and increase pollution.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has proposed a 30-year, $100 billion plan to invest in transportation across the state. More than 10 percent of that spending, $11.2 billion, is dedicated to reversing decades of Connecticut’s planning priorities by adding an additional lane to I-95 across the entire state — 110 miles from the New York state line to the Rhode Island border.

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Study: Sharrows Don’t Make Streets Safer for Cycling

Sharrows are the dregs of bike infrastructure — the scraps cities hand out when they can’t muster the will to implement exclusive space for bicycling. They may help with wayfinding, but do sharrows improve the safety of cycling at all? New research presented at the Transportation Review Board Annual Meeting suggests they don’t.

Sharrows are useless and perhaps even harmful, a new study found. Photo: University of Colorado Denver

Sharrows without traffic-calming won’t do much to make cycling safer. Photo: University of Colorado Denver

A study by University of Colorado Denver researchers Nick Ferenchak and Wesley Marshall examined safety outcomes for areas in Chicago that received bike lanes, sharrows, and no bicycling street treatments at all. (The study was conducted before Chicago had much in the way of protected bike lanes, so it did not distinguish between types of bike lanes.) The results suggest that bike lanes encourage more people to bike and make biking safer, while sharrows don’t do much of either.

Ferenchak and Marshall’s study divided Chicago into three geographic categories using Census block groups: areas where bike lanes were added between 2008 and 2010, areas where sharrows were added, and areas where no bike treatments were added. They then looked at how bike commuting and cyclist injuries changed in these areas over time.

They found that bike commute rates more than doubled in areas with new bike lanes, compared to a 27 percent increase in areas with new sharrows and a 43 percent increase in areas where nothing changed.

Meanwhile, the rate of cyclist injuries per bike commuter improved the most where bike lanes were striped, decreasing 42 percent. Areas that got sharrows saw the same metric fall about 20 percent –worse than areas where streets didn’t change (36 percent), although the difference was not great enough to be statistically significant.

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Social Engineering! Cities That Build More Parking Get More Traffic

Cities like Hartford that added a lot of parking over the last few decades saw driving rates increase. Graph: McCahill/TRB

Cities like Hartford that added a lot of parking over the last few decades saw driving rates increase more than in cities where parking volumes stayed flatter. Graph: McCahill/TRB

Build parking spaces and they will come — in cars. New research presented this week at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board finds a direct, causal relationship between the amount of parking in cities and car commuting rates.

University of Wisconsin researcher Chris McCahill and his team examined nine “medium-sized” cities — with relatively stable populations between 100,000 and 300,000. They compared historical parking data with car commuting rates beginning in 1960, finding “a clear, consistent association” between parking levels and car commuting that has “grown stronger” over time.

Using an epidemiological research method, McCahill’s team determined that the relationship was causal. For example, data indicated that increases in parking tended to precede growth in car commuting.

The study brings home the point that by inflating the parking supply via minimum parking mandates and other policies, cities are leading more people to drive and making conditions worse for transit, biking, and walking. It’s what you might call “social engineering.”

Researchers compared five cities with low car commuting rates (Arlington, Virginia; Berkeley, California; Silver Spring, Maryland; and Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts) to four cities with relatively high car commuting rates (Albany, New York; Lowell, Massachusetts; and New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut).

McCahill and his team found that for every 10 percentage point increase in parking spaces per capita, the share of workers commuting by car would be expected to increase by 7.7 percentage points. So if a city increased its per capita parking from 0.1 spaces to 0.5 spaces, car commute mode share would rise about 30 percentage points.

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New Evidence That Bus Rapid Transit Done Right Spurs Development

More American cities are considering bus rapid transit, or BRT, as a cost-effective method to expand and improve transit. One of the knocks against BRT, as opposed to rail, is that it supposedly doesn’t affect development patterns. But a new study [PDF] by Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Arizona and released by Transportation for America finds that BRT lines can indeed shape real estate and attract jobs — if the projects are done right.

Bus rapid transit can spur private investment in cities, but it needs to have features that help make it "fixed," like dedicated lanes and level boarding platforms. Image: University of Arizona

BRT can spur walkable development and job growth in cities, but it needs to be designed to a high standard with features like dedicated bus lanes and level boarding platforms. Photo: National Institute for Transportation and Communities

Nelson examined real estate investment, commercial rents, and multi-family housing development around BRT routes during the early 2000s and the first half of this decade. He found that in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and other cities with high-quality BRT lines, real estate near the routes tends to be valued at a premium and is capturing an increasing share of development.

For example, in downtown Cleveland, offices within a quarter-mile of the Healthline BRT rent at prices 18 percent higher than downtown office space outside walking distance of the line. In Eugene, Oregon, the premium is 12 percent.

Proximity to BRT lines appears to be growing more appealing over time. Between 2000 and 2007, Census tracts within a quarter mile of BRT routes captured about 11 percent of total office space development in the regions the authors studied. From 2007 to 2015, that share grew to 15 percent.

“This is not trivial,” said Nelson during a presentation at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board this morning. “My sense is that this distribution will keep gaining share.”

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