Friday, December 19, 2008

Declining Auto Travel and Promoting Pedestrian Lifestyles

Although we have had a reprieve in high gas prices, the Brookings Institution makes a compelling case that people are starting to make permanent lifestyle changes that are leading them to drive fewer miles. See ,The Road…Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the U.S. This figure was particularly striking, showing the correlation between rising gas prices and a drop in vehicle miles traveled per capita (VMTPC).

According to the report, Metro Denver has
the 25th highest vehicle miles traveled per capita -6409 - of the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. The city with the highest number was Jackson, MS with 8182 VMTPC and the city with the lowest number was, not surprisingly, New York with 3657.

The video below by Robert Puentes at Brookings explains the public policy implications of driving less. Among other ideas, Puentes thinks the Obama transportation stimulus package should be careful not to build highways to nowhere and instead make sure to fund important public transportation projects.

The decrease in VMTPC opens up an opportunity for promoting healthy, pedestrian friendly lifestyles. Denver urban enthusiast Ken Schroeppel, recently posted a blog entry on talking about the economic, community building, public health and transportation importance of encouraging pedestrian transit in downtown Denver with links to the Downtown Denver Partnership's Leadership Program's report "
Putting Our Best Foot Forward: Enhancing Downtown Denver's Pedestrian Environment."

Is it possible that multiple trends are converging - federal stimulus investment in transportation infrastructure, the prospect of higher energy prices, traffic congestion, a desire to reduce carbon generation, a change in aesthetic tastes favoring an urban lifestyle - which will lead to major changes in the built environment and people's lifestyles? Lets hope so.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Agglomeration Economies Help the Cluster Spread

Once an industry, like wind power, gets established in a given geographic area, up and downstream participants get drawn into the area by the positive externalities of being located near suppliers, competitors, workers and related service providers. This is clearly starting to happen in Colorado for various sub sectors in the alternative energy ecosystem.

This from The Denver Post.

"WINDSOR — Aerospace products maker Hexcel Corp. plans to open a plant in Windsor next year.

The company supplies Vestas Wind Systems with composite materials that are used to make wind turbines. Hexcel will open its plant near Vestas' blade-making plant in Windsor, about 50 miles north of Denver.

Construction of Hexcel's plant is expected to begin this month and the plant should open late next year.

Hexcel chairman and CEO Dave Berges says demand for wind turbines is expected to grow now that 30 states have pushed utilities to use more renewable energy.

The Stamford-Conn.-based company hasn't announced any details about how many new jobs the plant will bring."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The FasTracks I-225 Intra-Suburban Beltway Corridor

The issues surrounding the proposed Purple Line on the Washington D.C. subway system are very relevant for FasTracks. See below for an extended excerpt from an article titled "Greening the Suburbs" from The New Republic's environmental blog, The Vine.

The Purple Line in Maryland would be the first intra-suburban rail transit line in the D.C. system because it would not carry people from the suburbs to the city center in a hub-spoke model but instead would follow the beltway around the city carrying people between the suburbs. The purple line provides connectivity between the spoke lines near the perimeter of the system allowing for transfers to occur away from the city center.

In the FasTracks system, the analogous line is the I-225 Corridor which will connect the Southeast and East Corridors together and make it easier for Southeast riders to travel to DIA as well as serving new destinations in Aurora. This line is an intra-suburban beltway line like the purple line in D.C.

Some of the proposed solutions to the FasTracks budget deficit involve shortening the I-225 Corridor including not completing loop and terminating the line before the connection to the East Corridor at the Peoria/Smith Station. As I have said in previous posts, I believe any cuts to the FasTracks system including the I-225 line would be a huge mistake.

Excerpt from "Greening the Suburbs:"

"The logic undergirding the Purple Line is that D.C.'s Metro, like most old-school subways, is a hub-and-spoke model, built for an era when people lived in the suburbs and commuted downtown for work. Nowadays, though, most traffic flows from suburb to suburb—hence the need to interlink Montgomery County and Prince George's County. Most area residents favor some sort of connecting line; the bickering is over the details. Marc Elrich, a Montgomery County councilman, explained that he was agonizing about whether Maryland should spend $1.2 billion on a fixed light-rail system projected to transport 64,000 people per day, or spend just $600 million on a bus rapid transit (BRT) system with a dedicated lane, projected to transport 58,000, and use the savings for other worthwhile initiatives.

Chris Leinberger, a Brookings expert on development who comes at things from a real-estate perspective, countered that Elrich was approaching this too narrowly. Leinberger argued that transportation tends to drive development, and that transit projects should be viewed as a means of creating new value in a metro area. In that vein, he argued that middle-class people like trains well enough, but often refuse to ride buses, which carry the stigma of poverty; as a result, developers are much more likely to invest around rail stations than bus stops. (This may not be an ironclad law, but, alas, the United States has relatively few examples of successful BRT, a la the famous system in Curitiba, Brazil).

What's more, Leinberger assured the audience, developers will flutter to new light-rail stops in droves, because there's colossal pent-up demand in this country for transit-oriented development. By his count, some 30 to 50 percent of residents in U.S. metropolitan areas want to live in a walkable urban environment—a trend fueled by the growing number of single and childless couples, who will constitute 88 percent of household growth through 2040. Trouble is, he estimates there are currently only enough walkable neighborhoods to satisfy about 5 to 10 percent of metro residents, which is why rents in transit-accessible areas are so exorbitant. (Incidentally, the boom in childless households is one reason why development in D.C. could start to expand beyond Montgomery County and toward the northeastern suburbs, which have long been hampered by relatively inferior schools.)

Of course, to fix all this, new rail lines alone won't suffice. The towns around the proposed stops will have to revamp their zoning codes to allow high-density development near train stations—a suggestion that's typically greeted by angry, pitchfork-wielding mobs. (Ryan Avent recently dredged up a perfect example.) Now, since these changes in land use can both reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and bring down the cost of housing, Leinberger argued that environmentalists and social-justice activists should be at the forefront here. "Instead," he said, "you've just been leaving it up to developers—and no one seems to trust us!" Not that developers will ever be irrelevant: One interesting point Leinberger made was that if transit really does create the sort of value he expects, then real-estate developers should be more willing to pitch in and help finance these projects."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Governor Ritter on The News Hour

"Think in a state like Colorado, it's got 5 million people, but we have, again, 100-plus projects that we could have shovels in the ground in 90 days. And if you infuse our economy with, let's say, $500 million worth of transportation projects in 30 to 180 days, that puts people to work in a sector that has suffered.

And think about that nationwide. Gov. Schwarzenegger today said there are $136 billion worth of highway projects that are on the shelf that we could immediately change around, right, we could put shovels in the ground in 90 to 120 days.

Add to that clean-energy jobs. Think about wind farms and solar farms. The manufacturing end of that, you can create jobs on the manufacturing end of that in a whole new industry by investing in that industry and by really doing things with the stimulus package that don't cost money, other than through tax credit and ways to incentivize people to get into the industry."

Governor Bill Ritter on The News Hour, December 2, 2008. Click here for the full transcript.

I keep wondering if a combination of the recent sharp declines in commodities prices and the prospect of incremental infrastructure funds from an Obama Administration will end up solving the FasTracks budget shortfall? Its probably a long shot but one can hope.

Image from