Washington D.C. has, perhaps, the nation’s most prosperous and booming urban economy. It is a city that has also become defined by its highly educated, young workforce.
Over the past decade or so, the nation’s capital has also been transforming its transport network in a way to make it more multi-modal and improve mobility.
One of the most striking things upon arriving in Washington D.C. is the sheer number of bike lanes. And not just bike lanes, but protected bike lanes. As many cities have begun noticing in recent years, striped bike lanes next to moving traffic are not enough, and that protected bike lanes that separate cyclists from moving traffic with bollards or on-street parking are far superior.
As a result, you see many of the newer bike lanes in Washington D.C. receiving this treatment, and many of the older lanes being transitioned over, as possible, to protected facilities. To this end, it should come as no surprise that the city has one of the nation’s highest percentages of people commuting by bike.
In addition to that, Washington D.C. launched North America’s first bikeshare system in 2008 when SmartBike DC opened with 120 bikes at 10 stations. After some initial struggles, a new system called Capital Bikeshare was launched in September 2010 and currently boasts more than 2,500 bikes at more than 300 stations.
This new system extends beyond the District of Columbia into three additional nearby jurisdictions and stands as one of three biggest bikeshare systems in the United States along with New York City’s CitiBike and Chicago’s Divvy.
I used Capital Bikeshare to make an approximate two-mile trip from near the U Street Metro Station to Washington Union Station. The journey was a breeze and preferable, to me at least, to using a taxi or the city’s well-functioning transit system.
Upon arriving at Union Station I met a friend to check out one of Washington D.C.’s other marque transportation projects at this time. The H Street/Benning Road modern streetcar line terminates here and extends approximately 2.4 miles to the east, and is part of a larger 37-mile streetcar network that will include five lines in total.
The $137 million starter line is in the final stages of construction, with train vehicles and their drivers currently being tested and trained along its route. Project officials expect it to open to riders in early 2015.
Walking the route was not all that pleasant thanks to the hot temperatures and only brief areas of shade along the busy street, which serves a bevy of transit operations including Megabus, Greyhound and Bolt intercity buses, articulated city buses and now the streetcar. Fortunately a mid-afternoon stop at a local Mexican eatery, with plenty of guacamole to go around, made the overheated outing more tolerable.
While H Street is a largely a hit-or-miss commercial corridor, its immediately surrounding residential streets are expectedly charming and offer a good foundation from which to build. Some development has already begun to spring up along the line, including a slew of residential projects and a 41,000-square-foot grocery store. There are also signs of renewed interest in many existing buildings that have new restaurants and shops opening up within them.
Of course not everything that is happening in Washington D.C. is related to infrastructure or transportation enhancements. There is, overall, just an extraordinary amount of new construction taking place and a far-reaching sense of vitality. One cannot help but think that there is at least some connection between these policy decisions and investments, and vibrancy on the ground.
EDITORIAL NOTE: All 39 photos were taken by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy between Wednesday, September 3 and Friday, September 5.
Despite a growing number of trips for biking, walking and transit, funding has not increased correspondingly. In fact, many communities have seen funding for these non-automotive forms of transportation decrease as governments have worked to cut spending at all levels. This, new research finds, is only exacerbating the problem of having underfunded these modes of transportation for many years.
“Conventional statistics tend to under report active travel because most travel surveys under-count shorter trips (those within a traffic analysis zone), off-peak trips, non-work trips, travel by children, and recreational travel,” stated Todd Litman, Executive Director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, in a summary of his report entitled Whose Roads? Evaluating Bicyclists’ and Pedestrians’ Right to Use of Public Roadways.
“More comprehensive surveys indicate that active travel is two to four times more common than conventional surveys indicate, so if statistics indicate that only 5% of trips are by active modes, the actual amount is probably 10-20%.”
Litman indicates that funding levels tend to be much lower than even the low 5% trip share estimates, and recommends changing those levels to reflect not only the current trip share levels, but those that could be achieved should investments be made.
Unequal Funding Allocations at Regional Level
At the local level, the same situation of unequal funding allocation exists. In the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan, developed by the OKI Regional Council of Governments, approximately 88% of the nearly $21.5 billion in funding is recommended to go toward roadway projects, just 11% to transit and a mere 0.1% to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
While the level of investment in transit appears closely aligned with current ridership levels for commute-related trips, it is far below ideal levels for bicycle and pedestrian investments.
“Relatively aggressive pedestrian and cycling improvement programs only cost about 1-4% of the total per capita roadway expenditures, or just 4-10% of general taxes spent on local roadways,” Litman contests. “Since walking and cycling represent about 12% of total trips, and a much larger share of short urban trips, and since most North American communities have under-invested in walking and cycling facilities for the last half-century, much larger investments in walking and cycling facilities can be justified to meet user demands and for fairness sake.”
OKI leadership contends that the organization’s regional planning document does not accurately reflect the level of investment being made in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, noting that many of the “roadway projects” in their plan actually include bike and pedestrian elements.
To that end, some recent improvements have been made with regard to bicycle infrastructure. The City of Cincinnati has installed around 40 miles of new on-street bike lanes or paths over the past several years, and has plans to install a total of 290 miles by 2025. The City’s Bicycle Transportation Plan, however, has been plagued by a lack of funding and has been relegated to only moving forward when roadway resurfacing projects emerge.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that enough is being done in terms of the overall investment needed for bike and pedestrian improvements.
Implications for Regional Transit
Of the money being recommended for transit investments, not including operations, approximately 96% is targeted for the contentious Oasis Line – a commuter rail line connecting Cincinnati’s far eastern suburbs with downtown.
Furthermore, the vast majority of OKI’s recommended transit funding is aimed to pay for ongoing operations – not pay for system expansions or improvements.
This grim financial picture for transit gets even worse when considering contributions from state and local governments.
In Kentucky, meanwhile, communities struggle with state law that prohibits any dedicated source of transit funding – thus forcing the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) to go before the state legislature every year seeking money, similar to how Amtrak must annually go before Congress.
Impact on Environmental Justice Populations
These dire funding and political situations have led to Greater Cincinnati taking the title of being the most populated region in North America without any rail transit; while even far less populated regions advance their own regional transit plans.
What makes the figures more troubling is that those most affected by the imbalanced funding appropriations are minority, low-income and disabled populations. While only 6% of the region takes transit, bikes or walks to work each day, that number escalates to 17% for African Americans, 11% for Hispanics and 10% for people with disabilities; while low-income commuters see that number spike to 21%. Quite simply, the lack of funding for non-automotive forms of transportation is most damaging to those who can least afford it.
The results of this inequality sparked a recent lawsuit by the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation and Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a complaint against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation over a $2 billion highway interchange project. In MICAH & Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin v. Gottleib, the ACLU states:
“WisDOT explicitly refused to consider transit expansion (or transit in any way) as part of this proposal. This will further widen the already large gap between transit-dependent communities of color and disproportionately white suburban commuters. The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation was one of the organizations that have complained about the government’s decision-making and reporting process, as well as how the project would exacerbate segregation and disparities in transportation access for low-income people to jobs.”
And while some of these mode shares may seem low, it has been noted by the U.S. National Household Travel Survey that commute trips are the lowest for walking and biking, while personal trips and trips less than one mile are significantly higher for both modes.
“In much of the region where we have large concentrations of EJ populations the sidewalk network is already quite developed, the roadway network is quite developed and available to bicyclists and the transit service is good,” countered Bob Koehler, Deputy Executive Director at OKI. “We do, as a community, need to do a better job at sharing the road and being aware of pedestrians to make these facilities better for all modes.”
Of the roughly $8.3 billion being recommended for roadway projects in OKI’s planning documents, approximately 73% of that is targeted for additional lanes, new facilities or new interchanges, while reconstruction and improvements to existing roadways account for the rest.
“Although VMT may be slightly declining in recent years in some parts of the country this may not be a long-term trend. Clearly the region has many needs,” explained Brian Cunningham, Director of Communications at OKI. “This plan addresses the significant existing safety and congestion needs. The plan is updated every four years and will provide an opportunity to revisit the assumptions.”
Litman argues that shifting some of the investment from roadways to bicycle and pedestrian projects due to their proven ability to reduce congestion and improve safety not only for bicyclists and pedestrians, but motorists as well. He also believes that such policy directives empower people by giving them the ability to choose between multiple transportation options for each of their trips.
“It is important to recognize the unique and important roles that active modes [biking and walking] play in an efficient and equitable transportation system, and the various benefits that can result when walking and cycling are improved, including indirect benefits to people who do not currently use those modes,” Litman concluded.
“Just as it would be inefficient to force travelers to walk or bike for trips most efficiently made by motorized modes, it is inefficient and unfair to force travelers to drive for trips most efficiently made by active modes, for example, if children must be chauffeured to local destinations because their communities lack sidewalks, or if people must drive to recreational trails due to inadequate sidewalks and paths near their homes.”
Between form-based codes and bus rapid transit, it is hard to decide which concept is trendier in America at this given moment. On one hand planners have begun to realize that Euclidean zoning codes are, perhaps, wildly out-of-touch. While at the same time, engineers and policy makers can’t find the funds to properly build rapid transit systems. More from NextCity:
In the developing world, labor is cheap and capital is expensive. Buses are more labor-intensive than trains, so it makes sense that they would be cheaper. Indeed, the most advanced BRT systems were built in developing countries in South America and East Asia. But in the developed world, where labor is also expensive, the calculus shifts toward rail.
While European countries that excel at building transit, for example, have started building BRT systems, they generally continue to stick with rail, and the wealthiest East Asian countries are heavily dependent on rail…But the U.S. is no ordinary developed country when it comes to transit costs. While labor costs here are high, as with every other developed country, capital costs — the cost of building transit systems — are much higher than average.
It is difficult enough for local or regional governments and agencies to figure out how to pay for their necessary infrastructure investments, and it’s even more difficult when state legislatures dominated by rural representation do not even grant those entities the authority to hold public votes on the matter. Is this yet another example of anti-city bias in our nation’s political system? More from the Seattle Times:
When the gavel sounded adjourning the state legislative session this year, a critical piece of work was left undone. The Legislature failed to grant local cities and counties the power to ask voters for transportation funding. We will face crippling congestion in the coming year.
In 2011, the state Legislature recognized the reforms Metro made to reduce costs and run more efficiently, and partnered with King County to provide a temporary Congestion Reduction Charge, allowing Metro to avoid transit cuts for two years. A public hearing over whether the Metropolitan King County Council should enact the charge or cut transit service drew a thousand people who stood in a line around the block to testify in favor of saving transit service.They deserve to have their voices heard by leaders in the state senate.
The pending cuts to Metro Transit is an emergency that can no longer be ignored, particularly by the state Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Transit cuts mean fewer buses, and the overcrowding and inconvenience drives people back to their cars. When there’s no more room on our crowded buses and congested roads and highways, jobs move elsewhere and we lose out.
Megabus has added new service between Cincinnati and Lexington, bringing the total number of direct destinations out of Cincinnati to nine (Atlanta, Buffalo, Chattanooga, Chicago, Columbus, Erie, Indianapolis, Knoxville, and Lexington).
The new Lexington service, which runs twice a day with 9am and 9pm departures from the 4th/Race Street Stop, continues the growth of inter-city bus travel out of Cincinnati.
Megabus has seen continued ridership growth in Cincinnati, but may have to soon relocate its downtown stop due to reconstruction of Tower Place Mall. Photograph by Thadd Fiala for UrbanCincy.
Megabus itself added a second station in Cincinnati at the University of Cincinnati earlier this year, due to requests from the institution and its riders, and it has bolstered service on other routes through the acquisition of Lakefront Lines in 2008.
“We launched the brand in April 2006, and it was a major and exciting event because we didn’t know how it would go,” explained Mike Alvich, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations for Megabus.com.
Since its launch seven years ago, routes to Indianapolis and Chicago remain the most popular. Megabus officials also say that the Cincinnati hub has experienced double-digit ridership growth and has served as a critical component of its growing national network.
“Cincinnati has been one of the jewels in our crown since our story began,” Alvich stated.
While Megabus officials would not comment on specific ridership totals, they did note that inter-city bus travel has been growing faster than both intercity rail and air travel in recent years, with Megabus experiencing 30% growth between 2011 and 2012.
Part of the reason, Alvich says, is the fact that inter-city bus travel is now time-competitive and significantly cheaper than air travel and it offers growing cost savings over cars.
Inter-city trains, meanwhile, continue to see a lack of investment and service, even though ridership has grown on that mode at a faster rate than air travel in recent years, and is setting ridership records.
“We consider ourselves to have two real competitors,” Alvich explained. “The first is the car, and the second are people’s concerns that they cannot afford to travel nowadays. As a result, people are staying at home or going somewhere local…so in a way we’re also competing with people’s couches and air conditioners.”
Another factor with the continued growth on inter-city bus service is the different transportation preferences among Millennials and aging Baby Boomers.
For Megabus, the largest share of their customers is people from the ages between 18 and 39. But Alvich notes that some of their fastest-growing demographics are seniors and families.
He also says that approximately 55% of their riders are women, and says that a consistent source of business for Megabus is groups of three to five women going on short weekend trips together.
Additional changes appear imminent for intercity bus operators in Cincinnati, as the Greyhound Bus Terminal is surrounded by the Horseshoe Casino and the main Megabus stop at Fourth/Race will soon become a construction zone. Officials at both companies said that plans have not been agreed upon yet, but that they are tracking the situation and will make changes as necessary.