Sunday, July 28, 2013

Congrats to DVRPC on New Long-Range Plan

DVRPC, the Philadelphia area MPO, covering counties both in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has just adopted its new regional Long-Range Plan, Connections 2040 (link here), and as one would expect from one of the best planning agencies in the country, they have done a fine job.
Long-range planning is tough in an environment of self-imposed poverty in funding and pessimism in outlook at all levels of government, but DVRPC’s stakeholders and staff go boldly forth to identify goals and needs and make tough choices. 
On the land use side, the plan promotes a “recentralization” scenario with limited greenfield growth.  The land use plan designates centers and areas for infill and redevelopment, emerging growth, rural resource lands, and a greenspace network. 
The transportation funding piece is probably the most difficult element of the plan, given the Plan To Fail requirement of federal law.  The Plan To Fail requirement (as I call it) says that regional plans must be limited to those projects and programs which can be funded using the pathetic financial resources actually available right now.  Sure enough, the DVRPC plan selects projects and programs that – under Plan To Fail – will lead to an increase in the number of structurally deficient bridges, worse highway pavements, and a general deterioration of the transportation system over time.
The folks at DVRPC adhere to the letter of the law but also go a step beyond, as they should, and identify a “Vision Plan,” in which the plan’s goals are actually met, in addition to the “Funded Plan,” in which they are not.  I will provide just one set of numbers.  The Vision Plan would require about $119 Billion to meet the region’s needs by 2040.  The Funded Plan has only $53 Billion available.  Shortfall? - $66 Billion.  (These numbers support my own rule-of-thumb, which rarely fails, which says that most DOTs and transportation agencies should be investing at about twice their current level to meet their needs.)

Unfortunately, I have to say that even the Vision Plan doesn’t get us where we need to be.  Yes, it would get the infrastructure to a reasonable state of good repair (over a very long stretch of time).  And it would fix a few major highway bottlenecks and build a few transit extensions and do many other good and important things.  But all those steps are basically clean up/paint up/fix up for a 20th century transportation network.  There is nothing transformational.  Nothing about designing and building a real 21st-century transportation network.  So, congratulations to DVRPC on an excellent plan – but a reminder that we have plenty more work to do!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Paul Krugman Talks Trade

Paul Krugman rarely ventures into transportation territory, but a recent post of his should stimulate some thought among transportation folks, especially goods movement people.
In this blog posting “America is Flat” (here) he calls attention to some data showing a decline in Americans moving from state to state and to some other data suggesting, at least, that domestic trade (as opposed to international trade) is trending downward.  The reason?  The U. S. economy has become less regionally specialized over the years.  We no longer live in a time where steel comes from Pittsburgh and butchered hogs come from Chicago.  The daily occupations of most Americans just don’t differ that much from region to region, so we don’t have that much reason to ship things to one another or move from place to place. 
Krugman also suggests that the big rise in international trade isn’t necessarily due to some “inexorable force,” and may be “more special and less generic than often imagined.”
He doesn’t leave us with a takeaway – in fact saying he has no idea if there is any policy relevance in these findings – but I will suggest two, both of which you have heard from me before.
First, we should be cautious about making straight-line projections of future growth in imports (and investing billions of dollars based on those projections) and assuming that current trade patterns will persist indefinitely.  A lot can change.

Second, we should really start scratching our heads about what a future with more decentralized, high-tech manufacturing might look like.  We are in the age of the 3D printer after all. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

New Stations on MBTA Fairmount Line: Making Commuter Rail Work Like Rapid Transit (sort of)

The Massachusetts DOT, MBTA, and the city of Boston just had a ribbon cutting for a new station on the Fairmount commuter rail line, one of a set of four in various stages of completion (story here).  What’s interesting about these stations is that they are all in an urban setting, within the city limits of Boston. 
What MBTA is in fact doing is retrofitting a rather weak commuter rail line to function more like a rapid transit line in transit-poor urban neighborhoods.
The background of these stations traces back at least 25 years to the opening of the Orange Line rapid transit service.  The Orange Line replaced a planned freeway, which transit advocates thought was a major triumph, but unfortunately it meant putting transit in a corridor meant for highway traffic and located away from major activity centers.  This, in my opinion, is an all-too-common problem with transit planning, which tends to look for cheap and available rights of way rather than looking at linking up activity centers.

Be that as it may, the Fairmount Line will be a very interesting case study.  We wish them well!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Entries and Exits: Map of a Day on the Washington Metro

Thanks to Kenton Ngo for this excellent map (here), which provides a graphic representation of people getting on and off Washington Metro trains, hour by hour, station by station.
Aside from entertaining those of us who are transit map geeks, the map says a lot about the Metro system and how it works to move people around the main origins and destinations in the DC metro area. 
The author, I think, captures the main takeaway, which is that most stations fall pretty clearly (and visibly!) into four categories: (1) job centers, especially the downtown stations, where people arrive in the morning and leave in the evening, (2) bedrooms and park-and-rides, which have the opposite pattern, (3) transportation hubs, especially Union Station, where a lot of people are coming and going all day long, and (4) mixed-use areas, which have both housing and jobs, and where people also come and go throughout the day.
Ngo cites the inner-Arlington County Orange Line stations as examples of the mixed-use type of station, and people who are familiar with Washington (or just know the Orange Line from transportation planning circles) will surely agree.  I would cite as other examples that show up on the map (both on the Red Line) Dupont Circle, which is a real “urban” station, and Bethesda, a huge “downtown” mixed-use development in its own right.
The author notes that he uses the “geographically accurate” Metro map rather than the familiar schematic we know from placards in stations and trains.  If you are familiar with the usual schematic – but not with the geographic map – you can really see how the Metro system is mainly “arms” without a lot of connectivity outside the central area.
I also am struck by how little visible traffic there is on some lines, notably those in Prince Georges County.  I’m sure that reflects a lot of history and market trends over time, but to me it says that the existing bones of the Metro system (inadequate as they are in some ways) can support a lot more high-quality development.

Congrats to Kenton Ngo for such and enlightening (and entertaining!) piece!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Taming the Urban Arterial – Trees!

One of the persistent causes of argument between local governments and state DOTs is….trees!  Towns love the idea of planting street trees in the medians of ugly urban arterials, as a way of at least putting some lipstick on these eyesores.  To state DOT traffic engineers, however, street trees are just another kind of “fixed object in the clear zone” – a source of crash danger for vehicles leaving their lanes.
Now, thanks to the Washington State DOT and the University of Washington, we have a longitudinal study over several years comparing actual crash data on urban arterials with different forms of medians (including medians with “small” trees) and similar control sections (report here).
The results?  Trees aren’t a problem! 
To oversimplify, almost any kind of median reduces crashes.  Whether or not there are trees in the median doesn’t seem to matter.

Kudos to WsDOT and U of W for a very good study that should have real practical effects in helping engineers and planners at both the local and state level “tame” those ugly urban arterials.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Massachusetts Transportation Plan Wobbling

Some time ago I congratulated Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on his ambitious transportation funding plan – a plan that would raise significant revenue and implement critical improvements to the state’s transportation system.  Unfortunately, the Legislature appears ready to settle for something totally inadequate. 
The AP story (here) notes that legislators are skittish about tax increases “when the economic recovery was sluggish at best and many constituents were still feeling aftereffects of the recession.”  Ugh!  It’s disappointing how few political leaders and opinion leaders appreciate the extent to which transportation funding is the ideal anti-recession medicine!  (The AP, in its inimitable way, characterizes the argument between the governor and legislative leaders as “squabbling over details” as they often do in the case of major policy and political debates.)

So, good luck to Governor Patrick and MassDOT.  They are doing the right thing and hopefully will prevail in the end.