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Posts from the "Studies & Reports" Category

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Which States Are Breaking Free From Oil Dependence? NRDC Ranks All 50

State policies can help households save money by reducing oil dependence, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Photo: NRDC.org

When it comes to helping their residents get around without breaking the bank, California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York are the top five states in the nation, while Nebraska, Alaska, Mississippi, Idaho, and North Dakota bring up the rear.

That’s according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC ranked every state on their policies to reduce oil dependence, as well as their actual performance, based on per-capita spending on gasoline as a percentage of income.

Among the measures that NRDC rewarded for giving residents more freedom from fuel price volatility: 13 states are actively promoting smart growth policies, and five states have set targets to reduce overall vehicle miles traveled (VMT). NRDC also gave credit to states that had developed fuel efficiency standards or were taking action to encourage the use of alternative fuels.

The four top-ranked states have all set targets to reduce VMT or petroleum consumption, and three of the top five states are also among the top five in transit investment.

The lowest-ranking states, meanwhile, were all without any substantive policies to reduce fuel consumption or promote travel options besides driving. NRDC found a substantial overlap among states that had the worst fuel policies and the states where residents end up taking the biggest hits at the pump. Residents of Mississippi, West Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Oklahoma spend the highest percentage of their income on gas.

The point of the report, said NRDC Executive Director Peter Lenher, is not to shame the most oil-dependent states, but to provide inspiration and examples from the places that are leading the way toward a more resilient future.

“What’s really important here: we really can do something about how much people pay for their transportation,” said Lenher. “This should be viewed as a very hopeful study to show that policies make a difference in the lives of people.”

You check out all the rankings in the full NRDC report.

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Why It Can Be More Affordable to Live in an “Expensive” City

So, how did Washington, D.C. — widely perceived as one of the most expensive cities in the country — end up topping a “most affordable” housing list?

First and most importantly, adjust for average income levels. Then, factor in transportation costs. Using that formula, the D.C. region is tops among 25 American metro areas in a new study from the Center for Housing Policy and the Center for Neighborhood Technology that looks at the ability of moderate-income households to shoulder the burden of housing and transportation costs [PDF]. The notoriously pricey Boston and San Francisco also make it into the top six.

The joint study came up with some other surprising findings. For example, it turns out it’s more affordable to live in New York City than it is to live in Cincinnati, based on the metrics used. And in general, renters fare better than homeowners in covering their costs of living.

In all 25 cities, middle-class households spent more than half of their incomes on combined housing and transportation costs between 2000 and 2010. Miami had it worst, with housing and transportation eating up 72 percent of the average income.

The study, titled “Losing Ground,” focuses on the disparity between income levels and steadily rising housing and transportation costs. Over the decade, researchers found, for every $1 in income gains, combined housing and transportation costs rose $1.75.

“Losing Ground” follows a 2006 study from the same organizations that took the novel approach of factoring in transportation costs to gauge the affordability of different metro areas. Measuring affordable living by looking strictly at housing costs, without including transportation, “tends to mislead people,” said Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, in a teleconference yesterday. Gathering this information comprehensively, he said, “has profound implications for a set of policy choices.”

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How Much Bang Are Cities Getting From Federal BRT Bucks?

The vast majority of cities implementing bus improvements with federal BRT dollars have seen ridership increases -- some of them quite dramatic. Image: GAO

How substantial are the benefits delivered by federal investment in bus rapid transit projects, and how can the feds help local governments build better bus improvements? A new report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office [PDF] looks at the results of BRT projects that have been completed in 20 cities since 2005, when SAFETEA-LU expanded federal funding eligibility for such projects. The GAO found that almost all of the projects have proven successful as cost-effective upgrades to increase ridership, but it also identified a few ways that federal policy provides incentives for local governments to avoid building bus projects that meet the standards for high-quality BRT.

Ridership is up on 13 of the 15 routes that were completed in time to furnish data for the study. (On the other two routes — both in Los Angeles — local officials claim the BRT projects have still led to increased ridership on local bus routes.) In many cases, ridership increased by more than 30 percent in the first year, and five projects saw ridership jump between 60 and 80 percent. These are people who would not have taken transit if not coaxed aboard by these federally-funded improvements, including peak travel time savings ranging from 10 to 30 percent.

Still, few of these projects meet the standard for “true BRT” developed by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Since bus rapid transit consists of a menu of possible improvements — such as off-board fare collection, dedicated bus lanes, and platform-level boarding — local governments often end up calling a project “BRT” when it’s really just a smattering of different upgrades. And the GAO report bears this out, finding that all 20 routes took the menu of BRT features as mere suggestions, often incorporating just a few of them. Some of the more significant ones – with the most power to cut travel times and increase ridership – were also the most expensive, and therefore the least used.

Only three of the 20 bus routes run on a dedicated lane for at least 30 percent of their length. Two more run on a “semi-dedicated” lane at least 30 percent of the time. A dedicated lane can allow buses to speed past bumper-to-bumper traffic, but most of the routes the GAO studied operate primarily in mixed traffic on arterial streets. With capital costs averaging $50,000 to $100,000 per mile in mixed traffic — compared to $2 to $10 million per mile for projects that have dedicated lanes – it’s understandable why so many communities have opted to keep it cheap. And in some cases, such as Kansas City, congestion is low enough that a dedicated lane would be an unnecessary expense.

BRT projects may include separated lanes for buses, platform-level boarding, off-board fare collection, signal priority at intersections, and real-time arrival information, but no U.S. system takes advantage of all those features. Image: GAO

Other BRT features — like off-board fare collection, low-floor buses that speed boarding, and technological improvements like transit-priority signal timing – were more widely adopted. One of the GAO’s interesting contributions is its explanation of why agencies opt for certain BRT upgrades but not others. Incentives to skimp on bus projects may actually be baked into federal funding formulas.

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Under Economic Impact Analysis, Highway Expansion Loses Appeal

Despite the common refrains about transportation spending creating jobs, most states don’t actually give serious thought to the economic impact of transportation projects. More often than not, they’re content to sink money into freeways despite a wealth of research that shows that transit, bikeways, and sidewalks deliver a much bigger economic bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Sound economic impact analysis may favor fixing existing roads and bridges over building new ones. Photo: Eno Trans

There is evidence, however, that this may be changing.

In a new paper, “Better Use of Public Dollars: Economic Impact Analysis in Transportation Decision Making,” [PDF] author Nicolas Norboge examined how economic analysis can help states make smarter transportation decisions. He describes the uninspiring status quo:

Applying economic impact analysis to transportation projects might seem an obvious part of the decision-making process, but today many transportation investments are made without considering these impacts. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2010 that only 11 states cited economic analysis as being very important when deciding which projects to include in their statewide transportation plans.

Norboge, an assistant researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute and a fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, developed a set of recommendations to guide transportation investment in today’s stringent fiscal atmosphere. An economic impact analysis is one of several emerging tools intended to supplement the traditional environmental impact statement (EIS) requirement, an engineering study mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act, in weighing the costs and benefits of a particular project.

The way things are now, states get piles of money from the federal government to spend on transportation, but with hardly anything in the way of an instruction manual. And, left to their own devices, states have a poor record of holding themselves to any standards regarding the economic impact of how they choose to spend that money.

Norboge’s research highlights how four states – Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, and Michigan – used economic analysis to “improve their transportation investment decisions and increase public support for their transportation programs,” according to Eno Center President Joshua Schank.

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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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