From transportation

Let’s be pro-transit

My latest at streets.mn is all about positivity:

I’ll start by saying I have strong feelings about Southwest LRT. So do some people on this very blog. You probably do too. However, I won’t be contributing further to the gallons of spilled real and virtual ink or weeks of public testimony.  I’d like to talk about how we can set the stage for some other projects that could be really beneficial for transit-dependent and transit-interested communities. Nothing in this post should be interpreted as diminishing the importance of that LRT project, the upcoming decisions that will determine it’s fate/depth of its tunnel, or the correctness of any particular opinion about it.  But I have this urge to start some positive conversations about other projects that need some support.  Weird, right?

Car2Go first impressions

Over at streets.mn, I detail some of my first impressions of one of Minneapolis’ newest car-sharing options, Car2Go.

According to MPR, by 2014 there will be over 400 vehicles available to car-sharing customers.

The bulk of these will be in the fleet of Car2Go, which operates on a different business model than the rest, offerring “point to point” service.  Walk to a car anywhere in Minneapolis, drive where you want to go, then park it at any curb space in Minneapolis (expect rush hour zones).  Other companies require that you return their cars to a specified location at a specified time.  The trade-off is that their rates are generally cheaper.

Read the rest.

The greenhouse gas benefits of autonomous vehicles

stanley side view (2005-023-040)

Autonomous vehicles may bring a myriad of benefits, but I anticipate that one of the largest may be the actual reduction in the total size of the vehicle fleet.  Eventually autonomous vehicles will allow “whistlecar” service, and whether fully autonomous or not would, this service is likely to fundamentally change the ownership model of automobiles.  Like present-day car-sharing services or taxis, a whistlecar subscription would mean one car could serve the needs of many people, instead of remaining parked most of the day waiting for its one owner to return.  Once you’re done with a car, it can drive off and serve someone else in the vicinity, drive to a charging station (if it’s electric), drive to a garage for service, or perhaps even deliver packages.  When you can subscribe to an on-demand travel service available 24-7 (and eventually cheaper than owning a car), many people will choose not to own.

Setting aside all the other benefits of autonomous vehicles for the moment, I’ll explore just this one: the benefits of a reduction in the car fleet.  And in a limited way: the greenhouse gas implications of this reduction in vehicles. Read more

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routing

2012 Nice Ride flows revisited

For the last two years, I’ve mapped the flows of the Nice Ride bikes.  I’ve always been slightly dissatisfied with the results, since bikes were obviously shown taking routes that any sane Nice Rider would never take (Hennepin Avenue between Lake and the bottleneck, for example).  Try as I might, I could never get ArcGIS to prioritize trails, lanes and bike boulevards sufficiently.

Enter the good people at Cyclopath.  Cyclopath is something like a bike route wiki, in that it is constantly updating it’s database of bike routes using ratings from users.  So every street in their database has a rating from bad to awesome (actually 0 to 4).  And this database includes the whole metro and beyond.  Best of all, they were willing to share it!

The latest version of ArcGIS has a new “restriction preference” setting, meaning there are six levels of preference for a link from “Highly Avoid” to “Highly Prefer”.  So I combined cyclopath’s street ratings with these preference settings and got a new and better route analyzer.  Here are the results:

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routingAs a reminder, here is what the old version looked like:

2012 Nice Ride FlowsA few changes of note:

  • Hennepin is obviously not so popular anymore, save in downtown where there are more Nice Ride Stations.
  • The Cedar Lake Trail got a little more popular, perhaps 500 trips in some locations, since it was a Highly Preferred route.
  • West River Parkway south of the Washington Avenue bridge got a lot less popular (although crossings at Franklin stayed nearly the same).
  • There is generally just a lot less jigging and jogging on small streets as trips tend to condense onto major routes (see the major difference on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul).

Here is a version with a base street map for orientation:

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routing_greybase

Washington Avenue Traffic Projections

Hennepin County is preparing to reconstruct a portion of Washington Avenue between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Avenue South.  There has been much discussion of this project, in part because the reconstructed road may or may not include some sort of bike facilities.

Today I got an email about an upcoming public meeting for the project, and I noticed the project webpage includes a Traffic Operation Analysis with some traffic projections through 2035.  Hennepin County is projecting a 0.5% annual growth in traffic volumes between 2011 and 2035.

Hennepin County provided traffic volume forecasting information for the Washington
Avenue study area. Several considerations included in the traffic forecasts are:
Minneapolis overall expects to add 36,000 residents and 30,000 employees over
the next 20 years.

  • Closure of Washington Avenue through the U of M, east of the Mississippi River.
  • Construction of the new 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.
  • Reconfiguration of the interchange at Washington Avenue SE/Cedar Avenue.
  • Construction of the Central Corridor LRT line.
  • The impact of continued development in the downtown area including
  • townhomes/condos, office space and retail businesses.

Given the above considerations and through a review of past studies completed within the project area, Hennepin County recommends that the traffic forecasts be based on applying a 0.5 percent per year growth rate (13 percent increase by 2035) to the existing traffic volumes, then adjusting Washington Avenue, 3rd Street S and 4th Street S traffic volumes to account for circulation changes with the future 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.

I don’t feel qualified to speak about hyper-local traffic patterns based on certain street closures and circulation patterns.  That’s traffic engineer stuff.  But here are a few things (and charts) to consider:

  • According to Mark Filipi, who works on regional traffic modeling for the Metropolitan Council, the regional traffic model (based on old comp plan data) projects 0.3% annual growth in total Minneapolis VMT through 2025.  This is lower than 0.5%.
  • Total Minneapolis VMT has basically been falling since 2002, with non-interstate VMT fluctuating around flat growth (all VMT figures from MNDOT).Minneapolis VMT
  • Minnesota total VMT per capita has been falling steadily since 2004 at over half a percent each year, and total VMT has been falling since 2007.  Minnesota VMT and VMT per capita
  • According to the Minneapolis Traffic Count Management System, two of the three traffic count locations on Washington Avenue in the study area show a drop in traffic from their peaks in the late 90′s/early 00′s.  The third shows flat volumes.Washington Traffic Counts Between 3rd Ave & 4th Ave

Does all this mean that 0.5% annual growth rate on Washington Avenue is incorrect?  I’m not sure.  Minneapolis does plan to grow a lot of downtown jobs and housing.  On the other hand, per capita VMT trends have been falling not just in Minnesota, but across the country and world.  In addition, Minneapolis policy makers have stated their goals to shift modes.  It’s troublesome to me that in the “considerations” that Hennepin County used in their traffic forecasts, they didn’t include plans for that mode shift the same way they include plans for development.

Given the severe lack of detail on how the 0.5% growth figure was developed, I don’t think the community should accept any design predicated on that figure without some additional explanation, especially if the capacity needed to accomodate that growth is given as a reason to reject elements that will make this street a livable, vibrant and valuable place, namely, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Cross-posted at streets.mn

2012 Nice Ride Flows

2012 Nice Ride FlowsPresented here without scale or legend, are the Nice Ride flows from 2012.  As with the mapping I did for 2011, individual road segments are thickened to represent the volume of Nice Ride traffic that traveled over them during the year. Bike trails and lanes were favored by the routing software, but since it looked for direct routes, some paths may be under or over represented compared with real-life Nice Rider travel (Cedar Lake Trail versus Hennepin Avenue, for example).

St. Paul is much more vibrant in 2012, with the Lake Street bridge seeing a high volume of Nice Riders crossing to our twin city.  Top traffic segments included the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck south of Loring Park, south of the Stone Arch Bridge, West River Parkway, and the Hiawatha trail east of the Metrodome.

Once again, kudos to Nice Ride for releasing all this awesome data.

“significant risks of derailment at both ends”

Twin Cities Business via Minnpost, has an excruciatingly detailed look at the history of the TC&W railroad and the problems facing potential relocation of said railroad for the SW LRT project.

The goal is that TC&W head west as it does now out of downtown Minneapolis on BNSF rails, but rather than turning southwest into Kenilworth, it would continue past Highway 100 to join the MN&S, heading south through St. Louis Park to rejoin its current route near Louisiana Avenue and Highway 7.

Problem is, the MN&S, which in 1993 looked to TC&W like a long-term solution for a modest amount of additional spending, is now perceived as unworkable by the railroad. The cost of remaking it to fit TC&W’s operations has ballooned from an optimistic $1 million to $70 million or more, and the railroad and others say it presents engineering challenges that may not be solvable within the budgets of the SWLRT project.

In December, the railroad filed its most emphatic objections yet to the SWLRT reroute. Wegner says the MN&S reroute is “a design we intuitively know is bad.” It has “significant risks of derailment” at both endpoints.

In a nutshell, the MN&S, and the proposed connections to it, are engineered for the small CP freight trains that currently use it, not the 100-car trains TC&W runs. The railroad is wary of the undulating MN&S grades, curvature, and proximity to St. Louis Park High School for their potential to insert costly inefficiencies into its operations.

“We have no issue with Southwest Light Rail,” insists Wegner. “But we need to get to St. Paul with the same cost structure as today.”

St. Louis Park officials, concerned about the impacts of the reroute, concur with TC&W. “A lot of the reroute is unfeasible,” says Mayor Jeff Jacobs. He maintains that as currently drawn, the reroute will require expensive noise and vibration mitigation, and the likely removal of 30 to 40 homes. But he says a realistic plan that also functions for 100-car freights will require more expense than the $70 million or so estimated for it, plus removal of additional buildings. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see [the reroute] get to $100 million or above.”

The cost of the freight rail reroute was never included in the evaluation of alternative alignments for the SW LRT project.

All the ways we subsidize growth

Over at streets.mn, I reflect on a recent event I attended, ““Kicking the Habit: Unsustainable Economic Growth” that featured streets.mn contributor Chuck Marohn delivering his Strong Towns message.  I focus on one issue that is featured prominently in the Strong Towns narrative: intergovernmental transfer payments which subsidize growth and potentially hide the true cost of development.

In Minnesota, we build roads really well. If you look at the metro area, we’ve created a system where despite wide differences in job and housing density, commute times are virtually the same whether you live in Dahlgren Township or Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. We also have a semi-famous regional government that makes connection to the same wastewater system easy, no matter where you are in a 7-county region that includes both farms and skyscrapers. All these things (and more) are made possible by shared resources, often collected from one area or community type, and sent to another with a different character. Somehow we’ve determined that this is a good thing (for ease of access, equity, environmental protection, political will, etc) As I listened to Chuck I thought, “you’d really have to remake how local governments interact if you wanted to promote (or even test) the idea that our “most productive places” should be differentiated from our least productive.

I won’t attempt to figure out how this can be done. But I think it’s valuable to think about all these “transfer payments”. There are more than most people ever think about. So, here goes:

Read the rest.

Department of Accessibility

At streets.mn, Andrew Owen has a fascinating look at the work he has done with David Levinson on measuring accessibility in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.  I’ll let Andrew define accessibility:

Accessibility measures the ease of reaching valued destinations.

Think about the last trip you made. You were in place A, you wanted to be in place B, and you got there by paying some sort of cost. There are several components at work here.

First, lets look at your reason for wanted to be in place B. That’s the whole reason the trip took place! You didn’t just want to move around for a bit, and then come back to A. (People do that sometimes, but we don’t consider it travel — we call it things like recreationexercise, or NASCAR.) No, you had a reason for traveling to place B. That reason, from a transportation economics perspective, is the value that place B holds for you.

Now that we’ve established that place B has some value to you, it would be great if you could get there whenever you want, for free. But you can’t. Even if you frugally decide to walk from A to B instead of drive, fly, take the bus, or ride a horse, you cannot escape spending a precious resource: your time. The total amount of resources you spend in getting to B, whether they are time, money, oats (for your horse), or some combination, is thecost you pay to reach place B. To generalize just a little bit more, we can say that when the cost of getting to B is low, then B is easy to reach.

That, in a nutshell, is accessibility. It combines the value that we get from travel with the cost of making the trip. I love accessibility because it neatly encapsulates what I consider to be the fundamental purpose of transportation systems: providing ways for people to get to places they want to reach, at costs they are willing to pay.

Andrew then goes on to discuss the results of a project they completed for MN-DOT on measuring “cumulative opportunities accessibility”, or how many things can be reached within a given cost (time) threshold by car and transit.   You should read the whole post to see Andrew’s many interesting conclusions.

After reading it, a few things jumped out at me:

Owning a car gives you an overwhelming advantage in accessing jobs in this metro.  In a huge swath of the metro, making up all but the most outlying areas, you can access at least 100,000 jobs in 20 minutes by car.  A very large area, incorporating both core cities and most first-ring suburbs, can access over 500,000 jobs and up to 2.2 million.  By contrast, transit accessibility to jobs maxes out at 100k – 250k jobs, and this is if you live very near downtown Minneapolis.  If you live in parts of North and South Minneapolis and use transit, you have the same access to jobs in 20 minutes as someone with a car living in southern Dakota County (like in a corn field).  Or, based on the map shown below, from parts of Minneapolis, you can only reach 10-20% of the number of jobs reachable by car.

Ratio of jobs accessible by transit to jobs accessible by car

Is our transportation/land use system is failing those that can least afford a car?  I’d say that judgment wouldn’t be a stretch looking at these maps.  It will be interesting to see what MNDOT does with this information.

There will be a temptation to interpret this metric as only about transportation.  It’s actually about destination density AND transportation system performance.  I posted this idea in the comments and Andrew had a good response:

That’s a great point, and I didn’t talk much about the land use side of things in this post.

I feel like the popular conception often sees land use as more static than transportation; it is the background canvas upon which the dynamic lines of transportation are drawn. Discussion of expensive, exciting transportation systems tends to magnify this effect.

But in reality land use is far more dynamic! Transportation systems change in big fits and starts, but land use is constantly evolving in countless small ways. Even if we completely halted new investments in transportation, we could still make huge changes in accessibility through the policies we choose to guide land use development.

MNDOT mostly builds roads, so I assume they’ll use this report to think about where and how they should build more roads.  But if your goal is increasing accessibility, is it cheaper to lay blacktop or increase jobs/housing density?  What are the environmental implications of choosing each of those options?  Why do we have one half of the equation that’s totally socialized (road & transit building) and one that is totally privatized (with obvious regulation – land use controls/building construction)?

What if instead of a Department of Transportation we had a Department of Accessibility and it’s mission was to improve accessibility while meeting environmental standards, building resilient systems, and being economically viable?  I bet it would look at lot different than our current DOTs (hint: it would do a lot more with land use).