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Denver Urbanists vs. Traffic Calming Conspiracy Theorists

With a fast-growing transit network, Denver is grappling with how to build walkable places around its new rail lines, and the Denver Business Journal is running a package of stories about the potential for transit-oriented development. Overall it looks like a solid introduction to the notion that Denver needs to reduce car dependence, but the series did take an unfortunate detour into “war-on-cars” fantasy-land today with a he-said/she-said piece titled ”Are transit-oriented developments a campaign against cars?”

Transit oriented development isn't a conspiracy against driving, it's an attempt to level the playing field for other modes. Photo: City of Denver

Guys, this is not a conspiracy against the middle class. Photo: City of Denver

Still, it’s helpful to get a reminder of what urbanists are up against in cities like Denver. In this case, the “debate” started with a Denver Post column by City Council President Mary Beth Susman published in June. In a fairly moderate plea for better transit options, Susman noted that in addition to providing incentives — “carrots” — to entice folks to try walking, biking or transit, the city is planning to use some disincentives — “sticks” — to discourage driving. The two “sticks” she mentioned were reducing parking requirements — we’re talking about loosening government regulations that compel  – and refraining from widening roads in some areas of the city.

In response, the conservative Colorado Peak Politics called Susman’s editorial an “astonishing” admission that the city’s policy was trying to “actually make driving inconvenient.” The outraged, anonymous blogger asserted that nobody with kids to drop off, or a “client-facing position,” or groceries to pick up will ride a bike in Denver, and that policies that try to make biking safer and more practical are a “dangerous” attack on the middle class.

But the real hidden gem of this whole episode comes from Kathleen Calongne of the sprawl-loving American Dream Coalition. While it’s regrettable that Business Journal reporter Caitlin Hendee treated Calongne as a credible source, she’s at least good for some laughs.

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FHWA Gleefully Declares That Driving Is Up, Calls for More Highway Spending

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA's own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels. Image: ##http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/travel_monitoring/14juntvt/figure1.cfm##FHWA##

Despite the rhetoric, FHWA’s own charts show that driving is hardly bouncing back to peak levels — even if you’re just looking at total miles-driven. Chart: FHWA

Well, so much for the predictions that changing preferences and new technologies will lead to a car-free utopia. The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that after nine years of steady decline, vehicle-miles-traveled in the U.S. was 1.4 percent higher this June than last June. Apparently, red-blooded Americans everywhere are finally getting back to their Hummer habit after a few years of diminished driving and rising transit ridership and bike commuting.

Except one thing: Driving is still way down from peak levels. While the FHWA’s press release trumpets that “American driving between July 2013 and June 2014 is at levels not seen since 2008″ — adding, alarmingly, a call for “greater investment in highways” — that’s not the whole story. Yes, the total driving rate now approximates where it stood in 2008, when VMT was in freefall. But it’s still way down from the peak — 3.05 trillion miles — in 2007.

Since the end of the recession, total VMT has fluctuated within a fairly constrained range, remaining well below the 2007 peak. And that’s just total driving. If you look at the per capita driving rate, it’s still dropping. In fact, it’s as low as it’s been in nearly 17 years.

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The Problem With “Infrastructurism”

Have you ever heard someone say that building a new transit line will increase ridership by so many thousands of riders?

An ad for DC's new Silver Line shows riders dancing into the train. Photo: WMATA

An ad for DC’s new Silver Line shows riders dancing into the train. Photo: WMATA

Jarrett Walker at Human Transit calls folks who subscribe to that idea “infrastructurists,” and he says it’s a mistake to attribute too much importance to physical infrastructure. In the end, it’s service — which can be facilitated by new infrastructure — that influences ridership.

The “infrastructurist” mentality was on display, Walker says, in a recent study published by the Transportation Research Board, which Streetsblog covered in July. The authors examined why some transit lines attract more riders than others.

Based on the transit lines they studied, the authors did not find that speed, frequency, and reliability “individually had a statistically significant effect on ridership.” But Walker says there’s plenty of evidence demonstrating the effect of service quality on ridership:

While this dataset of new infrastructure projects is too small and noisy to capture the relationship of speed, frequency, and reliability to ridership, the vastly larger dataset of the experience of transit service knows these factors to be overwhelming. What’s more, we can describe the mechanism of the relationship, instead of just observing correlations: Speed, frequency, and reliability are the main measures of whether you reach your destination on time. Given this, the burden of proof should certainly be on those who suggest that ridership is possibly unrelated to whether a service is useful for that purpose.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Boston Opens First New T Station in 26 Years (Boston Herald)
  • In Minneapolis, City Council Signs Off on Light Rail (StarTribFinance & Commerce)
  • Las Vegas Rail Plans Have Been Through Fits and Starts (Review Journal)
  • MD’s Purple Line Moves to Engineering as Opponents Sue Over “Tiny Species” (Progressive RR, WaPo)
  • L.A.’s Infrastructure Reaches Breaking Point (NYT)
  • Richmond Looks to Northern Virginia for BRT Vision (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
  • Feds Could Fund Rail for Columbus, Ohio (Columbus Dispatch)
  • California High-Speed Rail Has Implications We Can’t Predict (Atlantic)
  • “Pedestrian Error” Doesn’t Tell the Full Story in Baltimore County (Next City)
  • Where Are the Biggest Bike-share Stations in the U.S.? (GGW)
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Meet the Mom on a Mission to Bring Sidewalks to Nashville

Stacy Dorris became an advocate for safer streets after a failed attempt to walk to the park by her home in Nashville, not far from Vanderbilt University.

Stacy Dorris, a mother and physician, is trying to fill the gaps in Nashville's sidewalk network. Image: Vanderbilt

Stacy Dorris, a doctor and a mother, is trying to fill the gaps in Nashville’s sidewalk network. Photo: Vanderbilt

Like most streets in Nashville, there were no sidewalks along the high speed road that leads to the park. Still, Dorris headed out with her dog and stroller and gave it a shot.

After getting buzzed by a few speeding cars, however, she threw in the towel.

“We literally had to abort the mission,” she told the Tennessean. “I feared for my life.”

Since then, Dorris, a physician at Vanderbilt University and a mother of three — two daughters, age 15 and 4, and one son, 2 — has been on a mission to make Nashville more walkable. She is single-handedly leading an effort to reform the city’s sidewalk rules.

Though the city has improved its sidewalk situation dramatically in recent years, it’s still pretty dire. The Tennessean reports that Nashville has only about .45 miles of sidewalks for every two miles of road.

I spoke with Dorris by phone to hear the latest. Here’s what she had to say about her quest to fill in the gaps in the Music City’s pedestrian infrastructure:

That was an interesting story in the Tennessean about how scary your walk to the park was. 

Walking with children on Nashville's sidewalk-less roads is terrifying, says Stacy Dorris, a physician and mother. Image: Stacy Dorris

Walking with children on Nashville’s sidewalk-less roads is terrifying, says Stacy Dorris. Photo: Stacy Dorris

Literally, when we tried to walk, legally facing traffic, people were honking at us, people were swerving all over the road. This one SUV, they didn’t see us to the very last second. I think she was texting. It was terrifying. I thought we were going to die. After that we just went home and it was sad. It was so sad that for safety reasons we literally couldn’t walk down our street with a stroller and a dog.

So basically nobody walks in your neighborhood?

No, people do walk on some of the side streets where traffic volume is lower. The problem with Nashville in general that I see, it was either designed poorly or no thought was put into it. There’s these huge superblocks. You really have to go on main corridors to really get anywhere. You can’t get anywhere [on foot] because of these sort of main roads that are very dangerous to walk on.

Why do so few of Nashville’s roads have sidewalks?

One of the things I hear over and over again is that there’s just sort of poor funding. Money is really just sort of a big issue. One of the things that I discovered was there is this whole sidewalk fund that Nashville has set up.

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In Austin, Posts and Paint Bring a New Bike Bridge From Good to Great

All photos: Nathan Wilkes

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

Here are a few images from Austin bikeway engineer Nathan Wilkes that show how a protected lane can cheaply add a lot of value to a larger project.

The bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Little Walnut Creek, visible in the top right background above, officially opened Monday after 17 years of planning. It created a direct link between Hart Elementary School and the residential neighborhood to the north — but the link also required pedaling on a wide street that many people would see as unsuitable for children.

Furness Drive before the new bike lanes. Image: Google Street View

The new bidirectional protected bike lane, Wilkes wrote in an email, “is on both sides of the bridge and makes seamless transitions between on and off-street infrastructure.” The 1.1-mile biking improvement cost $20,000, compared to $1.2 million for the bridge itself.

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The Small Indiana City That’s Embracing Livable Streets

Kokomo, Indiana, has put a lot of money and energy into developing streetscape features like bumpouts, Aaron Renn reports. Photo: Urbanophile

Kokomo, Indiana, has put resources and energy into developing streetscape features to calm traffic and provide more space for walking and biking, Aaron Renn reports. Photo: Urbanophile

With a population of about 60,000 and a formerly industrial economy, Kokomo, Indiana, is not the type of city that recent economic trends have favored.

But Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile says the city has embraced some tenets of urbanism as an economic and quality-of-life strategy, thanks in large part to the leadership of Mayor Greg Goodnight. When Renn visited recently, he was impressed with the new downtown bike trail and pedestrian infrastructure. And thanks to careful budgeting and prioritization, the city is making these improvements without taking on any debt. Renn says:

They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed-use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing.

I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not a viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

It’s hard to tell from Renn’s post if the city’s parking policies are aligned with the improvements to street designs, but it looks like an admirable effort. You can get a better sense of what’s happening (and of Mayor Goodnight’s urbanist library) by checking out the many pictures on the Urbanophile.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bike League shares a post from a woman whose life was transformed by her introduction to bicycling and the dramatic weight loss she achieved. And Pedestrian Observations says hoping people will just move out of productive cities with high housing costs isn’t a reasonable affordability strategy.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Four Examples of Why Federal Money Is Bad for U.S. Transportation (Next City)
  • How Will North Carolina Navigate the Politics of its Transit Future? (E&E Publishing)
  • Just Launched: The North American Bikeshare Association (Mobility Lab)
  • Feds to Negotiate on Failed Alaska Ferry (Alaska Journal)
  • Dallas Plays Catch-Up with Demand for Urban Living (D Mag)
  • Jacksonville Transit in Line for Total Overhaul (Florida Times-Union)
  • New Cleveland Transit Station Gets Raves (Plain Dealer)
  • Salt Lake Trib: Utah Transit Authority Needs to Rebuild Public Trust
  • New Rail Hub Will Transform Downtown Miami (Curbed)
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India’s Health Minister Wants Protected Bike Lanes Nationwide

There’s encouraging news out of India, where cities expect to add hundreds of millions of residents in the next few decades but are already choking on traffic congestion and auto exhaust.

The Indian government appears to be embracing bicycling. Photo: Wikipedia

A senior Indian government official wants the nation to embrace bicycling. Photo: Wikipedia

Dr. Harsh Vardhan was appointed to lead India’s health ministry by newly elected prime minister Narendra Modi this May, and he wants to promote bicycling as a way to improve public health and air quality while adding more transportation options, especially for low-income people.

According to the Indian news outlet First Post, Vardhan would like to see a nationwide effort to install protected bike lanes:

Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said that he will approach the Surface Transport and Urban Development Ministries for the development of cycle tracks alongside roads to make cycling a “huge movement” in the country.

“I will personally write to Surface Transport and Urban Development Ministries to do whatever they can in this initiative and also ask them to develop cycle tracks,” Vardhan said as he released a study report titled “Peddling towards a Greener India: A Report on Promoting Cycling in the Country”, prepared by the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi on Wednesday.

The report also recommended that India offer residents micro-loans to purchase bikes, as well as tax incentives to promote bicycling.

The health problems that auto emissions cause are now grave enough to threaten India’s economy, as the number of private vehicles has tripled to 130 million since 2003.

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Pittsburgh Business Leaders See Bikeways as Cure for Road-Space Shortage

intersection treatment penn ave

Along Pittsburgh’s new downtown bike lane, all intersections are signalized, but cyclists won’t receive dedicated signal phases and most crossings are unmarked. People will need to be on the lookout for turning conflicts whether they’re on bikes or in cars. All renderings: City of Pittsburgh

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

Downtown Pittsburgh has a perfectly good reason to be running out of room for more cars: Its streets have been there since 1784.

“In Pittsburgh, we have too many cars chasing too few parking spaces,” Merrill Stabile, the city’s largest parking operator, said last week. “I am in favor of building a few more parking garages. But we’ll never be able to build enough to meet the demand, in my opinion, if we continue to grow like we’ve been growing.”

That’s why Stabile is among the Pittsburgh business leaders backing a plan announced Tuesday to reduce downtown’s dependence on car traffic by adding a protected bike lane to Penn Avenue.

Jeremy Waldrup, CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said the protected lane, which will return Penn Avenue to one-way motor vehicle flow by removing an eastbound traffic lane, will make it comfortable for most people, not just the bold few, to bike downtown.

“One of the most important things is that we have as a city developed this incredible trail system, many of them leading to downtown,” Waldrup said. “But once you’ve made it to the borders of downtown, you’re literally on your own to get into the city.”

Penn Avenue’s new one-mile bike lane, installed as a pilot project over the next few weeks, is part of a wave of protected lane projects in American central business districts.

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