Category Archives: Transportation

Which Calls for More Regulation, Sprawl or Smart Growth?

How do you get more development like this -- with more regulation or less?

How do you get more development like this — with more regulation or less?

by James A. Bacon

One of the more potent criticisms of the Smart Growth movement is that smart growthers implement policies that restrict development, create housing shortages and make housing unaffordable for the poor and working class. The critics present ample evidence that metro regions with the tightest restrictions on development and re-development have higher housing prices overall than regions with fewer restrictions.

But there is more than one way to achieve Smart Growth, at least in theory. One way is is libertarian in inspiration: rolling back the suburban-inspired zoning codes that segregate land uses, cap density restrictions and impose minimum parking requirements on property owners. Undoing the massive government intrusion in local land use would go a long way to reversing the so-called “suburban sprawl” that is the antithesis of Smart Growth without imposing restrictions on new development. A different approach to Smart Growth is more activist: encouraging mixed use development and re-development, seeking more density and curtailing parking in order to push people out of cars.

Suburban zoning codes and regulations are almost universal across America in places developed since World War II, and even in some traditional urban cities. To what extent have activist city governments offset suburban mandates with Smart Growth and environmental mandates? Michael Lewyn and Kristoffer Jackson set to find out. You can read their conclusions in “How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building?” in a paper published by the Mercatus Center.

Lewyn and Jackson examined the zoning regulations of 24 medium-sized cities across the United States with a focus on parking, density and “green building.”

Parking. They found that Smart Growth regulations are not nearly as ubiquitous as sprawl-inducing regulations. Fifteen of the 24 cities had restricted parking supply, but only three had restricted the supply citywide for all land uses. The others limited their restrictions to certain parts of the city or to particular land uses.

Density. While restrictions on maximum density are almost universal across the United States, mandates for minimum density are rare, and when they exist, they are largely irrelevant. For example, San Jose, Calif., imposes a minimum density of one house per acre. But the demand for housing is strong and prices are so high that no one is asking to build at lower densities. Indeed, most cities continue to limit density and mixed-use development — the antithesis of the Smart Growth vision.

Green building. Cities have been willing to experiment with “green building” regulations designed to increase energy efficiency. Only four of the 24 cities surveyed compel developers to meet green building standards. Six others give builders incentives to adopt green building standards, while another eight impose the requirements only upon city-owned buildings.

“Government regulation designed to force smarter, more environmentally friendly growth may face a difficult tradeoff,” the authors write. “If regulations are only slightly more restrictive than what an unregulated market might produce, they may not do very much good. But if regulations are significantly more restrictive, they may encourage development to shift to less environmentally sensitive municipalities.”

Writing in the Market Urbanism blog, Emily Washington provides a useful gloss on the Lewyn-Jackson paper.

Lewyn and Jackson’s study shows that rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations. … This paper demonstrates that today Smart Growth policies are unusual relative to traditional zoning rules that restrict density. However, Smart Growth is in some cases complicating the policy landscape rather than providing more freedom for developers to respond to consumer demand.

Bacon’s bottom line: The only thing I would add to Lewyn, Jackson and Washington is that it would be useful to study transportation policy. The Smart Growth movement is also enamored with walkability, bicycles, mass transit and complete streets. The pursuit of these policies is not seen as much in city zoning codes as in their capital investment programs. This is the area, it seems to me, where the Smart Growth movement has made its greatest mark.

Bringing Transparency to Transportation Project Selection

The intersection from hell... on a good day

Grrrrr.The intersection from hell.

I have concrete reasons to bitch and moan about the new prioritization process for Virginia transportation projects under House Bill 2. A major project near my home — $14 million in improvements to the hellish intersection of Patterson Ave. and Parham Road — was scheduled for 2019 but has been put on hold to be subjected to the kind of strict cost-benefit analysis that, er, uh,  I have been calling for over the years.

That miserable intersection is the bane of my existence. I have to drive through it on half or more of the trips I take. During rush hour, Patterson/Parham can stack up for four or five cycles of the traffic signal. I curse it. I shake my fist at it. I loathe that intersection with every fiber of my being. That single intersection makes me want to move from Henrico County back to the City of Richmond, which has nothing to compare.

However, I do see the virtue in ranking transportation projects according to rational criteria such as congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality. Every transportation project will receive a score, that score will be made transparent to the public, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board will use it when selecting projects, as Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne explains in a Times-Dispatch op-ed today.

HB2 is potentially the most significant change to transportation funding priorities to come along in years. The hope is to bring more accountability to transportation-funding decisions when the initiative is fully implemented by 2016. If the CTB chooses to fund a project with low scores, it will have to answer for its decisions. We’ll see how things work out in practice. The new process assuredly will be an improvement over current practice but I’m skeptical that it will do much to bridge the transportation-land use mismatch that underlays transportation dysfunction. Furthermore, never underestimate the power of ideologues and special interests to work the system to their advantage.

I, for one, will be watching. And if that stinkin’ Patterson/Parham project doesn’t get its funding on schedule, there will be hell to pay!

– JAB

Loudoun’s Broken Development Model

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can't cover its costs in infrastructure and services,  the local governance model is badly broken.

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can’t cover its costs in infrastructure and services, the local governance model is badly broken.

by James A. Bacon

Office workers need less space than they once did. Over the years businesses’ space needs per office employee have shrunk from approximately 250 square feet to less than 190 square feet, says Ben Keddie, vice president of Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite, as quoted in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Office space is expensive, and businesses have learned how to function with less of it. With the rise of the mobile workforce, open work spaces and office hoteling, it is easier than ever to conserve space and rein in lease and rental costs.

That trend has dramatic, if unappreciated, consequences for local governments’ real estate tax base and the management of growth and development. If businesses need less office space per employee, they need less office space overall. Which means the cost of office space drops. Which means developers build fewer new office buildings. Which means local governments are finding it harder and harder to grow their tax base.

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, it appears, is facing that very problem. “A softening commercial office market has made it difficult for developers to make money on their commercial land, because there are fewer companies interested in large parcels,” reports the Loudoun Times. Indeed, it might be said that outlying counties in the Washington metropolitan region are facing a trifecta of troubles regarding commercial real estate: (1) business enterprises are shrinking their office footprints everywhere; (2) sequestration-related budget cuts have dampened demand even more in the Washington region; and (3) when Washington-area businesses do seek new digs, they show strong preferences for walkable urbanism, a higher-density, mixed use pattern of development that accommodates walking, biking and mass transit. Walkable urbanism is found mainly in the region’s urban core and along Metro lines, not in low-density burbs like Loudoun.

Not surprisingly, Loudoun’s supervisors appear to be adrift in dealing with these trends. According to the Loudoun Times, the Board of Supervisors has been striking down applications by developers to rezone excess commercial land to residential on the grounds that residential incurs high costs for roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Loudoun County estimates that for every $1 spent on housing, the county pays $1.62. Developers dispute the latter number, suggesting that it is closer to $1.20. Either way, says Supervisor Shawn Williams, R-Broad Run, new residential development has a negative impact on the county’s operational budget.

Think about it: There is something severely wrong with a system that incentivizes local governments to limit residential development. If Loudoun County, which has the highest per capita income of any locality in the entire country and presumably has a building stock to match, can’t justify new residential development, then something is severely out of whack! It is precisely this attitude, and the resulting restrictions placed on the building of new residences, that creates housing scarcities and makes housing more expensive up and down the income scale.

In the old old tax model, a 60/40 balance between residential and commercial real estate property tax revenue was considered healthy. If you could get more commercial development, then great. If not, you had a problem. Well, almost every locality in the United States has, or will have, a problem as offices continue to downsize and retailing shifts from malls and shopping centers to online commerce. Local government generally, not just Loudoun County, will face a tax crisis. And if county boards and city councils all try to address it the same way as Loudoun — by restricting new housing construction — they will compound the tax crisis with a housing crisis.

What, then, is the answer? Local governments need to advance the emerging discipline of fiscal analytics. The core premise of fiscal analytics is that different human settlement patterns have different cost and revenue profiles. Some patterns generate more tax revenue per acre than other patterns. Some patterns have lower embedded costs for transportation, utilities and public services than others. Some human settlement patterns provide a much better balance between revenue and cost than others.

As a general rule, walkable urbanism (mixed use, medium density, complete streets, access to mass transit) comes closer to fiscal balance (revenues matching expenditures) than the scattered, low-density, auto-centric pattern commonly referred to as suburban sprawl. Continue reading

Women Flex their Biking Muscles

amy_george

Amy George

by Amy George

Riding a bicycle can be transformative to physical and mental well being, to families, to neighborhoods, and beyond. As cycling becomes more popular, more women and girls are enjoying its effects. However, representation among cyclists still tips male — 76% as measured per-ride in the U.S. Yet recent surveys show women overwhelmingly have a positive view of cycling. What is keeping so many women from taking to the streets on two wheels? Furthermore, why should we care, and what can be done about it?

Since 2010, Richmond as a community has taken several big steps in bicycle advocacy. RideRichmond formed that year, as did Mayor Dwight Jones’ Bike, Trail, and Pedestrian Commission. We have seen the creation of the dedicated, professional action and advocacy groups such as  Sportsbackers’ BikeWalkRVA and the VCU RamBikes program. In this landscape of growing bike-positivity, RideRichmond realized that women’s representation still is an underserved aspect of cycling advocacy. As believers in the bicycle, we could not stand by and watch the benefits of cycling distributed unequally to Richmonders. In order to begin this conversation, RideRichmond is hosting the first Richmond Women’s Cycling Summit on October 23 at the Virginia War memorial.

Fortunately, we’re riding a wave of good research and Women’s Cycling efforts across the nation. The long-held line on women’s resistance to cycling was one of “fear and fashion”. (“The cars! The helmet hair!”) It turns out, when you really ask women how they feel about cycling, the answers are much more practical.

The League of American Bicyclists’ excellent Women On A Roll report proposes five C’s that will get more women biking. These address the eight major issues that most surveys report as the barriers to women and cycling. Some highlights:

Convenience. It should be easy to park your bike wherever you go: work, shopping, entertainment destinations. Bike-friendly retail makes good business sense, and women statistically make more shopping trips and control more of their household’s disposable income. At work, access to lockers and showers alleviates concerns about storing clean clothes and grooming. Transit connections, especially express buses, can “multiply mobility” by traversing high-speed arterials and highways, with the bike as a means of transport for the first/last mile. (Biking to the current GRTC Park-and-Ride locations is a daunting prospect.)  Plus, there are other, less tangible needs such as more flexible working hours for parents (both moms and dads), and more walkable neighborhoods that safely allow children to transport themselves to school and after-school activities.

Confidence. Aggressive and distracted drivers threaten everyone, but women are more likely to admit fear. Bike education can begin at school, first in Phys. Ed. and continuing through driver’s education.  One day in a Traffic Skills 101 class can equip young cyclists and their parents with knowledge of skills like proper lane positioning (to prevent “dooring”) and simple, safe evasive maneuvers. Parents can teach basic maintenance techniques like changing a flat tire and secure locking in an afternoon. Even the students that don’t take to cycling will become drivers who know “Share the Road” as a practice, not just a pithy slogan.

Consumer Products. Sixty percent of bicycle owners 17 to 28 are women. Bicycle riding ranked 9th of 47 popular sports for total female participation in 2011, surpassing yoga, tennis, and softball. But many adult bike models don’t include a size small enough to fit a rider under 5’4”. A woman who can find a bike to fit her must then contend with frames and apparel mostly in pink, lavender, powder blue, and florals. These designs might stand on their own, but can you imagine tennis or softball gear selling in these “soft” presentations?

Community. The fun of riding a bicycle is amplified when you ride with others. Whether for enjoyment, fitness, or as transportation, it’s important to frame bicycling as an everyday activity. Invite a friend to go for a ride. Have a destination or reward. Lead no-drop rides. Help your daughters understand that bicycles are fun, but not merely toys. Incorporate cycling into family’s activities.

Consider for yourself whether it’s better to look fat on a bike, working toward your fitness, or in a car, making zero gains to your health. We are all busy, and making the time to dedicate to fitness is a challenge, but cycling is an easy way to workout while also being social, doing errands, or commuting.

On a larger scale, focus on local advocacy with an eye to equity and connecting lower income neighborhoods with access to jobs, food, and services. Vote for candidates that support high levels of funding for alternative transportation and infrastructure.

If the idea of encouraging a healthier, happier, region for all sounds appealing, it is our hope that you  join us on the 23rd to become a part of this growing effort.

Amy George is the Women’s Cycling Summit Coordinator.

Hope for the Burbs

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones

by James A. Bacon

While urbanists trumpet the resurrection of America’s core cities, the nation’s inner suburbs are seeing a lot of action, too. In fact, the transformation of the burbs may be more radical. While cities are seeing more of the same — gentrification that restores decaying neighborhoods, in-fill development looking a lot like the existing development — real estate developers are reinventing suburban structures from the inside out. Shopping malls surrounded by seas of asphalt are being converted into town centers. Big box stores are becoming public recreation centers. Fifty-year-old shopping centers built over streams are being torn down and the waterways restored as greenways.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for “suburban” counties that developed since World War II, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. What she did not say in her enthusiastic, up-beat speech at Virginia Commonwealth University last night is that it is also a time of peril for counties that don’t embrace a strategy of selective urbanization.

Change is not only desirable, it’s necessary, Dunham-Jones contended. The low-density suburbs consume two to three times more energy per capita than central cities, making them vulnerable to upward spikes in energy prices. Local governments are suffering fiscal stress from the burden of maintaining a sprawling infrastructure. Poverty is an increasing problem as poor people, either immigrants or poor people leaking from inner cities, move into older, run-down suburban neighborhoods. At the same time, housing affordability is becoming a middle-class issue as rising transportation costs kill the old “drive ’til you qualify” housing model. Last but not least, Dunham-Jones cited suburbia’s automobile dependency as a public health issue. Infectious diseases (despite the ebola virus hype) are not a major health hazard in the U.S. The real problem is chronic disease stemming from obesity and sedentary lifestyles, which leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Demographics also are driving the transformation of the burbs. People still think of the suburbs as Leave It to Beaver land of households with school-age children. But a majority of households in the burbs now are childless, said Dunham-Jones, and 85% of the growth in household formation in the U.S. will have no children. Millennials are driving the shift to urban lifestyles. They don’t want to live like their suburban parents. But those parents, Baby Boomers mostly, are approaching retirement differently from preceding generations. YEEPIES (Youthful, Energetic Elderly People Into Everything) aren’t looking for suburban privacy; they’re looking for urban engagement.

While many childless families would love to live in old-style, walkable urban neighborhoods, not everyone can afford to do so because restricted supply has driven up prices. And the reality is, a majority of jobs remain in the suburbs. By default, much of the “walkable” community development will take place in suburban counties where land is cheaper. And that creates opportunity for creative real estate developers who can figure out how to retrofit aging suburban properties and for the counties that will accommodate them.

There is more than enough land in suburban counties to make room for the surge of Americans looking for urban lifestyles in suburban counties without disrupting the lives of people who still want to live in their conventional cul-de-sac subdivisions. One third of all malls are dead or dying, said Dunham-Jones. Thousands of big box stores are empty. Retail as a real estate category is shrinking, probably permanently, as more people shop online. As a result, vacancy rates remain stubbornly high in shopping centers. Meanwhile, as Millennials show a strong preference for working in an urban environment, businesses are less interested in putting their workforce in suburban office parks.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Dunham-Jones. “We get to do a make-over!”

Developers have not yet settled upon a fixed formula for re-developing the burbs. Right now, an extraordinary amount of experimentation is going on. Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson have built a database of more than 900 case studies of radical suburban make-overs across the country, many of them in Virginia.

Dunham-Jones said suburban retrofits fall into three broad categories.

From single-use to mixed use. Suburbia is loaded with malls and big-box stores whose retail function is no longer economically viable. Some of these structures are finding a new life by adding new uses. Dunham-Jones cited the example of Hundred Oaks Mall, a dying mall in Nashville; the property still had retail on the ground level but had abandoned the upper level. Vanderbilt University took over the lease for the upper level and installed a medical center. Now the medical center draws patients who otherwise would not have frequented the mall, and patients visiting Hundred Oaks can hang out at the mall while waiting for test results. Patients prefer Hunred Oaks to Vanderbilt’s city facility.

Regreening. An astonishing number of commercial properties were built in wetlands and flood plains. It was routine practice in the 1950s and 1960s to obliterate wetlands and route creeks through culverts underneath the buildings, said Dunham-Jones. The culverts could handle the run-off from undeveloped land upstream but as that land got built upon and paved over, run-off got worse and flooding became an issue. Today, an increasing number of suburban projects are “regreening” old development — ripping out buildings and culverts and restoring the stream beds. Benefits include not only better storm water management but attractive ribbons of greenery through the suburban landscape

Walkability. People are willing to pay a major premium for walkability, even islands of it in an otherwise autocentric environment, said Dunham-Jones. Perhaps the most spectacular transformations are occurring in plots of land large enough — typically old malls — to allow for a restoration of walkable streets and mixed-use development common to traditional cities. Continue reading

Millennials Want a New Kind of Suburbia

Image credit: Demand Institute

Image credit: Demand Institute

by James A. Bacon

The Millennial Generation (18- to 29-years old) will be a predominantly suburban generation, contends a new study by the Demand Institute based on a survey of 1,000 Millennial households. Significant majorities of the younger generation aspire to owning a single-family home and consider automobiles a necessity, while a 48% plurality expresses a preference to live in the “suburbs” over an urban or rural environment.

These findings, the authors contend, contradict “myths” perpetuated by advocates of smart growth and urbanism that Millennials “all want to move to the city and rent; they don’t want to own things; they won’t need cars anyway — and there will be a massive slump in demand because they are all going to be living single in their parents’ basements for the foreseeable future.”

Phew! It’s hard to know where to start with this. The study does provide a useful benchmark for what Millennials are thinking and it reaches at least one very interesting conclusion. Unfortunately, the analysis totally clouds the debate by misstating what smart growthers and urbanists are actually saying and by what employing what our old friend Ed Risse terms “core confusing words.”

The Demand Institute does make some useful observations. While there are only 13.3 million households headed by Millennials today, young people will emerge from their parents’ basements. Their number will swell to 21.6 million households by 2018. Almost four in five expect their financial situation to improve within the next five years, and three out of four plan to move. The reasons they list for wanting to move: 71% for a better home or apartment, 59% for more privacy or space, 50% to establish a household, and 48% to own, not rent. While Millennials have delayed family formation, 30% are married today, 64% expect to be married within five years, and 55% expect to have children within five years.

Three out of four Millennials believe home ownership is important, and 60% plan to purchase a home within five years. When they do rent or buy a new home, 61% want more space. Sixty-two percent want to either rent or purchase a single-family dwelling for their next home.

Here’s where it gets interesting for those following the urban vs. suburban debate: Millennials’ locational preferences are:

48% suburban
38% urban
14% rural

Those who say it’s important for their next home to be within “a short drive” of grocery stores, restaurants and retail outnumber those who say it is important to be within walking distance by more than two to one. Meanwhile, 88% of Millennials own a car, down only one percentage point from 2001.

Among the study’s main conclusions: “The suburbs are going to remain important destinations for young families, but the ideal suburban location for Millennials may not be the same as it was for previous generations. Communities that can offer the best of urban living (e.g. convenience and walkability) with the best of suburban living (e.g. good schools and more space) will thrive in the coming decade.”

Very good. I believe that to be true. One of the great challenges of the next two or three decades will be urbanizing the suburbs, or, to be more precise, to replace the “suburban sprawl” pattern of development characterized by large lots, segregated land uses and autocentric streets with a more traditional “urban” pattern of small lots, some mixed-use and walkable streets.

The authors confuse the issue, however, by their indiscriminate use of the words “suburbs” and “suburban.” They do not differentiate between close-in suburbs where single-family dwellings have small lots and walkable streets and the far-flung “exurbs” on the metropolitan fringe where single-family dwells have large lots and rely exclusively upon automobiles. I would argue that while Millennials assuredly seek to live in communities with good schools and reasonable taxes, they are far less interested than previous generations in living in the “exurbs.” However, it is impossible to prove or disprove that argument with the way the authors constructed the survey.

As for dispelling the “myth” that all Millennials want to live in the city, rent an apartment and give up their cars, the authors have created a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who says “all” Millennials want those things. But the Demand Institute’s own data suggests that a significant number do. Thirty-six percent of Millennials say they expect to continue to rent multi-family housing over the next five years; 24% say they want the same amount of space, and 15% want less space. Thirty-eight percent say they prefer to live in an urban environment. As for transportation, 48% say they take mass transit at least once a week, 22% say they walk and 15% ride a bicycle. I would suggest those numbers represent a major shift from previous generations. It would be nice to compare those preferences with those of Generation Xers 20 years ago. The Demand Institute data would mean far more if we could put it in a generational context.

Bacon’s bottom line: In actuality, there is a big shift in Millennial preferences compared to those of previous generations. A big percentage of Millennials prefer urban lifestyles and a bigger percentage prefer a “best of both worlds” approach typical of the older, denser suburbs. There is little evidence here that Millennials are craving an “exurban” lifestyle of big houses on big lots in locations that make them dependent upon cars for long commutes. The study missed a chance to make that clear.

Back to the Drawing Boards on U.S. 460

A new environmental impact study (EIS) concludes that it will cost $1.8 billion — $400 million more than estimated by the McDonnell administration — to rebuild U.S. 460 between Petersburg and Suffolk as a tolled, high-speed expressway. Upgrading the highway probably will have to be centered on the existing corridor, Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said yesterday.

The heart of the problem: A 2008 environmental study estimated that the route favored by the McDonnell administration would disturb 200 acres of wetlands. Subsequent investigations pushed that number to 583 acres last year. The latest study pushes the number to 613 acres, according to the Times-Dispatch.

The low-impact alternative along the existing route would  disrupt the least amount of wetlands, make the existing route safer and, at a cost of $974 million, be the least expensive to build. On the other hand, upgrading the existing route  would displace more businesses and provide the least amount of “induced growth.” Also, it would provide the least benefit in terms of travel time saved, potentially making it less valuable as a highway outlet for ports in Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Furthermore, backing out of the deal structure negotiated by the McDonnell administration creates major legal headaches for the McAuliffe administration. It is not known how much of the $300 million paid so far to U.S. Mobility Partners, the design-contractor for the project, can be recouped. Removal of the tolls also could breach the state’s warranty with owners of toll-backed bonds issued to help pay for the project.

Bacon’s bottom line: It amazes me that former Governor Bob McDonnell may go to jail for the misdeeds of Giftgate, which didn’t cost the taxpayers a single dime yet fundamental answers have yet to be answered about who was responsible for the U.S. 460 fiasco, the real scandal of his administration.

A detailed McAuliffe administration review of documents blamed a recklessly aggressive implementation of the U.S. 460 project for ignoring the deal-killer wetlands issue but never addressed who in the McDonnell administration made key decisions along the way. McDonnell? Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton? Senior executives with the Virginia Department of Transportation? VDOT staff? As much as Layne deserves credit for laying out many of the facts to the public, he seemed satisfied with a conclusion that “mistakes were made.” The Virginia press corps, which crucified McDonnell for accepting gifts from nutraceutical entrepreneur Jonnie Williams and doing nothing in exchange, seems supinely content with that explanation.

Storm Water Regs? What Storm Water Regs?

silver_line_construction

Silver Line construction

Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) have revealed that they will have to redesign portions of Phase II of the Rail-to-Dulles project to accommodate new storm-water regulations. MWAA offered no estimate as to how much the changes would add to the estimated $5.6 billion total price tag for both phases of the project.

According to the Washington Post, MWAA has already dipped into a $551 million contingency fund for $700,000 to cover a change in storm-water treatment required by the state. That’s a trivial amount of money for a project this size. The question is, how pervasive are the problems and how much more could the remedies cost?

The distressing part of this is that it’s not as if the state popped these storm water regs on MWAA by surprise. There has been a literally decade-long build-up to the new requirements, which went into effect in July. Hopefully, the problem announced by MWAA reflects an anecdotal oversight, not a systemwide goof-up. But that anything of this nature happened at all does not exactly inspire confidence.

– JAB

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

A Better Route

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren't pursuing disruptive innovation.

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren’t pursuing disruptive innovation.

by James A. Bacon

The GRTC Transit System, like most municipal bus systems, provides a one-size-fits-all transportation service. Whatever the route, time of day and level of demand, GRTC runs a standard city bus capable of carrying nearly 60 seated and standing passengers along fixed routes. Everyone pays the same fare ($1.50 on local routes), regardless of time or distance traveled. We’ve all seen the big GRTC buses driving around with two or three passengers. We all know that, given the cost of paying a driver and operating a vehicle, many if not most bus routes operate at a loss. It would surprise few to hear that GRTC costs U.S., state and local taxpayers $33 million in subsidies to operate in fiscal year 2014.

Many people justify this significant subsidy on the grounds that buses provide a way for car-less poor people to get to their jobs. What the Richmond metropolitan region needs, they say, is more bus service so poor people can reach a broader range of job opportunities. Environmentalists also favor buses on the ground that they generate less pollution and carbon dioxide emissions than automobiles do. Local government officials in Henrico and Chesterfield counties tend to oppose the expansion of bus routes not on grounds of principle but on grounds of economy. Their argument: We just can’t afford it.

If we count on fiscally strapped local governments to loosen up the purse strings to pay GRTC to open new routes, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently: how to expand mass transit without GRTC. A free market in transportation services, I contend, would provide superior service to poor people. It would increase shared ridership and reduce pollution emissions. As a bonus, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars in subsidies.

Yes, mass transit in the United States is that bad. GRTC is reasonably well run by the standards of other government-owned monopoly transit systems. Government-owned monopolies worked adequately for decades when innovation in cars and buses was incremental in nature – installing seatbelts or switching from diesel to natural gas. But the traditional model is hopelessly inadequate when the transportation industry stands on the edge of the most momentous transformation since Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line.

The information technology-communications revolution is sweeping through transportation, just as it is through consumer electronics, building automation, health care, manufacturing and every other sector of the economy. Thanks to smartphones, it is easier than ever for drivers and passengers to locate one another. Thanks to Big Data analytics, it is easier for transportation-service companies to predict where and when transportation demand will occur and to mobilize assets accordingly. New technology is inspiring new business models that literally no one was thinking about 10 years ago.

The heralds of this new wave are Uber and Lyft, Silicon Valley-funded companies that have started competing with taxicab services in many metropolitan regions across the country. These companies are targeting the high end of the transportation services market, charging premium rates for customers willing to pay for a limousine-like ride at a moment’s notice. Predictably, they are getting pushback here in Virginia from taxicab companies. The regulatory future is uncertain. But whatever happens to Uber and Lyft, the new technology is here to stay. Taxi companies are already adopting it themselves.

Bridj, a Boston-area company, charges $6 per ride in comfortable, Wi-Fi- equipped coaches to travel from suburban locations to downtown Cambridge and Boston. Thousands of riders, it appears, are willing to pay a premium price for a premium service that municipal bus companies can’t match with their one-size-fits-all mind-set. As this new industry continues to innovate, it’s just a matter of time before entrepreneurs use the same technologies to serve lower price points. In a free market, there are few barriers to entry; someone will figure out how to serve poor people and do it cheaper than the transit companies can.

Eventually, someone will devise a smartphone driver-rider matching service open to all comers. Anyone with decent credit and a good driving record will be able to fork out $32,000 for a 12-seat van and start his own jitney service. In developing countries around the world – even in countries where $32,000 is a lot of money – jitney service is affordable to poor city dwellers. Surely in America, where we have some of the richest poor people in the world, someone will figure out how to convey them to major employment centers.

The transportation revolution doesn’t end there. Automobile companies are rethinking the idea that everyone needs to own his or her own car. Some think that the future is transportation-as-a-service. Outside San Diego, Calif., real estate developer Rancho Mission Viejo is partnering with Daimler AG, owner of Mercedes Benz, to roll out a service that provides subscribers access to cars, scooters, buses, shuttle vans and car-pooling, primarily for use in its Ladera and Sendero communities. The aim isn’t to persuade residents to go totally car-free, just to go car-lite. The goal is to cut the cost of mobility – $9,000 yearly to own and operate the average car – in half.

Environmentalists and anti-poverty warriors will continue to pressure Henrico and Chesterfield officials to subsidize the expansion of GRTC into the two counties. Given the paucity of walkable, higher-density neighborhoods in suburban Richmond and the lack of congestion – it’s the least congested of America’s 51 largest metros – the economics for mass transit will always be difficult. Rather than throwing money at an antiquated business model, government officials should encourage the emerging free-market alternatives. Roll out the welcome mat to Uber and Lyft. Ask Bridj to check out our market. Sweep away barriers that prevent jitneys from going into business. Beg Daimler AG to bring its transportation-as-a-service to the Richmond region.

We have a choice: Embrace the transportation past or the transportation future. I’ll take the future.

This column was published originally in Henrico Monthly and Chesterfield Monthly this month.