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.

 

 

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

…Comes to us from London, my brief one-time home. Courtesy of Crossrail, the major commuter rail project linking East and West London together more seamlessly with dramatic expected time savings. While Crossrail is not scheduled to open until 2018, the benefits that the Crossrail project is promising to deliver have already impacted the local real estate market.

Goldman’s employees would be able to reach Heathrow Airport from Farringdon in about 30 minutes on Crossrail, compared with more than an hour on the London Underground. Travel to east London’s Canary Wharf financial district will take 9 minutes, from about 25 minutes today. The City Thameslink system already takes passengers to Gatwick Airport to the south and Luton Airport north of the City.

“That’s what makes this the crossroads of central London,” Rees, the City’s top planner, said in an interview.

Crossrail will build 9 new stations in Central London, provide up to 24 trains per hour (1 train every two and a half minutes!) carrying 1,500 riders each. It will increase the rail network capacity while simultaneously reducing travel times by up to 50%. Transit-oriented development is already taking place, capitalizing on new areas of Central London becoming more accessible. More than 3 million square feet of residential and retail development are anticipated to take place, just over the stations sites.

This is the benefit that transportation infrastructure can bear on a place. It is smart development – taking advantage of the high-capacity, incredibly expensive infrastructure by also providing high density land uses to leverage that infrastructure investment.

See video.