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Posts from the "Transit" Category

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Transit and Equity Advocate Stephanie Pollack to Lead MassDOT

Stephanie Pollack was one of the first transportation experts who made a serious impression on me. A few weeks after I started working at Streetsblog, at my first Rail~volution conference, she gave a presentation on the complex relationship between transit, gentrification, and car ownership. Her energy, intellectual rigor, and passion for social justice were apparent in her nuanced work exploring the reasons why car ownership rates tend to rise in neighborhoods with new transit services — and how it hurts not just the transportation system and the environment, but the poor.

Stephanie Pollack, a thought leader on how housing and transportation policy impacts minorities and low-income people, will be the new secretary of MassDOT. Photo: ##http://www.northeastern.edu/news/faculty-experts/stephanie-pollack/##Northeastern##

Stephanie Pollack, a thought leader on how housing and transportation policy affects minorities and low-income people, will be the new secretary of MassDOT. Photo: Northeastern

The person who opened a Rail~volution session on transit and equity with, “I spent a couple of decades as a transit and equity advocate before I went into academia,” has just been named the director of a state department of transportation.

By a Republican governor.

When Streetsblog fretted about what a Charlie Baker victory over Democrat Martha Coakley could mean for transportation, naming such a firebrand as his transportation secretary seemed unthinkable. But perhaps Baker will continue the legacy of moderate Republican Massachusetts governors who care about smart growth.

Or perhaps he was simply impressed by Pollack’s résumé, including her leadership at Northeastern University’s Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and her service on numerous teams and panels to help design city- and statewide public transportation and housing policy.

The Boston Globe’s headline yesterday about Pollack’s nomination read, “Baker names gas tax advocate as transit chief,” noting that “Baker has said he does not plan to raise taxes.” But Pollack’s history is much more interesting than her position on the gas tax.

Her research focuses on the intersection between transportation and equity. How can planners bring transit services into a neighborhood without bringing gentrification along with it? Are all communities equally consulted in the lead-up to major transportation changes? Are higher gas taxes “elitist or equitable”? (You can guess by that Globe headline which side she comes down on. Actually, don’t just guess – this short presentation of her conclusions is worth perusing.)

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Talking Headways Podcast: The Year Ahead in Transit, With Yonah Freemark

Image: Yonah Freemark, ##http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2015/01/05/openings-and-construction-starts-planned-for-2015/##The Transport Politic##

Graphic: Yonah Freemark/The Transport Politic

Think you’re all caught up on the latest transit news? Listening to Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic and Jeff Wood of the Overhead Wire (my lovely co-host) geek out on the transit construction projects of 2014 and 2015 is a humbling, and surprisingly energizing, experience.

podcast icon logo

You can prep for this episode by reading Yonah’s seventh annual compendium of “Openings and Construction Starts Planned for 2015,” or you can just hit play right now.

You thought the Oakland airport connector was a good idea just because it’s transit? Get schooled. Didn’t know the country was getting its first car-free bridge just for buses/rail/bikes/peds? Learn about it here. Wondering how escalator length affects subway ridership? Yup, you’ll hear it here first, folks.

With that, I present: Yonah and Jeff on the transit starts of 2014 and 2015.

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Will Maryland Gov-Elect Larry Hogan Kill the Red and Purple Lines?

The Purple Line, which Governor-elect Larry Hogan has threatened to kill, is seen as key to Montgomery County’s long-term economic viability.

Seeing shovel-ready transit projects destroyed by petty politics has been all too common the last few years (see: Scott Walker and Wisconsin high-speed rail, or Chris Christie and the ARC tunnel). Even so, this one’s a doozy.

The fate of two of the country's biggest planned transit projects rest in this man's hands: Maryland Governor-Elect Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Larry Hogan. Photo: Wikipedia

Maryland Governor-elect Larry Hogan has the power to halt two major urban transit projects that have the planning and funding all lined up and and are all but ready to go: suburban DC’s 16-mile Purple Line as well as Baltimore’s 14-mile Red Line. More than a decade of planning has gone into each of these transit lines, and each has been awarded a competitive federal New Starts grant for $900 million [PDF], accounting for about a third of the total $5.5 billion combined cost.

Early in his gubernatorial campaign, Hogan promised to kill the projects, saying the money would be better spent on roads and that the western, eastern, and southern parts of the state deserved more attention. But closer to the election he moderated his views, saying the lines were “worth considering.”

Since winning the race, he has mostly kept mum about his intentions. When asked recently about the plans, he demurred, according to the Washington Post.

“They should just keep on guessing, because I’m going to be governor January 21, and we will start talking about policy then,” he said.

Although Hogan won’t take office for a few weeks yet, his indecision is already affecting construction timetables. Bids were due this month for the Purple Line project, but were delayed until March, after the swearing-in.

Maryland spent more than $170 million planning and purchasing right-of-way for the Purple Line and another $230+ million on planning for the Red Line. That work will go to waste if the projects are killed. Plus, because the Red Line has already gone out to bid, the state would be responsible for another $8 million in payments to the engineering firms that have prepared detailed, long-term plans to build the line.

Of the most concern to transit advocates is all the federal funding that would likely be lost if the state were to abandon or dramatically alter the plans at this late stage. In addition to the New Starts grant, the Purple Line has received $900 million in federally backed loans. None of the federal money could be used for other projects in the state.

Business groups in both the DC area and Baltimore strongly support the projects and have been urging the governor to continue with the plan.

Klaus Philipsen, a Baltimore architect who served as a consultant and planner on the Red Line, said dirt could start flying this year in Baltimore. The $2.9 billion Red Line was expected to not just attract new passengers, but greatly expand the usefulness of the city’s existing two rail lines by creating a more extensive network. It was also expected to be a boon for struggling west Baltimore, where intensive community planning processes sought to get the most out of the stations for local neighborhoods.

“The hope is that with the Red Line [Baltimore's rail transit] would start to become a real system and we’d have a quantum leap in connectivity,” Philipsen told Streetsblog.

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Here’s How Much Safer Transit Is Compared to Driving

Traffic fatality risk by transportation mode. Image: Journal of Public Transportation

Traffic fatality risk by transportation mode. Image: Journal of Public Transportation

Keep this in mind the next time a high-profile train crash generates more press coverage than a year’s worth of car wrecks: Despite the media sensationalism and overwrought regulatory responses that follow such events, transit is already a lot safer than driving.

Looking at traffic fatalities per mile traveled in the U.S., analyst Todd Litman found that riding commuter or intercity rail is about 20 times safer than driving; riding metro or light rail is about 30 times safer; and riding the bus is about 60 times safer. Factoring in pedestrians and cyclists killed in crashes with vehicles, the effect is smaller but still dramatic: the fatality rate associated with car travel is more than twice as high as the rate associate with transit. Litman’s study was recently published in the Journal of Public Transportation [PDF].

Litman notes that most transit travel involves some walking or biking, which carry a relatively high risk of traffic injury. But those risks are mostly offset by the health benefits of physical activity. Living in a place with good transit has safety benefits as well: Litman cites research showing that cities with higher transit ridership rates tend to have lower per-capita traffic fatality rates.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Here I Am, Stuck in Seattle With You

podcast icon logoStuck in Seattle or Stuck in Sherman Oaks. There are so many places to get stuck these days and so many clowns and jokers making it worse.

First, poor Bertha, stuck 100 feet under Seattle. All the tunnel boring machine wanted to do was drill a 1.7-mile tunnel for a highway that won’t even access downtown and is projected to cause more congestion at a higher price than a parallel surface/transit option — and it got stuck just 1,000 feet in. Last December. Now the rescue plan is making downtown sink. It’s not going well. And to be honest, it was always destined to not go well. It was a crappy plan to begin with. Luckily, there is a rescue plan for the rescue plan, if anyone cares to carry it out. It starts with some accountability and ends — spoiler alert! — with pulling the damn plug.

But if the new tunnel to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct is likely to cause traffic tie-ups, it’s nothing compared to the perennial jam on LA’s I-405. The popular navigation app Waze has started directing drivers off the freeway and into the residential neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, infuriating the people who live there. Their solution: Try to convince Waze there are traffic jams in Sherman Oaks too. Our solution: Build a better transportation system.

And that’s it! This is our last podcast until the New Year. You can catch up on anything you missed on iTunes or Stitcher, and if you follow our RSS feed (or our Twitter feeds) you’ll be the first to know when a new episode is out.

Happy Holidays, and Happy Trails!

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Vote to Decide the Best Urban Street Transformation of 2014

streetsie_2014

If you’re searching for reasons to feel positive about the future, the street transformations pictured below are a good start. Earlier this month we asked readers to send in their nominations for the best American street redesigns of 2014. These five are the finalists selected by Streetsblog staff. They include new car-free zones, substantial sidewalk expansions, superb bike infrastructure, awesome safety upgrades, and exclusive transit lanes.

Which deserves the distinction of being named the “Best Urban Street Transformation of 2014″? We’re starting the voting today and will post a reminder when we run the rest of the Streetsblog USA Streetsie Award polls next Tuesday. Without further ado, here are the contenders:

Western Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Before

Before

After. (We're using a rendering because the project is not quite yet 100% complete.)

After. (We’re using a rendering because the project is not quite 100 percent complete.)

The Western Avenue road diet narrowed dangerously wide traffic lanes on this one-way street to make room for safer pedestrian crossings, a raised bike lane, and bus bulbs. Brian DeChambeau of the Cambridge Community Development Department, the lead agency on the project, adds these details about the redesign:

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A Better Way to Spend $1 Billion Than Ramming More Roads Thru Milwaukee

This concept design for an east-west corridor rapid transit system for Milwaukee was developed by a New Jersey DOT veteran for local advocates. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

Instead of WisDOT’s plan to spend a billion dollars double-decking part of I-94, Wisconsin PIRG proposes an east-west rapid transit corridor for Milwaukee. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is set on widening Interstate 94, a highway that runs east-west through Milwaukee. The agency is so committed to this idea that it is proceeding, at great expense and over the objections of Milwaukee’s mayor, with a project to double-deck a portion of the road through a relatively densely populated area. The money that WisDOT is prepared to shell out for this highway expansion could be better spent providing quality transit options along the corridor, the Wisconsin Public Interest Research says in a new report  [PDF].

The Wisconsin DOT hasn't done a very good job predicting traffic over the last few years. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

Wisconsin DOT is still adding highways to accommodate growing traffic volumes, even though statewide traffic has declined since 2004. Image: Wisconsin PIRG

The justification for the billion-dollar highway project is flimsy. The state DOT says traffic will grow 24 percent by 2030, but traffic has actually declined on the highway during the last four years data was available. The Milwaukee region grew less than 1 percent over the last 13 years, and total driving in Wisconsin hasn’t increased in the last 10 years. There is no reason to think the next 15 years will be all that different.

Since WisDOT is only considering different road expansion scenarios for this corridor, WisPIRG decided to do the work the agency has refused to do, hiring New Jersey DOT veteran Mark Stout to study what else the state can get for its money besides a few extra highway lanes.

A coalition fighting the I-94 expansion released the results of Stout’s work yesterday. Stout recommends that WisDOT rehab I-94 without breaking the bank on new traffic lanes. More important than expanding the road, he writes, is providing options to get around without clogging streets with more cars — namely, beefed up transit.

Stout developed a conceptual rapid transit plan [above] that would enable residents to travel the corridor by bus or rail. The transit plan is designed to serve important clusters of housing and jobs, and to connect with the city’s planned downtown streetcar, increasing the usefulness of both systems. Stout did not attempt to put a price tag on the transit expansion, but he said it could likely be accommodated with existing resources outlined in the region’s Transportation Improvement Plan, a docket of projects eligible for federal funding.

“Rather than squander billions of tax dollars on overbuilding highways, WISDOT should be offering a vision for transportation that will help strengthen communities, connect people to jobs, and better accommodate changing local needs,” said WisPIRG’s Bruce Speight in a press release. “They aren’t doing it, so we have to do it for them.”

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Michigan Gas Tax Hike Could Provide Some Relief for Detroit Transit Riders

Michigan state senators voted last week to approve a gas tax hike expected to net more than $1 billion annually to fix the state’s notoriously potholed roads, reports the Free Press. The measure, if it passes the House intact, could also be good news for Detroit’s woefully inadequate transit system.

A provision of the bill would allow Detroit to spend 20 percent of its portion of the proceeds on transit. Detroit has been funding transit only through its general fund — with no dedicated revenue stream — and it has arguably the worst transit system of any major city in the nation. With the city in bankruptcy, general fund revenues for transit have been in short supply. Riders report two-and-a-half-hour one-way commutes, or buses that never show, making it nearly impossible to hold down a job without a car.

Although the region is in the process of merging Detroit’s transit system with SMART, the suburban transit provider, establishing a seamless system has been fraught with political challenges. Regional planners, for instance, recently shifted millions of dollars in transit funding from Detroit to the suburbs. A new funding source would be huge.

Under the plan approved by the State Senate, Michigan’s gas tax would incrementally rise 17 cents per gallon over the next few years. Raising the tax to fix the state’s roads has been a top priority of Governor Rick Snyder, and Republican lawmakers apparently felt comfortable advancing it following the election.

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Lawmakers Could Finally Equalize Benefits for Transit and Parking This Year

It’s time to rev up the annual fight over parity between federal transit and parking benefits for commuters. Members of Congress hope this might finally be the year to get it done.

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RTD_Bus_%26_Light_Rail#mediaviewer/File:Denver_light_rail_train_at_16th-California_station.jpg##Wikipedia##

This could be the year to equalize benefits for transit riders and make it permanent. Photo: Wikipedia

This morning, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) announced that they will, again, push to equalize the tax benefits available to transit commuters and car commuters.

Right now, people who drive to work can get up to $250 a month in tax-free earnings to pay for parking. The monthly tax-free income available to the 3 million Americans who use the transit benefit, meanwhile, is capped at $130.

With the passage of the 2009 stimulus law, parity was implemented between the parking benefit and transit benefit for a brief while. After extending the higher transit benefit a few times, however, in recent years Congress has failed to take the necessary action to do so.

At today’s press conference, Washington Metro Board Chair Tom Downs noted that Metro ridership had stagnated since transit benefits dropped. “If you’re providing a $1,500-a-year incentive to drive your car over taking transit, you’re probably going to have an impact on mode choice,” Downs said.

Increasing the transit benefit makes the law more fair, but it probably won’t make a big impact on how people get to work. Studies show that providing parking benefits always increases solo driving rates, whether or not the workplace also offers transit perks. Better to do away with all commuter benefits than to provide both [PDF]. Besides, most transit commutes cost far less than $235 a month. A monthly New York subway pass costs $112. In DC, you’d have to travel from one end of the system to the other every day during peak hours to make use of the full $235 transit benefit Blumenauer proposes.

Though Blumenauer’s plan only cuts the parking benefit by $15, it’s deficit neutral (at worst), since so many more people drive than use transit.

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How Clayton County Turned Its Zero-Transit Nightmare Around

Walking is great, but Clayton County's car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Walking is great, but Clayton County’s car-free households are about to get some transportation options. Photo courtesy of Georgia Chapter, Sierra Club

Whether Tuesday’s election left you feeling elated or devastated, there’s one happy story we can all rejoice in: Clayton County, Georgia, will finally get transit service.

For 10 years the county had a skeletal bus system with three routes, known as C-TRAN, which was then completely dismantled about four years ago. Having gotten its jump-start with federal air quality money, C-TRAN never really had the sustainable funding it needed. In 2010, facing a severe budget crisis, county commissioners voted to eliminate the service entirely. Advocates begged the commissioners to try other options, even raising fares and cutting service; anything but removing it entirely. But in March 2010, C-TRAN ceased operation.

Clayton County is a spread-out suburban area south of Atlanta. It’s the most economically depressed county in the region, and 7.5 percent of households don’t have access to a car. Most of the towns in the area have huge arterial roads but no real downtown.

So without a car and without even the barest of transit systems, people walk — along these unsafe arterial roads with no sidewalks.

“It’s not uncommon to see young people, old people, moms with babies, people with groceries walking in a ditch,” said Colleen Kiernan, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club. “In hot weather, in cold weather, in rain — in all conditions, at all times of the day and night.”

Just eight months after the bus service ended, nearly 70 percent of voters in Clayton County agreed in a non-binding ballot measure to join the MARTA regional transit service.

But nothing happened.

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