Texas Congestion Hasn’t Gotten Better or Worse Over 32 Years of Data

In a long-running practice of tilting at windmills, the State of Texas pours billions of dollars and concrete every year to continue growing the massive webs of impervious surface (roads) attempting to address the perceived problem of congestion.

Traffic crashes are a much bigger problem than congestion, costing the people of Texas at least twice as much.  Even so, the State of Texas has repeatedly funded partnerships between TXDOT and TTI to produce annual reports highlighting the problems of congestion and advocating for meeting a perceived need for more spending on road expansions.

Meanwhile, Texas Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) use circular logic in developing their Regional Transportation Plans (RTPs) based upon regional growth forecasts that assume the road building proposed in their previous RTP – allowing for the dire predictions of all day rush hour and infinite need for more road spending.

This comprehensive, cooperative, and continuous advocacy for spending has been extremely successful at focusing public perception and the legislature’s attention to the “problem” of congestion, which hasn’t budged a bit, while crashes continue to impose a varying, horrible, and greater cost on Texans.

A public input process is currently open for TXDOT’s proposed 2019 Unified Transportation Plan (overview presentation) (full draft UTP), which will guide transportation planning and spending across the state for ten years. The following table shows the performance metrics that will be used to allocate at least $2.5 billion to combat congestion.

Zero consideration of the traffic death impacts. Zero consideration of enhancing connectivity. Zero consideration of whether these projects will help the economy or environment. $2.5 billion tilting at windmills.

Has congestion really gotten worse, creating a need for all this investment in trying to stop it? Furthermore, has the state’s massive spending on road-building meaningfully addressed or reduced congestion costs?

 

No. It appears that congestion costs each Texan about $500 a year and it has stayed amazingly consistent since 1982, according to our analysis of the 2015 TTI Urban Mobility Scorecard data.

We calculated the total cost of congestion for each metro included in the report, which contains data from 1982 to 2014 for the 100 largest metros in the country (including ten in Texas). Separately, we parsed 2014 data from across Texas, which included 22 additional metros. The smaller metros have a theoretical 2014 congestion cost of $1,094,000,000, or 8% of the statewide problem. We used this data to extrapolate the Texas-wide congestion cost for previous years.

Texas transportation policy for the 21st Century needs to do a lot more than continue to fling concrete at this old paradigm when there are more pressing concerns. The Texas Department of Transportation should be allowed to invest all available funds using meaningful, multi-modal performance measures to meet the goals and priorities of the state of Texas, including preserving the lives and limbs of Texans as the highest priority.

There will be a public hearing on the UTP on August 7, 10am in Austin at ENV Conference Room, 118 E. Riverside Dr., Austin, TX 78704. You can watch and participate in this meeting via webex:

Join the WebEx
Host room ID: 732 950 262
Password: XxGkmJd4

or by calling in on a telephone:

Join by phone:
855-437-3563 (US toll free)
210-606-9485 (US toll)
Access Code: 732 950 262

You can also submit comments using these methods:

Leave an online comment or print a comment form and mail it to:
TXDOT
Attention: Peter Smith
P.O. Box 149217
Austin, TX 78714-9217


To assist the Texas legislature, Governor, and local elected officials in transportation policy and funding decisions and balance the annual lobbying for congestion-focused spending, Farm&City is seeking funding to develop a companion report for the much bigger problem of traffic safety, highlighting the 100 deadliest roads in Texas. Let us know if you are interested in sponsoring Vision Zero Texas. This project is on hold until we find funding, as it will be a substantial, yet extremely important effort.

 

1,000 Miles for Transit & Vision Zero

In June, Farm&City took a five day field trip throughout South Texas to spread the good words of two of our major initiatives: Vision Zero Texas and One Thousand Texans for Transit.

We were forced to rent a car for this trip as driving was the only mode of transportation that made it possible for us to meet all of our obligations. With this car, we drove 1,000 miles.

Day 1
100 Miles

Early in the morning of Friday, June 16, we packed into the rental car and drove to San Antonio. On Saturday, we were to host the second event in our statewide series of advocacy trainings for One Thousand Texans for Transit. However, we also aim to bring Vision Zero Action Plans to the over 5,000 local governments and agencies throughout the state through our Vision Zero Texas work.  And coincidentally, the forward-thinking Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) and the City of San Antonio were hosting a Vision Zero Summit.

At the summit, we heard from elected officials, transportation engineers, and Vision Zero advocates from throughout the US.

The City of San Antonio adopted its Vision Zero Action Plan in 2015 and since then has made headway in leading Texas cities towards a truly safe transportation system. Identifying and tracking targeted sources of data is a critical step in reducing transportation deaths.

San Antonio’s Transportation and Capital Improvements department drafted its first Severe Pedestrian Injury Areas Report and found that 33% of crashes occur at just 1% of intersections. We also learned of innovative changes to street design and signaling, including successful implementation of Pedestrian Leading Intervals that have improved not just pedestrian safety, but also vehicle throughput.

The City of San Antonio is doing a lot of exciting work with its Vision Zero program, but it needs the help of all related partners – from AAMPO, to TXDOT, to the rest of the governments and transportation authorities throughout the state of Texas.

Day 2
230 Miles

On Saturday morning, we hosted an advocacy training for One Thousand Texans for Transit (video). Representatives from San Antonio’s transit agency, VIA, and AAMPO also gave presentations. John Tiemann showcased VIA’s exciting regional Bus Rapid Transit Network plan and discussed their extensive community engagement (pptx). Linda Alvarado-Vela, Planning/Public Involvement Program Manager at AAMPO, gave an introduction to the structure and function of metropolitan planning organizations and highlighted the interdependence of sustainable land use and transportation policy (pptx).

At Farm&City, we know the various negative consequences of sprawl, but we were surprised to learn that the San Antonio region has sprawled so far across the region that United States military test operations and trainings have been disrupted and conflict with residents (neighbors).

Just as San Antonio is leading on Vision Zero, VIA is focused on providing high quality public transit and enticing more riders. Among the major Texas metros, VIA serves the most number of trips per regional resident, is funded the least per regional resident, and also charges the lowest fares, approximately half of DART fares across services.

Day 3
20 Miles

We explored downtown Corpus Christi, finding both heartwarming urbanist design and some room for improvement. Importantly, it only took us ten minutes of meandering to find safe street design retrofits, including bulbouts at intersections, and a bike share station! And throughout the city, we saw bike lanes of generous width, though they were unprotected by any barrier from motor vehicle traffic.

Additionally, much of downtown was covered in new sidewalks which provided robust wheelchair accessibility, especially at intersections, where the precise location of curb cut ramps is critical to a straightforward transportation experience for people with mobility impairments.

We did find room for improvement. There was a healthy supply of restaurants and bars downtown and many appeared to have massive and unpriced parking lots despite the incentive to drink and drive that underpriced and excessive parking provides. Cities should not require parking and given the overabundance of parking in America and the related concerns such as the heat island effect, inhibited walkability, auto-dependancy, and drunk driving, cities would do well to institute parking maximums.

In any case, the Corpus Christi Unified Development Code does in fact have arbitrary parking requirements, including one spot per every 150 square feet of gross floor area for restaurants. Considering that each parking space requires over 200 square feet of pavement, restaurants are required to dedicate more land to parking than the restaurant itself. However, the oysters were excellent.

We also had the pleasure of riding a bus on the CCRTA system to and from a lively mall 10 miles away from our hotel. Fares were very reasonable, at 75 cents for a single trip and $1.75 for a day pass. After great deliberation, it was decided that these 20 sustainable miles traveled would count towards our tally of 1,000. It was a great day exploring Corpus Christi!

Day 4
150 Miles

At 9am Monday morning, we met with representatives from Corpus Christi staff from transportation planning, engineering, and public safety. The key to a successful Vision Zero Action Plan is for all existing stakeholder government departments to coordinate efforts that could lead to reducing deaths. It was promising that these different departments were interested in learning more about Vision Zero. We engaged in a thoughtful discussion on what a Vision Zero Action Plan for Corpus Christi would look like. Corpus Christi has numerous proactive transportation safety programs in place across different departments, but annual traffic fatalities have fluctuated from 20 to 40 deaths per year in a city of 325,000.

From Corpus, we immediately drove to Laredo, where we were invited by Laredo City Councilmember George Altgelt to present the case for Vision Zero to both the Laredo Metropolitan Planning Organization and to Laredo City Council. In Laredo, we were joined by Stephen Ratke, Safety Engineer with the Federal Highway Administration.

Most attending members of the Laredo MPO were interested in Vision Zero, though one county commissioner brought up concerns with the cost of implementing Vision Zero. This was an opportunity to make an important point about Vision Zero—Vision Zero is not a program to pour money into, it is a new understanding of transportation planning. Cities, counties, and MPOs already spend a significant amount of their resources on transportation, be it directly through roadbuilding, or indirectly through providing emergency services following crashes. TXDOT alone spends $10 billion a year; a statewide Vision Zero plan would prioritize saving lives with this funding.

We also brought Vision Zero to the attention of Laredo City Council. At both the MPO and the City Council, incremental steps were taken to address concerns and to clarify what Vision Zero for these entities could mean.

Day 5
500 Miles

Finally, we left from Laredo to go to Houston and then back to Austin. It was my first time going through a border checkpoint. It went fine, I said yes when asked if I was a citizen. Though thousands of Texans are trapped by border checkpoints and have to think about them more than I do.

It was raining heavily and we got lost, adding just enough miles to our trip to help us reach 1,000. In Houston, we were invited to a meeting of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets. The City of Houston is the largest city in the nation that does not have a Vision Zero Action Plan, but does have promising transportation safety initiatives underway, such as the Complete Streets Executive Order, a Safe Passing Ordinance, the Complete Communities initiative, a newly proposed Safer Streets program, and systemic changes to planning and transportation from the Houston Walkable Places Committee.

Finally, we headed back out onto Texas highways to head home to Austin, getting our rental car back 108 hours after leaving Austin on Friday.

Making the Case for Vision Zero for Laredo

On Monday, June 18, 2018, Farm&City staff Jay Blazek Crossley and Ashkan Jahangiri traveled to the City of Laredo, Texas to present on Vision Zero to the Laredo City Council and the Laredo MPO. Laredo City Council Member George Altgelt invited us to present on Vision Zero along with Stephen Ratke, Safety Engineer with the Federal Highway Administration – Texas Division

We presented them with copies of two Vision Zero Network reports: Vision, Strategies, Action: Guidelines for an Effective Vision Zero Action Plan and Centering Safety at Metropolitan Planning Organizations. We also prepared for them a short list of Six Examples of Policies a Texas City Could Pursue as Part of a Vision Zero Action Plan, and a list of helpful contacts across Texas to learn more about Vision Zero and implementation in Texas.

The Laredo MPO voted to establish a committee to explore potential safety measures appropriate for the regional collaborative approach. The Laredo City Council asked the City Manager to work with appropriate staff to develop a proposal for the city to pursue Vision Zero.

Here is the presentation that Crossley presented to both entities, in pdf form:
LaredoVisionZero_FarmAndCity_Crossley

Here is the presentation that Ratke presented, in pdf form:
20180618-Vision Zero Laredo MPO policy board – SR

We look forward to supporting the work of the City and MPO of Laredo to end the epidemic of traffic deaths and incapacitating injuries.

We had a lovely time visiting the City. The downtown of Laredo is a classic example of traditional North American urbanism, with a terrific, compact street grid, narrow streets with safe design speed and bulbouts at intersections, wide sidewalks, ample shade from awnings and first floor retail. While plans to revitalize will require a suite of appropriate policies, such as you mind find in an equitable, transit oriented development policy, but Laredo still has the bones to build up that many Texas cities are so sorely lacking.

We were especially impressed with the strong showing of citizens of diverse ages at the City Council meeting and the general environment the council seems to have cultivated to allow robust discussion with the public to be integrated into their decision making.

Below are videos of our presentations and Mr. Ratke’s.

Jay Blazek Crossley presenting to the Laredo City Council

Jay Blazek Crossley presenting to the Laredo MPO

Stephen Ratke presenting to the Laredo City Council

Stephen Ratke presenting to the Laredo MPO

Houston’s growing traffic violence crisis

There has been a lot of attention in Houston to a glut of deaths of people riding bicycles in April – four devastating tragedies. In contradiction to Raj Mankad’s frustrated advice, I have been working on another OpEd for the Houston Chronicle calling for the City of Houston to finally  adopt a Vision Zero Action Plan to end traffic deaths and serious injuries.

However, for the moment, a post about the sobering reality of Houston’s growing traffic violence epidemic, killing people riding bikes, walking, or riding in cars and trucks.

When researchers study traffic violence looking for trends, they usually group deaths and incapacitating injuries together, often referred to as “K+I”. Deaths can be considered somewhat rare and random events, while in general for every traffic death, you will see about five people suffering life-altering incapacitating injuries. These are terrible injuries, including things like losing limbs or brain damage, often having come very close to dying. Looking at the rates of these two things together can help us better understand traffic violence.

However to be clear, in Texas, traffic deaths are less rare than in most of America. Every single day in Texas, an average of ten people die using our transportation system – more than any other state.

Dying in cars, on bikes, on sidewalks, and crossing streets.

Overwhelmingly more people die or suffer incapacitating injuries while driving or riding in cars or trucks than all the other modes (data is split out generally between car or truck, walk, bike, or motorcycle).

In the City of Houston last year (2017), 48.3 people riding in cars or trucks died or suffered a life-changing incapacitating injury for every 100,000 residents, while only 1.9 people riding bicycles and 6.5 people riding motorcycles died or suffered incapacitating injuries for every 100,000 residents.

The second most common way people die in the City of Houston transportation system – after riding in cars – is walking. Last year 11.9 people died as pedestrians for every 100,000 residents.

Most people dying in the City of Houston transportation system – like across the rest of Texas – are dying while riding in cars. Every single one of these deaths is a preventable tragedy. Vision Zero is an international movement to prioritize ending these deaths – regardless of mode of transportation. There has been an unfortunate mistake often repeated that we should focus just on people dying while riding bicycles, and a misunderstanding that Vision Zero is about only pedestrians and bicyclists.

In the City of Houston, this even manifested in a tragic mistake by Mayor Annise Parker, who initiated something called Goal Zero focused on bicycling, at the same time that most large American cities were developing Vision Zero Action Plans to end all deaths – including bicycling as a normal mode of transportation along with all others. All of us are vulnerable to unnecessarily dangerous streets – including while riding in cars – and all of us deserve the freedom of a safe, multimodal transportation system.

But more and more people are dying while walking and biking

However, the rate of deaths and serious injuries of people walking and biking is rising in Houston at an alarming rate – much like has been seen across the nation. Driving in cars is also getting increasingly dangerous, although at a much smaller rate of increase.

While dying in cars remains the lead killer in the City of Houston transportation system, more and more people are dying and suffering incapacitating injuries while walking and biking. The rate of pedestrian K+I is rising faster than any other mode.

Using three-year averages, the rates of pedestrian deaths per capita have increased by 46% from 2010-2012 to 2015-2017, while cycling deaths rose 31%, motorcycle deaths rose 17%, and car deaths rose 7% in the City of Houston.

Approaching active and car transportation death parity

Something odd appears in the data on pedestrian deaths and incapacitating injuries. It appears that the rate of pedestrians suffering incapacitating injuries as opposed to deaths in the City of Houston was just 2.6 incapacitating injuries for every death. In general in the traffic violence policy data world, you can assume about 5 incapacitating injuries for every death as a rule of thumb, so this is odd. On the other hand the rate in the City of Houston for people in cars is 7.6 and people riding bicycles is 6.2.

Perhaps it makes sense that serious crashes involving pedestrians are more likely to kill the pedestrian than people in cars or on bikes, who might have a better chance of surviving yet still suffering a terrible injury.

This surprising thing leads to an even more surprising chart.

This chart is showing how many people die in cars for every person that dies while walking or biking in Houston, and apparently this stat is on a steady decline. If all trends hold true to their current course, by 2020, more people will be dying in the City of Houston while walking or biking than in cars.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that it is getting safer to drive. More people are dying per capita in cars as well, just not at such at high rate of increase as walking and biking.

This could mean several things: Many more people are choosing or being allowed the freedom for various reasons to walk and bike, exposing themselves to greater risk in a terribly dangerous transportation system, resulting in more deaths. Or somehow the risk is increasing causing more deaths per use.

However, whatever it means, it both changes the conversation about Vision Zero, while confirming one of my core beliefs – that we still must be all in this together. People are dying and suffering incapacitating injuries in all modes.

We must rebuild our transportation system to be safe for all.

Of the ten largest cities in the nation, only Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix still do not have a Vision Zero Action Plan to end ALL traffic deaths and serious injuries.

We’re dying for a plan.

[Image Credit: luna715, some rights reserved]

Come to one of four TXDOT traffic safety workshops in May

TXDOT is making incremental progress towards seriously pursuing an end to transportation deaths throughout the state. The 2017-2019 Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP) begins with the following mission statement:

Texans will work together on the road to zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries.

Ending transportation deaths is possible, and agencies throughout the levels of government in the United States are beginning to embrace the necessary shifts in direction, planning, and funding. Sustained public engagement will accelerate this reality, and to that end, TXDOT is hosting four traffic safety workshops in the first half of May. Click here for the full schedule and specific details, dates and locations are listed below.

May 1, Houston
May 3, San Antonio
May 15, DFW
May 17, Midland/Odessa

TXDOT representatives will provide an overview of the SHSP and the safety countermeasures it identifies. They will work with attendees to understand your transportation challenges at any scale. The purpose is to connect the goals of transportation activists with the work of TXDOT to align all our efforts towards true transportation safety. See you there.

Regional Traffic Safety Workshops

City of Austin uses corridor program to seriously address design speed

When engineers are designing streets, they use a concept called design speed to choose appropriate measures and elements for that expected speed of travel. A closely related concept is the “target speed”, which is the speed they hope that people will travel on that street. Design and target speeds for urban streets can be much higher than posted speed limits, creating unsafe transportation conditions throughout cities.

Various factors contribute to excessive design speeds, including width and number of lanes, the presence of pedestrians and bicyclists, street trees with minimal setbacks, and so on.

On December 15, 2016, Austin City Council adopted a comprehensive safe design speed policy that included instructions to staff to “incorporate target design speeds into plans & manuals” and “systematically evaluate arterial speed limits citywide for appropriateness.” The resolution noted that this was a logical step in the City’s commitment to Vision Zero.

The Austin Transportation Department has made tremendous progress on this effort, including a proposed $600,000 for the 2018 bond package dedicated to retrofitting streets to safe design speed. TXDOT and other cities across the state are following Austin’s lead on this issue, as national engineering leaders call for a radical shift in thinking about the design of streets and speed.

The corridors project is perhaps the single biggest opportunity currently funded to deploy safe, multi-modal streets with modern design speeds in the region. The NACTO standards for safe design speed for urban arterials – 35mph or less, would not slow down the current experience of these corridors.

Accepting this responsibility, the City of Austin has made the commitment to take design speed seriously, claiming to “fully intend to comply with NACTO standards as we design and construct the Corridor Construction Program projects,” per this April 2018 memo from Assistant City Manager Robert Goode.

This is a tremendous and laudable advance in urban planning and should be commended. It should also be the standard for all urban roadway design across Texas.

Design Speed in Corridors Construction Program

Higher design speeds and other misguided elements of transportation planning increase the volatility of systemwide speeds. Higher design speeds can contribute to increased crashes, blocking roadways, and reducing systemwide speed as a result of sudden congestion.

Using Google Maps and their travel data, we estimated the amount of time it would take to travel each of the corridors from end to end at 4pm on a weekday, and translated that into an overall travel speed.

Corridor Rush Hour Travel Times

Today, the average speed of travel on these corridors is between 13 and 31 mph, and it is not possible to travel faster than 35 mph on any of these corridors during rush hour. Austin’s new design speed standards could theoretically (and perhaps counterintuitively) increase rush hour travel times.

The stated plan for corridors funding is to focus on improving intersections, which will increase safety and throughput, with the safety improvement further decreasing delay caused by crashes. Using safe design speeds throughout the corridors will contribute to easing traffic flow by reducing crashes.

Imagine traveling in a car on a safe, urban street filled with life and people at a comfortable, dependable 25 mph rate, and not sitting at traffic lights all the time. Beyond the benefits to people in cars, safe design speed is the determining factor in our ability to build a healthy urban environment where people have the freedom of walking, biking, traveling by wheelchair, and using transit.

It is quite likely that a realistic travel demand model – that doesn’t assume induced sprawl like our current one – could show that a comprehensive safe design speed approach will actually lead to a faster – yet safer – car trip along these corridors in ten years.

Every single one of these corridors is also expected to add population, jobs, stores, schools, and other elements of a complete community. Using safe design speeds below the minimally acceptable 35 mph NACTO standard is a crucial element of optimizing this investment of half a billion dollars.

Austin corridors spending provides perfect opportunity towards reaching Vision Zero

The City of Austin is committed to ending its epidemic of traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2025. The Vision Zero Action Plan, adopted by city council in 2016, includes a detailed list of potential countermeasures to reduce traffic deaths. Various City of Austin departments, led by the Austin Transportation Department (ATD) have led the way in boldly demonstrating what can be accomplished towards road safety in Texas.

The $482m from the 2016 Mobility Bond available for nine Austin traffic corridors provides the City of Austin with the perfect opportunity to significantly invest in transportation with meaningful progress to zero transportation deaths.

Seventy-five people died in the city of Austin last year, 2017, from transportation, and 550 people suffered life-changing incapacitating injuries. Nine of those people died on the corridors included for funding in the 2016 bond, and 65 suffered life-changing incapacitating injuries there.

The Contract with Voters established for the 2016 Mobility Bond promises to “complete the proposed bond program within 8 years,” by 2024. Given that the city’s goal is to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025, it is reasonable to expect that the target of zero deaths is factored into the design and implementation of all corridor spending.

These are serious and achievable goals. The pedestrian and bike-heavy Guadalupe corridor has not seen any traffic fatalities from 2010 to today.. 

Guadalupe includes many features that contribute to this safety, among them, ever-present pedestrians and restricted left turns. However, it is not necessary to be adjacent to a university to achieve this level of safety.

Austin is a member city of NACTO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials. NACTO has published an Urban Street Design Guide that not only demonstrates how safe streets can be built, but also how to manage the transition to maximally safe streets from more traditional, more dangerous, street-road hybrids in otherwise urban environments.

The challenge in accomplishing these goals is in demonstrating a consistent commitment to transportation safety on every possible front- to reach zero deaths, all related efforts must be aligned and coordinated. Adopting a Vision Zero Action Plan necessitates that the city forgo conventional and politically expedient safety measures in favor of innovative, data-supported improvements.

Safety must be the top priority in all transportation policy decisions. Contrary to popular perception, urban roadway expansion does not increase safety or reduce congestion. Available evidence predicts only detrimental effects on congestion, the environment, affordability, and public safety.

A robust public transportation network is positively associated with every one of these factors. Reducing single-occupant vehicle trips and giving more people the freedom of meaningful options to walk, bike, and use transit reduces systemwide congestion, improves air quality and per-capita emissions, is more affordable, and is fundamentally safer.

Produced by Elliot Fisherman, Director at the Institute for Sensible Transport.

The relationship between Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) and traffic fatalities has been stable for the last ten years in America after years of gradual reduction. This plateau indicates that we are approaching the limits of transportation safety possible through the conventional, piecemeal reforms. To eliminate traffic deaths in Austin by 2025, the city must ensure robust, frequent, and comprehensive coverage of public transportation and embrace low- or no-carbon transportation options, while using modern, best practices of safe street design.

The social and economic costs of a dangerous and inefficient transportation network largely consisting of single-occupant vehicle trips are hidden and enormous. Ensuring compliance between the implementation of the Mobility Bond with the city’s Vision Zero Action Plan will result in a safer, more economically prosperous Austin.

Deaths and Serious Injuries on Each Corridor, 2010-2017
Click images to expand

Airport Boulevard
Burnet Road
Guadalupe Street & 24th Street
N. Lamar Boulevard
S. Lamar Boulevard
E. MLK Jr. Boulevard
E. Riverside Drive
William Cannon Drive, top. Slaughter Lane, bottom.

 

$482m for safer Austin traffic corridors

In 2016, Austin voters approved a $720 million transportation bond. The city branded it as a Mobility Bond and authorized a Contract with Voters to facilitate accountability of such a large-scale set of expenditures.

The contract lays out how the bond money should be split among three categories. $137m for local mobility projects, $101m for regional projects, and $482m is specifically allocated to Corridor Improvement Projects.

These 9 corridors were the location of 13% of transportation deaths and serious injuries in Austin over the last five years. The projects that are ultimately selected and the design choices for each one can make significant progress towards Austin’s Vision Zero goal of ending transportation deaths by 2025.

The contract promises completion of bond expenditures by 2024. With that aggressive timeline, City Council is set to allocate the funding for the final set of 2016 Bond corridor projects at the April 26 council meeting (Item 28).

City staff identified $1.4 billion in need to completely fulfill the planned improvements to these nine Corridor Improvement Projects. To choose between these projects, the city hired a consultant to develop a prioritization matrix based on the Contract with the Voters.

The Double Normalization Problem

Nic Moe, former volunteer Chair of Vision Zero ATX and graduate student in Public Health, noticed some issues with the prioritization process as a member of the stakeholder group late in 2017 and discussed them with us. He worried that a logical error had occurred in the development of the basic equations that underlie the matrix, specifically the idea of standardizing many variables by project length, and then performing a second standardization by length at the end of the process. He sent these concerns to the Corridor Mobility Program Office in December, and had the opportunity to meet with and discuss these issues with staff, but they were apparently not convinced of the problem.

Once the staff recommendation was made public, we eagerly dug in, but the data and the matrix were not public – even as late as the initial city council meeting where they were originally scheduled to allocate half a billion dollars based upon this work. A Public Information Request was filed, resulting in the release of the data a couple weeks later. Staff released a memo explaining the approach to the matrix and trying to argue against the critique. We do not believe that the explanation in this memo is satisfactory.

Simply standardizing every single benefits per mile and then standardizing the final score by cost per mile would not introduce a mistake in the matrix, but also would be pointless.

However, standardizing some community and mobility benefits per mile, but not standardizing others, adding all of those up, then dividing by cost per mile, caused the matrix to be dominated simply by the total mileage of the proposed project.

The average length of the projects selected by the staff proposal is 4.57 miles, while the average length of the projects rejected by the staff proposal is 1.61 miles. Yet the average total benefit of the projects that were rejected is higher both for community and mobility benefits.

We will be publishing in depth explanations from Nic Moe showing his analysis of the impact of project length on selection as well as analysis comparing the benefits of the original staff set of projects and the alternative set of proposed  projects produced when you remove the standardization error.

The Corrected List of Projects

We removed the initial standardization by mile from the mobility metrics and the standardization by mile in the final step of the prioritization matrix to produce a new ranking of all projects. We believe this method simply allocates money based upon the highest bang for the buck – the most possible total community benefits per dollar spent.

The list linked below is presented with the projects in order of final score with the first project – East Riverside Drive corridor wide improvements – being the highest scoring project. This final score is the combined community and mobility benefits – using the same 60% / 40% split proposed by staff – divided by cost. As was done with the staff proposal, we have split this list between Full Design & Construction, Initiate Design & Construction, Seek Additional Funding Opportunities.

Corrected Corridors Prioritized List (pdf)

Using this list, there are 15 high scoring projects that add up to $410 million. Adding the next project – Airport from Manor to 183 – would cause the total to be greater than the original staff proposal. We are proposing that City Council to fund additional study on Initiate Design and Possible Construction for nine other projects, and to prioritize partial funding of several of these projects with the remaining funds.

Using the fixed prioritization model shows that both Slaughter Lane projects score fairly low in terms of the community and mobility benefits. However, there has been a stated goal of geographic spread, which staff seems to have interpreted as having some funds for each of these nine corridors.

Enhanced treatments for The Drag section of Guadalupe has been in various community planning processes for almost 15 years, with an initial plan completed in 2003. This section has been the most discussed element of the Corridors plan in the last several years, and is home by far to the highest density of residents, jobs, and students, meaning that targeting investments here will improve more people’s lives. This corridor today sees almost twice as much transit use as the second highest corridor – North Lamar.

Thus we propose a starting point for council deliberation of prioritizing the use of these remaining funds would be to split them up equally between the enhanced Guadalupe project, the systemwide improvements Slaughter Lane project, and the Enhanced Airport project from Manor to 183 – at $11.26 million each.

April 17 Mobility Committee Discussion

The Data

The staff response to a PIR request (pdf)

Corridor Scores With Double Normalization Removed (xlsx)

[Featured Image: Earl McGehee, CCL, Some Rights Reserved]

Clarification

At the April 28th Mobility Committee meeting, I incorrectly stated that Nic brought this to the corridors office attention and that he didn’t hear back. I talked to Nic this morning to clarify everything and learned that this was incorrect. Nic was able to meet with staff and discuss his concerns through one phone call. He said that staff were excellent and responsive throughout the process. We simply still have a disagreement about the methodology. However I am personally very sorry for my mistake in implying that staff were not responsive.

Signed Jay Blazek Crossley

 

A safer Texas, one 311 request at a time

I live and work on North Lamar between North Loop and Koenig. It’s the first place I’ve lived in Texas that enables anything close to an urban lifestyle.

Meaning that I live in a nice little apartment and can easily walk to several shops and restaurants. I can bike to HEB in ten minutes, and the MetroRapid buses take me to most of where I need to go throughout the city.

It’s not perfect, but I overwhelmingly prefer this arrangement to anywhere else I’ve lived. And it turns out that if you want to make it better, maybe you can.

Today, there isn’t a crosswalk in the 2000ft between North Loop and Koenig. Between those intersections, there are a few dozen shops and restaurants and six bus stops. There are more of both just outside those boundaries. All this to say, people dash across the street all the time.

This dangerous situation happens across Texas, but transportation officials are starting to try to fix it. TXDOT, the Texas Transportation Institute, Farm&City, and others who are contributing to the Texas Strategic Highway Safety Plan are working right now on a countermeasure specifically looking at “the distance needed between safe pedestrian crossings”. Long term, this SHSP could result in big shifts of focus, funding, and priorities.

This situation is not safe for me and my neighbors today! Furthermore, dashing across the street is one thing for the able-bodied, but what are the nearly 20% of Austinites with disabilities supposed to do? On a similar stretch of Lamar a bit further north, 15 people have died in the last 7 years. One of them, Donald Norton, was crossing Lamar in a motorized wheelchair in a long stretch where the street lacks continuous sidewalks without a safe crossing.

However there are solutions, and fortunately, the city of Austin provides the opportunity to pursue safer streets. On April 4, I called 311 to request a Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon at Houston Street, about halfway between the two intersections.

To be honest, it seems to me that there should be three crosswalks in between North Loop and Koenig, but even adding one PHB anywhere in between would be a huge boon to safety – significantly fewer people will risk running across the street if there’s a safer way nearby. NACTO estimates that people generally don’t want to walk more than three minutes to cross.

It is only nine days after I called 311, but I got my wish! I suspect it was other people’s wishes too, because it took only a week for ATD to get back to me: “We are currently constructing a traffic signal at N. Lamar and Houston… We are working toward having this signal in place by the end of April/beginning of May.”

Sure enough, I stepped out for lunch yesterday to find that the city was installing not just a PHB, but a new traffic signal.

To what extent am I responsible? I’m not sure. What matters to me is that there is this wonderful avenue for anyone in Austin to identify public problems and advocate for solutions, and that the Austin Transportation Department has made significant strides in developing safety intervention programs like this, with the ability to actually respond.

These opportunities to build safer streets are available throughout Texas, and not just for crosswalks. You can call 311 and request services from Public Works, Transportation Departments, etc. The largest Texas cities collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on transportation, some of it may as well be steered by residential input. All cities and counties should develop the capabilities to respond promptly, after verifying the need and design based on actual data and current best practices.

$480m Up For Grabs in CAMPO TIP Call

Like all Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Texas, Austin’s CAMPO develops a short-term Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) every two years that ties together all regionally significant transportation projects in an attempt at a cohesive plan that meets long term vision and goals established in the longer Regional Transportation Plan process.

A lot of the funding decision for projects in the TIP are made by TXDOT, cities, counties, or transit and toll agencies. However, CAMPO has a significant pot of regionally discretionary funds to administer through a regional Project Call. The 2019-2022 Project Call amounts to $480 million – available to meet the region’s diverse multimodal transportation needs as local leaders see fit (within state and federal guidelines).

Late last year, local governments and transportation agencies were invited to submit their proposals. Collectively, $1.5b in proposed projects ranged from moving train tracks outside of downtown Kyle to a regional Transportation Demand Management Study.

Most of submitted projects were for roadway expansions. Based on the information provided in this extensive pdf, such projects accounted for 73 of the 129 proposals.

CAMPO staff presented the Policy Board with their recommendations at the April Transportation Policy Board Meeting. Policy Board members – and members of the public – voiced concerns regarding the proportion of funding allocated to new roadways at the expense of transit, Transportation Demand Management, and other sustainable transportation solutions.

Next month, the Policy Board will amend the TIP to include the final set of projects they will approve. In the meantime, Farm&City is diving deep into the Project Call process, what was submitted, and what is worth advocating for.

Check CAMPO’s calendar for public input opportunities and send comments to [email protected]