What Price Parking?

I grew up in suburbia and never questioned its autocentric assumptions. Then I drove a Mustang to graduate school in New York and immediately learned that a car was not only irrelevant on transit-rich Manhattan Island, but a downright burden. Parking regulations required frequent tedious searches for a new spot on the crowded curbs. One of the happiest days of my life was the day the car was stolen.

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of that harsh lesson decades ago. In the Big Apple's trendy SoHo district, a new condo building is on the market with an option to buy underground parking spaces for $1 million a pop. That works out to as much as twice per square foot as for the $8 million to $10 million apartments upstairs. No takers were reported as of last week, but car stalls elsewhere in lower Manhattan, as well as in tony neighborhoods of Boston and London, have fetched $500,000 or more.

"Parking is in serious demand and has proven an excellent investment with no sign of a decline," a London real estate executive told the Times.

Richard Pryor once said that cocaine was "God's way of telling you you have too much money." Six-figure parking may be another one, and it tells us something about the irrational allure of motoring "freedom," even in locales where you will be hard-pressed to stash your luxury vehicle anywhere nearby.

As Sarah Goodyear noted on The Atlantic CITYLAB, "It's not just the 300 square feet ... outside your apartment building that your car requires to be fully functional. If you drive a personal motor vehicle for basic everyday transportation, there's also the 300 square feet at your job, and at the supermarket, and outside the restaurant where you have dinner. There's the 300 square feet at you kid's school, at the hardware store, at the coffee shop. Wherever you go, you're going to need a parking space."

Motorists don't have to think about this in most of Minnesota and the rest of the United States. That's because both business and government have chosen to subsidize "free" or cut-rate parking with higher merchandise prices and non-user taxes in service of the autocentric right to drive and stop anywhere without hassle. Estimates of the number of U.S. off-street parking spaces range from 105 million to 2 billion, according to Goodyear, and that doesn't count millions more curbside, most of them unmetered.

Surface parking lots cause heat islands and pollution, Goodyear adds, and "arguably they also create traffic by incentivizing driving, making life less convenient rather than more ... It took a century to engineer cities in such a way that space for cars, even ones that are sitting idle, became valued more than space for people ... Are we willing to do the simple math and start heading in another direction?"

Good question. One way is to replace parking minimums in many city zoning codes with parking maximums, a reversal pioneered in Britain and Brazil. Another is to price parking closer to its actual value to consumers, which theoretically should appeal to free-market fundamentalists. Steps like this can "improve everyone's mobility," according to a Drexel University study that urged more consideration of parking in comprehensive transportation management.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Minnesota Cities  City Management  Automobiles  Infrastructure 

A Subway for Cars?

Here's a surprise: The most walkable city in North America is not Boston, New York, Montreal or Quebec City, but little-known Guanajuato in central Mexico. That's according to Justin Swan, an urban planning engineer and blogger with the Twitter handle @urban_future.

Why is this historic, European-style home to 70,000 so pedestrian-friendly? In addition to its ancient, compact layout, it has relegated most motor vehicle traffic underground, to a system of tunnels dug for flood control in the 1700s. A dam project upstream made the old drainage infrastructure obsolete in the 1960s, just as automobile traffic was surging. A few modifications later, voila: a nearly car-free city.

"As a pedestrian, I felt more safe than in any other city on the continent," Mr. S reports. "Having the chance to drive through the area myself, I was outnumbered at least 15 to 1 by pedestrians. With streets too narrow, steep and bumpy ... speed bumps, blind corners and a road network with no straight lines or intersections that crossed at 90 degrees, there was only one possible speed—slow."

Minnesota's much newer, rectilinear street grids won't adapt to such a pedestrian-centric design, and we don't have tunnels ready to drive through. But we can dream, can't we?  Matty Lang suggested in a comment following a David Levinson blog I recently cited that instead of building a transit subway in Minneapolis, the cars and trucks should go underground.

Neither is very likely, and such concepts shouldn't be an excuse to derail the Southwest Green Line extension at this point in the planning process. But it's worth brainstorming any and all ideas to remake our cities for people at least as much as for cars. What are your thoughts?

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Complete Streets  Roads & Highways  Infrastructure  Road Safety 

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Bike Lanes: Balancing Act or Win-Win?

It's urbanist dogma that you can build a city for either cars or people, but not both. Now there's evidence to question that dualistic assumption. 

In America's busiest, most crowded city, New York, introduction of buffered bicycle lanes on the teeming streets has sparked a backlash from motorists similar to the one that doomed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal for congestion vehicle pricing on Manhattan Island. But a funny thing happened on the way to gridlock when the city made room for bikes on some major Manhattan avenues: Auto traffic speeded up.

Huh? According to Eric Jaffe at the Atlantic CITYLAB, narrower driving lanes on Columbus Avenue and narrower and one fewer of them on Eighth Avenue brought significantly shorter travel times for motorists even though traffic volumes "remained pretty consistent." On First Avenue, meanwhile, a more radical reduction of five car travel lanes to just three plus a bus lane resulted in a 1 mile per hour decrease in taxi speed but a 160 percent increase in bicycle traffic—meaning "an overall rise in mobility."

"In simpler terms, everybody wins," Jaffe pronounced.

It took some smart street design to achieve these counterintuitive outcomes, especially the addition of left-turn pockets in areas otherwise reserved for parking and bike buffer strips along the one-way avenues. Before, Jaffe notes, "cars turned left from a general traffic lane; [now] traffic doesn't have to slow down until the left turn is completed and ... drivers have an easier time seeing bike riders coming up beside them."

According to a city report, injuries to drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians have all declined since the changes were made on segments of seven major avenues. On top of that, retail sales showed greater increases after bike lane projects than in other areas. The work also added trees to the cityscape and shortened pedestrian street crossings.

Bike lanes still stir autocentric outrage, however. In the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, the city has even removed some of them after protests, and a lawsuit remained pending over lanes at Brooklyn's Prospect Park West, Tim Henderson reported at Stateline earlier in the summer. "What should be a balancing of community interests has turned into something of an ideological battle," Alexandria, Va., law professor Frank Buckley told Henderson.

It doesn't have to be like that, though. As NYC's smart design shows, there may be ways to serve all the warring modes of mobility, even in finite right-of-way.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Bicycles  Roads & Highways 

Up to Speed in Minnesota

Our culture loves speed. How else to explain the popularity of NASCAR, a spectator sport in which advertising-festooned motor vehicles circle an oval track at ear-shattering intensity, over and over again?

The value placed on velocity affects public policy, too. The most common criticism of the new light-rail Green Line, despite its excellent ridership, is that it's too slow between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns. And since the repeal of the Nixon-era 55 miles per hour national speed limit in the mid-1990s, nearly every state has jacked up the legal rate.

Most drivers support this continuing trend. Idaho just bumped the limit on some stretches of rural interstate to 80, and Minnesota transportation officials are studying increases to 60 m.p.h. on many state highways, a process championed, interestingly, by the state's only blind legislator.

This alarms safety advocates, especially those representing insurors who profit from declining collision rates. "The research is clear that when speed limits go up, fatalities go up," says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The deadly physics of higher-speed crashes is undeniable, but it's also true that the two decades post-double nickel have witnessed historic reductions in highway carnage.

Two new studies let us explore this seeming paradox. Our nation's safest place to drive, tiny Washington, D.C., also has the lowest speed limi—55. Oddly, the only other U.S. jurisdiction that matches it is Alaska, and that huge state comes in worse than the U.S. average for highway deaths per miles traveled.

Meanwhile, Minnesota, rated among the speedier states in a Cars.com compilation, also ranks third best in the nation in fatalities by distance and No. 8 by population, according to a University of Michigan study.

Minnesota's average speed limit on state highways is 67, middle of the pack and rising, but not as high as top-speed Texas at 78, bolstered by its 85 m.p.h. private toll road, recently declared in default on its bonds. Highways in the Lone Star State aren't bleeding just money, either. Texas' 2012 fatality rate, based on distance driven, was more than double Minnesota's at No. 41 in the nation, compelling evidence that speed does kill.

In fact, though, speed is just one of many things that affect highway safety. I'd chalk up the improvements in recent years largely to safer cars, safer roads and fewer unbelted and drunken drivers. All of these advances have been driven by public policy, at the federal level for the cars, but more so in individual states on the other factors. But even Alaska's 55 limit hasn't made it very safe to drive its unique terrain.

If a universal 25 m.p.h. speed limit could be enforced, road fatalities would drop to nearly zero, but at a daunting cost in transportation efficiency. The numbers show that Minnesota, through a broad array of policy, has achieved a fine balance between public safety and the need for speed. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Automobiles  Road Safety 

Death of Driving: Greatly Exaggerated?

American urbanists have been cheered by persistent stagnation in rates of motoring going back years before the Great Recession, but there are new hints that the dreams of so-called "car-haters" may not be fully realized. The auto industry is booming again, with August's sales expected to top any month in the past 11 years.

Even President Obama's transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, just trumpeted in a news release that U.S. driving this summer hit a level not seen since 2008. "More people driving means our economy is picking up speed," Foxx noted. "It also means we need to increase our investment in transportation to meet this demand, which is why Congress needs to pass the president's four-year, $302 billion GROW AMERICA Act."

This is certainly an argument aimed at autocentric congressional conservatives, who nonetheless have blocked robust federal spending on surface transportation. They might loosen the purse strings if transit funding were divorced from the highway bill, but progressives, as well as sound overall mobility policy, stand against that.

Besides, despite the fraction of federal fuel taxes that support transit and nonmotorized modes, drivers get so much help from government that a return to our old motoring ways should surprise no one. Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog USA  offered a nice listing on tax day last April of all the regressive breaks available for driving, including the real reductions on autopilot over the 21 years since the U.S. levy at the pump was adjusted for inflation.

Compared with most of the industrialized world, our fuel taxes are practically negligible, and that helps explain why Americans can rack up the miles, at fuel prices per hours worked at low levels not persistently seen since the early 1980s, according to research highlighted in Fortune. Some of the supposed demographic causes of driving's decline may also be petering out.

"While it's true that urban areas have been growing faster than the suburbs over the last decade or so, it looks as if that trend may be starting to reverse," writes Fortune's Chris Matthews. "Finally, while Millenials [the rising generation that so far has disdained driving] are now America's largest demographic group, we have yet to really feel their presence in the economy. The single most common age in America today is 23, an age where it's much easier to get by living in a city without a car.

"As Millenials start to settle down, get married and have children, it's quite possible that their relative aversion to suburban life and cars will soften a bit. There's plenty of reason to believe that America's love affair with the car is beginning to cool, but it's probably a bit early to declare this case closed."

Good points, but we need to remember the often-overlooked reality that location and transportation choices don't occur in a free-market vacuum. Government policy will continue to tip the scales. For decades, it has encouraged more and more miles behind the wheel. Shifting subsidies away from driving, parking and sprawl could nudge us in a more sustainable direction. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Automobiles  Road Safety 

Propping up Air Travel, Dissing Transit

Airlines and their travelers complain about the taxes they pay to fly, even though a new labor union study shows the carriers get $1 billion a year in state and local tax breaks on their aviation fuel purchases. They also benefit from a growing array non-user financing schemes that keep public airports in operation.

The latest of these is the fracking rights sold off by Allegheny County in Pennsylvania to drill under the runways of Pittsburgh International Airport. There's enough natural gas down there to run the entire state for a year and a half, according to the New York Times. It's also enough to generate nearly $500 million in royalties over two decades for the airport, which found itself severely overbuilt and underfunded in the wake of 9/11, the loss of its U.S. Airways hub and the Great Recession. 

While Pittsburgh International opened in 1992 with facilities for 30 million passengers a year, it now handles just 8 million and devotes 42 percent of its $90 million annual budget to debt service. Gas royalties are expected to run about $20 million a year, allowing the airport to cut rising fees charged the remaining airlines in hopes of luring back some of the 300 daily flights that have disappeared since its peak year of 600 in 1997.

PIT isn't the only airport making out like Jed Clampett with a fossil fuel windfall. Dallas-Fort Worth International gets $8 million a year from the 100 gas wells on its property and Denver International collects $6.2 million annually from 76 gas and oil wells, some of them operating before the airport was built. The payments are very small parts of those airports' revenues, however.

"San Francisco installed solar panels and generates energy," reports WESA, Pittsburgh's NPR station. "The largest blueberry producer in Georgia is at an airport. And some airports have explored water or grazing rights."

Airports and air travel consume mass quantities of resources; PIT alone covers 9,000 acres, more than 14 square miles. It's fine to put some of that vast capital to other productive uses, although no law says the public profit has to benefit airlines and air travelers. The airline industry also generates huge externalities in the forms of noise pollution and climate-unfriendly greenhouse gases, most of which it doesn't pay for. 

Compare this now with the least resource- and externality-intensive of all our motorized means of mobility: public transit. No transit system has ever made a killing off fracking rights under the tracks. So the next time you hear anyone who flies or drives complain about subsidies for buses and light rail, take it with a giant grain of salt. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Air Travel 

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Transit Leadership in St. Cloud

St. Cloud's Metro Bus is racking up firsts this year—first Minnesota transit system primarily fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG), first in the state with a mobility training center for riders and now the first in Minnesota to be named national urban transportation system of the year.

The award, presented by the Community Transportation Association of America at its national conference in St. Paul, honors Metro Bus innovation, creativity and responsiveness to its community. The system provides 2.4 million annual rides in St. Cloud and the surrounding cities of Sartell, Sauk Rapids and Waite Park.

In May, Metro Bus replaced 23 of its fleet of 67 regular route and dial-a-ride vehicles with new buses powered by CNG and built right at home by New Flyer in St. Cloud. The cutting-edge fuel isn't only cheaper—it's expected to shave $3 million off the cost of diesel over 10 years—it's clean-burning and quieter-running, too. The new buses replaced old ones due for retirement and the CNG fueling system was built along with other needed projects at the Metro Bus garage. As the rest of the fleet is retired, it will be replaced with CNG-fueled vehicles.

The training center opened in July in a remodeled former bank building in downtown St. Cloud. Its Travel Training program has partnered with dozens of community agencies to assess the travel needs and options of the elderly, the disabled and immigrants with limited English proficiency. In addition, "through this training agencies are able to maximize their transportation budgets by utilizing our fixed route services first, which is more economical than dial-a-ride, taxi service or other private transportation," Metro Bus staffers noted in the Minnesota Public Transit Association's In-Transit newsletter.

Many people think of public transit as only for big cities. That's not true at all, especially in Minnesota, which boasts a national model network of rural and small-city transit services. St. Cloud's Metro Bus shows us that such systems can match or outdo their metropolitan big brothers when it comes to innovation and community outreach.  

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Busing 

The Broken-Down Empire Builder

James J. Hill, the 19th century St. Paul businessman who built the St. Paul Cathedral and a great railroad to the Pacific Northwest, must be spinning in his grave. The once-proud train that bears his sobriquet, the Empire Builder, has become a slow-motion blot on his legacy.

"Eighty-five years after its debut as the Great Northern Railway's premier passenger service to the west, the Empire Builder is broken," the Flathead Beacon of Kalispell, Mont., sadly reported. "Five years after the Empire Builder had some of Amtrak's best on-time performance rates, even outpacing Amtrak's high-speed Acela train between Boston and Washington, delays of three to five hours are now commonplace."

This is Minnesota's only intercity passenger train, once the most popular of Amtrak's long-distance routes but now bleeding ridership with each botched timetable performance. It's not a public-sector failure for the quasi-governmental rail agency, but one of the private-sector BNSF Railway whose tracks it leases the use of. 

As passenger rail improvements—some publicly financed, some private enterprises—are blossoming across the rest of America, the Empire Builder's woes will only drive down support for such advances around here.

After delays of up to 12 hours on an already leisurely schedule plagued the train during the harsh winter, Amtrak modified its timetable in April. It didn't help much. "In June, the westbound Empire Builder, train No. 7, stayed on schedule 10 percent of the time," the Beacon noted. "The eastbound train, No. 8, has a zero percent on-time rate." By then, ridership was down 19 percent from June 2013, which was already off from the record 2012 year of 543,000 boardings.

Problems like this for Amtrak aren't confined to the Empire Builder as a surge in freight on share tracks, only partly caused by the U.S. crude oil boom, gums up the schedules. But the timing could hardly be worse as "Americans are getting more and more frustrated with air travel," according to Tanya Snyder at StreetsblogUSA.

Snyder cited a U.S. Travel Association survey that found significant percentages of respondents unhappy with the hassles of flying, some so much that they're traveling less than they used to or planned to. The Travel Association pegged the industry's losses from trips not taken at $27 billion. A 2011 Harris interactive poll found that a third of business travelers and two-thirds of leisure travelers would ride high-speed rail instead of jetliners, of the former existed.

In the face of such an opportunity, Amtrak has even taken a page from the airlines' playbook, getting rid of free amenities altogether or charging for them. "Amtrak is acting more like an airline every day," wrote Christopher Elliott in USA TODAY.  "And not in a good way."

Since late May, Empire Builder passengers have had to fork over $8 for a blanket, pillow, earplugs and eye shade. No more free glasses of wine, either. It's the kind of cost-cutting and revenue enhancement that might please congressional funders, but not passengers, especially when the train pulls in hours late.

James J. Hill might have had a smart solution when he ran both the passenger and freight ends of his railroad, and air and car travel weren't competing with him. Today's fragmented transportation market complicates matters. But trains—at their best efficient, comfortable and internet-friendly—deserve more respect than they're getting from practically any quarter these days.

Photo credit: John Mueller, creative commons

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Passenger Rail 


Private Sector to the Rescue?

As a newly minted think tank fellow seven years ago, I heard Bob Poole, the libertarian Reason Foundation's thoughtful and nonpartisan transportation expert, argue in a local luncheon speech that private investment offered the only feasible way out of America's chronic shortfall in funding roads, bridges, transit and other ways of getting around.

But even conservatives such as Poole weren't unanimous about this. At about the same time, one of the Minnesota Legislature's farthest-right members proposed banning toll roads forever in the state, which would seem to eliminate any incentive for private stakes in transportation infrastructure. Not quite, it turns out.

Several Minnesota enterprises have put up money for highway improvements in recent years, according to interesting reporting by Erin Adler in the Star Tribune. The latest, according to her article, is the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community's commitment of $1.5 million to add a third lane to a milelong stretch of Hwy. 169 near its Mystic Lake Casino next year. The tribe also fronted $17.5 million for an interchange on 169 in 2005, with the state highway funds later repaying the loan.

Often, cash infusions from private interests or local governments speed up the delivery of highway improvements considered vital for customer access or economic development in the short term but buried deep in the state's decades-long expansion plans. UnitedHealth Group and the city of Minnetonka ponied up that way for an interchange on 169, and Woodbury did so to get exits serving developments beside Interstate Hwy. 494. On a smaller scale, Interstate Mills funded a left-turn lane on Hwy. 56 near its Dakota County facility.

Now, even President Obama, stymied by congressional conservatives in his repeated calls for more public funding of transportation projects with a proven record of return on investment, signaled his intention to lure nearly $2 trillion in U.S. corporate cash stashed overseas back home to work on roads, bridges and rails. 

Most recently, Obama discussed this strategy as a way to head off corporate tax-dodging "inversion" mergers with foreign entities such as Minnesota's Medronic Inc. plan to move its headquarters to Ireland. He also has launched a separate push for private investment in infrastructure, especially in rural America.

"Institutional investors ... tend to look for longer-term investments to match up with their long-term debt obligations, while taking relatively low risk," Douglas L. Peterson, CEO of McGraw Hill Financial and a public-private partnership advocate, wrote on cnbc.com. "Infrastructure projects tend to fit that profile: regulated markets, long-lived assets with stable demand and little, if any, competition."

U.S. private investment in surface transportation infrastructure has had a long and checkered history, from the flowering and faltering of streetcar systems in the 20th century to the financial travails of an 85 miles per hour toll road in Texas. Just this week, Nevada officials scrapped plans for privately financing an interstate highway project, which had been championed by the conservative governor. Projected costs had risen too high compared with traditional public bonding, no surprise considering factors such as tax breaks and the profit motive.

Meanwhile, however, there's a surge in private financing of high-speed rail projects, which I examined more closely in today's feature article.

I'm not totally sold on any of this, partly because most private money will cherry-pick just a few projects with the greatest profit potential, leaving the vast majority of the nation fighting over government scraps to stay mobile. Besides, nearly every important U.S. transportation advancement—from the Erie Canal to the Transcontinental Railroad to the Interstate Highway System—has been heavily backed with some kind of public subsidy. On the other hand, much of our transportation system, especially congested urban roads, could benefit from more market pricing discipline. 

I'm confusing even myself here. What seems both certain and prudent is that our multimodal means of access and mobility will continue to be paid for with a mix of public and private money, and finding the right combination will be a never-ending challenge. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways  Transportation Funding 

A One-Sided Fight over St. Paul’s Streets

Under pressure from the City Council last week, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman outlined a $54 million street-improvement program—more than 10 percent of his proposed $515 million operating budget for 2015. Hizzoner thus significantly raised a group of rebellious council members' bid of $22 million for streets after they likened his earlier plan to "putting a Band-Aid on a broken hip."

There's a lesson here. Despite all the buzz about Americans' flagging interest in driving, despite Congress's serial brinksmanship over highway funding, despite all of St. Paul's recent transit improvements connected with the Green Line light rail launch, it's where the rubber meets the road that still counts in transportation policymaking.

And despite all the conservative grumbling about subsidies for transit, it's motorists who do most of the feeding at the public trough. Little of Coleman's $54 million for rebuilding and repaving streets, and not a penny of the $34.4 million in new money he's earmarking, will come from user fees for driving such as fuel taxes and registration fees. Instead, it comes from taxes and special assessments on property, whether the owners drive or not.

Now, it's been argued that city streets are a "public good" that benefit drivers and non-drivers alike by providing access for buses, bicycles and emergency services while boosting property values and commercial activity. True enough, but who comprises the overwhelming predominance of traffic on those streets? The folks behind the wheel who pay nothing directly for the privilege.

Coleman's plan focuses on rebuilding bumpy arterial streets, some of which may qualify for Minnesota's 9 percent share of highway user funding that goes to Municipal Street Aid. More money may actually come from diverting $10 million of a $14.5 million residential street repair fund to the arterials. That's not a bad idea. I've often thought that city streets where people live should be left in lousy shape to discourage drivers from speeding. I've even dreamed of turning them into greenways, limiting everyday motor access to the alleys.

The mayor's budget calls for 2.4 percent increase in the property tax levy, a sure target for criticism from some quarters. But if spending trims begin, don't look for any in street repairs. A more likely candidate for the axe is Coleman's proposed introduction of paid parental leave for city workers. The projected cost there is $200,000—or 0.37 percent of his streets budget.

The way this plays out will tell us once again what we value most in our autocentric society.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways 

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