Archive | May, 2012

Updated: Hot Ticket: Enrique Peñalosa

Update: 5/29/12

For those who couldn’t get in the room, a video of the presentation is now available from the good folks at Crank My Chain:

Original Post: 5/1/12
Several local organizations have partnered to bring urban transportation rock star Enrique Peñalosa to Portland. Tickets are free, but limited. The only way to get tickets is to request them via e-mail, starting TOMORROW (Wed, May 2nd) at noon. Here are the details:

Enrique Peñalosa, respected speaker on urban planning issues, will be visiting Portland for a lecture on May 14th. There has been an overwhelming response for tickets and space is extremely limited for free general admission tickets. Tickets are being awarded to the first persons who e-mail starting TOMORROW Wednesday, May 2nd at 12:00pm. Quantity is limited to one ticket per person and per e-mail (requests for multiple tickets will not be honored).

Your e-mail MUST include:
Subject line: Enrique Ticket
Body Text: First and Last Name, preferred e-mail, phone number, occupation/title

If awarded, your ticket will be held at Will Call and be available for pick up in the theater lobby when doors open at 6:30pm. There may be standby seating at the event if you don’t receive a ticket. Failure to claim your ticket by 6:50pm may result in forfeiture of your seat. NO LATE ENTRIES.

Event Details:
Planning Cities for People: An International Perspective
Monday, May 14, 2012, 7:00 PM
Ellyn Bye Studio-Gerding Theater at the Armory
128 NW 11th Avenue, Portland
Doors Open at 6:30pm and Close at 6:50pm

About Enrique:
Enrique Peñalosa is a leader in the urban field, whose vision and proposals have significantly influenced policies throughout the world. His advisory work concentrates on sustainability, mobility, equity, public space and quality of life; and the organizational and leadership requirements to turn ideas into projects and realities. He is also an accomplished executive, who has achieved positive results in diverse activities in which he has been involved.

As Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, Peñalosa profoundly transformed the city of 7 million inhabitants into an international model for improvements in quality of life, mobility, equity and sustainability which has been awarded important international recognitions such as the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale and the Stockholm Challenge. Two of Peñalosa’s accomplishments while Mayor were the installation of the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system and an extensive bicycle infrastructure network.

The Top Ten Problems of purpose and need statements

While we await the announced “vision, goals, and objectives” for the Southwest Corridor project, recently approved by the project’s steering committee, it is time to consider the Top Ten Problems of such documents.

The purpose of a purpose-and-need statement (I’m assuming that “vision, goals, and objectives” is the same thing) is to define, at a high level, what a project is and what a project is not. The comments following are only intended to apply to P&N statements–other types of planning and design documents may have different purposes, and thus different requirements. Blue-skying is perfectly appropriate in a long-term transportation plan; and detailed design information is expected in a DEIS. Broadly, a purpose and need ought to be documenting what and why, but not how.

Many such documents contain one or more examples of the following problems, which are enumerated after the jump in David Letterman fashion. For those of you who have been through MBA programs, project-management courses, or similar curricula, much of this will be old hat–this applies to private-sector projects as well. But it’s amazing how often public officials get this wrong.
10. Blank check of platitudes

Leading off the list is the P&N that doesn’t say anything, other than singing the praises of motherhood and apple pie, and whatever values the current political consensus holds dear. A good P&N will broadly (not narrowly) describe the solution space. Such documents don’t give any reasonable guidance to the team, nor do they sufficiently narrow the scope of the project so that more focused planning activities can proceed.

Instead:Include objectives which are quantifiable and testable. Saying that you want to “reduce greenhouse gases” or “increase ridership” is nice; it’s better, though, to say how much you want to do these things. If bus service is increased from one bus every thirty minutes to one every twenty-nine, is anyone better off?

9. Pie in the sky

A good P&N ought to have some understanding of the financial (and other) constraints that the project will be operating under, and be scoped appropriately. Considering different funding scenarios is great for strategic planning, but when a project is undertaken, project managers and sponsors should have some clue as to what resources are available, and the P&N should be consistent with that assessment. Refinement of scope (usually downwards) is often necessary as a project progresses (optimism bias is a problem even with experienced, conscientious teams). One of the many problems with the CRC seems to be wishful thinking concerning funding sources–and that the mere existence and importance of the project would force legislators in Salem and Olympia to fund it.

Instead: The P&N, or related documents, should address the issue of resources, and identify the political sponsors counted on for funding. A detailed budget is not necessary at this point, but some clue of where the money is coming from, is.

8. Fixing what isn’t broke

Part of justifying a project is documenting why you are doing it–and that “why” should include description of a problem, along with evidence that this really is a problem. And then the project primary goals should relate to fixing that problem. Some projects, unfortunately, attempt to fix what isn’t really broke: addressing traffic congestion that is only occurs occasionally, for instance (and could be instead addressed by time-shifting). Some projects, of course, are speculative in that they attempt to foresee and forestall future problems–the LO Streetcar and the CRC both spend a lot of time worrying about traffic levels fifteen years from now–with many of those predictions based on outdated or inaccurate data.

Instead: P&N statements should be able to identify a problem which is either existing or reasonably imminent, and one which is worthy of spending resources on. Long-term predictions should be justified with solid research, and even then, appropriate levels of future-discounting should occur.

7. Not fixing what is

The opposite of the prior problem is successfully identifying a problem or problems, then coming up with goals that don’t address them. If the problem is slow or unreliable transit, then project goals should include improvements in these things (and the actual proposed solution should address these goals head-on). Far too often, a problem is stated and then solutions are offered that don’t really address the problem, or only address it in an incremental fashion.

Instead: Stated goals, or the majority thereof, should be traceable to the overall problem statement.

6. Eyes OFF the prize

This is a specific instance of the prior issue. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m generally of the opinion that transit agencies ought to be primarily in the transit business–giving people access to places they can’t easily reach on foot, without having to use a motor vehicle. Many projects which are nominally transit projects include goals around things such as the environment, social equity/justice, economic development, land use, etc. These are important things, and land use in particular has an important and noticeable impact on transit outcomes, but sometimes what is nominally a “transportation” project becomes more about these other things than it does about improving people’s mobility and access. (And in some case, the mobility of existing customers is reduced in favor of speculative new ones).

I’m not against any of these other things, but if they are to be advanced, that should be stated up front, and funded appropriately. One good thing about Portland Streetcar, Inc. is that they make no bones about their land use and placemaking focus, and that the Streetcar is a development tool as much as anything else.

Instead: Projects shouldn’t place undue burdens on agencies by imposing unfunded (or underfunded) mandates to support goals other than their primary ones. Project development and execution should be carried out by agencies whose fundamental mission is aligned with the project goals.

5. Dictating the solution

Here’s another longstanding problem with the CRC–it’s P&N is tailor-made to essentially require a big new freeway bridge and exclude other alternatives such as a supplemental bridge. It was drafted, after all, by officials at the state DOTs who seem to want to do exactly that. The Sellwood Bridge is another project whose P&N constrains the design to essentially dictate the solution. Drafting a document which essentially excludes a whole range of reasonable alternatives, and “forces” the project team to only consider the desired solution, is a longstanding trick in project management.

Instead: P&Ns should dictate goals, not solutions or technology.

4. The gerrymandered bundle

Again, we turn to the CRC for an example, which defined a “project impact area” which included five miles of Interstate 5, but excluded areas close to the bridge but further distant from the freeway. (It also excluded parts of I-5 downstream, such as the Rose Quarter, which would clearly be impacted by a widening of I-5). This definition allowed a whole bunch of freeway enhancements only tangentially related to the Columbia River to be included in the project, and also helped to exclude non-freeway solutions from consideration.

Instead: If a corridor or impact area is to be defined, at this stage of planning it should be defined with fuzzy lines rather than with a scalpel, and shouldn’t show evidence of obvious gerrymandering.

3. The laundry list of conflicts

With this sin, a whole list of specific goals is presented, each one reasonable in isolation, but the combination of which is nigh impossible to satisfy–and results in an attempt to square the circle. A transit project that simultaneously calls for higher end-to-end speed and high stop density, for example, will have trouble satisfying both goals.

Some times, this is a result of the different demands of competing political constituencies, as was the case of the Lake Oswego Streetcar (which also had a significant technical constraint–an existing ROW that was necessary for the project). It can also be the result of a simple failure to prioritize, or it can lead to the next item.

Sometimes, it can even represent an attempt to strangle a project in its infancy, by making success impossible.

Instead: Prioritize. In addition to listing goals, their relative priorities should also be set, so in the event of a conflict, the project team and the community at large will have clear guidance as to how trade-offs ought to be made.

2. The sacrificial lamb

A specific problem with a failure to prioritize is that if a project needs to be de-scoped, goals can be discarded in an arbitrary fashion when it come time to implement, often on the grounds that they are contradictory and/or too expensive to support. Sometimes culling of project goals is done in a good-faith manner, but sometimes goals are advanced that are intended to broaden the support for a project (at least initially) but which are later cast aside–and you wonder whether the goal was ever given serious support in the first place. The transit elements of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, recently jettisoned from the project, may be a good example of this phenomenon. Many critics of the project allege that the bridge is first and foremost a highway project, and the proposed dedicated transit infrastructure was little more than greenwashing.

Instead: Instead, prioritize. Make it clear up front what is really important to the project, and what is ancillary stuff that might be discarded should constraints dictate.

1. The Fourth Directive

The other issues are primarily sins of commission; this is a sin of omission. But in many ways it’s the most serious, as it invariably involves an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. In the film Robocop, the Fourth Directive was an unspoken rule that the titular cyborg policeman not harm executives of the corporation which created him. For purposes of this discussion, a “fourth directive” is any constraint or requirement which is NOT specified in the planning documents, but nonetheless is (usually) non-negotiable. Fourth directives may include demands by specific stakeholders (often contrary to the public interest) who can exercise veto power over the project, or may simply be the failure of planners to recognize the political environment. An example of the former is the seeming ability of merchants to stymie street projects that eliminate subsidized on-street parking. An example of the latter may be the Fourth Plain BRT project, whose purpose and need sang the praises of efficient BRT, but quickly ran against the political reality that Vancouver voters simply were not about to accept conversion of general-purpose auto lanes into bus-only lanes.

Sometimes, a fourth directive may be hidden from the project planners by an influential stakeholder, who saves his ransom demands for later (and goes to great lengths to keep his fingerprints out of the crime scene). Other times, the constraint may be known to the project team but unspeakable in public, because acknowledging the reality would cause a political backlash.

Instead: Political constraints should be documented up front. In case of constraints of public opinion, there’s no point in pretending otherwise–a project team should understand and document the political climate, and be prepared to address it head-on. In the case of ransom demands from stakeholders, secrecy is often an additional requirement; dealing with this may require deft political skills. The best option may be to lawyer up later on in the project–a FEIS which contains major requirements not tied back to a purpose-and-need may be grounds to challenge the project. Unfortunately, legal action is more likely to delay a project or kill it outright than it is to change it in a useful fashion.

What would $2 billion of BRT look like?

Over on their Facebook page, OPAL links to an old Jarrett Walker column from three years ago, “bus-rail debates in a beautiful abstract city, and in los angeles“. In it, he poses the question of which is a better use of transit dollars:

  • Building more expensive types of infrastructure (such as rail or high-end BRT) serving a smaller area?
  • Building less expensive types of infrastructure (low-end BRT) that covers a wider area?

Jarrett then points out how that debate played out in Los Angeles. (He also theorizes, in the comments, how Portland might look with a BRT-focused rather than rail-focused transit infrastructure).

Unfortunately, the question in practice is seldom posed that way: Instead, it’s often “should we build expensive transit in this corridor?” vs “shall we build cheap transit in this corridor, and pocket the savings?” Much of the discussion about BRT for the SW Corridor is predicated on the discussion that light rail in the corridor may be too expensive, especially if tunneling through the West Hills is required. I’ve seen figures such as $2B thrown about–entirely believable, given that getting to Milwaukie (about 7 miles from downtown) is costing $1.5B, and Tigard TC is about three miles further away from the city center than is Milwaukie. And Sherwood is almost 17 miles from downtown Portland.

While I’m certainly not intending to slight those in the Southwest, eagerly awaiting their turn for transportation improvements, let me ask the question. If the region were to spend a couple billion dollars on light rail in a specific corridor; why not spend it on comprehensive, system-wide improvements, mainly focused on the bus system? What would this look like? What could we get? Could such a proposal get funding in the first place–or would it be too politically unattractive to legislators to merit taxpayer dollars? (I’m not worried about the FTA; I’m worried mainly about local politicians who might not be willing to approve appropriations for such a project, without which there will be no FTA matching funds).

Obviously, this question could have easily been asked several years ago, before MLR was planned and approved. But that’s water under the still-under-construction bridge.

Crowdsourcing the Case for Cycling

The City Club of Portland recently announced a research study: BICYCLING IN PORTLAND: A SERIOUS LOOK AT TRANSPORTATION POLICY AND PRIORITIES .

Here are the objectives of the study:

  • Make a recommendation on the role bicycling should play in Portland’s transportation system, based on review of existing criteria, available studies, and witness testimony.

  • Based on the committee’s recommendation for the role bicycling should play in Portland’s transportation system, make further recommendations on the goals the city should set for bicycle ridership and the necessary improvements to reach those goals.
  • The committee must identify the level and sources of funding necessary to achieve the identified goals.
  • The committee is encouraged to make recommendations in related areas, including safety, governance, traffic enforcement, economic development, and community outreach.

You can’t lobby a City Club research committee (and I wouldn’t want to – having participated in a couple and chaired one – I respect the process greatly), but you can make sure they have good information, and we’d like to make sure they have lots of it!

“We” in this instance is a cooperative effort of Portland Transport, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, BikePortland, Portland Afoot and AROW.

And we’d like you to help us.

We’ve launched a Wiki site: The Case for Cycling and we’re asking your assistance in populating it with the best arguments, statistics and research making the case for why cycling is good for our city, region and country.

While the motivation for this site is immediate and local, we’d like this to be a high-quality effort that can take on a longer life and be a resource for other communities.

Please check out the site, sign up for an account, and contribute your best arguments and data!

UPDATED: An update on the Fourth Plain BRT project

UPDATE: The Vancouver City Council last night approved the project, voting to support a mixed traffic configuration (with both center and median stops), extending out to NW 121st.

Older content after the jump.

While Portland Transport focuses most of its energies on the Oregon side of the river, we do consider Clark County, WA to be part of our coverage area. And one of the ongoing mass-transit projects in the region is the Fourth Plain BRT project, or officially, the Fourth Plain Transit Improvement Project. This project, a partnership of C-TRAN, the city of Vancouver, and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, calls for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) of some flavor or another to stretch from just outside downtown Vancouver, along Fourth Plain Boulevard, out to Vancouver Mall or beyond.

Portland Transport examined the project last November. However, the project is approaching the point in its planning where the Locally Preferred Alternative is to be selected, and C-TRAN this past month has begun a public outreach program to get the community involved. Thus, it’s useful for us to take a look at the project again.

The corridor

First, the project’s location. Fourth Plain Boulevard is a major east-west thoroughfare running between Vancouver and its northeastern suburbs such as Orchards. At one point the road was the route of SR500 and was the primary connection. In the 1980s, the current highway alignment of SR500 was opened, and Fourth Plain nowadays serves mainly local traffic. WSDOT is in the process of converting SR500 (the new alignment) into a freeway, with a new interchange at St. Johns Road under construction at this time, and plans in the works to likewise remove the remaining traffic lights at Falk and NE 54th Avenue.

Fourth Plain is also the most important transit corridor in the C-TRAN service district. Several routes run in the corridor, most importantly the 4-Fourth Plain, which runs between Vancouver Mall (where C-TRAN operates a transit center) and downtown Vancouver, continuing into Oregon to connect with TriMet at Hayden Island and Delta Park TC. The 4 is the only route on C-TRAN’s roster which would meet the TriMet definition of frequent service, as it offers 15-minute all-day (except for late evenings) during weekdays. The corridor is also served by the peak-hour 44-Fourth Plain Limited as well.

According to the project’s purpose and need statement and a fact sheet, the 4 is frequently subject to overcrowding and poor reliability, and the population in the corridor (and ridership demands) are expected to increase in the next twenty-five years. Many important transit destinations–downtown Vancouver, Clark College, a VA Hospital, and the mall, are along the corridor. The Fourth Plain corridor is also home to many transit-dependent riders.

The bad news is that the existing land uses along Fourth Plain tend to be low-density. Other than the aforementioned destinations, the road is mostly surrounded by single-family housing, low-rise apartments (concentrated on the west end of the corridor), and big-box and strip-mall retail. Fourth Plain borders the “Vancouver Auto Mall”, a large collection of automobile dealers along Andresen Road; a golf course has its northern boundary along the street as well. The road is a classic “sprawlevard”, one presently optimized for automobile traffic over anything else. Bike lanes are intermittent. In many parts of the street, pedestrians on the sidewalk are surrounded by cars–by those on the road itself on one side, by a sea of parking lots on the other. The good news is that the powers that be recognize this is a problem–a streetscape study done five years ago calls for numerous improvements, and C-TRAN has been keeping the Clark County Bicycle Advisory Committee in the loop.

The project

The project, then, is to build a Bus Rapid Transit system along the Fourth Plain corridor, essentially from the VA Hospital complex (just east of Interstate Five), out to Vancouver Mall, or possibly further. (The project also includes a no-build option and a “transport system management” option, both of which are required to be considered and analyzed by Federal law; we do not discuss them in this article). If all goes well, the project could open in 2014. One key milestone will be public approval of a funding measure (backed by a 0.1% sales tax), which is slated to go before voters in August or November of this year. (One outstanding issue is where the boundaries of the taxing district would lie; a question which has become somewhat contentious).

The proposed line would have stops at roughly quarter-mile (400m) intervals. The key design issues yet to be decided are:

  • The routing and alignment in the vicinity of the VA Hospital.
  • The design of the route along the bulk of Fourth Plain
  • The routing and alignment around Vancouver Mall
  • How far east to extend the project–options include terminating at the mall, going all the way out to NE 162nd (density, not high to begin with, drops dramatically once you cross I-205), or somewhere in between.

Probably the most interesting question is the routing and alignment along the bulk of Fourth Plain. This is the busy part of the corridor, and it’s more important to optimize the middle of a line than the ends. Three options are under consideration, generally:

  • Curbside mixed-traffic BRT. Buses (with BRT enhancements such as all-door boarding, off-board fare collection, and limited stop spacing) would run in mixed traffic in the outer lane of the street.
  • Median mixed-traffic BRT. This is an unusual configuration (I’m not aware of other examples, other than at “difficult” stops), in which busses would travel in the left lanes of Fourth Plain, and board on the left at median platforms (which would also serve as pedestrian crossing refuges). Generally, BRT systems that travel in the median provide exclusive lanes for the bus. This idea makes me nervous, if for no other reason that it would encourage dangerous passing-on-the-right maneuvers as annoyed motorists whip around stopped busses.
  • Curbside “BAT” (business access and transit) lanes. Here, busses travel in the right lane, which is closed to through vehicular traffic. Cars are permitted to enter the transit lane for purposes of making right turns.

The analysis

While C-TRAN is to be commended for this project, the above design choices do leave much to be desired. Despite the fact that the Fourth Plain corridor lies adjacent to the SR500 expressway, and despite the fact that the purpose-and-need statement calls out laudable transit-related goals, the project is constrained by a hidden-in-plain-sight fourth directive: Thou shalt not annoy motorists. Other than in the vicinity of the VA Hospital and the mall, it doesn’t appear that bus signal priority is part of the project at all, and the ideal BRT configuration (absent more expensive options like a full busway) of median-running, exclusive lane, is not among the options. Bus service in this configuration don’t get blocked by traffic at all, including by turning cars, and the platforms are useful for pedestrians. In contrast, Portland turned the two interior lanes of Interstate Avenue, made obsolete by the construction of I-5, into the Yellow Line; such a transformative option is off the table for Fourth Plain. And while the less-desirable curbside BAT is being advanced for consideration, this presentation, prepared by C-TRAN as part of the public outreach, puts the fourth directive in black-letter text. If you look at the chart on page 7 of the presentation, you’ll note that the differences in transit quality improvement between the design options is glossed over (all get a green check for “improving corridor transit service”, despite the fact that exclusive-lane BRT performs far better than the mixed traffic variety), but the BAT option gets a red exclamation point for “failing to meet current and future travel demand”, by allegedly causing automobile congestion. C-TRAN might take note of the fact that induced demand also works in reverse–if you take traffic lanes away, the cars tend to disappear, rather than continuing to exist in a perpetual traffic jam. And as noted above, there’s a perfectly good freeway just a short distance away from Fourth Plain that commuters from Battle Ground are quite able to use.

Of course, agencies have to work within the political constraints of their environment. It’s easy for Portland to generate the political consensus to put city streets on a road diet; such things are hardly controversial south of the Columbia. Vancouver is significantly more conservative, and existing land-use patterns far more greatly favor the automobile, so perhaps asking Vancouver to surrender two auto lanes on a major thoroughfare for bus service is simply a non-starter; in which case C-TRAN should strive for the best service quality they can muster. But still, mixed-traffic BRT doesn’t provide an effective demonstration of what BRT is capable of, so the indication that C-TRAN is leaning towards the mixed-traffic alternative is somewhat disappointing. I was kinda hoping that C-TRAN could show TriMet how it is done. :)

Speaking of TriMet…

One area of the current 4/44 route that isn’t part of the project is downtown Vancouver and the extension of the routes into Oregon. The BRT project ends around the VA complex and/or Clark College; it is anticipated that busses will use Vancouver city streets when reaching downtown.

At least until (and if) the Columbia River Crossing opens.

After that, C-TRAN anticipates that the BRT will share an alignment with the extension of the Yellow MAX line between Clark College and downtown Vancouver. (See map). Operational agreements are already in place between C-TRAN, the CRC project committee, and TriMet for this to happen. If and when the Yellow Line reaches Vancouver, it is likely that C-TRAN will no longer send its regular-service bus lines into Oregon to rendezvous with TriMet; instead, Oregon-bound commuters will change to MAX in Vancouver. (I expect express bus service to Portland to continue).

As the BRT project is anticipated to open in 2014 at the earliest, well in advance of the CRC, one of two things will happen in the interim: Either the BRT line would use the existing Interstate bridge to reach Delta Park and Hayden Island, as the 4 and 44 currently do, or a high-frequency shuttle service would transfer passengers between the BRT line and TriMet. The former would be more friendly to customers, but would expose the BRT to Interstate bridge traffic, potentially undermining its reliability. The latter would require an additional transfer, likely making the service less attractive to Oregon-bound commuters.

And this is all assuming that the CRC itself is built as planned. Were the CRC to be cancelled or materially changed in scope, what would happen is anybody’s guess.