News

The importance of reducing VMT by 1% per year

by Steve Birdlebough

Many cities and counties are adopting emergency declarations regarding the Climate Disruption crisis. Some places have shown progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their water and power sectors, however it seems much more difficult to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector.

Reports and studies by the Air Resources Board tell us that during the next 15 years it will be necessary to reduce average vehicle miles traveled by more than 1% per year for each California resident. Merely shifting people into electric vehicles will NOT achieve the needed reductions in GHG emissions. In part, this is because many vehicles now on the road will be emitting greenhouse gases for years to come.

A 1% per year reduction in driving may seem small, but steady reductions in our collective driving habit (vehicle miles traveled [VMT] per capita) will become significant.

The SCTLC can play an important role by educating local policy makers about equitable strategies to reduce driving while maintaining a healthy economy. Depending on the geography, work force, and economic drivers, policies to be considered are:
– Support climate-friendly sharing of autos, electric bicycles, scooters, etc.
-Make more employers aware of the benefits, and ways to manage telecommuting.
– Convenient, attractive & safe trails for bicycles, horses, and pedestrians
– Make low cost transit passes and free shuttles widely available
– Improve the quantity and convenience of bus, train and shuttle services
– Cease subsidizing automobile parking (progressively unbundle parking costs)
– Build most new residences near shopping, work places, and public transit
– Avoid construction or expansion of roadways that invite more congestion

In November, 2018 we saw the power that groups and chapters exercised in defeating Proposition 3 (the pay-to-play water bond). The Transportation & Sustainable Communities Committee is urging every chapter and group to engage policy makers in efforts to significantly reduce per capita VMT and GHG emissions related to
transportation.

City councils and boards of supervisors should begin to receive VMT per capita progress reports annually. Within a few years, candidate interviews can present an opportunity for discussion of these issues.

Fixing potholes could suck up all the new “Measure M” money

A Pavement System Preservation report is summarized on page 22 of the SCTA’s TAC agenda for this Thursday, September 26.

The report says that an additional $964 million would be needed over the next 30 years just to maintain existing pothole conditions for all of Sonoma County—$32 million per year! That’s about $7 million per year more than the money raised last year by the current 1/4-cent transportation sales tax (Measure M, enacted in 2004).

If we expect to rebuild roads in all of the jurisdictions of the County to achieve a “state of good repair” over the next 30 years, $75 million would be required every year—more than twice as much as is needed just to keep the number of potholes from increasing.

Clearly, policy makers made a mistake decades ago, when they allowed so many developments with so many roads to be constructed. They should have calculated the burdens that such projects place on public treasuries.

Last week we saw the Board of Supervisors approve up to 1,900 new accessory dwelling units. But the planners say the impact of several thousand more autos would be “negligible.”

Where does it all stop, and how do we get adequate funding for bike-pedestrian trails and more transit into any extension of the Measure M sales tax?

The funding game

Transportation funding is a complex web of money, taxes, and fees that is determined and handled at all government levels. Ostensibly, the rules are set up to assure that tax funds will be distributed equitably and will be spent efficiently, and that the requests for government funds will be limited to what is actually available. But there are other reasons as well, that generally involve pleasing one group of constituents at the expense of other groups – groups being transportation users, or taxpayers, or manufacturers or many others – the list is endless.

To put together a new transportation project, or to keep past projects running, the proponents must understand what they must say or do to draw funds from the “buckets” or accounts in which they are held. The “spigots” through which the funds flow from the buckets are complex combinations of rules of approval.

In the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, funding is largely controlled by the MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission). MTC provides some helpful information on funding at https://mtc.ca.gov/our-work/fund-invest.

A quantitative overview can be obtained from some graphs used by MTC in public presentations. They show declining purchasing power of State and Federal fuel taxes, expected increases in population and travel, and a breakdown of future Bay Area expenditures on transportation.

Good News on Jennings Crossing

Chris Rogers, Facebook

Great news for folks following the Jennings crossing fight – after walking the detour with city and SMART officials (including a few former city council members who just happen to be biking by), the Administrative Law Judge overseeing the case is recommending to the CPUC that they reaffirm their approval of the crossing over the objection of SMART. If approved in October, it would give us 2 more years to begin construction.

“The City has made a convincing showing that it has eliminated all potential safety hazards….The commission expects that SMART shall comply with [the decision] and cooperate in good faith with the city to reach an agreement regarding the construction of the approved crossing at Jennings Avenue. While SMART argues that facts and circumstances relied upon by the commission in [the decision] have changed, SMART has not supported any allegation of new or changed facts…”

(Re)coding communities for smart growth

Tyler Quinn-Smith, Smart Growth America

There’s a secret weapon available to communities that want to modernize their zoning codes and help make smarter growth the norm. Codes for Communities is a wide-ranging technical assistance program at Smart Growth America that covers all kinds of zoning reform and guidance on form-based codes. In just two years, the program has had tremendous impact in communities of all sizes across America.

Zoning codes are the unseen yet decisive guiding force that can either help or hinder the creation of great, walkable, people-scaled places. Reforming these codes doesn’t come easy for any community. Updating antiquated zoning regulations can be daunting and it’s often difficult for elected officials and residents to even imagine a scenario where things can be better. But, thanks to the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI)—a program of Smart Growth America—there are resources to help communities move forward, including a comprehensive three-course curriculum, a library of exemplary form-based codes, and zoning experts ready to guide you through the changes that your community needs to make to achieve the walkable, human-scaled, context-sensitive growth they desire.

No matter how simple or complex the issue, FBCI’s Codes for Communities program provides local governments with guidance for success by drawing on the experience and talent of the nation’s most experienced coding professionals. FBCI offers all levels of assistance, from a brief code review to in-depth analyses of existing regulations, interviews with key stakeholders, presentations to community leaders, and a final report with findings and recommendations.

Read more at https://smartgrowthamerica.org/recoding-communities-for-smart-growth/

Should electric vehicle drivers pay per mile?

Laura Bliss, CityLab

Since EV drivers zip past gas taxes, they don’t contribute to the federal fund for road maintenance. A new working paper tries to determine whether plug-ins should pay up.

More than 1 million electric cars are now zipping (quietly) around the United States. That’s still a tiny fraction of the nation’s 260 million-strong vehicle fleet, but EVs hit a sales record of 208,000 registrations in 2018. As more mass-market plug-in models hit the showrooms, more charging stations pop up, and the menace of “range anxiety” fades, new EV drivers are born every day.

But are all those Bolts, Volts, Leafs, and Teslas paying their fair share for the asphalt they drive on? The Highway Trust Fund, the federal government’s purse for road maintenance, depends on the 18 cents per gallon U.S. motorists pay in gasoline taxes. But it’s nearly insolvent, in part because Americans drive more fuel-efficient machines than before. So states like California, Washington, and Illinois are mulling a “mileage tax,” where drivers pay a fee based on the number of miles driven, rather than the amount of gas they burn. Oregon, where a pilot program asks participants to pay 1.7 cents per mile in lieu of paying a gas tax, is the example to follow.

Yet the question of getting plug-ins to pay up may be trickier than it seems. In a new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Lucas Davis, a professor of business and technology and a director of U.C. Berkeley’s Energy Institute, and James Sallee, a professor in the school’s department of agricultural and resource economics, estimate that while the U.S. does indeed forgo millions in tax revenue thanks to EVs, instituting a special tax on electric vehicles might produce unwanted side effects.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/07/electric-vehicles-gas-tax-mileage-fees-highway-trust-fund/594466/

SF to Streamline Approvals for Protected Bike Lanes, Other Safety Improvements

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, San Francisco Examiner

Proposal could cut as much as three months off time needed to implement projects

San Francisco may soon tear up the red tape delaying the construction of some protected bike lanes.

While some street safety advocates are over the moon about the idea, others worry it doesn’t go far enough to make The City’s deadly streets safe to walk and bike.

A proposal up for approval Tuesday by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors would give city staff the authority to create “quick build” protected bike lanes without the approval of the SFMTA board.

Staff would also be empowered to enact other street changes without going before the SFMTA board, including creating transit boarding islands, designating blue and red parking zones, establishing stop signs, prohibiting right, left or U-turns, establishing restrictions against red-light turns, and establishing multiple turn lanes.

The new proposal comes on the heels of Mayor London Breed’s directive to transit leaders to make walking safer, and build 20 miles of protected bike lanes in two years.

“These policies align with the Mayor’s directive to make our streets safer and to save lives by streamlining the delivery of critically important improvements,” said Jeff Cretan, the mayor’s spokesperson, in a statement.

Quick-build bike lanes usually feature bendable posts separating bike lanes from car lanes, and are easily taken out, an SFMTA staff report said. More permanent concrete bike lanes or bike lanes that use vehicle parking as a barrier, for instance, would still require SFMTA board approval.

As for the less permanent quick-build bike lanes, staff would still need to run those proposals through a City Hall engineering hearing to give the public a chance to voice concerns. But cutting the SFMTA board out of the process would save projects up to three months of time, staff argued in a report.

The Mayor’s Office said that last part is key.

“There will still be a public hearing for people to weigh in, but to make our streets safer for all we can’t continue to slow down public safety projects with layers of bureaucracy,” Cretan said.

Read more at https://www.sfexaminer.com/the-city/sf-to-streamline-approvals-for-protected-bike-lanes-other-safety-improvements/

County Agencies Win State Funds to Reshape Local Pedestrian Safety Programs

by Will Carruthers

After months of suspense, two Sonoma County agencies have been awarded $660,000 to reframe the county’s approach to pedestrian and bicycle safety efforts.

In November, two local agencies – the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and the county’s Department of Health Services – requested state transportation funding to launch an ambitious pedestrian safety program based on a model used in some of the country’s densest cities, including San Francisco and New York.

Vision Zero, the traffic safety framework the Sonoma County program would be based on, was started in Sweden in 1990s and has more recently been implemented in eleven cities in California, according to the Vision Zero Network, a national group representing participating cities.

To gain Vision Zero status a jurisdiction is required to set a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries. Vision Zero programs also reframe the way traffic fatalities are discussed and which solutions are pursued.

“Vision Zero recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities,” according to the Vision Zero Network’s website.

The funding will allow local agencies to coordinate efforts to reduce the county’s high rate of fatalities and injuries.

In 2016, there were 8.8 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population in Sonoma County compared with 5.9 in the Bay Area overall, according to data from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission citied in the funding application.

“Between 2010 and 2016 there were 1,163 collisions involving bicycles in the county, with 12 resulting in fatalities, and 855 collisions involving pedestrians, with 52 resulting in fatalities,” according to the application.

Cities with Vision Zero programs. Photo: Vision Zero Network

Cities with Vision Zero programs. Photo: Vision Zero Network

The program would start by improving the way injuries and fatalities are tracked.

“Successful Vision Zero initiatives in other cities cite the importance of having access to accurate, timely, and comprehensive data sets containing injury and crash data. Currently, it’s difficult to get a complete view of the safety issues in Sonoma County due to the lack of a robust data framework,” the county’s funding application states.

Data collected could then be used to more effectively target efforts to improve road safety. For instance, San Francisco’s Vision Zero program splits efforts to eliminate fatalities into four categories: enforcement, education, engineering and evaluation.

Steve Birdlebough, a local transportation activist with the Sonoma County Transportation and Land Use Coalition, agrees that a more data-driven approach could help agencies pursue improvements in a more effective way.

Under the current system, infrastructure improvements seem to be awarded based on how organized and angry neighbors are rather than on which intersection has the highest number of fatalities or injuries, according to Birdlebough.

“No changes are made unless the neighbors get up in arms,” Birdlebough said. “[The process] seems random.”

Brittany Lobo, a health information specialist with the Department of Health Services, says that her department would take the lead on connecting various local departments around the traffic safety goals. SCTA would create an online data dashboard to display information about fatalities.

Although Vision Zero programs have been passed in large cities across the country, Sonoma County’s proposal to include multiple cities and unincorporated county land within the program could be unique.

“This is the only proposal we’ve seen that proposes bringing together multiple jurisdictions,” Lobo said. As well as offering data to small cities, the data dashboard would display information about rural roads where fatality rates can also be high.

Because some transportation funding agencies now ask whether applicants have Vision Zero policies, the program could also make Sonoma County cities more competitive for future funding opportunities, Lobo said.

If the county’s Vision Zero program is successful, it could help the county achieve other transportation goals. For instance, the county intends to reduce carbon emissions by increasing the number of bicycle and pedestrian trips taken from 8.4 percent of total trips in 2010 to 15 percent by 2040.

But, if residents don’t consider active transportation options safe or efficient, they will continue to drive.

However, due to the massive number of variables in any given traffic system, progress under Vision Zero is not quick or guaranteed.

San Francisco launched its own Vision Zero program in 2014 with a goal of eliminating pedestrian deaths by 2024. Although the fatality rate stayed flat for the first two years of the program, the rate dropped significantly in 2017 before rising again this year.

Source: https://www.sonomacountygazette.com/sonoma-county-news/county-agencies-contend-for-funds-to-reshape-pedestrian-safety-programs

SMART’s Claim that the Jennings crossing would harm safety

by Willard Richards

I listened to the video recording of the September 19, 2018 SMART Board meeting to again hear Farhad Mansourian’s comments on the proposed Jennings Avenue at-grade pedestrian crossing in Santa Rosa. He began his remarks with, “It is nothing but a safety issue for us.” and ended with, “It is not about money, it is not about politics, it is about public safety.” Bill Gamlen’s August 20 letter to Jason Nutt takes the same position. This simplifies the debate. The effect of building the Jennings crossing on pedestrian safety should be subjected to a thorough, rational analysis.

If taken to an extreme, comments by some SMART staff could be interpreted as saying SMART does not want pedestrians near the tracks. This is not the view of most of the SMART Board and staff and is certainly not what the public and transportation planners want. We want to get people out of their cars and to instead walk and bicycle. Encouraging that requires providing paths that are safe and efficient.

If we agree we do want pedestrians crossing the tracks, then the question becomes where to cross the tracks, and what safety features should crossings have? And specific to the current debate, what are the differences between the two crossings that people traveling along Jennings Avenue might use?

The present detour to the Guerneville Road crossing has these disadvantages:
• It adds 0.6 miles to the one-way distance pedestrians and bicyclists on Jennings Avenue must travel.
• This increased distance has encouraged cutting the fences at Jennings Avenue and adding aids such as boards or chairs to climbing over the fences. Fortunately, fence cutting has decreased recently. However, youths have been observed going over the fence without aids. Unsafe crossing the tracks at Jennings Avenue will be an issue as long as the detour is the alternative.
• In his General Manager’s report on September 19, Farhad Mansourian mentioned ducking under the pedestrian gates. The pedestrian gates at Guerneville road have no skirts under the gate to discourage this but the proposed gates at Jennings Avenue do have skirts.
• Pedestrians walking toward the west on the sidewalk can step into the adjacent bicycle path to avoid all gates on the second rail track.
• The part of the detour along the multi-use path is remote from other people.
• The part of the detour along Guerneville Road is on a path surrounded by shrubbery on both sides.
• The part of the detour along North Dutton Avenue is on a sidewalk beside a busy, four-lane road. There are many curb cuts and side streets. Cars turning left could be more focused on approaching traffic than on pedestrians on the sidewalk.

The present detour to the Guerneville Road crossing has these advantages:
• The two tracks are separated enough that they are crossed one track at a time with separate gates for each track.
• Trains are traveling more slowly here than at the Jennings crossing.
The proposed crossing at Jennings Avenue:
• Has all the required and recommended safety features, including all those at the Guerneville Road crossing.
• Has skirts under the pedestrian gates to discourage ducking under the gates.
• Crosses two tracks at once, but if a second train is approaching, the lights will continue flash, the bells will continue to sound, and the gates will stay down until it is safe to cross.
• Has no nearby bicycle path that pedestrians can use to avoid the pedestrian gates.

If it is all about safety, I believe these comparisons show that building the Jennings crossing would improve pedestrian safety.
Building the crossing also makes a strong contribution to public convenience and to the paths that encourage walking and bicycling. I favor building a path that goes over Highway 101 near the Santa Rosa Junior College to Coddingtown, near the SMART Guerneville Road Station and then continues across the SMART tracks at Jennings Avenue and to the west along Jennings Avenue. This path is in the City‘s General Plan 2035, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan 2010, and the North Santa Rosa Station Area Specific Plan. The Jennings crossing would be used by students walking to the Helen Lehman school and by neighborhood residents walking to Coddingtown and nearby shops and government services.