Archives for posts with tag: Transportation

 

Car Traffic

Fueled by an endless array of transportation options, global citizens are discovering new ways to get from point A to point B in their communities. This new “mobility mindset,” which embodies the twin characteristics of urban fluidity and efficiency, offers us the freedom to roam untethered to our daily connection points, with minimal reliance on cars.

In the fall of 2012 I was tossed into this paradigm head on after a full-on face plant in the mud divorce. No longer possessing permanent mobility of the four-wheel variety (we were a one-car family), I found myself suddenly confronted with the question of how one gets around without the luxury of being regularly able to put key in ignition. Lamenting the loss of convenience, I decided to make a study of alternative transportation options locally as well as in cities I frequented. What I discovered was a legion of common, everyday people like me who, possessing no car, have found creative ways to scurry to their intended locations, be it a place of employment, grocery store or another regularly frequented place.

As one of the premier mobility-friendly cities in the U.S., the Denver Metro Area offers the ideal ecosystem for assessing transportation resourcefulness. Despite opposing views by some lifelong area residents, the Mile High City’s transportation system is widely considered to be one of the most progressive in the nation. In fact, according to a U.S. News and World Report analysis, Denver was listed as the #1 city in terms of public transportation investment, ridership and safety in 2011. This distinction has undoubtedly been a major catalyst for the city’s robust economic and workforce development boom. Moreover a report by the public policy organization Brookings Institution ranked the Denver-Aurora area as having one of the nation’s most efficient systems for connecting companies to labor pools. The Regional Transportation District bus system in Denver (more commonly known as RTD) was my first foray into the life of a frequent bus rider.

Admittedly, I had long viewed bus ridership culture as one that is gritty and low-class. Unfortunately, this was somewhat reinforced when I took my first trip on what is known as the 15L bus, a route that services Colfax Ave, the main street traversing the Denver-Aurora area. Known in some local circles as the “Vomit Comet,” this bus regularly attracts a cast of shady characters and late night drinkers that would put the uninitiated rider in a very discomforting situation. Judgments aside, RTD buses serve as an invaluable conduit for connecting riders to their daily routines, including work, grocery shopping, school, and various activities.

I have generally found the drivers to be friendly as well as adept at navigating through what can be some rather challenging scenarios, be it traffic snarls or disrespectful patrons. And excepting days when there is severe inclement weather or an unanticipated accident, the buses generally tend to run on time.

Another key component of Denver’s RTD system is the light rail trains that service both North-South and East-West routes. The Lower Downtown district serves as the epicenter for local passenger rail traffic that flows continuously to regular stops throughout the Denver Metro Area nearly 24/7. In many ways, light rail is the root of the booming economic development that downtown Denver has experienced over the past 20 years. Transportation experts tout the valuable role it serves in terms of outskirt resident access to downtown activities, including dining, shopping, sporting events, festivals, the arts, and night clubs. Moreover, growing numbers of Denver residents are choosing to live downtown, where a massive residential construction uptick is in full bloom.

But the most significant news for alternative transportation junkies is what’s happening near the historic Union Station terminal. As a part of a $500 million public-private project, the station’s former rail yard is being carefully orchestrated into a 20-acre intermodal hub for the light rail, buses, taxis, Amtrak trains, as well as a commuter rail to Denver International Airport. Targeted for completion in late 2014, this transformation of the area will serve as a critical connection point to nearby commercial office buildings, apartments and public plazas. The airport accessibility component of this project holds particular significance, as it is central to Denver’s reputation as one of the top convention cities in the nation. This will allow the Mile High City to gain traction with other light rail-infused cities such as Atlanta (MARTA), Portland (MAX), Chicago (L), and Seattle (SeaTac) that provide an easy and convenient way to access downtowns from their airports.

High-functioning transit-oriented cities like Denver also recognize the importance of having a congruent interconnection between the various modes of transportation available. With the popularity of short-term car rental options like eGoCar, Economy Car, Hertz 24/7 and Car2Go, pickup locations are in abundance in Denver’s urban core, near housing centers and adjacent to light rail stations. This allows commuters a convenient, just-in-time medium of transport that keeps them on the move amidst their personal and professional demands.

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An option that I favor relative to the quick “hop in and go” mobility is the widely acclaimed transportation network Uber. This company connects you with a driver with a tap of a button on your smart phone. They pick you up via their GPS technology, drop you at your intended destination and then charge your credit card that they have registered on file.

Uber has had a disruptive impact on the transportation dynamics in cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Washington, raising the ire of local government regulators who see the popularity of this new service as an affront to local taxi drivers. Personally, I think its influence underscores the value of free market innovations that bring real value to a city in terms of competitively priced, efficient modes of transportation. And besides, contrary to the vehement arguments of these regulators, Uber is simply in the business of facilitating the connection between privately licensed drivers with riders. In the end this boost in business for limo companies and their drivers is good for the economy.

While car, rail and bus are the predominant means of mobility for most commuters, bicycling continues to show exponential growth in urban centers like Denver, Portland and San Francisco. My first experience in observing the viability of two-wheel transport was while living in Folsom, California, a bedroom suburb of the Golden State’s capital of Sacramento. It boasts one of the top biking communities in the nation, featuring some of the most efficient, well developed sets of bike lanes and arterials anywhere. I also had the pleasure of being employed in Davis, California, widely regarded as the bicycle capital of the U.S. This college town is brimming with a sea of bikes in a manner reminiscent of the urban center thoroughfares of China. And it has the distinction of being the first city in the nation to pilot and implement the now ubiquitous bike lanes.

The rise of the bicycling culture in Denver continues to reach new heights, undoubtedly due in part to its health-conscious ethos. Much of this has been buoyed by the emergence of B-Cycle, a smart technology bicycle-sharing system featuring solar-powered stations. First launched here in 2010 with 40 stations and 500 bikes, B-Cycle is now operating in more than 25 cities nationally.

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Given the effects of the economic downturn, many cost-conscious Americans are embracing nontraditional forms of mobility on a much larger scale. This is particularly true in geographically and demographically dense city areas, as they allow for easy connection points between destinations. Here in Denver, skateboarding has gone from extreme sport status to a viable means to get around. Motorized scooters also abound among low budget commuters.

And then there are the legions of walkers who trek miles every day from home to work to local amenities. Denver in fact is ranked #10 on a list of U.S. cities with the most walkable neighborhoods according to Walkscore.com. And the city ranks in the top five cities for walkability according the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank. WalkDenver has even higher aspirations for the city with its initiative to make “The Mile High City” the most walkable in the nation. Hopefully they can “walk their talk” by fulfilling this ambitious vision. “The key elements of walk friendly cities include wide sidewalks as well trees, foliage, scenery and appealing stop off points along the way,” says James Shaffer, Board President of Walk Denver. “This involves an ongoing assessment of how urban space is being used so that we can look for ways make it more efficient, vibrant and engaging for walkers.”

The future of alternative transportation will continue to take shape as people become more aware of the myriad mobility options available to them. This is great news as it facilitates progress and change in how we navigate cities amidst traffic snarls and congestion. Being untethered opens up new possibilities for how we interact with our communities, families and friends. It allows us freedom to keep moving in a world that increasingly requires us to be fluid and flexible.

 

Michael Scott is a Denver-based urban futurist, writer and researcher. He can be reached at urbanvisionary@gmail.com

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Trains have long been a fascination for me. I recall boyhood trips with my dad and brother to Union Station in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to buy the Sunday edition of The New York Times. If I was lucky, a locomotive followed by unending train cars would come rumbling through at the same time—with the much-anticipated caboose serving as the highlight of my entire weekend  As a teenager, I experienced my first passenger-train ride, traveling pleasantly from the aforementioned Ohio station to my Florida destination.

Thirty-five years later, my interest is now focused on a rapidly emerging form of transportation called light-rail. Gliding along at street level at a lower capacity and speed than heavy rail, these trains are touted by many transportation advocates as the wave of the future. Typically part of a larger transportation network, light-rail systems are designed to provide point-to-point connections to passengers locally and regionally.

Ridership interest in light-rail slowly continues to gain traction across the U.S., with the American Public Transit Association reporting a respectable 0.57% increase in passenger trips this year. Much of this uptick is attributed to the surge in gas prices that we’ve seen over the past several years, leading many to seek out more cost-effective commuting options. Moreover these electrified trains emit little or no pollution while protecting our nation’s energy independence in a competitive world, causing growing numbers of American’s to see light-rail travel as the essence of a green, progressive life.

As awareness grows about the benefits of light-rail, cities nationwide are bellowing the words “all aboard” relative to new passenger lines. The pioneering work of Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority (MARTA), the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the MAX line in Portland, and the Metro in Washington, D.C. have influenced cities like Charlotte, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City to implement light-rail systems.

Light Rail Photo 2

The MAX Light-Rail in Portland, OR

Norfolk, Virginia’s sleek new light-rail project, “The Tide,” is scheduled to open in 2010. The west side of town will anchor one end of the line, running 7.4 miles through Norfolk and ending in its sister community of Virginia Beach. Excitement also is high in the Phoenix metro area where a 20-mile line with 28 stops commenced in December 2008. Early returns show the line is generating 60% more riders than originally projected — a much-needed shot in the arm for businesses and retailers in downtown Phoenix.

With those statistics in mind, what’s the likelihood of light-rail becoming the transportation option of choice among a larger share of Americans?  To gain a better perspective on this question, I have become a frequent passenger on a light-rail line running from Sacramento to Folsom, where I reside. This experiment is part of my simultaneous pursuit of a car-free lifestyle — a decision I am discovering creates a number of logistical challenges for those wedded to public transportation.

My morning commutes into Sacramento start at 6:40 a.m. with a short trek to the light-rail station in downtown Folsom, either by bus or bicycle. While I prefer the bus option, particularly if I have a meeting where a shirt and tie is needed, I am becoming more amenable to the idea of cycling to the station, as I can take my bike with me on the light-rail train to ease my access to locales downtown.

Sacramento Light-Rail

Sacramento Light-Rail

That being said, I have couple of brief observations.  First, while purchasing a ticket should be easy the process feels daunting at times due to frequent malfunctions with the machines. The convenience of buying a full-day ticket on the bus trip to the Folsom station is another reason why this I prefer the this option in the morning over my bike.

Then there is the issue of costs. Ticket-fare increases on light-rail lines are a nationwide reality, which creates an interesting conundrum: Passenger loads continue to increase amid squeezed regional transit agency budgets — a scenario evident in Sacramento, where passengers find themselves paying more for less comfortable rides. Then there is the chicken-or-the-egg question of fare enforcement; namely, the lack of transit officers checking tickets due to budget constraints while simultaneously dealing with lost revenues from those taking advantage of the system.  Tickets are checked only once out of every fifteen rides I make on light-rail — a boon for blatant fare avoiders or those who are economically challenged due to the recession.

People watching is also an interesting endeavor while on light-rail. Armed with an undergraduate degree in sociology, I’m particularly captured by the diversity and social interactions that are a part of the public transportation culture.  All in all, a broad mosaic of the Sacramento’s socioeconomic strata rides light-rail throughout the day, some with questionable mental states.

One of my recent discoveries about downtown Sacramento is a growing cadre of light-rail enthusiasts who hold the secret code of how to navigate the Sacramento Regional Transit maze. One look at the hieroglyphic light-rail map and schedule and it becomes quickly apparent that newbies would greatly benefit from a tutorial. I found myself befuddled one afternoon after discovering that my appointed location for catching the train home had been moved unceremoniously. After sorting through advice from a disparate set of strangers, I was finally able to identify my designated departure location.

Several well-heeled suburban riders have advised me to take the train only during the morning and evening rush hours, as thugs are less likely to be onboard then. This perception of light-rail danger among suburbanites is surprisingly common. Moreover it often surfaces in communities where new light-rail plans are being discussed, serving as a reason for either not moving forward with the project or limiting it. This is true in my own suburban area, where the last light-rail train to Folsom leaves Sacramento at 6:15 pm. The skewed logic seems to be that criminals are more likely to ride several miles to Folsom in the evening hours, break into a house, and then try to get back on light-rail with their loot in tow.

These sorts of ridiculous mindsets create the barriers to fully integrating light-rail as a transportation option of choice. Many of the residents in my community rarely visit downtown Sacramento by public transportation or car, unless it’s for work. The limited evening hours also hinder suburban residents from enjoying the downtown Sacramento nightlife, including the opportunity to have a drink or two without worry of having to drive home afterward. Many of the struggling Sacramento venues would greatly benefit from the infusion of suburban dollars.

As a result of my experiences here in the Sacramento region as well as in other cities like Portland, I’ve come to five conclusions about light-rail:

1. It’s a viable transportation option as long as funding is available to ensure its success. Budget shortfalls equal light-rail stagnation. Building and maintaining a light-rail system is an expensive prospect, therefore a return-on-investment is a necessary part of the equation. Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute says an average mile of light-rail line costs two to five times as much as one mile of an urban freeway lane. He cites as an example the Portland MAX light-rail line, which has spent more than $2.3 billion—half of the region’s capital funds for transportation—but carries less than one percent of Portland’s travelers.

2. Light-rail or any current form of public transportation is not a substitute for cars. As a number of transportation experts attest, we have to remain mindful of the “Prius Effect,” where energy-efficient cars potentially undercut the appeal of public transportation options like light-rail. Moreover, urban sprawl may make the convenience of light-rail too logistically difficult without the availability of cars. Moving past this conundrum requires the pursuit of more cooperative partnerships between light-rail and advocates of alternate forms of transportation, such as bicycle groups and private companies like Zipcar, which offers on-demand, short-term auto rentals for car-free enthusiasts.

3. The biggest influencers on light-rail ridership will continue to be traffic jams and rising fuel costs. The trump cards for light-rail will be convenience and safety. Addressing the latter two items will help overcome the former two complaints.

4. Light-rail must take a page from the coffeehouse book and get on the Wi-Fi bandwagon. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority in San Francisco is among several national transit systems that have announced plans to offer Wi-Fi access to commuters. BART’s initiative, projected to be completed in 2011, will offer high-speed mobile access for 104 miles of track and 43 stations. Rumor has it that some Bay Area employers may offer work-hour credit to their employees for being online and actively working during their light-rail commute.

5. As light-rail gains popularity, there will be a correlating increase for more train manufacturing and maintenance facilities. Good news on the jobs front, as our nation crawls out of the recession. One company is already making its mark in this area: Siemens. It has the only permanent light-rail manufacturing facility on U.S. soil. In fact, one out of every three North American light-rail vehicles is produced at the company’s Sacramento plant, and its list of cities served is impressive: Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston, Charlotte, Norfolk, Edmonton, Calgary, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. Siemens offers more good news: plans to add upwards of 200 jobs in the next 18 months.

The future of light-rail is rife with possibilities in terms of growth and sustainability. What remains certain is its place at the table when discussions turn to economic and environmental benefits to society.

Several years have passed since I last visited Charlottesville, Virginia. But I think often about the magnificent pedestrian mall that graces their downtown. Known as the “Historic Downtown Mall,” it is the area’s heart of civic activity, featuring more than 120 shops and restaurants located in pristinely maintained historic buildings surrounding Old Main Street. Eclectic in feel, it in many ways reflects the ethos and vibe that define this university town.

Historically, pedestrian malls had great appeal as centers of community vitality. Their beginnings date back to 1959, when Kalamazoo, Michigan, became the first American city to adopt one for its downtown area. From there, the pedestrian mall concept gained momentum as 220 cities followed suit, closing downtown thoroughfares to traffic and paving them with cobblestones. With retail establishments and eateries serving as points of attraction for residents and visitors, foot traffic became abundant.

Today we are seeing a reversal of this trend. Urban experts point out that pedestrian malls have lost their luster, and as business activity has dried up, many of these streets have become barren and unsafe. In response, cities such as the aforementioned Kalamazoo have reopened their walkable streets to vehicular traffic, in line with a popular belief that automobile activity serves as a magnet for economic activity. “There is certainly evidence to suggest that the reintroduction of cars to these malls boosts economic development,” says Brad Segal, president of Progressive Urban Management Associates, a Denver-based consulting firm specializing in downtown and community development.  “Our experience has been that retail tends to work better when there is vehicle access, visibility and parking near storefronts.”

Storm Cunningham, CEO of Resolution Fund, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that provides resources for the renewal of communities and regions, takes the opposite approach. He believes cars should be reintroduced only as a last resort. “I think the failure of so many pedestrian malls has been primarily due to lousy planning, lousy choice of streets, lousy timing, and/or lousy design, rather than any basic fault of the concept. City leaders and planners are often quick to undervalue other processes that would help make these pedestrian mall assets a success.”

There are examples to prove right the positions of both Segal and Cunningham. Chicago’s State Street serves as a successful pedestrian-vehicular mall transformation. Recalibrated into an exclusively walkable corridor in 1979, fortunes there slowly declined, sapping the street of its economic activity and leaving it barren and unsafe. The city reopened the street to traffic in 1996, and the area is now thriving once again, with the reinvigorated Marshall Field’s store serving as the street’s flagship retailer.

In Sacramento, the pedestrian mall on K Street is the topic of debate. The conversation concerns a proposed initiative to reopen the streets to cars. Closed to vehicular traffic 40 years ago, the area is now suffering mightily for it, replete with abandoned storefronts, panhandlers, and trash-encumbered streetscapes. One of the nation’s few pedestrian malls with light-rail trains running down its center, K Street is locally considered the spine of the city’s downtown. One major question is how trains, bikes, cars and pedestrians will coexist together. “I’ve yet to see a pedestrian mall and light-rail configuration work successfully,” says Segal. “Add cars to the equation and you have an even greater logistical challenge.”

Blighted Streetscape Along K Street in Sacramento

Blighted Streetscape Along K Street in Sacramento

Challenges notwithstanding, the movement towards returning cars to pedestrian malls has a great deal of momentum behind it. However, there are still a number of holdouts in terms of exclusively walkable streetscapes. Third Street mall in Santa Monica represents one success story, although much of its foot traffic is attributed to a highly targeted tourist market. Riverside, California, is in the midst of a renewal effort for its pedestrian-friendly downtown, with the goal being to rebrand it as a destination hub. And plans are afoot for a Times Square pedestrian mall in New York, to better accommodate the 350,000 walkers and bikers who daily frequent the area.

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

As a counterpoint to current unemployment news, I am among those Americans that actually has a relatively well-paying job, with benefits. It even offers some semblance of meaning and enjoyment. However, I make a sacrifice each day for my employment: an 80-mile, round-trip commute from home to work.

So imagine my angst when some rumblings began to surface on Capital Hill about a proposed Vehicle Mileage Tax for our nation’s drivers. Talk of this tax has been brewing for some time among Congressional leaders seeking solutions to the depleted Federal Highway Tax Fund. This movement has been largely fueled by the National Surface Transportation Administration, which has encouraged Congress to re-evaluate how the government pays for transportation infrastructure–calling for an immediate 10-cents per gallon boost in the federal gas tax as well as an eventual transition to the mileage tax.

There is no denying that our nationwide transportation infrastructure is crumbling, due to Federal Highway Tax funding shortages. In fact by some estimates, real spending on highways has plunged by 50 percent since the late 1950’s, even though there has been a massive uptick in vehicle miles traveled over the course of time.

Why then is there a shortfall in funds for roads and highways? It’s a simple equation that goes like this: Over the past 10 or so years, people have been driving fewer miles, often in more fuel-efficient cars. Combine those statistics with the fact that the 18.4 cents per gallon tax — which directly supports the highway tax fund — has not changed since 1993 and you have a perfect storm for a funding crisis.

The solution being bantered about is interesting: equip all U.S. vehicles with a GPS monitoring device to track vehicle miles traveled. Based on these miles and other potential variables such as vehicle size, weight and consumption (i.e., a gas-guzzling Hummer would pay more than a fuel-sipping Prius), the driver would be assessed a tax that would go directly into refilling the federal highway fund coffers.

So what does this mean for long-distance commuters like me? Essentially we’re screwed. Why? Because we live in a region without integrated, alternative modes of transportation. And that my friends is the crux of the transportation issue in this country — the lack of viable transportation options to address this growing issue.

I would gladly take light rail for my daily commute. The problem is, it’s not a viable option in terms of connections and timeliness. One friend suggested that I bike to work…that is, until she remembered that this would represent a 40-mile trek, each way. What about carpooling? What  would it look like to carpool with, say, three other people jammed shoulder to shoulder in my coupe. Calculating everyone’s portion of the vehicle tax would be like splitting the bill four ways at a restaurant.

Quite frankly, I’m a bit jealous of my friends in Chicago who can ditch the car as well as the cost of auto insurance because of the Windy City’s wonderful public transportation system. I was reminded of this on a recent trip there when I took a round-trip ride on the Orange Line from Midway Airport to the Loop, the heart of downtown’s business district. Roundtrip cost: $6.00.

Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan, hit the nail on the head when he said that 35% of our nation’s wealth is invested in building a drivable suburban landscape. With gas inching higher yet again, the heyday of the suburbs has passed. Must we invest even more in this fading lifestyle? Instituting a vehicle tax proposal such as this will punish commuters for a situation out of their control.

What we need are viable commuting alternatives — high-speed rail, express buses, and both local and express-route light rail options. These are the long-term solutions to our infrastructure problem.

Reading Nicholas Taleb’s bestselling book The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable was pause for reflection about what’s happening in the transportation industry these days. A Black Swan, according to Taleb, is a highly improbable event that occurs consistent with the following variables: it is unpredictable; it carries with it a massive impact; it leads to explanations after the fact that attempt to make it appear less random, and more predictable than it actually was. Taleb goes on to imply that errors in planning and strategy often occur as a result of focusing too heavily on those things that are predictable while underestimating the power of the less obvious. Taleb’s point by analogy is that no matter how many White Swans exist in the world, there are always “Black” ones that can create a seismic shift in our worldview.

This is the scenario that appears to be playing out in the transportation sector as fuel prices continue their unprecedented upward trajectory. So, you ask, what is the the Black Swan? Can you say “soaring fuel costs.” The result? Commuters are switching from cars to public transportation in record numbers; domestic airline carriers are reducing flights as well as raising fares and fees; fuel efficient vehicles are flying off of car lots.

So what does all of this mean? I believe we are beginning to see a fundamental shift in how American’s view and use transportation in this country. Case in point–Public transportation which had been perceived in some circles as primarily an option of choice for blue collar, working class populations is now becoming the means-to-an-end for many middle and upper class Americans. The American Public Transportation Association, in fact, estimates that Americans took 2.6 billion trips on public transportation during the first three months of this year, an uptick of 85 million more trips compared with the same period last year. In the meantime, American’s drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles from April 2007 to April 2008 according to recent figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Another profound shift that we are seeing is that American’s are moving back into central cities in large numbers– a reversal from the suburban sprawl trend that we have been seeing for decades. Much of this is tied to the desire, on the part of many, to reduce commute times, by bringing their work and home into closer proximity. This shift opens up many options in terms of alternative forms for commuting, such as bicycling, walking, and light-rail–all positive steps in terms of reducing our carbon footprint as well as creating healthier communities.

I believe that the most significant “Black Swan” that we are likely to see in terms of transportation is the end of the airline industry as we know it. Rapidly rising airfares and add- on-fees are making it virtually impossible for the average middle income American to afford to book a flight. This trend is likely to worsen in light of flight industry estimates that domestic carriers will reduce their number of flights by at least 10% before year end.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in the midst of plummeting airline fortunes Sacramento International Airport is embarking on the largest capital improvement project in Sacramento County history, a $1.27 billion renovation of its terminal B, including a new parking lot, hotel, restaurants, and light-rail service. In the promotional brochure for this project it says that the primary purpose of the “Terminal Modernization Program” is to “meet the facility needs necessary to support airline passenger growth.” Can you say “Black Swan.”