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Foxx has the makings of a great Transportation Secretary

President Obama yesterday nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the next Secretary of Transportation. If Foxx's experience in Charlotte is any indication, he'll make a strong choice.

Charlotte streetcar construction. Photo by Reconnecting America.

During his nomination press conference, Foxx said "cities have had no better friend" than the US Department of Transportation under outgoing Secretary Ray LaHood, and that if confirmed he would hope to "uphold the standards" LaHood set. That's great news.

The fact that Foxx comes from a major central city is also a huge benefit. It means he understands urban needs, which aren't just highways.

Charlotte may not be New York, but it's made great strides in the right direction. The city's first rail line opened a few years ago, and a streetcar line is under construction now. Charlotte also gained bronze-level status as a bike friendly community in 2008, and launched bike sharing in 2012.

Foxx has been a strong advocate for urban rail, especially streetcars. He knows transportation and land use are tied at the hip, and has fought repeated attacks on Charlotte's streetcar by former Mayor and current North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

He's also worked as an attorney for bus manufacturer DesignLine.

Foxx also knows that state Departments of Transportation can sometimes be part of the problem. At the federal level, it's common for USDOT to delegate responsibilities and funding to state DOTs, under the assumption the states have a better understanding of local needs. But state DOTs aren't any more local than any huge centralized government. And since they usually focus on highways, the result is that federal dollars mostly go to highways as well.

Since Foxx fought with the state over Charlotte's streetcar, he knows that funneling everything through state DOTs means states hold the cards. He knows that can hurt cities.

Finally, Foxx hired Arlington, VA's former county manager, Ron Carlee, to run Charlotte's city government. Foxx would have heard about Arlington's reputation for progressive transportation planning during the hiring process, and presumably counted it in Carlee's favor.

Of course, no one can really predict what kind of Secretary Foxx will be. When progressive champion Ray LaHood was first tapped for the job, the blogosphere worried his history as a Republican from rural Illinois meant he'd be a status quo highway builder.

But we do know that Foxx has made a priority of building transit in his home city, and has had to fight to make it happen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


A lot rides on how USDOT defines "congestion"

Congress has done its job, such as it is, and passed a transportation bill. Now it's handed off the policymaking to USDOT, which must issue a raft of rules, definitions, and guidance to accompany the new law, known as MAP-21. According to sources with intimate knowledge of this process, much depends on how DOT decides to measure congestion.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik on Flickr.

New performance measures for the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program (CMAQ)and quite possibly for the entire national highway system (depending how they define "roadway performance")require a working definition of congestion.

If the agency follows the prevailing orthodoxy, states could be rewarded for wasteful highway spending. If it adopts better measurements, smarter investments and less wasteful spending will follow.

The CMAQ measures will also require a definition of "cost-effectiveness," a related but somewhat separate can of worms.

Graphic from CEOs for Cities.

The above graphic shows the wrong way to measure travel performance. The "Travel Time Index" awards a better score to Charlotte than Chicago, even though commutes in Chicago are shorter, because drivers in Charlotte spend a higher percentage of their time in free-flowing traffic.

USDOT should include distance driven in any measure of congestion

Performance measures in the MAP-21 law have been criticized for being toothless, since many of them don't have consequences attached. However, there is still the possibility that state performance rankings could be made public. And a spotlight on state failures could be an effective way to encourage good decisions.

Streetsblog asked Joe Cortright for his advice to DOT officials struggling to define congestion. Cortright is an economist and senior policy advisor for CEOs for Cities. In 2010, the organization commissioned him to write Driven Apart, a critique of prevailing methods of measuring congestion. His words of wisdom for USDOT: "Don't make the mistake the Texas Transportation Institute makes."

TTI's Urban Mobility Report, released every year, invariably gives top honors to places that have overbuilt road capacity. The institute measures congestion only by looking at the degree to which traffic slows down people's commutes. The problem with that, Cortright says, is that "you end up rewarding places that encourage people to drive longer and longer distances, and then you look at those long distances that they're traveling, and say because they're moving at a relatively higher speed much of the time that they're driving, that the system is somehow performing better."

Over the past few years, USDOT has been very deliberately working hand-in-glove with HUD and the EPA to treat transportation and land use as one cohesive system. It only makes sense that the agency use the same ethic in measuring roadway performance and congestion. By doing so, DOT would have to acknowledge that a long commute along miles and miles of free-flowing highways is no bargain compared to a short commute in dense traffic, not to mention an even shorter commute on transit.

Clark Williams-Derry, research director for the sustainability-focused Sightline Institute, suggests that congestion may simply be the wrong thing to measure. "Focusing on congestion is like, in a basketball game, focusing only on the number of assists you get," Williams-Derry said. "It's an interesting fact, but it doesn't tell you the final score."

But people treat this one piece of the picture as if it's "the whole story," he says. Why not measure how long it takes to get from place to place? Or how much it costs? After all, a major argument against congestionand the reason that congestion reduction is elevated to a national priorityis that time spent stuck in traffic is lost productivity, which adds up at a national level. But the TTI method actually masks how projects affect total travel time, and wouldn't help measure productivity gains or losses.

The upshot is that following the same methods as TTI's Urban Mobility Report to set performance goals under MAP-21 would be a huge mistake. "It would focus resources on projects that are sprawl-oriented, that encourage decentralized development," Cortright said. "You can raise your performance on that measure most by having people drive more, as long as they're driving faster."

Cortright recommends that DOT put more emphasis on vehicle miles traveled than travel speed, and notes that this is especially important when it comes to measuring the cost-effectiveness of projects that are supposed to mitigate congestion and improve air quality. That's another tricky definition DOT is going to have to figure out.

It's not cost-effective for USDOT to encourage projects that induce driving

When DOT decides how to judge the cost-effectiveness of a CMAQ project, they can either focus on the CM (Congestion Mitigation) or the AQ (Air Quality), but those aren't the same thing. "It's unambiguous that if people drive fewer miles there's going to be less pollution," Cortright said. "A lot of the quote-unquote 'congestion reduction' projects essentially encourage more VMT."

Widening roads induces more people to drive, which makes it a poor method to address congestion. Image from Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

"There's this pervasive mythology that our pollution problems are chiefly caused by people having to idle in traffic," he continued. "There's no evidence for that, and the evidence there is suggests that if you reduce congestion, people actually drive further, and that more than offsets the benefits of less idling."

In addition, Williams-Derry pointed out that not all congestion is stop-and-go traffic. Congestion that consists merely of slower but smoothly flowing traffic actually improves air quality, since cars work more efficiently at slower speeds. That's what makes CMAQ a tricky program to judge, since its two goals are sometimes at odds with each other.

If DOT is going to measure cost-effectiveness, Cortright and William-Derry say, it needs to think like a business. Starbucks would never build a second café next door so that it could move the line faster at 9:00 a.m. and then have it sit empty the rest of the day. Building more roadway capacity to handle peak-of-the-peak traffic makes just as little sense.

Cost-effectiveness also can't be measured without examining what are known as "externalities"the costs of driving that are passed on to the public. "The existing gasoline tax doesn't even cover the maintenance on the highway system that we have now," Cortright said. "It doesn't reflect the economic losses to crashes, it doesn't reflect the economic externalities associated with the environmental effects of burning all this gasoline and putting carbon in the atmosphere, and it doesn't reflect the foreign policy and military costs of being so dependent on foreign oil."

"If I were USDOT, I'd try to add in, in figuring cost-effectiveness, the cost of all those other subsidies to automobiles," he added.

There are still people inside and outside DOTincluding some of the authors of MAP-21 inside the halls of Congressfor whom the only cost-effective transportation solution is to expand roads so cars can move faster. Not only would this do nothing to solve the problem of congestion, it would actually exacerbate the air pollution that the CMAQ program is designed to address.

By being thoughtful about how to define success in the CMAQ program specifically, and roadway performance generally, USDOT can have a tremendous and lasting impact on whether our transportation system is sustainable and sensibleor whether it drives us off a cliff.


Roads by Anacostia Metro among worst in DC for pedestrians

Narrow sidewalks, a 5-way intersection, and missing median strips and crosswalks are just some of the problems around the Anacostia Metro. A project funded by several federal agencies aims to find solutions to what EPA officials called the city's most dangerous intersections for pedestrians.

Street in front of Anacostia Metro. Photo by Old Anacostia on Flickr.

The Anacostia Metro opened in December 1991 as the southern­most Green Line Station, bunched between I-295 and Suitland Parkway. Designers expected it to be a park-and-ride commuter station. But subsequent stations in Prince George's County quickly undercut the demand for parking at Anacostia.

Meanwhile, nearly 70% of Ward 8 households don't own a car, making the design incompatible with surrounding communities.

The original design made pedestrian access an afterthought. In the two decades since, few improvements have been made to increase pedestrian safety around the station. Coming and going is perilous for the large swaths of schoolchildren and seniors in the area.

Anacostia was selected as one of 5 capital city communities across the country to participate in Greening America's Capitals, a project between the Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and US Department of Transportation.

The program will "produce schematic designs and exciting illustrations intended to catalyze or complement a larger planning process for the pilot neighborhood."

The station is "badly in need of attention," according to Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning, who reiterated that improvements would "complement other [ongoing] projects" in the neighborhood. The station lacks a distinctive character and, although, within short walking distance of the Anacostia River, there are no direct access paths to the waterfront.

Top: Current dangerous condition of Firth Sterling Avenue SE and Howard Road Suitland Parkway SE. Bottom: Rendering of a possible safer configuration with a refuge median. Photos by the author showing slides presented at the meeting.

To improve pedestrian safety, residents suggested footbridges, wayfinding signage, refuge medians, speed humps, and better street lighting. A slide presentation contrasted the present condition of Howard Road, Firth Sterling Avenue, and the 5-point intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, Howard Road, and Sheridan Road with renderings that envisioned what the future could look like.

James Magruder, a native of Ward 8 who works with Washington Parks and People, agreed that the intersection of Howard Road and Firth Sterling was in dire need of attention. "Over the years that corner has been the site of many accidents that have been fatal" to pedestrians, said Magruder.

Another way to improve safety in the area is to develop some of the many vacant properties around the station. WMATA owns one large vacant field on the other side of Howard Road, and both the Williams and Fenty administrations pushed to relocate WMATA's headquarters here, though without success.

Brenda Richardson, who works for Councilmember Marion Barry, claimed that WMATA has been unresponsive to their inquiries about the station area. In response, an official from WMATA who had been sitting in the back of the room said Metro is conducting an "initial evaluation to determine what the issues are" around safety.

Some east of the river denizens were skeptical that the studies would lead to change. "We're studied out," said one resident who attends similar meetings weekly. "Everyone's studying us to get money. Then the plans get sat on for 20 years."

"The worse case scenario is this doesn't happen," an EPA official admitted. "This only happens if all parties agree."

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