Thursday, November 17, 2016

Does It Matter Who Pays For Sidewalks Or Is Walk Score Useless?

Some advocates for pedestrian access claim that the source of funding for sidewalks strongly affects a city’s walkability. Groups such as Atlanta’s PEDS argue that if cities fully fund sidewalk construction without any cost placed on adjacent property owners, walkability will be higher.

Measuring walkability is fraught with controversy. Walk Score is a popular tool that measures how pedestrian-friendly a city and its neighborhoods are. However, it is dependent on the proximity of residences to businesses. Their focus appears to be that it is more important to have somewhere to walk to than to have a clear path to get there. Such an assumption is a great way to start a bar fight among urbanists.

Let’s compare how the walk score for a few select cities varies under the following two circumstances: 

1.      1. The city spreads the cost of building sidewalks among all taxpayers, as with streets and highways via taxation.

2.      2. The city puts the onus of paying for sidewalk construction on the adjacent property owners.

The possible walk score range is 0-100. Higher scores reflect better walkability using this metric. Note that I am focusing on city policies for new construction to fill in sidewalk gaps.

Georgetown, a section of Washington, DC, features a dense grid, small blocks, and extensive sidewalks.
Washington, DC, updated its sidewalk installation policy in 2015 to ensure that gaps in sidewalk coverage were filled even when no new construction projects, such as road improvements or development projects, were planned. New sidewalk construction in gaps is prioritized as follows:
1.       School areas
2.       Routes that provide access to parks and recreational facilities
3.       Transit stops
4.       Locations where the absence of a sidewalk creates substantial pedestrian safety risks
5.       Roadway segments for which residents have petitioned to have sidewalks
The process is primarily staff-driven until the last criterion. It requires property owner input, but not their contribution of funds. Washington’s walk score is an impressive 77.

Fairfax City, VA, a city in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., reserves the authority in its Residential New Concrete Sidewalk Policy to build new sidewalks via its tax-funded Capital Improvement Program. Neither payment nor permission from adjacent homeowners is required, though notice to them and nearby civic associations is. The city has a lackluster walk score of  52

Sure, Fairfax City will pay for sidewalks, but is this highway-choked sprawl really walkable?
Los Angeles, CA is often thought of as the stereotypical, car-centric American city, yet its walk score of 66 indicates that perception may no longer be accurate. Thanks to the settlement of a lawsuit over the city’s failure to make miles of broken and missing sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, L.A.  must commit $1.3 billion to pedestrian projects over the next few decades. That enormous commitment led the city to embrace a “fix-and-release” policy for sidewalks. 

Under this scheme, L.A. will pay to build new sidewalks, as well as reconstruct damaged ones, next to commercial, industrial and residential properties. It will then offer a limited warranty period that guarantees only one repair in the future. The duration of the warranty is twenty years for sidewalks next to residences and five years for those next to commercial properties. 

Nobody walks in LA, especially if they close off the entire street.
On the day the plan passed, L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian claimed, “This fear that seems to be out there that suddenly people are going to have a burden dumped upon them – that just isn’t the case.” But, that’s exactly what will happen once the warranty’s clock runs out. For those of limited financial means, fixing a city sidewalk could be a heavy burden. 

Atlanta, GA mirrors Los Angeles by shunting the cost of sidewalks squarely on the shoulders of adjacent property owners, though without L.A.’s limited warranty. Sidewalk gaps in Atlanta are common and building new sidewalks can be costly, thanks to Atlanta’s use of hexagonal blocks instead of poured concrete. Atlanta’s walk score is a poor 48

Few would argue that Atlanta is a pedestrian-friendly city today, but that may be about to change thanks to T-SPLOST.
In response to this poor environment for walking, the city leadership backed a referendum on a special local option sales tax for transportation, commonly known as T-SPLOST.  Now that it has passed, $300 million in revenue will be generated over a five year period. Sidewalk projects will receive over $69 million of that amount.

Alexandria, VA, has a sidewalk policy that spreads the cost of sidewalks among all taxpayers, while effectively allowing adjacent property owners to veto a new sidewalk. Applications to the Residential Sidewalk Program require the signatures of five residents within that project area in support of the sidewalk. Those commuting through the area to reach a transit hub like King Street Metro station won’t be counted. Additionally, Alexandria “requires the identification of a project champion, who will be the main point of contact for the City.” That champion must then: 

…notify each household in project area with flyer distribution and provide signatures noting support for or against the project from 80% of addresses in project area. Property owners directly adjacent to proposed sidewalk MUST sign the petition and note if they support or do not support the project.
There is no exception if an adjacent property owner refuses to sign and indicate support of opposition. Conceivably, that conveys a veto power to those who don’t cooperate with the process.

This is close to a schoolbus stop and along a busy pedestrian route to a Metrorail/Commuter rail/Bus transit hub. Pedestrians are forced into the street because the city gives homeowners a veto on sidewalks.
Alexandria maintains Silver level status as a Walk Friendly Community, a designation made by a coalition that includes the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, the League of American Bicyclists, and multiple federal agencies. However, that status appears to derive from a combination of staffing and a city Complete Streets policy, rather than sidewalk conditions. The city’s overall walk score is a mediocre 61

New York City, NY, puts all responsibility for construction of missing sidewalks onto adjacent property owners. That includes both installation and subsequent maintenance. If a property owner refuses to comply, the city will do the work, send them an invoice, and place a lien on the property, if necessary.  As with Los Angeles, this approach could be a burden on property owners in low-income areas.

Is a city walkable if the sidewalks are so crowded that pedestrians walk in the street? That's happening in NYC, but Walk Score rates them highly.
New York faces a serious pedestrian congestion issue in the city. Sidewalks in extreme high-density areas such as Manhattan simply aren’t wide enough to handle the traffic. The New York Times refers to this situation as “Sidewalk Gridlock.” However, despite this apparent infrastructural shortcoming, the city still has a high walk score of 89.

The funding source of new sidewalk construction does not appear to track with walkability as measured by Walk Score. That would indicate that either Walk Score’s methodology is utterly useless or that the importance of sidewalk conditions is overrated. Until a metric is developed that directly accounts for sidewalk conditions across multiple jurisdictions, this is a debate that will be impossible to settle, as measurement of walkability will remain largely subjective.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New Article on Streetsblog: The Mythology of HOT Lanes

From Governor McAuliffe to the US Federal Highway Administration, High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lanes are not lacking for champions. Unfortunately, I found that the assumptions underlying such advocacy are wrong.
You can read more in my article at Streetsblog.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Essay on Drive-to Urbanism at Strong Towns

I have an essay up at Strong Towns on Drive-to Urbanism. Check it out and post comments there or on Twitter (tag me so I can see them).

Friday, July 8, 2016

An Open Letter to People Who Bike & Walk in DC Regarding the Atlantic Gateway Project

To those who walk and bike in Washington, DC: 

I attended a press conference today in which Virginia's Governor, Terry McAuliffe, promised to end congestion (his words) by widening I-95 near Fredericksburg and inside the Beltway with HOT lanes. From the amount of time he spent on this aspect, this was clearly the primary component of the Atlantic Gateway project. You might not immediately realize the implications of that statement. 
Virginia Governor McAuliffe addresses a small crowd in Alexandria, vows road widenings will "end congestion."

Most of you reading this are already one up on the governor's staff, as you are familiar with induced demand: more road capacity yields more traffic, which yields more congestion. As Houston's Katy Freeway shows, more HOT lane mileage will also yield more car traffic. Those additional cars have a destination: DC's streets. More drivers, many of them distracted, mean more risk to people who walk and bike in DC.

The only way to protect DC's livability from the traffic induced by the Atlantic Gateway project is to embark on an emergency program of road diet implementation throughout the downtown area. If you take away capacity at the destination, you will mitigate the threat posed by Virginia's attempt to shove more cars your way.

Any street with more than one car lane in a particular direction is a candidate. So, for a two-way street, look at those with four lanes cars are allowed to use and reduce them to two. For one-way streets, look at those with two lanes and reduce them to one. Substitute whatever works best in that area: bus lanes, bike lanes, wider sidewalks, or loading zones. Just reduce the throughput for cars.

You will also need to eliminate as much of your public parking as possible. If suburban Virginia commuters cannot park in DC, there's no point in hopping in a longer HOT lane. They simply will have nowhere to go.

As someone who lives in Virginia, I apologize for the shortsightedness of our politicians and planners. I hope the DC political and planning establishment will act quickly, preferably before this new tsunami of traffic breaks upon DC's streets.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Be sure to check out my latest article, Making a Street Safe for All, at the Virginia Bicycle Federation:

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Road Diet for the George Washington Memorial Parkway

My latest post is available via the Virginia Bicycling Federation. If you have ever biked on the Mount Vernon Trail, you will want to consider this idea. Link:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Comments on the Research & Development Plan for the FAST Act

President Obama signs the FAST Act -photo courtesy of Alex Wong/Getty Images
Those of you who follow transportation issues in the US probably know that at the end of 2015 President Obama signed the so-called FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation). This measure authorizes $305 billion over a period stretching from 2016 to 2020 for a variety of modes and purposes. What you may not know is that the Department of Transportation is seeking public comment on the strategic plan for research and development called for by the act. 

The request consists of seven questions, which I list below along with my responses. As you will see, I focus on the enduring problem of a road-centric mentality that pervades the transportation planning establishment, primarily at the federal and state levels. At the local levels, where NACTO's (National Association of City Transportation Officials) mindset prevails, it's a very different matter due to demographic changes I discuss below.

If you find my responses useful, please use and share them as you like.

1. What research strategies and priorities should the U.S. DOT adopt to achieve the primary purposes cited in the FAST Act?
Too many projects are built using traffic and usage models that are based more on faith than on systematic, scientific research. In order to prevent the waste of limited taxpayer resources, a systematic inventory of the long-term (i.e.- at least 5 years) effectiveness of previous, similar projects must be required of agencies seeking FAST Act funds. This inventory study must be verifiable by both US DOT and independent observers. Projects that lack such support for their claimed benefits must be discounted.
2. How can the issues raised in the U.S. DOT document “Beyond Traffic 2045: Trends and Choices” be strategically addressed by RD&T activities over the next five years?
As the projection for population growth focuses on mega-regions with high populations, prioritization for any efforts must sift out areas outside of these regions. However, great care should be exercised to ensure that old assumptions about growth don't contaminate the process. In the case of growth of suburbs and exurbs in mega-regions, the standard warning on mutual funds comes to mind: "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results." That is especially true now that the so-called Millennial generation is forsaking car ownership and the suburbs for life in downtowns. 
3. What emerging challenges or opportunities in transportation warrant additional Federal RD&T activities or investments?
Priority should be given to how growing central cities can be re-adapted for local commutes, as opposed to commutes from far-flung suburbs. These cities have street grids developed before the advent of the car, but they were adapted for motorist use throughout the 20th century. The challenge now is to figure out how to put them back in something like that earlier state, albeit with greater use of technology and consideration for environmental impact. This means pedestrian and bicyclist traffic needs will have to be addressed ahead of, or instead of, declining motorist uses.
Show citation box
4. What current and planned RD&T activities sponsored by the federal government should be continued or revised in the future?
A quick review of the statistical analysis shows a bias towards an assumption that all road users are in a car. Examples can be found here:
In order to meet the challenge posed by a demographic shift towards urban population centers where heavy car use is impractical, this institutional bias must be eliminated. Otherwise, considerable taxpayer resources will be wasted on efforts that create little meaningful benefit.
5. What strategies could improve the cost-effectiveness of U.S. DOT research investments?
Reach out to the political and planning leadership within large urban centers. Coordinate with the US Conference of Mayors and NACTO. Their concerns will help focus US DOT efforts where they will be most useful, because they are at the center of the demographic shift I previously described.
6. How can U.S. DOT best coordinate its RD&T activities with Federal, State, local, private sector, non-profit institutions, and international partners?
While reaching out to individual agencies and groups would seem ideal, the odds are that someone will be overlooked. Boost US DOT's social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, or even Instagram) to get the word out about forthcoming efforts. The first step in coordination is to alert those you want to coordinate with, and social media is now a ubiquitous tool.
7. What knowledge gaps merit additional exploration by the USDOT?
Most transportation agencies have a generational divide between those in senior ranks who grew up in the suburban heyday of the car and those in junior ranks who know a different lifestyle. It is difficult, though not impossible, for someone who never has thought of pedestrians and bicyclists as a high priority to focus on their infrastructural issues. Such individuals must be retrained and tested so that they implement the new multimodal, Complete Streets paradigm.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Unintentional Road Diet

In June of 2015, one of the greatest experiments in road diets took place on one of the most prominent commuter routes in the United States. Ironically, it was entirely unintentional. One-third of the motor vehicle lanes on Memorial Bridge between Arlington, VA, and Washington, D.C., were closed to allow for emergency repairs. The repairs would last for many months. 
The bridge handles a whopping 68,000 cars per day. The Federal Highway Administration recommends that only streets with less than 25,000 cars per day should get road diets. Given the huge disparity in these numbers, a traffic apocalypse should have happened by now. It should be impossible to enter the District of Columbia from Virginia, unless you’re prepared to swim. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia warned of “unbearable congestion” due to the closures.
So where is the apocalypse? Why aren’t people abandoning their cars mid-span and walking across, as though an invisible snowstorm had struck? Simple: motorists had warning and changed their habits.
A Wednesday afternoon: no apocalypse in sight.
The truth is that any road can have a successful implementation of a road diet. In the latter part of the 20th century, Groningen, The Netherlands, narrowed a road with 4 through-lanes, a center turn lane, and 2 parking lanes. This was no unimportant side street, as it lies between the center of town and the central train station. The current configuration is now split into sections with 2 through-lanes, a bus-only lane, and two protected bike lanes. The turn lane is gone, as is a fair amount of parking. The road’s importance to motorists dropped as they found either alternative routes or chose a different mode, such as buses or bikes. Since the initial narrowing, parts of the street have been further restricted to motorists, with buses getting priority.
How can the Dutch stand all this gridlock?
The obstacle to road diets isn’t the traffic count. It’s politics. Even when the traffic count is low, politicians will thunder forth about the need to keep motorist convenience has a higher priority than the safety of people who walk or bike, as the mayor of Gainesville, FL, did in 2014. The mayor successfully campaigned to remove bike lanes from a road with a mere 14,551 vehicles per day. No evidence of congestion caused by the bike lanes existed, but political posturing is seldom backed by facts.
That is the inherent problem with the debate over road diets: those who oppose them use unverifiable anecdotes (to be generous) and never manage to offer scientific data to back up their arguments. That can be forgiven from a public that is largely uninformed on matters of transportation, but it is inexcusable from professionals in the field.
Consider New Orleans: much like another Dutch city, Amsterdam, the city is largely below sea level. That means the topography is ideal for biking and walking. But, as I found on a recent trip, current street conditions are hardly up to the Dutch standard. Bike lanes are rare, even though streets are often very wide. That makes life a little tough for all vulnerable road users, but many leaders in post-Katrina New Orleans recognize the need to better. So, the Baronne Street road diet project was put forward.
Nice lane markings, eh? When waiting on the streetcar, don’t stick your rear too far out in the street.
The Baronne Street project would be no mere set of stripes on the road, but a protected bike lane buffered from moving vehicles by a parking lane. The bike lane would be created via a reduction in motor vehicle lanes on a one-way street from 2 to 1.
Image courtesy of Bike Easy
As with all things, it isn’t considered perfect, but people who bike love it. Yet they had opposition from a transportation professional. 
A New Orleans transportation engineer  wrote emails to his supervisor claiming that traffic would be gridlocked with the loss of a lane. Although he cited little more than anecdotal evidence and an internal Level of Service (LOS) study, his emails were enough to persuade a judge to grant a temporary order freezing the project. Thankfully, the judge later ruled that there were no legal grounds to stop the project.
This engineer thought a shared lane, or sharrow, would suffice. Those who bike in New Orleans thought otherwise, which is why so many of them turned out to the public hearings on the project. So, why couldn’t this engineer produce anything more than discredited LOS modeling? Simple: scientific evidence that road diets cause congestion does not exist. 
The sharrow just visible to the right is fine, but only because the street is empty.
That should not be surprising. Transportation experts who are on the cutting edge of the field have long known that induced demand results from road expansions; why should the opposite strategy not produce opposite results? Even the state of California’s Department of Transportation, Caltrans, admitted recently in public that bigger roads cause more traffic (though I’d heard it from them at an event over a year ago). 
But old habits are hard to break, so Caltrans plans a monumental road expansion via a tunnel project in the Los Angeles area. I cannot argue that switching from surface parking lots (LA’s current freeway system) to underground parking (this project’s certain outcome) is progress.
The utility of wide highways is clearly not as scientifically supported as parts of the profession or the large swathes of the public think it is. Perhaps a few more completed road diets, even if somewhat unintentional like DC’s Memorial Bridge, will finally put an end to debunked, old-school, transportation thinking.