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By BARUCH FEIGENBAUM
Transportation is largely a world of slow, thoughtful decisions – infrastructure isn’t planned or built overnight, and transit systems can take decades to go from the drawing board to reality. But even against that backdrop, cities can take steps with their transportation systems today that will pay short- and long-term economic benefits in cost savings and flexibility.
Every major city is different, but the overall goal, economically, should be the same: Adopted policies should decrease the financial risk and burden of transportation on taxpayers. While congestion pricing may work in New York, it may be unnecessary in Phoenix or Houston.
This section focuses primarily on transit options, but opportunities that would spur economic development while delivering potential savings and flexibility also exist in highways, and zoning.
Transit Opportunities Mean Flexibility, Savings
Major cities have options to promote mass transit development, including:
Lower Fixed Costs and Reduce Infrastructure
Contract out transit service to private providers.
Create New Partnerships for Paratransit Delivery
Partner with ridesharing companies to deliver and expand paratransit.
Eliminate laws enabling transit monopolies
Make It Easier to Start New Services
Simplify permit processes for e-scooters, jitneys and ferries.
Realign Services With Current and Future Demand
Reorganize bus services to match demand and need.
Cities can contract out transit operations and maintenance to private providers, potentially lowering expenditures and shifting the burden of unforeseen costs away from taxpayers. Private transit operators can also bring efficiencies of scale, best practices and innovations to local transit systems.
In Los Angeles County, 22 cities formed the Foothill Transit agency to provide cheap and effective contracted transit service. Today, all of the agency’s bus routes are operated by Transdev and Keolis, international transit operators.
For contracting transit, a city should:
- Adopt a process for entering into transit contracting that includes competitive bidding (a minimum of three bids) primarily focused on financial considerations
- Set clear requirements on routes, schedules and service quality; service quality minimums may require nightly cleaning, altered schedules (to be posted two weeks in advance), hourly service on each route, and procedures that limit noise pollution to 80 decibels
- Clearly place financial risks on private operators and off of taxpayers
- Grant private operators flexibility for major events and weather emergencies
Partner With Ridesharing Companies
Private rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft, can offer better paratransit services at lower costs than traditional providers. While some individuals may require additional aid to enter a vehicle, ridesharing can capture much of the demand and even meet wheelchair accessibility guidelines. Paratransit ridesharing can make use of on-demand reservations using smart phones, which makes trip-planning easier, increasing mobility for those who need assistance.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has an on-demand paratransit pilot program with ridesharing companies Uber, Lyft and Curb. Currently these private operators do not offer complementary paratransit service compliant under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), largely due to regulations not technical capability. Uber already offers its WAV (wheelchair-accessible vehicles) service in Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
To promote using ridesharing companies for paratransit a city should:
Open Transit to Competition
Most public transportation agencies, such as Denver’s Regional Transportation District and the Maryland Transportation Authority, function as monopolies, either from state-level law or city-level contracting practices. Municipalities should end city-level monopolies and pressure states to remove statutes that forbid private-sector transportation services. Many transit agencies lack the capital or ability to expand service to underserved areas, leaving room for private-sector actors without risk to taxpayers.
Additionally, cities can bundle together transit routes by geographic districts or route type. Bundling profitable and unprofitable transit routes into a single contract preserves service for the transit-dependent while allowing companies to remain profitable and competitive. Even with private operators, certain routes may continue to need subsidies either from the transit agency or directly through the city.
To end a transit agency monopoly a city should:
- Remove legal bans on private transit operators
- Guarantee that fees paid by private transit companies go toward relevant expenditures
- Redirect subsidies, as transit costs decrease, to infrastructure useful by both government-owned and private transit
Reorganize Bus Services
Cities should analyze bus ridership and service patterns every five to 10 years and adjust service accordingly. The needs of transit-dependent riders should be prioritized when determining publicly-subsidized routes. While some routes with limited demand may need subsidies, private operators can operate high-demand routes used by transit-choice riders who can afford to pay the full cost of the trip.
In 2015, Houston, Texas’s Metro transit agency successfully reorganized their bus network, cutting certain routes, shifting away from a hub-based pattern and expanding intra-suburban routes to meet demand and need. Planners found the biggest need was additional Sunday service and the agency cut weekday service to expand weekend service. Bus ridership grew in Houston despite nationwide declines in transit ridership. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Metro was able to restore service quickly and alter routes based on the needs of city residents.
NJ Transit is a counter example. Despite operating an extensive route network, service holes remain in suburban areas. Hip, a private bus company, is working to fill that void connecting suburban communities directly to Manhattan in areas NJ Transit underserves or does not serve at all.
To reorganize their bus network cites should:
- Analyze ridership patterns regularly
- Adjust routes every five years
- Prioritize service for transit-dependent riders
Simplify Permit Processes for Private Transit Alternatives
Simplifying the permit process for private-sector transportation would promote transit that can survive in the market without subsidies, particularly modes that require minimal capital investment. The following four modes of transportation could meet demand in various cities: ridesharing, e-scooters, ferries and jitneys.
Ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft are versatile and ubiquitous, throughout major cities. Jitneys, small private shuttlebuses, can provide effective point-to-point transit on high demand routes. After eliminating public transit monopolies, cities should craft jitney service quality procedures that ensure minimum safety and cleanliness, but allow for maximum route and scheduling flexibility to best match demand levels. In Atlantic City, New Jersey, jitneys already connect heavily frequented locations, such as the airport, train and bus station, hotels, convention center, and the Boardwalk. Both jitneys and ridesharing vehicles use existing roads and pay motor fuel taxes and tolls.
Electric scooters have demonstrated an ability to exist sustainably across the country, proving especially useful in regions with warm weather year-round. These companies often pay fees to the municipality for law enforcement costs and bike lane maintenance or expansion. However, overburdensome permit fees can force e-scooter companies to cease operations in a city, as Lime did in Tempe, Arizona, because of a $7,888 business license fee.
Ferries are important transportation assets in areas with major bodies of water. Ferry companies can operate profitable routes, set market-based parking fees and invest in real estate directly around their terminals. Capital costs for ferries are relatively low, as the body of water already exists, and non-fare revenue potential in real estate and paring is relatively high.
A simplified permit process requires:
- Clear and predetermined application requirements
- An elimination on the ability to place limits on the number of providers for a given mode of transportation
- A requirement that any fees on private transit companies go toward expenditures that address their needs or relevant externalities
- Fees set no higher than a level that addresses the aforementioned costs
Some transit subsidies are needed to allow private companies to operate critical routes. Value-capture fees could fund these subsidies while shifting the burden to those who see the most economic benefit from transit. These fees take the form of property assessments on real estate within easy access of transit service, such as within ¼ mile of a rail or bus station. Requiring those who benefit from transit to provide some of the funding is fairer than blanket subsidies and promotes a responsible approach to system costs.
Transportation value capture fees regulations should:
- Dedicate all revenue to address the impact of the property on the surrounding transportation system
- Take the form of yearly tax-assessments
- Use a tiered approach, with fees set higher closer a transit access point
Build Bus Rapid Transit
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has emerged as a cheaper alternative to heavy- or light-rail. While rail is perceived as a sexier option, transit riders main concern is transit quality not type of vehicle. Further, bus rapid transit can be 1/3 to 1/9 cheaper to construct than a rail line. Bus rapid transit has six features that distinguish it from traditional bus service: running ways that gives buses priority, unique station design, larger vehicles, electronic off-board fare collection, intelligent transportation systems such as transit signal priority, and frequent service.
There are three different types of BRT. BRT heavy, which dedicates a lane to buses, works best on surface streets with 20 or more buses per hour per direction. BRT lite, in which buses share a lane with cars but receive priority green signals at traffic lights works best on surface streets with fewer than 20 buses per hour per direction. Freeway BRT operates on priced managed lanes on freeway and includes premium stations in roadway medians. Los Angeles has an extensive BRT network with all three types of BRT lines.
To enhance bus-transit service cities should:
- Consider building proposed heavy- and light-rail lines as bus rapid transit
- Customize the type of BRT service for the corridor
Major cities can also promote pricing and alternative transportation modes from a free-market perspective.
- Create arterial freight routes that provide a reliable travel option
- Reduce lane width to 10.5 feet on certain collector highways to create bike lanes
- Adopt congestion pricing
- Implement variable priced parking
- Enact managed arterials
Prioritize Arterial Freight Routes
A portion of freight traffic in major cities is traveling between metro areas on major surface streets. Cities need to protect arterials to allow trucks to move through cities without using local neighborhood streets. While large trucks are unpopular, they transport vital goods important for the economy of cities. Excessive traffic calming causes trucks to use local streets, harming quality of life and decreasing safety.
Major cities could adopt the following policies to protect freight routes:
- Prioritize roadway improvements on heavily used fright routes that have chronic congestion
- Work with state and federal highway authorities to create a highway freight network
Create Bike Lanes By Reducing Lane Width
Collector highways connect residential streets to arterial highways. Accordingly, the type of traffic on collector roads may not merit the same lane width as arterial highways. Where demand exists and conditions conducive, cities can reduce lane widths from 12 to 10.5 feet and use the additional space to construct dedicated bike planes, which encourage active transport and electric scooters.
To add bikes to select collector highways, major cities should:
- Legalize e-scooter and bicycle ridesharing
- Enact permitting fees on those ridesharing companies that will address their impact on road use
- Conduct a travel-demand survey that identifies the corridors with the highest demand for bike lanes such as those connecting residential and commercial areas
- Study traffic patterns to identify any potential issues that will arise from decreased lane width
Enact Congestion Pricing[
Dense cities that lack the ability to expand road capacity can use congestion pricing to manage demand for roadways. Congestion pricing comes in many forms. On some highways, including I-495 in Northern Virginia (the Capital Beltway) variably-priced managed lanes provide an option to the non-priced general purpose lanes. On other highways, including I-66 inside the beltway in Northern Virginia all lanes are congestion-priced with rates rising or falling based on demand. New York is the first American city pursuing cordon pricing, a form of congestion pricing that charges a fee to enter a geographic area.
Overall, variable pricing should be set to levels based on the effects of the charge on demand, not to meet revenue projections. Revenue may be used to develop bus lanes or to improve roadway operations including traffic signal timing. Unfortunately, in New York’s case prices are set to generate a specific revenue target not to improve transportation in the corridor. Further, all of the revenue is devoted to transit.
Cities can adopt the following congestion pricing guidelines:
- Implement congestion pricing when congestion cannot be remediated with additional road capacity and/or operational improvements; congestion pricing is not appropriate for every urban area
- Set variable toll prices based on traffic conditions, no higher than what is needed to manage demand
- Dedicate at least part of the toll revenue to improving highways
- Build other improvements in the corridor/zone to aid road-based transit such as bus lanes
- Allow buses to use the corridor/zone without having to pay a toll
Variably Price Parking
The demand for parking and the feasibility of constructing additional parking varies across a city. Major cities should introduce variably-priced parking that matches demand with supply. Street parking can be priced, with a maximum time allowed to encourage additional commerce in business areas. Variable priced parking should be designed based on demand, not to maximize revenue.
To expand pried parking cities can:
- Enact variably-priced parking on all city streets where demand exceeds supply
- Adopt time limits for street parking to maximize economic activity
Add Managed Arterials
Managed arterials are major surface streets with optional variably-tolled underpasses at major intersections. Managed arterials can suffer severe traffic congestion particularly during peak periods. Drivers can pay a small toll, typically 15-25 cents to use each underpass, which is used for construction and maintenance of the underpass. Buses can use the underpasses for free. As a result of the tunnel, the surface street can be narrowed at the intersection, making a more welcoming environment with greater walkability.
Furthermore, managed arterial lanes increase the reliability of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and express buses. When buses are stuck in the same traffic as automobiles, transit choice customers choose to drive instead. Managed arterials help to increase the speed and reliability of bus service, increasing the number of commuters choosing buses. Chicago operates bus rapid transit service in the city and Broward County, FL operates express buses on the recently completed I-75 managed express lanes.
In order to justify creating a bus-only lane, a roadway needs 20 or more buses per hour per direction. Managed arterials provide a better transit option. In addition to providing the same high-quality bus service as bus-only lanes they use the revenue that drivers pay to build and maintain the underpasses. Busways do not generate any revenue. Decreased congestion also reduces commuter stress and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
To encourage managed arterials, cities should:
- Work with state and federal authorities to allow tolling on surface streets
- Build managed arterials on arterial roads as a proof of concept
- Work with regional, state and federal authorities to promote managed lanes in the region
- Coordinate managed lane projects with other jurisdictions, ultimately creating a network
Cities should follow these free-market zoning guidelines:
- Remove urban growth boundaries (UGBs) and adopt developer impact fees
- Relax traditional zoning
Remove Urban Growth Boundaries And Adopt Impact Fees
Some cities, such as Portland and San Jose, have urban growth boundaries (UGBs) that restrict development on the urban fringe.
If UGBs are removed, development on the fringe will reduce land prices. Allowing market forces to shape development will enable more affordable housing for all residents. Rather than subsidizing low-cost housing for the low-income, market forces will create more affordable housing for the middle class as well.
When a UGB is removed, or in cases where one never existed, such as Las Vegas or Dallas, cities may enact developer impact fees that will place the cost of transportation expansion onto the developers who profit from the expansion of the urban area and its transportation network. Developer impact fee revenue, particularly for urban fringe development, should be nearly all dedicated to the relevant road infrastructure.
To reduce the overall costs of housing cities should:
- Eliminate urban growth boundaries and development restrictions
- Enact sensible impact fees to recoup the costs of development to taxpayers
Relax the Zoning Code
Traditional zoning divides up the city by specific uses, such as single-family residential, multi-family residential, commercial and industrial. It’s a system that limits how land-owners can improve their property – for example, a homeowner in a single-family district may be forbidden from converting an underused garage or basement into an apartment with a full kitchen.
The result? A less-flexible housing supply and higher housing costs.
Mixed-used zoning would help address housing affordability – a key component of most economically vibrant communities — by increasing supply in commercial and industrial areas.
Relaxed zoning also promotes economic activity and removes the barrier of renting appropriately zoned real estate for new business. Home-owners interested in starting a small business that falls under industrial or commercial labels would be able to begin operations sooner in their on their own property and with decreased financial risks as compared to renting an entirely new property. Houston, TX lacks a formal zoning code and is a very diverse, quickly-growing city.
To relax their zoning codes, cities should:
- Remove all zoning regulations, when feasible
- Remove single-family home zoning districts or simplify the process for a multiple dwellings zoning variance
- Allow light industrial and light commercial business to operate in residential areas
- Allow residential development in areas that are exclusively commercial or industrial