Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Tanya Snyder

Tanya Snyder is editor of Streetsblog Capitol Hill, which covers issues of national transportation policy. She previously covered Congress for Pacifica and public radio. She lives car-free in a transit-oriented and bike-friendly neighborhood of Washington, DC. 

Transit


Chevy Chase hires a powerful Congressional chairman's brother to lobby against the Purple Line

In addition to some recent high-profile spins through the revolving door, we now have a new example of ethically questionable influence peddling in Washington: A powerful Congressman's brother working to bring down a transit line in Maryland.


Robert Shuster. Photo from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) wields the gavel of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committeea post his father held, with great success, before him. Now Shuster's brother, Robert, has been hired by the town of Chevy Chase, Maryland, to help them oppose the construction of a light-rail line.

The Purple Line concept has been under development since 1989, with the state beginning work in earnest in early 2008. The principal opponent to the line, the Columbia Country Club, has dropped its opposition and promised not to bring any lawsuits as a result of a deal to adjust the route.

The Purple Line has faced countless obstacles and defeated them all. Rep. Shuster's brother now has $20,000 a month of Chevy Chase's taxpayer dollars to try to come up one the transit line can't overcome.

According to the Washington Post, Chevy Chase hired Robert Shuster's law firm last month, so far paying a total of $40,000 for two months. The town council is now deciding whether to move from a month-to-month arrangement to an 18-month contract, still for $20,000 a month.

The Post notes that the firm, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, lists Robert Shuster first as one of four lawyers on the project.

No worries, though: Shuster won't be lobbying. The Post quotes Mayor Pat Burda as saying she didn't even know about the Shuster connection when she first contacted the law firm, and that the town is focused on the Federal Transit Administration, not Congress. She said it in no uncertain terms: "We're not lobbying Congress."

But the pro-Purple Line Action Committee for Transit has found a Congressional lobbying disclosure form from Shuster's firm that "states explicitly that Shuster and his partners are lobbying the House of Representatives and Senate for the Town of Chevy Chase." The form says Shuster and two others will be lobbying on urban development, transportation, and "government issues."

"I do not and will not lobby my brother," Robert Shuster pledged in a statement to the Post. But whether or not Shuster lobbies his brother may be beside the point. A Shuster calling up a member of Congress is going to get his phone call answered, and "in Washington, that's your first goal," said Purple Line advocate Tracey Johnstone.

But what does Chevy Chase seek to get out of Congress anyway? Maryland is in the market for $900 million in federal aid to round out funding for the Purple Line, but they're looking to get it from a New Starts full-funding grant agreement from the FTA, not Congress.

Undoubtedly the town of Chevy Chase, ably represented by the good people at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, will petition the FTA to reject the MTA's request for a New Starts grant. Purple Line opponents always find some legit-sounding reason to block it: endangered amphipods (except, oops, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it's no problem), impact on a nearby trail, the view from a tony golf course clubhouse. They'll certainly come up with a good story to tell the FTA.

But the lobbying disclosure form makes clear that they'll be taking that message to Congress, too. After all, FTA only makes recommendations for New Starts grants. House and Senate appropriations committees make the final decision.

Sure, that's a different committee from the one the other Shuster heads, but "if you think the appropriations committee isn't checking with the chair of T&I about what they're putting in a New Starts grant, you don't know how Congress works," said Joshua Schank of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Earmarks were eliminated in MAP-21, and if that ban continues, there would be no place for an explicit Purple Line funding authorization in the next bill. But there are some possibilities for the next bill to have an impact.

First, Congress could go back to earmarks, though it's unlikely. Second, Congress could make it clear, outside of bill language, that the region is expected to use its urbanized area formula grant money on the Purple Linethough that's a tough demand to make without offering new money. Third, Congress could underfund New Starts altogether, which is entirely possible and even likely, which could hobble the agency's ability to fund the Purple Line. Or, fourth, Congress could slip an amendment into the bill that targets the Purple Linerequiring more studies on endangered amphipods, for example.

Either way, it never hurts to have friends in high places in Washington.

Cross-posted from Streetsblog DC.

Public Spaces


Congressional impasse shuts down DC's trails

DC bicycle commuters woke up this morning to find that one popular rail-trail was closed due to the government shutdown, which took effect at midnight.


Some cyclists are ignoring the barriers erected by the National Park Service and using the Capital Crescent Trail despite the shutdown. Photo by someone named Ricky, who is friends with DC Bike Ambassador Pete Beers.

The Capital Crescent Trail is the most heavily-used rail-trail in the United States, with more than a million users a year. Not just a weekend pleasure-ride spot, the CCT is thick with bicycles during morning rush hour as people use it as a safer and more pleasant bike-commuting alternative to DC's congested streets. Now, the government would give them no choicethough the Washington Area Bicyclist Association reports that there's little enforcement and intrepid bike commuters are using the trail despite the barriers.

Since this important bike route is managed by the National Park Service, it is part of the vast collateral damage of the embarrassing scenario unfolding on Capitol Hill. WABA warned yesterday that "all or part of the heavily-commuted Rock Creek Trail, Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, and George Washington Memorial Trail are on NPS property" and could also be shut down, but early reports seem to indicate that they're still open.

The 185-mile C&O Canal trail, which runs from DC's Georgetown neighborhood to Cumberland, is also closed.


The 185-mile C&O Canal Trail, which begins in Washington, DC, is closed. Photo tweeted by Bike Arlington.

All roads are open during the government shutdown, except some leading into national parks, which are closed. In DC, this would include Rock Creek Parkway and other roads through the largest urban national park in the countrybut, curiously, that key car-commuter route is still open. However, Rock Creek Park's Beach Drive is closed to car traffic during the shutdown, so people who enjoy riding their bikes there on weekends, when drivers are normally kept out, will enjoy riding it today. That's one nice trade-off for losing the CCT.

WABA learned about the possible Capital Crescent Trail shutdown yesterday, and bollards were put in place at the entrances to prepare to block trail traffic. The sections of the CCT within Montgomery County remain open, since they are owned by the county, not NPS.

DC has a disproportionate number of city parks under NPS, but certainly the shutdown will prevent people from using other popular off-road trails around the country, like this one in the Philly area. Where else are cyclists and pedestrian commuters being impacted?

Crossposted at DC Streetsblog.

Roads


President Obama proposes a "fix-it-first" program for roads

In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama launched a "Fix-It-First" program to repair aging infrastructure and put people to work.


The "enhanced" State of the Union. Image from whitehouse.gov.

The president even took an indirect jab at officials who would rather build new than fix existing infrastructure, saying, "I know you want these job-creating projects in your district; I've seen all those ribbon-cuttings."

So, tonight, I propose a "Fix-It-First" program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

Obama has proposed infrastructure investment many times before, and always with a heavy tilt toward repair and maintenance, but never such an explicit mandate to "fix it first." By keeping existing transportation infrastructure in good condition, officials can save the public from the expense of unnecessary road expansion projects.

However, he did give a nod to some new infrastructure he'd like to see: notably, high-speed rail.

"Ask any CEO where they'd rather locate and hire," Obama said, "a country with deteriorating roads and bridges or one with high-speed rail and Internet, high-tech schools, self-healing power grids."

The president also proposed a "Partnership to Rebuild America" to attract private capital for infrastructure investment "to make sure taxpayers don't shoulder the whole burden."

In his speech, Obama spent far more time talking about energy and climate change than transportation.

American-produced wind, solar, and natural gas topped his energy platform, but he wasn't above bragging, "We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years." He delighted in the "natural gas boom" and the fact that his administration has been "cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits."

He calls it his "all-of-the-above plan."

He also asked Congress to come up with a "bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change," like the Climate Stewardship Act, a cap-and-trade bill John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a decade ago.

Then he hedged against Congress's ability to break through gridlockespecially on environmental issues. "If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will," he said, pledging to take executive actions to reduce pollution, adapt to climate change, and pursue more sustainable sources of energy. He highlighted the urgency:

Now, it's true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science and act before it's too late.

His goal: cutting in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years. Not the energy used, just the energy wasted. I'm not sure how he defines and quantifies wasted energy.

Read his entire speech here or watch the enhanced version, with explanatory graphics, here.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Public Spaces


Seniors want more livable places, and AARP shows how

Oahu, Hawaii should be the ideal place to walk for transportation, but it has the nation's highest pedestrian fatality rate for senior citizensmore than twice the next-highest state. So the state enacted a Complete Streets policy in 2009, seeking to "reasonably accommodate" everyone"pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, motorists, and persons of all ages and abilities"on public roadways.


Photo from Dan Burden, Walkable & Livable Communities Institute, via AARP.

California, meanwhile, seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, passed a law in 2008 integrating transportation and land use planning at all levels, leading to "more transit and fewer auto-dependent communities" and less "suburban development that is far from retail and employment centers."

AARP collected these and many, many more case studies of livability initiatives in a report last year on state policies and practices that enable seniors to "age in place."

The organization says nearly 90 percent of people over age 65 say they want to stay in their home as long as possible. If the graying baby boomers reject the institutionalized old age that has been the fate of so many, communities will have to do a better job accommodating the needs of older residents.

In the year since AARP published its catalogue of best practices, they've taken their program across the country. In conjunction with Governing Magazine, the group has held roundtables in Des Moines, Lansing, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City to talk about the challenges those cities face as they await the so-called "silver tsunami."

Amy Levner, manager of AARP's Home and Community program, says the common thread among rural and urban communities alike is the "pressure on local budgets."

Luckily, very few of the best practices in AARP's handbook have a high price tag. In fact, many of them have the potential to save money (finding multiple uses for public facilities like schools, for example) or make money (like transit-oriented development). The organization suggests everything from integrated planning and complete streets to electric cars that "chirp" to alert pedestrians that a moving car is nearby.

Levner said the roundtables showed the depth of interest and excitement in livable communities. In Utah, the governor himself attended the event. The National Association of Counties, the Agriculture Department, Citigroup, and the Stanford Center on Longevity are among the many partners AARP has recruited to help with the livability effort.

In some cases, the changes AARP advocates for the benefit of the older population can seem contrary to what the older population has chosen for itself. After all, 64 percent of seniors that live in metropolitan areas live outside the urban core, according to AARP. Transportation for America has sounded the alarm about seniors being stuck at home with no mobility options once they stop driving, but those same seniors are the ones declaring their intention to live out their years where they are: in auto-oriented suburbs.

Local jurisdictions can wear themselves out building accessible, affordable multi-family housing in dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented neighborhoods, but the fact is, seniors have expressed their desire to stay in their own homes.

Levner says there's more nuance than that in the 90 percent statistic, and that really, what boomers are saying is that they're not about to take off for Florida or Arizona like their parents did. The 2011 report echoes that interpretation, stressing the importance of staying in the same community, whether or not seniors change houses.

During a lifetime, people develop connections to place and form relationships with neighbors, doctors, hairdressers and shopkeepers. They become intimately familiar with the route to downtown, the rhythm of summer concerts at the band shell park, the best places to get a coveted burger and personalized greeting. These associations, of value to both the individual and the community, cannot be quickly or easily replicated in a new environment. In essence, they can play a pivotal role in successful aging.

But the crux of that same report is the statistic that nearly 90 percent of seniors "want to stay in their residence for as long as possible, and 80 percent believe their current residence is where they will always live" (emphasis mine).

Livability improvements will benefit all generations and demographics, and the changes to accommodate seniors will be welcome somedayif not by the boomer generation, then by the next cohort of retirees. And they're not just for seniors. In fact, the other demographic that's equally passionate about improved transit and walkability is the millennials, four decades younger than the boomers.

"Our communities are very much structured around school-age children," Levner said. "But in the future, kids are going to make up a much smaller percentage of the population. Fortunately, a lot of the livable-communities features we want to see implemented benefit everybody."

As AARP noted in its report, localities looking to accommodate seniors can improve services for everyone else. With rural inter-city transportation on a starvation diet due to budget cuts, for instance, seniors aren't the only ones in need of good options:

Montana has made a concerted effort to address these issues. Three years ago, the state had nine rural transportation systems; today, there are almost 40. To achieve this, the state went to city and county governments and several county Councils on Aging (each of which already operated some type of bus service) and offered to help them devise and pay for a coordinated plan. "We went to these Councils on Aging and said, 'You're already running a senior bus service; if you open your doors to everyone, print a schedule and follow the FTA guidelines, we will help you pull it all together and receive FTA funding,'" said [Audrey Allums, transit section supervisor for the Montana DOT].

There are many communities that aren't doing enough to prepare for the demographic shifts that are underway, however. Some are barely even aware of them. "There are a lot of localities that are not thinking about this yetto a surprising degree, actually," said Levner.

But some communities do see the writing on the wall. Governing reported in September that officials in Arlington, Virginia have quietly set about widening sidewalks, installing crosswalk countdown clocks, and lowering bus platforms in anticipation of a graying populace.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Roads


The Economist: Donít expect driving rates to rise again

"Peak car" may be more than just a sustainability nut's fantasy. Young people are souring on car culture and finding other ways to get around and connect with friends. The suburban sprawl that fueled the rise of the automobile is in decline. And now The Economistno treehugging lefty publicationis listing off reason after reason why the trend of declining driving"peak car," they call itis here to stay.


Graphic from The Economist.

First, let's be clear: Driving rates are plateauing and even dropping in developed countries, or what The Economist bluntly calls "the rich world." Developing countries are a few decades behind and are just entering a car acquisition stage. According to a study conducted earlier this year, 20 developed countries show a "saturating trend" on driving.

The results are the same for all three measures of saturation: total distance driven, distance per driver and total trips made. "After decades when each individual was on average travelling farther every year, growth per person has slowed distinctly, and in many cases stopped altogether," the article states.

Is it just the recession? High unemployment? Stubborn gas prices? The Economist, like many analysts before, says the trend goes deeper than those temporary factors. Here's why:

Generational shift. The generation that went cruising around town in tail-finned Chevys is in retirement now. More American retirees have drivers licenses than ever beforeand "more than 90 percent of people aged 60-64 can drive, a larger share than for any other cohort," the article states. "New generations of drivers will replace old ones rather than add to the total number." Older people tend to drive shorter distances than younger ones.

Meanwhile, throughout the developed world, young people are less eager to start driving and they're getting their licenses later. Studies show that people who learn to drive later in life continue to drive less. Gordon Stokes of Oxford University found that people in Britain who learn in their late 20s drive 30 percent less than those who learn a decade earlier.

Geography. The growing preference for urban living, fueled in part by a desire to walk more and drive less, also reduces VMT. In wealthy countries, car use is still stable or increasing in rural areas, but that's not where the future is. "The OECD, a rich-country think-tank, expects that by 2050, 86 percent of the rich world's population will live in urban areas, up from 77 percent in 2010."

Nature magazine recently mapped the urbanization trend, noting, "The United Nations predicts that cities will absorb all of the world's population growthof around 2.3 billion peoplein the next four decades." [emphasis mine]

The preference to go car-free in cities has been on the rise since long before the recession or $4.00 gas prices. Better public transit and new car-sharing services like Zipcar help make this a viable preference.


Graphic from the Economist.

Sprawl. The Economist article points out that "the car has become a victim of its own success." For decades, auto-centric development sprawled outward from cities, as newly-built highways allowed people to commute to the city quickly. But the more people opted to get cars and move out to the hinterlands, the more crowded those highways became.

Given that the maximum time people are willing to take on is generally unmovable at 30 minutes each way, the maximum distance you can live from your job increased with highway expansion and shrunk again with congestion. The Economist calls it a "sprawl wall." It's one of many reasons that more than half of US cities are seeing more growth in the core than the periphery.

Result: Driverless Cars or Better Policies? The Economist takes stock of the growing desperation among automakers about the state of the US market and concludes that they're going to bet on driverless cars to take them into the future: "If buyers are less interested in driving, then cars will require less driving from them."

Driverless cars would bring a host of other factors to bear: They could cut congestion somewhat because they can travel closer together without safety concernsthough if people opt for driverless cars over mass transit they could dramatically increase congestion. And the article says driverless cars could "strain the already weakening link between driving and identity and the sense of driving as an expression of self and skill."

But a far more meaningful outcome of this trend would be for smart governments to revolutionize their transportation policies to accommodate greater transportation options in the future. The Economist notes that "urban planning, in particular, has for half a century focused on cars."

America built 64,000 kilometres (40,000 miles) of interstate highway to get the country moving after the second world war; since 1980 it has built more than 35,000 new lane-kilometres a year. If policymakers are confident that car use is waning they can focus on improving lives and infrastructure in areas already blighted by traffic rather than catering for future growth. That is already happening in London, where cars pay to enter the centre and ever more space is dedicated to buses and cycles. At Canary Wharf, a business district in east London, 100,000 jobs are supported by only 3,000 parking spaces.

By improving alternatives to driving, city authorities can try to lock in the benefits of declining car use. Cars take up more space per person than any other form of transportone lane of a freeway can transport 2,500 people per hour by car, versus 5,000 in a bus and 50,000 in a train, reckon Peter Newman and Rob Salter of Curtin University in Australia.

The transportation bill that passed a few months ago in this country didn't go nearly far enough in envisioning a future beyond car dependence and endless sprawl. That means the country is preparing for a future that isn't expected to happen. The dip in driving isn't a flash in the pan. Given the significant societal factors that have contributed to it, we should expect it to stick around for a while.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog DC.

Roads


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 cafť 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.

Development


Inadequate transit, sprawl cut off workers from jobs

If there's a problem connecting workers with workplaces, it stands to reason that there's a problem connecting workplaces with workers. A new report from the Brookings Institution has teased out the subtleties of this side of the transit/jobs equation.


Transit access to employment is especially weak in the Midwest and South. Image from the Brookings Institution.

Last year, Brookings found that, on average, 70 percent of jobs in a metropolitan region are inaccessible to a typical resident via transit. Or at least, it would take over 90 minutes each way to get there.

This time around, Brookings looked at how large a pool of potential employees each employer has access to, assuming those employees would use transit to commute to work. And just as only 30 percent of jobs are accessible to most workers, only 27 percent of workers are accessible to most jobs, they found.

In terms of general access to transit, 70 percent of people in metropolitan areas live in neighborhoods that are served by transit and more than 75 percent of jobs are served by transit. Not surprisingly, the big divide is between suburban and urban locations within those metro areas. In cities, 95 percent of jobs are in transit-served neighborhoods, while in suburbs, only 64 percent of employers have transit service.

The Northeast and the West have better-connected job centers, while the Midwest and the South have more job sprawl and less transit access. In the Northeast, almost 100 percent of city-based employers can take advantage of transit. In southern suburbs, that figure falls to 52 percent.

"The suburbanization of jobs obstructs transit's ability to connect workers to opportunity and jobs to local labor pools," the report concludes. "As metro leaders continue to grapple with limited financial resources, it is critical for transit investment decisions to simultaneously address suburban coverage gaps as well as disconnected neighborhoods." The authors elaborate:

For example, consider the cases of San Jose and Richmond. Both metropolitan areas offer transit service to over 97 percent of city jobs. But while San Jose's suburban transit routes extend well beyond the city core, offering service to 84 percent of its suburban jobs, Richmond's suburban routes stop close to the municipal borders, offering service to only 29 percent of suburban jobs. The end result is that San Jose's overall transit coverage rate ranks fourth and Richmond's ranks 94th. And Richmond isn't the only metro that registers this extreme city/suburban dichotomy. Atlanta, Grand Rapids, and McAllen all show near-ubiquitous transit coverage in their primary cities and limited suburban coverage, pushing their overall coverage rates to the bottom quintile.

This report, like the last one, will likely invite observers to wonder whether it's incumbent on transit systems to undo their hub-and-spoke models and sprawl along with jobs using less efficient service patternsor whether the solution lies with addressing job sprawl itself. After all, why should struggling public transit systems condone and subsidize employers who chose not to locate near their workers?

Brookings provides a reminder that one way or another, there's a problem that needs fixing: Unemployment is stubbornly high, while in some places there's a shortage of skilled and educated workers. Clearly, there needs to be a better way to connect jobs and people.

After all, commutes have grown longer and longer over the years, and a continued dependence on single-occupancy vehicles is simply unsustainable. The report says:

The nation's average distance to work jumped from 9.9 miles in 1983 to 13.3 miles in 2009.6 Meanwhile, as solo drivers topped 74 percent of all commuters, the average number of hours wasted in traffic increased from 14 hours in 1982 to 34 hours in 2010.7 Just as importantly, there is still a sizable portion of Americans that confront longer commuting distances without a vehicle. The costs of owning and operating a vehicle are such that ten percent of American households in the nation's largest metro areas do not have access to a private vehicle.

Transit can be part of the solution to these problems, and can provide employers with a more reliable way to bring their workers in to work on time every day. But whose job is it to make sure more workplaces are on the transit map? Does the transit system have to build a new line every time some company opens up shop in the exurbs?

Brookings suggests that both public and private sector leaders need to take responsibility for enhancing transit accessibility to jobs. They should route transit to where the jobs are, including in the suburbs, and do a better job of collecting and analyzing data so they can make good decisions, the report says.

But those are all tasks for public officials. What responsibility should private employers take in addressing the accessibility crisis? By locating in a city, an employer will have access to an average of 38 percent of available workers. That same job in a suburb will have less than half the labor pool to choose job candidates from via transitjust 17 percent of the population.

That doesn't necessarily mean there's no transit stop near the employer. But if it's so far out in the suburban hinterland that it would take the average resident more than 90 minutes each way to get there, it doesn't countthat's too long a commute to reasonably ask anyone to undertake.

So in addition to its list of recommendations to public officials, Brookings should add one addressing employers: Locate where your labor pool is. Don't make them drive alone for 13.3 miles each way to get to work. You'll suck their souls and waste their money and end up with a less healthy, less reliable workforce that shows up in the morning with a fresh case of road rage (or road fatigue).

Sure, transit agencies need to make sure their expansions are keeping pace with development and that their service is staying relevant. But employers need to realize there are good job candidates out there without cars, and those people won't work at a place that's inaccessible to them.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Government


House GOP would wipe out local control over bike/ped funds

The House GOP couldn't pass a transportation bill of their own, so now they want to undo one of the major bi-partisan achievements in the Senate transportation bill.


Image from Elvert Barnes via the Ped-Bike Information Center.

As part of its counter-offer to the Senate in conference committee negotiations over the transportation bill, the House appears to be proposing the elimination of the Cardin-Cochran amendment, which would allow local jurisdictions to control funds for bike/ped projects.

The House proposal, sent to the Senate yesterday, would would effectively block access to bike/ped funding for many towns, cities, and regions located in states where the department of transportation places a low priority on street safety.

Politico Pro reported that House conferees confirmed that the first part of its counter to the Senate offer would "retain the Transportation Enhancements program's overall structure but would let states opt out." Transportation Enhancements is one of the principal funding mechanisms for bike/ped projects. Neither Politico nor Streetsblog has seen a copy of the couter-offer, so it's unclear exactly how the proposal is framed.

Initially, under the Senate's MAP-21 bill, TE was subsumed under a subset of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program called "Additional Activities," which states could opt out of entirely. But thanks to a bi-partisan amendment crafted by Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran and Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, decision-making authority for those funds was devolved from states to local governments, which tend to place a higher priority on active transportation programs.

The House proposal appears to erase that progress.

"By allowing states to opt out of Additional Activities funding, the House counter-offer would prevent local governments from accessing funds for small-scale, local transportation projects," said Mary Lauran Hall, communications coordinator for America Bikes. "It pits state control against local control. We've heard from mayors and local elected officials across the country that they want funding for these projects. It doesn't make sense to take away the tiny portion of transportation dollars that trickle to local governments."

The House is expected to complete its counter-offer over the next few days.

Cross-posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Transit


Patent troll sues transit agencies who provide real-time info

Martin Kelly Jones doesn't make or sell a thing, but has made a living by suing transit agencies who use real-time tracking technologies that he says he owns. It's a practice known as "patent trolling."


Photo by Oran Viriyincy on Flickr.

Jones filed his first transit-related patent in 1993, securing rights to the idea of letting parents know when school buses were running late. More than 30 additional patents of similar ideas followed.

Jones doesn't actually develop or sell any technology relating to real-time vehicle tracking, but that hasn't stopped him (and his two offshore firms, ArrivalStar and Melvino Technologies) from punishing anyone who does. To date, he's filed more than 100 lawsuits against anyone who uses such technologyeveryone from Ford to Abercrombie & Fitch to American Airlines to FedEx. He's now one of the top 25 filers of patent infringement suits, according to PriorSmart.com.

Lately, Jones has focused his litigious impulse on transit agencies around the country.

According to a brief by the Georgetown Climate Center, "ArrivalStar has brought suit against at least ten transit entities, and at least eight more have received demand letters." GCC, which convenes the Transportation Climate Initiative, worries that the suits can create a chilling effect, discouraging agencies from employing vehicle tracking technologies. Real-time bus arrival information has been shown to increase ridership, taking cars off the road and reducing vehicle emissions.

Jones' strategy is not to sue transit agencies for all they're worth, but to offer them a relatively low-cost way to keep these cases out of court. In fact, not one of his lawsuits has gone all the way through trial. They always end up settling, usually for $50,000 to $75,000, though the demands can go as high as $200,000.

"That's $75,000 of taxpayer money that's going into ArrivalStar's pockets without the validity of the patent ever being challenged," said attorney Babak Siavoshy, who represents the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If they make the settlement amount low enough, where the costs and benefits favor settling, then most municipalities are going to settle, and it costs them a lot of money, because the cost of litigation is a big stick."

Siavoshy and EFF want the US Patent and Trademark Office to review Jones' patents. EFF is looking for what's known as "prior art": examples of real-time vehicle tracking being discussed before Jones took out the patent, to show that he wasn't the first one with the idea. Advocates also think they can prove that the systems Jones patented were too "obvious" or "non-novel"that they were logical extensions of existing technology. Abstract ideas, with no technology or product attached, are not patentable.

ArrivalStar attorney Anthony Dowell contends that the patents are defensible and that Jones has the right to seek money from the agencies. "Just because an entity is funded with taxpayer dollars doesn't give them the right to steal property," said Dowell in a recent interview with ArsTechnica. "My client now owns 34 patents that are being infringed, and what else is he to do?"

The transit agencies I called couldn't comment, since the case was pending. But the general counsel of the Monterey-Salinas Transit Corporation, David Laredo, said that they're not challenging the validity of the patents. Their strategy is to assert that the vendor who sold the technology to the transit agency (Trapeze, a spinoff of Siemens) does hold a license from ArrivalStar, and if they don't, that's the vendor's problem, not theirs.

To date, ArrivalStar has reached settlements with the city of Fairfax, Virginia; Boston's MBTA; New York City's MTA; Chicago's Metra; and the Maryland Transit Authority. Suits are pending against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's PATH; King County, Washington; the Monterey-Salinas Transit Corporation; the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority; and Portland's TriMet.

In the past, transit agencies may not have talked to each other about these lawsuits because Jones reportedly insists on a nondisclosure agreement as part of the settlement. He only brings a few suits at a time, using a divide-and-conquer strategy, taking care not to demand so much from these public entities that they would pursue litigation.

The recent focus of Jones' lawsuits on transit agencies has inspired Georgetown Climate Center and the American Public Transit Association to get these entities to communicate more and to develop a more cohesive strategy. So far, though, Jones' strategy has been working.

But since Jones brought a suit against the U.S. Postal Service last November, the federal government is now affected. His suit charges the post office with violating his patents with its package tracking services.

Since USPS is a federal agency, the Department of Justice is now involved, defending the post office against ArrivalStar's claims by saying the patents are invalid and that no infringement occurred. Advocates and attorneys are trying to persuade the feds to broaden their interest in ArrivalStar from just USPS to all the transit agencies that have been affected.

After all, the transit agencies, by and large, bought the GPS tracking devices with federal dollars, in pursuit of federal transportation goals. Publicly available real-time transit informationon smartphone apps, transit agency websites, or on screens in bus stops and train stationsmakes transit a more attractive option, with the potential to reduce congestion and pollution. SAFETEA-LU, the transportation authorization the country is still (amazingly) working under, specifically requires states to identify ways to deliver real-time transit information to the public.

Georgetown Climate Center Director Vicki Arroyo told Streetsblog that she's had some "early but hopeful discussions" with senior USDOT officials.

"Earlier, some of the more junior people within the federal government were not keen to take this on, saying they didn't have a dog in the fight. Now they do," she said, referring to the suit against the postal service. "We're hoping they won't just look at this as a one-off matter. There's a much higher public stake here."

A version of this article was originally posted at Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

Editor's note: The MBTA's response brief to ArrivalStar rebuts the company's actions with powerful rhetoric that's unusual for a legal filing:

This lawsuit offends any notion of justice. The mission of Defendant Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority ("MBTA") is to transport its 1.1 million riders safely and on time every day. As a service to the riding public, the MBTA alterts riders via its website, text message or email whether one of its vehicles is running late or has otherwise encountered some difficulty or delay. Though the MBTA is a cash-strapped public entity, its notification service is free of charge to anyone who wishes to subscribe. The MBTA makes no money from this service. The service provides a benefit to the riding public, by whom it has been well received.

Plaintiffs ArrivalStar S.A. and Melvino Technologies Limited (collectively, "Plaintiffs" or "Arrivalstar"), two offshore companies, allege, in a conclusory and unspecified manner, that the technology underpinning the MBTA's alert system infringes on two patents that they claim to own. Plaintiffs do not allege they produce or manufacture anything. They do not allege they sell anything. The primary, if not sole, purpose of Arrivalstar is to exact tribute from any person that Arrivalstar asserts is using inventions claimed in patents that they purport to own, either in the form of royalties or a strike suit such as this one. The Court may take notice of the fifteen suits Plaintiffs, or a related entity, have brought in federal district courts involving the same two patents at issue in this dispute. ...

In any event, the practice of monetizing patents through serial litigation by "non-practicing entities" or "NPEs," as they are euphemistically known, is unseemly and inimical to the fundamental purpose of United States patent laws of encouraging innovation and its introduction into the economy. The business model of Plaintiffs is no less obvious than the patents themselves, and shakedowns such as this one should be outlawed.

Roads


Map shows the consequences of our automobile addiction

Leave it to the Brits to create an incredible tool for examining America's own crisis of traffic fatalities. Behold this somber map, made by ITO World, a UK-based transportation information firm. Each dot on the map is a traffic-related death. The entire eastern US is blanketed with them.

The purple dots represent vehicle occupantsnot necessarily driverswho were killed. It may look like a lot of purple, and it certainly is, but when you zoom in closer you see a lot of blue dots, for pedestrians, as well as an awful lot of yellow dots, for motorcyclists.

The green dots for bicyclists are fewer and farther between, but if you zoom into the cities, you'll find them. Each dot even lists the year of the crash and the victim's age and gender.

ITO World got their fatality data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It appears they've captured not just fatalities on highways but on local streets as well.

The World Health Organization reports 12.3 annual traffic deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the United States. Compare that with 3.85 in Japan and 4.5 in Germany. If the U.S. achieved similar rates, more than 20,000 deaths would be prevented each year.

This map is a useful way of visualizing the terrible consequences of our auto-addicted culture. Beyond that, it can be an indispensable tool for community transportation advocates to show local officials where problem spots are and how their community compares to others.

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