Technical Information about Transportation Planning

Planning for bicycle facilities doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Activists who want more bicycle facilities in their communities need to understand about transportation planning in general.

Good transportation activists need:

  1. an understanding of the politics of local, state, and federal government involvement in roadway planning, and
  2. access to technical information about transportation issues.

For the technical info:

Government support essential for promoting cycling

When there are abundant, safe cycling facilities (bike lanes, paths, etc.), more people cycle. It’s as simple as that. Governments can’t expect that suddenly more people will start cycling if the infrastructure doesn’t change. This 20-minute video shows how the cycling commuting culture in Denmark isn’t accidental, it has been carefully cultivated by city planners.

TEA-21 funding

TEA-21 is the U.S. federal legislation that funds surface transportation projects. The Washington Post has some more background on this topic.

Our selected quote for this page is from Dr. John Pucher, a professor in the Department of Urban Planning at Rutgers University:

The main reason urban transport policy has not been very effective in the United States is that it has been far too piecemeal. For transport policy to be effective, it must be a coordinated package of mutually supportive policies to restrict auto use, control parking supply, facilitate bicycling and walking, and integrate transit services and fares. Discouraging low-density sprawl through land-use regulations is also crucial for enabling walking, bicycling, and transit to provide feasible alternatives to the car.

Read a summary of Dr. Pucher’s excellent lecture on improving transportation in the U.S. (with the especially interesting comparisons to other countries which have been more successful than we have in discouraging auto use).

Urban Sprawl leads to poor transportation systems

Problems with suburban sprawl are detailed in books such as Suburban Nation on our books page.

A National Geographic article explores how bad land use planning leads to a poor transportation system.

See the Autos on Welfare section below for the Sierra Club’s report detailing the subsidies for sprawl.

An article in USA Today compared the U.S. to Europe with regards to sprawl, and, not surprisingly, found that European cities have more compact, livable cities, with a higher quality of life for their citizens.

Smart Growth & New Urbanism

Smart Growth is a system of development planning that discourages ugly buildings, poor transportation access, and other common development evils. In Austin, the city awards tax breaks to developers who score enough points on the Smart Growth Matrix (a list of development criteria with varying numbers of points awarded for various positive development aspects). It’s far from perfect — for example, more points are awarded for planning parking properly than for accomodating bikes at all — but at least it’s something. Here’s a link to Austin Smart Growth page.

New Urbanism is a community design philosophy that has much in common with Smart Growth. Check out PBS’ website on New Urbanism.

Building new roads doesn’t ease congestion

You’d think that building more roads (or making existing roads bigger) would ease congestion, but it doesn’t work that way. Here’s why:

  • New roads cause sprawl (development in areas away from the center of town), and all the new people then living on the outskirts clog up the new roads as they drive to and from their jobs in the city. Development springs up along new highways, filling them up with new traffic, thus reducing their ability to take traffic from other congested roadways.
  • The amount of congestion relief offered by new roads often doesn’t match the amount of congestion CAUSED by the road-building projects.

This isn’t just theory; it’s borne out by a number of scientific studies. The excuse that increasing congestion is a result of an increasing population simply isn’t supported by the facts; new roads fill up WAY faster than simple population increases could account for. As the Surface Transportation Policy Project put it:

Sprawl is making just about everyone drive farther and more often, and that fills up the roads. … While the population in all 68 metro areas studied grew by 22 million since 1982, the increase in driving has crowded the roads with the equivalent of 70 million more drivers. For example, in Washington DC, a population increase of 765,000 feels like an increase of more than 2 million on the roadways, because residents are driving 77 percent more. [read the report]

Here’s an article about the failure of roadbuilding to ease congestion by USA Today (9-23-99). Here’s another one from the Washington Post Writers Group about how Widened Roads Create their own Gridlock. That one also explains how, surprisingly, the closing of major roads in several metro areas did not increase congestion, since people responded by driving less.

Here’s a report by the Texas Transportation Institute. A summary of that report states:

The time has come for transportation officials to stop making congestion relief claims to bolster highway proposals. Not only has road construction proven to be an ineffective congestion relief strategy, but it is an expensive one as well. According to researchers at the U.S. Department of Transportation, the construction of one ordinary lane-mile of urban highway commonly costs between $3.4 million and $7.8 million. For special projects involving major engineering, costs can exceed $100 million per lane-mile. …[W]e estimate that over the 15 year period [we studied], metro areas that invested heavily in road expansion projects spent $22 billion more than areas that built fewer new lane-miles, yet failed to produce lower congestion levels. … Does a family of four in the Nashville metro area, for example, want to pay $3,243 per year to build their way out of congestion, particularly given the low likelihood that this strategy would succeed? [Nashville had the highest cost to families of the areas studied; Austin had the second-highest.]

A study reported in New Scientist in 2005 provides the mathematical background for why new roads can cause congestion.

A detailed excerpt from Suburban Nation confirms that adding lanes only makes traffic worse.

FYI, the design capacity for a freeway lane is roughly about 1,500 persons/hour.

Parking facilities cause congestion

Monty Newton writes: The reason why state workers don’t use other forms of transportation besides personal cars is because they don’t have to. Why take a bus when you have FREE covered parking next to your office? I have my reasons for riding a bike, mainly cause I can always be moving, and I am in control, not subject to the disasters on the highway daily, but for others, it must be worth it to drive. Several coworkers live as close or closer than I do, and they drive their cars.

If the parking wasn’t available, the cars couldn’t come down here. It is that simple. I have asked, and gotten funny looks, why can’t they offer a rebate or something in lieu of the parking? I get two parking stickers, presumably so one can use “the wife’s/husband’s” car or something. TWO parking places for ONE employee. And several people where I work that have a spouse working downtown in the private sector that uses that second sticker to park in the state garages. Paid for by the state and taxpayers. They build them and they come. (6-01)

Autos on Welfare

While most motorists think that their gas taxes and registration fees pay for the roads and for other related costs, the truth is that car-driving is heavily subsidized by the government, which in turn means higher taxes for everyone. Those who don’t drive are paying for those who do.

VTPI explains that gas taxes and registration fees go mostly toward highways, while city streets (the kind that cyclists use), are paid for mostly through sales taxes and property taxes. Since it costs more to maintain streets for cars vs bikes, cyclists wind up subsidizing the cost of city streets used by cars.

The Sierra Club has a report detailing subsidies for sprawl. Some of the areas the costs come from include:

  1. Police, fire, ambulance; road construction & maintenance; other local government
  2. Property taxes lost from land cleared for freeways
  3. Parking
  4. Air, water, land pollution
  5. Noise, vibration damage to structures
  6. Global warming
  7. Petroleum supply line policing, security, petroleum production subsidies
  8. Trade deficit, infrastructure deficit
  9. Sprawl, loss of transportation options
  10. Uncompensated auto accidents
  11. Congestion 10/96 Draft

Below, Dave Dobbs explains the true costs of so-called “free” parking.

True costs of car parking, and other car costs.

“It does my soul good to see you all discuss the little hidden costs that people don’t see when they drive their cars. Lyndon Henry is his master’s thesis (1981) (Urban and Regional Planning School UT Austin) calculated conservatively that we spend $2 on “free parking” for every dollar that is spent on roadways. Curbside parking, for example requires an unnecessary widening of the street and thus extra cost, ‘free parking’ at Walmart is reflected in higher prices for goods an services to pay for the non-productive parking lot which is taxed, requires maintenance, and represents an opportunity cost, and free parking for government employees (we have lots of this in Austin) costs the taxpayers somewhere between $6500 to $10,000 a space. Accidents, Henry pointed out, are nearly 10% of the auto roadway system costs (property damage, personal injury and deaths), whereas public transit overall loses only 2% to accident costs.

“There is a very real cost here which auto/roadway proponents choose to ignore as they portray themselves and the status quo as ‘conservative.’ The public perception of ‘free parking’ is something akin to a birth right, so it is seen as ‘no change’ and therefore ‘conservative’, when in fact free parking is an enormous public subsidy (socialism) which completely distorts the marketplace and makes alternate transportation less viable.

“A guy I know in the LA area, Stanley Hart, who bills himself as a ‘reformed highway engineer’ did a study of hidden auto costs in the Pasadena (CA) city budget. He came up with a figure in excess of 30% in policing, administration, maintenance, etc. Someone should replicate that study for Austin.

“The bottom line is that when all car costs to our society are figured we could do far better financially with higher mobility and greater quality of life by concentrating on public transit which by its very nature necessitates a good pedestrian and bicycle system to work efficiently and effectively.” — Dave Dobbs, 12/99-1/00

“Free parking,” it’s a lovely phrase, isn’t it? Since so many of the things we do are not free, it’s great that at least we can stow our vehicles at no cost, right? Well, actually, we are paying dearly for parking, according to a new book by David Shoup, a professor at UCLA. In The High Cost of Free Parking, Shoup says that parking policies are devastating American cities, and that we’re wasting billions every year on parking subsidies that should go to parks and other human-scale activities…. An Urban Land Institute survey shows that at least half of all spaces are vacant more than 40 percent of the time the businesses they serve are open. ‘Free curb parking may be the most costly subsidy American cities provide to their citizens,’ says Shoup, who points out that the average car is parked 95 percent of the time…..A 1984 study determined that in a single year the cruisers in one 15-block neighborhood in Los Angeles [looing for a parking spot] spent 100,000 hours wasting 47,000 gallons of fuel and producing 700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.’ (E Magazine, 2005)

External costs of driving. The estimated annual external cost of driving (including air pollution, climate change, imported oil security, congestion, accidents, noise, etc.) is $126.3 billion.(E Magazine, 2005)

Cost of highways vs. public transportation

Highway boosters say that commuter rail is too expensive, at around $40 million per mile. What they’re forgetting is that highways are even more expensive — up to $50-100 million per mile! What’s more, rail is a better long-term investment. (Rail infrastructure lasts 60-75 years vs. a highway’s 25.) Plus, you can easily and inexpensively increase capacity with a rail system by adding more railcars or running them more frequently. Expanding a highwy, on the other hand, by addingnew lanes, is a multimillion dollar headache. And while the cost per mile of new rail is already competitive with highways, adding extensions to existing rail lines is even cheaper ($14 million per mile). Here’s an article on this subject on another website.

What’s more, even though rail is cheaper than highways, it’s more effective. One LRT train (five cars passing every two minutes) could handle all the rush-hour traffic now arriving in downtown Minneapolis by freeway. (Check out more about light rail.)

The next time someone starts whining about the cost of alternative transportation (like light rail), tell them about the Boston’s Big Dig roadway project — $14 BILLION for all of 7.5 miles! Adjusted for inflation, this is more than the Panama Canal, the Alaska pipeline, or the Hoover Dam! Read the Dallas Morning News article.

By the way, Texas spends 58% more than the national average on new roads, while simultaneously spending 60% less on public transportation and bike lanes. (from Austin American-Statesman, 3-23-00, based on a report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project)

Do state & federal transportation planners have to consider bikes?

Roger Baker says:

ISTEA and TEA-21 legislation require that bike/ped transportation be “considered” when planning roadway projects. Tommy Eden, who is on the Austin Urban Transportation Commission, claims to have done a legal investigation of what the feds mean by “consider” and to have found that they must do something akin to actually proving/determining that bike lanes are unsuitable for the new roads they partially fund but which are built by TxDOT — instead of the normal omission of all serious consideration typical of TxDOT. Of course if federal laws on the books really worked properly, they would really be saving all the endangered species, etc. Sometimes (more and more) you have to fight or sue the feds to make them enforce their own rules as the more kickass environmental groups do. (6-01)

Tommy Eden says:

You may have heard that planners must spend 15% of their transportation funding on bicycle & pedestrian projects. But that applies ONLY to STP4C federal funds. These funds are really only about 10% of all the federal funds over which the Austin-area transportation board (CAMPO) has control. Thus, CAMPO has historically spent only about 1.x% of its total funds on bicycle and pedestrian projects. Standing alone, this kind of inadequate policy would suggest that our bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure is especially lousy. Over the last two or three years, however, CAMPO has had an additional policy requiring that every project proposal in their two-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP–for practical purposes, it is CAMPO’s budget) include a column specifying the type of bicycle facility to be included in each proposal and a column specifying the type of pedestrian facility to be included in each proposal.* Simply requiring these columns in the TIP has had a major influence on every jurisdiction which brings proposals to CAMPO, with the notable exception of TxDOT.

If bicycle and pedestrian facilities were included in every project proposal which goes to CAMPO for approval, we would actually be spending about 15% of ALL roadway funding on bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and we would really see an improvement.

*This policy was proposed by Rep. Glen Maxey and approved by the CAMPO Policy Advisory Committee around December 1998 or 1999. The 15% policy has been there as long as I can remember (pre-1994), but it really only has a symbolic effect on real improvements. (Nov. 2002)

Federal law prohibits destruction of bicycle access. 23 USC § 109, Standards (m) says:

“Protection of Nonmotorized Transportation Traffic.–The Secretary shall not approve any project or take any regulatory action under this title [23 USCS §§ 101 et seq.] that will result in the severance of an existing major route or have significant adverse impact on the safety for nonmotorized transportation traffic and light motorcycles, unless such project or regulatory action provides for a reasonable alternate route or such a route exists.” (United StatesCode, Title 23 – Highways, Chapter 1 Federal Aid Highways, Subchapter I – General Provisions, Sec. 109 – Standards; as of Jan. 2, 2001)

Federal law requires consideration of bicycle access on construction projects. 23 CFR 652.5 says:

“The safe accommodation of pedestrians and bicyclists should be given full consideration during the development of Federal-aid highway projects, and during the construction of such projects. The special needs for the elderly and the handicapped shall be considered in all Federal-aid projects that include pedestrian facilities. Where current or anticipated pedestrian and/or bicycle traffic presents apotential conflict with motor vehicle traffic, every effort shall be made to minimize the detrimental effects on all highway users who share the facility. On highways without full control of access where a bridge deck is being replaced or rehabilitated, and where bicycles are permitted to operate at each end, the bridge shall be reconstructed so that bicycles can be safely accommodated when it can be done at a reasonable cost. Consultation with local groups of organized bicyclists is to be encouraged in the development of bicycle projects.”

Patrick Goetz’ comments on the above laws:

I think the operative catch is “existing major route”. TxDOT would argue that none of the existing routes were major routes for bicycles before being severed by 183. But even if there was a major bike route which was severed, the 20-ton gorilla rule applies. i.e., TxDOT is the 20-ton gorilla, so it gets to decide, more or less, what the rules are. You can either choose to agree with them or get squished.

Keith Snodgras, Austin’s Bike/Ped Coordinator, tried to go after them for providing absolutely no pedestrian facilities at the Westgate / Ben White / etc. interchange. Federal law clearly states that they must provide pedestrian facilities (e.g. sidewalks) at an location close to pedestrian attractors. TxDOT simply threw up their hands and said that there were no pedestrian attractors in the area, despite the immediate proximity of not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 shopping centers. As Snodgras pointed out, if 4 shopping centers right at that location isn’t a pedestrian attractor, then what is? TxDOT shrugged who knows. Notice that there are still no pedestrian facilities at that location and Snodgras is back to managing ranches. TxDOT 1, citizens of Austin 0.” Apr. 2003

Planning for bike facilities has resources for planning facilities for bicycles.

Some cities are experimenting with letting citizens rent bikes which are dispensed from electronic bike racks. Riders pay with a credit card and return the bike to the rack, or to any other rack in some cities. Here’s more on Lyon, France’s bike rental program.

Facilities that promote cycling or make cycling safer and more accessible

  • Bicycle lanes, or wide outside curb lanes
  • A ban on cars parking in bicycle lanes
  • Neighborhoods that connect to other neighborhoods with quiet streets, making it easy to traverse the city by riding through neighborhoods, rather than by riding on busy streets
  • Bike/ped crossings of highways every X miles. In Austin, cyclists lobbied the City government to agree give money to highway projects only if they put in bike/ped crossings every 1/2 mile, with preference given to maintaining existing crossings at existing arterial roadways.
  • Bicycle boulevards. These are streets with obstructions in the middle which prevent through-traffic by cars, but which allow bicycles to go through. This allows everyone who lives on the street to access their house by car from one direction or the other, depending on which side of the street they live on, but the lack of through traffic reduces the number of cars driving on the street, as well as the speed of the remaining cars. (See example below)
  • A network of off-street paved bicycle paths
  • Bikes in the Sky. A group of architechts has proposed the idea of elevated bike lanes. (Kind of like monorail, but for bikes, not trains.) Looks good to us: Low-cost, extremely safe, very fast.
  • Transglide. Another group of architechts has proposed an enclosed bikeway with fans to help push cyclists along, which they say makes cycling 90% more efficient.

Daniel Connelly writes in May 2002:

Bryant Street in Palo Alto, CA. This is a designated bicycle boulevard. Over much of its length, it has no stop signs, but does have strategically placed barriers to motor vehicles which make is useful only for local traffic to these. Bikes, on the other hand, can maintain a steady 20 mph without much impedance, at least until one nears downtown, where there are stop signs (and one traffic circle).

Canada Road north of Woodside, CA. This is closed to motorized traffic on Sundays from Edgewood Road to Highway 92, a approximate 3.6 mile stretch. Despite being quite wide, it’s nevertheless rather dicey going, due to the large concentration of “random-walking” BMX bikes, roller-bladers, N-abreast baby strollers, etc.

Ready to Rumble?

Rumble strips are gouges ground into the shoulders of roads, designed to wake up drivers who fall asleep at the wheel as they start to veer off the road. The problem is that this strips can be deadly to cyclists. Where rumble strips are installed, bicyclists are often unable to use the shoulder, and are therefore forced to mix with high-speed traffic. Also, rumble strips may appear unexpectedly, sending unsuspecting cyclists crashing when they hit the strips. The League of American Bicyclists (LAB) is asking citizens to contact their congresspersons to ask that the government conduct research on a design standard for rumble strips that is bicycle-friendly, and to limit the installation of new rumble strips until such research is completed. Here’s more on rumble strips from LAB.

Examples of reports available from VTPI:

  • Whose Roads? Defining Bicyclists’ And Pedestrians’ Right To Use Public RoadsMost of the money from fuel taxes and registration fees pays for highways, not local roads. Local roads (the roads used primarily by bicyclists) are funded primarily by general taxes, paid by both motorists & bicyclists alike. Since it is far costlier to build & maintain roadways for cars instead of bikes, bicyclists actually subsidize the cost of roadway building & maintenance. Governments typically spend around $200-400 annually per vehicle for local roadways,or about 4-6¢ per mile driven on local roads. Only 0.2¢ of this is paid through fuel taxes & registrations, meaning that driving is subsidized through general taxes by about 4.8¢ per mile (96%) on local roads.
  • Quantifying Bicycling Benefits For Achieving TDM GoalsThis paper examines how bicycle promotion and facility improvements can be incorporated into Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs. Bicycle transportation benefits are reviewed with respect to various TDM goals. Potential problems associated with increased bicycling and bicycle encouragement programs are examined. Specific bicycle transportation encouragement strategies are discussed and guidelines provided for incorporating bicycling into TDM programs.
  • Pavement Buster’s GuideThe Pavement Buster’s Guide is for planners, developers and community activists interested in reducing the amount of land devoted to parking and roadways. It describes how zoning laws tend to oversupply parking and roadway capacity, discusses the full costs of this additional pavement, and describes specific strategies that businesses and communities can use to reduce parking and traffic demand.
  • Automobile Dependency and Economic Development
  • Defining and Quantifying Public Transit Benefits
  • Transportation Impact Bibliographic Database
  • Exploring the Paradigm Shift Needed to Reconcile Transportation and Sustainability Objectives
  • Transportation Cost Analysis: Techniques, Estimates, and Implications
  • A Critical Evaluation of Electric Vehicle Benefits
  • Road Relief: Tax & Pricing Shifts for a Fairer, Cleaner, and Less Congested Transportation System
  • Reply to Critics of Transportation Costing
  • Socially Optimal Transport Prices and Markets: Principles, Strategies, & Impacts