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Posts from the "Studies & Reports" Category

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One More Time: Here Are 4.6 Billion Reasons to Support Bike Infrastructure

Cyclists may only account for 1 percent of all trips taken in the U.S., but that’s still good enough to save the American people a total of $4.6 billion per year, according to research recently released by the League of American Bicyclists, the Sierra Club, and the National Council of La Raza. The announcement coincided with National Bike to Work Day, observed last Friday as part of Bike Month.

National Bike to Work Day, as observed last Friday in St. Louis, MO. Photo: @aboutcycling via NPR

It gets even better, as a recent article in Forbes pointed out:

The average annual operating cost of a bicycle is $308, compared to $8,220 for the average car, and if American drivers replaced just one four-mile car trip with a bike each week for the entire year, it would save more than two billion gallons of gas, for a total savings of $7.3 billion a year, based on $4 a gallon for gas.

The Forbes story made it into our headline stack on Monday, but as congressional Republicans seem poised to make another run at eliminating the Transportation Enhancements program (a major source of funds for bike infrastructure), the numbers bear repeating.

Especially these numbers: Biking and walking put together make up 12 percent of trips, but bike-ped funding accounts for less than two percent of transportation spending. Furthermore, though the U.S. had 40 percent more bicycle commuters in 2010 than in 2000, efforts persist to gut what few bike-ped programs remain in favor of increased highway spending.

And yet, here’s a list of bicycling facts that have emerged (or re-emerged) in recent research:

Add to that the knowledge that transportation is overtaking housing as the single largest household expenditure in America, especially among low-income households, and it should be a no-brainer: Funding bike-ped infrastructure is a bargain.

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Arizona DOT Study: Compact, Mixed-Use Development Leads to Less Traffic

Image: Arizona Department of Transportation

Does walkable development really lead to worse traffic congestion? Opponents of urbanism often say so, citing impending traffic disaster to rally people against, say, a new mixed-use project proposed in their backyards. But new research provides some excellent evidence to counter those claims.

A recent study by the Arizona Department of Transportation [PDF] found that neighborhoods where houses are closer together actually have freer-flowing traffic.

Researchers compared some of greater Phoenix’s denser neighborhoods – South Scottsdale, Tempe, and East Phoenix — with a few of its more sprawling ones – Glendale, Gilbert, and North Scottsdale. Some interesting patterns emerged.

In the more compact neighborhoods, the average household owned 1.55 cars, compared to 1.92 in more suburban areas. Residents of higher-density neighborhoods also traveled shorter distances both to get to work and to run errands, the study found.

The average work trip was a little longer than seven miles for higher-density neighborhoods; in the more suburban neighborhoods, it was almost 11 miles. Residents of the three compact neighborhoods traveled just less than three miles to shop, while residents of sprawling locations traveled an average of more than four miles. All of this led the more urban dwellers to travel an average of nearly five fewer miles per day than their suburban counterparts.

The density divide also played an important role in transit use. Rates varied from as high as eight percent transit ridership in high-density neighborhoods to as low as one percent in the more sprawling areas.

All of this translated into a reduced strain on roadways in the places that had more people — running counter to one of the strongest objections to mixed-use development. Comparing one suburban corridor to two of the streets in the more dense neighborhoods, the study found that on the more urban streets, traffic congestion was “much lower,” or about half as high (measured by the ratio of the capacity of the roadway to the actual volume of cars on it).

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New Equity Atlas Tells a Story About the Future of Denver (With Maps!)

Detail of a map showing the distribution of walkable blocks (in yellow) and federally-subsidized affordable housing (in purple) around Denver's transit lines and stations. Image: Denver Regional Equity Atlas

As more cities look to revive or expand their transit networks in the face of rising gas prices and maddening congestion, planners have had to remain vigilant to ensure that underprivileged communities are not displaced or adversely affected by the same transit improvements that could offer them numerous benefits.

A few different techniques have emerged that could assist planners and policymakers in making sure the benefits of transit are equitably distributed. Just last January, for instance, Streetsblog reported on the Health Impact Assessment for St. Paul, Minnesota’s Central Corridor, which analyzed how a proposed light rail line could better serve disadvantaged areas along the route from a public health standpoint.

Last month in Denver, the national nonprofit Reconnecting America debuted the Regional Equity Atlas, a geographic encyclopedia of the Mile High City’s ambitious long-range transit plans – known collectively as FasTracks — and the anticipated effects on surrounding communities. The report, a project of the Mile High Connects coalition, is a visual compendium of how the proposed transit expansions will affect not just health but housing, education, and economic development in greater Denver.

“It should be immensely useful not only to city officials, advocates, planners and social scientists in Denver, but also to anyone looking for a state-of-the-art analytical model to assist the coordination of transportation, housing, jobs, and access to important services in other American cities,” Kaid Benfield, director of sustainable communities for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote last week. “It must have cost a fortune to underwrite.”

The impetus behind the Atlas, starting with the formation of Mile High Connects some 18 months ago, was the decision by the Ford Foundation to invest in Denver, said Catherine Cox Blair, Program Director at Reconnecting America.

“We have strong local foundations in Denver who came to the table,” including the Piton Foundation, which specializes in educational issues and is a co-author of the Atlas, Blair told Streetsblog. “Ford urged them to answer the question, ‘You are building this massive transit system, but how do your giving priorities align to support FasTracks? How can you augment access and opportunity for everyone?’”

The first step in making sure access and opportunity could be equitably distributed would be to make sure all stakeholders knew how their diverse range of issues — senior mobility, public health, education — connected to transportation. And the best way to do that turned out to be with maps.

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Mileage-Based Fees or Bust: New Report Says “No More Excuses”

The shortcomings of the current gas tax are well-known. The federal rate (18.4 cents/gallon) has not been raised in nearly twenty years and is not tied to inflation, yet it remains the primary source of funds for federal transportation spending. The problem is exacerbated by improving vehicle fuel economy. And as electric cars roll off the assembly line in greater numbers and become the vehicle of choice for more drivers, relying on the gas tax as the primary source of transportation funding makes even less sense.

Photo: KVAL

This perfect storm suggests the time may be right to adopt vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fees — charges based on how much people drive — to pay for the nation’s surface transportation system. Congress is unlikely to pass a multi-year transportation bill anytime soon, and current stop-gap funding is due to expire at the end of June. But the results of a two-year University of Iowa VMT national field study offer a path forward for sustainable funding of surface transportation.

Preliminary findings from the federally-funded field study (the full report has not yet been released by the Department of Transportation) show that the system could work on a nationwide scale. The results, contained in a Transportation Research Board Journal paper authored by University of Iowa professors Paul Hanley and Jon Kuhl, also show that the public would accept the concept of paying a fee for road use based on distance traveled instead of gas consumed.

The field study was based out of 12 sites, monitoring more than 2,600 volunteer participants who drove a total distance of 21 million miles throughout the United States (except Alaska and Hawaii), for an average of roughly 9,000 miles per driver.

The study deployed a prototype mileage-based charging system with an on-board unit installed in each participant’s vehicle. The unit computed mileage-based user charges for federal, state and local jurisdictions and periodically uploaded accrued charges via a cellular link to a central billing center. The center subsequently created monthly billing statements that were sent to participants.

Privacy concerns, often cited as an argument against VMT-based charges, were taken into account in the study’s design. While the onboard unit in each vehicle used a GPS receiver to determine driver location for the purpose of assessing state and local charges, the system did not retain or transmit any specific information regarding vehicle location or routes travelled.

The results of the field test showed that a nationwide system of mileage-based fees is completely feasible using existing technology. Early misgivings on the part of drivers faded as they gained more experience with the system: At the outset of the study, only 42 percent of participants held a positive view of GPS-based mileage fees; approval increased to 70 percent by the study’s end.

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Let the Debate Begin: NYC, SF Snag Top Spots in First Transit Score Rankings

A Transit Score map of Seattle, the nation's 7th-most transit-friendly major city according to new rankings. The city is buoyed by its dense urban core, where many transit lines converge. Image: Walk Score

Today, Walk Score — developer of the popular method for evaluating neighborhood walkability (and filling out NCAA tournament brackets) — announced its first ranking of cities by Transit Score, a measure of the “usefulness” of a city’s transit system. On a 100-point scale, New York and San Francisco took the top two spots with scores of 81 and 80 respectively, while Boston (74), Washington D.C. (69), and Philadelphia (68) round out the top five (see the full rankings).

Walk Score CEO Josh Herst believes this is an important time to begin evaluating cities in terms of transit, and all the Americans who rode transit 10.4 billion times in 2011 would likely agree with him. “Heading to the gas pump this season is about as much fun as getting a root canal,” Herst said in the official release [PDF]. “With gas prices expected to hit new highs, more people are riding transit, walking and biking to save money. And being able to leave your car at home more often is great for your wallet, your waistline and the environment.”

The company generates Transit Scores using data provided by transit agencies, and takes into account the number of nearby transit routes (weighted differently by mode), how often those routes run, and how far away the stations are from any given point. A city’s score is based on a population-weighted average of all individual point scores. For an excellent discussion of the Transit Score methodology, check out this exchange between transit expert Jarrett Walker and Walk Score’s Matt Lerner from early 2011.

Overall, it’s fair to say that few American cities score well on the system. Of the 25 largest cities that make their transit data available to the public, only ten topped a Transit Score of 50, which is the lowest score qualifying as “good transit,” described as “many transit options nearby.” Most (14) fall into the “some transit” bracket, and the 25th-highest Transit Score among the cities evaluated — Raleigh, NC — is a 23, the upper end of “minimal transit.”

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Five Ex-Secretaries Map Out a Communications Strategy For Transportation

Former Transportation Secretaries Mary Peters, James Burnley, Rodney Slater, Samuel Skinner, and Norman Mineta participated in the conference that produced a report and communications strategy. Photo from Miller Center.

If 80 percent of the American people agree that federal infrastructure investment will create jobs, and two-thirds say better infrastructure is important, why is the call for a robust transportation bill being made in whispers? And why is Congress already two and a half years late in producing one?

There are many political reasons — from the earmark ban to wariness of “Bridge to Nowhere” projects to the anti-spending frenzy that’s taken over the House — that it’s been a tough time to pass a transportation bill. But five former U.S. Secretaries of Transportation have said that the voice for change has to be louder. They released a report yesterday, with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, calling for a new communications strategy. (See “Is Transpo Funding Fundamentally a PR Problem? Five Ex-DOT Chiefs Discuss,” Dec. 2, 2011, for more on the conference the report is based on.)

The communications strategy is both visionary and tactical. Its more nuts-and-bolts elements include social networking campaigns and election-year news hooks to bring attention to the issue and make candidates talk about infrastructure.

The strategy is aimed at both leaders and the public. After all, both say they want better transportation infrastructure (and the jobs that will be created to build it), but no one wants to pay for it. The American people haven’t woken up to that contradiction. “Seventy-one percent of voters oppose an increase in the federal gas tax,” the Miller Center report says, “with majorities likewise opposing a tax on foreign oil, the replacement of the gas tax with a per-mile-traveled fee, and the imposition of new tolls to increase federal transportation funding.”

That’s a pretty comprehensive list of funding mechanisms, and the public has rejected them all. Part of a communications strategy, therefore, has to explain to the American people – not just about transportation but about all government services – that you can’t get something for nothing.

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How Local Transportation Decisions Can Put Public Health Front and Center

Many states can use Health Impact Assessments to evaluate transportation projects, but few are doing so right now. Image: Health Impact Project

Transportation projects often have profound consequences for public health, whether negative (in the case of fossil fuel-burning highway expansions) or positive (in the case of calorie-burning bike-friendly, walkable streets). So why don’t cities and states always consider health impacts when evaluating a transportation project or policy?

That’s the question at the heart of a new paper released today by the Pew Health Group and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation [PDF], prepared by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

The authors looked at the prevalence of “Health Impact Assessments,” which analyze the public health effects of a particular project or policy on a given population. Think of it as an Environmental Impact Statement, only the indicators are people, not ecosystems. HIAs are already used to inform policy decisions concerning health care or disease prevention, but they have also been used to evaluate transportation projects, like the East Bay Greenway. The HIA for the greenway influenced the design of the project, suggesting better integration with existing biking and walking paths, and helped to secure funding from Alameda County.

In some places, the report found, HIAs are already required in non-health policy sectors, while in others they are actually prohibited by law (though never for transportation). Most jurisdictions fall somewhere in between, with HIAs allowed but not mandated. (An EIS, on the other hand, is required by federal law for certain projects.)

The report does not evaluate the effectiveness of HIAs. Rather, the authors suggest that where HIAs have been slow to take root, an understanding of the law can increase their importance:

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APTA: How to Talk to a Detractor of High-Speed Rail

Stop me if you’ve heard these before:

Stephen Harrod, Assistant Professor at the University of Dayton, quoted in a recent APTA report. Image: APTA

“Most Americans don’t use railroads, they use cars.”

“There’s no better example of excessive government spending than the $53 billion President Obama allocated for high-speed rail in his 2012 budget.”

“Would you pay $1,000 so that someone — probably not you — can ride high-speed trains 58 miles a year?”

“High-speed rail may be feasible in parts of Europe or Japan, where the population density is much higher, but without enough people packed into a given space, there will never be enough riders to repay the cost of building and maintaining a high-speed rail system.”

Critics of federal initiatives to promote high-speed rail have launched these attacks with great frequency over the past few years. Their targets have been projects in Florida, Wisconsin, California, or even federal regulators and Secretary Ray LaHood. But their primary intended audience was the American people, and, according to the American Public Transportation Association, there has been a “well-oiled campaign” (pun probably intended) to make sure their message was repeated, and loudly.

APTA is trying to unplug that propaganda machine with its new “Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail With Suggested Responses and Counterpoints” [PDF]. It methodically lists no fewer than 37 specific objections to pursuing high-speed rail (grouped thematically into eight chapters) and exposes them for “lack of veracity and vision.” The four critiques quoted above (the first two from Diana Furchtgott-Roth in the Washington Examiner, the third from CATO’s Randall O’Toole and the last from Thomas Sowell in The Albany Herald), barely scratch the surface of the anti-HSR literature addressed by the report.

The aim of the report is to give HSR supporters a way to return fire when detractors say things like:

  • High-speed rail is too expensive and will never be profitable. APTA says the question of profit is “dangerously misleading and irrelevant” since “the economic value generated by passenger transportation historically is captured by the businesses served by the transportation network, not by the carriers.”
  • It doesn’t have broad enough support. On the contrary, says APTA: Even the Congressional leaders who have been the most critical of the Obama administration’s allocation of rail funds “have set about finding creative ways of financing the initiative in the hope of encouraging greater private-sector support and leadership.”
  • HSR might work elsewhere, but it won’t work in the U.S. Oh really? Sure, intercity passenger rail currently serves “the smallest share of riders among all modes of passenger transportation,” says APTA. But that’s changing. “In the Northeast Corridor, intercity trains enjoy a market share almost equal to the airlines, and nationally, ridership on Amtrak is at an all-time high.”

Many of the debunked criticisms point to some combination of unrecoverable cost and only marginal benefits, with the assumption that taxpayers will be on the hook for costs and that benefits will be confined to a select few. Not so: APTA cites ample evidence that high-speed passenger rail could be capable of operating profits and wide-ranging benefits.

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$1,060: The Cost of Decrepit Infrastructure for Your Family Last Year

This chart shows delayed maintenance for infrastructure across modes and time periods. Image: ASCE

Five months’ groceries for a family of four. A year’s worth of textbooks for a college student. One thousand sixty dollars: That’s how much inadequate infrastructure spending cost the average American family last year, according to a new report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Surface Transportation Infrastructure.” And it’s only projected to get worse.

The country’s roads, bridges and transit systems are deteriorating, but because of the gradual and diffused nature of the problem, the economic effects aren’t easy to recognize, ASCE asserts.

But make no mistake: deferred maintenance costs American families and businesses dearly. Deteriorating roads do damage to private and commercial vehicles. Extra miles are driven to avoid congested roadways. Unreliable transit systems and commercial trucking routes force users to allot additional time in case of delay, undermining productivity.

All this added up to a four-figure price tag for the average U.S. family in 2010. That’s a total of $130 billion for American families and businesses last year alone.

Looking ahead, things could get much worse, engineers report. If spending levels are held constant, by 2020, businesses would pay an extra $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes would fall by $7,000 and U.S. exports would fall by $28 billion. This would be a tremendous blow to the economy. By 2040, losses in efficiency related to transportation investment are expected to directly result in the loss of 400,000 jobs — and that’s if spending levels are held constant, not reduced by a third, as Rep. John Mica (R-FL) has proposed.

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The Public Interest and Private-Sector Involvement in High-Speed Rail

The issue of privatization of public infrastructure was polarizing enough before the recent House proposal to take the Northeast Corridor away from Amtrak and turn it over to private firms. The privatization plan has its champions, who say it’s the only way to save high-speed rail, and its detractors, who call it a death knell for even the rail service we currently have.

High-speed rail makes for complicated infrastructure projects. Government entities must be diligent to ensure that private sector partnerships do not subvert the project's aims. Photo: PIRG

In the middle are those who acknowledge that high-speed rail can’t be built in this country without some private funds, but that the government should still carefully control the process. A new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, released yesterday, walks that center line. Better yet, it gives examples from around the world of how privatization has worked — and how it hasn’t. And it maintains that the question is not so much whether or not to involve the private sector, but how to craft the terms of the agreement so that the partnership adds value — not increased risk — for the taxpayer.

“Private financing can be a supplement but not a substitute for public support of high-speed rail,” said Phineas Baxandall of U.S. PIRG.

Indeed, it is clear that public and private actors are going to have to cooperate in order for the U.S. to realize its high-speed rail ambitions in California and elsewhere. But the government agencies negotiating the terms of these agreements will have to be very diligent to avoid compromising the interests of public-sector investors (taxpayers) and the purpose of the project overall, says PIRG.

“It’s attractive to politicians who may want to be champs for high-speed rail but who at the same time want to be against spending any new money for it,” said Baxandall. “Public-private partnerships have been a way to wave a magic wand to say ‘we’re going to build it, we’re just not going to pay for it. Somebody else is.’”

What this report shows, he said, is that the public sector has to be the “anchor” in these projects. “Public-private partnership isn’t just an easy way to make something happen without effort,” he said. “It takes a lot of planning.”

And private capital comes with some inherent risks. For example, in Great Britain in the 1980s, a public-private partnership which granted private control over rail lines established contracts in a way that incentivized private companies to delay maintenance. Ultimately, this led to a train derailment that killed four people.

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