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How Will a New FRA Rule Affect Commuter Rail?

Misguided safety rules from the Federal Railroad Administration are cited as the cause for all sorts of problems, from high-construction costs to pedestrian hazards to, ironically, worse safety outcomes.

Would a new FRA regulation dampen commuter rail expansion across the U.S.? Photo: Richard Masoner via Flickr

Transit observers are concerned that a new FRA regulation may hamper commuter rail expansion. Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

Which helps explain why Jarret Walker at Network blog Human Transit is alarmed about a new rule “requiring two-person train crews… for most main line freight and passenger rail operations.” It’s “much too soon to panic,” Walker says, but he was still compelled to send the FRA his concerns about how this might play out for commuter rail:

The language creates a reasonable suspicion you are about to ban one-person crews on urban commuter rail services regulated by the FRA, which usually fall within FRA’s use of the term “passenger rail.” While the text is unclear about what “minimum crew size” standard it proposes for “passenger rail,” it makes no sense that you would need to “establish minimum crew size standards” if the intended minimum were one.

Your release mentions later that the rule is expected to contain “appropriate exceptions.” It would be wise to give the transit and urban development worlds some assurance that you don’t plan to shut down the possibility of one-person-crew urban transit — using FRA-regulated rail corridors — through this rule. Such services — similar to existing commuter rail but with higher frequency and smaller vehicles — are one of the best hopes for cost-effective new rail transit in the US.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Velo reports that Indianapolis is getting ready to launch its bike-share system. Strong Towns gives advice for communities that don’t have much of a biking and walking culture but are trying to change that. And Urban Review STL reports that a new hospital expansion in St. Louis is coming with an immense parking garage.

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Today’s Headlines

  • WaPo‘s Dr. Gridlock Urges Caution on Plan to Dismantle DC’s DOT
  • Detroit Is Raising Parking Ticket Fines for the Wrong Reasons (Freep)
  • The Case Against Funding Roads With Sales Taxes (Columbia Daily Tribune)
  • Newsday Editorializes About the Need for Congress to Approve New Revenue for Transpo
  • New VA Governor McAuliffe Re-Thinking McDonnell’s Transpo Projects (Times Dispatch)
  • Topeka Offers a Reminder That Bike Infrastructure Brings Riders and Business (Capital-Journal)
  • City Living Just For Single People? Tell That to These 3-Kid Families in Manhattan (NYT)
  • A People’s History of the McMansion (Salon)
  • Light Rail Won’t Help Your City If Driving Is Still Too Cheap (Atlantic Cities)
  • John Massengale’s New Book Explains How to Tell if a Road Was Built for Walking (Salon)
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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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Caltrans Endorses the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide

It wasn’t a total surprise, but exciting nevertheless for bicycle advocates gathered at the NACTO “Cities for Cycling” Road Show in Oakland last nightCaltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty announced that the agency will endorse the use of the National Association of City Transportation Officials Urban Street Design Guide, giving California cities the state DOT’s blessing to install modern infrastructure like protected bike lanes.

Received with enthusiastic applause from the crowd of bike advocates, city officials, and planners, Dougherty said:

We’re trying to change the mentality of the department of transportation, of our engineers, and of those that are doing work in and around the state highway system. Many cities around California are trying to be forward thinking in terms of alternative modes, such as bike and pedestrian, as well as the safety of the entire system, and the very least we can do as the department of transportation for the state is to follow that lead, to get out of the way, and to figure out how to carry that into regional travel.

Imagine how this commute on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland would feel with a protected bike lane. Photo by Jonah Chiarenza, www.community-design.com

NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide, launched last September, is the product of collaboration between the transportation departments of its member cities around the U.S. The guide provides the latest American standards for designing safer city streets for all users, incorporating experience from cities that have developed innovative solutions into a blueprint for others to use. It supplements, but doesn’t replace, other manuals such as the Caltrans Highway Design Manual and California’s Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

As the state’s transportation department, Caltrans has control over the design of state-owned highways, but the design of local streets and roads is left to local jurisdictions — with one exception. Bicycle infrastructure throughout the state has been dictated by the car-focused agency because local engineers rely on Caltrans-approved designs to protect local municipalities from lawsuits. As a result, city planners were often hesitant, or flat out refused, to build an innovative treatments like a protected bike lanes that don’t appear in Caltrans Highway Design Manual.

“It’s a permission slip for cities, for engineers and planners, to do the good, well-vetted, proven work that we know we can do to make our street safer,” said Ed Reiskin, president of NACTO and director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “It’s only a first step — ultimately, we’d like to see the changes in the Highway Design Manual to see it actually integrated into Caltrans documents. But this is a huge step forward, and great leadership from Malcolm Secretary [Brian] Kelly and Governor [Jerry] Brown,” who commissioned a report that recommended Caltrans adopt the NACTO guide.

The guide includes design standards for infrastructure including bike boxes, physically protected bike lanes, contra-flow bus lanes, and even parklets. Although these improvements have been implemented in cities in California and the world, they have been considered “experimental” until now. The NACTO guide has only been endorsed by two other states, Washington and Massachusetts.

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DC Region’s New Long-Range Plan Fails to Meet Its Own Climate Goals

Image: ##https://www.mwcog.org/uploads/committee-documents/YV1aVlhZ20131218092900.pdf##MWCOG 2013 Constrained Long-Range Plan##

While the Washington, DC region has set of a goal of reducing carbon emissions to 10 million tons by 2040, current transportation plans show emissions increasing to 26.5 million tons by then. Image: MWCOG 2013 Constrained Long-Range Plan

If sea levels rise just one foot in the Washington, DC, area, nearly 1,700 homes could be lost. Is the region’s transportation planning agency doing enough to stop that from happening? Several environmental and smart-growth organizations in the region are saying no. Seventeen groups have signed on to a letter, being delivered today, urging the agency to take action. The comment period on the agency’s latest long-range transportation plan closes tomorrow.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments committed in 2008 to an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions below a 2005 baseline by 2050. Two years later, the agency added a goal of 20 percent reductions by 2020. But according to its own analysis, the agency’s current transportation plan doesn’t get the job done.

The chart above is from last year’s long-range plan, but the picture hasn’t changed much with this year’s additions. While three of the 11 projects MWCOG has added for 2014 are streetcars and another two are commuter rail, the list also includes a new highway to Dulles airport, an interchange, two road widenings, and the removal of bus-only lanes.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has asked MWCOG to reopen the plan and shift “significantly more funds to key transit projects,” said CSG Director Stewart Schwartz. He says MWCOG’s long range plans have an “artificial transit constraint,” since the plan can only include projects that have reasonably identified financial resources. However, existing funds could be shifted to transit projects. Schwartz would like to see more money go toward Metro’s Momentum 2025 plan to increase capacity.

MWCOG's ##http://www.mwcog.org/clrp/projects/highway.asp##2013 long-range plan## calls for spending significant resources on road expansions.

Major highway improvements in MWCOG’s 2013 long-range plan

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Wisconsin DOT Raises the Cost of Fighting Highway Projects

Wasteful and unnecessary.” That’s how citizens of Waukesha and Washington counties in Wisconsin have described a state plan to fill in wetlands for an 18-mile road widening project on Highway 164.

Highway 164 in Wisconsin, as you can see, is in desperate need of widening. Photo: State Truck Tour

Highway 164 in Wisconsin, as you can see, is in desperate need of widening. Photo: State Truck Tour

But the Highway J Citizens Coalition isn’t taking it lying down. Along with an environmental group, they took the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to court and the judge sided in their favor recently, finding that the state’s documentation, studies, and hearings for this project had serious flaws.

James Rowen at the Political Environment reports that now the “tone deaf,” “arrogant” state agency appears to be making it punitively expensive for these citizens to challenge its actions:

The Highway J Citizens Coalition, (HJCG), had won a significant victory in federal court, but despite the ruling and direction it gave to WisDOT legal project construction and planning, WisDOT is picking a further fight with the coalition by charging it more than $10,000 in advance for public records as the case continues.

The coalition says in a major filing Monday with Madison prosecutors that WisDOT is withholding the records in part because it doesn’t like how highway critics have portrayed WisDOT.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Foxx Hits the Road with Bus Tour to Tout Obama’s Transpo Plan (The Hill)
  • The Hill Lays Out Five Possibilities for Transpo Funding
  • U.N. Report: Without Changes, Transpo Emissions Will Double by 2050 (E&E Publishing)
  • $600M in TIGER Grants Now Available (APA Blog)
  • More and More, U.S. Cities Eschew Parking Lots (Bloomberg Biz)
  • California Embraces NACTO Street Design Guide (People for Bikes)
  • DC Metro Leaders Point to Past as Source of Problems (WaPo)
  • Federal Grant Boosts St. Louis Trolley Project (St. Louis American)
  • Next City: Lagging Toronto Transit Should Focus on Existing System
  • How to Move Forward Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (Enterprise)
  • Portland Program Turns Parking Spots Into Restaurant Seats (Oregon Live)
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EPW Big Four Announce Plan to Maintain Status Quo for the Next Transpo Bill

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, together with Sens. Carper, Vitter and Barrasso, announced their agreement to maintain the status quo with the next bill. Screenshot from press conference.

Last year, while the House flailed in partisan misery, the Senate passed a transportation bill 74 to 22. When the bill was signed into law, it was considered one of the few real achievements of a deeply divided Congress. Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer got tremendous credit for enacting legislation three years in the making. And yet, it left a lot of good provisions on the cutting-room floor. While MAP-21 included some modest reforms, lawmakers missed an opportunity to prioritize transit, biking, and walking – modes that are gaining popularity and help achieve national goals like congestion mitigation and air quality improvement.

History appears to be repeating itself. This morning, Sen. Boxer (D-CA) joined with the rest of the “Big Four” of the EPW Committee — Ranking Republican David Vitter (R-LA), Transportation Subcommittee Chair Tom Carper (D-DE) and Subcommittee Ranking Republican John Barrasso (R-WY) — to announce that they had reached agreement on a set of principles to guide the next bill.

While it’s good news to hear the senators are working together and making progress, they’re not proposing any solutions to the nation’s dysfunctional transportation policy, which funnels billions of dollars to wasteful road expansions ever year. Below is a look at the guiding principles (verbatim, in bold) and what they mean:

  • Passing a long-term bill, as opposed to a short-term patch. You won’t find anyone who says they want a short-term bill. There is unanimous agreement that a two-year bill was inadequate and that the next bill must last five or six or even 10 years. The challenge has always been to find enough funding to pay for such a long bill. MAP-21 pulled coins out of the proverbial cushions to piece together a somewhat illusory pay-for to get MAP-21 passed. Even President Obama’s proposal for the next bill is just four years.
  • Maintaining the formulas for existing core programs. Ouch. A primary goal of transportation reformers is to tie more money to performance and merit instead of giving states no-strings-attached funding that tends to get wasted on highway expansion. Reforming the existing formulas could force states to prove that they’re spending money well, using a benefit-cost analysis in their decision making, and thinking smart about the future.

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Parking Craters Aren’t Just Ugly, They’re a Cancer on Your City’s Downtown

Downtown Hartford

Downtown Hartford’s Phoenix Building sits atop a moat of (what else?) parking. Photo: Brian Herzog, via Flickr

Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014′s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on America’s downtowns.

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

McCahill began his analysis as a University of Connecticut Ph.D. student in 2006, choosing to compare the postwar evolution of six small, built-up, relatively slow-growing cities: Arlington, Virginia; Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Lowell, Massachusetts; and New Haven, Connecticut. For each of these cities, McCahill and his collaborators, most frequently professor Norman Garrick, have gone far beyond the usual publicly available statistics and hand-measured the number of parking spaces (both on- and off-street) and the size of buildings from aerial photos.

The resulting analysis shows how three of these cities have diverged from the other three since the base year of 1960. Arlington, Berkeley, and Cambridge went against the postwar grain and chose a “parking-light” approach: emphasizing transportation demand management (TDM) measures, while de-emphasizing driving and in one case even penalizing parking construction. Hartford, Lowell, and New Haven chose a conventional approach, emphasizing that downtown development should provide “adequate” parking based upon standards of the time.

These two paths led these cities to very different outcomes, which McCahill has chronicled in a series of publications. Most recently, he co-authored two papers about how parking has affected the six downtowns’ urban fabric and their tax bases. Parking lots take a big bite out of the conventional cities’ tax bases, which could reap 25 percent more in downtown property taxes had they chosen a parking-light approach instead.

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Do Modern Churches Facilitate Isolation or Community?

Is a bike lane really a threat to this church? Image: Strong Towns

Is a bike lane really a threat to this church? Image: Strong Towns

The last few decades have been difficult on the neighborhood church.

As population dispersed, many houses of worship built by tight-knit communities have given way to buildings surrounded by parking, so people can drive from miles away. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns is a regular churchgoer at a one such car-oriented church. He says it sometimes reminds him of sociologist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the celebrated book on isolation in modern America:

It is more than a little ironic that I’ve had more conversations with our next door neighbors of the past sixteen years in the brief moments walking in and out of church than I’ve ever had on our street or, perhaps more amazingly, in each other’s homes. When either of us travel to church, we back out of our garages, hit the automatic garage door opener to close it, drive to church, park in one of the convenient parking lots, attend church and then do the trip home in reverse. Essentially, we’re Churching Alone.

[The church] was built in the 1960’s with the typical architecture of the time; horizontal construction in a field on the edge of town with lots of parking. It met all the needs of the new, auto-based parishioner who could arrive by car, avoid the traffic rush by leaving right after communion — but before the closing hymn — and be home by kickoff. While the church can be a vibrant and communally beautiful place at times, those times are always intentional. There is no passive, deep church community vibrating in and around St. Andrews.

Marohn’s priest says his church is now “threatened” by a city proposal to install bike lanes on the street outside. The church is encouraging members to express opposition to this proposal. Marohn writes:

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