Cities prepare for the electric car, but are they thinking about the roads?

Potholes - courtesy flickr user MSVG

The New York Times describes a number of cities, mostly in California, that are preparing their communities for the adoption of more electric vehicles. Primarily this means installing charging stations in public places and addressing code issues related to charging stations at single family homes. According to the article, San Francisco will soon have a new ordinance that requires new structures have the wiring to accommodate charging stations.

The article doesn’t address the other half of the auto infrastructure: the roads. To “prepare” for the electric car, and probably even an efficient system that doesn’t include the electric car, road funding needs to change. We already know that users now only pay about half of the cost of roads, which means there are no market signals for road users to choose the most efficient mode or “consume” an appropriate amount of transportation service (miles traveled). We also have some serious deferred maintenance issues.  If electric vehicles are adopted in large numbers funding for roads, which comes in large part from the gas tax, will continue to dry up.

So besides building charging stations and beefing up transmission infrastructure, cities, counties and states (and users, if they want good roads) should be advocating for a mileage-based fee, similar to what has been studied in Oregon and implemented in the Netherlands, to pay for road building and maintenance. The gas tax would probably have to stay, but as a way to put a price on carbon pollution rather than fund transportation.

This new mileage fee could be tacked unto your home electricity bill if you had a charging station, but that would probably mean a lot of creative solutions would pop up (solar panels) to avoid the fee. While this would have it’s environmental benefits, it wouldn’t solve the transportation funding problem. So the fee should be based purely on mileage, not the fuel used. Existing technology is adequate to provide a method to assess the fee, including addressing privacy concerns. The Oregon pilot has shown that this can work, it’s only a matter of political will to implement it.

Minneapolis to build 35 miles of new bikeways in 2010

A bike boulevard in Berkeley, CA. CC licensed by flickr user Elly Blue

The Jacobean at the City of Lakes Urbanism blog has a good summary:

2010 will bring about several new bicycle projects in Minneapolis. Thanks in large part to funding from the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTP), the city will fund the construction of 35 new miles of bikeways this year, most of which will come in the form of bicycle boulevards. Bicycle boulevards are a fairly low-cost form of bikeway which mostly involve improving existing low-traffic streets for use by cyclists. Common bike boulevard treatments include traffic-calming measures, improved crossing safety measures at high-traffic intersections, way-finding signs, and pavement markings to indicate to motorists that the space is intended for frequent use by bicyclists. The city has a nice two-pager explaining the bicycle boulevard concept (check it out here).

The city has a map of proposed improvements here.  In terms of my backyard, I applaud the improvements to Bryant, but I’m somewhat confused about the reason for not including the section between the Greenway and 49th in the bike boulevard plans.  I believe this area sees significantly more bicycle traffic than south of 49th.  My guess as to why it isn’t included is a political issue that starts with “p” and ends with “arking”.

Freedom isn’t free, and neither is transportation

“Freedom’s not free. You have to pay for it.  So if that’s what you want to do, that lifestyle, you want that, it’ll cost money to do that. That’s plain and simple.”

That’s a quote from Carver County Commissioner Maluchnik from a recent MPR story on the deficit between Minnesota’s transportation wants and the state’s funding ability.  The lifestyle I assume he is referring to is living in far-flung areas of the metro and commuting long distances.  The state’s transportation plan is under review, and many projects are being pushed way back, or into non-existence because of the lack of funding.  The Commissioner is reflecting the fact that people may be starting to realize that living with the country’s 5th largest road network may require additional resources.

Of course, it’s not exactly clear from the article that they are, since meeting all the needs would require a $2 increase in the gas tax (according to a representative of the Metropolitan Council), which they don’t seem to be proposing.  So while people may currently be starting to understand the costs of this road network by seeing (and feeling) it’s state of disrepair, it’s not evident that anyone wants to pay more for it.  And while some of these new projects may in fact have questionable benefits (or may not be deemed important enough to raise additional revenue for), its my opinion that maintenance definitely is worth it.

That brings us to another good conversation, this one at the Strong Towns blog.  Strong Towns is currently running a great series of point-counterpoint posts with (in)famous anti-planner Randal O’Toole.  Yesterday on the blog, O’Toole gave us bike-loving radicals a history lesson, positing that low-density suburbs would still exist without government “subsidies”.  While I generally agree with most of his points (even though he neglects to mention the massive subsidies that are the mortgage interest deduction and federal loan guarantees: land use is the other half of transportation), his post is at best a good history lesson, and not necessarily any indication of where we are headed. Strong Towns has a good rebuttal to O’Toole (although user fees only pay around 50% of the costs of highways now, not 70%), looking to the future and reminding us that a full-cost accounting would definitely make built form different.

So I’d say the evidence (in Minnesota at least), supports the Strong Towns point of view: the construction of the transportation system is at a cross-roads.  More of the costs of the system are evident (not hidden), and less of them are being paid for by users.  The benefits of sole reliance on auto transportation and low-density land use begin to look questionable.  As Strong Towns points out, “desire” does not equal reality.  While O’Toole pegs planners as favoring nineteenth-century development patterns, I’d say most of us are more open-minded, and perfectly willing to let the market work, as long as decisions are made with a full knowledge of all the costs.

Federally funding for transit projects now to consider “livability”, analysis no longer dominated by cost-effectiveness

The Transport Politic has the best summary of the changes to the FTA’s New Starts program funding.  In analyzing competing projects nationwide, the government:

…will eliminate a policy-making rule that gives projects’ “cost-effectiveness” primacy when choosing how to distribute transit funds. Once the shift has undergone an internal review and been submitted to public comment, the Department of Transportation will give equal weight to livability issues.

Freemark calls out Minneapolis and the Southwest Corridor alignment process as a perfect example of cost-effectiveness uber-alles mentality gone wrong.

Where the cost-effectiveness index goes really wrong is in medium-density cities hoping to cash in on transit as a tool for increasing density and developing a transit-friendly environment. As demonstrated by the Minneapolis example, the index basically forces transit authorities responsible for choosing routes to pick less useful corridors within the inner-city in order to speed commutes from the suburbs. It also requires agencies to reduce spending on lines in order to meet the arbitrary limit imposed by the index, no matter the willingness of local taxpayers to contribute a higher percentage of a project’s construction costs.

Whether the locals in Minneapolis are/were willing to spend more for 3C is, in my mind, an open question, but it does seem clear that a “less useful corridor” was chosen to meet cost-effectiveness guidelines.

What “livability” means is as yet undetermined and will be part of a rule-making process to come.  The FTA press release does state livability issues include “economic development opportunities and environmental benefits”.  I assume this will mean potential for the project to spur development and the environmental impact from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, among other things.

Freemark says this will be a good change, but won’t solve the real problem: a simple lack of funding for transit projects.  Even if a new methodology for ranking projects is devised, their is still a huge gap between deserving projects and federal funds. Streetsblog summarizes Oberstar’s answer: more funding in the next omnibus transportation bill.  There is also a good back and forth about whether these changes are good or bad at the National Journal.  Transit folks basically say “yahoo!” while skeptics seem to doubt that “livability” measures will be based on rigorous analysis.

It seems to early to judge whether this is a good or bad change without seeing the rules that will guide analysis around livability.  The traditional cost-effectiveness measure used a dollar figure.  However, this dollar figure was based on travel time savings, and included no external costs.  If external environmental impact of route choices and their alternatives can be put in dollar terms, wouldn’t that be a perfectly analytical measure for this new livability category?  Economic development potential seems more squishy, but this the same kind of analysis that road project planners have to do when they are considering what property to condemn.

Xcel Hiawatha DEIS released, public meeting scheduled

Rendering from Midtown Community Works Partnership of potential overhead lines

The Office of Energy Security has released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Hiawatha Transmission Line Project, Xcel’s plan to run high-voltage lines along the Midtown Greenway (careful, the PDF is huge and will bog down even newer computers).  They have also announced a public meeting to take comments on the document on February 10th.

The DEIS does identify above-ground lines as having negative impacts on visual quality, being inconsistent with local urban design standards and potentially discouraging additional residential and commercial development nearby.

As I understand it, although the EIS has to identify mitigation strategies for the impacts of the project, it does not require that these mitigation measures be implemented if the project is approved.  From this TC Daily Planet article, it sounds as though the PUC may have the final say about mitigation, but I assume that the Department of Commerce is the responsible LGU, and would also have to approve a route and mitigation measures.

Either way, the public meeting is a chance for anyone to comment on potential additional impacts, whether the scale of impacts has been adequately measured, and the effectiveness of mitigation measures identified.  This is a good time to get involved.

New Year News – Trains, Plans, and Automobiles (miles traveled)

What with the holidays and all, Net Density has been on a bit of a hiatus.  Many pieces of news dropped while I was enjoying some relaxation, and in order to catch up I simply don’t have time to give them all the detail they deserve.  So, instead of skipping them altogether, I’ll try to cover them all, giving a few of my editorial comments for each.

A draft of the Minneapolis North Loop Small Area Plan was completed and put out for public comment, with a twist.  You can edit the document directly using a wiki, which the city and the neighborhood hope will encourage more participation.  Put me in the skeptical camp. Wikis work best when with a small audience who is very knowledgeable about the topic, or a really large audience (see Wikipedia) where the size of the audience enables content to be vetted and inaccurate information to be weeded out.  The North Loop plan wiki may see a small audience, which will mean little peer review, and they will also likely be unaware of the requirements for plan content.

TransForm, a transportation policy advocacy group from the Bay area, has released its GreenTRIP rating system to fill the gaps in LEED ND and rank developments based on their ability to reduce VMT.  I say hoorah for the premise, we need to tackle VMT to address climate change and other issues, but do we need another rating system?  How about some regulation?

Saint Paul adopted a requirement that all new buildings projects which receive $200,000 or more in city funding must meet the standards of one of seven ratings systems such as LEED. Projects must meet Minnesota Sustainble Buildings 2030 energy standards.  Saint Paul is a model.  Any development that receives public dollars should at least meet these basic energy requirements when the payoffs (and paybacks) are so obvious and available.

Last, but certainly not least, MNDOT released its statewide Passenger and Freight Rail Plan.  The plan lays out near and long-term corridor priorities and shockingly (or maybe not shockingly) does not clearly pick the river route as a winner for high-speed rail to Chicago.  The alignment saga will continue, but if MNDOT’s cost-effectiveness figures are correct, building a link to Chicago makes good sense (and not just because of the lack of full-body scanners).

Welcome to 2010!  I hope your best laid plans all reach the implementation stage this year!

Are You A Member of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition?

Minneapolis is the #2 bicycling city in America. But up until a few months ago, there was no organized group to lobby for the rights and interests of bicyclists in the city.  Sure, there are some related groups like the Midtown Greenway Coalition and forums like Minneapolis Bike Love, but no group that was organizing cyclists to lobby the city for better infrastructure and promote cycling-related events.

Well, since they have a Facebook page, I’m calling it official.  The 4th meeting is January 9th and the Central Library.  I know that one of their top priorities will be bringing a ciclovia, or car-free day to Minneapolis in the spring to coincide with World Health Day.  This would mean opening up one of our cities major roads to pedestrians and bikes, and closing it to cars for a whole day.  Think of it as a big party in the road for a whole day. Another issue will be advocating for improvements to bike infrastructure in downtown.

Watch the video below for more information on World Health Day and check out the Facebook page.

Hybrid Power for Bikes – The Copenhagen Wheel

A disc-shaped addition to your bike’s rear wheel which helps you up hills with an electric assist.  Also connects to your smartphone to do many other amazing things I don’t quite understand. I question why they chose to show this on a fixed-gear bicycle. Everyone knows people who ride fixed-gear bicycles would never admit they needed an electric motor to help them up hills.

Creating Real Transity Improvements in Uptown Part 2: The Potential of Arterial BRT

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

In a previous post, I promised some insight into creating substantial transit improvements in the Uptown/LynLake areas of Minneapolis now that LRT is basically off the table.  In what is hopefully the first in a series of guest posts by different transit experts, I’ve asked a Metro Transit planner who is involved in transitway planning throughout the region to give his (or her) insight.  As our guest will reiterate, the opinions seen here are personal (although professionally informed) and do not represent the opinions of Metro Transit.

As a reminder, I’ve asked our guest to limit the response to improvements that could really be implemented, and are not wildly expensive or politically infeasible. And, of course, ideally these improvements should have the potential to significantly increase ridership and make the overall transit experience in the area better.

First I’ll thank Brendon for the opportunity to contribute to this excellent blog. Net Density does a great job offering posts that are understandable and approachable, but also of sound technical merit and well-reasoned professional planning. I will aspire to match these qualities in my post.

Second, I will note that the information contained in this post is meant only to advance the transportation planning professional discourse. It is my own work, and does not necessarily reflect the policies of my employer.


Many residents of Minneapolis neighborhoods, and those in the planning community were frustrated by the HCRRA decision to pursue Southwest LRT on route 3A, via Kenilworth corridor. Given the current greater density and increased transit usage along Lake Street, Hennepin, and Nicollet, many came away with a desire for rapid, high quality transit improvements. This post does not revisit the many, justified reasons for 3A. Instead, it focuses on the many, justified reasons for transit improvements in several additional corridors in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

High quality improvements are warranted in south Minneapolis. In this post, I will respond to Brendon’s request to detail planned improvements. I’ll also point to other regions’ experiences with realistic, implementable investments in transit speed and quality.

Continue reading

US Road Funding From Non-Users At All Time High

According to a new report by Subsidy Scope from the Pew Charitable Trusts, user fees for the construction and maintenance of US highways were at an all time low in 2007.  In other words, fees from non-users are at an all time high ($70 billion).  In 2007, 51% of funds for construction and maintenance was generated from user fees, down from 71 percent 40 years ago.  User fees include the gas tax, while non-user fees are things like bonds from local governments and sales and property taxes.

The main causes of this change according to Subsidy Scope?  No increase in the federal gas tax since 1993 and an increasing reliance on state and local governments to pay for roads.  People also drive less as fuel prices increase.  No mention of increasing use of alternative fuel vehicles, but surely that will play an increasing role in revenue declines in the future.

In contrast, I think 25% of transit’s costs are paid through user fees, although please correct me if I’m wrong.  Here is some data to wade through if you’re interested.  It should also be noted that both of these percentages include only internalized costs of roads and transit, not externalized (non-monetized) societal costs (pollution, congestion, etc).