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The Mode Less Traveled

July 20, 2015

I didn’t decide to be a jerk to the AJC today. I’m like that every day.

An AJC columnist recently posted an article basically saying that instead of investing in a citywide streetcar plan that would bring premium transit access to many neighborhoods that are not serviced by immediate rapid service, we (meaning Metro Atlanta for some reason) should consider options that do not require us to spend much public money. Throughout the article, he brought up the ridesharing service, Uber, for its ubiquity, and its potential to offer,

“broader service and more flexibility than we will ever build out with streetcars”

-said columnist

Well said, but you left out one item that nixes your whole theory…

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TAILPIPE EMISSIONS. 

Here’s the thing.

1. Uber and other ridesharing companies work on a whole different organizational structure than MARTA and the Atlanta Streetcar. While there are dedicated routes that can and cannot be changed, whether talking rail or bus, someone is going to get on through every trip.  Uber drivers drive until a demand is made by a passenger. Which is my main point that he does not mention….

While Uber may seem like a stronger contender in this fight, the fact of the matter is, it is NOT the cleanest mode of travel. Every mile that Uber and Lyft drivers are not driving someone to their location is another pound of pollution that goes into the ozone and creates smog, such as what’s shown in the pic above of TODAY’s skies.  We are under a Code Orange for smog alerts, which according to the Clean Air Campaign is, “unhealthy for sensitive groups”. Even if a whole 50+ mile streetcar plan would be expensive to initiate, it would surely be cleaner than the ubiquitous emission riders that the ridesharing apps provide. At what point does walking also come into play when running around Midtown anyway?

2. Keith Parker recently reported on Atlanta TechEdge that MARTA wants to partner with Uber to offer flex service to areas not heavily traveled to offer MARTA service. So why you all of a sudden want to forgo transit, I don’t know because the guy in Who Framed Roger Rabbit tried it already. Coexist, much?

3. You mentioned that Metro Atlanta needs to think about our options, but you only reference intown neighborhoods.  Seeing as though the AJC has a huuuuuge Outside-the-Perimeter slant, I would not even consider the streetcar as a viable transportation option in such a low-dense swath of land. You can’t even reach Uber in half those places anyway, so that didn’t make sense. Broad and flexible.

I would say, try again, sir. Uber is nice, but it isn’t revolutionary. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that it’s welcomed either seeing as how the state is still struggling to let it pick people up from the Airport, which MARTA’s been doing since 1988. If you don’t like the streetcar, you just don’t like the streetcar because it doesn’t go to your house. I keep telling all of you, IT’S NOT FOR EVERYONE! Pick carefully where you live!!! It is about short trips, which if you are about transit life, $2.50 is nothing compared to getting screwed paying $6 to go one mile. $1 on a streetcar is a deal about a deal, but if you’re one of those people who thinks that money grows on trees, you won’t appreciate the processes that transit agencies have to go through to secure funding because this country is still in love with the vehicle and only throws money to the highways that get corroded with every single Uber, truck, and commuter who thinks that “they should fix this road”. You ask to spend less public dollars, but the solution is going to REQUIRE PUBLIC DOLLARS TO BE SPENT ANYWAY!!!! As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t seen Uber reach for grants or anything for funding because they’re private. I don’t think people would be too find of spending public dollars for private gain. We all know how that turns out…

Transit IS the 21st century solution to transportation. Uber is merely a fancy taxi service, and I have no remorse for saying that, since one of the rudest Uber drivers in Buckhead yelled at me at a bus stop that Uber was the future and buses are obsolete. Uber has yet to respond to my complaint…

Today I’m going to be a jerk to the AJC

July 20, 2015
by

But since no one else is covering the fact that the Cobb County BRT line was federally evaluated to not reduce congestion and could, in fact, increase it, I am reporting their subscriber-only article here.

Controversial BRT won’t reduce traffic jams, study says

Study: Transit system won’t improve traffic

Cobb County plan may increase congestion.

By Dan Klepal dan.klepal@ajc.com

Cobb County’s controversial plan to build a $500 million bus rapid transit system will not improve rush-hour traffic along heavily traveled U.S. 41 and could make congestion even worse, according to a key environmental study necessary for the county to qualify for a federal grant that would pay about half the cost.

The document, called an Environmental Assessment, was released in April and includes traffic modeling at five “representative” intersections along the corridor, which is home to two busy employment centers, Dobbins Air base, Lockheed-Martin, residential enclaves, WellStar Kennestone Hospital and the Braves new stadium with its mixed-use development.

That modeling gives letter grades on a scale of A to F, which relate to the amount of time motorists are delayed at the intersections. Unlike academic grades, this scale includes the letter “E,” which is a wait of 55-80 seconds. An “F” grade means a wait of more than 80 seconds.

The report shows the bus system would provide no relief to motorists if operated under 2012 traffic conditions, and that it likewise will not thin heavy congestion in 2040

— under assumptions of both high and medium growth rates between now and then.

In fact, grades at four of the intersections fell in 2040 to an “F” with rapid transit in place. Those intersections graded either “D” or “E” without bus rapid transit, known as BRT.

The highest grade any of the intersections received was a “D,” which means waits of 35-55 seconds.

Ron Sifen, a transit activist who talked about the issue during the public speaking portion of Tuesday’s commission meeting, called the project “ridiculous” in an interview.

“They want to spend half a billion dollars on a project that will make congestion worse,” Sifen said. “There are only two tables in the whole (153-page) report that compare building the project to not building it (in terms of congestion). And what’s the impact? Building it results in worse congestion than not building it.”

Cobb DOT Director Faye DiMassimo was provided several questions for this story in an email July 7. The newspaper emailed additional questions to her after Sifen’s presentation. The newspaper received no response.  But DiMassimo wrote a column for the local Marietta newspaper, published Wednesday, in which she said Sifen was applying “limited intersection-specific results to the overall project and corridor.” DiMassimo also wrote that BRT ridership estimates of between 17,000-18,000, coupled with additional road improvements, demonstrates “how the proposed project benefits the growing multi-modal transportation needs of Cobb residents, students, commuters and visitors.”

Sifen is not convinced.

“She can declare that BRT won’t make traffic worse, but they didn’t study it,” he said. “They’re the ones saying these intersections are representative. This is their analysis — it’s their numbers.”

Commission Chairman Tim Lee has been pushing for the project since 2012, when Cobb voters roundly rejected the regional SPLOST initiative that would have helped fund a $1 billion version of BRT. The environmental report details a long history of BRT studies but fails to mention the T-SPLOST’s 2-to-1 defeat.

Lee on Tuesday refused to talk to a reporter who approached him to discuss several topics, including BRT.

David Welden, a campaign manager for former commissioner Helen Goreham who has served on several citizen committees studying transportation projects, said BRT has never been about thinning traffic.

“It’s about commercial development,” said Welden, who thinks the reversible toll lanes currently under construction on I-75 will do more to mitigate traffic on U.S. 41 than BRT. “Where there’s a little Army-Navy store right now will be a 17-story office tower, or a live-work-play development.

“Most of the substantial property owners are in the community improvement districts and the Chamber of Commerce. Follow the money, and you’ll see why they are so interested in this project.”

Commissioner Bob Ott agreed, saying BRT is “nothing more than a push for economic development.” “There are people out there who want BRT, and there’s a lot of effort being made to move in a directionthat will make it happen,” Ott said.

In addition to at least $500 million in start-up costs — which includes having a dedicated lane for rapid transit buses along 13 miles of the U.S. 41 corridor and building 13 new stations — the project will cost about $7 million a year in operations and maintenance.

Sifen said the operational costs alone should be enough to detour the county from building the project.

“Cobb County has a lot of transit needs,” Si-fen said. “The BRT could increase Cobb County’s budget for transit by 50 percent, all by itself, just to upgrade already existing transit in one corridor. If we have other needs in other corridors, where will we get that money?”

THE STORY SO FAR

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been following Cobb’s attempt to secure funding for bus rapid transit for the past year. The newspaper was the first to report that Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee wanted to include $70 million worth of transportation projects in the county’s 2016 SPLOST project list that would have counted toward the county’s 51 percent share of the project, without labeling the projects as being related to BRT. The projects were subsequently removed.

Lee then promised a public referendum if commissioners decided to move forward with the BRT project. The AJC then reported that commissioners approved a key transportation planning document under the assumption that it required the BRT referendum, when it did not. The commission has since passed a resolution saying they intend to allow the public to decide whether BRT is built.

Then last month, the newspaper reported that there were incorrect statements in the BRT environmental study and a federal grant application that indicated the commission had“accepted”the project, when it has taken no vote on the issue and commissioners remain divided on the merits of the project.

brt

Here We Gulch Again…

July 13, 2015

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If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense. So why are there proposals to put a money-maker in place of another?

That’s what MGM wants to do with a proposal of a…wait for it…$1 billion dollar casino in the Gulch area of Downtown Atlanta. Now, while this seems cool and all, most non-transportation souls will also overlook the fact that the space is also the site of the Multi-modal Passenger Terminal.

Now the first thing that came to my mind was, “Someone is proposing yet another big ticket item that isn’t transportation”.  The next was, “Not another casino project.  The GOP will looooove this”.  Now the item on my brain is, “Say if MGM gets the green light to do their money vacuum. It’ll take up about what…6 of the 119 acres in the Gulch for what…a sea of parking?

No, thanks.

I know that the MMPT is a wish upon a star, but if we can take cues that accessibility to and around Downtown Atlanta may just be more important that what attraction is Downtown (because we have PLENTY TO DO!), then people will stop calling everything they won’t want to use a boondoggle. We can’t always overlook a bigger project for something that is expected to turn over an immediate profit.  I’m not against the casino either, but it’s just not a logical place judging that the infrastructure for future high speed rail, Amtrak, the existing MARTA rail and future busbays, GRTA Xpress, Greyhound, Megabus, taxi service, and adjacent mixed-use activity can fill up this whole space. Also, there is plenty of space in South Downtown right where all those ‘2 hours to Harrah’s Cherokee billboards are. But what do I know? I’m just a city planning nerd with a Masters Degree.

One If By Air, Two If By Transit

July 9, 2015

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Atlanta (and the rest of the world) is at speculation of the Aerotropolis that is in the works for one of the nation’s biggest airports. The question is: will this be another car or die scenario where the rental car center will be your best friend, or will the airport community embrace another alternative mode of transport?

So I attended the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Regional Transit Committee meeting today, and I listened to one of my colleagues present on the new transportation management association, or as the transportation biz calls them TMA’s, for the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International area. Known as “aeroATL”, their goal is like other TMA’s in Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead: promote alternative transportation solutions to employers and employees.  It’s great that this is happening, seeing as that community improvement districts (CIDs) are now popping up west and south of the airport, and the Aerotropolis plan to turn the modal hub into a 24/7 airport community is becoming the savior for this area the way the BeltLine is for the intown neighborhoods.

Now what’s going to DRIVE all of this concentrated development? Let’s not make it obvious.

It is often joked by locals (and layover passengers who think that Atlanta is literally our airport) that the ATL SkyTrain and PlaneTrain are Atlanta’s only real transit vehicles. Sure, they do arrive on time, have fewer headways, fewer delays, and get to actual destinations, but they only reach as far as their intended purposes.  Try doing that with a growing SunBelt metro who just peaked over 6 million. It’s not that simple, I say. However, when I search for plans for this Aerotopolis, I get
“a mixed-use development in Hapeville”, which I get scared because we haven’t had a true live-work-play-transit-oriented-mixed-use community in the metro. I only hope that the SkyTrain is being considered for expansion AS WELL AS the true cornerstone of the development.  I mean, let’s face it. Are you really going to rent a car to get around the airport for a four-hour layover? I wouldn’t, but Federal Aviation regulations don’t make it so for you to walk around the premises, either.

So kudos to aeroATL and the surrounding Airport CIDs for uniting the airport region and turning the tide for the other options to travel to work at Hartsfield.  I hope the focus can also be stretched for future residents and businesses that the Aerotropolis will be transit-focused and seamless to access surrounding amenities. Although, if I were to give a suggestion to them: do not use the picture above as the final blueprint. PLEASE. One Atlantic Station is enough.

The Streetcar Experiment

July 1, 2015

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Lately, a lot of people have been asking me about my experience with the Atlanta Streetcar and how it has been performing.  Quite frankly, I’m getting tired of defending its existence as much as I get questions about its usefulness, but since I am a likely candidate to testify the half year that the streetcar has been in operation, I figure that I would spill how I truly feel about it.  So today, I will give my personal diary of the last six months of trolley trials.

First some background about me. I live in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta.  So two stops are within a quarter-mile (or in my case a 5-minute walk) from my front door. I tend to use the Dobbs Plaza stop more than the King Historic District stop due to the fact that I can time when the vehicle shows up.  Generally, this is two to three minutes after it turns the corner at Jackson and Auburn every 15 minutes. I went to school at Georgia Tech during these first four months of streetcar, and now I work in the Equitable Building on Peachtree and Auburn, so I am a TRUE testament to what the streetcar was originally designed to do: PROVIDE LAST-MILE CONNECTIVITY.

Before the streetcar, my options of travel to class were: Walking to the MARTA stations (15-20 minute walk + MARTA trip + Tech Trolley), catching the 99 to Midtown (15-minute ride + Tech Trolley), catching the 3 to Five Points (10 minute ride + MARTA trip + Tech Trolley), and biking (15-20 minutes + sweat).

Generally, I have enjoyed the additional transit vehicle to my arsenal of options.  Pending traffic, I have had as high as 10 minute trips getting to Peachtree Center, to as low as today’s record-breaking 5 minutes from the Dobbs Plaza to Woodruff Park. (Shoutout to the driver who wears the suit). I’ve even shown it off to family, as my cousin who attends the University of Wisconsin was blown away by it, and wanted Madison to get a streetcar based on the size of the interior and the ease of connecting to MARTA’s bigger system (which was the point).

But every good thing comes with its problems…

The main hang-ups I have is that it still doesn’t have signal prioritization, that 10-minute layover at Centennial Olympic Park, and that most of the riders are generally homeless, tourists, and local (outside of downtown) streetcar hecklers (Bah! It’s not like San Francisco. Wah!). Oh yeah, and the fact that people cannot follow directions and don’t park in the lines.  That put two cars out of commission and I had no way of knowing when the streetcar would show up for about a month.

So overall, it’s great for me as a resident and employee of Downtown Atlanta.  if you don’t fit into either of those two categories and have something negative to say about it, save it. It’s not your fight. What I will say with this expansion all to and around the BeltLine, is that we need to be really wise about the options that we’re given and what we ultimately decide.  To that I will end with a quote from the great transit poobah, Jarrett Walker.

“I love seeing a house built, so I respect the role of hammers.  But if you fall in love with the hammer rather than the house, you’ll just go around looking for nails to pound, and that’s not the way to build the best possible house”

-Jarrett Walker

Corn on the Cobb County

June 15, 2015

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So does Cobb County want to just secede from this union known as Metro Atlanta?  I don’t know. Their actions about transportation lately speaks so many volumes that put them on the same level as another over-superficial suburban county. (cough…Fayette)

  • The commissioners passed a $5.3 billion comprehensive plan for transportation which included the “possibility” of bus rapid transit.  Fine.
  • Benita Dodd from Marietta has soooooo much to say about the Atlanta Streetcar like she spent her whole lottery winnings on its construction. Whatever.
  • Old Man STATE REP. Earl Ehrhart still lives in 1971 in that he doesn’t believe that MARTA manages their system correctly. Big Whoop.
  • Tim Lee doesn’t believe in a world where more MARTA service than the Number 12 and the Six Flags shuttle would exist in Cobb County. Do you, sir.

These actions cover a huge overarching theme: Cobb County doesn’t really want to be apart of this region.

It’s easy to create your own newspaper and your own transit system and your own Department of Transportation, but Cobb County leaders, in these instances, are acting like the kid at daycare who has a sharing problem.  They can deny that they are not like the City of Atlanta or Decatur or anywhere else where people have common sense all they want to, but what they cannot erase is their location smack dab in the center of the region. I mean, Vinings has an Atlanta zip code for Christ sake, and so will this new stadium! #bravesocalpse

Here’s what I see for the Cobb County Commissioners for the rest of this year.  They will table the BRT project (yet again) and make an excuse like, “We wanted to devote our funding towards more research for a teleportation system from your location to the SunTrust Park. This way, we keep your taxes low”. They will keep looking for ways to prove that premium transit will not work for them.

I have had the displeasure of traveling to Cobb for the fifth time this month via transit, and it took me one hour and 40 minutes EACH WAY to get from Midtown to Cumberland, and even after that, I had to bike to get where I needed to go. That is ridiculous. Cumberland is the largest business district in the metro without premium transit access. Town Center is getting there. Not everyone who works or shops there reside in Cobb. When these Commissioners start to realize that there are other people on this earth than Corn Cobbs, East Cobbers, or whatever they refer to themselves, maybe they can join into this regional transportation conversation. But this regional transportation network will continue to deteriorate with places like Cobb County’s administration’s denial that commuters from the outside come to Cobb.

I don’t know.  But bashing the streetcar won’t do you any good, miss, because we got our matching funds and the infill development is coming. I need for everyone who has nothing to do with this vehicle to not talk about the vehicle because you’re doing nothing but showing off your sheer ignorance on something that you obviously have no stake in.

It’s Time We All Became Mode Positive

April 28, 2015

This is a blog post that I’ve been meaning to write for some time now, but the spark was re-ignited in me when earlier this week a transit advocacy group (I won’t call anyone out here, but know I was terribly disappointed) posted an anti-streetcar article on their Facebook page. For a while now, transit advocates have been infighting about mode amongst themselves and not only is a waste of our precious time, it’s harmful to everything that we do.

To borrow from another positivity movement here, we need to stop mode shaming.

No one would argue that transit doesn’t already have to fight a constant uphill battle. There are never enough funds to build out the systems of our dreams and certain Republicans are trying to eliminate all transit funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Why then do we feed the critics with ammunition by poo-pooing our own projects and debating the merits of streetcar over BRT over heavy rail over good, old-fashioned buses?

When transit advocates get themselves in a tizzy over pitting the superiority of one mode over another we just give the opposition arguments to use against us. They already latch on to buses as a means of throwing transit a bone, but we all know that while buses are fantastic, there are many instances in which buses aren’t capable of meeting ridership needs. When the transit community declares streetcars or light rail inadequate, we look like the kids crying wolf.

Heavy rail isn’t appropriate for every project and requires significant public investment. Streetcars aren’t appropriate for every project, even if they’re cheaper, adorable, and trendy. Buses suffer from a public perception problem even if they’re the quickest way to boost service and have cheaper initial capital costs. BRT meets buses and streetcars in the middle, but only when done right and we all know that is a big if.

Our problem isn’t mode; it’s ensuring that projects are well-planned, perfectly implemented, and that we educate riders and advocates on the uses and goals of each mode. Heavy rail moves a lot of people a great distance; it’s not to get around town but to town. Streetcars are the last mile circulators to get around town. They are meant to connect neighborhoods and spur development. They do not directly ease traffic congestion but enhance the existing network and by completing the trip, streetcars encourage a global transit use. BRT is, like heavy rail, meant to move a greater number of passengers a greater distance, mimicking heavy rail at a fraction of the cost. And while it an encourage ridership growth and can be converted to rail in the future, it does not solve the last mile segment of the transit equation. Buses serve a multitude of purposes and intersect all of these functions, but they lack the perception of permanence to spur significant economic growth.

Some transit projects are bad, but all modes are good. But not gondolas. Never gondolas.

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