Cloudsourcing Transportation and Land Use

As noted here before, young folks are driving less than previous generations and turning instead to transit, biking, and walking. The AJC ran this phenomenon through the Truth-o-Meter.  The Atlantic attempted to explain the trend and what the automobile industry was doing to respond.

But Fast Company’s John Allan Dykstra thinks this may be part of a larger trend manifesting itself in the context of transportation decisions.  Drawing upon a recent USA Today article, Dykstra argues that changes from car ownership to transit and walking is another example of an evolving notion of ownership in our society.  Like streaming MP3s and photos on Facebook, the decline of car ownership in favor of other modes represents a larger willingness to shift aspects of our life to “the cloud.” 

We are starting to think differently about what it means to “own” something. This is why a similar ambivalence towards ownership is emerging in all sorts of areas, from car-buying to music listening to entertainment consumption. Though technology facilitates this evolution and new generations champion it, the big push behind it all is that our thinking is changing.

Across the board, we are rethinking what it means to own something and are increasingly embracing conceptual or shared ownership.  Your music is on iTunes, not CDs or records. Books and magazines are on your Kindle, not the bookshelf.  Your photos are shared through Picasa, not a photo album.  And if you stream your favorite movie online, why bother purchasing it on DVD?  If we are comfortable with a broader notion of ownership in these context why not rely on the cloud for our transportation needs as well, using transit and other shared infrastructure instead of owning a car?

This argument about the changing views of ownership can be made equally, if not more persuasively, in the context of land use.  The increasing popularity of renting versus home ownership is the obvious example.  But a more interesting case might be made in the types of homes we are buying.

Demographic trends and market studies show the increasing popularity of walkable, mixed use development.  Although they are likely to be smaller and have fewer internal amenities than their suburban counterparts, the popularity of homes in walkable, mixed use areas shows a move away from the tangible ownership mentality that defined sprawling, McMansion development.  Instead of a large backyard your greenspace is the nearby park.  The neighborhood’s bars, shops and restaurants replace the big house for entertaining.  You don’t need a media room or a home gym when comparable services are a short walk away.

Central to the sprawling, McMansion growth model is an ethos of ownership and accumulation: if you use something you should own it.  Choosing a walkable, mixed use development doesn’t mean that people no longer desire these amenities, only that we are comfortable shifting them to the public space. Things can be enjoyed without being physically owned.   And in some cases, the shared option is better than what we could own: Piedmont Park is better than anyone’s backyard; there are more dinner and a movie options at Atlantic Station than one at home.   

MP3s have shattered the business model for the music industry.  Streaming video is rewriting the rules for how we watch tv and movies.  It would be naive to think that changing consumer preferences and views on ownership do not have the potential to similarly reshape our views on transportation and land use.

Will New Media Mean New Voters?

Young people like smartphones and iPads, Hulu and Spotify.  They also like transit.

So organizations working on next week’s transportation referendum have turned to “new media” platforms as a way to reach these young voters who may not be plugged into traditional radio and television outlets.  Like every man, woman, and corporation, it is a given that political campaigns have a presence on Twitter and Facebook.    But these campaigns have also turned to YouTube and other  internet-based media platforms to reach these tech savvy, transit friendly, young voters.  

Polling on the TIA has focused on likely voters, meaning voters who have participated in previous primary elections. Young voters may not have much of a track record in this respect.  And this polling is done by phone, so cell phone-only young adults may not be in the phone number databases used for this polling.  Whether these young, cell phone wielding, transit-riding voters show up on election day is an important dynamic in whether the polling proves accurate and the TIA’s prospects.

Will new media efforts “rock the vote” next week? Decide for yourself:

Fast Track Forward’s “It’s Only a Penny” video:

 MAVEN’s “Stan Still” video series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

 Untie Atlanta’s “We Need Transit” video:

FakeMARTA’s “No for a Better Atlanta” Tumblr series


Are Toll Lanes a Viable Plan B?

Over the weekend, the AJC explored what transportation funding might look like if the TIA does not pass.  Two of the region’s prominent transportation professionals reached the same conclusion – failure of the TIA will mean increased emphasis on toll roads.

 “If the referendum does not pass and there’s no alternative, reliance on toll roads is going to become more important,” said Mike Meyer, an Atlanta transportation expert and former head of the national Transportation Research Board.

“That is probably the only thing that is left out there” that can get funded, agreed Harold Linnenkohl, a former commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.

But if the TIA fails, will that really mean more toll roads for metro Atlanta? A closer look at the region’s transportation plans and the funding struggles around the Northwest Corridor HOT lane project show the limitations of toll roads as a viable “Plan B.”  

I-85 and I-75/575 are the first two corridors chosen for HOT lane projects because they represent the low hanging fruit for toll roads.  Both are heavily congested and have large traffic volumes.  Both run through relatively affluent areas and offer limited, if any, parallel transit options.  If HOT lanes are to work anywhere in metro Atlanta, they would work in these two corridors.  Yet even in these optimally-positioned areas, the toll revenues from these projects fall well short of their actual cost.   If building HOT lanes requires heavy public subsidies even in these plum markets are they a viable strategy in corridors with lower traffic volumes, less affluent drivers, or parallel transit options?   

Documents for the I-75/I-575 Northwest Corridor show the limits of HOT lanes as a viable funding strategy.  With its congestion, large traffic volumes, lack of alternatives, and affluent drivers, the Northwest Corridor is perhaps the best potential market for a toll road in the region.  This is why private consortiums have been proposing toll roads on this corridor for almost a decade.  The Northwest Corridor’s financing was further sweetened with a federally-subsidized TIFIA loan, reducing the project’s financing costs.  Yet even in this best possible scenario, the current financial plan shows that tolls would at most cover 44% of the project’s cost.  The remaining 56% would come from various types of federal and state transportation funds, the exact funding streams that the TIA is intended to supplement.

But no one knows exactly how much toll revenue the project would generate, and a recent toll and revenue estimate by GDOT and SRTA paints a potentially troubling picture.                         

 The analysis looks at three different revenue scenarios. (An earlier “high” revenue scenario was dismissed as unrealistic for a variety of reasons, including performance of the I-85 HOT lanes and the decision not to operate the lane to maximize revenue.)  Under the medium revenue scenario, the average toll for a trip down the length of the Northwest Corridor HOT lanes in 2025 would cost $12.70.   The toll revenue in this medium scenario would cover the cost of operating and maintaining the road (O&M as used in the table), repayment of toll backed revenue bonds (TRBs), and repayment of the TIFIA loan.

The same trip would only cost $7.36  under the low revenue scenario.  But lower tolls means less revenue, so in this scenario the toll revenue would only cover the operations and maintenance cost and “very little” of the debt financing costs like the TIFIA loan or the toll backed revenue bonds.  In all scenarios the state ultimately backs the project with GARVEE bonds, bonds based on expected future federal transportation funds.   So if the toll revenues were to be at the low end of the estimates (as is often the case), the GDOT and SRTA would have to further draw upon existing funding streams to cover the financing costs.

Plan 2040, metro Atlanta’s long term transportation plan, shows that HOT lanes are already expected to consume a substantial portion of the public’s transportation funds over the next 30 years.   This chart does not include any TIA funds, so it represents the current vision for what happens if the TIA fails and is not replaced with something else. Under this plan, more state funds would be used for HOT lanes than any other type of new capacity project.  

The goal of the TIA is to create a new funding stream; to make the funding pie bigger.  But pursuing more toll roads would have the opposite effect, pulling money out of the funding streams we already have.  And because these HOT lane projects would be in less lucrative locations than the I-85 and Northwest Corridor, the amount of public funding required will be even greater. 

Funding toll roads is a problematic endeavor under any circumstances,  so the HOT lane projects don’t come anywhere close to presenting a viable “Plan B.”

TIA and Public Health

The TIA project list been examined through just about every other lens, so what about public health? Environment Georgia, Mothers & Others for Clean Air, and the Southern Environmental Law Center prepared a fact sheet on how the TIA would affect the health of Metro Atlantans.

Transit: Not Where Atlanta’s Jobs Are But Where They Will Be?

Two recent Atlanta Business Chronicle articles illustrate the relationship between transit and employment in Atlanta.  

The first article covers the Brookings Institution’s report, “Where the Jobs Are: Employer Access to Labor by Transit.”  The report considers the number of jobs that are in locations served by transit and the workforce’s ability to access their job by transit.  In Atlanta, the report found that roughly half (52%) of the region’s jobs are accessible by transit but only 14% of the workforce can reach their job via transit in less than 90 minutes.  The former reflects the locations of jobs with respect to transit, the latter the location of workers with respect to transit.  These percentages put Atlanta 87th compared to other regions around the country.  The report’s full profile for the Atlanta region is here.

These statistics once again underscore the fact that Atlanta has a transit supply problem, not a transit demand problem.  JunctionATL has previously discussed the Census Bureau data showing that a small percentage of Atlanta’s workforce uses transit to get to work.  Read together with the Brookings Institution data, few Atlantans take transit to work because it is not a viable option for the vast majority of workers.   

The report also has implications for metro Atlanta’s unemployment rate, which currently sits above the national average.  When 48% of Atlanta’s jobs cannot be accessed by transit and only 14% of workers have access to transit at home, car ownership is a de facto prerequisite for employment at most of the region’s jobs.   By creating this additional barrier between workers and potential jobs, Atlanta’s lack of transit coverage exacerbates our unemployment challenges.

The second article is a slideshow on the “10 Intown Development Sites to Watch.”   Drawn from a survey of commercial real estate professionals, the listed sites fall along a north / south axis between Downtown and Buckhead.  All but one would be served by MARTA and the other, the  Wheat Street Garden site, is “one of the largest tracts along the Atlanta Streetcar route.”    

This link between commercial real estate investment and transit access is not coincidental:

[These developments] underscore[] at least two significant trends early in this new building cycle: first, that the United States may be evolving into a “rentership society” in the wake of the economic downturn and credit freeze; and second, that developers are paying close attention to Gen Y, those 20-somethings who apparently want to live and work inside the city, near its shopping, entertainment and restaurants, away from the drudgery of the traffic-choked commute.

As previously discussed, the fact that many of the region’s big ticket development projects are locating on transit-accessible sites is a clear trend in the new economic development cycle.   

Transit-accessible jobs require both that the starting point (your home) and the ending point (your workplace) are served by transit.  Atlanta’s poor ranking in the Brookings Institution report reflects a failure in one or both of these respects, as too many of Atlanta’s neighborhoods and employment centers are not served by transit.  By increasing the commerical and residential areas with easy transit access, the ten intown developments on the list represent incremental steps to remedy that short coming.  The transit projects on the TIA investment list, such as the Clifton Corridor and the Cobb light rail line, are additional steps in the right direction.  

Viewed together, the two Business Chronicle articles show both the problem and steps toward the solution.  Fixing Atlanta’s commutes won’t come through bigger roads, but from better coordinating transit investments with where we live and work.





Driven Young People

Building on their earlier report on the transportation choices of young people, US PIRG has released a new graphic on the percentage of young people that hold a driver’s license.  Across gender and age groups, fewer young people hold a driver’s license today than a decade ago.









A complete discussion by US PIRG’s Phineas Baxandall is here.

MAP-21: Passing But Not Moving Forward

After more than two years of debate and delay, a transportation reauthorization bill finally passed Congress and is awaiting the President’s signature. The bill, called MAP-21, reauthorizes transportation programs through September 2014 and, at $120 billion, maintains roughly the current level of funding.

 The bill contains a variety of positive provisions and is free of earmarks for specific projects.  It also excludes two highly contentious and environmentally damaging riders, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and exclusion of toxic coal ash from regulation as hazardous waste. 

 Overall, however, MAP-21 represents a step backward for sound transportation policy.  It contains a range of damaging provisions and maintains the existing balance between road and transit funding, perpetuating the road-centric imbalance in transportation funding. In doing so, the bill represents a missed opportunity to produce a transportation policy that gives Americans cleaner transportation choices. 

Where the bill does tweak transportation policy, many of those changes go in the wrong direction.   For example, the bill imposes a variety of limitations on the environmental review process, reducing the public’s ability to participate in the decision-making for projects in their communities and to ensure that the impacts of proposals are adequately considered. These limitations include penalties if agencies fail to make decisions within a certain time period and allowing state DOT’s to acquire property for a project before its environmental review is complete, undermining meaningful consideration of alternatives.

 MAP-21 significantly boosts funding for the TIFIA loan program but eliminates the criteria for reviewing such applications and guiding these investments.  As one commentator noted, stripping out the policy criteria changes TIFIA from an innovative financing program to little more than a government bank. 

 One change of particular relevance to metro Atlanta’s air quality is the bill’s revision of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. CMAQ provides a flexible funding source for state and local governments to fund transportation projects and programs to help meet the requirements of the Clean Air Act.  Specifically, CMAQ money supports transportation projects that reduce mobile source emissions in areas designated by the EPA as in nonattainment or maintenance of national ambient air quality standards.

 A perennial nonattainment area, Metro Atlanta receives roughly $40 million in CMAQ funds annually. These funds are used for a wide variety of projects that reduce air pollution, such as:

  • Improvements to freight operation and safety;
  • Transit capital and preventative maintenance;
  • Funding for GRTA operations;
  • Transportation demand management programs (like the Clean Air Campaign);
  • Intelligent transportation services;
  • Towing and recovery program (like the HERO program);
  • A railroad emission reduction program; and
  • Numerous sidewalk construction programs.

Without CMAQ funds these programs might not exist or would be significantly smaller as no other funding program is designed to improve air quality and therefore fund these activities.

 MAP-21 makes three changes that have the potential to undermine CMAQ’s effectiveness. First, the bill eliminates the restriction on projects that serve single occupancy vehicle travel.  Second, the bill increases the program’s emphasis on congestion reduction, implicitly de-emphasizing air quality as a goal.  And third, the bill allows up to 50% of CMAQ funds to be transferred to other programs.  

 As metro Atlanta continues to struggle with federal air quality standards, CMAQ is a key tool for improving the region’s air quality.  But MAP-21’s  changes raise concerns that CMAQ funds will be raided for other projects, even projects with the antithetical result of degrading air quality.  ARC and GDOT must exercise fiscal discipline to continue funding these important programs and maintain Atlanta’s air quality improvements.

 After years of work on this legislation, the CMAQ program is but one example of how the public deserves better than MAP-21.  The bill’s short duration means that work on the next surface transportation legislation will begin almost immediately.  And the time for Congress to chart a new course a transportation policy to give Americans cleaner transportation choices is long overdue.   



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