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Posts from the "Congestion" Category

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Bike Lanes Don’t Lead to Congestion, But Some of Them Should

johnson-congestion-minneapolis-1

After bike lanes were installed in Minneapolis, there were more cars per unit of road space, but still not enough to meet the threshold for congestion.

Gretchen Johnson and Aaron Johnson have posted a nice debunking of typical “war on cars” rhetoric over at fivethirtyeight.

Johnson and Johnson gathered before-and-after traffic data from 45 miles of streets where Minneapolis installed bike lanes. They also looked at how Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West bike lane affected traffic conditions.

They found, in short, that after the installation of bike lanes, traffic conditions did not meet the threshold of “heavy congestion,” and the impact on space for motor vehicles was moderate enough that drivers’ travel times would likely be unaffected.

None of the 10 Minneapolis streets reached a level where “minor incidents can cause traffic jams,” although the bike lanes did edge two streets into the “mild to moderate” congestion category. The authors, a transportation consultant and aeronautics Ph.D., write that this “mild to moderate” level is “where traffic is still moving smoothly but you might notice that it’s a bit harder to move from one lane to another.”

Meanwhile, on Prospect Park West, NYC DOT reported that there was no evidence that travel times increased after the installation of a two-way protected bike lane. The two Johnsons, after reviewing the data, say “we agree.”

These are the findings you would expect to see when a street redesign converts excess space for cars into room for bikes. Afterward, there’s less wide-open road space encouraging motorists to drive fast, and on Prospect Park West the city observed a big reduction in speeding after the bike lane was installed.

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How the Self-Driving Car Could Spell the End of Parking Craters

Look, ma, no hands! A legally blind man tested out Google's self-driving car in 2012. Photo: ##http://byteandchew.com/best-of-2012-8-rise-of-the-self-driven-car/##Byte and Chew##

A legally blind man tested out Google’s self-driving car in 2012. Photo: Byte and Chew

Here’s the rosy scenario of a future where cars drive themselves: Instead of owning cars, people will summon autonomous vehicles, hop in, and head to their destination. With fewer cars to be stored, parking lots and garages will give way to development, eventually bringing down the cost of housing in tight markets through increased supply. Pressure to expand roads will ease, as vehicle-to-vehicle technology allows more cars to use the same road space. Traffic violence will become a thing of the past as vehicles communicate instantly with each other and the world around them.

Then there’s the other scenario: People who can afford it will pay an exorbitant amount for gee-whiz driverless technology, but the new systems will have imperfections and won’t integrate seamlessly with older vehicles. Most cars will still be piloted by humans, so the new tech won’t have much effect on traffic hazards and congestion. The driverless car utopia will remain a Magic Highway fantasy.

Driverless vehicle technology has progressed far enough that we need to start anticipating its potential effects. Google’s autonomous vehicle fleet has driven half a million miles without a crash. But the future is extremely uncertain.

At a Congressional briefing this week, the RAND Corporation’s James Anderson, author of a recent report on the prospects for autonomous vehicles, said he is convinced that while there are advantages and disadvantages to driverless cars, “the societal benefits exceed the costs.”

The best possible scenario involves a fleet of shared driverless cars and the elimination of private vehicle ownership. Cars would be in constant use, so the amount of land reserved for parking could be greatly reduced. Even if driverless car technology comes on the market soon, however, that version of the future may never arrive.

Here’s how RAND and others are gaming out some of the potential effects:

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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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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.

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What Will Our Future Be Like If We Don’t Change How We Get Around?

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: ##http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR246.html## RAND##

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: RAND

How will Americans get around in the year 2030? A recent report from the RAND Corporation lays out two “plausible futures” developed though a “scenario analysis” and vetted by outside experts. While RAND takes a decidedly agnostic stance toward the implications of each scenario, the choice that emerges is still pretty stark.

In the first scenario, oil prices continue to climb until 2030 and greenhouse gas emissions are tightly regulated, as a result of the recognition of the harm caused by global warming. Zoning laws have been reformed to promote walkable urban and suburban communities. Transit use has increased substantially. Road pricing is widely used to limit congestion and generate revenue for transportation projects. Vehicle efficiency standards have been tightened, and most drivers use electric vehicles. This is the scenario researchers at RAND call, rather dourly, “No Free Lunch.”

In the second scenario, “Fueled and Freewheeling,” oil prices are relatively low in 2030 due to increasingly advanced extraction methods. Americans’ relationship to energy is much like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. We’ll own more vehicles overall and drive more miles. Suburbanization will continue. Roads are in bad shape because no revenues are raised to repair them. Congestion is worse. This scenario represents the future if little action is taken to counter the effects of global warming.

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Stuck With No Bike Lane? Your Complaint to Congress Is Three Clicks Away

stuck margins

Instead of just shaking your fist, let BAF bring your demand for better bike infrastructure to Congress.

A few months ago, we told you that Building America’s Future had released an app called, “I’m Stuck!” It allowed you to send a quick email to your Congressional representatives, telling them that you were stuck in traffic, or on an overcrowded bus or a delayed train, and you wanted Congress to approve more funding to upgrade infrastructure. At the time, we noted that there was no bike/ped component to the app, but BAF has changed that — halfway, at least.

Among the new features of their app redesign, BAF has added a way to tell Congress you need better bicycle infrastructure. Here’s their sample message you can send with a few simple clicks (or taps) to your reps:

I’m stuck on my bike without a safe route to travel. Bicyclists like me need safe routes, such as dedicated bike lanes — and we need your help. Please include funding for additional bicycle infrastructure in any new transportation and infrastructure investments.

It’s important. It’s your decision. It’s past time.

If it were up to me, the message would add that by riding a bike, the person sending the message is doing a big favor to everyone else using the transportation system — or breathing the air, for that matter. And it would include an option for pedestrians.

According to BAF, the app has been downloaded 11,000 times and 3,500 messages have been sent to Congress. The old version didn’t let them track how many were complaining about sitting in traffic versus how many were complaining about inferior transit. And as we mentioned last time, you’ll have to customize your message if you want to make sure Congress knows that you’re not asking for more car lanes but rather a transit line that would get you off the road altogether.

And remember, distracted driving rules apply. Even if you’re on a bike, please pull over before sending this message!

You can download the app here.

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An Alternative to Congestion-Based City Rankings

The Texas Transportation Institute’s “Annual Mobility Report,” which rates highway congestion in major urban areas across the United States, probably gets more press attention than any other piece of transportation research.

A new tool for measuring the efficiency of urban transportation systems takes into account the distance between destinations. Image: ##http://www.cts.umn.edu/Publications/catalyst/2013/november/accessibility/## CTS Catalyst##

A new tool for measuring the efficiency of urban transportation systems takes into account the distance between destinations, not just driver delay. Image: CTS Catalyst

These city rankings assume that urban transportation policy should aspire, first and foremost, to eliminate motorist delay. Many press outlets pick up the report’s findings and rush to the conclusion that urban areas need wider roads or more highways. In recent years, critics of the report have convincingly argued that the absence of congestion is a poor benchmark for urban transportation systems. It doesn’t even take into account the total amount of time that people spend driving.

An alternative was put forward earlier this year University of Minnesota engineering professor David Levinson. Levinson has developed a system based on “accessibility” rather than congestion. The benefit of Levinson’s metric is that it takes into account the distance between destinations, and how that affects the ease of getting where you want to go. This overcomes a crucial weakness in the TTI report, although one drawback of Levinson’s measure, currently, is that it only factors in accessibility by car.

Now Levinson’s system will come out in a very media-friendly form: annual rankings. Earlier this month the University of Minnesota’s “Accessibility Observatory” announced that it will release these city rankings, with support from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the McKnight Foundation. Hopefully it will get as much attention as TTI’s.

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Heart Disease, Traffic Jams and ADHD Share One Simple Solution: Drive Less

This is an excerpt from “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy,” by Elly Blue (Microcosm Publishing, December 1, 2013, bikenomics.com). See our interview with Elly from spring 2013. 

Car exhaust is no laughing matter. Nearly half of residents in major urban areas in North America live close enough to highways and other large roads to experience serious problems as a result. Exposure to car emissions worsens and may cause asthma and other lung conditions, including lung cancer. There is evidence to suggest that it leads to hardening of the arteries and thence to heart disease. One study has found an increased risk of heart attacks while in traffic, either while driving or using public transportation. Breathing car exhaust may increase the risk of developing diabetes; it is certain, however, that people who have diabetes suffer disproportionately from the effects of air pollution.

Traffic flows and air quality improved with the odd-even license plate restriction in Beijing during the Olympics. Photo: Traffic Technology Today

The worst effects of breathing polluted air are experienced where it is densest: in traffic. Spending time on and near highways, freeways, and other busy roads is terrible for your health. How near is a question that is still being studied, but researchers believe that the effects are worst within either a fifth or a third of a mile. People in cars or buses are exposed to considerably more air pollution, perhaps because of, rather than despite, being in a closed space. People walking and bicycling on or next to roads breathe more air, but inhale somewhat less pollution; and cyclists have been found to have even less risk if they are on paths that are separated from the road.

The burdens that come with air pollution are, as with so much else, not evenly distributed. Poverty and ethnicity are both major factors that determine the amount of car exhaust we breathe. Housing near a source of pollution, such as a freeway, busy road, or industrial site is generally where people with low incomes are able to live.

Children are particularly at risk, beginning before birth. Air pollution affects prenatal development, and a recent study suggests that exposure to air pollution such as diesel particulates, mercury, and lead may put a child at risk for autism. A separate study found double the rate of autism among children who live within 1,000 feet of a freeway in several major cities. Air pollution has also been linked, tentatively, to hyperactivity in kids and childhood cancers. And kids who have high daily exposure to car exhaust score lower on intelligence tests and have more depression, anxiety, and attention problems. This isn’t just a matter of where children live – one in three public schools in the U.S. are within a quarter mile of a highway, well within the danger zone.

Traffic jams and air pollution are often talked about at once, as though one inevitably causes the other, and that by fixing one you can also solve the other.

It doesn’t quite work that way.

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U.S. DOT Still Has Time to Get MAP-21 Performance Measures Right

Many transportation reform advocates were disappointed in the performance measures included in MAP-21, which was signed into law in July 2012. They weren’t tied to funding, they gave states and localities too much leeway to set their own performance targets, and they measured the wrong things. But there’s still a chance for them to get much stronger.

Eno, BPC and SSTI convened a daylong meeting of transportation experts to figure out how to improve MAP-21's performance measures within the constraints of the law itself. Photo: Eno

The Federal Highway Administration has six more months to finalize the rulemaking, in which they’ll define and give guidance on the metrics. Some at U.S. DOT feared that FHWA would neglect non-automotive modes, and reached out to the Eno Center for Transportation, the Bipartisan Policy Center and the State-Smart Transportation Initiative. Those groups convened a daylong task force in June, and yesterday they released their findings.

“Performance of the system, as we see it, isn’t just limited to the speed of cars,” said Eric Sundquist of SSTI, “but how does it work with the local network, how does it work with other modes, how does it perform in terms of some goals that are somewhat nontraditional for state DOTs — economic development, property values, livability, sustainability, and those sorts of things.”

Measuring our transportation network by those criteria might be “bleeding edge,” Sundquist acknowledged, and not on state DOTs’ radar. “But MAP-21, with its focus on system performance and congestion, certainly gets us a foot in the door in having the conversation,” he said. “And the way we do it under MAP-21 will probably set the pattern for how we think about it going forward.”

The groups focused their attention on two MAP-21 performance measures — congestion and system performance — that could be interpreted either to consolidate the dominance of highways or to promote multi-modalism, in hopes that they could inspire FHWA to do the latter.

We’ve written before about the dangers of a rulemaking that sets in stone a performance measure on congestion that measures nothing but travel delay for automobiles.

“Measures of congestion are largely highway-focused and are not necessarily providing a good indication of mobility and transportation outcomes,” Eno’s Joshua Schank told reporters yesterday. He said congestion isn’t always bad, especially in places where there’s still capacity to add more infrastructure for walking, biking, and transit, or where congestion isn’t harming economic development. “Congestion might not be the problem you’re trying to address,” he said, “but actually trying to get more mobility or accessibility to that area, rather than dealing with congestion itself.”

He’d like to change MAP-21′s “congestion” measure to one looking at average trip time. That’s a multi-modal way of addressing the issue people really care about: how long will it take them to get somewhere.

Tied to that is MAP-21′s metric on system performance. The only systems that metric evaluates are the national highway system and the interstate system. “It’s a synonym for congestion,” Schank said. “By its very nature, because you’re measuring the performance of those highway systems, you’re not looking at the larger system.”

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Stuck With Bad Transit Options? There’s an App for That.

The next time your subway car is overcrowded, or your train is delayed, or your bus is bogged down in traffic, you can access a direct line to your members of Congress and let them know you’re not gonna take it anymore.

If you tell your members of Congress you're stuck, be specific about how they can unstick you. Image courtesy of BAF

Building America’s Future, a lobbying group for more federal infrastructure spending, just released their new app, “I’m Stuck,” designed to help constituents sound off to their representatives about their frustration with the state of U.S. infrastructure.

New York City bicycle advocate Joanna Oltman Smith joked on Twitter that the “‘I’m Stuck’ gripe app should auto-disable for drivers ‘stuck’ where transit options exist.” BAF’s call for more infrastructure spending is devoid of that kind of nuance. More roads, more transit, more repair funds, more broadband — they want it all. The app sends a broad message to Congress that Americans want more spending without being very specific about how or where or for what.

Luckily, the app does provide space for users to supply those details in an “Add Description” field.

That’s key, since you can’t trust Congress to take the right action, even if they do take action. So, enlightened drivers can write in, “I’m stuck in traffic and I wish I had better transportation options so I could get out of my car and take the train instead! Increase transit funding!”

Marcia Hale, president of BAF, says they hope users will push for more transit if they don’t think building lots of highways is the answer to the traffic jam they’re stuck in.

Without a note specifying otherwise, lawmakers could easily take commuters’ frustration to mean that they want roads expanded — and that’s not a real solution to traffic congestion.

The app isn’t just for drivers, however. Transit riders can signal their frustration with creaky rail systems or unreliable buses. And though there isn’t an explicit option for bicycle and pedestrian frustrations, that’s what the “other” category is for, if you ask me. If you just got sideswiped and you’re angry about poor safety and the lack of dedicated bicycle facilities in your town, tell your congressperson! No sidewalks? Register your complaint! They’re not your city council members — they’re not going to address the particular problem on your particular street. But they should know that their constituents want federal funding for all modes of transportation, not just driving.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, co-chair of Building America’s Future, told reporters this morning that he hopes the app will be “a permission slip from the American people” giving lawmakers political cover for spending more money on infrastructure. Let’s hope that permission slip comes with an asterisk, indicating that the American people want that money spent wisely, on infrastructure that will make us and our communities safer and healthier.

You only have to enter your personal information once and the app will figure out who your representatives are in Congress. Marcia Hale, president of BAF, emphasizes that they don’t intend for people to use the app while they’re driving — a message pops up when you open the app warning you not to.