Cars


If you make driving difficult…people take public transit!  DC Metro set a one-day ridership record- as of 7 pm, more than 973,000 people had ridden the metro- breaking the previous record of 887,000.  Those are some serious numbers, and without the last 5 hours of the day counted!

It wasn’t just the popularity of our current president creating this bump in transit-use.  From a Times-Dispatch article:

One of the contributing factors in the heavy ridership was a decision by federal authorities to close all bridges from northern Virginia into Washington, limiting vehicle access to the city.

I’m trying to figure out how this lesson applies to Richmond.  So far, I’ve got nothing.

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Now that Ukrop’s has made the newsworthy decision to reduce its “fuelperks!” gasonline discount from $0.10 to $0.05 per gallon, I thought I’d offer some helpful tips to Richmonders reeling from this blow to their budgets.

If you have a 15-gallon tank, you were saving $1.50 per tank (for every $50 spent at Ukrop’s).
Now you’ll be saving $0.75 per tank.

So I have some suggestions on how to save 3/4 of a dollar in gasoline costs:

  1. Walk
  2. Ride your bike
  3. Carpool
  4. Combine errands
  5. Stop driving out of your way to the participating fuelperks! gas stations
  6. Stop driving everywhere all the time

If you do one of those once a week on one of your regular errands, I can guarantee you will make up those lost savings.

And you’ll be doing the state VDOT budget a favor by lessening the strain on our roads (and then maybe they wouldn’t have to keep raising tolls).

And you’d be doing our lungs a favor by sending less pollutants into our shared air.

And you’d be doing your health a favor by excercising more (applies to options 1 & 2 only).

As you longtime Urban Richmond readers know, I hate cars. They’re a scourge on our urban landscape.

Nothing more needs to be said. Click on the picture below:

2098062251_b3b8afd2ab_o.jpg
Photo header reads: Amount of space required to transport the same number of passengers by car, bus or bicycle.

Photo courtesy of Juan Jose. Thanks to Tim for emailing me this picture.

The New York Times recently ran an editorial outlining how Paris, France has aimed to cut car traffic within the city by 40% by 2020. Here’s some of their tactics, some of which should be considered by Richmond in our effort to re-create our downtown:

  • Improve transit:
    • Increase and improve routes
    • Make transit cheaper
    • Make transit easier to use
      • public posting of bus routes
      • electronic signs at bus stops with the wait times for the next bus
      • make payment easier
  • Reduce available travel lanes for cars
  • Create special bus lanes (in Paris and London these lanes can be used by taxis & bikes)
  • Make cheap rental bikes available all over the city ($1.50 a day or $43.50 a year)
  • Raise fuel taxes

Maybe instead of 2-way streets downtown, we should keep them 1-way and dedicate one lane for buses and bikes. That would calm traffic, provide access for emergency vehicles, and make transit faster and biking safer.

And I’d love to see inexpensive rental bikes all over the city- I don’t know the specifics of the Paris system, but in Amsterdam you can pay your rental fee and get a key which works for a generic lock on all the bikes. Then you can pick up a bike anywhere you find one, and leave it at approved destinations. This kind of program works only with a very high volume of bikes (Paris is starting with 10,000 at 750 locations and hopes to double the number of bikes by the end of the year). It also requires housing density to ensure that bikes are available where people live.

In Lyon, your pre-paid bus/metro card will unlock rental bikes. How’s that for convenient?

The point is, when you declare war on cars there has to be viable, affordable, convenient alternatives for folks to get around.  If we want to make downtown less of a traffic paradise and more pedestrian oriented, what transportation alternatives are we providing?  Otherwise we risk running everyone out of downtown and killing it off entirely, don’t we?

paris bikes

The TD ran a story today on Chinese students who are spending a month at VCU. The students are all keeping blogs, which are a rich mine for discovering others’ impressions of our city.

VCU has links to all their blogs, but as far as I can tell, there’s no aggregator- which means you have to look through each of them individually. Quite a task as there’s over 50 of them. I used google’s advanced search features to look for things of interest for my blog.

One theme I found repeated by many was shock at our auto-dependency and its effect on our city- a viewpoint I wholeheartedly share. Here’s some excerpts:

America is regarded as a country on wheels. This is a proper statement to describe this country . I have seen various kinds of automobiles parking of driving around the campus during these two days. And there is little people walking on the street even in the day . The whole town appears a little desolate. This is my first deep impression about the traffic condition around VCU campus. My second deep impression is that though there are various cars on road, the drivers almost do not ring the horn—at least I do not hear a ring. It is impossible in China. Maybe this phenomenon is just the symbol of high civilization of USA. And in my opinion , Chinese drivers should learn from America drivers.
Via blog for luy5

Sadly, the VCU area probably has the most pedestrian activity in town.

On our lack of pedestrians and nightlife:

if Shanghai is a sleepless city,Richmond is a sleep city

Richmond in night looks like a different city. full of cars but no person on the street. Its strange to me becoz its totally different from Shanghai. Shanghai is a sleepless city, the activities of night are varous, compare with Shanghai, Richmond is a quiet city, I heard that the population of Richmond is 80 thousand, its not a small figure, so i wondering, where do the risidents go at night in Richmond?? Stay at home, watching TV?
Via blog for zhuangy

Wow, the population figure’s off by about 110,000 and he’s still shocked at our lack of nightlife!

An incredibly insightful commentary on our auto-dependency:

However, not all the things American are good. There are still something I find impressively unbearable. For example, I find the Americans are lavish. They do not know how to save. They do not know how to save the resources and natural energy. Instead, they are pretty good at saving the energy of themselves. Along the American streets, you can never find a single bicycle. Even if you see a bicycle, it is definitely put on the top of the car. People are inclined to drive everywhere. They do not walk or ride. I think it is part of the reason that why most of them are overweight.
Via blog for liz4

And she’s not the only one making the obesity-driving connection:

It’s our free day today. I decided to go to the Carytown again. I have no car and I don’t want to bother those interns. Thus, I have to walk there, on foot! To my surprise, Carytown’s out of the map, maybe ten blocks away for the GRC [Gladding Residence Center- A VCU dorm]. You can seldom see people walking on the street. Almost all of them drive. Finally I got to the Carytown and I found it was not very far. It’s only about 30 minutes walk. I suddenly thought up with a cause why Americans are fat. Perhaps because they drive too much, sit too long. On one hand, they complain about the soaring gas price, on the other hand, they are so dependent to driving. Instead, if they walk to some places. They will both get jogging exercises and save the gas money. It’s really a bargain!
Blog for Zhang Yi

Try telling some Richmonders “it’s only a 30 minute walk” and see what happens!

Despite the critiques of American culture I’ve highlighted here to advance my own purposes- without exception the Chinese students have positively glowing things to say about Richmond and the US.

On what’s good about Richmond:

At the same time, the wonderful scenery of Richmond is really overwhelming.I love the small bars and restaurants along the fancy streets. I was attracted by the rockiness and wildness of James River. And I was deeply in love with the monuments for the soldiers and sailors who died in the civil war. The most terrific part was the visit to the Virginia Capitol. The house was marvelous and the historic presidents’ stories could not be more significant.
Via blog for liz4

And then there’s the just plain fun of discovering cultural differences, such as impressions of our T-shirt slogans:

Yesterday afternoon we went to Carey Town, which was a place full of shops and stores. Maybe because that China has lots of such shops, I didn’t find it much interesting and attractive. I wanted to buy a T-shirt for my cousin, which were very typical American, but I didn’t find any suitable for him. Some of them seemed too aggresive or radical, maybe. For example, one had a line like “I love your girlfriend” sort of things. If my cousin wears something like that and walks on the road in China, everybody else will probably freak out.
Via blog for wuj4

Thanks to all the Chinese students for visiting our city and sharing your impressions with us!

 

The recent design charrette has provided a little controversy for our city and for engaged bloggers. Should downtown convert its street grid from one-way to two-way streets? Divergent views are already emerging.

Explaining and defending the charrette’s recommendation of a two-way street conversion downtown is Buttermilk & Molasses. John’s post “THE DOWNTOWN PLAN: ONE-WAY OR ANOTHER” ably presents the controversy and advocates for the conversion.

Representing concern over this proposed change is the Richmond Business & Commercial News blog in the post “Ending One-Way Streets in Richmond?” A local traffic engineer, Bear, joins the debate in the comments section with data and sound logic advocating for the status-quo.

The controversy has also made its way to Richmond City Watch’s forum, an on-line forum for all things Richmond, with a focus on architecture & urban planning.
Check out Bear’s posts here (covering similar ground) and the many responses in the forum’s Downtown Charrette discussion.

I’ve spent the afternoon researching the claims each side is making and trying to determine if there is a clear case to be made for either side. Most arguments on both sides of the local debate center on making downtown a safer and more inviting environment for non-motorists, a goal almost universally shared.

My view: there is no obvious choice here.

The smoking gun for my ambivalence is the Federal Highway Administration’s Pedestrian Safety Report on “One-Way/Two-Way Street Conversions,” which concludes that compelling reasons exist for both types of streets from a pedestrian safety perspective.

Reasons for converting to 2-way streets:

  • Slower traffic speeds.
  • Decrease “Vehicle Miles Traveled” by eliminating indirect routes (driving around the block to get to your destination).
  • Increased access to businesses.
  • Possibly: safer for pedestrians.

Reasons for maintaining 1-way streets:

  • Conversion is very costly.
  • 1- way streets allow for more cars, thereby decreasing congestion.
  • Easier than 2-way streets to time stoplights (timed lights improve traffic flow and decrease idling (& therefore pollution)).
  • Fewer turn prohibitions.
  • More on-street parking.
  • Possibly: safer for pedestrians.

A note of clarification: turns are often prohibited on heavily traveled 2-way streets to maintain traffic flow (think Hull St. in Manchester, or Boulevard during rush hour). On-street parking is sometimes lost as the extra lane used for parking is reclaimed for travel purposes. And both sides in this debate argue that their choice is the safest for pedestrians.

Unfortunately, most of the information I found about the pros and cons of converting streets was written by highly partisan organizations which were promoting ideological arguments for or against automobile-oriented development. These studies were less academic in nature and more akin to propaganda. I searched academic databases, government sites, and google. At any rate, here’s a rundown of studies I found helpful.

One of the better studies was published by the Transportation Research Board, “Downtown Streets: Are We Strangling Ourselves on One-Way Networks?” which advocates for 2-way streets. “This paper provides a comparison of one-way versus two-way street systems for downtowns and presents an evaluation methodology for considering two-way conversion.”

The study discusses Bear’s comment on the Business & Commercial News blog that “One-way streets eliminate conflict points” and argues the opposite. The heart of the issue is, in my own blunt rewording, from how many directions can pedestrians be hit? Bear and others argue that 1-way streets provide fewer “conflict points,” while the Transportation Research Board argues that 1-way street networks provide many more possible types of street intersections. Examples include a 1-way street intersecting with another 1-way street, a 1-way street intersecting with a 2-way street, and a 1-way street which becomes 2-way at an intersection (think Main & Cary sts. where they convert to 2-way). 1-way street networks increase the variety and kind of conflict points creating more confusion for pedestrians and motorists.

The highly technical article “A MICROSCOPIC SIMULATION STUDY OF TWO-WAY STREET NETWORK VERSUS ONE-WAY STREET NETWORK” argues that, “one of the inherent disadvantages with one-way street is that they force additional turning movements at the intersections caused by motorists who must travel “out-of-direction” to reach their destination. The additional turning movements for a one-way street network increase the occurrences of vehicular-pedestrian conflicts at any given intersection, and also result in a system-wide increase in vehicle mile of travel (VMT) as compared to a two-way street network.”

In other words, you have to turn more on a 1-way street network, and therefore have more chances of running over people.

I found both of these sources on Streetsblog.org, a NYC-focused blog with a helpful article arguing against converting streets to one-way in Brooklyn.

On the other side of the debate is the Center for the American Dream of Mobility and Homeownership’s paper “No Two Ways About It: One-Way Streets are better than Two-Way.” The most convincing evidence produced in this paper is that pedestrians were hit more frequently after streets were converted to 2-way in several downtowns in the US. I’d prefer to cite those studies directly rather than this obviously partisan article, but I could not track them down on-line. The references in this article contain a lot of garbage (highly ideological publications, newspapers, and studies more than 50 years old), but the empirical evidence cited about the number of accidents resulting from recent 2-way conversions is convincing.

I am personally biased towards 2-way streets. They put less emphasis on moving as many cars as possible, they slow traffic, and provide a more inviting atmosphere for pedestrians. However, I’m not sure that compelling enough evidence exists for their benefits in a downtown region to justify the expense required to do a full-scale conversion.

What I’d like to see is more empirical evidence for the claims of both sides, focusing on the many regions which have recently switched their downtown street networks. Denver, Raleigh, and Cambridge, MA, among many others, have recently done this. What’s their experience been? Has downtown experienced a resurgence? Have their been fewer or more pedestrian accidents?

The issue of pedestrian accidents is a salient one for Richmond. We have the dubious distinction of placing 2nd in large Metro areas with worsening pedestrian safety (Orlando’s number 1).

Richmond-Petersburg, VA MSA in 1994-95 scored a 41.4 on the “pedestrian danger index” and a 70.5 in 2002-03.

The danger index is a measure of the average yearly pedestrian fatalities per capita, adjusted for the number of walkers. In other words, a lot more people are getting run over by cars.

Of course, I doubt many of those accidents occurred downtown, likely they’re in Midlothian and Short Pump. But it seems like a discussion of improving pedestrian safety, downtown and around the rest of the metro area, is timely.

VDOT and the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation are building a 55 mile bike & pedestrian trail linking Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Richmond – the current and former capitals of Virginia.

Parts of the trail are already open in James City County: see photos here.

Current discussions are ongoing regarding the exact route and location of the trail in the Varina area of Henrico Co. This is where things get depressing.

First, there’s the timing. According to the planners, the trail won’t open until 2012. And we all know how accurate construction projections are, so it very possibly could take even longer. Call me impatient, but I was hoping for a quicker completion.

Second, there’s Henrico Co. government who seem to be trying their best to design this project to suit their car-dependant needs. Today’s TD outlines the desire of Henrico Board of Supervisors Chairman James B. Donati Jr.:

…he hopes to influence the trail’s design.

He believes the trail should be built as an extended shoulder of Route 5, instead of a swath of pavement separated by grass and landscaping.

He contends a wide shoulder would make Route 5 safer, because it would accommodate cyclists and slow-moving farm equipment, plus give room for delivery trucks to stop without impeding traffic on the 55-mph road.

Now contrast this with the stated purpose of the trail, as outlined by the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation- which is collecting private money to supplement inadequate government funds for this project:

The Trail is designed for non-motorized use and welcomes hikers, cyclists, walkers, joggers, skaters, birders, families taking short day trips and chaperoned school children on eco-field trips.

The Trail will provide safe recreational access to the region and link popular tourism destinations. It will offer cyclists a safe transportation alternative to Route 5…

So somehow in the twisted world of Donati and possibly others in Henrico gov’t, the trail should be open to use by “slow-moving farm equipment” and parked delivery trucks- which is completely incompatible not only with the trail’s purpose, but also with bicycle and pedestrian safety, and presumably the premise under which funds for the trail were secured.

And it’s galling that he argues that this would make a “safer” Route 5. Safer for whom? The only people who benefit from Donati’s vision are those in cars- not those who’re using the Capital Trail.

Can you see groups of school children on eco-field trips dodging tractors and walking around UPS vans while 55 mph+ SUVs and tractor trailers zoom by only inches away? Brilliant idea!

And of course, the newspaper, who we assume was present when Donati made these comments, did not bother to question him on the contradiction between his vision and the trail’s purpose (or if they did, they neglected to report it.) Because, really, who in Richmond doesn’t want to make the world safer for cars, even if it’s at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and little school children?

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