Atlanta’s Total Lack of Preparedness –

I have an opinion

Ice in Atlanta, image via
Ice in Atlanta, image via

piece up at on the Atlanta Ice Capades: Atlanta’s Total  Lack of Preparedness

It’s just water.

Of course it is frozen in the form of ice. Driving on ice is a fool’s errand. On ice it is hard to stop (or start) moving. On ice, vehicle control is difficult at best. You don’t need to be a transportation engineer to know that crashes increase with snow and especially ice, with its reduced friction. The problem is not that Atlanta got snow, but that the snow turned into ice.

Should Atlanta have been better prepared? In retrospect, the answer is obvious. In prospect it should have been as well.

read more at CNN

Commuter Rail Ridership Declining Despite Increase in Lines

Caroline Cournoyer at Governing Magazine writes: Commuter Rail Ridership Declining Despite Increase in Lines:

“While the public may love the notion of commuter rail lines, they are perhaps the least popular form of transit for politicians. The subsidies for commuter rail are tremendous, says Michael Smart, a researcher with the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. A study of the Minneapolis Northstar line concluded that taxpayers were paying a subsidy (which included capital costs) of $89 per passenger. Other studies showed subsidies of much lower rates, but still significantly higher than those for bus or subway riders.”

The study referred to is this 2011 blog post.  Northstar Ridership is of course up since the fares were cut by 25%. (In 2013 it was  787,239, up 17% … so ~700,000 riders pay less so that ~87,000 pay at all)  I don’t think revenue is up, though the cost per passenger is of course lower.

Is The End of Road-building like the Closing of the Frontier?

Jon Coppage at The American Conservative discusses my Peak Roads piece in: What Happens When America’s Roads Run Out?

Peak Road? Source: Table 1-4: Public Road and Street Mileage in the United States by Type of Surface(a) (Thousands of miles)
Peak Road? Source: Table 1-4: Public Road and Street Mileage in the United States by Type of Surface(a) (Thousands of miles)

“It might seem a rather arbitrary milestone to take note of, the total length of our roads. After all, social science gives us a multitude of metrics seemingly more suited to measuring and quantifying our social states. The General Social Survey every two years releases volumes of data tracked rigorously across decades on political attitudes and lifestyle decisions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly releases job reports that set the conventional wisdom as to the strength of the economy, with its accompanying political credits or demerits. The Census Bureau, decennially counts every person in the country, along with a host of distinguishing demographic data. Why, then, pay attention to the pavement?

Because our roads are the received and transformed legacy of the American Frontier. As Patrick Deneen recounted a couple months back, Frederick Jackson Turner’s landmark study ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ noted the official close of the frontier as recorded by the 1890 Census report, when there was no further line to be pushed out into by isolated settlement. From then on, the American adventure spirit that had always held the possibility of lighting out into new discovery had to turn around, and take stock of the suddenly limited land around it. Rail would be laid, and roads built, crawling the wilderness with pathways of civilization. America went from an outward-facing nation to an inward-facing one, exchanging unlimited bounty for density and connectedness. Yet the free spirit of the frontier was not altogether lost.

As Ari Schulman wrote in his excellent 2011 New Atlantis essay ‘GPS and the End of the Road,’ ‘Even once the Americas had been crisscrossed with rails and paved roads, a new age of discovery was opened—the age of personal discovery celebrated in the mythology of Kerouac and the open road.’ As the roads grew before us, a car provided an escape to, if not the wild, at least the novel and the new. New people, new towns, localities being newly opened up or communities newly connected allowed us to learn from this sprawling country of ours, and learn about ourselves through their pursuit.

It takes on a different tinge, though, when you know the road is shrinking back towards you. Mobility allowed us to escape the strictures of place, as Deneen described, attenuating our connections to home as we built new ones around the nation. Shrinking, though, can make for a very different kind of smallness than that championed by the localists mobility left behind. As the open road recedes, how will the restless American spirit take to density?”

I really like the analogy of Peak Roads to the End of the Frontier.

This Map Wants to Change How You Think About Your Commute – Atlantic Cities

Our Accessibility Observatory is featured in nice, detailed article in Atlantic Cities by Emily Badger: This Map Wants to Change How You Think About Your Commute

Transit Accessibility for the Minneapolis St. Paul region from the Accessibility Observatory
Transit Accessibility for the Minneapolis St. Paul region from the Accessibility Observatory

“When we think about this as economists, we know that every trip that is made is worth it – the value outweighs the cost of taking it – or it wouldn’t have happened,” says Andrew Owen, the director of the recently created Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a little bit disingenuous to use metrics that only talk about the cost of travel.”

Read the article for details. More maps coming soon.

Lean Management of Toll Roads

Enterprising Roads: Improving the Governance of America's Highways
Enterprising Roads: Improving the Governance of America’s Highways

Washington State DOT conducted a Toll Division Operational Review in November 2013.  This report is quite interesting (and reality based, forecast traffic growth has been scaled back quite a bit).

There is further discussion by  Matt Rosenberg at Social Capital Review: WSDOT Report Muses on Private Transport Partners, who notes that Enterprising Roads was cited:

Drawing on Levinson’s paper, WSDOT says, “the theory…is that roads should be managed by independent enterprises that are charged with a mission of providing service to customers” like other “network utilities” which may be privately run but government-regulated, such as water, electric, pipeline, natural gas “and virtually all telecom and cable” systems.

In its report WSDOT stops far short of endorsing a private state transportation utility but does accent Levinson’s view that “the organizations that manage roads should be able to finance road construction and maintenance through the sale of bonds, without requiring direct consent from higher political authorities.” A variety of related alternatives are mentioned by WSDOT including “a public-private partnership contract involving toll rates where the contract holds the regulatory provisions including items such as a toll structure and associated performance criteria.”

Reaching into Levinson’s paper, the WSDOT report cites the New Zealand Transport Agency as one of the most full-fledged actual working examples of a publicly regulated, privately managed road utility – and says that data show its approach “has delivered large efficiency gains without compromising service levels.”

WSDOT’s public-private partnership program has for several years quietly inched the ball downfield on the idea of transportation public-private partnerships but not gotten far with that approach on major road projects due to legislative opposition.

The new WSDOT musings about a privately owned state road utility, regulated by the state, come as the Washington legislature continues to bog down on what is seen by key stakeholders as a much-needed state transportation funding package. If passed in the next few months a statewide transportation funding deal would probably be to the tune of $10 billion or $12 billion. Business, labor, local and regional governments in Washington state are vocally and energetically lobbying for it. Yet the package by all accounts will almost certainly feature at its core an increase in something that WSDOT correctly says in its new report “has been on a deep downward slide from some time” in terms of effectiveness. That’s the state gas tax.

The agency tolling division report states, “The purchasing power of the state fuel tax is declining. The fuel tax is a flat tax on each gallon sold. It is not indexed to inflation, and does not rise as the price of fuel goes up. In addition, Washington residents are driving fewer miles per capita, vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, and new federal fuel efficiency requirements and the emergence of electric vehicles will accelerate this trend.”

Only eight of every 37.5 cents collected in state gas taxes per gallon of gas sold in Washington is allowed to go to state highways and ferries “including maintenance, preservation, safety improvements and congestion relief.” Adjusted for inflation based on a 77 percent hike in the construction cost index since 2001, state gas tax revenues have actually dropped by nearly half since then and related revenue projections for 2007-2020 revised downward by $3.7 billion as a result, WSDOT reports.

It is worth noting that user fees are not a left-right thing (or not for most of the political spectrum). They are supported by both Greens and Libertarians.  This is an efficiency notion. We should all want the right amount of travel, not more, not less. (We may of course disagree on how much is efficient, or how to weigh externalities, but we hopefully agree that some things are just dysfunctional.) We might also want beneficiaries to cover their costs, especially if they can, which is in general the case with roads.

It is also worth noting that Road Enterprises need not be privately owned (they aren’t in Australia, New Zealand, or Vancouver), they can be publicly owned corporations. The key is political independence. This needs to be done carefully. The Port Authority of New York  is an unfortunate example of pseudo-independence where politics runs amok without accountability. There are better examples.

Also there are many notions of equity in transportation, and not all of them can be satisfied simultaneously, and there is no agreement about which is morally preferable. Beneficiary pays is certainly a reasonable idea that aligns equity with efficiency. The question to be asked is “does the new policy improve things compared to the baseline”, not whether it is perfect.

Main Street – St. Paul (7th St. W. (Ft. Rd.) (Mn. 5))

Cross-posted from Main Street – St. Paul (7th St. W. (Ft. Rd.) (Mn. 5))

Main Street – St. Paul (7th St. W. (Ft. Rd.) (Mn. 5))

“Whoever designed the streets (in St. Paul) must have been drunk. I think it was those Irish guys, you know what they like to do.” – Jesse Ventura on Late Night with David LettermanWe start in St. Paul, where 7th Street W. (running on old 8th Street) crosses 6th Street, and then 5th Street. Not being from Saint Paul, the obviousness of the answer to the question “Fort Road is a nice, unconfusing, name why didn’t they use that?” escapes me.

Our origin is roughly at the Ramsey County Juvenile Facility, which is across from the Children’s Museum. Warning to children “Behave.” We then approach one of the two different Mickey’s Diners on 7th Street. The famous one downtown, and another one down the road a 3.7 miles, the latter is subtitled: “By Willy”. I am sure there is a history here.

Mickey's Diner (from Google Streetview)

We then approach Saint Paul’s attempts at economic development: River Centre, the X, parking lots. It is lifeless here but for the Dorothy Day Center, a Catholic charity which feeds the poor and always seems to have a crowd around.

Next we get some interesting older buildings mostly on the North Side. (St. Paul’s 7 Cornersneighborhood) This should be a cool walkable neighborhood. It has some seeds (the coffee shop, the restaurant, the DQ, a real hardware store). But the road is too wide (4 lanes + 2 parking lanes, no median, few or no street trees) for this to have the relaxed, free to cross the street mid-block feel that Grand Avenue possesses.

Down the road to the west are more institutional and industrial and automobile service uses.

Then we get to another neighborhood retail node at Goodrich Avenue. This has a St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. Nothing wrong with thrift stores, but they are indicators that rents are on the low side. And then lots of parking. Some more random retail. A Liquor Barrel. The road narrows up some.

We go over some rail tracks, and then in the distance, we spy  a brewery. Schmidt’s, the beer that made Saint Paul famous. This is being reused for housing and a taproom.

As we approach Randolph Road, there is another node. Then residential and auto-servicing retail businesses dominate until Otto Avenue. There a new Mississippi Market co-op store, a Shalom House, and some other higher density (but by no means high density) development prevails.

The road has an interchange with I-35E. We follow it past Montreal to the south side of Highland Park. We see the Second Mickey’s as well as a Famous Dave’s. The north side of the road takes on a wilderness character, as it is a steep wooded slope. Pearson’s Candy is on the south side. The street becomes more residential, and then Sibley Plaza emerges on the North side, a strip shopping area. There is a surprisingly random new apartment building on Davern Street. Then the road becomes a grade-separated divided highway.

Mickey's (by Willy) (from Google Streetview)

7th Street is one of those great pre-Interstate routes, one that lost a lot of business when long distance traffic migrated to I-35E, a route, that like Central Avenue and University Ave has seen better times. It was an early trail from Fort Snelling to Saint Paul that was geographically slated to be a significant transportation route. Running at a diagonal to the grid also makes it much more important, since that makes it a faster route, one which reduces the circuity of the network and attracts traffic. It was one of the early Streetcar routes, and the remnants of that remain.

The region has plans for Arterial BRT. This is a good thing. The transit already gets use, this should make it better. The city is in contrast proposing a Streetcar.

Read them all:

Exploring Nice Ride job accessibility and station choice

Exploring Nice Ride job accessibility and station choice

Although bike share systems are becoming more popular across the United States, little is known about how people make decisions when integrating these systems into their daily travel. For example, when more than one bike share station is located nearby, how do users choose where to begin their trip, and what factors affect their decision?

Nice Ride station

In a study funded by CTS, researchers from the U of M’s civil engineering department sought to answer this question by investigating how people use the Nice Ride bike share system in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Professor David Levinson and graduate student Jessica Schoner examined how Nice Ride affects accessibility to jobs and developed a model to predict station choice.

In the first part of the study, the researchers created maps showing accessibility to jobs by census block for both Nice Ride and walking—as well as the difference between the two—at time thresholds ranging from 5 to 55 minutes. At lower thresholds, fewer census blocks have job accessibility via Nice Ride because of the time it takes for a person to walk to the Nice Ride station. However, at higher time thresholds, Nice Ride provides an improvement over walking. Overall, in blocks with both Nice Ride and walking job accessibility, Nice Ride provides access to 0.5 to 3.21 times as many jobs as walking.

In 2013, Nice Ride operated 170 stations with about 1550 total bikes in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

By comparing Nice Ride to walking, the study demonstrated that walking can successfully be used as a baseline to show how a bike share system improves job accessibility. The results also pinpointed when and where Nice Ride had the strongest accessibility advantage over walking.

“This type of information can be used by bike share system planners to identify where new stations could be built to maximize their impact on job accessibility,” Schoner says. “They could also look at accessibility to other destinations, like parks, grocery stores, or tourist attractions, depending on the goals of their system.”

Levinson and Schoner also developed a theoretical model for bike share station choice. The model considers users’ choice of a station based on their preference for the amount of time spent walking, deviation from the shortest path (the closest station may not be in the direct path of the person’s destination), and station amenities and neighborhood characteristics.

Nice Ride station

Findings show that people generally prefer to use stations that don’t require long detours to reach, but a station’s surroundings also play an important role. For example, stations located near a park and in neighborhoods with lower crime rates were more likely to be chosen as the starting point of a bike share trip. Results also show that commuters value shorter trips and tend to choose stations that minimize overall travel time, while users making non-work-related trips choose stations that allow them to spend more of their time biking, even if the total travel time is longer.

Understanding people’s station preference can help provide guidance to planners for bike share system expansion, densification, and optimization, Schoner says.

“For instance, even though spacing stations along a route would allow people to walk in the direction of their destination to pick up a bike, people’s strong preference to spend more time biking indicates that clustering stations near where they are starting and ending their trips might make more sense,” Schoner says.

Related Links

California Travels

I return to California next week.

On Wednesday: I am presenting on the promise and perils of Enterprising Roads and Transit at the Smith Center at California State University – East Bay, January 29, 2014 – 2:00 p.m. PST

Evolving Transportation Networks
Evolving Transportation Networks

On Friday: I am presenting at the Institute of Transportation Studies UC Davis on January 31, 2014 on Evolving Transportation Networks. Time: January 31, Friday, 1:40 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. PST. 1605 Tilia, Room 1103, West Village. This might be webcast.

I haven’t been to Hayward since 1999 and Davis since 1997, and am looking forward to it.

The hITE of absurdity: Minimum Parking in an era of Declining Traffic

The Institute of Transportation Engineers, founded in 1931, is the main professional association for traffic engineers in the United States. The ITE Trip Generation Manual (currently on the 9th Edition) aggregates a set of studies and outputs the expected number of trips coming or going to a site, by mode, as a function of the type of site. The book Parking Generation does something similar, and guides municipalities on the number of parking spaces a particular new development should have.

Municipalities generally adopt the rates (influenced by the ITE books) as a set of Minimum Parking Requirements, though there is great variation (aptly illustrated by the website Graphing Parking). New development must have parking spaces in excess of the minimum number in order to be approved. Most municipalities, using logic-copying, simply adopt the statues of neighboring jurisdictions without much deep thought. Some do customize them though. For instance, this is the code of the well-endowed (from a parking perspective), City of Maple Grove, Minnesota.

If the world remained the same, and operated at the average level it has for the past 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years of data that are represented in the Manuals, the Manual might be producing the number that which presumably most municipalities seem to want … the number of parking spaces required so that no customer any day of the year would have to park off-site.

But this requirement itself is odd, and leads to the construction of excess off-street parking, since at least some of that parking is vacant 300, 350, 360, or even 364 days per year depending on how tight you set the threshold and how flat the peak demand is seasonally. Is it really worth vacant paved impervious surface 364 days so that 1 day there is no spillover to nearby streets?

Yet we know that the next 40 years will differ significant from the past 40, just as the past 40 differed from the 40 before that. Our best estimates are that traffic per capita (and perhaps overall) has peaked. This blog has discussed this issue multiple times.

More significantly, peak-season (Christmas) retail travel has fallen off a cliff, as shown in this Wall Street Journal article. Total retail foot traffic for November and December 2013 is at 17.6 billion trips, down from about 33 billion in 2010, just 4 years ago, according to data the WSJ obtained from ShopperTrak. Clearly the rise of the tablet has facilitated shopping via couch rather than car. Does anyone doubt this will continue to rise with tablet adoption?

Graphic from Wall Street Journal
We have further anecdotal evidence. On Black Friday, reportedly the busiest shopping day of the year, the community around Strong Towns went to major shopping areas and photographed mostly empty (over-built) parking lots. Photos were posted to Twitter using the hashtag #BlackFridayParking

Paved Surface Area in the US

To the best of my knowledge, no one really knows the answer to the question of how much total paved surface there is in the US. The best estimate I have seen is 43,000 mi^2 (111,369 km^2).

As a check, we can make some back of the envelope estimates. Feel free to improve these with data

2,605,331 miles (4,192,874 km) of paved roads in the US x 30 feet = 412684430400 ft^2 (38,259,975,250 m^2 or 38,359 km^2). This is about the size of Maryland plus Delaware.

This is back of the envelope. Most roads are 2 lanes (1 in each direction), some are wider. I am taking lane width as 12 feet, and assuming an additional 1/2 lane for each centerline mile to account for multiple lanes.

Parking is less well documented.
250,000,000 vehicles in the US x 3 spaces per vehicle x 180 ft^2 per space = 135,000,000,000 ft^2 (12,541,910,400 m^2 or 12,542 km^2).

As a point of comparison, Connecticut is 14,357 km^2, so we have almost paved over the equivalent of Connecticut to store vehicles off street in the US. This number is probably an underestimate, as some space must be allocated to accessing parking spaces.

Parking plus roads gives us an estimate (rounded to 2 significant digits) of 51,000 km^2, 80% of the size of West Virginia.

So my estimate of paved area is a smaller than above by a factor of 2. It is still quite large.

All else equal, we would definitely prefer to reduce this, as paved area has environmental implications (less pervious surface to filter water, more pavement to absorb heat), direct costs (paving roads and parking cost money – asphalt and concrete production and construction have further environmental costs), and opportunity costs (land that is paved for roads and parking cannot be easily used for something else, money spent paving that land cannot be used for something better).


Democratic municipalities should do what they want. They should want to reduce Minimum Parking Requirements, or instead impose Maximums where the Minimums used to be.

The reasons they don’t of course have something to do with just unthinkingly using Standard Operating Procedure and something to do with neighbors who do not want spillover parking in front of their own property. The mix of which depends on the location. The neighbor problem can be addressed with on-street parking enforcement and parking charges returned to the neighborhood, but is not the main problem in most of the US.

Unfortunately, these changes won’t affect much in the short run. Land owners are not going to suddenly roll up under-used parking like an old rug. There is not all that much new development taking place (especially retail) which can take advantage of the lessened requirements. Many land owners build in excess of the Minimum anyway.

However as opportunities for re-development arise, better laws will lead incrementally, to better land use.