Monday, September 12, 2011

Federal transportation funding and land use

With proposals for a new federal transportation bill percolating through Congress, it is worth reflecting on one of the larger ironies in the current system of federal transportation project funding. Contrary to popular belief, there is actually substantial precedent within the federal Department of Transportation for the linkage of land use and transportation investments. But that linkage is used as an analytical criterion only by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) under the New Starts program, not by the Federal Highway Adminstration (FHWA) for the federally funded highway projects which have far greater cumulative impacts on the form and sustainability of cities.

As pointed out originally by Edward Beimborn and Robert Puentes in the Brookings Institution’s valuable 2005 book Taking the High Road: A Metropolitan Agenda for Transportation Reform, this is one of a long series of criteria that are rigorously applied to transit projects seeking federal funding, while federal highway funds are virtual entitlements, apportioned to the states by formula with minimal project-level evaluation. The criteria applied to New Starts projects include mobility improvements, environmental benefits, operating efficiencies, cost effectiveness, transit-supportive land use patterns, and even anticipated future land use patterns. Within these general criteria, FTA applies a series of specific measures, which include several that directly serve regional smart growth, such as:
  • Change in regional pollutant emissions
  • Change in regional energy consumption
  • EPA air quality designation
  • Existing land use
  • Transit-supportive plans and policies
  • Low-income households served
  • Employment near stations
    Application of such criteria to federal highway projects, needless to say, would dramatically change the profile of the projects that get approved. Necessary as these criteria are, their application only to transit projects further hampers the development of those projects relative to highways. Furthermore, some transportation funding experts argue that the culture of the FTA is one that seeks to punch holes in project proposals and find reasons not to dedicate scarce funds to applicants, whereas the FHWA is seen as a problem-solver on behalf of its applicants’ project proposals. While undoubtedly a by-product of the relative funding levels available, this compounds the double-standard.

    The more positive flipside of this dynamic, though, is the simple fact that there is precedent within the DOT for the application of such criteria to transportation projects. Were such criteria ever to be required for highway projects, as they must eventually be if we are to achieve sustainability, FHWA could learn a lot from how FTA reviews projects. To get there, we will first have to stop apportioning highway funds to states by formula and instead make highway project proponents compete for funds as transit proponents now must. We should also create processes by which transit projects can be considered directly as potential alternatives to highway projects (a comparative evaluation process that does not currently exist) and enshrine a mandatory preference for the transit projects whenever impartial analysis documents equal or superior overall benefits.

    Scofflaws by Design

    I recently attended an event on bicycle facilities in San Francisco at which Andy Thornley, Policy Director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, gave a great presentation on how our challenge is to design bicycle facilities that work not just for serious cyclists, but for everyone. In order to draw this distinction, he showed a few slides distinguishing between people on bicycles—businessmen and women in work clothes on their way to the office, a mother toting her kids on an Xtracycle—and spandex-clad racers and tattooed bike messengers. One of these compared a “scofflaw,” riding the wrong way up a one-way street, to a “lawmaker,” bike-riding Supervisor Eric Mar. I nodded in agreement. After all, in order to meet our climate goals, we’re going need a significant shift away from driving toward other modes, including bicycling, and cycling is never going to take a bite out of driving unless we re-design our streets to appeal to normal, law-abiding citizens who are currently intimidated by the prospect of riding in traffic.

    Then, on a ride the other day, I ran a red light. And not just any red light: it was a red light at the intersection of Scott and Fell Streets, which is located along one of San Francisco’s most popular bike routes, the Wiggle. 

    The city has done a lot of work to improve this intersection for cyclists. Fell is a busy one-way street running east with a bike lane on the left side of the street, and the city has striped a dedicated left turn lane for the many cyclists who head north on Scott and turn into the bike lane on Fell to head toward Golden Gate Park. However, the city overlooked a crucial detail: the light at Scott and Fell doesn’t stay green for traffic on Scott very long, and there is often a queue of southbound cars heading straight through the intersection that makes it difficult or impossible for cyclists to turn left during the green cycle.

    Most riders seem to do what I did that day, and took an illegal left on red. When I looked around, most of my fellow lawbreakers didn’t look like the bike punk scofflaw in Andy’s presentation. Instead, they were what I’ll call “scofflaws by design:” riders who are generally law-abiding, but who end up breaking the rules on poorly designed streets.

    This distinction between illegal behavior where the traveler is to blame and illegal behavior where the designer is at fault has a precedent in the world of transportation. Traffic engineers distinguish between the posted speed limit and the design speed of a road. The former is a number on a sign, while the latter refers to a set of physical variables, such as the sharpness of curves and the length of sight lines, which determine the maximum speed at which a vehicle can be operated. Though police can hand out the occasional tickets to drivers who exceed the speed limit, if you really want to slow down traffic, you have to change the design speed.

    Likewise, if you want to get normal people bicycling, you have to design your bicycle facilities for normal people. The City of San Francisco has determined that the design speed for utilitarian bicycle travel is a steady 13 MPH, and has timed the signals on an eight-block stretch of bike-friendly Valencia Street accordingly. Contrast that to California Street in Berkeley, which is designated as a bicycle boulevard, but has stop signs every block or two, requiring cyclists using the street to either expend much more energy and travel slower, or roll through the stop signs. The former option isn’t that appealing, particularly to normal people who have places to go and don’t necessarily want to show up all sweaty, so they become scofflaws by design.

    Once I started noticing scofflaws by design, I realized that they’re everywhere—rolling through stop signs, maneuvering through crosswalks in complicated intersections, and hopping onto the sidewalk when a bike lane disappears on a busy street. While I wouldn’t necessarily argue against a police officer ticketing any individual cyclist who risks taking the law into her own hands, I do think that planners, engineers, and designers need to recognize the distinction between plain old scofflaws and scofflaws by design. Understanding where our bike facilities fail normal, law-abiding people is an important first step in designing cities that get more normal, law-abiding people riding.

    If you have examples of bicycle facilities that encourage scofflaws by design, please reply to this post with pictures or links to Google Map views. I’m interested in collecting other examples of cases where our cities turn normal cyclists into lawbreakers.

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Consistency is the key to understanding SB 375

    At public workshops in California’s major metropolitan areas, regional agencies have been getting residents’ feedback on how their regions should grow as they prepare to create the first round of sustainable communities strategies (SCSs) under SB 375. While it’s critical to engage the public in these decisions, it’s also difficult to know how these land use plans matter. After all, any local government will be quick to remind you that regional agencies don’t have any say over land use changes. Many of the planning experts that I interviewed for our report on SB 375 implementation were unequivocal about what does matter: whether the bill leads MPOs, the regional agencies in charge of implementing SB 375, to channel more transportation dollars toward supporting growth in areas where people drive less through their regional transportation plans (RTPs), the multi-decade transportation plans for which SCSs provide the land use scenario. 

    The Air Resources Board (ARB), the state agency that oversees the SCS process, recently released its draft methodology for determining whether an SCS meets regional greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. ARB’s methodology focuses on examining whether the different land use and transportation measures identified in an SCS indeed add up to the GHG reductions specified in the target. This is an important question, but I’d add another, even more important question to the list: do the transportation projects in the RTP support the land use pattern identified in the SCS?

    A more succinct way of asking this in transportation-speak is, “is the plan internally consistent?” and RTPs are required to be internally consistent. However, the way that MPOs usually create RTPs doesn’t do much service to the notion of internal consistency. Here’s how it typically works: an MPO creates a land use scenario through a combination of modeling and stakeholder outreach, and this scenario becomes an input in the computer travel model that the MPO uses to analyze transportation investments. This approach accounts for land use’s effect on transportation, and the travel model will show that not a lot of people will use a road or transit line that connects two areas where there aren’t a lot of jobs or housing. However, transportation can also influence land use if people or jobs move to take advantage of new transportation facilities, and this approach is not well suited to analyzing these reciprocal effects, because the land use scenario can’t change once it’s entered into the travel model.

    The draft RTP/SCS for San Diego that was recently released by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), illustrates the problems with this approach to planning. Its land use and transportation elements each reduce GHGs, but they do so in mutually incompatible ways. The SCS calls for substantial growth in neighborhoods that are close to the city of San Diego and are well served by transit, where residents drive less.  Meanwhile, the RTP funds several freeway expansions on the metropolitan fringe, which reduces congestion and leads to more efficient vehicle travel.  The problem is that these freeway expansions will likely induce growth in the suburbs, drawing people and jobs away from the neighborhoods that the SCS targets for growth and undermining the transit investments that are needed to support new development in these neighborhoods.  Many groups, including TransForm, the state Office of Planning and Research, and us here at CREC, picked up on these inconsistencies, and we didn’t need fancy computer models to do it; in fact, the way that SANDAG reports its modeling results seem designed to obscure the fact that the agency isn’t putting its money where its mouth is.  All it took was a little common sense and the time to slog through a rather opaque document. 

    And therein lies the good news for ARB, which is currently working to shore up its travel modeling knowledge in preparation for evaluating all of these SCSs: in the short term, examining these plans for internal consistency won’t take a lot of technical work.  ARB simply has to include a discussion of induced growth in its SCS methodology and ask MPOs about how the transportation projects that they fund support the land use pattern identified in the SCS.  In the short and medium term, simple quantitative answers based on the growing number of studies on the economic effects of transportation investments should suffice.  In the long term, ARB and the California Transportation Commission need to outline exactly how they expect travel models to account for induced demand and induced growth.  But what’s really important is that ARB signals to MPOs that it is going to go beyond a thumbs-up-or-down approach to evaluating SCSs and begin to examine whether their transportation investments are consistent with how they spend their money.  After all, these investments are where the rubber meets the road, the transit meets the tracks, and the feet meet the pavement.