Tag Archives: Walkability

Getting Around London

red_buses

by James A. Bacon

London is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Tourists flock there by the millions, and most of them have cameras. The Parliament building, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey… the list of world-class photo-worthy historical sites goes on an on. And then there’s the scene shown above — nothing that the typical tourist would care to capture digitally. But it caught my eye because four double-decker red buses were visible on the same street in one shot, and it illustrated one of the more mundane aspects of London — how the 8.5 million inhabitants get around.

While the Bacon family rushed from one incredible attraction to another on vacation last week, I bedeviled my wife and son by pausing at seemingly random spots to capture images of things that visitors take for granted, such as parks, buses, crosswalks, plazas, sidewalks and ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. As an amateur student of human settlement patterns, I have a keen appreciation for how people organize their build environment. Citizens of countries around the world flock to London not just to visit but, despite a punishing cost of living, to live and work. Even if you stripped away the metropolis’ impossible-to-reproduce historical attractions, it still would be an awesome place. Part of that awesomeness, which won London recognition last year as the “best” city on the planet, is its transportation infrastructure.

London has an excellent mass-transit system, which includes the London Underground, a network of double-decker buses and some light rail. We had no trouble whatsoever getting around the city without a car. Actually, a car would have been a hassle because parking is difficult and there is an £11.50 congestion charge for entering the busy center city.

crosswalkThe key to making mass transit workable is creating hospitable pedestrian environments. London sweats the details. The first thing to notice is that crosswalks are not located at the edge of intersections, as they are in the United States but set back by several yards. The necessity of considering only left-right traffic flows as opposed to multi-directional traffic flow in the intersection, I presume, is improved safety. In London, the on-street signage remind pedestrians which way to look for oncoming traffic (of particular help to foreigners, most of whom drive on the opposite side of the road).

pedestrian_spaceThere is nothing resembling a street grid in London, so streets intersect at all manner of odd angles. As a consequence, street designers create a lot of pedestrian islands that allow people to stop halfway across busy intersections rather than risk crossing all the way. The city also installs wrought-iron rails to prevent people from stepping into parts of the street where they have no business stepping. Considering how fast Londoners drive — faster and more aggressively than in most parts of the States — these design precautions make sense.

cyclistI sense that it has been more difficult grafting bicycle-friendly infrastructure onto the street network. How would you like to be the cyclist at left, riding that close to a huge bus?  Cycling remains relatively dangerous by comparison to other transportation modes. There have been five cycling fatalities in London so far this year. Just last week, 55-year-old Moira Gimmell, recently picked by Queen Elizabeth to oversee renovations at Windsor Castle, was struck and killed by a truck.

Despite the issues unique to bicycles, London as a excellent transportation system overall. An American friend, who has lived in London for about a decade, does not own a car. He doesn’t need one. I’m sure that millions of other Londoners have made the same choice of going carless. A trip on the Underground near the center city costs about £1.7 (more if you’re traveling to outer boroughs), or $3.00. Say the average Londoner takes three bus or rail trips daily, costing about $10 daily. That’s $3,600 a year, or half the price of owning a car. That savings helps offset the mind-numbing price of real estate. (A two-bedroom flat on the street where we stayed is on sale for £1,250,000, about $1.8 million.)

How much does it cost to maintain this system? Thanks to the density of development and the high cost of operating an automobile, Transport of London captures a large share of total travel. Revenues in the year ending in 2013 (the most recent year I could find) amounted to about £5.6 billion, generating a loss of £1.2 billion, or about 20%. I suspect that’s pretty efficient by the standards of mass transit authorities in the United States. It’s certainly cheaper than building new or wider roads. Given the high cost of real estate in London and the narrow street setbacks, the cost of expanding roads would be astronomical.

Transportation systems are always a work in progress, and London is no exception. Personally, I like living in Richmond, Va., where I can load four of five bags of groceries into my car — try lugging four bags of groceries with you on the Underground. Car ownership offers convenience and privacy in travel that no mass transit system can replicate. But I can definitely see the allure of the London way of life.

No Wegmans for Tysons… Too Bad for Wegmans

wegmans_bakeryCan Tysons have its cake and eat it, too? Perhaps not, at least if the cake is baked in a Wegmans Food Market bakery. Discussions to bring the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery chain to a transit-oriented development around the McLean Metro station have ended in frustration, reports the Washington Post.

CityLine Partners, developer of Scotts Run Station South, won rezoning approval last year to transform a typical suburban office park into 6.7 million square feet of mixed-use commercial and housing towers with ground-floor retail. The development plans includes contributing to a Tysons-wide grid street network, creating more walkable streets and reducing the parking footprint.

It would be a real coup to bring a Wegmans to the development. The upscale store appeals to exactly the kind of higher-income demographic that CityLine wants to attract to its project. But Wegmans’ business model meshes best with suburban development.  The company normally builds stores of more than 100,000 square feet surrounded by large surface parking lots. In Tysons, Wegmans was considering a new “urban” format of 80,000 square feet, similar to one it opened in Boston this spring, the Post reports. The idea was to place the store on the ground floor of a building with apartments upstairs.

Too bad Wegmans couldn’t make it happen. Some other grocery chain will. A tremendous share of future development in the United States will take place in walkable, denser, mixed-use communities like Scotts Run. Vast surface parking lots do not figure into the plan — the land is simply too valuable to squander on such a marginal use. In contrast to Wegmans, Wal-Mart, once the epitome of land-intensive suburban development and the object of scorn among urbanists across the country, has re-tooled its stores to fit in smaller urban footprints. In fact, a new complex developing around the Tysons West station will be anchored by a Wal-Mart.

For decades, retailers were a driving force behind sprawl. They built their business models around big stores, big parking lots and easy automobile access. They provided amenities in the suburbs that few center cities could match. But the market dynamics have shifted. People are moving to walkable urbanism whether Wal-Mart and Wegmans like it or not. Retailers need to invent new formats to serve the new markets. Inevitably, someone will. And when enough retailers make the switch, they will make walkable urbanism all the more alluring and its rise all the more inevitable.

– JAB

The Market Speaks, and It Likes Reston Town Center

reston_town_center
Reston Town Center got a half-century head start in creating the kind of community where enterprises want to do business in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The original developers were planning for and building walkable, mixed-use development before walkable, mixed-use development was cool. And today property owners are reaping the benefits.

According to Cushman/Wakefield, offices in Reston Town Center are near full occupancy and command among the highest rents in Northern Virginia. The business district’s big competitive advantage? A strong amenity base. Summarizes Virginia Business:

The report notes that in addition to 2.8 million square feet of office space, Reston Town Center is home to 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants and three residential high-rise projects. Even with a suburban location 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and a lack of Metro accessibility until at least 2018, the center’s density, mixed-uses and walkability give the center an urban feel that attracts tenants and residents.

Reston achieves high occupancy despite the fact that tenants pay a 30% rent premium to be there. The situation in Reston stands in marked contrast to the other major business centers, Tysons and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Spurred by the arrival of the Metro Silver Line, Tysons is desperately trying to reinvent itself from a case study in suburban sprawl into a paragon of Transit Oriented Development. But the transition to a coherent, walkable place will take place over years, if not decades. Property owners in Arlington’s Ballston-Rosslyn corridor have Reston-style amenities and have been demanding Reston-style rents but have been afflicted by the departure of large government tenants.

Bacon’s bottom line: Could the marketplace be speaking any more clearly? People are demanding walkable urbanism. It doesn’t have to be located in the core of the metropolitan area. It doesn’t even have to have Metro service. People like compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Developers who deliver that product will make money. Localities that foster its development will see their tax base grow.

– 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

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.

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

The Rise of Walkable Urbanism and “the End of Sprawl”

foot_traffic_aheadby James A. Bacon

The Washington metropolitan region is the national model for “walkable urbanism” in the United States — more so even than metropolitan New York, according to the findings of “Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros,” a report released this morning by LOCUS, an organization of smart-growth real estate developers, and Smart Growth America.

The study identified 558 WalkUPs — regionally significant activity centers characterized by a high level of walkability — in the nation’s 30 largest metros. Forty-five of them are located in the Washington region, about half in the District of Columbia and half in surrounding Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions. The overall walkability exceeds even that of New York. While Manhattan is the single-most walkable place in the United States, it accounts for only 0.3% of the New York metro region’s land mass, and outer jurisdictions dilute its overall walkability, explained Christopher B. Leinberger, LOCUS president  and co-author of the report, during the LOCUS annual conference.

Washington’s lead in developing “walkable urbanism,” in contrast to the “drivable suburbanism” that dominated U.S. growth and development between World War II and the Great Recession of 2007-2008, should stand the region in good stead as it faces an economic future made insecure by the retrenchment of its main growth industry, the federal government. Walkable urbanism is closely correlated with the presence of a highly educated workforce, and a highly educated workforce is closely correlated with faster economic growth. While correlation does not necessarily mean causality, an argument can be made the the desirable attributes of walkable urbanism make it easier to attract and retain educated workers who, in turn, contribute to economic growth.

The report findings suggest that there will be future demand for hundreds of millions of square feet of walkable development over the next generation, said Leinberger. “This is likely the end of sprawl.”

A clear sign of shifting market preference is the 74% premium the market is willing to pay for office space in WalkUPs compared to space in Drivable Urbanism.  That’s the reverse of 30 years ago when suburban office parks enjoyed a marked advantage, Leinberger said. Even excluding the New York market, which skews the results, WalkUps enjoy a 44% edge, he said.

While Washington was the star metro, some surprising regions have been coming on strong thanks to dramatic shifts in development patterns in the post-2008 development cycle. Metropolitan Atlanta, which only 20 years ago was the poster child of sprawl, has concentrated 50% of its development in WalkUP districts comprising only 1% of the region’s land mass. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Detroit has seen similarly focused re-development in downtown, midtown and a handful of urbanizing suburbs.

Leinberger attributed Washington region’s success to five main factors. First, the region has the highest overall education level of any metro in the country, Second, the region has been aggressively expanded its Metro rail system; 80% of the WalkUPs in the region are, or soon will be, served by Metro. Third, for the most part local governments put in the right kind of zoning around their Metro stations, encouraging walkable, mixed-use development. Fourth, the region’s real estate industry has mastered the discipline of developing WalkUPs, which are inherently more complex and expensive than green-field development. And fifth, the public sector has done an exceptionally good job of “place management” — creating quality walkable places.

While rail transit gives a big boost to walkable urbanism, said Leinberger, it is not essential. One out of five WalkUPs in the Washington region are not connected to the Metro. Also, many small cities and towns have walkable places. “It sure does help but it is not required.”

Emerick Corsi, president of Forest City Enterprises Real Estate, agreed. “Walkable can be built anywhere,” he said. He cited the example of a town miles outside of Los Angeles where his firm is converting an old shopping center into 2 million square feet of new buildings with the capability to expand a lot more by going “totally vertical.” There is no transit but the development will be highly walkable, he said.

Leinberger predicted that real estate development in the foreseeable future will be driven by the desire to meet the demand for walkable urbanism. The process won’t necessarily be smooth. Some metros — San Antonio, Kansas City, San Diego — have continued to sprawl. Providing affordable housing in the most desirable areas will be a challenge. But if Leinberger is right and the most walkable regions prove to be the most economically dynamic regions, the success of metros like Washington, Boston, New York and even Atlanta and Detroit will be clear for all to see.

Want to Combat Noise Pollution? Measure It

I’m a big fan of city life but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are drawbacks to crowding and congestion. The foremost of those is noise. Cities are noisier than the burbs and the countryside. The older I get (I’m 61 now), the larger the noise factor looms in my consideration of things. Even in suburbs, it doesn’t take much commotion to jangle my nerves. In the early morning birds can drive me crazy with all their chirping and cawing and twittering. As for children, don’t get me started. The noise-oblivious little monsters can be worse than freight trains. If it sounds like I’m turning into a cranky old man… yes, I believe that’s exactly what’s happening.

As a rule, cities are even noisier than the burbs. People are more densely packed in urban areas, so there are more people — more drunks, more wife beaters, more backyard dogs, more buses, more sirens, more jackhammers, more big, honking HVACs — generating sound waves within hearing distance. Cities also have more concrete and masonry that reflect sound and less in the way of trees, bushes and vegetative mass to dampen it. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), problems resulting from too much noise include poor work and school performance and even cardiovascular problems. Clearly, in the battle for livability, the noise factor favors suburbs, small towns and rural areas.

How does a city combat that disadvantage? Ordinances can limit excessive noise from construction, honking horns or barking dogs. Transportation officials can build sound walls along highways. Aside from such obvious measures, one useful place to start is to measure decibel levels to visualize where noise is the worst. Thanks to the increasing ubiquity of smart phones, the practice of noise mapping is spreading around the world.

In 2010 the Sony Computer Science Lab in Paris released an app, NoiseTube, that anyone can download and use to record decibel levels wherever they go. Users can tag particularly obnoxious noise sources and display them on Google Maps. The data can be aggregated to create noise maps accessible to researchers and city officials.

Sony appears to have neglected its website. NoiseTube.com claims to have data from 509 cities worldwide (including Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Richmond, Scottsville and Lynchburg) but the data doesn’t upload to my PC. Regardless, the code is open source, and anyone is free to improve upon it. Creating regional noise maps sounds like a cool community project to undertake. I’d volunteer to participate.  If there are any civic hackers in Virginia looking for a project, let me know.

– JAB

Safer Streets Require Less Traffic Engineering, Not More

by James A. Bacon

A week or two ago, I lamented the disparity between the high cost of traffic accidents in Virginia and the paltry resources devoted to reducing their number. But to say that insufficient attention is being paid to the issue is not to say that no attention is being paid. According to Virginia’s 2012-2015 Strategic Highway Safety Plan, traffic deaths in the state fell 23% between 2006 and 2010. We are making progress.

Since my blog post, the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization (HRPTO) published its own regional safety study. The HRPTO did a number of worthy things. It mapped the location of accidents across the region and honed in on the worst freeways and intersections that offered the best prospects for improvement. The planners asked a critical question: Which improvements offer the best benefit/cost ratio? As Brian Chenault with the HRPTO summarizes the range of possible solutions: “Recommendations run anywhere from restriping pavement, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, optimizing signal timing, adding additional lanes, trimming vegetation, reducing speed limits, adding extra signage/signals, etc.”

As untutored as I am in the arcana of traffic engineering, it strikes me that the HRTPO has identified a number of projects that will provide considerable bang for the buck, at least as measured by traditional traffic-engineering criteria. Some of the tactics it advances are ideas that I have championed, such as making better use of roundabouts and traffic light synchronization. Its recommendations undoubtedly would amount to a net positive for the people of Hampton Roads — and I hope readers will view it in that light even as I discuss its shortcomings.

The problem with the study is that the authors approach the safety issue from a traffic-engineering perspective. Not surprisingly, every traffic-engineering challenge has a traffic-engineering solution. Indeed, for some safety problems, traffic-engineering solutions are entirely appropriate. But for many, they are not. In many instances, the best solution is precisely the opposite of what traffic engineers recommend.

mercury_boulevard
For purposes of illustration, let us look at the intersection of Mercury Boulevard and Power Plant Parkway, as shown above. (Click for larger image.) This particular intersection averaged 43 crashes per year between 2009 and 2012, the second most of any intersection studied. The HRTPO’s analysis attributes the high accident rate to a variety of micro-factors, which can be summed up by noting that the traffic patterns here are highly complex, leading to a high number of rear-end crashes and side-swipes. The report makes three recommendations:

  • Add a painted triangle yield line with YIELD pavement markings
  • Relocate stop bars
  • Add a flashing “signal ahead” sign
  • Add a pedestrian signal and crosswalk with ladder striping

What’s the common denominator here? It’s the expectation that more signage and clearer road markings will induce drivers to drive more safely.

Now, let’s take a radical leap. At the 2014 Congress for the New Urbanism conference last week, Ben Hamilton-Baillie, an English consultant who specializes in reconciling traffic movement with quality public spaces, showed a clip of San Francisco street traffic filmed days before the 1906 earthquake. There were no marked lanes. There were no turn arrows. There were no traffic lights. There were no street signs. Pedestrians, trolleys, horses, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, pull-carts and automobiles shared the street. At first view, it seemed like chaos. People were jay walking and standing around in the middle of the street. Cars weaved between lanes. Vehicles made U-turns. It was a traffic engineer’s nightmare. But no one — at least not in this 12-minute film clip — experienced a mishap. Watch the clip. It’s mesmerizing.

Undoubtedly, some accidents did occur in those days and people did get hurt. Such incidents provided the pretext for the traffic engineers to step in. In the 1920s and 1930s, they segregated vehicular traffic from pedestrian traffic — roads became the domain of cars, and people were relegated to the sidewalks. Not only would this arrangement create safer streets, it was thought, keeping people off streets would allow cars to travel faster, thus increasing the carrying capacity of streets and reducing congestion. That is the path cities have traveled for some 80 years now, with the result that contemporary Americans cannot imagine any other way of doing things. Today, the traffic-engineering solution to every problem is more signs, more lane markings, more signals, more information overload. Continue reading

The Cost of Automobile Crashes

accident

Traffic accidents: a bigger problem than congestion by a factor of four.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia transportation policy is driven overwhelmingly by a desire to mitigate transportation congestion and, to a lesser degree, to promote economic development. Rarely does traffic safety enter into the discussion of which transportation improvements we finance.

As evidence that congestion is one of the state’s foremost pressing concerns, elected officials can point to the annual Urban Mobility Report, which documents the cost of congestion in the nation’s metropolitan regions. In 2011, according to the 2013 report, congestion cost the nation $121 billion in lost time and wasted gasoline. But consider this: The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes amounted to $277 billion in 2010, finds a new study by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, “Economic and Societal Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010.” If you include the economic value of lives snuffed out — and why wouldn’t you, considering that the Urban Mobility Report counts the value of time lost sitting in congestion — the cost soars to $871 billion.

Think about that — the economic value of traffic accidents outweighs that of traffic congestion by four times but the overwhelming share of public transportation resources is funneled to relieving congestion. The question Virginians should ask themselves is this: Why are we spending billions of dollars to build new roads, highways and mass transit facilities and spending mere millions on making our transportation systems safer? By any rational measure, we have a twisted sense of priorities.

One can’t help but wonder why that is. The answer, of course, is political. I see two dimensions. First is popular perception. Nearly all of us experience the frustration and aggravation of traffic congestion to some degree. That means everyone can relate to the desire to tame congestion. By contrast, only a fraction of Virginians experience traffic accidents, and those incidents are by their nature episodic rather than chronic. Moreover, we tend to think of congestion as something that can be addressed by building more stuff, while we attribute traffic accidents to human frailty. It is less obvious to people how we can build safer roads that can protect us against, say, drunk drivers, distracted driving or road rage.

The second dimension is that traffic accident victims are not organized as a political force. By contrast, developers, construction contractors, labor unions, architects, engineers and an array of special interests stand to gain financially from expenditures on roads and mass transit justified on the grounds of traffic congestion. Through linkages to business organizations such as the chambers of commerce, these self-interested groups are able to mobilize the broader business community behind their initiatives.

Thus, the real estate/construction industry has donated $10.5 million in 2013-14 to Virginia political candidates, the largest of any group excepting the financial industry. Not a single traffic safety-related group appears in the Virginia Public Access Project’s list of miscellaneous, single-issue contributors. Environmental groups have contributed $4.8 million in 2013-14 but traffic safety ranks way down on their list of priorities compared to global warming, the Chesapeake Bay and uranium mining.

Perhaps another reason that safety warrants so little consideration in the Old Dominion is that the economic loss from traffic accidents in Virginia is lower than in most states. Traffic accidents cost $5.7 billion (in 2010 dollars), for an average cost of $713 per person or 1.6% of personal income. Only four other states (Hawaii, California, Minnesota, Oregon) experienced lower costs as a percentage of income. Be that as it may, the $5.7 billion toll is horrendously high compared to the level of public attention it receives.

As a practical matter, what could Virginia do to make streets and roads safer than they already are? First, take a look at where the traffic accidents occur. The NHTSA study indicates that intersection crashes resulted in 8,682 fatalities, 2.2 million injuries and 10 million damaged vehicles in 2010 — more than half of all crashes, a quarter of all fatalities, 50% of all economic costs and 45% of all societal harm.

I would hypothesize, subject to verification, that a disproportionate number of accidents take place in a relatively small sub-set of roads — typically commercial corridors that combine relatively high speeds (45 miles per hour) with lots of traffic signals, cut-throughs and driveways creating complex traffic patterns where cars collide at relatively high speeds. Many accidents could be remedied by better street design — turning our stroads (street-road hybrids) into Complete Streets that accommodate buses, pedestrians and cyclists intermingling at lower and safer speeds.

The other big killer category is “roadway departure crashes,” in which people run off the road. This accounted for 18,850 fatalities, 795,000 injuries and 2.4 million damaged vehicles, accounting for 26% of all economic costs and 35% of societal harm. Many of these accidents take place on windy, two-lane, undivided roads. Surely it would be possible to reduce the number of these accidents through such measures as road-straightening projects, wider shoulders and better marking in the most accident-prone stretches. Continue reading