Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Setting Priorities for South Works

An interesting post by Bob Quellos in Gapers Block on plans for the redevelopment of the former US Steel South Works site on Chicago's South Side, now sitting vacant. The author questions the priorities of the "powers that be" in that city, particularly when faced with massive layoffs in the city services sector.

The project has all the classic overtones of a large Chicago project -- massive spending but with loosely defined priorities and outcomes, little consideration for surrounding neighborhoods (some of the City's poorest), and the specter of impending gentrification.

But Quellos also raises indirectly the larger question of what our priorities should be when faced with myriad challenges, both short-term and structural -- crumbling infrastructure in the rest of the city, continued reliance on non-renewable energy and a sagging economy to name a few. Should we be funneling tax dollars to private investors, and what is the probable outcome if we don't?

Would South Works  (and other sites like it) continue to languish without the injection of private sector investment? And should we be swayed from our long-term goals of neighborhood-strengthening by the need to address short-term calamities, such as the recent layoff of 1,100 CTA employees?

More specifically, what types of investment should we finance in South Works for the greatest positive impact, and what is the time frame for a program of this magnitude to mature? What opportunities avail themselves?

What about high-capacity transit to service the new urban neighborhood? This blog has long advocated a Vision Plan for Chicago transit that looks 25, even 50 to 100 years in the future. As the inset (left and above) shows, we might consider securing right-of-way now for a corridor about 1/3 of a mile east of the current Metra Electric South Chicago branch, that can form the mixed-use spine of the new community, while also supporting higher densities than the current line serves. And could the old corridor be repurposed as a new bicycle/pedestrian greenway (not shown) in a neighborhood sorely lacking such facilities?

While we show light rail, this is just a placeholder. Other visions exist for the repurposing of Metra Electric service to better serve the neighborhood, such as the Gray Line proposal. In any case, the community should have a say in the choice of mode, via an inclusive and participatory environmental process that looks at the larger neighborhood comprising South Works plus the existing neighborhoods to the west, all the way to South Chicago Avenue, not just the new neighborhood being slapped on the landscape.

The point is not to fall in love with any single plan, but to look thoughtfully and holistically at the myriad of elements needed to create a truly great, new neighborhood that supports and strengthens its surroundings and brings social and economic vitality to an entire chunk of a great city, in this case southeastern Chicago. We don't get these kind of chances often, so let's go about getting to these decisions the right way.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Getting Past Compliance: Federal Regulation and the Caltrain Experiment

Given the current level of press coverage on high-speed rail and its massive infrastructure investment requirements, it's interesting how little exploration there has been of new (and potentially much cheaper) solutions for improving rail transit. This should be qualified as “new to the US”, since paradigms such as concurrent operation of lighter electric trains with heavier diesel-hauled rail have long been employed throughout the rest of the world. Electrified trains have been used for decades throughout our nation's urban transit systems. But why haven't we harnessed the potential of electric trains for use with more commuter rail and in existing rail corridors?

The answer is simple: government restrictions. The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) has long prohibited mixed traffic, i.e. the sharing of the same tracks by standard diesel trains and lightweight electrified trains. Requiring one or more separate tracks is generally cost prohibitive, and building separate but parallel electrified rail corridors is usually out of the question due to high start-up costs, significant environmental impacts, etc.

Despite this, we do see electric passenger trains operating harmoniously with freight trains in a few areas, namely on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor (Amtrak is the only passenger rail carrier exempted from the above-described FRA restrictions). However a very low percentage of America’s track mileage is electrified, making the conversation practically a non-starter even where the possibility of electrification is being explored. [A reader points out that Amtrak Acela equipment is in fact FRA-compliant  in terms of carbody strength. See this post describing the hardships Amtrak and the carmaker experienced with FRA as a result of this unfortunate edict.]

From a sustainability perspective, electric trains are the ‘greenest’ option. They pollute far less than their diesel counterparts, can be run from renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, and can recoup energy through regenerative braking. Not to mention electric motors contribute to less wear and tear on tracks, thus extending track life and requiring reduced maintenance. Electric trains accelerate and decelerate faster, allowing them to service all stations on a given run in less time, thus improving operating cost plus passenger experience. Environmentally, electric trains are superior, i.e. they produce less noise than their diesel counterparts. Europe tapped into these benefits long ago. In the United States however, mixed operations are a complicated issue.

FRA’s primary concern is over safety. If a collision were to occur, the reasoning goes that small lightweight electric cars wouldn't stand a chance against large diesel locomotives. And of course train collisions involving passengers, though rare as hen’s teeth compared to automobile collisions, are usually catastrophic. This makes them news-worthy and by extension, embarrassing to the regulators.

But in absolute numbers, wouldn't providing the type of quality passenger rail service that will coerce drivers away from the road might actually save lives, in net terms? In fact, European countries with rich passenger rail networks have lower vehicle fatality rates than the U.S.

While safety concerns are not to be taken lightly, Caltrain, a commuter rail line running between San Francisco and San Jose, successfully argued that the cure was in fact, worse than the supposed disease. Guided by energetic, forward-looking staff and faced with severe cash-flow restrictions, Caltrain was last week granted a groundbreaking waiver from the FRA allowing them to operate lightweight electric trains on the same tracks that carry diesel-hauled trains. Caltrain believes the move will enable them to save on corridor construction costs (i.e. additional tracks and infrastructure), while operating electrified trains will be innately more efficient and have lower operating costs.

However, obtaining the waiver wasn't an easy feat and more work remains to see a successful outcome. If followed three years of planning, testing and research and was accompanied by a mandated safety program. All trains must be outfitted with Positive Train Control, a technology still being developed (for Caltrain, PTC is currently envisioned as a comprehensive global positioning system for train monitoring and collision prevention). After the new cars are built, Caltrain must perform additional tests, including simulated crashes.

Moreover the waiver only allows concurrent operation of electrified and non-electrified passenger trains – freight and passenger service is still subject to temporal separation, in Caltrain’s case meaning that freight must operate at night when passenger trains are not present. In the large majority of cases where freight is the dominant presence in the corridor, this might be a tough sell to the private railroads. Perhaps the “carrot” which can change the freight operator’s mind will be to package track and signal improvements with the public projects, such that freight benefits as well. This cooperative approach with the railroads is one we would like to see employed more often.

As the first in the country to obtain such permission, Caltrain will effectively be a pilot program, and if successful might possibly pave the way for even less restrictive waivers for US transit systems. Let's hope all goes well and mixed traffic rail corridors are no longer the exception, but the norm.

[Photo of Caltrain conceptual EMU car illustration courtesy of Caltrain]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sweden's Newest Rail Transport Revolution

From its inception, Sweden's railroad system defied trends. Construction began on this vast nation’s first rail line in the 1850's and from the outset an coordinated decision was made to keep major lines inland, avoiding the coasts as a defensive measure to protect rail lines from the threat of military attacks. This decision also kept the railroads out of direct competition with established steam boat routes along the coast. As a result, the inland rail lines flourished and paved the way for what is now the 20th largest railroad network in the world, providing nearly full geographic coverage to an area of roughly 175,000 square miles, or slightly larger than California.

For decades to follow, Sweden allowed private companies to build additional rail lines in order to maintain a competitive rail industry. Until the era of the Great Depression, the rails were still owned in part by private parties. As was true in much of the world, with the rise of the automobile came the decline in passenger rail transportation, though Sweden remained proactive about maintaining and expanding their rail system. In the 1980's Sweden instituted controversial changes to managing its railways by separating train operations from rail infrastructure management. Coupled with the introduction of high speed trains in the 1990's, a streamlined ticketing system, and the much-publicized introduction of biofuel engines; the Swedish rail system continued to sustain itself as a viable mode of transportation into the 21st century.

As of early 2010, Sweden is yet again revolutionizing organization of its transport systems. One of the system's early founders, former Director-General of Swedish State Railways Bengt Furback, always held a strong belief that the government should treat road and rail equally. In turn, the government created a national rail authority and national roads administration. But now, the powers that be in Sweden no longer see the benefit of separate agencies. As of April 1st, 2010, authorities have combined these two authorities into a new agency, the Trafikverket, and added to its purvue the oversight all sea ports and airports. The planning and management of virtually all modes of transportation in Sweden have effectively been merged into one agency.

Opponents of the reorganization remain staunch advocates for the traditional vertical integration of rail systems, but the Swedish government believes the move will better prioritize allocation of money across all transit modes. Considering the vast technical disparities between these four major modes of transportation and variations in traffic control and management, oversight of the Trafikverket seems a daunting task from a practical standpoint. If Sweden overcomes the challenges at hand and succeeds in their transportation experiment, it will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit.

Particularly in America, which is in the throes of rethinking its own national rail strategy, it would be interesting to try and glean something from the experiences of other nations who have “been there”, even if the realities of politics and economics differ tremendously between the two countries. As always, your thoughts and further comments are appreciated.

[Photo of Oresund Road/Rail Bridge/Tunnel connecting Sweden with Denmark courtesy of www.wonderfulinfo.com]

Friday, May 14, 2010

Placemaking for Greater Prosperity

The term placemaking came into vogue just a few decades ago, but the concept of designing spaces that attract people has been around for centuries.  Designing with placemaking in mind involves a paradigm shift in the way we typically view urban planning.  Instead of giving prominence to vehicles and buildings, a designer must focus on people and the way they experience spaces.  The goals of placemaking run in the vein of creating lively and inviting public spaces, spaces that can be and are used by residents of a neighborhood.  There are a few recurring themes seen in successfully “made”  places, such as easy access by various modes of transportation, a sense of safety and cleanliness, and the ability of said place to host a variety of experiences and activities.

Benefits to the neighborhood are clear; placemaking provides spaces for interactions between citizens, builds a sense of community, etc.  But how does designing with people in mind benefit the community at large?  And does placemaking have any correlation with economic prosperity?  Neighborhoods designed with placemaking in mind are typically walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.  Residents in these communities statistically have lower automobile costs, produce fewer carbon emissions and realize increased home values compared to communities that lack a sense of place.  Following hand in hand with lower private vehicle use is a lower demand on infrastructure.  Compact development pays.  An EPA study found that compact infrastructure could be 47% less expensive than conventional suburban development.

Residents living in neighborhoods designed with an orientation towards people versus cars, typically have higher levels of physical fitness.  Again this may seem like it's benefiting the individual, not the greater good, but keep in mind that in 2008 the medical cost to treat obesity in the US was $147 billion.  And let’s not overlook the reduction in carbon emissions mentioned above.  Environmental concerns aside, less pollution equates to cleaner air and lower incidences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

It's also been shown that walkable neighborhoods have lower crime rates.  Jane Jacobs, a community activist and early proponent of placemaking strategies, argued that streets are safer when more people are on them.  Her ‘eyes on the street’ theory contended that well-used public places and buildings that provide inhabitants views to the streets create inherently safer neighborhoods.And she was right; neighborhood watch programs across the country now use the same techniques she advocated.

Placemaking aims to provide a common meeting space and bolster the sense of community in a place.  These shared public spaces can offer venues for markets and cultural festivals or provide a performance area for bands or theater groups.  Communities can begin to see direct economic benefits when the value of their space is recognized and realized.

It's difficult to quantify all the benefits of placemaking, but with movements like Placemaking Chicago and the New York City Plaza Program growing in prominence, these benefits are hard to deny.

[Photo of Lincoln Square Arch in Chicago courtesy of Placemaking Chicago]

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Obama Infrastructure Plan, Year 2

On February 17th, 2009, President Obama countered the recession with his own economic stimulus plan: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Proponents of public transportation heralded the effort, which allocated over $48 billion of the $787 billion economic stimulus package towards infrastructure improvements.  These investments into our nation's infrastructure focused on of a range of transportation initiatives including highway, rail, air and maritime. When the Act was first unveiled, its primary goals were threefold: to rescue, recover and reinvest. Long term benefits were intended to materialize through improvements in the efficiency of transportation systems across America and increasing our economic viability internationally. More immediate goals of the plan primarily came down to creating jobs. The Obama administration cited the lofty but vague goal of creating ‘millions of jobs’, both direct and indirect. Due to the long-lead nature of construction projects, it was speculated that the bulk of new jobs wouldn't be created until mid-2010. As we're nearing that milestone, it seems an opportune time to reflect on what the large-scale infrastructure plan has and has not accomplished early in its sophomore year.

To start, let's talk money. How much of the money has been awarded? How many projects have received money and commenced construction? Within days of ARRA’s passage, money was being awarded. Within six months $33.2 billion had been awarded to states for proposed projects and of that, $20.6 billion had been committed to specific projects readying them to begin construction. The push to award funds was immense right after ARRA passed, then slowed appreciably in following months. As of April 30th, 2010, just over $39 billion had been awarded. Of that, less than one-third of funds, or $10.9 billion, has been received by states to begin projects. This equates to just over one-fifth of the total stimulus money allocated for infrastructure improvements currently being used to fund actual projects. While a $10.9 billion is a large injection into our nation's neglected infrastructure, the task at hand remains large. Let's hope that projects gain approval and funding is doled out with renewed ferocity in this second year.

Let's address the major short-term goal of the infrastructure plan, job creation. The Obama administration attempted complete transparency in job reporting, which proved to be a difficult task. Early reports in 2009 claimed that over one million jobs had been created within months of the act being passed. In fact the White House claimed that public and private forecasters estimated the Recovery Act was 'responsible' for 2 million jobs in its first year. The administration later admitted challenges in quantifying the number of jobs 'saved or created' by the Recovery Act and changed their terminology altogether to 'jobs funded by the recovery act'. Early numbers were revised and it was determined that from February 17th to September 30th, 2009, 633,376 jobs were funded by the Recovery Act. From last October 1st through the end of 2009, 608,311 jobs were funded by the Recovery Act and in the first quarter of 2010, 682,779 jobs were funded by the Recovery Act. While the numbers aren't as astonishing as what was first reported, the increase in job creation in 2010 is a reassuring trend. Could this be a leading indicator, demonstrating that we're on the verge of seeing the funded infrastructure projects go into full swing?

What are your thoughts?

Monday, May 3, 2010

­Trail Planning for Active Rail Corridors

In the 1960's and 70's, the consolidation of our nation's railroads resulted in abandonment of miles upon miles unused rail lines. City governments were drawn to the appeal of these corridors, as they connected cities and often ran through areas of historic or scenic value. Some prime corridors were transformed into greenspaces and recreational corridors for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding. The trend gained steam and before long trails were being considered for active rail corridors as well. With the current movement to rejuvenate rail corridors nationwide, it seems an incredibly opportune time to take stock of our existing infrastructure and realize the benefits of rails-with-trails.

Converting an inactive rail corridor to a trail (rail-to-trail) is relatively straightforward, but establishing a trail within the easement of an active rail corridor requires more strategizing. For starters, why would a private railroad agree to a trail within their right-of-way? As the railroads are coming to realize, rails-with-trails aren't one-sided endeavors; they offer advantages to the railroad owners as well. With a trail often comes substantial benefit to the railroad, including beautification of the rail corridor and improvement of the railroad’s image in the eyes of the public (through appropriate community outreach). Public agency trail managers might attempt to acquire the easement from the railroad, in some instances reducing the liability of the railroad. Whether the area is patrolled or not, when people actively use a rail corridor trespassing and vandalism rates typically decrease. In the case of rail transit corridors, projects such as the Folsom Parkway Rail-Trail, have produced an increase in transit ridership by thoughtful integration between the two facilities.

Most railroad companies are in favor of rails with trails; according to a survey performed by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, less than 10% of railroad companies initially opposed the idea. In those cases where the trail was opposed, the railroad cited concerns over safety and liability. For obvious reasons, building a trail within an active rail corridor can carry a heightened level of concern for safety, but careful planning can assuage potential problems. Statistically speaking, using a trail in an active rail corridor is far safer than bicycling or walking along a busy city street. In the 34 year history of the program, there has only been one incident. And in this particular incident a biker ignored warnings signals, rode around a lowered gate and was injured by an oncoming train. (See the groundbreaking Rails to Trails Conservancy Study, Rails With Trails for one of the first extensive research efforts on this topic.)

Setbacks and appropriate separation from rail lines is a key factor in designing safe trails. Per “Rails With Trails”, trails are on average 10 to 11 feet wide with the average separation between track and trail being 33 feet. Many trails provide a barrier between the rail tracks and trail, particularly when the two facilities are close together or when railroad speeds are high. These barriers can be anything from heavy duty cast in place concrete walls or a grade separation to a ditch, fence or even just vegetation, depending on actual and perceived risk to trail users and the railroad.  Along the Folsom Park Trail, when railroad easements didn't accommodate adequate separation between train and pedestrian, the design team chose to raise the trail almost 3 feet above the train tracks and provide a retaining wall with metal fence to ensure user safety.

Areas of intersection, where the rail and trail cross paths are critical points to introduce enhanced safety measures. When possible avoid at-grade crossings and attempt to introduce tunnels or overpasses. Standard signage that is universally understood should be used in conjunction with audible and visual signals to warn pedestrians and bicyclists at all crossings. Boston's Southwest Corridor Park spent almost $27 million on a trail that goes to great lengths to avoid at-grade crossings. The 4.7 mile trail includes 17 crossings that redirect pedestrian traffic via tunnels or bridges. On the Heritage Rail Trail County Park in Pennsylvania, the existing rail line passes through a narrow tunnel. To design around tight clearances (at some points within the 250 foot long tunnel the trail was within 6 feet of existing railroad tracks) the lease granted to the railroad by the county gives priority to bicyclists, requiring all trains to stop before entering the tunnel and wait until it is clear. Of course this only works with excursion railroads and not with scheduled or headways-based transit service.

The Federal Highway Administration has additional guidelines for designing trails in active rail corridors. FHWA advises against calling the trail 'safe' and suggests trail managers warn users to be vigilant as trains continue to use the corridor. Material selection and crossing surfaces should be selected to provide traction for runners and bicyclists and adequate illumination should be provided. The FHWA also emphasizes the importance of implementing a maintenance schedule to ensure the condition of the trail is routinely monitored, any hazards are fixed, and the trail is kept generally free of debris. As with any infrastructure project, thoughtful planning and continued maintenance will aid in creating a vibrant corridor for years to come.

Friday, April 23, 2010

St. Louis Transit Tax Victory - How Consent Was Achieved

St. Louis citizens have historically had a strained relationship with their public transportation system, the Metro.  Allegations of gross mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility have long plagued the agency. The allegations called into question the organization's credibility, especially by citizens of suburban St. Louis County whose taxes were supporting the system but whose residents rarely utilized it. As is typical, a disproportionate share of public transportation users were living within city limits.  Per a study by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, nearly 30% of downtown St. Louis residents do not have access to a car, compared to 6% in the county.

When Metro lost federal operating aid in the late 90's, the agency proposed to make up the difference by instituting a one-quarter cent increase for city dwellers and a one-half cent increase for county residents. Passage was contingent upon approval in both the city and county. County residents were up in arms.  Needless to say, the proposition passed in the city, but failed miserably in the county and thus progress remained at a standstill for eleven years.

In 2008, after the Cross-County Blue Line light rail expansion project had gone $128 million over budget and incurred an additional $23.6 million loss in legal fees and a breach of contract judgment against the agency, Metro's very serious money problems forced it to put a resurrected proposition on the ballot. At the time, the nation was fixated on the presidential election, to which the proposition took a back seat and thus failed to pass yet again.  Ensuing cuts to service were drastic; almost one-third of all service stopped overnight and over 500 Metro employees lost their jobs. When all public transportation outside the city's interbelt was discontinued, County residents started feeling the effects.  St. Louisans realized, “Some of us ride it. All of us need it.” Thus began their rallying cry. 

What took place next was an unprecedented grassroots effort, armed with the technology of 2010.  John Nations, the mayor of an affluent County suburb, undertook a primary role advocating for restoring metro service.  Major campaigns were launched by the Greater St. Louis Transit Alliance, Facebook groups coalesced, Twitter feeds ran rampant, the blogosphere commenced into overdrive, alliances were formed and before too long over a half million dollars was raised to support the tax increase measure. An extensive public outreach program was instituted, educating citizens on the importance of public transportation.  Armed with their slogan "Great cities have great transit systems", the alliance took to the streets in a door-to-door campaign to spread the word.  The alliance met with neighborhood associations, religious organizations and others. Over 140 major local businesses pledged their support. A volunteer-staffed phone bank was operated for over two months. It was even reported that local pastors incorporated Proposition A support into their Easter Sunday sermons. 

Don't think the movement didn't have its detractors.  John Burns, described by the Conservative Blog Watch as a "young conservative kid," led the fight against Proposition A.  In the weeks leading up to the April vote, the local public radio station discussed the topic almost nightly and held live debates between John Nations and John Burns.  Burns had the support of the growing Tea Party, and despite his lack of financial backing, went toe to toe with the venerable John Nations during a televised debate on the issue.  Ultimately, on April 6th, 2010 the proposition passed with a final vote of 63% in favor and 37% opposed. Metro President and CEO Bob Baer put it best when he said, "Nothing's impossible when we work together... I'm proud of the community coming together on an issue of this importance."

With the passing of Proposition A, Metro estimates the tax increase will provide an additional $75 million annually. The first order of business is restoring the service cuts of 2008.  Less than 48 hours after passage of Proposition A, Metro employees began removing covers obscuring the bus stop signs on discontinued routes. Among the projects to benefit from Prop A funding, Metro is looking into instituting a bus rapid transit pilot project. Long-term plans include further expansion of the light rail system.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Preliminary National Rail Plan – A Work In Progress?

Spurred by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Federal Railroad Administration issued a Preliminary Rail Plan in October of 2009.  The plan was an attempt at laying the groundwork for future policies regarding our nation's rail transportation network.  The plan's lofty goals included improving safety, fostering livable communities, increasing the economic competitiveness of the United States and promoting more sustainable modes of transportation.  What the plan didn’t offer were specifics as to how to achieve these goals.  With the ARRA allocating $48 billion towards transportation funding, and $8 billion designated specifically for high-speed rail4, why does it appear that little action has been taken thus far? 

The Preliminary Rail Plan identified transportation corridors to target for improvement, and multiple states put their names in the running for a portion of the stimulus money.  To date, funding has been distributed to thirty-one states, with the largest grants going to California ($2.3 billion) and Florida ($1.25 billion).  A major drawback right now seems to be that states must raise additional funds, through tax increases or budget cuts, as the federal funding alone isn’t enough to subsidize their projects.  And given the current state of the economy, that drawback alone could be enough to kill transportation plans in some areas.

Another concern is the apparent lack of prioritization in identifying projects worthy of funding. The Florida project for example, would serve the Orlando-Tampa corridor, one not considered particularly viable for high speed rail due to the relatively short distance between the cities, the high number of intermediate stops along the route, and the lack of effective transit connections at either end.

Notwithstanding basic concerns about planning and financing, opinions differ substantially on how to best bring our nation's rail system up to twenty-first century standards.  Is it more economical to upgrade existing rail lines, or should we build brand new high-speed lines dedicated solely to passenger travel?  Our current rail network was largely in place by the end of the 19th Century. The system we now have was built in favor of freight rail and it’s slower speeds, and even with extensive retrofits, experts estimate that high-speed passenger trains on retrofitted tracks would run on average between 80 and 120 miles per hour, with speeds topping out in some locations around 160 miles per hour.  In Europe and Asia, high-speed rail lines have their own dedicated tracks and with improved construction techniques, the trains are easily capable of running over 200 miles per hour.

Additionally, infrastructure is typically shared between freight and passenger rail lines.  Freight railroads have historically been privately owned, and since their deregulation in 1980 have proven to be profitable businesses.  Passenger railroads on the other hand, provide a public service and are publicly subsidized by taxpayers.  Currently, most passenger service utilizes rail infrastructure owned and operated by the freight railroads.  So should those private companies benefit from infrastructure improvements paid for by tax dollars, or should they share in the cost?  Or does our current shared infrastructure reinforce the idea that passenger service should be provided on dedicated lines, removed from freight service?  One possible model is Chicago’s CREATE program, a partnership of public agencies and private railroads with the stated mission of solving the problems of both passenger (primarily commuter) and freight congestion in the nation’s rail hub, through investment of targeted improvements including grade separations, line section and signal improvements, etc.

The fact remains that even a sum of money to the tune of $48 billion falls short of upgrading our entire existing rail infrastructure and woefully short of providing gleaming brand-new high speed lines throughout the country.  Thus, the government has allowed individual states to strategize how to best use available funding.  California aims to spend $2.25 of their appropriated $2.3 billion on a new dedicated high speed line connecting northern and southern portions of the state.  Meanwhile, Midwestern states such as Missouri and Illinois prefer to upgrade their existing lines with hopes of incrementally improving service.  Only time will tell which tactic does the better job of fostering sustainable, livable communities and making rail travel more economically viable for the majority of Americans.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sunday Streets, San Francisco-style

Initially founded in Bogota, Columbia over thirty years ago, citywide events that temporarily close streets to automobiles and allow bikers, joggers, and skaters free reign have spread across the globe.  These events encourage healthy, active lifestyles while promoting social and culture activities that build a sense of community.  The first "Ciclovia", literally translated as "bike path" was held in 1976 after Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, declared that "A quality city is not one that has great roads but one where a child can safely go anywhere on a bicycle."  In Bogota, the Ciclovia now covers 70% of the city and entices over 1.5 million of its citizens to walk, bike, and play in the streets every week.  Cities around the world have been so inspired by its resounding success, that they have created similar programs.

Tokyo, Winnipeg, Melbourne, and just about everywhere in between have seen some form of Ciclovia.  In the United States events like these have been held since the early 1980's; Portland has it's Sunday Parkways, Atlanta started Streets Alive, and Walk + Roll Cleveland spurred a national organization to help other cities institute similar plans.  So far, most of these programs have been successful enough to ensure their continuation.

The lure of the Ciclovia is hard to resist.  Where obesity continues to rise to epidemic proportions, for urban neighborhoods that lack open space for children to play, and as we maintain our dependence upon automobiles; the Ciclovia offers a small slice of respite.  It offers community-sponsored recreation, encourages healthy behaviors, and provides a chance to reconnect with our neighbors face to face.  In Bogota, the events are even having an impact on the environment.  Auto emissions are reduced by over 40% on Ciclovia days.

San Francisco is one such city with a successful Ciclovia program, dubbed "Sunday Streets".  The program recently kicked off its third year and is ever expanding with 9 such events planned for 2010.  One aspect of the San Francisco program that has made it so successful is its alternation of locations throughout the city, including inner city districts such as the Bayview, which are not often visited by outsiders.  The original Ciclovias in Bogota were careful to select routes that link existing neighborhoods together.  This strategy, as opposed to closing down sections of major thoroughfares or bridges, is what really connects people and supports surrounding businesses.  During San Francisco's first Sunday Streets of 2010 near the Embarcadero, retailers reported a surge in business from locals who typically avoid the area due to traffic.

Sunday Streets also boasts extensive community events.  Not only are free bicycle rentals provided, but you can find free dance and yoga classes, free bicycle maintenance, a free roller rink complete with ongoing performances of Michael Jackson's Thriller, martial arts demonstrations and classes, kids’ activities, and even games for your pet.

San Francisco seems to be getting little push back from the community for these events.  In general, businesses appreciate the additional foot traffic and citizens haven’t reported major traffic inconveniences.  While the streets are momentarily closed to automobiles, Sunday Streets ensures that its events don't conflict with professional sporting events or concerts and the streets do allow cross traffic to pass through at specific checkpoints.  With over 20,000 people attending events last year, San Francisco expects to see their numbers continue to rise this year.

Does your locale or region sponsor similar programs? How successful have they been? What have been the main “barriers to entry” in getting these programs established and/or maintained? We’d love to get your input.

Monday, March 29, 2010

LA’s Ambitious 30-in-10 Plan

For at least the past two decades, no public official has been more up front with his agenda for transit-starved Los Angeles than that city’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigrosa. Largely through his unrelenting vision of how his city could benefit from tens of billions of dollars in mass transit investment, combined with his considerable political clout at the national level, Villaraigrosa has been a front-and-center advocate for heavy and light rail “dream projects” including the Subway to the Sea, Regional Connector, Crenshaw Corridor and service to Los Angeles International Airport, as well as busway extensions. Once in place, this network expansion would largely fill out the bare-bones high-capacity transit system currently making do in this megalopolis.

And in today’s environment, bringing dollars to the table may be just the ticket to make this dream into a reality. By borrowing federal stimulus money against proceeds from a 30-year local sales tax dedicated to transit and now in place, Villaraigrosa has convinced California lawmakers, federal officials and even mayors of other major cities that not only can Los Angeles deliver 30 years’ worth of major transit investments within 10 years, but also could jump-start an economic recovery by putting thousands to work designing and building the system.

We’ve discussed in a recent blog posting our view that stimulus spending might as well go into concrete-and-steel projects that will leave a legacy of lasting value. We acknowledge that our economy is in a dire predicament, the solution to which has befuddled even top government officials. While not perfect, Villaraigrosa’s out-of-the-box thinking is in our view exactly what is needed to get worthwhile projects built, put people to work, and rebuild a sense of national and civic self-esteem that has all but evaporated in the current financial crisis. Imagine a Los Angeles woven together by a series of high-capacity rail and bus guideways separated from the hellish traffic, dotted with high-density, mixed use centers of activity that complement the surrounding communities while maintaining lower densities where appropriate.

As far as projects, we’d like to offer one not on the table so far: an upgrade of key Metrolink commuter rail lines to more frequent mid-day and reverse-commute service, and better integration of that service with MTA at key stations. New diesel-multiple unit rail vehicles could be purchased and operated over Metrolink tracks in shorter consists and with smaller crew sizes than current push-pull equipment, to more cost-effectively accommodate mid-day service. This regime of service would be targeted to corridor segments with the greatest off-peak ridership potential. Metrolink already operates over a staggering 500+ route miles of rail corridors in the LA region, and the introduction of such service over current routes would almost guarantee increased development potential in nodes currently served by Metrolink.

We strongly support the LA mayor’s proposed solution and encourage other metropolitan areas to follow suit. Obviously not all regions with substantial transit needs have a dedicated funding source to borrow against, and in these cases even more out-of-the-box thinking is needed to create a national model for transit investment. And of course, we welcome your ideas and suggestions.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Yield on Stop for Bicycles

To promote a balanced and environmentally sound transportation system, one of our societal goals should be to accommodate more sustainable modes of transport, right? The proposed Yield on Stop law for bicyclists does just that. Already in effect in Idaho and proposed for vehicle codes in several other states, this bicycle-related provision allows cyclists to continue through stop-controlled intersections (at a slow speed) if the coast is clear. It recognizes the inherent differences in mechanics and perception of the bicyclist versus the automobile, and would undoubtedly promote cycling as a more attractive mode.

This video does a good job of illustrating the dynamics of the proposed law. Naysayers will point to perceived safety issues, the potential for increased liability for local governments, or the possibility of abuse by aggressive cyclists. But what about the system currently in place, where cyclists are subservient to an incompatible motor vehicle code? What does the current code do for promoting sustainable modes of transport, such as the ultra-efficient bicycle? An article in Oregon Cycling Magazine offers some excellent insights on the Idaho law and how it’s working, as does this article, which takes the position of the bicycle commuter. Making biking easier for the regular commuter could do a great deal for both congestion and the environment.

I’ll offer some personal insight. Cycling in Marin County, California a few years ago, I rolled through a four-way stop sign at an unoccupied intersection. Sure enough, a tailing police officer pulled me over and issued me a ticket, same as if I was driving a 6,000-lb. SUV. Later that same day at a coffee shop, I engaged in casual conversation with a resident and brought up the fresh ticket. She said something to the effect that “that’s unfortunate, but you had it coming.”

This attitude is not uncommon but is also quite understandable. It indicates the need not only for institutional change (i.e. the vehicle code itself), but for focused outreach geared to address these attitudes. Because our public thoroughfares have, over the majority of the past century been largely taken over by motor vehicles, scarce resources are left over for pedestrians and cyclists. These latter user groups are then pitted against each other to fight over the “scraps”, causing friction and mistrust. Granted, just like drivers there are over-aggressive cyclists who will abuse their status, and by making the laws reflect the reality of cycling, these few can be more easily singled out and prosecuted.

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Public Works Infrastructure and Recessionary Finance

The Depression-era WPA building program left many iconic and enduring projects in place , even while putting people to work during the job-starved 1930s. Landmarks and structures such as public buildings, post offices, major bridges, dams, zoos and many others went up in a relatively brief period, and are still utilized and enjoyed by tens of millions today.

President Barack Obama’s multi-billion dollar federal stimulus package has not yet proposed a similar visionary program, instead focusing on “shovel-ready” projects, which typically translate into short-term fixes such as road repaving projects. This is even though taxpayers would be getting as much as 30% more for their money due to the favorable bidding environment (compared to pre-recessionary times).

Of course the type of planning needed requires a long-term vision which, in the arena of national politics and partisan bickering, is not necessarily the expedient route. Some cities such as San Diego have recognized this and are focusing on longer horizon projects entailing major transit/highway expansion or rehabilitation, with life spans of 50-year or longer. Schenectady, New York Mayor Brian Stratton, echoing the position of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has been pushing a re-creation of the FDR-era WPA program, though his focus has been on funneling federal stimulus funds directly to local governments.

Despite the difference in these emergent approaches, there seems to be a general recognition that the first round of stimulus funding was not very effective. Aligning the true needs of our nation’s infrastructure to the Obama Administration’s vision for creating jobs seems the greatest challenge to overcome.

In our mind, the real question is this: if we’re spending money we don’t have anyways, why not spend it on projects with long-term value? And on a “touchier” note, at what level of government is “value” determined, when it comes to apportionment of federal tax dollars? Is it time to appoint a new “infrastructure czar” to work the interstices of federal/local politics, perhaps backed up by a nationwide cabinet of transit and public works officials? This panel could be given the authority needed to short-circuit the evaluation of projects, as well as to distribute stimulus funds, cutting through the red tape now hampering the process. This would be for the greater good of our nation in the short term, as well as our long-term economic prospects.

My fingers are limber. Who do we email??

As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The ‘Adaptive Integrator’ and Efficient Project Delivery

We read and enjoyed the excellent book Designing Greenways: Sustainable Landscapes for Nature and People and came across the notion of the “adaptive integrator”. For a large-scale public works design project, this key individual can function both inside and outside the traditional “collaboratory” environment surrounding the project. The integrator straddles the boundary between those project personnel performing the planning and engineering, and the regulatory agencies who work in a more compartmentalized and process-oriented fashion, and interfaces with a range of stakeholders as well. Using a new greenway design project as an example, and quoting from pg. 22:

“Although collaboration is useful and important, also needed are broad integrators (our emphasis) who see connections and relationships and who can envision futures that combine the best aspects of a range of issues. Because greenways combine social and natural objectives and because they frequently sit within highly disturbed settings, visions for their future need to be integrative or creative.”
The individual who can best work with the various stakeholders to bring the project to fruition may actually be a non-specialist without previous ties to the project, one who can be seen as an objective party by others close to the project, whether advocates, opponents or project-neutral. What is crucial, we believe, is that the individual should have a strong background in project as well as process management, and be given responsibility to develop and adhere to a schedule-tempered project management plan that allows regular assessments of a project’s progress in light of its goals and objectives.

Most if not all municipal or special purpose public agencies have (perhaps infrequent) experience managing larger, more controversial projects that test the limits of in-house staff. We’d be interested to hear from agency staff, as to what kinds of challenges these projects bring in terms of finding the right match between project and key personnel. Does your agency handle large-scale project management in-house? At what point does the agency bring in outside consulting help, versus recruiting from within the department? If looking outside of the agency, what qualities are sought?

As always, your opinions are appreciated.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Transit and Visualization

Take a look at this video chronicling a hypothetical traveler's "day out" to the ball park. Only he lives in Chicago, and the game is in Detroit! It certainly messes with the concepts of time, space and travel we have come to accept in this corner of western society.

Visualization tools such as the ones used to produce this video are already having a transformational effect on our lives, by giving us a realistic glimpse of how substantial investments into public infrastructure can positively shape our lives. Even a few years ago the software needed to develop such visualizations was costly and time consuming to learn and operate. Now programs such as Sketchup bring these tools to a much wider pool of users and thus their potential audiences. And they're free!

How has the new batch of visualization tools already affected delivery of significant projects you are involved in or familiar with? Do you see any downside to use or interpretation of these tools? What in your opinion does the future hold for tools that are easier to use and disseminate to stakeholders and the public at large?

Federal Rail Transit Safety Legislation

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood transmitted a formal legislative proposal to Congress on December 7, 2009 to increase safety and security on the nation's public transit systems. The legislation recognizes that, compared to other federal transportation oversight programs (highways, railroads, air), federal regulation of public transit safety is rather ad-hoc.

Currently, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) uses its limited authority in this arena to delegate safety oversight of transit system to individual states, with no uniform safety practices for rail transit systems. In turn, understaffed and underfunded states view the federal safety program as an unfunded mandate. Enforcement is weak at best, and high-risk safety issues may go unidentified and uncorrected.

At this time, there are 27 separate State programs or agencies providing safety regulation for public transit systems (for example, the California Public Utilities Commission) resulting in inefficiency, inconsistent practices and questionable effectiveness. Moreover, increasing transit ridership and utilization, along with reduced local funding and aging infrastructure, present public transportation providers with new and difficult safety challenges that will increase over time.

The legislation would:
  1. Require the Secretary of Transportation to establish and enforce minimum Federal safety standards for rail transit systems not regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), with options to establish a safety program for public transportation bus systems.
  2. Establish a program whereby a State would be eligible for Federal transit assistance to carry out a Federally-approved public transportation safety program. Apparently this would include entail delegating federal staff (perhaps through FTA) to individual agencies, much like the Project Management Oversight program which oversees transit capital programs supported by federal investment.
  3. Ensure "firewalls" are in place between the oversight agency and the transit systems it oversees.
What are your thoughts on this proposed legislation? Will this make a transit agency's safety mandate more or less difficult to support/enforce? What opportunities for increased or redirected investment might this provide, for instance for transit capital spending?

As always, we welcome your thoughts.