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.


Cars vs. Transit

I’ve been mulling over Josh Barro’s contention that cars should not be blamed for the failures of mass transit and his conclusion that planning and zoning is to blame. His basic contention is thus:

…the real culprit keeping Americans away from mass transit and inside cars isn’t subsidies; it’s planning and zoning. Cities impose barriers to density that limit the number of housing units and offices that can be located near buses and trains, which reduces mass-transit usage. These barriers also drive up property prices in areas near mass transit, penalizing transit-oriented living and encouraging people to live farther from urban cores, in areas where they have to drive. Meanwhile, cities often require builders to include a minimum number of parking spaces in new developments, depressing the market price of parking and further rewarding drivers.

A better approach would take advantage of the fact that proximity to transit increases property values. Cities should allow dense development, collect the property taxes that are generated, and use them to finance transit. Increased development also means more transit users and more fare revenues. But locals tend to oppose greater housing density; they also often demand parking minimums, since they don’t want to face too much competition for free on-street parking. An ironic result is that the very urban liberals who like to complain about suburban sprawl can end up encouraging it.

I concur with the larger argument about minimum parking requirements and value capture but I believe the argument falls short. While, I see how decisions made in land use policy at the local level distort the market equilibrium of supply and demand when it comes to parking, it is not as simple as to just blame the planner and the zoning code. The fact is, sprawl is baked into the cake of modern urban (and suburban) development. This makes the failure (or at least, under utilization) of mass transit easier and more likely. Here’s why:


Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve been basically building one type of housing for the past 60 years: single family homes with attached garages, driveways and subdivisions modeled on the Plan for Riverside. When we’re not building single family homes, we’re building townhouses and apartment complexes with a similar auto-centric design. The fact is, despite the population growth in cities over the past 10 years and outside of new urbanism and rebuilding in existing neighborhoods, we have not really built any new greenfield communities that resembles any pre-depression urban form.


Even if we were to start building communities in greenfield locations with high densities that could support transit, like residential development that was built-in the streetcar era, we still likely could not build these communities without adding significant amounts of parking or by limiting density. This is in large part because of the financial institutions that provide funding for these developments do not properly know how to value these assets. Banks like to finance products in which they know and know well. The suburban form of development is one that banks have been financing for 60 years.

Other Government Agencies

November the 15th Street - also known as Flowe...

This kind of development is illegal under most zoning codes throughout the U.S. However, there are a variety of other factors at play. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s say that we can get the financing to build an urban development along new urbanism guidelines, for example. Let’s say we’ve got the zoning in place and the transit worked out. We still might not be able to build the dense, transit-oriented community we want due to the policies of other government agencies. For example, fire departments have been opposed to new urbanism developments due to the narrow streets within these developments. It turns out that the fire trucks have become too big to fit down these streets or the perception is such that it would be too much of an obstacle to navigate.

It may come as a surprise that transit agencies might also be unfriendly to transit-oriented development, particularly if the predominant mode of access to their stations is via car. The transit agency would want to make sure its commuter parking is located as close to the station as possible. This is a common tension when building transit-oriented development.


Strip center in the 1900 block of N Clybourn Ave

Development like this, in the transit rich, dense, urban neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago. Even in dense cities, retailers insist on providing enough parking to “access” their stores. (Photo credit: YoChicago via flickr)

Retailers, particularly of the big box and other large format varieties, often won’t build in town without sufficient parking. When I was in grad school, the adjunct professor for my land use planning course told us that when Chicago was first redeveloping the North/Clybourn corridor from industrial uses to retail, the city wanted far less parking than is currently there. However, the developers balked, insisting that they needed the parking so that customers could access their stores. Of course, there was already 3 bus lines and the CTA Red Line station right there.

As a transportation planner, I appreciate that Barro is trying to explain the nexus between transportation and land use. Land uses drive transportation decisions of whether to take mass transit or cars. But so do a lot of factors beyond just the zoning code and minimum parking requirements.

My Seven Questions for the Transportation Bill Conference

D.C. Streetsblog had a list of seven questions to ask as the Transportation Bill conference was underway on Tuesday. I think the problem with their questions are that they are too focused on the sausage making rather than the content. It’s disappointing, I suppose, that such an insightful organization such as Streetsblog can fall victim to the back and forth ball game of politics when so much in transportation is on the line. Perhaps I am naive, but if I had the opportunity, these are the seven questions I would like to ask of the Transportation Committees:

  1. How will public transportation fare in the bill after being practically decapitated in the last round of talks?
  2. How do we handle the overwhelming state of good repair issues impacting all transportation infrastructure?
  3. How does the bill recognize the long (and short) term societal trends towards transportation that does not include the automobile.
  4. Does high-speed rail have a future?
  5. How will the bill address critical operational funding shortfalls (not to mention capital) that transit agencies are facing?
  6. How will the bill address the structural financial problems facing the Highway Trust Fund?
  7. Will there be a push towards alternative user fees to fund transportation infrastructure?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Congestion Pricing and Transit

In London, street markings and a sign (inset) ...

In London, street markings and a sign (inset) with the white-on-red C alert drivers to the charge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Streetsblog has an interesting article on whether the secret to world-class transit systems is congestion pricing. London, Singapore and Stockholm all have variations of congestion pricing and all are investing heavily in their public transportation systems. The gist of the article is that the incredibly robust transit ridership in these cities is the result of pricing of road space, something no U.S. city has done so far.

If congestion pricing effectively raises the cost of driving to a point where drivers look for other modes of travel, are public transport systems the main beneficiary?

Before we get into this, let’s take a step back to understand what congestion pricing is and is not. What congestion pricing is: a system to charge users of a transportation network during periods of peak demand. In it’s most robust form, congestion pricing uses variable pricing, that is, pricing that varies by time of day or by levels of peak demand. Thus, congestion pricing can regulate demand without needing to add capacity to the transportation network. The main objectives of congestion pricing is congestion management and transportation system financing.

Four types of congestion pricing systems are currently in use: a cordon area around a city center, with charges for passing the cordon line; area wide congestion pricing, which charges for being inside an area; a city center toll ring, with toll collection surrounding the city; and corridor or single facility congestion pricing, where access to a lane or a facility is priced.

London, Singapore and Stockholm all employ a variant of the cordon method of congestion pricing.

The Victoria Transportation Policy Institute (VTPI) has found that pricing roads that would otherwise be free can shift vehicle travel to free routes, alternative modes and closer destinations, and reduce vehicle trip frequency. Thus, depending on how congestion pricing is designed, it may push vehicle travel to other times and routes. But it also may reduce trip frequency. Also, if pricing is used to fund roadway capacity expansion that would not otherwise occur, it may increase total vehicle travel.  In Stockholm, it appears that congestion pricing is used to fund roadway improvements.

However, VTPI has also found that the better the travel alternatives (transit, ridesharing and cycling), the more that congestion pricing will cause mode shifts. In London, much of the congestion pricing revenues were poured into its bus system,with notable ridership impacts, as noted in Streetsblog.

And yet, there is something else that supports increased public transportation use. That’s land uses supportive of transit (TOD) and higher fuel prices. Both of these are also present in all three cities. So while I believe congestion pricing is important, it is one of many tools to lower congestion and increase public transportation use.



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