Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Wrong Way to Encourage Pedestrian Traffic

Federal transportation funds often come with strings attached, such as a requirement to spend a certain percentage of dollars on transportation "alternatives" like biking and jogging trails. The problem is that most of these projects are really recreational in nature. A case in point: The planned bicycle path running from Richmond to Williamsburg. A second case in point: a proposed $200,000 bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Charlottesville. The trouble with the Charlottesville path, from what I can divine from the article in the Daily Progress, is that it doesn't take people anywhere they want to go.

If communities want to build recreational amenities for their citizens, that's fine -- we all need more exercise! -- but they should spend parks & recreation dollars. Transportation dollars should be allocated to projects that improve access and mobility.

The fact is, building park-like bike and jogging trails doesn't do anything to pry people out of their cars. "Trails" that meander through picturesque terrain, whether urban or rural, are largely useless as a transportation mode because they are the destination; they don't take people anywhere else they want to go.

If walking and biking is ever to become an alternative for more than a handful of health nuts, we need to integrate sidewalks and bicycle lanes seamlessly into the design of our streetscapes. Sidewalks and bike lanes need to take people to actual destinations, like cars do. But that's a job for city and county planners, not the federal government.


At 8:08 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Amen, Jim, and I favor bike trails.
As you have pointed out those that enjoy the amenity should pay for it, not some strugging farmer in North Dakota.

If you want a real eye opener, check out the sory in todays Washington Examiner: Bicycle Beltway hits bumps. I hope I read this wrong, but according to the story the Metropolitan Branch Trail has ten miles in the district and one mile in Maryland. This is not an unreasonable lenght for a bike trail, especially one that runs from the Burbs to downtown.

The tab for the ten miles in the district is $13.7 million of which the Feds (you and I) will pay $8.5 million. It gets worse. the tab for one mile in Maryland including a tunnel under the East-West highway and a bridge over Georgia Avenue is estimated to cost, get this, $20 million.

Maryland planners are looking for other options, bless them.

As far as I know, nowhere does pedestrian/bike travel amount to more than 5% of traffic. Even if we want to promote these forms of travel we should devote no more than ten% to these modes.

Otherwise, those that use the facilities are getting more than their fair share of funds.

You could make the same argument for VRE and Metro. And if you make that argument, I might be willing to listgen to some of that nonsense about scattered dwellers paying their own way, if, that is, you are willing to first do something about the 300% tax premium farmers already pay.

At 4:09 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Ray, I think that you and I agree on an abstract principle: that government should invest in those modes of transportation that offer the highest social "return on investment," as measured by congestion mitigation, economic development or other metrics. The devil is in the details, of course. Measuring the social ROI is a very inprecise art. Even so, there are some "investments" that clearly offer a lousy ROI -- the $20 million bike-bridge over Georgia Ave. probably among them.

The Metro extension may also be a poor investment, as you suggest, but the case is less clear cut. The ROI calculus could change considerably if big chunks of the Metro project were paid for with bonds backed by revenues from special tax districts around the Metro stops. I'm not familiar enough with the details to comment on the project with any authority.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Right, social ROI or gross national happiness or whatever you call it Is so loaded with value judgements that we may never get there. If that is the case we can't very well make policy on such a basis, especially if the payoff is 20 years out. Even if we can't agree on what the metics are we need at least a baseline we can argue from. Then we can work sensitivity studies from the baseline.

In Charles county the policy seems to be that every new road will have sidewalks or trails. That is probably excessive, but the promoters of pedestrian friendly design don't care about facts, just ideology. The reult is that we go from abstract policy to $20 million bike trails.

If we can't agree on a social ROI baseline, then we should just require users to pay for their services and rely on market forces. It's the best system we have for allocatng and prioritizing spending.

Contrast that with Metro - 50%fed 25% state, 25% local, and the farebox doesn't even cover operating cost. That financing structure was rammed down the throats of millions of citizens with no real chance to object, based on a policy of promoting mass transit in support of some social ROI we agree can't be measured.

That is why I insist we have no way of knowing whether New Urbanism can make its claims. If the real driver behind unsupportable and undemonstrted claims is the (proffessed) desire to preserve open space,then let's propose to buy the opens space and see how strong that desire is.

Having disposed of making policy on social ROI (some would say socialist ROI), we can now focus on solving the immediate problems, like how to build and pay for a bike path used by 700 people per day.


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