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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.

 

 

Traffic Signal Synchronization, Ctd.

 

MinnPost file photo by John Noltner

I was recently quoted in an article on traffic signal synchronization – an ongoing project in Minneapolis right now. I have a contrary view to conventional wisdom on this topic as I have been quoted in the article and expressed in greater detail here.

Communities like traffic signal synchronization because it is smart technology that can reduce congestion and increase traffic flow without making any geometric changes to the roadway system. My argument is that these technologies work a little too well – they actually create induced demand  which in the longer term leads to more congestion and air pollution and poor land use decisions. I’ll stand by my quote in the article in that traffic signal synchronization is a solution that becomes a victim of its own success.

The latest example proving the nexus between transportation and land use…

Crossrail Line 1. Source: David Arthur

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Regulations and Land Use

I am not saying that zoning, fire and safety codes, materials and workforce safety regulations would have prevented the West, Texas disaster. And as rigid and inflexible of a tool as zoning can be, it does have the ability to prevent the building of a school, hospital, nursing home and residences so close to the [...]

The Suburban Experiment, Explained

I have been an enthusiastic adopter of the term “suburban experiment” after having following the magnificent work that Strong Towns does up in Minnesota. But it came to my attention that I have not fully explained it and applied it here in Chicago. So, I’d like to take a step back. Of course, since I [...]

Union Station

A public service announcement:

I’ve got a guest post up over at my friend Molly’s fantastic site talking about the history of Chicago’s Union Station.

The Great Hall at Chicago Union Station.

Wealth, Generation Y and Cities

Abandoned Paradise (Photo credit: Seamoor)

Reading this article in the New York Times (and this one) about the lag in wealth building by younger generations compared to their parents has had me reflectively thinking about my own situation. I have two degrees, including a masters. My wife and I even managed to save for [...]

Competition

There is nothing wrong with friendly competition. I laughed when I saw this image and read this article on Streetsblog.

But the truth of the matter is that this makes a lot of sense. I’m talking about transportation investment in cities. It’s been clear for some time now that the suburban experiment is coming to [...]

Phoenix

Phoenix. The Valley of the Sun. Soon to be home to my sister and her girlfriend. They’re moving at the end of the month to start the next phase of their lives together. I am sad, of course, and yet happy for them on this exciting adventure. I am no expert in Phoenix, having [...]