New Beginnings

Today is a new day. A few weeks ago I announced my resignation as a transportation planner at Metra, the commuter rail agency in Chicago. Now I have started the next phase of my career as a transportation planning consultant with HNTB Corporation, working out of their Chicago office. One of the principal reasons for moving on for me was the opportunities that HNTB presented to build my career and nurture its development. Through no fault of its own, Metra is an operator of one very specific mode of transportation, and one that is largely built out. I now find myself working on plans for streetcars, bus rapid transit and light rail in a variety of cities around the country. Many of these projects are dynamic, providing new ways of increasing mobility. Understanding and planning for these different modes broadens my understanding of transportation planning while also working on modes that are very interesting, and challenging, to plan for.

 

Talking About Transit

Redefine-the-Drive-May_boulevard-detail-section

How does this station work? Is there signal priority for the streetcar? How does existing CTA bus service interact? All transit questions unanswered by this concept.

 

There is a right way and a wrong way of talking about transit. Specifically, when you propose an idea for transit service without mentioning the details. As a transit planner, I love details. Because transit costs money, and because it is seen by many as government largess, if you are going to responsibly discuss your transit ideas, the more fleshed out it is the more credibility you will have with both the public and the government agency that would likely run the system. The project in which I’m referring to is the Chicago Streetcar Renaissance proposal for streetcars along North Lake Shore Drive when that road is rebuilt. I attended a presentation [actual proposal here] by John Krause of Chicago Streetcar Renaissance at the Transport Chicago conference a last month where he laid out his vision for a streetcar (or LRT) running from downtown via Michigan Avenue north along Lake Shore Drive. The vision looks really nice. Many pictures of streetcars in European cities in urban areas at a smaller scale, and perhaps even more dense than the areas around North Lake Shore Drive. And while I was sucked into the grandeur of it, the transit planner in me awoke with these questions:

  1. What is the actual route (from end to end) of service? It’s great to see cross-sections of North Lake Shore Drive, and I’m aware that the streetcar is proposed to travel down North Michigan Avenue and Sheridan Road, but what are the limits? Are there branches of service, particularly at the ends of the route?
  2. Which current CTA bus routes, if any, will this new streetcar service replace?
  3. What is the frequency of service and hours of service? Since you propose to replace many of the buses along Lake Shore Drive with streetcar service, I am wondering if the service plan accounts for headways of 1-3 minutes in the peak period. If so, then…
  4. Where to do you plan for the vehicle and crew facility? Particularly since land is at a premium downtown and along the lakefront.
  5. Will the streetcars have traffic signal preemption?
  6. How do you anticipate at-grade street crossing effecting scheduling?
  7. Could bus rapid transit provide a similar level of service for less cost?

I am not saying this project is a bad idea, by any means and I am receptive to reducing North Lake Shore Drive from a limited access expressway to a boulevard of some type with transit running alongside (or in the middle). But when you propose a new mode of transit, one in which there is no legacy network to tie into, then these types of questions are appropriate. That said, I applaud the efforts Mr. Krause has made to thinking about North Lake Shore Drive differently, and putting his efforts into a concept to show an alternative way of thinking about this corridor. But the pictures are too pretty and now we need to get to the hard part. The system design and analysis.

So, as a transit planner what would I do?

I would flesh out my concepts a little better first, making sure the streetcar is feasible from a physical, operational and market standpoint. That is, addressing the questions above and developing a service plan to compare with existing CTA bus operations. Then I would really figure out a way to pay for it.

What would you do with North Lake Shore Drive?

Bikes vs. Cars

We know who wins the battle – physically and generally as a matter of policy throughout the U.S.

I hesitate wading into this as it is not normally my area of expertise. Caveat: my professional focus is public transportation. And yet, I feel the need to weigh in because there has been some very good writing done recently on bike laws and infrastructure and I have my own recent personal and professional experience to bear.

I’ll start off by saying that I am an occasional bike rider who commutes mostly to work, to pick up the kids from school and other local trips. I also live in Chicago – a city known for its traffic as well as its aggressive expansion of bike infrastructure recently.

My neighborhood, Jefferson Park, has been in the middle of a fairly dramatic fight over a complete streets proposal for Milwaukee Avenue, one of the major road arteries through Chicago’s northwest side. Ostensibly, the proposal follows the City of Chicago’s Complete Streets guidelines which state clearly that:

The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, freight, and motor vehicle drivers shall be accommodated and balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases of a project so that even the most vulnerable – children, elderly, and persons with disabilities – can travel safely within the public right-of-way.

To adhere to this policy a pedestrian-first modal hierarchy of road users has been developed in which “all transportation projects and programs, from scoping to maintenance, will favor pedestrians first, then transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles.”

So why am I focused on the bottom two modes in the hierarchy? Because this is where much of the fighting over street use takes place.

In Jefferson Park, the complete streets proposal is to reallocate space on a 5-lane arterial road which sees annual average daily traffic counts between 15,000 and 19,000 vehicles. One potential idea is to reallocate space from this:

milwaukee-avenue

 

 

to this:

milwaukee-avenue-road-diet

 

Of course, the road diet cross-section does not show blocks where parallel parking will still be allowed nor does it show the potential for street bump-outs, pedestrian refuge islands, transit lanes, and other features of complete streets, all of which are being examined.

So you might imagine the public anger that has erupted from seeing such a proposal. Because traffic actually moves well (really!) in this corridor, people don’t want to change its existing conditions – which also include gross violations (due to engineering design) of the speed limit, typically in excess of 1.5 times the posted 30 MPH limit or the fact that there have been 1,000 vehicle crashes in this mile long corridor over the past 5 (five!) years alone. Clearly the road is working well. So the road diet brings the accusation that the City will “take” space for cars and “give” it to bicycles (which have an existing painted 5-foot lane). This is what is truly unacceptable to many people (drivers) because roads are for cars, right?

Which brings me back to the fight over street space and bicycle use of that space. Vox.com recently wrote about why cyclists should legally be allowed to roll through stop signs and red lights (which is illegal in Illinois as in many other states but also which is commonly ignored by both police and bicyclists). I won’t get into the physics about why bicyclists do this only to note that it pisses car drivers off to no end who want to see enforcement of the law (like speed enforcement, right). But, as Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, who has provided me with significant insights on urban planning, has stated:

Stop signs weren’t designed for cyclists. In fact, very little of our built environment was designed with cyclists in mind. What we have done – as I pointed out way back with the video on the diverging diamond – is developed a tolerance for cyclists, and that only with some heroic effort. Engineers now generally accept cyclists and have even created checklists to help us accommodate them – at least the skilled ones – at a minimal level in our current transportation system. Tolerating cyclists, and sometimes even attempting to accommodate them, is a far cry from designing systems based on their needs.

We need to rethink our urban areas. They need to be redesigned around a new set of values, one that doesn’t seek to accommodate bikers and pedestrians within an auto-dominated environment but instead does the opposite: accommodates automobiles in an environment dominated by people. It is people that create value. It is people that build wealth. It is in prioritizing their needs – whether on foot, on a bike or in a wheelchair – that we will begin to change the financial health of our cities and truly make them strong towns.

So my response to my neighbors in Jefferson Park is that as long as we continue to design Milwaukee Avenue for the benefit of drivers, our community will always lose. We will not get the economic development we seek, for who wants to walk down a 5-lane arterial road with cars blasting through at 45 MPH? And our bicyclists, along with our pedestrians and transit riders will lose.

Why mass transit is doomed

Metra over traffic

Mass Transit in Chicago. Source: Steven Vance @flickr

I can’t recommend reading Alex Pareene’s article enough on why mass transit is doomed. Sure, it’s true that politicians don’t use it. Let’s put this into a Chicago context. How often do you think Rahm Emanuel rides the CTA, despite living a couple of blocks from the Montrose Brown Line? What about Pat Quinn, who could commute from his northwest side neighborhood in Galewood on the Metra? Before you answer – consider this fact. There exists, under the James Thompson Center (aka Illinois Capitol Building north), a non-public parking garage restricted to select public employees. A similar parking situation exists in the Daley Center, next to City Hall. When parking is free in places it shouldn’t be, what are the incentives for politicians to drive?

Another example. Several years ago, when I was an intern with the Chicago Transit Authority, the Board of the CTA took a tour of the Block 37 cavern. (Let’s neglect the fact that this behemoth was sprung from the brainchild of another politician known for never riding the CTA, Richard Daley. And let’s neglect for the moment that a $200 million basement makes a difference to precisely no one. Imagine a $200 million investment in trains and buses). How did they get there? Not by the Green Line Clinton Station, right outside CTA headquarters. No, there was vehicle transportation arranged for them. Keep in mind that this is the Board of the Chicago Transit Authority.

This is despite the fact that 27% of workers within the City of Chicago take public transportation to work. One in four.

And now, when the CTA is proposing a bus rapid transit solution along Ashland Avenue that speeds up travel times on one of the busiest bus routes in its system, it runs into vehement opposition because it makes driving a car slightly more cumbersome. Because, you know, driving is a god given right also enshrined in our constitution. And everyone drives (except for those 27%).

The problem is, Chicago’s mass transit system, combined, is the third largest in the country. It faces a significant capital shortfall of $18 billion to address state of good repair needs and needs an additional $12 billion over 10 years for normal capital reinvestment. Yet, the system’s sources of funding are not stable and subject to economic swings (sales tax receipts, real estate transfer tax, etc.).

You know when the State gets its way on a ridiculously flawed highway proposal that it cannot afford, and it steamrolled the transit agencies to vote in support of it, against their interests, that mass transit is doomed.

How the government shutdown affects transportation planning

Source: Beforeitsnews.com

As you have no doubt heard by now, the federal government has shutdown. So for those in the transportation planning community what does this mean?

  • In Chicago, my own agency will be running normal schedules with no direct impacts to riders due to the shutdown. However, we might have a few less riders because…
  • Chicago is fourth on the list for non-Post Office federal employee population with 16,069 employees, many of whom work downtown. This includes offices of the Federal Transit Administration, General Services Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, three departments that will see massive furloughs. Outside of D.C., New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia are tops on that list by the way.
  • If you have projects funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, you may want to consider hitting the pause button. “No grants, cooperative agreements, contracts, purchase orders, travel authorizations, or other documents obligating funds will be executed to any of the FTA’s 1300 grantees” according to DOT guidance. For transit agencies, grant money, obligating funds, etc. that you are getting daily from the FTA will cease. Almost all FTA staff will be furloughed. In October of FY2013, FTA payments to grantees averaged about $200m per week.
  • The above being said, if you are in the construction management or a contractor and your project stalls, don’t expect to get paid until the shutdown ends. Many transportation agencies may be loath to dip into their reserve funds to keep projects going unless there are signs that the shutdown will be short-lived.
  • Air Traffic Controllers will be on the job, although some non-”essential” FAA employees will be on furlough. TSA agents will also be on the job. If your airport is undergoing an airport planning process or is currently receiving planning grants, your project may be stalled.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration will furlough half of its employees, none of them involved in safety operations. Functions to be suspended include the high-speed rail initiative, all grant and financial assistance activities, and Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) loan payments.