Will Commuters Ever Go Back to Commuter Trains?

David Zipper, City Lab

No form of public transportation has lost more riders in the coronavirus crisis than the trains that carry suburban workers to urban jobs. Will they ever recover?

Last year, the fiscal management control board of MBTA, Boston’s regional transit agency, faced a critical decision. With area commuters enduring the worst car traffic in the United States, would the board greenlight a multi-billion-dollar revamp of its traditional commuter rail network, expanding it to offer bi-directional “regional rail” service every 15 minutes? Doing so would be a paradigm shift for a network that was designed to fulfill the more modest goal of bringing suburban commuters into the city in the morning and back out again in the evening.

The answer was yes. In November 2019, the MBTA’s board approved the commuter rail transformation project. Speaking after the vote, the board’s chair said that it was time to “provid[e] more aggressive service for the region … in order to decongest the roadway systems.” MBTA would still have to find upwards of $10 billion, but transit advocates were thrilled to envision a network that could accommodate Bostonians ill served by traditional commuter rail, such as workers traveling to suburban job centers, or parents scrambling to get to a midday doctor’s appointment.

But then the coronavirus lockdowns arrived, and MBTA ridership crashed more than 90%. Across the United States, passenger counts on commuter rail have fallen even more sharply than those for bus, subway and light rail systems. In Maryland, ridership on MARC’s commuter rail service, which collects D.C.-bound workers from points all across the state (and into West Virginia), plummeted 94% since lockdowns kept much of the federal workforce at home; in Baltimore, by contrast, subway and bus ridership fell 75% and 51%, respectively. In Chicago, the Metra commuter rail system anticipates a 97% dropoff in April, while trips on CTA’s bus and rail networks have dropped “only” 80%.

Will these commuters ever come back? With gas prices at record lows, traffic light and teleworking being normalized, transit experts fear that rail riders may be slow to return when the pandemic ebbs. But there is a path forward for these systems—if their leaders embrace the kind of visionary transformation that MBTA’s board did a few months ago.

It feels like ancient history now, but until very recently commuter rail was riding a wave of ridership growth. Passenger trips nationwide rose almost 4% between 2017 through 2019, more than double the rate of heavy rail, the transit mode with the next-highest gain. Many individual commuter rail networks did even better; those in Long Island, Orlando and Denver attracted at least 10 percent more riders than in 2019 than they had the year before.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2020/04/commuter-rail-commuter-trains-public-transit-ridership/610900/

Cities Have Seen a Cycling Surge Amid COVID-19. Will the Trend Stick?

Chris Teale, Smart Cities Dive
A spike in biking has led some cities to close streets to vehicular traffic. At the pandemic’s end, cycling advocates hope they will have effected real change.

Social distancing appears to have sparked an explosion in cycling as city residents seek alternative transportation modes to stay mobile and active.

Now, city leaders are exploring plans to make cycling safer in the short term, and maintain interest in the activity once the new coronavirus (COVID-19) subsides.

Cities including Philadelphia and Washington, DC have closed streets to vehicular traffic, a move advocates say should be retained once the worst of the pandemic is over. Meanwhile, in a global first, New Zealand is funding cities’ “pop-up” bike lanes and sidewalk widening projects, which is a “no brainer” solution for any city hoping to encourage cycling and repurpose streets during the pandemic, architect Vishaan Chakrabarti recently told Smart Cities Dive.

Advocates have pondered if similar infrastructure projects — or even more permanent solutions to reimagine mobility infrastructure — could be implemented to keep the uptick in cycling ridership. This presents challenges, however, as cities grapple with limited budgets and uncertainty regarding recovery.

But as summer approaches, the cycling craze will only persist. “People are biking, and people are stir-crazy,” Greg Billing, executive director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), told Smart Cities Dive.

Read more at https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/cities-have-seen-a-cycling-surge-amid-covid-19-will-the-trend-stick/576122/

Vision Zero, Meet VMT Reductions

Todd Littman, Planetizen

Many jurisdictions have vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction targets, intended to reduce congestion and pollution. They can also provide large but often overlooked traffic safety benefits.

Many jurisdictions are officially committed to Vision Zero, an ambitious goal to eliminate all traffic deaths and severe injuries. Although some cities are making progress, most jurisdictions are failing. U.S. traffic death rates declined during the last half of the the 20th century, reaching a low of 32,479 in 2014, but subsequently increased, averaging about 37,000 annual deaths during each of the last three years. New strategies are needed to achieve ambitious safety goals.

Several new strategies exist, and are overall very cost effective, considering their total benefits, but are generally overlooked in conventional traffic safety planning. Conventional traffic safety programs tend to assume that motor vehicle travel is overall safe, and so favor targeted strategies that reduce higher-risk driving, such as graduated licenses, senior driver tests, and anti-impaired driving campaigns.

However, such programs generally fail because it is not feasible to reduce high-risk driving alone. It is infeasible for most teenagers, seniors and drinkers to significantly reduce their driving in sprawled, automobile-dependent areas that lack non-auto travel options. Every time we tell somebody to reduce their high-risk driving, we have an obligation to create more accessible and multi-modal communities so they have viable alternatives.

Although the United States has rigorous road and vehicle safety standards, and numerous traffic safety programs, it also has the highest per capita traffic death rate among developed countries. Why? Because people in the United States also drive more than residents in peer countries . . . .

An abundance of research, described in the World Resources Institute report, “Sustainable & Safe: A Vision and Guidance for Zero Road Deaths,” and in my report, “A New Traffic Safety Paradigm,” indicates that, all else being equal, increases in motor vehicle travel increase crashes, and vehicle travel reductions increase safety.

In other words, the new traffic safety paradigm recognizes exposure, the amount that people drive, as a risk factor. Since about 70% of casualty crashes involve multiple vehicles, so vehicle travel reductions provide proportionately large crash reductions. For example, if you reduce your mileage by 10%, your chance of being in a crash declines by 10%, but there is also a reduction in risk to other road users, since your vehicle is no longer vulnerable to other drivers’ errors.

This means that we can increase safety by either reducing per-mile casualty rates through road and vehicle design improvement, and policies that reduce high-risk driving, and by reducing total vehicle travel which reduces total risk exposure. The old safety paradigm only considers the first approach. the new paradigm recognizes both approaches. The table below compares the old and new traffic safety paradigms.

Read more at https://www.planetizen.com/node/108401.

This Decade’s Mobility Winner? The Bicycle

Enrique Dans, Forbes

Bike-sharing has revolutionized urban transport over the last decade, and some studies are predicting that electric bicycles, which are easy to use in hilly cities, will become the go-to mobility solution, with forecasts of more than 130 million units set to be sold globally between 2020 and 2023.

The number of bike-sharing options in cities around the world has doubled since 2014, and the number of bicycles in operation has increased twenty-fold. Cities like Seville and Paris have deployed ambitious bicycle-based mobility programs, while in others, like New York, it has become the best and fastest option for getting around.

Obviously, bicycles aren’t for everyone, but it can, with the right planning and means, be a very good way to decongest cities, both in terms of traffic density and air quality. Tech platforms such as Google Maps or Citymapper already show the location of bicycles and availability at parking stations in cities around the world, which is an important step, as is the fact that companies such as Uber are moving their priority from cars to bicycles and scooters for short journeys: both Uber and Lime are pondering flat-rate systems to make the use of their fleets more attractive.

From this point on, all that remains is for city halls to understand that the bicycle is the future of urban transport and provide the appropriate investment to build cycle lanes. The key to this is embracing the practice of taking space from cars to use it for bicycle lanes and other micro-mobility vehicles and that bicycles in cities: forcing people to share the roads with aggressive cars is dangerous and enough to put anybody off but the bravest; bicycle lanes are a good thing when managed properly.

Electric bikes and scooters have a big role to play in increasing urban mobility. Sure, they’re not a universal solution, and there are demographics who don’t find micro-mobility an attractive option, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help us rethink our cities and to design them around the needs of pedestrians rather than motor vehicles. Restricting the movement of cars in cities and keeping high high-emission vehicles off our roads through stricter road worthiness tests or simply forcing companies to stop making them, make sense when some 8.8 million people in the world die every year from diseases related to air pollution.

The sooner we get rid of obsolete and harmful technologies, the better for everyone. If you think you’re a petrolhead, lock yourself in your garage with your car engine running for a few hours, that should cure you. A smart city is one that doesn’t poison its inhabitants.

A different kind of city is possible.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/enriquedans/2019/12/21/this-decades-mobility-winner-thebicycle/#67f2d7fc7dbe

The Top 20 Most Dangerous States for Pedestrians

Sean Doyle, Smart Growth America

This morning, we joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a briefing on Capitol Hill for the launch of their Active People, Healthy NationSMinitiative. As the name suggests, the initiative is focused on getting Americans to be more active, with a particular focus on integrating this activity into everyday life instead of a separate exercise routine. But a major barrier to getting more people out walking, biking, rolling, and otherwise being active is the dangerous design of so many streets. And action to make them safer has been severely lacking.

In 2018, more people walking and biking were struck and killed by drivers than any time since 1990. And as we show in Dangerous by Design 2020, an interim update to last year’s full report on pedestrian fatalities, most states continue to see increases in deaths and serious injuries among people walking, biking, and rolling.

Using the latest data from 2009-2018, we find that while there is some minor shuffling among the top 10 most dangerous states and the top 20, the rankings by and large remain the same. (Florida and Alabama retain their place as the first and second most dangerous states, respectively.) But what’s really unique about this 2020 update is the inclusion of serious injuries among all people using non-motorized transportation in addition to fatalities, and the comparison of this carnage to the safety goals states set for themselves.

As we noted in Dangerous by Design 2019, 18 states established “safety” targets for non-motorized deaths and injuries in 2018 that exceeded the number of people killed or injured in recent years. It is indeed astonishing that states could set goals for deaths/injuries that are higher than previous years with no penalties, accountability, or loss of federal dollars, but this is how the federal program is currently designed.

In all, 33 states and DC failed their “safety” targets—more people walking, rolling, scooting, and biking were killed or seriously injured by drivers on their roads than the goals they set. More people being struck and killed by drivers speaks to the need for more urgent and ambitious efforts to preserve life on public roads—and a renewed focus at all levels of government on safety instead of speed as the guiding measure of success.

Check out the Dangerous by Design 2020 interim report to see how your state has done in recent years. You can find it under the new “State safety targets” tab on the Dangerous by Design website or get the PDF directly here.

Why the Bus Got So Bad, and How to Save It

By John Surico, CITYLAB

TransitCenter’s Steven Higashide has created a how-to guide to help city leaders and public transportation advocates save struggling bus systems.

“…the biggest problem [with public transit] in most cities is that we don’t run enough service. You could use federal transportation funding to buy a bus, or stripe a bus lane, but you can’t use it to hire a bus operator, or dispatchers, or people who are planning bus priority projects. In the book, I write about this really bizarre set of affairs in the [2008] stimulus package, where cities all over the country were using federal stimulus dollars to buy buses. At the same time, they had to lay off all of their bus operators. That’s not really doing anything to further equity for people on the ground.”

If you had flicked through the cavernous layers of New York City transit Twitter last Thursday morning (and practically ever since), all you would have seen were buses.

There they are, speeding down Manhattan’s 14th Street on freshly painted red lanes devoid of private car traffic, which is now banned for most hours of the day. This was the first glimpse of a true bus-centric street in America’s largest city, a feat of traffic engineering that fended off civil lawsuits to become a reality. The busway is now over a week old and has already increased the speeds of one of the city’s pokiest routes. In hindsight, its mission statement—give buses priority, and they will move efficiently—seems so painfully obvious, that it now seems difficult to believe it took this long to pull off.

But in another way, the battle to clear 14th Street for the workhorse of mass transit is par for the course. Public buses supply 4.7 billion rides every year in the U.S.*, and get very little respect in return. Buses, anywhere, are typically ignored in the media, in federal funding debates, and in industry discussions on mobility and sustainability. When they are mentioned, it’s usually with a negative association: grueling delays, declining ridership, and service cuts. Given all the buzz about “shared mobility” as the future of transportation—Ubers, scooters, and one day, perhaps, autonomous cars—the mode that’s already helping millions of people split rides gets left out of the conversation.

What’s the matter with the bus, and how can it claim its rightful place in the urban landscape? In his new book, Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Effective Transit (Island Press), Steven Higashide lays out the answer. “Most of what we hear about the bus in the United States is demoralizing,” he writes. But it doesn’t have to be, says the author, who’s the director of research at TransitCenter, the New York-based transit think tank and advocacy organization.

CityLab caught up with Higashide to talk about how federal transportation policy let buses fall behind, what makes a world-class bus system, and what advocates, elected officials, and riders need to do to have their ideas heard and implemented. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Read more at https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/10/better-bus-system-public-transit-book-cities-federal-funding/599776/

E-bikes are wildly popular in the Bay Area. Can they really replace cars?

By Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle

When Liza Lutzker threw her daughters a back-to-school party at the Berkeley Rose Garden, she and her husband packed all the provisions on their electric cargo bikes: two boxes of firewood, food for 30 people, a water dispenser, plates, napkins, glasses and two kids.

Then they rode 2 miles from their home on Milvia Street to the terraced amphitheater on Euclid Avenue, high in the leafy-green hills. Six years ago, Lutzker would have hauled everything in a car. Now she travels almost exclusively by foot and bike.

Her family illustrates a culture shift in the Bay Area, where e-bikes, once conceived as a luxury item, are becoming a widely accepted form of transport. Enthusiasts view them as an option for commuters or for weekend warriors who want speed and distance with less work. In the case of cargo e-bikes, they’re a solution for the types of trips that suburban parents once made in minivans: grocery shopping, school drop-off, shuttling kids to soccer games — even getting to BART, which has begun filling its parking lots with housing.

The trend is picking up globally, though it’s become particularly noticeable in Marin County, Berkeley and San Francisco. That pleases e-bike riders and merchants, even as it highlights the deficiencies of local roads, where collisions are frequent and some bicycle lanes are marked only with a picture of a bicycle.
Continue reading “E-bikes are wildly popular in the Bay Area. Can they really replace cars?”

Jeffrey Tumlin Named SFMTA’s New Director of Transportation

KQED Radio, hosted by Scott Shafer

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has a new director of transportation, Jeffrey Tumlin. Tapped by Mayor London Breed earlier this month, Tumlin will be the agency’s fifth director when he begins the job on Dec. 16. The SFMTA currently has a $1.2 billion annual budget, employs more than 6,000 people and serves about 714,000 passengers each day. We’ll talk to Tumlin about his plans for the agency, including his pledges to fill bus driver shortages and fix the subway, and we want to hear from you: what are your biggest issues with the SFMTA and what are your hopes for this new chapter of leadership?

Link to 51 minute interview

Six Secrets From the Planner of Sevilla’s Lightning Bike Network

Michael Anderson, Streetsblog USA

Here’s one way to understand the story of biking in Sevilla, Spain: It went from having about as much biking as Oklahoma City to having about as much biking as Portland, Oregon.

It did this over the course of four years.

Speaking last week at the PlacesForBikes conference, one of the masterminds of that transition — which is only now becoming widely known in the United States — filled in some of the gaps in that story.

Manuel Calvo had spent years in Sevilla bicycling activism and was working as a sustainability consultant when he landed the contract to plan a protected bike lane network for his city. The result was the Plan de la Bicicleta de Sevilla, mapping the fully connected protected bike lane network that would make Sevilla’s success possible.

But as Calvo explained in his keynote Wednesday and an interview afterward, the story might not have played out that way.

Here are some things for U.S. bike believers to learn from Calvo’s account.

Read the rest at https://usa.streetsblog.org/2018/05/07/six-secrets-from-the-planner-of-sevillas-lightning-bike-network/#new_tab

Free Transportation Or Better Transportation?

Excerpts from an article by Steve Hanley, Clean Technica

Free public transportation may not be the panacea for urban congestion many advocates think it is …. an experiment with free transportation in Austin, Texas between October of 1989 and December of 1990 …. found significant issues, not the least of which was that buses became rolling homeless shelters. The report summary concluded,

In the fare-free demonstrations in larger systems reviewed in this paper, most of the new riders generated were not the choice riders they were seeking to lure out of automobiles in order to decrease traffic congestion and air pollution.

The larger transit systems that offered free fares suffered dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness due to younger passengers who could ride the system for free, causing numerous negative consequences. Vehicle maintenance and security costs escalated due to the need for repairs associated with abuse from passengers. The greater presence of vagrants on board buses also discouraged choice riders and caused increased complaints from long-time passengers.

In other words, the promised reward — fewer cars on the road — did not materialize and the costs of operating the public transit system increased significantly. The TransitCenter has examined several cities that have implemented free public transit programs and found mixed results. In Dunkirk, France, the plan has seen ridership increase 85%, but in Tallinn, Estonia, a similar program saw only a 3% rise in ridership. In general, TransitCenter suggests, people are perfectly happy to pay for public transportation if it is efficient, clean, and timely. It says on its website,

“When researching our forthcoming report, Who’s on Board 2019, we surveyed 1700 transit riders in seven different cities across the US. What we heard is that most low-income bus riders rate lowering fares as less important than improving the quality of the service. This suggests that if a transit agency had to choose between devoting funds to reducing fares or to maintaining or improving service, most riders would prefer the latter. The idea of making transit “free” turns out to be less appealing to the public than making improvements to transit.”

What are superior and sustainable ways to move the needle on ridership? Making transit fast, frequent, and reliable. In just a few short years, Seattle has nearly tripled the number of people able to walk to frequent transit, and ridership continues to climb. Ridership has also been gaining in San Francisco, where SFMTA has an ongoing program to speed up buses. Cities like Austin, Richmond, and Columbus are redesigning their bus networks to better connect people to jobs, and seeing ridership growth as a result.

TransitCenter says the cost of parking or accessing cities by car can make a big difference in the number of people riding public transit. In London, congestion charges have led to an 18% increase in people taking the subway. In Los Angeles, Phil Washington, CEO of LA Metro recently created a stir when he proposed a similar congestion charge could raise $12 billion a year — money that could be used to fund free public transportation with plenty left over. Under his plan, buses on major routes would come every 90 seconds. The plan is a long way from being adopted but it has created lots of healthy debate, which is a good thing. TransitCenter concludes its latest analysis of the value of free transportation this way:

Free transit makes for a terrific news hook. But the only way to see the full benefits of transit – like improved air quality, less congestion, and more vibrant cities is for people to actually start riding transit in substantial numbers. To this end, agencies should immediately make transit more accessible by offering discounts to riders who need them the most. More employers should be compelled, whether through penalty or incentive, to subsidize transit passes.

But what advocates and policymakers should actually be focusing on is a multi-pronged approach to make driving less attractive, and undoing policies that make driving feel free. Cities and transit agencies should work together to raise parking rates and replace swaths of curbside parking with transit priority streets.

And while congestion pricing isn’t feasible for most US cities, large metro areas with robust transit networks should start laying the groundwork. Funneling money from these pursuits directly into improving transit will yield precisely the type of benefits sought by proponents of free transit.

The Takeaway

The takeaway is this. The paradigm that says anyone should be free to drive into any city at any time — a notion that became firmly rooted in the American psyche after the explosion of suburbia after World War II — needs to be a blown up and replaced with a new one that emphasizes public transport options that meet the needs of most members of society at affordable prices. The age of the car is ending. It’s time to move on to what’s next.

And let’s not forget that any new public transit options need to utilize zero emissions vehicles, whether they are buses, ride sharing vans, or other vehicles. There is no point in making it easier to get around if doing so results in a dying planet.

Source: https://cleantechnica.com/2019/12/08/kansas-city-is-first-major-city-in-america-to-offer-free-public-transportation-is-that-a-good-thing/