Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Florence Tramvia rolls smoothly ahead

Having recently had the opportunity to ride the Florence tram (“Tramvia”), I’m happy to report that it appears to be a great success.  It’s modern, clean, frequent, smooth-riding, and very popular.  Although one line has been operational for a few years, a recent extension of that line to the other side of town and the inauguration of Line 2 from the main train station to the airport has created a real system.  Most of the system is on reserved – but not grade separated – right-of-way, so there is enough cross traffic to keep speeds slower than I would like and to generate occasional collisions. 
As I have commented before with respect to the Strasbourg and Luxembourg trams, this mode really seems to work well in medium-sized cities which can’t justify a full-blown metro but need more than buses.  Why can’t we do this in the U.S.?

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Bernie goes Green New Deal

Most of the major presidential candidates have now put forward aggressive Climate Change proposals (thanks Gov. Inslee and CNN!).  I’ll leave it to others to assess the relative merits of all these programs and the performance of the candidates on CNN and other venues.  However, most of the coverage and commentaries I have seen give scant attention to the transportation elements of these programs, which I will attempt to remedy, beginning with Bernie Sanders.  Bernie has launched a really big and comprehensive program (available here).  I will leave aside the revenue piece for the moment and summarize the spending and policy elements.
The overall goal is to “fully electrify and decarbonize our transportation sector,” which I think is a clear and crisp goal statement.
Some of the specific program ideas (my comments in parentheses):
·      Build a national electric vehicle charging infrastructure with open access and interoperable stations.  (I’m all for this.  No details provided, although I think you could do a lot for the $85.6 Billion proposed!)
·      Replace all transit buses and school buses with electric models.  (I agree.  It’s time for this.)
·      Set up a vehicle trade-in program, as well as direct grants for low-income people, to incentivize replacing old internal combustion vehicles with US-made EVs.  (There are plenty of successful program models to build on.)
·      Replace all diesel trucks with “fast-charging and long-range electric trucks.”  (Definitely needs to happen, but the technology to make it happen is not yet reliable and scaleable.)
·      Build more public transportation, increase ridership by 65%, promote transit oriented development.  (Definitely doable and important, but the devil is in the details.)
·      Build regional high-speed rail to complete the Obama proposal.  (Important and expensive.  The “regional” qualification is key as it recognizes that it’s a big country and not all intercity corridors are suitable for high-speed rail with existing and reasonably predictable technology.)
There are other key transportation proposals included under “Infrastructure”:
·      Increase funding for roads.  (Yes, but I would add a qualifier that the Highway Trust Fund can’t be used for highway expansion.)
·      Repair freight and passenger transportation networks using TIGER grants.  (Don’t know how this is supposed to work.  I’m all for TIGER grants, but these are best used for targeted innovative projects, not bread-and-butter rehab work.)
·      Retrofit public infrastructure – including roads and bridges – to withstand climate impacts.  (Absolutely.  But not sure whether we are talking about a new program here.  The roads and bridges piece could be handled through adjustments to FHWA programs.)
·      Adapt to sea-level rise by providing funding to coastal communities.  (Same comment as above.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Don’t just talk about Baltimore: Invest in it

Most of us have been appalled and disgusted by the racist and derogatory comments concerning the city of Baltimore that have been emanating from the White House in recent weeks.  I only comment on this topic because it is connected to transportation.  How, you might ask?
Those of us who know Baltimore are aware both of its many charms (“Charm City”) and its many problems.  A lot of these problems are related to concentrated poverty and economic disadvantage in the city.  This poverty and economic disadvantage can and should be addressed by targeted public investment, including upgrading the transportation network so that it can support revitalization.
Has the state of Maryland been providing this targeted investment to its central city?  In fact, the opposite is happening.  As David Alpert points out with great clarity on his Greater Great Washington blog (here), the state has been systematically disinvesting in transportation in the city and redistributing resources to suburban counties.  The cruelest disinvestment has been the defunding of the Red Line light rail initiative, which would link key city and suburban activity centers with a modern transit line while tying together the various area transit lines into a real network.  The most blatant redistribution is the plan to support colossal highway widening projects in the wealthiest suburban counties.
Yes, racist and inappropriate language should be called out.  More importantly, we should be using public investment as a tool to build infrastructure that supports opportunity and equitable economic growth where it is most needed.

Friday, July 12, 2019

NASTO Notes 2019

So NASTO 2019 finally saw a re-emergence of some attention to Climate Change issues (NASTO is the Northeastern Association of State Transportation Officials, which recently held its annual conference in Wilmington, DE). 
I was happy to see that Resilience was back on the agenda.  As usual with transportation people, there was little discussion of “Climate Change.”  The focus was on Extreme Weather Events and how to respond to them.  The overall takeaway is that Resilience is being mainstreamed in state DOTs, at least in the Northeast.  Elements of the developing approach to Resilience include input from academic research, long-range planning, development of greener approaches to hardening of infrastructure, and detailed planning for disaster response.  In the works – and coming out shortly – is a “CEO Primer” on Resilience issues for state DOT secretaries and commissioners (information here). 
It was also encouraging to see a session on electrification of the transportation sector, which I consider an urgent priority.  The two technologies discussed were electric buses and hydrogen fuel cells (for a variety of uses). 
Electric buses, I’m pleased to say, are making rapid market penetration throughout the country.  The technology is rapidly advancing and the business plan of the leading manufacturer, Proterra, appears solid.  They argue that electric buses are now cheaper than diesel vehicles over their lifetime, as the long-term savings in maintenance costs (electric buses are very low-maintenance) overcomes the initial higher cost to purchase.  Interestingly, Proterra has no plan for developing in-service charging, reasoning that current batteries will last through a day of typical revenue service – and these batteries are getting better at a rapid rate.
I don’t know much about hydrogen fuel cells, which certainly have many benefits but also have the drawback of requiring considerable new infrastructure.  California is rapidly scaling up so that light-duty HFC vehicles, now for sale, can have relatively easy access to hydrogen fueling stations.  HFC technology is also very promising for trucks and trains (see my blog posting here).
Unfortunately, counterbalancing these minimal, though promising, discussions on Climate Change issues was a Maryland DOT presentation touting their massive Interstate highway widening plan.  They intend to use a public/private partnership arrangement to raise $11 Billion for a major widening of the Maryland portion of the Capital Beltway (I-495) and the I-270 radial freeway in Montgomery and Frederick counties.  In my view, a widening program on this scale represents a huge setback on multiple levels to efforts to combat Climate Change (full disclosure: I have provided information in support of this view to my client, the Maryland Climate Coalition, who are fighting the MDOT plan).  Sadly, the same DOT that is advancing this oversized widening program has also stopped the Baltimore Red Line transit project, which should have been – and can still be – an enormous step forward in promoting urban redevelopment, greenhouse gas emission reduction, and multimodal mobility.
I should say a word about our host city – Wilmington – and the Riverfront Redevelopment area where we met.  The Wilmington Riverfront is a real urban redevelopment success story, transforming a derelict industrial wasteland into a vibrant mixed-use community over a 25-year period.  This success was powered by the usual forces: strong political leadership, major public investment, powerful private sector actors willing to support it, and many entrepreneurs willing to take a risk.  The process wasn’t always easy (see the video on the Redevelopment website here) but has paid off in a big way.  The Riverfront is such a success story that the former director of the Redevelopment agency – Michael Purzyki – was elected mayor!
Congrats to Delaware DOT for hosting a great conference!

Friday, June 28, 2019

KC Streetcar

I had a chance recently to ride the new (three-year old) Kansas City Streetcar – and I was impressed!
The streetcar runs on a 2.2-mile starter line along Main Street in downtown Kansas City.  Financed by a transportation development district, it is fare-free and connects such major activity centers as the financial district, River Market, the Power and Light District and other entertainment areas, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, and Union Station.  A major extension south to the Country Club Plaza district and the University of Missouri at Kansas City (as well as a shorter extension to the north) is in the works.  (See the Streetcar website here.)
I found the cars very comfortable and the ride very smooth.  There appeared to be a wide variety of patrons using the streetcar as a hop-on, hop-off service.  Happy to see an old favorite town of mine using the streetcar mode so well!  I hope the extensions happen as planned!

Canton CT Wins Planning Award

Two years ago I wrote a series of blog postings, based on site visits, about New England villages and the promise they hold for better, more sustainable land use forms for the future.  One of my subjects was Canton, CT, a charming town centered around a closed axe factory (!) with lots of potential (my blog posting here).  Clearly the townsfolk are pursuing that potential, including by adopting a “form-based design code” for four designated villages within the town.  That code was recently awarded a “Driehaus Form-Based Codes Award” by Smart Growth America (story and links here).
What is form-based code?  In a nutshell, I’d describe it as a zoning tool that concentrates on the location, size, shape, and look of buildings rather than their uses.  The general intent is to get away from rigid separation of land uses and instead encourage a mixture of commercial and residential uses (e.g., residential over retail) that make for livelier, healthier, more resilient communities.  Typically these plans have more images and less text than more conventional codes.  From a transportation point of view, this type of zoning promotes reduced automobile dominance, shorter trips, and more walking and biking trips. 
The Canton “Village Districts Form-Based Design Code” is only one piece of a whole suite of local plans and regulations intended to guide development and redevelopment in key areas of the town.  Just flipping through the document will give you a sense of what it covers: building form standards (frontages), urban space standards (street types, streetscapes, civic spaces, etc.), architectural standards (everything from windows to signs), adaptive reuse, affordable housing, and more.  Congrats to Canton for taking another step forward in revitalizing a very cool town!
And by the way, for transportation people, the best document to help towns tie mobility form planning and transportation planning is still (in my slightly biased opinion) Mobility and Community Form: A Guide to Linking Transportation and Land Use in the Municipal Master Plan.  This was published in 2006 on my watch at New Jersey DOT and is still available on the NDOT website (here).
Images below are: a building illustration from the Canton plan, a view of the same building from my 2017 blog posting, and the famous “Transect” image from the Mobility and Community Form document.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reston VA: An (old) new town with new (old) transportation opportunities and problems

A recent story by Michael Freedman-Schnapp on the Greater Greater Washington blog (here) points out some of the social, housing, and transportation issues that the classic “new town” of Reston, Virginia is dealing with.
As you probably know, Reston has been an urban planning icon since it was founded in 1964.  It is (as the Reston website (here) says) “the largest planned community in Virginia and one of the most renowned planned communities in the nation” with its development based on the values of “open space, recreational facilities, social heterogeneity and aesthetic beauty.”
Freedman-Schnapp points out the weakness of Reston’s transportation network: The town’s master plan and vision are “completely silent on a vision of how a well-designed transportation system can further the preservation of the environment — a notable blind spot of an otherwise eco-friendly ethic. In its place, the county has provided a transportation system that makes it very difficult, if not outright dangerous, to be a pedestrian in Reston.”  His recommendations focus on better pedestrian links around the new Reston Metro stations.
And about those stations: the biggest transportation news in Reston is that the Metro has come to town!  The Silver Line reached its current, temporary terminus at Wiehle—Reston East in 2014.  Two new Reston stations – Reston Town Center and Herndon – are scheduled to open in 2020.  The Fairfax County Office of Community Revitalization has published a very thoughtful and comprehensive paper, “Guidelines for Development: Reston Transit Station Areas” (available here), which sets out a plan for getting the best land use/transportation connection out of these stations.  Wiehle—Reston East and Herndon are somewhat limited by their suburban habitats.  Reston Town Center is the big opportunity.  Unfortunately, the station is not actually in the town center.  In an ideal world, the station would be underground, with entrances on Market Street, perhaps at the Reston Town Square Park, stimulating the kind of urban development found in Arlington.  But in the real world, the station is half a mile a way on an aerial platform in the median of the Dulles Toll Road.  This is what you get when you put transit in these outer suburban settings.  Nevertheless, the county planners (in coordination with local officials) have done a good job in planning new connective links and transit oriented development that will “extend and complement” the Town Center.
 I had three takeaways from my own visit to Reston a few months ago:
1.     Reston Town Center is a real downtown, with a lot going on and a lot of potential.  It is definitely “transit ready development!”
2.     The town is (as Freedman-Schnapp notes) very auto-centric.  You may be able to walk to your local village center for a few goods and services, but if you don’t have a car you’re largely stuck.
3.     The Lake Anne village center is definitely cool (I agree with Freedman-Schnapp here).  My own photo of this location is below.
Neither the Freedman-Schnapp piece nor the county planning study touch on how to get people from the neighborhoods to the Metro stations or the Town Center.  To make Reston really sustainable, it seems to me one would want to have some sort of transit shuttle service connecting the “village centers” to the Metro stations, the Town Center, and possibly to one another.  Local transit can be expensive, but this one might provide a good application for automated transit (OLLI anyone?).