I’m flattered to have been invited to contribute to the terrific Portland Transport blog, and as a result, the activity here will be significantly reduced from what it’s been previously. While I’ll miss playing in Photoshop to make the silly banners that adorn the top of this site, I’m extraordinarily excited to be able to write for an expanded audience and join an impressive list of contributors. I thank all of you who’ve read, commented, and interacted with me here over the last few years, and I do hope you’ll follow me there.
Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Over the next several weeks and months, I’ll be following with great interest the story about the planned development of a 50-unit apartment building with no on-site car parking. The reason for my fascination with this project is that absolutely nobody knows how this will shake out in terms of whether it attracts car-free residents and reduces automobile mode share, although apparently everybody has a guess or an opinion on the matter. But until something like this is tried, and tried in close-in Portland, it really is all guesswork.
Determining the parking demand for a new development falls squarely within the realm of traffic engineering, and to accomplish this, we generally turn to a publication of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, Parking Generation, for guidance. For low/mid-rise apartment buildings in an urban setting, Parking Generation tells me that the peak demand will be 1.2 parking spots per dwelling unit. Thus, to support a 50-unit building with no on-site parking, the neighborhood would have to accommodate about 60 new vehicles on-street (and a whopping 81 to meet 85th percentile demand)! So the neighbors are right to be up in arms, no?
To channel Lee Corso on this beautiful fall morning, not so fast my friend! A closer look at the data upon which this number is drawn is revealing. The urban areas where the study apartment units are located are Dallas, TX, San Francisco, CA, Syracuse, NY, Santa Barbara, CA, Long Beach, CA, Santa Monica, CA, and San Diego, CA. All but one–San Francisco–seems to be a city that drives significantly more than Portland. And the data from Frisco is from 1982! Remember rocking out to Olivia Newton John’s Physical and watching ET phone home? Morning in America? But I digress. Even the newest data in the set is now more than a decade old, with car havens Santa Monica and San Diego having contributed data in 2001, back in the good ol’ days of gas selling for less than a buck and a half per gallon.
Let me reiterate: this is the best available data that we have for parking demand. (Hence the old joke among number crunchers about the acronym for “best available data”). That’s why I opened by claiming that nobody really knows how this will shake out.
It is also important to note that for all of the apartment buildings in the study, on-site parking was provided to the tune of 1 space per dwelling unit on average. That this supply is filled and slightly exceeded at its peak is an instance of the concept of demand elasticity, a well known economic idea that applies to areas like transportation as well. Regarding transportation infrastructure, I call this the “Field of Dreams Principle:” Build a highway and people will drive on it, build a bike facility and people will ride in it, build a parking spot and people will park in it. As it pertains to parking in particular, Donald Shoup wrote a fantastic book on this topic, The High Cost of Free Parking, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to express a strong opinion on these parking-less apartments.
One other point worth making is that it’s hard to go very long these days without seeing some sort of article or paper on how the folks currently coming of age–the generation called millennials–prefer to live in more urban areas, drive less, and are less likely to own a car than any other recent generation. Increasingly, I’ve seen it argued that cell phones are replacing cars as the must-have rite of passage for teens and young adults, their way of socializing and their symbol of freedom and status. An apartment building like the one in question seems to be a fit for this new reality.
In a sense, I understand why homeowners in this area would be practicing a bit of NIMBY-ism regarding this project. I hope by this point I’ve convinced you that the actual amount of vehicular parking these apartments will require is truly unknown, and it’s a hard sell convincing people that their neighborhood is a good one for experimentation. But merely the fact that no on-site car parking is offered will restrict the parking demand of these apartments to some degree. Throw in some killer bike parking, maybe provide a transit pass with rent, get a bike-share station in front of your building, or really go pie in the sky and convince The Man to (finally) install a decent bike facility on Hawthorne, and all of a sudden I think it’s pretty likely that the on-street parking impacts would be minimal.
I’ll leave it to my planner friends to argue why more density without more cars would be a terrific thing for the city’s vibrancy, but it sure as hell sounds like a place where I’d want to live.
I’m happy to announce that my paper “A Methodology to Evaluate the Competitiveness of Electric Delivery Trucks” has been published in Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review. The paper, written with Dr. Miguel Figliozzi, develops a model for comparing the cost of electric delivery trucks to conventional trucks based on logistical parameters (e.g., number of customers, density of customers, average weight of deliveries, etc.) and other factors like gas prices and battery costs.
At present, conventional trucks are still slightly less expensive in most scenarios, but it’s unlikely that they will be for very long. In the near future, the combination of declining battery prices and rising fuel prices will render electrification the financially more prudent decision. Assigning a cost to emissions (quantifying emissions differences is the subject of a paper I recently submitted to the Transportation Research Record) or assuming that a company gains some financial benefit from the positive PR associated with “green” practices further favor electrification.
The key takeaway is that you’ll be seeing many more electric trucks on the road in the coming years, as they can adequately serve the needs of most urban delivery scenarios at a cost that rivals conventional trucks. As far as the air quality difference, you’ll have to wait for my next paper to find out if electric trucks reduce emissions or not (spoiler: they do).
I spend a decent chunk of time looking at crash histories, and one underlying truth is that when a crash happens, generally several things went wrong that led to it. In other words, there’s rarely one guilty party (and when there is, the little box on the crash record indicating whether alcohol was involved is usually checked). So when the video below was posted on BikePortland on Friday, it struck us folk in the Lancaster Engineering office as a classic example of multiple guilty parties with a little bit of ill-conceived infrastructure to boot. It’s a good thing it wasn’t more serious, and it’s worth some careful and detached analysis to think about how things like this could be prevented.
A few thoughts and observations:
1. Watching the first few seconds of the video (and knowing it would end with a crash), I was pretty certain that it was going to end with the person filming getting right hooked. The gentleman filming leaves the bike lane to make a right turn, but then passes vehicles that are in the right-turn lane on the right. Not a good idea. The fact that he was presumably turning right on the bike/ped path before the cross street makes this time-saver tempting, but I think there’s just too much that could go wrong to make this a safe maneuver.
A much smarter way to approach this turn would be to line up at the back of the queue, just right of the center of the lane, and clearly signal your intention to turn right. This keeps you off of that pesky drainage grate, and ensures that the motorists (who clearly aren’t looking for you at this intersection) can’t NOT see you.
2. I think we need to radically rethink this whole business with allowing turns on red. As I’ve written here before, I’ve witnessed and personally experienced more close calls than I can count due to exactly the same thing that caused this crash: a driver approaches an intersection looking left in order to make a quick right on red, and never sees a pedestrian or bicycle coming from the right. Allowing right turns on red basically guarantees that this sort of thing will happen from time to time. What’s more is that, psychologically, I think legal rights (and sometimes lefts) on red cloud the whole subconscious understanding that “red means stop, green means go.”
To make our streets “complete” and build a transportation system that’s people-centric rather than vehicle-centric, legal movements on red should be the first thing to go, at least in urban areas or anywhere with decent numbers of non-motorized traffic (bikes, peds, skateboards, segways, etc).
3. Now, here comes the part where I make all of you hate me (well, maybe not any truckers or ODOT officials that happen upon this blog): the person on the bike was not riding very intelligently here. I wish we lived in a world where our traffic laws were enforced to a degree where motorists were truly compelled to follow them to the letter, but we don’t. We’ve also inherited an infrastructure that favors one particular mode of transportation–the motor vehicle–above all others (Many of us are working to fix that, but it takes time). With this in mind, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard regarding bike safety was given to me by a DC bike messenger friend (back when our nation’s capitol still had a big, vibrant bike messenger ‘culture,’ so to speak): Ride like you’re invisible.
At an intersection like this, I think you simply need to operate under the assumption that the people in cars stopped at red lights are not looking for you and are not going to see you. Forget the traffic laws and ignore the fact that you’ve got the right away–the laws aren’t enforced, and besides, you’re invisible. Slow down before entering a conflict area like that one and ensure that you’re seen by making eye contact. I think that last point is key. As any sort of “vulnerable” road user (read: not protected by two tons of metal and an airbag), force drivers to acknowledge your presence by meeting their eyes, and you’ve just cured your invisibility problem.
It’s not surprising that those transportation visionaries from across the pond, the Dutch, have a sign asking road users to do exactly that:
But for my money, nobody puts it as simply and eloquently as Mr. Miyagi. Keep his sage advice in mind when approaching tricky crossings and you’ll be alright even when drivers are behaving badly:
As a general rule, I try to remain as neutral as I can regarding most political occurrences, so that I am able to analyze problems and interactions from an unbiased, scientific perspective. But the transportation bill that has been introduced in the House is fatally flawed in so many ways, and would threaten much of what I hope to accomplish professionally if passed. So in a rare moment of activism, I’ve joined in today’s campaign to produce letters and phone calls in opposition to the bill. I imagine that I’m preaching to the choir here a bit as Ms. Bonamici is almost a certain “no” vote, but here is the letter I sent to her this morning.
February 9, 2012
The Honorable Suzanne Bonamici
2338 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Congratulations on your recent election as Representative of the 1st District of Oregon! I wish you the best as you serve our terrific region in the Capitol. You assume this position just in time to vote on one of the most pivotal pieces of transportation legislation of my lifetime, H.R. 7, and I am writing to encourage you to resoundingly vote “no” on this bill.
Secretary LaHood said of this bill that it’s “the worst transportation bill [he’s] ever seen during 35 years of public service,” and it’s not difficult to understand why. The bill reinforces our reliance on oil for transportation and fundamentally alters the way transit is funded in the US, essentially replacing all transit monies with a promise for future funds that will be hard to keep. It doubles down on an unsustainable approach to transportation that has reduced the livability of our cities, polluted our air and water, and compromised our national security by rendering us dependent on politically unstable nations for fuel.
This bill addresses none of the fundamental problems facing the transportation sector. It reinforces the false notion that our 18.2 cent-per-gallon gas tax is adequate to fund our freeways, while relegating the other modes of transportation to second-class status. The truth of the matter is that we must find other revenue streams to supplement the gas tax, and put these toward a multi-modal, sustainable transportation system that is both solvent and capable of accommodating aggressive economic growth. These are big, systemic problems, and meeting the challenges they represent requires much more than the backward-thinking, politically motivated bill that is under consideration.
As I’m sure you know, Oregon has a history of leading the way on transportation issues. Our willingness to challenge orthodox thinking and innovate when faced with transportation challenges is unmatched, and we must not be too humble to suggest that other regions would be well-served by following our model. I am confident that you will represent this spirit with your “no” vote on H.R. 7, and I appreciate your leadership in this matter.
With best wishes,
Brian A. Davis
M.S. Candidate, Transportation Engineering
Portland State University
When I came to this bike lane in Baltimore, I had to stare at it for a minute or two before I realized why it looked so unusual to me: it is the first time I’ve seen a bike lane in the US that is painted green for its entire length.
In Portland, we started using green paint a few years ago in our bike boxes and have since expanded its use to other conflict points, like the weave area after the start of a turning lane where cars are crossing the bike lane. As a driver, the green paint is effective at grabbing your attention and reminding you to double check for cyclists before entering that area.
In visiting the Netherlands this summer, I was struck by the fact that most of the bike facilities there are paved with red asphalt. I don’t know if it actually accomplished anything on the network of cycletracks (other than the fact that it looked really cool!), but on shared roads it was a clear way of demarcating which parts of the road belonged to which modes.
One thing that’s consistently frustrating as a cyclist is when cars stop in the bike lane. Something tells me I’m not alone there. I’d imagine that, if nothing else, coloring your bike lanes is marvelously effective at reducing this, and it probably helps keep moving cars from drifting into the bike lane as well. But I wonder if using color for a whole bike lane might reduce its effectiveness at conflict points, where it’s no longer a drastic change that grabs a driver’s attention. Conversely, maybe ubiquitous color serves as a constant reminder that lots of people use bikes on the road in question. Perhaps the color also helps with the public relations aspect, such that the “interested but concerned” pool of potential cyclists is encouraged by the literal and figurative visibility of the infrastructure. But is this all worth the fairly significant (as bike projects go, at least) extra cost of coloring these lanes?
I spent a large chunk of my 20′s doing information design, and so I’ve long been interested in the usage of colors and how we react to different colors displayed in different situations. This is an interesting topic, and I’ll be curious to see how cities use color like as they build cycling infrastructures and how it winds up working.
Day 2 of the Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board was an exercise of trying (and, alas, failing miserably) to be several places at the same time.
As I’ve developed research interests in freight logistics and traffic signal timing over the last year, I’ve noticed that there haven’t been too many efforts to link the two or explore the synergies between operations and freight sustainability. That point was driven home on Monday, as the freight sessions and meetings conflicted with the signal systems meetings for most of the day. My morning poster session prevented me from attending a signal systems meeting that I was interested in; the committee that sponsored my session met in the afternoon at the same time as another compelling operations committee. Luckily, I did get to see some terrific posters on both subjects over the course of the day before again lamenting the fact that there’s only one of me in the evening, as several receptions I wanted to attend took place concurrently.
I had some wonderful conversations during my poster session, particularly around a topic that I’ve been trying to figure out for quite some time: estimating a monetary consequence of being seen as a sustainable or “green” company by one’s customer base. And anyone who thinks freight logistics is a dry subject certainly wasn’t in attendance at the committee meeting yesterday, which got quite contentious as it became clear that some folks there, um, didn’t exactly care too much about issues like multimodalism or sustainability. But the clear highlight of the day was at a reception in the evening when Portland State’s own celebrity-noveau Jesse Boudart took to the baby grand piano.
Watch and be delighted!
I’m currently in Washington, DC for the 91st Annual Meeting of the Transportation Research Board. Needless to say, there’s a lot happening this week worth reflecting on, but I thought I’d try to write up some quick daily summaries of my experiences here and expound on them in more detail when I return to Portland.
This year, I’m honored to be participating as an Eisenhower Fellow, and the first of the Eisenhower research showcases took place Sunday morning to highlight some of the cutting-edge doctoral research that my fellow Fellows are performing. I was extremely impressed with the both the quality of the research itself and also the presentation skills of the folks conducting it, and frankly it intimidates me a bit in anticipation of my own presentation at Tuesday’s showcase. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as I think it will inspire me to practice away the parts where I’ve wrestled with words when giving this presentation previously.
In the early afternoon, I attended a fascinating workshop that featured city officials from five different cities across the country presenting brief synopses of innovative bicycle treatments and facilities that have been recently put into service. That was a very encouraging session; a lot of cities that previously were difficult to bike in are becoming very bikable now, and I hope I get to ride in them someday. A big takeaway was that performance metrics are hard to come by, but it seems to be the case that better facilities encourage more cycling. While we might have expected this, it’s still good to know that good work from transportation engineers helps bring about the desired result.
I finished off Sunday by touring the exhibit hall and attending Kittelson and Associates’ reception. Kittelson has a big presence in Portland so it was a must-see event for us Portland Staters, and the exhibits are a must-see for everybody. PTV, a Portland-based company that manufactures simulation software called VISSIM, had my favorite exhibit with a gnarly three dimensional model of Portland’s transit mall. My old friends at the University of Iowa were a close second, bringing a fully functional driving simulator into the hall. The Kittelson reception, as all receptions, was extremely valuable for meeting people, having short conversations learning about the work that folks are doing, and the like.
Onward to Day 2, where my participation in the meeting begins with a Poster Session Monday morning…
With this morning’s news that a key City Councillor shifted his position on the Lake Oswego Streetcar project, the project is most likely dead at this point. While there’s some talk among proponents about revisiting the idea at some future point, it’s my experience that these sorts of projects have a small window in which they must move forward or the opportunity is lost. My guess is that the LO Streetcar idea might be brought up again a time or two to little fanfare, and then fade gently into the goodnight.
I’m of two minds regarding this. On one hand, the finances of constructing this particular line are intriguing. While the Oregonian’s typically shoddy reporting hammered home the overall price tag, it failed to paint the whole funding picture. Fortunately, Portland Planning Commissioner and streetcar scholar Chris Smith explains the appeal–basically, right-of-way already owned by the city can be counted toward the local contribution eligible for federal matching funds:
For $64M in local cash, we can potentially have a $288M transit line.
That’s a heck of a good value, and infrastructure bargains like that don’t come along very often.
On the other hand, there’s definitely an argument to be made that the only good reason to pursue this project is the fact that it’s such a bargain. To me, streetcar seems to be a poor mode choice for this particular corridor. The Portland Streetcar has been a wonderful economic engine and a great transportation solution, but it links together fairly dense neighborhoods that are very close to (or within) the downtown area. The streetcar expansion that’s about to open also fits this definition, bringing the close-in neighborhoods on the east side of the Willamette into the fold. By contrast, the streetcar to Lake Oswego would link two fairly dense areas that are several miles away from each other (downtowns of Portland and Lake Oswego), but travel through a very sparse area in between.
This seems like a poor fit for a streetcar to me. It seems that light rail would be much better for this particular purpose, but of course that would be significantly more expensive and take years to plan and build. But there is another alternative.
One mode that remains suspiciously absent from the cornucopia of transit ideas Portland has experimented with is Bus Rapid Transit. BRT is a fairly trendy new mode that attempts to combine the advantages of light rail (fast, large capacity, reliable service) with buses (minimal new infrastructure needs, low cost, quick implementation). With the current dearth of funds for infrastructure projects and the ever-growing demand for transportation, many cities have been trying out BRT lines as a solution that provides many of the same benefits as light rail for only the cost of a dedicated lane, bus “stations,” and signal priority. It’s an intriguing idea.
BRT, of course, comes with its own set of challenges (the biggest of which, I think, is overcoming stigmas associated with buses), but given our economic circumstances and transportation needs, it has enough upside that it’s worth trying out. It may be a very good fit for the Lake Oswego corridor, and I hope it is considered.
It was a dark and stormy night. The crackling hum of hail hammering the sidewalk overwhelms the background noise of a thousand combustion engines whirring in collective misery. Across the street, a bright red hand vanishes into the misty haze and a white stick figure appears in its place. He steps off the safe haven of the sidewalk and into the street, first tentatively but then confidently, protected by both laws and reflective fabrics. But then, out of nowhere, headlights…
I’m continuing to have a spate of close calls as a pedestrian downtown, and it would be naive to expect this trend to change as schedules return to normal following the holiday. Since I live and work downtown, the entirety of my commute and most of my daily errand running is done on foot. This means that during the PM peak each day, I’ll probably be walking anywhere from a few blocks to a few miles around downtown Portland. Eight or nine months of the year, this is a safe and enjoyable way to get around. However, during the time of year when it is already dark for the evening commute (and usually rainy to boot), these walking trips become much dicier.
I’ve talked here before about ODOT’s “solution” to this problem, a program encouraging pedestrians to “be seen and be safe.” While it correctly identifies visibility as being an issue at this time of year, I’m becoming less and less convinced of the efficacy of this strategy. Given my line of work, I certainly understand the value of being seen and safe as a pedestrian, and often take the notion to ridiculous lengths. But my experience is that this really doesn’t affect my safety unless my abundance of caution leads me to yield to turning drivers before crossing the street they’re turning onto. Of course, this flies in the face of how we legally assign right-of-way, but the fact that this is my most effective strategy starts to get us closer to the root of the problem.
The enforcement of our traffic laws downtown is practically nonexistent. I don’t even remember the last time I’ve seen a traffic stop here. But every day, the number of laws I see broken is absolutely staggering. Some of the time, the transgression causes a dangerous situation, some of the time it does not. If there aren’t consequences, though, the bad behavior from downtown drivers will get more frequent and brazen over time. During the “rush hour,” drivers of course tend to be more hurried and more aggressive. Cue the time of year when rush hour takes place in the dark and stormy night, and walking around downtown seems like a scene from a horror movie.
Somebody needs to get a traffic ticket at some point, or zombie cars will eat your brains.
To be fair, the Christmas shopping season did lead to a well-publicized enforcement effort downtown. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, ever-determined to protect us from the horrors of sidewalk cycling, took the lead in ensuring that downtown’s visitors experienced no such nefariousness during their forays here. Part of me was actually happy that she did so. I’m sort of obnoxiously totalitarian when it comes to traffic laws and I think all enforcement is good enforcement. As a frequent cyclist and big advocate of the mode, nothing annoys me more than when the lawless minority makes us all look bad by blatantly blowing through a signal or somesuch.
But if you’re only going to enforce one law downtown, is this really the one that makes the biggest impact?
This enforcement, of course, was a silly little political power play. Part of the genius of our democracy is that it is designed precisely to discourage the best and brightest minds from entering our political sphere, so we’re bound to get these games from time to time. But I digress.
Sooner or later, there will be a serious crash downtown where a pedestrian is severely injured or killed. That’s just a basic statistical fact; it will happen eventually. When it does, I want us to have done more to try to protect that pedestrian than having told them to wear bright clothes.