Author Archive: Josh Cohen

California ADU Applications Skyrocket After Regulatory Reform

Nonprofit urban design organization LA-Más designed this 1,000-square-foot ADU as part of a Los Angeles pilot to show “how an ADU can be both affordable and contextual.” This ADU, in Los Angeles’s historic Highland Park, is under construction. (Credit: LA-Más)

In 2016 and 2017, the California state legislature passed a slew of reforms reducing regulations on accessory dwelling units (ADU) such as basement apartments, garage conversions and backyard cottages. The reforms address ADU parking requirements, the permitting process, design requirements, fees and more. The state sees ADUs as a small part of a broad effort to address its housing crisis as demand outpaces housing supply and housing costs rocket ever higher.

It’s too early to see the impacts of the ADU reforms on the ground, but there’s already been a massive uptick in ADU permit applications in many California cities. In December, researchers at University of California Berkley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation released a report looking at ADU applications from 2015 through 2017 to understand how the regulatory changes are spurring ADU construction.

“I expected to see a jump, given the recent legislation, but I didn’t expect to see such a dramatic jump,” says report author David Garcia, Terner Center’s policy director. “California basically legalized ADUs throughout the state on January 1, 2017. It turned out, there was quite a pent-up demand from homeowners.”

Los Angeles saw the most dramatic jump, from 90 applications in 2015 and 80 in 2016 to a whopping 1,970 applications as of November 2017. Oakland, which had 33 and 99 applications in 2015 and 2016, jumped to 247 in 2017. Long Beach had zero applications in 2015 and just one in 2016. In 2017, it had 42. San Francisco has been experimenting with looser ADU regulations since 2013, but still saw applications increase from 384 in 2016 to 593 in 2017.

The legislation did several important things to encourage ADU construction. For one, it made ADUs legal in all California cities. It also established design standards that, when met, allow ADU development to receive “ministerial approval” instead of discretionary approval. In other words, ADU builders can apply for and receive construction permits over the counter at their city planning office, instead of seeking approval from a design commission or city council. When the proposed ADU is located within a half-mile of transit, is in a designated historic district, is attached to the existing unit and in several other instances, homeowners are not required to build an off-street parking space for the ADU. The 2016 legislation also creates a path for illegal ADUs to become official. In Los Angeles, for example, there may be as many as 50,000 unpermitted ADUs.

Garcia says it’s two reforms—easier permitting and reduced parking requirements—that have had the biggest impact on the increased ADU applications. Time is money in housing construction, and complicated permitting delays the process. Similarly, the parking requirement adds construction cost and complexity to projects. For would-be ADU builders, that can be a dealbreaker, Garcia explains. “ADUs are not driven by big real estate companies. They’re driven by homeowners.”

Though ADUs are just a small part of the housing crisis solution, some housing advocates such as Stuart Cohen are excited to see an easier path to their construction. Cohen is executive director of TransForm, a nonprofit focused on transportation, housing and sustainability issue in California. He says, “I think they fit a very important niche [in the housing market]. ADUs are naturally on the lower end of the cost spectrum, so part of solving the affordability crisis is having more ADU construction.”

Still, Cohen says it’s important to remember, “there’s no substitute for having a massive infusion of funding and construction of dedicated affordable housing. ADUs are a great complement to, not a replacement for that funding.”

ADUs are rarely used as subsidized affordable housing. But because of their size, cost of construction and the fact that they’re usually built by individual homeowners instead of development companies, ADUs are often rented at below market rate. Another Terner Center report from 2017 found that 58 percent of ADU owners rent their units at below-market rates.

According to a recent New York Times report on California housing, more than half the land in both San Francisco and Los Angeles is filled by neighborhoods in which 90 percent of the housing is single family homes. Most California cities have similarly prevalent single-family zoning. ADUs could greatly increase the housing stock in those zones.

Though there are fewer barriers to ADU construction now, Garcia and Cohen still want to see future reforms. They say size and setback requirements for detached ADUs need to be clarified. Because the rules are still “fuzzy,” Cohen says it can still be difficult for builders to get that over-the-counter approval.

In some cities, detached ADUs are still subject to many of the same fees as a much larger, single family home, such as impact fees, utility fees and school district fees. Garcia says adjusting fees and building codes to account for the fact that ADUs are far smaller and often have fewer people living in them than typical single family homes will further bolster the ADU boom.

Finally, Garcia wants to see a change to owner-occupancy rules. Currently, California requires homeowners to live on site in the main dwelling in order to build an ADU. He points out that there are many single-family homes on the rental market already on lots that could also house an ADU. But under current law they cannot.

According to the Terner Center report, it takes 18 months or less to take the majority of ADUs from design to completion. Though some cities such as San Francisco that loosened ADU regulations before the state are already seeing the uptick in finished ADUs, the wave of new units spurred on by the change in state law should begin midway through 2018.

Urbanists, Architects Say Backyard Cottages Are a Must in Affordable Housing Push

Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien tours a backyard cottage in 2016. 

Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien wants to make it easier for homeowners to build backyard cottages and basement apartments. In the midst of a housing affordability crisis spurred on, in part, by a greater demand for housing than available supply, using excess basement and yard space to create new homes makes sense. One of the priority recommendations from the city’s 2015 Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda was reduction of regulatory barriers for building attached and detached accessory dwelling units (ADUs and DADUs).

Last year, O’Brien took up that mantle with a bill that would reduce the minimum lot size required to build a DADU, allow properties to have both an ADU and DADU instead of one or the other, and remove off-street parking requirements. Homeowners balked. Led by members of the posh Queen Anne neighborhood’s community council, a group of residents filed an appeal to block the legislation. They argued the city had not done its due diligence with an environmental impact statement (EIS) to determine the positive and negative effects of the code changes. In December 2016, a city hearing examiner sided with the residents, ruling that the city had to complete the more than yearlong EIS process before implementing the changes.

In early October, as part of the EIS process, the city started soliciting public input on two paths forward. The first: Leave regulations as is. Single-family homeowners who live onsite will be able to build either an ADU or a DADU if they have at least a 4,000-foot lot and an off-street parking space, among other requirements. The second option: Incorporate all the proposed changes from O’Brien’s legislation with the added changes of allowing 12 unrelated people to live on the property (up from the current eight), and allowing ADUs and DADUs on properties that are not owner-occupied.

A new group of urbanists, architects and pro-cottage homeowners is lobbying the city to be even bolder than what’s in that second approach.

Calling themselves More Options for Accessory Residences (MOAR), the group has put out a list of 10 additional changes the city should make to boost accessory unit production.

“All the changes [in alternative two] are, in their own way, going to increase the number of dwelling units that we have,” says Matt Hutchins​, a MOAR member and an architect. “I think we could go much further. Every little thing we can do in terms of improving the zoning code helps. It has become a high-stakes game.”

Seattle has allowed attached ADUs since 1994 and detached ADUs since 2009. From 1995 to 2016, only 682 ADUs were built. There were 292 DADUs built since 2009. According to the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), there are about 75,000 properties in Seattle eligible to build DADUs under current regulations (82,000 would be eligible under alternative two’s smaller lot size requirements).

Proposed changes for Seattle’s ADU code (click on image to enlarge)

Hutchins says if Seattle continues with current regulations, “you’re not going to see a widespread impact that’s going to affect the housing crisis and affordability. Roughly 50 people move to Seattle per day and we’re talking about currently building 50 [accessory units] per year. It’s a drop in the bucket.”

Accessory units are not “capital A affordable housing” says Hutchins. A 2015 OPCD report says they typically serve people earning 80 to 120 percent of area median income. But, given the city’s goal of building 50,000 units of new housing by 2025 in order to meet the growing demand, ADUs and DADUs could be part of the solution.

Regulations clearly play some role in the meager number of ADUs and DADUs being built. Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Canada, both recently reduced regulations for accessory unit construction and have seen massive increases in the number of units being built. Vancouver removed requirements for off-street parking and owner occupancy, and relaxed rules about DADU height, width and placement in the yard. Portland made similar changes. Vancouver saw about 1,000 ADU/DADUs go up in 2016 and now has about 27,000 total. Portland permitted 615 new ADU/DADUs last year.

MOAR has drawn inspiration from Seattle’s neighbors to the north and south. Their policy recommendations range from practical to philosophical. Hutchins says one top priority is that the city waives permit fees for ADU/DADU construction for five years. “Waiving permit fees for five years has no environmental impact,” he says. “The cost of that is $5,000 to $10,000. That’s a big chunk of change coming out of someone’s pocket.”

Other practical suggestions include allowing dual ownership of a property (essentially making it easier to subdivide a single-family lot so someone could own the backyard cottage separately), allowing separate utility metering, and creating a path for would-be DADU builders to qualify for small loans from the Office of Housing.

On the philosophical side, MOAR wants the city to change the name of single-family zoning to residential zoning. They write: “Our current ‘Single Family’ has a long history of duplexes, triplexes, corner stores and apartments, prior to downzoning, and renaming the zone removes a mental roadblock about what residential areas are for: people.”

Given the legal fight that ensued a year ago when O’Brien proposed easing regulations, I asked Hutchins what chance there is for the changes the city has proposed, let alone the additional ideas MOAR has. He says he’s “very optimistic.”

“I think back to the fight to get these cottages off the ground a decade ago,” he says. “That to me was a much more uncertain fight than these incremental changes.”

If changes do come, it won’t be for a while. The city is aiming to release its final EIS in summer 2018 at which point the City Council could once again take up legislation.

Seattle Streetcar May Once Again Be on the Chopping Block

Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar line (Photo by Steve Morgan)

Plans to build a downtown streetcar have long been a source of debate among Seattle politicians, in large part because of the low ridership on the city’s other streetcar lines. Last week, during a City Council budget hearing about the proposed 2018 Department of Transportation (SDOT) budget, the center city connector line was once again contentious. Several council members argued that even with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) chipping in $50 million to $75 million for the $177 million project, local money would still be better spent elsewhere. Streetcar proponents say that the center city connector is a worthy transit project and that turning down the FTA money now could hurt Seattle’s chances on other current and future grant applications.

Seattle currently has two disjointed streetcar lines. One runs from South Lake Union to downtown. The other goes from the Capitol Hill neighborhood through First Hill and the International District to Pioneer Square. The 1.2-mile center city line would connect the existing lines, going from Pioneer Square to the north end of downtown mostly along First Avenue. It would have a dedicated, streetcar-only lane for most of the route, though it would have to share the road at the beginning and end of the line.

Planned route of center city streetcar

A lack of dedicated right-of-way has plagued the other two lines. The First Hill line shares the road with all forms of traffic, leading to frequent delays. The South Lake Union line also suffered from a similar problem until recently when SDOT made a lane for the streetcar and buses only. Those delays contributed to the lines’ poor ridership.

According to Calvin Chow, an analyst for City Council, there’s about 500,000 riders annually on the South Lake Union line and 840,000 riders annually on First Hill. He says SDOT estimates that number will explode with the addition of a center city line, growing to about 7 million rides annually across the whole streetcar system. Because of that boost, the agency predicts 56 percent of its operating costs will come from fare box recovery. For comparison, the South Lake Union line has about 32 percent fare box recovery. First Hill has just 20 percent.

It is in part because of those rosy projections that Council Member Lisa Herbold, one of the most outspoken critics of the project, sounded the alarm.

“Operation costs, even under the most optimistic projections of really high fare recovery, still have an operating gap of $3 million per year,” Herbold said at last Monday’s budget hearing. “The streetcar, from my perspective, has limited utility as a transportation infrastructure tool for people. It may have value as an economic development tool.”

Transportation Choices Coalition Executive Director Shefali Ranganathan argues the center city line would be the best transit project of the three. “It’s a good project. It’s going to have its own right-of-way with frequent service. And it’s in a corridor that doesn’t have good transit right now. There’s no real bus service on First Ave. right now.”

Herbold’s council colleagues Kshama Sawant and Kirsten Harris-Talley echoed her skepticism, positing that the project didn’t meet the standards of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative and as such, the city’s $50 million contribution should be directed elsewhere.

“Is this the region of the city that needs the most urgent investment in transit?” asked Sawant. “Shouldn’t we be expanding transit routes and frequency in other parts of the city [that are currently underserved by transit]?”

Council Member Rob Johnson, the project’s strongest supporter on council, argued that the center city streetcar has merit as a transit project and that backing away from it after accepting federal funds could have consequences for future federal grants. The FTA awarded the project $75 million. The city will get $50 million for the project as part of the 2017 federal budget. The remaining $25 million hinges on future federal appropriations.

If the council decides not to build the center city streetcar, it will have to return that $50 million.

“That has a rippling effect on other major capital projects we have applied for at the federal level. And draws some undue attention that may have downstream impacts on our ability to capture federal resources for future infrastructure projects,” Johnson said.

The city has applied for and is counting on federal funds for a new bus rapid transit project on Madison Street. Sound Transit is also relying heavily on federal support for its massive third phase of light-rail expansion in the region.

Johnson also called out the scrutiny that seems to be reserved for transit projects that other capital investments don’t get. “If we’re going to take a hard look and hit pause on a transit project because of questions about ridership about future federal funding, let’s do the same thing with freight projects and roads projects,” he said. “My frustration is people have an unfair microscope for transit projects which tend to have a much greater societal benefit than we may see with other major capital projects on the roads side.”

Sawant responded, “I’m not opposed to that. I’m not opposed to scrutiny.”

No council member has yet taken action to stop the project by requesting the removal of the funds from SDOT’s budget. But there is time to do so still. The budget process will last through mid-November. Newell Aldrich​, Herbold’s aide, says the council member is “considering potential options.”

What Surveys of 900 Riders Say About Bus Rapid Transit in Boston

(Photo by Pi.1415926535)

Among a certain set of transportation planners and advocates in Boston, bus rapid transit (BRT) is the hottest topic these days. As is often the case with fans of the mode, they tout BRT’s potential to mimic the best qualities of light rail at a fraction of the cost. Earlier this year, Bostonians got a glimpse of what their transit might look like if these supporters get their way, when the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) ran a two-week pilot project allowing all-door boarding on the Silver Line bus.

Last week, the Barr Foundation, which is Massachusetts’ biggest privately funded philanthropy and a sponsor of an initiative called BostonBRT, released data about speed improvements and rider satisfaction collected during the experiment.

MBTA ran the all-door boarding pilot from May 24 to June 6. Though it can’t be called BRT, the Silver Line already has some BRT elements, such as signal prioritization and bus-only lanes on part of the route.

Unsurprisingly, all-door boarding reduced boarding time and increased on-time bus departures. According to the Barr Foundation, all-door boardings were about twice as fast as front door only, with 30 people boarding the bus in the same amount of time it takes 10 to 14 people to board on a typical day. Surveys of 900 riders found that most people were happier with their bus riding experience during the pilot. The report says 65 percent of respondents said their trip was faster during the pilot and 70 percent said all-door boarding made them more likely to ride the Silver Line again.

“Since the Silver Line already has many of the BRT elements, we knew we weren’t going to get such a huge decrease in travel time. But it was interesting to see that riders experienced a better commute with all-door boarding. Part of ensuring we get more people on buses is making sure they don’t feel like cattle being herded one by one,” says Mary Skelton Roberts, co-director of the Barr Foundation’s climate program.

The Barr Foundation has helped fund several BRT studies in the Boston area and granted MBTA funds to offset the cost of allowing riders to board at the rear of the Silver Line without paying during the pilot.

MBTA already has plans to incorporate all-door boarding on all buses, eventually. The Automated Fare Collection 2.0 plan, which the agency will roll out in 2020, will eliminate cash payments and introduce pre-boarding payment.

“The success of the Silver Line pilot is an opportunity to say, ‘can we accelerate AFC 2.0?’ Getting the Silver Line going before 2020 would be fabulous,” says Skelton Roberts.

BRT advocates say the pilot helps them make the case for the mode in general too.

“It piqued the public’s interest. It’s hard for people to get their heads around changing their bus experience,” says Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets. “People picked up all-door boarding so quickly [during the pilot]. This proves we can make these changes and people will adopt them.”

Last fall, LivableStreets launched a campaign aimed at making the public see buses as “sexy,” Thompson says. “We want to change the public perception of what the bus is and what it can do for them. Consistency and reliability are important for your relationship to your transit system. You can fall in love with your bus.”

Boston’s medium-term action plan Go Boston 2030, which was released in March, calls for improving bus corridors in the city and metro region, in large part to improve transit in low-income communities of color. The plan states: “73 percent of transit commuters endure commutes longer than 30 minutes. … Communities of color in particular face significantly higher commute times and less reliable transit options.”

“Systemic racism is deeply ingrained in the history in Boston and many other cities across the country. When the T was built, it meant that rail lines weren’t extended to communities of color. You can just see it looking at maps of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and others,” says Thompson.

Even with MBTA and the city of Boston’s intentions to expand BRT, a robust network will require broader regional participation. The greater Boston area is made up of dozens of municipalities.

“We need municipalities on board, too,” Skelton Roberts says. “They’re in charge of signal prioritization and bus-only lanes and enforcement. They’re really important for BRT success.”

The city of Everett, a suburb immediately north of Boston, is ahead of the curve. Last December, it installed a pop-up bus lane overnight, and removed on-street parking in the process. Though there were some grumblings about the lost parking, the city dubbed the bus prioritization a success and made the bus-lane permanent.

Chicago Firm Calls for Creating Office of the Public Architect

Chicago’s City Hall (Photo by Ken Lund)

When Chicago architects Ann Lui and Craig Reschke opened Future Firm in 2015, they were open-minded about the types of jobs they’d take on. The firm did some standard residential and commercial work. They also found themselves fielding a lot of unexpected calls about another type of project: helping people to fix building code violations.

“Basically people needed an architect to do drawings they could submit to the Department of Buildings to approve their fix to the violations,” Reschke says. “These are often not professional developers or landlords. We wanted to help all these people who called us. But the more we researched it, the more we realized the scale of the problem was immense.”

When Future Firm was asked to participate in a Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) exhibition as part of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opened in September, Lui and Reschke saw a chance to bring attention to those phone calls. For “Between States — 50 Designers Transform Chicago’s Neighborhoods,” CAF asked 50 architecture firms to address an underutilized space in one of the city’s 50 aldermanic wards with an eye toward addressing a community need. For Future Firm’s assignment, Lui and Reschke have imagined the creation of an Office of the Public Architect to help people fix their building code violations.

Reschke is not exaggerating when he calls the problem immense. So far in 2017, the Department of Buildings has logged over 90,000 building violations according to the city’s data portal. Citations are written for everything from broken fences and stairs to garbage in the yard to broken hot water heaters and missing smoke detectors. Many buildings have multiple violations.

Reschke says there’s a straight line between building violations people can’t or won’t fix and Chicago’s many vacant lots. “If you can’t resolve the building violations because you can’t hire an architect to fix the problem, you can’t rent it anymore. It falls into further disrepair and eventually ends up on Department of Buildings’ demolition list and contributes to the city’s well-known empty lots problem.”

An Office of the Public Architect, Lui and Reschke suggest, would provide services to those who can’t otherwise afford them.

“If you can’t afford a lawyer, you get a public defender. If you’re issued a public building violation, should you not also have the right to a public architect? People could go get guidance, get architectural plans, have a way to fix their violations,” says Reschke.

Reschke knows their idea might seem a little outlandish. But people thought the same of the idea of a public defender when Clara Foltz, California’s first female attorney, proposed it in the 1890s. She envisioned the job as the proper counterweight to public prosecutors. She proposed the idea at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Though Los Angeles opened a public defender office in 1913, the concept didn’t get widely adopted in the U.S. until the 1963 Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.

The idea of architects lending their services for free isn’t without precedent. The very literally named Public Architecture firm connects nonprofits to designers and architects willing to work pro bono. But Future Firm’s idea is for a more formalized system that relies on tax dollars, not charity and donations.

As CAF called on the 50 participants to think about underutilized space, Future Firm looked at locating the Office of the Public Architect in the unused spaces of post offices. “The post office is a central civic space for services that is used less often than it was in the past,” Reschke says.

They also imagine the pubic office being a good starting place for early-career architects. Similar to the way some lawyers start their careers as prosecutors or public defenders, architects could get their feet wet helping people fix building code violations.

“We proposed a big idea, but we think it’s an achievable idea if there’s the political will for it,” says Reschke. “I think in Chicago there is. The question we asked ourselves is, do we collectively agree that we want safe and humane spaces?”

Portland Crosswalk Shows How Drivers Think (or Don’t) About Pedestrians

(AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

Researchers from Portland State University’s Transportation Research and Education Center (TREC) made headlines in 2014 when they found that “walking while black” can have dangerous consequences. The New York Times, Washington Post, Next City and others cited their research, which found that black male pedestrians were passed by twice as many cars and waited nearly a third longer to cross than white pedestrians at marked, but unsignalized crosswalks.

Crossing in marked crosswalks is safer than doing so in unmarked crossings (a 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report says that only about 9 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur in marked crosswalks). But that doesn’t mean they’re inherently safe. Pedestrians are still putting faith in drivers to stop and yield the right-of-way when they step out into the street. If the unconscious or semi-conscious biases of drivers impact their decision to yield, crossing the street is all the more dangerous for black men.

Now TREC has released the findings from a follow-up study. The researchers expanded their analysis to look at race and gender as well as marked crosswalks and unmarked crossings.

They conducted their study at an intersection in Portland that was getting a marked crosswalk installed. Doing so allowed them to test unmarked versus marked crosswalks without changes in other variables. They used test groups of pedestrians, both black and white, male and female, to see how drivers reacted.

They found that regardless of race or gender, drivers rarely yielded at unmarked crossings, even though Oregon law requires it even when there isn’t a painted crossing. According to the report briefing: “Only in about 18 percent of the trials did a car stop at all, and the first car stopped less than 3 percent of the time.”

Once the painted crosswalk was put in, more drivers yielded, but they did so at different rates depending on gender and race. Women were more likely to have the first car stop for them than men. In keeping with the findings of the 2014 study, white pedestrians were more likely to have the first car stop than black pedestrians were. On average, black men had slightly more cars pass before a driver yielded. Black women had slightly fewer cars pass before stopping on average than white men and women.

The researchers also looked at where the driver stopped, using the crosswalk’s stopping bar at the edge of the intersection as their measuring stick: “With a black pedestrian, cars were more likely to stop after the stop bar, infringing on the pedestrian’s crossing space. With white pedestrians, the cars were leaving more of a buffer for the pedestrian to safely cross.”

“It’s not necessarily that drivers are consciously seeing pedestrians and saying, ‘I’m not going to stop for this group compared to another.’ Instead, the situation tends to reflect implicit or less conscious biases,” says lead researcher Kimberly Kahn of Portland State University.

In addition to furthering their thesis that racial bias impacts pedestrian safety, the researchers say their findings show a need for reducing the perceived discretion drivers have for yielding to people waiting to cross. When there is no crosswalk, drivers assume they have a choice of whether to yield or not — even when there’s a law saying otherwise. With a marked crosswalk in place, there is less perceived discretion.

The researchers conclude that flashing pedestrian signals may help further reduce perceived discretion and bias: “Installing signals like rectangular rapid flash beacons could aid by making drivers feel more compelled to stop for everyone, thereby reducing the effects of racial and gender biases on decisions to yield.”

D.C. Posts Results of Metrorail vs. Uber Race

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Given the variety of transportation options in many big U.S. cities, most well-off urbanites are multimodal travelers. The decision to drive, use an app to hail a ride, take transit, ride a bike or walk is made using a semi-scientific mental calculation of time, cost and convenience. Is it worth Lyft’s steep price tag to save 20 minutes on your ride home from the bar? Is it better to save money and take the subway even if the trip is a little longer? Is transit actually faster than an Uber car in clogged rush hour streets?

Those questions are at the heart of a new analysis from Washington, D.C.’s Office of Revenue Analysis, which researches economic and demographic trends and posts findings to its District Measured blog. In a Metrorail vs. Uber analysis, the office’s researchers looked at travel times, wait times and cost to determine when it’s faster to take the train and when it makes sense to shell out for ride-hailing. (It should be noted that there’s inequality when it comes to D.C.-area residents’ transportation access, which disproportionately impacts low-income communities and limits choices for people living in them.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Metro does best for long trips across the city or into the D.C. suburbs. This is especially true at rush hour and when the trip does not require transferring to a different line. The researchers write: “A trip from Metro Center to Bethesda [at rush hour], for instance, takes 33 minutes, and that includes time to wait for the train and walk to and from the station. An Uber takes 47 minutes, and comes at a far higher cost.”

When the trip requires a transfer, however, Uber wins out. Even if it’s just a short trip within the city. “Going from Union Station to Minnesota Avenue or from Columbia Heights to Cleveland Park, for instance,” they note, “is about 20 minutes quicker in an Uber than on Metro, even when Metro is running efficiently, without delays or long headways.”

That latter caveat is important. Transit competes best at rush hour when trains are running at the highest frequency. At peak hours, Metro runs trains every four to 12 minutes. In the best-case-scenario, the analysis assumes three-minute wait times for trains (feasible if you get to the station in between arrivals). In that scenario, Metro is as fast or faster than Uber in 67 of the 114 trips the researchers looked at.

When that wait time increases however, Metro’s success rate falls precipitously — and given the Metro system’s problems with delays and track fires, longer wait times are not abnormal. The researchers found that if you have to wait 10 minutes for the train, Uber is faster in 99 of the 114 trips.

That transit only mostly outperforms ride-hailing in a scenario of frequent arrivals and no unexpected delays helps to explain findings from another new report out of University of California, Davis. Released yesterday, the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies’ study found that ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are taking riders away from public transit in urban areas, increasing vehicle miles traveled, and doing little to reduce car ownership.

Lead report author Regina Clewlow told SF Gate, “Although we found that ride-hailing can be complementary to transit and reduce vehicle ownership for a small portion of individuals, we found that (overall) these services currently facilitate a shift away from more sustainable modes towards low-occupancy vehicles in major cities.”

The researchers looked at data from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area, Seattle and D.C. They found that ride-hailing passengers decreased their use of public transit by 6 percent. They also found that 49 to 61 percent of ride-hail trips would have not been made or would have otherwise been made on transit, bike or foot. And 91 percent of ride-hailers said the service has not impacted whether or not they own a car.

Advocates Send Message in Washington: Bike-Share Is Bipartisan

(Photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz)

With bike-share systems in at least 119 cities and towns, a growing number of private dockless bike-share companies popping up around the country, and a fairly new industry association, bike-sharing is firmly rooted in the U.S.

Representatives from the North American Bikeshare Association (NABSA) and PeopleForBikes took that message to Washington, D.C., last week as part of a one-day bike-share lobbying and education effort. While a group of six advocates pales in comparison to the armies of lobbyists and lawyers some industries have in the nation’s capital, the now-annual trip to D.C. does reflect how much bike-sharing has grown.

This year’s group, which included reps from bike-share systems across the U.S., had two objectives: Lobby congressional staffers to kill a budget amendment that could eliminate a key federal source of bicycle funding, and lead a briefing to educate Congress on the growth and evolution of the bike-share industry.

“Our D.C. trip is a sign that it’s an important industry to recognize and support,” says Sam Herr, NABSA executive director. “We made very clear that bike-share has far-reaching effects that are bipartisan. We wanted to show our representatives that we’re having impacts not only in the realm of transportation, but also innovation, economic development, sustainability and public health.”

The group met with staffers for Reps. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina, and Kay Granger and Michael Burgess of Texas. Their goal was to lobby against the Woodall Amendment on the House of Representative’s 2018 proposed budget. Congress occasionally uses a process called rescission to essentially take back unspent transportation funding from state DOT budgets. In the past, there have been protections that prevented Congress from rescinding funding from metropolitan planning organizations, the regional groups that distribute federal funds for local projects. The Woodall Amendment would eliminate protections for MPO funding, leaving bicycle and pedestrian projects vulnerable to rescission.

In recent years, cities have used the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program and other federal sources to fund bike-share system expansions.

“I have about $1.76 million in CMAQ funding and some other federal transportation money that I was planning on spending over the next 18 months,” says Dianna Ward, who’s executive director of Charlotte B-Cycle and was a member of the group that visited Capitol Hill this year. “We made a commitment to expand and purchase stations. We could have money clawed back and not afford expansion.”

Ward says they didn’t come away with any guarantees about the amendment, but she thinks the staffers were “receptive.” “I didn’t leave there thinking that they were not supportive of our request,” she explains.

The group also made a plug for Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer​’s Bikeshare Transit Act, which would make bike-share eligible for pre-tax commuter benefits the same way parking and transit is.

Herr says about 15 people, mostly congressional staffers, attended NABSA’s briefing on the growth of the bike-share industry. “We wanted to educate our congresspeople about the industry so that they keep bike-share in mind as there are policy opportunities,” Herr says.

So what does your average Congress member or staffer think of bike-share?

According to Herr, it’s still all over the map. There are the members of the Congressional Bike Caucus who are well versed in bike-share. Others, much less so. “There’s also work to be done to increase the awareness,” Herr says.

Ward thinks the fact that D.C. was the first U.S. city to get a bike-share system helps their case. “I suspect many staffers probably utilize Capital Bikeshare to get around,” Ward says. “Cycling is a bipartisan issue, so it was an easy conversation.”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that in August, President Donald Trump removed the “secret” bike-share station located inside the White House gates, installed while Barack Obama was in office. Surely that helped bring bike-share to Congress’ attention.

“That did not come up. Nobody brought it up,” Herr says with a laugh.

St. Louis Could Be New Testing Ground for Airport Privatization

(Photo by Bohao Zhao)

In what would be a rare move for a U.S. city, St. Louis might privatize its airport’s operations. Former Mayor Francis Slay first proposed privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport earlier this year as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Current Mayor Lyda Krewson has picked up the torch and is creating an advisory team to decide if privatizing makes sense.

As with nearly all commercial service airports (in other words, the ones that you and I fly in and out of on commercial airlines), Lambert is publicly owned and operated, in this case by the city of St. Louis. Public airports rely on federal funding, which in turn comes with tight restrictions on how revenue may be spent. Privatization could theoretically allow St. Louis to invest airport revenues in much broader ways.

Linda Martínez, St. Louis deputy mayor of economic development, says recent investments they’ve made in the airport have helped pull it out of its post-9/11 slump and passenger traffic has grown. But, she says, “We want to do even better. Can we do a better job offering flights to the public, with cargo flights, with economic development around the airport? We’re exploring whether a private operator who has access to private capital that the city doesn’t have access to could do better.”

The idea is that the city would retain ownership of the airport and lease it to a private operator. It’s a fairly common model in Europe where 40 percent of airports have at least some private shareholders. The FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program began in 1997 and allows public commercial service airports to lease operations to private companies. Just 12 airports have applied to participate in the past 20 years and only two went through with the move.

In 2000, Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York, was the first to privatize operations. After seven years, it reverted to public operation. Luís Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, privatized operations in 2012 and remains the only American commercial service airport with such a public-private structure.

Though Lambert has seen passenger growth recently — the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports a 10 percent rise in passenger traffic from 2015 to 2016 — the airport is still recovering from the loss of Trans World Airlines (TWA). Lambert was TWA’s main hub from 1982 to 2001, when the airline filed for bankruptcy. American Airlines bought TWA in 2001 and shut down the hub in 2003. Lambert went from over 30.5 million passengers in 2001 to 13.4 million in 2004 (but nearly hit 14 million passengers in 2016).

According to Megan Ryerson, a University of Pennsylvania transportation planning professor whose research focuses on air transportation, it’s harder for less-busy airports to attract new flights. Perhaps surprisingly, airports with less traffic typically charge airlines more to land than busy airports.

Airports charge airlines a landing fee for every plane. It is one of a few important revenue streams for the facilities. Officials calculate the fees based on the total annual airfield maintenance costs and the weight of each airplane. The fee is structured as a dollar amount per 1,000 pounds of airplane weight. As such, the busier an airport, the lower the fee because the fee is being spread out among more airplanes.

For comparison, Ryerson says in 2015, Lambert’s landing fee was about $10 per 1,000 pounds. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, the world’s busiest, charges just 66 cents per 1,000 pounds.

“If an airline is thinking about opening new routes at an airport, they consider the market and demand and they consider the cost they’re going to incur,” Ryerson says. “When the airline compares the cost of St. Louis to another Midwestern, smaller city, it’s very difficult for St. Louis to attract new traffic.”

In order to be more competitive, St. Louis can offer incentives to airlines to offset the landing fees. But because of FAA regulations, they are limited to using “non-aeronautical” revenue, such as that raised by parking fees or concessions, to pay for those incentives.

“St. Louis has been trying incredibly hard to use its non-aeronautical revenues to recruit new service. But they have not been as successful as they would like to be,” Ryerson says.

Privatization could loosen the restrictions on aeronautical revenues, and allow St. Louis to invest more in incentives to grow passenger traffic, or invest in economic development outside the airport.

Martínez says the FAA pilot still places some restrictions on how revenue can be spent and that, “the agency’s thumb is on the scale to emphasize infrastructure investments.”

If the city does ultimately pursue a public-private model for Lambert, the change won’t happen right away. St. Louis is selecting its advisory committee on Oct 20. After that there will be months of outreach to St. Louis residents, the many airport users outside the city, elected officials, businesses and the airlines. The plan will first require approval from the Board of Alderman and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment as well as from the FAA.

New Design Guide Offers Stormwater Solutions

(AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

From New York to Charlestown, South Carolina, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to Atlanta, cities and towns all over the U.S. are trying to figure out better ways to manage stormwater. Climate change impacts, including more frequent and intense storms and extreme flooding events, are stressing existing stormwater infrastructure leading to backups, flooding and increased pollution runoff.

Rather than investing in expensive upgrades to their grey infrastructure — traditional pipes, tanks, water treatment plants — many of the above cities are experimenting with green infrastructure such as permeable soils, plants, bioswales and retention ponds that filter pollutants out and release water back into aquifers.

“The conventional method is to just convey stormwater off the street and into sewers and treatment plants. It’s very expensive and separates water from natural ecology. Sustainable stormwater infrastructure wants to capture and re-use the water,” says Corinne Kisner, director of policy at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).

Kisner co-authored NACTO’s new Urban Street Stormwater Guide. In it, NACTO makes the case that green stormwater infrastructure can be combined with transportation infrastructure projects to help cities meet their stormwater management goals, save money and, in some cases, make streets safer for walking and biking. The book looks at case studies from cities around the U.S. and provides guidance for building green stormwater infrastructure in transportation corridors.

Stormwater management is new territory for NACTO, which has previously published design guides for urban streets with transit and bikeways, but Kisner argues it’s a logical step.

“Given the amount of space streets take up in cities and the fact that streets create a ton of impervious surface space, they are an opportunity to make big changes in a city’s ecological impact,” she explains.

The guide provides a variety of green stormwater infrastructure designs for cities to implement, from major capital projects to low-cost neighborhood intersection treatments.

When St. Paul, Minnesota, built an 11-mile, $957 million light rail extension, it included $5 million in green stormwater infrastructure to reduce runoff and improve water quality. They used rain gardens, bio-retention planters, permeable paver stones and tree trenches. The green infrastructure mitigates approximately 50 percent of stormwater runoff, easing the burden on the traditional sewer system.

On the other end of size spectrum, the guide looks at a $420,000 intersection project in Philadelphia. The city eliminated a slip lane that enabled high-speed right hand turns from Stenton Avenue to East Washington Lane. In its place, they built a rain garden that reduces the amount of impermeable asphalt. “It’s more enjoyable to walk because the garden is nice to look at. It’s safer because the crossing distances are shorter,” says Kisner.

The guide has suggestions for permeable pavement applications, using rain gardens as barriers for protected bike lanes and curb bulb outs, replacing center medians with bioswales, installing bioswales on sidewalks and around bike-share stations and more.

“Cities have very limited street space,” Kisner says. “Green stormwater infrastructure helps find ways to integrate everything a city wants within same physical street space.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NACTO says funding and the need for cross-departmental collaboration are two of the biggest challenges for cities interested in green stormwater infrastructure experiments. The city staff working on transportation is rarely in the same department as staff dealing with stormwater. Solving the latter problem can actually help the former, however.

In many of the guide’s case studies, cities were able to access stormwater and transportation grants for the same project.

“Part of what our guidebook steering committee got excited about was the opportunity to leverage one project with another and leverage transportation funding with stormwater funding for to get a better project over all,” says Kisner.

She continues, “Cities are recognizing that climate change is among our most urgent issue and looking to make a difference with climate mitigation. Changing how we move around city is important for mitigating greenhouse gas. Changing stormwater infrastructure is important for mitigating climate impacts.”

Selling Seattle Youth on Public Transit

(Photo by SounderBruce)

Kids in Seattle and King County are getting a break this summer on bus and light-rail fare. Last week, King County Metro and Sound Transit launched a youth summer fare pilot program to help make transit more accessible, stanch the typical seasonal drop-off in youth riders, and potentially set the stage for making Metro and Sound Transit free for anyone under 19.

There are already several youth fare options. Riders under 18 pay $1.50 for bus and light rail. During the school year, students living more than 2 miles from school can get a free ORCA transit pass. Low-income students within the 2-mile radius can also get a free ORCA card.

With the summer program, anyone 6 to 18 can ride buses for 50 cents and light rail for $1.

“Particularly for those under 16 who may not have any other options, access to transit is really important. Living by frequent and reliable transit gives you so many more opportunities for education, socializing with friends, working jobs and internships,” says Seattle City Council Member Rob Johnson.

Johnson has been advocating for free or reduced youth transit fare since he was director of the nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition and continued pushing it after getting elected to the council in 2015.

“We see something in the neighborhood of a 50 percent drop-off in youth ridership over the summer versus the school year. We’re trying to test to see if that has to do with the fare,” says Johnson, explaining the rationale for the pilot.

Unsurprisingly, transit advocates have voiced their support for the program.

“Anything we can do to get young people using the transit system is great and making it more affordable is obviously one of the ways to do that,” says Katie Wilson, of Seattle Transit Riders Union. “The habits that young people pick up early are going to shape their choices for the rest of their life. … I wish that Sound Transit would agree to go down to the 50-cent fare.”

Johnson’s long-term goal is to make transit free for anyone under 19, something he says would benefit kids, families and Seattle’s sustainability goals alike. Johnson’s twins just turned 6, aging out of the free rides for children 5 and under. “We’re fortunate to be able to afford that extra three bucks anytime we want to take the bus. There are a lot of families who don’t have that luxury. Sometimes they may choose to drive because the cost of taking transit with kids may be more expensive than driving.”

Funding for free youth passes could come from charging private shuttles from Microsoft, Seattle Children’s Hospital and others to use public bus stops for employee pickups and drop-offs. Seattle launched a pilot program to test that model this year. Johnson thinks revenues from that would easily cover the $4.5 million to $5 million King County Metro and less than $2 million Sound Transit collects from youth fares each year.

Revenue loss isn’t the only hurdle for free youth rides. Johnson says Metro has expressed concerns that people treat transit with less respect when they ride for free. Few U.S. cities have experimented with free transit, but Austin cited vandalism and “problem riders” when it canceled its short-lived free transit pilot in 1989.

“They could have a nominal fee like 25 cents, if needed,” Wilson suggests. “But we should try to make transit as affordable as possible, up to and including making it free.”

Wilson hopes that the conversation about free youth transit inspires other school districts in King County to adopt Seattle Public School’s free ORCA card model for low-income students within the 2-mile radius.

Elsewhere in the U.S., free youth ridership is not commonplace, but there are examples. Tempe, Arizona, and Charlottesville, Virginia, offer free transit passes to anyone under 18. San Francisco gives free passes to low-income youth ages 5 to 18. Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is running a pilot program to give youth free bus rides during summer break.

If Seattle’s summer pilot program is successful, Johnson wants to move quickly toward launching the free youth pass.

“My hope is a year from now we’re having a great celebratory moment launching our program so any kid under 19 can get on the bus for free.”

Nashville Mayor Wants Quick Fixes for Transportation Woes

Heavy traffic moves away from and toward the downtown area of Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Nashville’s population is booming. Between new residents moving in and babies being born, the metro area gained about 100 people a day last year — putting Nashville in the top 20 fastest-growing U.S. cities. As is always the case in car-centric cities, that growth is putting a serious strain on Nashville’s formerly free-flowing streets.

“We’re a somewhat typical Southern city with about 85 percent of folks commuting via single-occupancy vehicle,” says Erin Hafkenschiel, director of transportation and sustainability in the mayor’s office. “Five years ago, people would say Nashville was a 20-minute town. Everything was within a 20-minute drive. That’s no longer the case.”

The region has a plan to accommodate the growth. A bunch of them in fact. In 2015, the city released Nashville Next, a 25-year comprehensive growth plan. Last fall, the Regional Transit Authority board approved nMotion, a $6 billion plan centered on light rail. In January, the city released a draft of its vision for improving walking and biking, called WalknBike. All are long-range plans.

In an effort to make good on campaign promises to improve transportation, Mayor Megan Barry released an action agenda in late May outlining projects she wants to accomplish in her first term in office. Moving the Music City includes plans for improving bus frequency, building bike infrastructure, sidewalks and crosswalks, and implementing Vision Zero strategies.

There is plenty of room for improvement. According to the U.S. Census, just 1 percent of people in the metro region use transit as their primary mode of transportation. Nora Kern, executive director of Walk Bike Nashville, says much of the city’s bike network is made up of painted bike lanes on 40 mph arterials and that just 37 percent of the city’s streets have sidewalks. Smart Growth America ranks Nashville 37th among the 104 most dangerous U.S. cities for walking.

“We need to start making progress on all of these fronts to really move the needle on transportation,” says Hafkenschiel.

For transit, the plan calls for increasing frequency of bus service to every 15 minutes or faster and extending service hours on the 14 most popular bus routes in the city. It also calls for building bus lanes and implementing bus signal prioritization at some intersections as well as upgrading the fleet from diesel to hybrid electric. Improving bus service has a dual purpose: giving people a viable option for getting around without a car and setting Nashville’s light-rail system up for success.

“If our light rail opened tomorrow it would not be a success because our transit ridership is so low. We wouldn’t see the ridership we want on an investment that big. Over the next five to 10 years moving towards light rail, we have to see improvement on bus ridership,” says Hafkenschiel.

Moving the Music City also recognizes that if people can’t easily and safely access the bus, they won’t ride it. Some of the highest ridership routes run on streets without sidewalks or crosswalks.

“Being able to cross the street has proven to be very difficult,” says Kern. “The routes either don’t have sidewalks along them or have very narrow sidewalks. It’s a half-mile to a mile between crosswalks. The vast majority of our pedestrian fatalities have happened on the same five or six corridors.”

The plan prioritizes building sidewalks and crosswalks on high-ridership transit routes. It also calls for building sidewalks in the highest-priority neighborhoods, as identified in the WalknBike plan. Some of them will be traditional concrete sidewalks. Some, for the sake of time and money might be “quick build” projects that use paint and barriers to create dedicated space for walking.

“A lot of streets are really wide so there’s potential for experimentation. There’s a lot of space to reallocate and use more wisely,” Kern explains.

Barry wants to implement a similar quick-build approach to expanding the city’s bike infrastructure network. Her plan calls for doubling the miles of protected bike lanes and lanes with a 2-foot painted buffer. Since 2013, the city has added 22 miles of buffered bike lanes and 2.5 miles of protected bike lanes.

“We’re very excited that there’s a focus on a network of protected bike lanes. We have a lot of bikeways that are just a stripe of white paint on 40 mph roads. Starting downtown and building out is a really good strategy that was laid out in WalknBike,” says Kern.

That said, Kern wishes Barry had put more bike funding in her budget. It doubles funding for bike infrastructure implementation from $1 million to $2 million, but that’s well short of the $8 million WalknBike calls for.

Of course, funding is always a challenge. Barry has plans to run a ballot referendum in May 2018 that, if passed, would raise taxes to create a dedicated funding stream for transit. But the projects in her three-year plan don’t need that extra funding, according to Hafkenschiel.

“It was important to us that we could get these projects done in three years,” she explains. “We think this action agenda is only setting the stage for what needs to happen in Nashville around transit and transportation services. It is an important step and we need the referendum to keep going.”

Kern is encouraged by the mayor’s transportation priorities and what they could do for Nashville. “It’s promising that Barry is putting her political capital towards walking and biking and transit. People are excited about light rail and it’s really sexy, but its success will depend on getting people to and from it on buses, bikes and walking.”

Why I Started Cycling Less in Seattle

Seattle’s first downtown protected bike lane opened in 2014 on Second Avenue. (Credit: Seattle DOT) 

I realized recently that I don’t ride my bike as much as I used to. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I just started walking and taking transit and driving far more than I was choosing the bike, which had previously been my nearly-every-day mode of transportation. Somewhat ironically, I had this realization while riding my bike on Memorial Day. Or more to the point, it dawned on me why I haven’t been riding much.

My partner and I were riding out to Golden Gardens, a beach park in the northwest corner of Seattle. After crossing through downtown (never the best experience on a bike), we connected to the new Westlake protected bike lane. After crossing the Fremont Bridge, we turned left on 34th Street. We did so in a two-stage, left turn bike box, which lets you make a slight right in the intersection, turn around, and wait for the light to turn green to go straight across, rather than trying to merge across two lanes of traffic to take a regular left. From there we rode in another protected bike lane, which dumped us onto the Burke Gilman multiuse trail.

Riding good infrastructure was just plain pleasant. Instead of pedaling with my head on swivel to make sure I wasn’t going to get run over, I was able to divert more attention to the sights around me, chat with my partner and enjoy being out on the bike on a sunny day. It occurred to me then that a major reason I was riding less these days is that I had moved to a corner of the city where there’s hardly any bike infrastructure, let alone high-quality protected infrastructure.

A year ago, we moved to Hillman City, a neighborhood in southeast Seattle’s Rainier Valley. There is a lot to love about the area, but bike infrastructure is not one of them. To bike just about anywhere beyond the confines of the neighborhood, you either have to ride on busy arterials with no bike infrastructure or take roundabout routes on residential streets that inevitably take you up and down far more hills.

The arterials aren’t terrible at off hours and on the weekend. (Except Rainier Ave., which is the flattest, straightest route north, but also happens to hold the record for most annual crashes and riding it feels like a death wish.) Beacon Ave. is wide. Lake Washington Blvd. is a popular enough bike route that drivers (hopefully) expect to share the road with bicyclists. But at rush hour, when they’re packed with cars, neither of those primary north-south routes is great. On gray and rainy days (of which we have many in Seattle), the lack of infrastructure tends to be the tipping point that pushes me on to bus or train.

To be fair, there are likely zero places to live in Seattle where one could ride in good bike infrastructure everywhere they wanted to go. The bike infrastructure network is still just too disconnected for that. But when I lived in Queen Anne and Ballard and Eastlake (all north-central neighborhoods) it was a lot easier to quickly connect to good routes. This is not coincidence. When Seattle started building out its Bicycle Master Plan, it prioritized the whiter, wealthier neighborhoods north of downtown. In part, this is because cyclists in those neighborhoods were lobbying for bike lanes. It was also because the city needed to show that its bike lane projects were successful and got used, so they built them in the neighborhoods where more people already identified as avid cyclists. The Rainier Valley is one of the most diverse areas of Seattle. In the 98118 ZIP code, 24 percent of the population is African-American, 30.5 percent is Asian and 10 percent is Latino or Hispanic, compared to citywide percentages of 7 percent, 14 percent and 6.5 percent respectively.

The legacy of that approach can be seen with a glance at the newest edition of the city bike map. From Interstate 90 north to about Green Lake, there’s an interwoven network of regular bike lanes, protected bike lanes, greenways and multiuse trails. In southeast Seattle, there are far fewer colorful lines marking the map.

It came as a bit of a surprise that I started caring so much about having good infrastructure to ride in. I used to ride anywhere and everywhere in the city. Bike lanes and trails were a bonus, but they didn’t dictate my route. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve gotten far less keen on trusting my safety to harried, distracted urban drivers.

I’m certainly not alone in my desire for safe infrastructure. Studies of protected bike infrastructure have found a correlation between safe infrastructure and ridership. When cities build a protected bike lane, it greatly increases the amount of bike traffic on that route.

The Seattle Department of Transportation has some plans in the works for better bike infrastructure in the Rainier Valley. The most significant is plans for a north-south neighborhood greenway that zigs and zags through quiet neighborhood streets from Rainier Beach to the I-90 bike trail. The city is slated to begin work on the greenway this year.

A signed, re-paved route with improved arterial crossings for bikes and pedestrians is a step in the right direction. But even its core proponents recognize an indirect (and sometimes hilly) route is not as ideal as a straight shot on an arterial with protected bike infrastructure.

“We’re psyched for neighborhood greenways in the valley,” says Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “But even though the greenway hasn’t been built yet, it’s already a little obsolete. Through Rainier Beach it makes sense, but the hills in Columbia City and Mount Baker just don’t make sense.”

There are other small improvements coming, including a protected bike lane running east-west between Columbia City and Beacon Ave. That is an important connection, but once you reach the top of Beacon Hill, it’s still mostly a bike-lane-free ride to downtown.

“We’re going to need a protected bike lane on Rainer to connect people to downtown Seattle where all the jobs are,” Padelford says. “But that is still a bit of a radical idea.”

Because it’s so flat and direct, Rainier Ave. would potentially be a dream route for bicyclists in the Rainier Valley. But I suspect a lot of people would be happy enough to ride to the top of Beacon Hill every day if there were protected bike lanes running east-west from the valley to Beacon Ave., and good north-south infrastructure waiting for them when they got there.

I haven’t completely given up riding. I still choose to bike once or twice a week to get me where I’m going. If I was working in a downtown office again, I would likely re-learn to tolerate the stress of rush hour bicycling and ride most days of the week. But I know I, and many of my neighbors, would ride a whole lot more if there were good, safe, protected infrastructure connecting southeast Seattle to the rest of the city.

17 Transit Agencies Team Up to Think About L.A. Bus System Overhaul

(Photo by Downtowngal)

Bus ridership in Los Angeles is steadily declining, with a system that saw 14 percent fewer riders in April 2017 than April 2016. Annual bus ridership dropped 18 percent from 2009 to 2016. Public transportation agency LA Metro has been laser focused on its rail system, investing billions in new lines and extensions, leading to a 4.2 percent bump in subway and light rail ridership last year (and a whopping 20 percent increase from 2009 to 2016). Now, the agency recognizes it’s been neglecting its buses and is making plans for a big overhaul.

“It’s been 25 years since we’ve taken a real hard look and restructured our bus system,” says Rick Jager, Metro spokesman. “We’re going to take a look at the entire system in terms of the service level, where we’re providing it, what we’re providing, how travel patterns might’ve changed over the years.”

Given that, it’s little surprise ridership has dropped.

“You can’t offer poor service over a huge area like metro L.A. and expect ridership to stay constant or grow,” says Jon Orcutt, director of advocacy and communications at TransitCenter, a national foundation focused on urban mobility. “The only places ridership is not going down in the U.S. are those where policymakers are paying serious attention to bus systems as integral parts of the transit system.”

Metro is ready to do just that. They are launching a two- to three-year system study that will culminate in a massive overhaul of bus routes and service levels. At the same time, Metro is participating in a joint study with 16 other transit agencies in L.A. County to try to improve intersystem connectivity. As is the case with all but a few bus systems in the U.S., the agencies around the region have also suffered from drops in bus ridership in recent years.

Jager says it’s far too early to speculate about what a revamped system might look like. But he points to ridership surveys that have shown that some people have “a perception the system is not safe. It does not go where they want it to go, doesn’t operate as frequently as they want, slow, unreliable, those kinds of things.”

Orcutt believes the overhaul needs to focus on better integrating bus service into the expanded rail. “When you’re adding rail, it doesn’t mean you cancel bus service. You treat them as a seamless network. You should take the buses you have and repurpose them as frequent bus lines across city that better connect people to rail.”

Orcutt points to Seattle where the transit agencies did exactly that. In 2016, King County Metro revamped its bus service to better serve the newly expanded light-rail system. It appears to have helped. Seattle was one of those handful of cities that saw bus ridership grow from 2015 to 2016.

Houston — another city that saw a small increase in ridership in the last year — may also serve as inspiration for Los Angeles. In summer 2015, after several years of outreach and planning, the city rolled out a revamped bus system overnight. Ten months later, bus ridership was up 3.3 percent. In total, Houston saw transit ridership grow 2.3 percent from 2015 to 2016.

The timing is right for major transit changes in L.A. Last November, voters passed Measure M, a historically large transit funding package that’s expected to generate $120 billion over the next 40 years.

Jager says Metro’s plan to overhaul the bus system also dovetails nicely with the regional transit work the agency’s doing with 16 other agencies in the county. The Regional Ridership Improvement Task Force will bring on a consultant to evaluate all 17 agencies and make recommendations for ways the systems can better integrate with and complement each other.

“We’re trying to find some solutions to increase transit use in the region over the next decade. Our plan is to hopefully identify innovative solutions to attract customers to hop on board again,” Jager says.

L.A. is not alone in its desire to fix its bus system. Columbus, Ohio, just rolled out a makeover. Anchorage, Alaska, has plans in the works. Austin, Texas, approved a bus overhaul plan in February.

“We think this is a good development,” says Orcutt. “The trend of transit agencies really looking at whether the bus network is obsolete and needs an update is gaining momentum. And an agency as big as LA Metro doing it is going to send a message.”

In Portland, an Experiment to Make Real Estate Investment Affordable for All

Plaza 122 in Portland (Credit: Mercy Corps Northwest)

From the outside, Plaza 122 seems like any other strip mall. Located in Portland, Oregon’s Mill Park neighborhood on the far east side of the city, it has your standard parking lot ringed by businesses in low-slung buildings. But Plaza 122 is home to an experimental commercial investment model that is meant to help low-income community members build equity and lessen their risk of displacement.

Mercy Corps Northwest, a nonprofit that provides loans and financial education to low-income individuals, purchased Plaza 122 for $1.2 million in December 2015 to test their Community Investment Trust (CIT) program. The CIT is similar to REITs (real estate investment trusts), an investment model that allows people to buy shares of income-producing real estate, which pays out dividends. However, unlike REITs, which typically attract the wealthy, Mercy Corp’s pilot is aimed at low-income investors in the neighborhood.

“We want to turn the REIT model on its head by creating a small, safe, local and low-dollar investment opportunity for all within a community to participate in,” says Sven Gatchev, Mercy Corps Northwest’s community investment trust business analyst. Gatchev says, to his knowledge, their CIT model is the first of its exact kind in the U.S.

When Mercy Corps purchased Plaza 122, it was in foreclosure and had 65 percent occupancy. Over the past two years they’ve brought it up to full occupancy. The 27 tenants include a Latina-owned hair salon, a Somali-owned taxi company, an insurance company, nonprofits and others.

The property has about $450,000 in equity. Investors can buy in for as little as $10 per month and a maximum of $100 per month. Tenant rent is used to pay the mortgage and property expenses. Whatever’s leftover is paid out as annual dividends. Over time, as the mortgage principal is paid down and if the building value appreciates, the shares will pay out higher dividends.

The only requirements for participation are that investors are at least 18 years old, live in one of the four ZIP codes surrounding Plaza 122 and have taken Mercy Corps Northwest’s financial literacy class.

“There’s no income restriction because we want it to be available to everyone in the ZIP codes,” says Gatchev. “We want to make sure it’s the people that live in the community who are investing in the community.”

According to a study from Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Mill Park and surrounding neighborhoods in outer southeast Portland have become a landing place for low-income renters pushed out of more central neighborhoods where costs have risen. “The potential for displacement happening again is very high,” Gatchev says.

Long term, Mercy Corps Northwest hopes to have the CIT form a board of directors composed of investors and real estate, financial and legal professionals. The board would be Plaza 122’s landlord.

“The idea is for it to not be subsidized by Mercy Corps Northwest and for the community to make the decisions right for them,” says Gatchev. “For example, do they think it would be a good decision for the neighborhood to introduce a liquor store or marijuana dispensary in the building.”

If the CIT model proves successful, Mercy Corps Northwest hopes to expand it to other properties around the Northwest. They also want to see other nonprofits implement the model — and they’ll eventually have a how-to guide available for sale.

Though the CIT is possibly the first to use the REIT model to make real estate investing accessible to low-income people, other nonprofits have experimented with REITs. In 2013, a coalition of affordable housing nonprofits formed the Housing Partnership Equity Trust, a REIT that allows private investors to fund affordable housing development. To date the Trust has acquired 12 rental properties in St. Paul, Sacramento, Virginia Beach, D.C., Chicago and elsewhere.

Mercy Corps Northwest will open Plaza 122 to investors next month. Gatchev says 18 people have already completed the financial literacy class and are eligible to invest.

5 Ways Planners Get Charrettes Wrong

(Credit: National Charrette Institute at MSU)

Design charrettes are, in theory, a valuable component of the urban planning process that help communities take a little bit of ownership over the changes coming to their streets. At their best, charrettes bring together everyone who cares about a complex design problem — residents, business owners, city planners, engineers, decision makers — to collaborate and compromise, ending with a solution everyone values.

In practice, that is often not the case. City planners announce a charrette, but don’t do enough outreach. Only a few community members show up. Those who do attend get a jargon-laced presentation from engineers. Community feedback is taken, but not incorporated into the final design.

Participatory design is an important piece of equitable urban planning. A well-executed charrette can help facilitate that goal. A poorly executed charrette can further the stereotype that city agencies only pay lip service to community concerns. With that in mind, I talked to several experts about the common mistakes they see in charrettes and ideas for running better sessions.

Your Charrette Must Be a Charrette
“One problem is the word ‘charrette’ is used for all kinds of different events, most of which are not what we would call a charrette,” says Bill Lennertz, founder of the National Charrette Institute (NCI), a nonprofit that provides charrette trainings and consulting.

The word is often used to describe an evening outreach event that solicits community feedback or even a one-day design workshop, neither of which qualify under NCI’s definition. According to Lennertz, a true charrette requires one to nine months of prep time and educational outreach, takes place over a few consecutive days so facilitators can give immediate feedback to participants, has the stakeholders in the room necessary to ask the right questions or answer them, and produces a usable final design.

Do More and Better Outreach
Putting in more than half a year of prep time into a charrette might seem extreme, but Lennertz says its crucial for success.

“Everyone should walk into a charrette already understanding what they’re getting into and trustful about the engagement,” he explains. “It takes pre-education, a lot of listening and building empathy with all of the people involved. If people have that sense of trust, the project gets done.”

Often, doing the prep work requires partnering with established community organizations that can help agencies reach the people they need to reach. Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition Advocacy Director Monique López says, “That’s fine, but the grassroots orgs are not compensated for their time to do so. They end up doing the work that the agency should be prioritizing.”

López credits L.A. DOT for not doing that. LACBC and TRUST South LA are helping the DOT with safe streets outreach and engagement to find out what south L.A. residents need for safer walking, biking and transit riding in their communities. The agency is providing staff support, materials and a budget to the organizations to help get the work done.

Set (Realistic) Expectations
“When you have a room full of designers, community members, engineers and every other background you can end up with wild ideas. That creativity can be good, but you have to figure out how to make it actionable,” says Jeff Aken, a planner with the city of Redmond in Oregon.

Part of accomplishing that comes from having the right people in the room. “Often a viewpoint is missing. People historically left out of the process are missing. Key engineers are missing. Decision makers are missing,” says Wayne Beyea, NCI interim director.

You need the planners and engineers and architects who can clearly explain that someone’s suggestion would require a zoning change or someone who can explain that an idea for a pedestrian bridge is beyond the scope of the project budget or an engineer who can explain why certain elements are required for legal or safety reasons.

Similarly, you need to establish parameters — how much can the city spend, what is the scope of the project — to ensure the final product matches what gets discussed in the charrette. “Charrettes need to produce something that can actually get done, not just pretty pictures and visions,” Lennertz says. “When you create projects that can get done, you then build more trust in the project.”

Communicate More Clearly
The fields of planning and design and engineering are filled with jargon. Sometimes, that jargon is necessary for explaining extremely specific things, but that doesn’t mean a term is decipherable to the layperson. López says that she often sees excessive use of engineering language, unclear project renderings and other elements that an average community participant might not understand, making it harder for them to give meaningful feedback.

Similarly, López says when the city is working with communities where English is not the first language, there needs to be better consideration of literacy levels. “We have to build a charrette that accommodates different literacy levels and languages people speak, to engage people in more meaningful ways.”

Provide Real Feedback
Lennertz says one of the most critical mistakes people make is treating a charrette as a one day or one evening event. Instead, charrettes should take place over several consecutive days (NCI says a minimum of four) to allow for a feedback loop between community and agency. Those feedback loops provide the sort of back and forth that lead to a final design that all parties can sign off on and that an agency can actually implement.

“One of the reasons charrettes fail is that people underestimate how much skill and thought need to take place in a collaborative design process,” he explains.

All of that preparation, a multiday charrette, community outreach and follow-up, is a major commitment of time and money. But Beyea says if done right, charrettes will save time and money in the long run. “The underlying purpose is to transform the way people work together and build trust in whatever community setting it is. … You need trust to make sure people don’t fight to block the project.”

Seattle Could See Return of Bike-Share This Summer

Seattle’s city-run bike-share shut down in March. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

In January, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced the city was canceling plans to revamp the Pronto bike-share system and would instead shut the whole thing down at the end of March. He left the door open for a second attempt at Seattle bike-share, but it was clear it would be a low political priority for a while. Now, less than two months after Pronto’s bikes and stations were decommissioned, there are plans afoot to launch a bike-share pilot project (or three), possibly even as soon as this summer.

Two private bike-share startups from the San Francisco Bay Area, Spin and Lime, and one from Beijing, BlueGoGo, have all announced their intention to bring their bikes to Seattle. Unlike Pronto (and most of the major U.S. bike-share systems) the companies use “dockless” bikes.

In response, the City Council and Seattle Department of Transportation are working on figuring out private bike-share regulation. Council Member Rob Johnson says they’re aiming to have a framework ready “no later than mid-June. We could ideally have bikes out on the streets by July 1.”

With dockless systems, instead of checking bikes into and out of stations throughout the system area, riders use an app to find and unlock GPS-enabled bikes. As is often the case with startups, the companies are offering their product for cheap. Spin for example will cost $1 per half hour, much cheaper than most docked systems. (Though without the monthly or yearly membership option that most docked systems have, dockless systems could cost frequent users more in the long run.)

Private, dockless bike-share companies have been commonplace in China for a few years now. Many of them are backed by hundreds of millions and even billions in venture capital, which has allowed them to flood cities with bikes and charge next to nothing for rides. In some cities such as Shenzhen, people have left piles of abandoned and broken bikes on street corners.

That has left some U.S. bike-share advocates nervous that Spin, BlueGoGo and others might do the same in American cities. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) calls them “rogue bike-share operators.”

“It’s less about the technology per se, than the way the systems have tried to come into U.S. markets and cities,” says Kate Fillin-Yeh, NACTO’s director of strategy. “It’s unclear if their [financial model] actually makes sense.”

Her concern is that venture capital-backed companies will flood U.S. cities that already have systems in place, undercut those with cheap prices, put the docked system out of business, then go out of business themselves because they can’t make enough money. “If something looks like it’s too good to be true, maybe it is,” she says.

Spin CEO Derrick Ko says that’s not his company’s plan. “There are definitely some fly-by-night companies, some foreign companies eyeing the U.S. to see if it can be done here with the same models [as China],” he says. “We respect the city, we want to work with the city and treat them as partners, not adversaries.”

He says that much like traditional bike-share systems, Spin will have staff that redistributes bikes to make sure they don’t all end up in one spot in the city and, “people on the street to inspect bikes and make sure they’re safe to ride.”

Fillin-Yeh is unconvinced. Spin did a pop-up launch with a few hundred bikes during this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin. According to her, the bikes had serious mechanical problems. “After a week’s worth of biking, those bikes were ripped to shreds. Bent seat posts, pedals falling off, all this crazy stuff.”

Spin did not confirm or deny if their bikes broke in Austin. A spokesperson said the bikes they plan to use long term were not yet available so, “we used a fleet of off-the-shelf bicycles as stand-ins for the purpose of the SXSW festival pop-up.” She said that the bikes Spin will use in Seattle and other cities are certified by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and are also undergoing certification to meet the International Organization for Standardization’s bicycle standards.

“That’s exactly why we want a pilot project,” says Council Member Johnson. “It allows us to test things out and learn some lessons. See which providers are acting in good faith and which might be those fly-by-night companies.”

He explains that he’s looking for four main things from the companies as part of the regulatory framework. The city wants data from the companies about how many people are riding and where. They want to establish safety expectations. “How do we make sure we’ve got bikes that are well maintained? How do we make sure riders know about helmet law requirements? Know bikes aren’t going to be piled up blocking sidewalks,” he asks. They want evidence that the systems will be sustainable long term. And finally, Johnson says, he’s concerned about companies equitably distributing the bikes. “As we think about expanding from pilot to permanent program, we need to make sure bike-share bikes are able to be accessed by people all throughout the city,” he says.

And if the startups can do all that and prove to be successful and sustainable, Johnson says, “I think relaunching city-owned bike-share would be off the table.”

San Jose Considers Outlawing Section 8 Discrimination

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

The “luxury remodel” one-bedroom in Willow Glen. The “spacious” four-bedroom in San Jose South. The two-bedroom duplex downtown. They’re just a sampling of the many listings on Craigslist in San Jose, California, that specifically bar Section 8 voucher holders from applying for a lease. Federal fair housing law bans discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, family status, disability or age. But it has no stipulation about discriminating against income sources.

“It’s a huge issue,” says Mathew Reed, an organizer with Sacred Heart Community Services, a San Jose social services organization. “In runaway housing markets like ours, Section 8 voucher holders really struggle to find places to live.”

The San Jose City Council is exploring the idea of banning income source discrimination, including Section 8 discrimination. In late April, the council adopted a memorandum stating their intention to consider an ordinance banning income source discrimination and requiring the city’s housing department to analyze the problem.

As is the case throughout the Bay Area, housing costs in San Jose have skyrocketed. According to a recent Redfin report, it has the most competitive housing market in the U.S. The Mercury News reports that the rental market cooled a bit last fall, but the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was still $2,455.

“Our housing costs are so high and our vacancy rate is low. It’s below 5 percent. It means we don’t have a lot of supply,” says Housing Department Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand.

Section 8 housing choice vouchers are available to low- and very-low-income Santa Clara County residents (those earning no more than 30 and 50 percent area median income respectively). Voucher holders pay 30 percent of their income to rent. The housing authority pays the rest directly to landlords, with federal funds. The average wait time for receiving a voucher is eight to 10 years and the housing authority is no longer accepting new applicants on the waitlist.

Those who manage to get a voucher have difficulty finding a place to live within the allotted 90-day window to rent. Part of the problem is expensive housing, Morales-Ferrand says. To address that, the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Clara raised the voucher values above the U.S. HUD standard in January. But that’s only done so much to alleviate the problem.

The authority reported that in one month, 826 federal housing assistance vouchers in the county went unused, and 217 federal housing vouchers for homeless veterans went unused.

“Landlords have the choice to raise rents above rates Section 8 can pay. And they can choose not to rent to voucher holders because they know they’ll still be able to find a tenant,” says Reed.

According to a San Jose housing department report that examines impediments to fair housing through 2020, the landlords who do accept vouchers mostly have units “concentrated in low-income areas of the City, where access to opportunities, such as high-performing schools and jobs, may be limited.” The report also has a map comparing housing choice voucher rentals and race and ethnicity in San Jose. There are more vouchers in use in areas of the city with predominantly Hispanic and Asian populations.

If the city passes its anti-discrimination ordinance, landlords would no longer be able to turn away potential tenants based on their source of income and will consider vouchers a source of income.

“It won’t solve the problem,” Reed says. (After all, it’s illegal to discriminate based on race, but the practice persists. And in Chicago, where Section 8 discrimination has been illegal for more than 25 years, a 2015 investigation by WBEZ found that hasn’t stopped landlords from posting “No Section 8” with rentals ads.) “But we think it will be an important wake-up call for landlords. And hopefully they’ll take another look at the program and not opt out.”

If an ordinance passes, San Jose will join 13 states and dozens of cities and counties that have banned Section 8 discrimination. Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance in March. Santa Clara County (the county in which San Jose sits) passed its own ordinance banning income source discrimination in February. That goes into effect in January 2018 and pertains just to landlords in unincorporated Santa Clara County, not the cities within.

In the meantime, the city housing authority has been tasked with further analyzing Section 8 discrimination. Morales-Ferrand says step one is quantifying how often people are rejected because they have vouchers.

Though he thinks landlords will still try to discriminate against Section 8 renters, Reed is optimistic that council will pass the ordinance.

If it doesn’t, he says San Jose’s affordable housing crisis will continue apace. “If you’re extremely low income in Santa Clara County and you don’t have housing assistance, you either live with family or friends or you’re on the street. There’s no way you can afford a place to live on minimum wage. Subsidized housing and voucher programs are a critical resource.”

Milwaukee Cuts Free Rides for Seniors, People With Disabilities

(Photo by Jeramey Jannene)

Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is ending a two-year-old program that provides free rides to seniors and people with disabilities, citing significant cost overruns. Instead, MCTS is implementing a means test and will charge a small fee for rides.

When it launched in 2015, the Growing Opportunities Pass program was available to any resident of Milwaukee County who is at least 65 years old or has a disability, regardless of income.

“The plan was put in place by the County Board of Supervisors. The County Executive vetoed it over concerns by a number of groups including the transit agency. But it went into place despite fears of cost overruns,” says MCTS Chief Communications Officer Brendan Conway.

The program was a hit. By September 2015, Go Pass holders were taking over 100,000 rides per week. Its popularity has continued to grow. Conway says 27,000 Go Pass holders have taken about 13.5 million free rides since the launch, accounting for about 20 percent of all MCTS bus rides in that period. The agency estimated that if the program continued providing free rides it would result in a $4.4 million loss of bus fare revenue in 2017.

When MCTS released its 2017 budget proposal last fall, the Go Pass program was out. Advocates for public health and low-income residents and those with disabilities rallied to save it.

“The Go Pass really supported more independence and community integration for Milwaukee residents with disabilities, including individuals who are homeless,” says Disability Rights Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Director Barbara Beckert. “This just made a tremendous difference. It enabled people to connect to basic needs and services such as benefits, counseling, support groups, reconnecting with family.”

MCTS already had a separate reduced-fare program for seniors and people with disabilities that charged users $1.10 per ride instead of the normal $1.75. But for people living in poverty even that can be too great a financial barrier.

“People with a very low income or other disability-related barriers often don’t have a car. The bus is their key resource for mobility. But because of having such limited financial resources, their ability to afford the bus fare is pretty limited,” says Beckert.

People with disabilities are twice as likely to be poor as people without. They also have much higher rates of unemployment. A lack of reliable transportation is one factor. Employer discrimination is another. One of the biggest factors is the strict income and savings limits imposed by Medicaid. Beckert explains that Medicaid provides the critical long-term healthcare on which many people with disabilities depend. But if you earn more than 133 percent of the federal poverty level (which amounts to about $1,500 per month for an individual currently) or have more than $2,000 in savings, you no longer qualify.

Milwaukee County announced its compromise program in January. The Go Pass will live on, but it will only be available to low-income riders who meet a new means test and will cost money. Riders 65 and older qualify if they receive Medicaid or the state of Wisconsin’s FoodShare benefits. Riders under 65 must be receiving Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disabilities Insurance or have Veterans Disability designation. They must also be receiving Medicaid or FoodShare benefits.

The Go Pass will now cost $5 to purchase and riders will have to pay $1 for a day pass (a full-cost day pass is $4 and the older reduced fare program charges $2).

In April, MCTS sent letters to Go Pass users announcing the changes. Of the 27,000 pass holders, 11,000 no longer qualify.

“In this day and age you can be 65 and healthy and working full time and you’re getting a free ride because of your age,” says Conway. “The program was changed to make sure people who need the discount most still qualify and get it. This is a population we want to help and this will allow us to do so without making service cuts or increasing fares [across the board].”

Beckert says Disability Rights Wisconsin was fine with a means test, but wanted a totally free pass to remain for low-income riders. She has some concerns with the new system. Chief among them is that people may fall through the cracks if they’ve applied for SSI or SSDI benefits, but have not yet been enrolled since the process could take years. She also worries that for the lowest-income riders, even the modest fees will be a barrier.

“I think people will be more restricted in many cases than they were previously in terms of their ability to be mobile and integrated in the community,” she says. “Because when you’re on a very modest income a dollar a day is significant.”

The Go Pass program illustrates what happens when transit is underfunded.

“We have a tight budget. We don’t have a dedicated funding source. Our budget is based on money we get from state and county and obviously fares,” explains Conway.

Last fall, a county official proposed a $60 vehicle registration fee (known as a wheel tax) to fund Milwaukee County transit and road repair. The proposal died. The county instead approved a $30 wheel tax that goes to the general fund. A few months later, even that funding source is already on the chopping block thanks to a bill from a Republican state representative.

Beckert is sympathetic to MCTS budget woes.

“The future of state funding for transportation is one area of the budget that’s very much a question mark,” she says. “We would like to see the state support and increase funding for transit and paratransit. It is so important for independence and we think it’s a smart investment.”

32 Cities Improve Energy Score Per New Ranking

(Photo by Daniel Schwen)

Boston is the most energy-efficient large city in the U.S. for the third time running. The ranking comes from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s third biannual City Energy Efficiency Scorecard.

ACEEE is a nonprofit focused on research, policy and advocacy around energy efficiency in the public and private sectors. The scorecard ranks the 51 largest U.S. cities based on five criteria: local government operations, community-wide initiatives, building policies, energy and water utilities, and transportation policies.

During the Wednesday launch of the new scorecard, ACEEE staff and city mayors emphasized the critical role cities must play in advancing environmental sustainability, both because of their outsized impact and the shifting political climate.

“We’ve found that cities need the information, but are also motivated by the scorecard to improve their energy efficiency,” said ACEEE Executive Director Steve Nadel, explaining why they publish the document every other year. “In general cities are doing much better on energy efficiency. Thirty-two cities improved this year compared to 2015’s scorecard.”

Boston slotted into first with a score of 84.5 out of a possible 100 points. The city scored high for the efficiency of their city operations, for their enforcement of the Massachusetts Stretch Energy Code, a stricter energy standard adopted by the state in 2009, and their Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure ordinance. The city also earned a perfect score for having energy-efficient public utilities and for the Renew Boston program, which helps residents and businesses implement energy-saving measures.

New York and Seattle rounded out the top three with Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, tied for fourth. New York and Seattle both scored high for transportation and building energy codes and benchmarking requirements. The scorecard weights the five categories by potential energy savings. For example, transportation gets the most points because it often accounts for a city’s greatest energy consumption. In a sample of 20 large cities, the ACEEE found that transportation-related energy use accounted for 36 percent of citywide energy consumption.

On the other end of the scorecard, Detroit, Oklahoma City and Birmingham, Alabama, were least energy efficient among their peers. Oklahoma City and Birmingham scored just 8 and 7 points respectively out of the possible 100.

(Credit: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy)

ACEEE is concerned with city energy consumption precisely because cities consume so much energy. Though urban areas are environmentally friendly because their population density reduces per-capita energy consumption, a study found that cities around the globe account for two-thirds of the global energy demand and 70 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Pointing to the fact that the highest-scoring city was still 16 points from a perfect score, with a majority scoring less than 40 points total, David Riberio, ACEEE senior researcher and lead report author, said, “Much can still be done. Cities should use their recent progress as a springboard for even more energy savings.”

Officials who participated in the scorecard process say it will be up to cities to take the lead on sustainability and energy consumption.

“Now more than ever I think cities are going to lead the way on climate change,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at the launch.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said, “It is mayors taking on the role and responsibility of pushing sustainability in our country.”

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said that, from his experience leading a blue city in a red state, state legislatures have become a barrier to action. “When Phoenix tries to pass strong progressive policy on climate change, we do so in an environment where our state legislature tries to preempt us,” he said.

Phoenix wanted to institute an energy benchmarking ordinance to require businesses to report on energy use. Republican State Representative Warren Petersen introduced a bill to ban local municipalities from doing so. (The bill also bars municipalities from instituting a plastic bag ban.)

Despite that, Phoenix has set lofty sustainability goals to accomplish by 2050, part of the reason the city was among the most improved from the 2015 ranking. The city’s sustainability plan sets a goal of zero carbon emissions and zero waste by 2050 and a 40 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2025. To get there, Phoenix is doing things such as converting streetlights to LED, retrofitting government facilities to get a 25 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2020, and investing in transportation infrastructure.