New Google Maps feature illustrates transit dependence in the SouthCoast

Last week I learned that all of Massachusetts’ Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) finally have routes and schedules integrated into Google Maps. That means that in addition to asking the application to help you navigate to your SouthCoast destination by car or on foot, you can also ask for directions using that bus icon:<image no longer available>

This is great news, because as the Urban Initiative/Center for Policy Analysis found in a 2010 phone survey, 48.9 percent of New Bedford residents who don’t ride the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority (SRTA) bus are not familiar with the frequency with which the bus arrives at the stops closest to their homes or workplaces. With Google Maps, you can find out–sort of.

The first problem I’ve found while using this new option is that individual stops are not entered into Google Maps. So instead of directing me to the bus stop nearest my house, Google Maps tells me to go to the bus terminal downtown. Something else that confuses me is that the way the routes appear on the map seem to imply that these are not your typical city buses–instead, they seem to have the ability to fly: <image no longer available>

This isn’t terribly helpful. What if I miss the bus at St. Luke’s hospital, which is the suggested stop, and need to hop on somewhere else instead? If the bus defies laws of traffic and gravity, I’m not sure what my backup plan could possibly be.

Putting my crankiness–which I prefer to call high expectations–aside, having SRTA information available to Google mappers is tremendously useful for one thing: hammering home the fact that our region is a very hard place to be transit dependent, because the limited number of bus routes and high degree of sprawl will invariably leave many stranded, or at least make their commutes impossibly long. For example, if I wanted to take the bus home from the Urban Initiative office at 6:00 today, I’d need to budget for an astounding one hour and twenty-two minutes of travel. That includes riding two different buses and walking 1.3 miles. Since I’m driving home instead, I’ll be able to cover the 3.8 miles in just 9 minutes.

If you’re wondering about the implications of this, I’ll direct you to the recently released study on opportunities for upward mobility. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points to the role of sprawl, noting that income mobility in Atlanta is limited not by the number of jobs, but by the time it takes low-income residents to reach them.

Now, consider the fact that in 2010, 62 percent of SRTA riders in New Bedford reported having no access to a working vehicle. How does their dependence affect their access to good jobs and higher education? And what about those who live too far afield to ride the bus in the first place? We look forward to more conversation around these questions, the answers to which are essential for improving both economic development and quality of life in the SouthCoast.

Patrick Administration continues to show strong support for South Coast Rail

In big, bold text, the front page of last Friday’s Standard Times read, NO RAIL? NO SIGNATURE.  The article, Governor’s office demands South Coast Rail, quoted Lt. Gov. Tim Murray saying, “The governor will not sign a transportation financial plan unless funding for South Coast Rail is included,” adding that, “We’ve made investments in other parts of the state and it’s South Coast’s turn.”  Then, just this afternoon, the administration released its long-awaited transportation plan that includes a fully funded, 1.8 billion dollar South Coast Rail project.

While this may be the strongest commitment we’ve heard from the administration in quite some time, or perhaps ever, most of us can’t help but wonder if these promises, and similar pledges heard over the last twenty years, will ever become a reality.   Nonetheless, hopefully the administration’s efforts will help drive more positive conversation around this project.

I haven’t lived in the area for very long, but since moving here I’ve increasingly wondered why there isn’t more chatter among my peers- 25-35 yr. old working professionals- living in and around Fall River and New Bedford.  We represent an important and growing (albeit slow) demographic in the region that would likely benefit the most from commuter rail service.  I won’t speak for the many others in my situation, but I know that a true commitment to this project would be a major incentive for me to stay in the region when I finish grad school.

Commuting Convoys of the Future

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qMf1xJ_ugg&feature=player_embedded]

Often used by freight truckers to travel long distances in teams, convoys are on the verge of being used to commute to work. Safe Road Trains for the Environment (Sartre) in partnership with Volvo have completed a test on public highway outside of Barcelona of their “road-train”. Led by a truck operated by a professional driver, another truck and three Volvo sedans followed in line, operated by semi-autonomous cars.

Connected by a wireless network, the cars drive in line, with at 20ft buffer between each car. Each car follows the driving pattern of the lead car/truck, mimicking acceleration, braking and steering actions. The implications of such driving are reduced fuel consumption, safer roadways by reduced human error and reduced congestion by uniform travel. While in the road-train, the driver is also free to do as they please, eat breakfast, drink a cup of coffee, or anything on their smart phone or tablet.

This project aims to fix the urban problem of traffic congestion while supporting environmental protection. Traffic congestion, especially around rush hour, is a major urban problem that simply widening a roadway cannot fix. These road trains would reduce congestion by having a uniform mode of travel. Each car in the train travels at the same speed, eliminating lane changes. The human element is taken out of the equation, with exception of the professional lead driver, doing away with over breaking and reckless lane changes. An added benefit of driving in the road-train is decreased fuel consumption. This is made possible by ‘drafting’ behind the other cars in the train. Reduced wind resistance by traveling closely to the car in front of you saves fuel, but is dangerous without knowing the intentions of the driver in front of you. The autonomous cars are able to communicate acceleration and braking wirelessly, making drafting safe and efficient.

This potential of this project does not come without a financial cost however. The necessary upgrades would need to be made to vehicles to make them capable of autonomous driving in road-trains. Another major question is who the responsibility of supplying the professional drivers for the lead cars falls upon. Certainly, autonomous driving isn’t ready to be implemented tomorrow, but someday in the future you may be able to commute up RT 24 to Boston while reading a book or watching the latest episode of your favorite television show.

Via The Atlantic Cities

http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/06/future-car-commuting/2161/

Salem to develop master plan for public art

As the buzz grows louder around words like ‘placemaking’ and ‘creative economy,’ it’s interesting to see the ways that cities vary in the authenticity of their efforts to embrace these concepts. While some communities take the approach of re-branding existing efforts to contort themselves into a creative placemaking mold (particularly when there’s grant money on the table), Salem, MA appears to be responding particularly proactively. That North Shore city of some 40,000 just received a $25,000 grant through the “Our Town” program of the National Endowment for the Arts (an opportunity we posted in January’s newsletter) to fund a public art master plan. The resulting plan is intended to focus on integrating public art in an existing pedestrian mall while making improvements to traffic patterns and parking.

This kind of comprehensive approach to embracing the arts as a cornerstone of an urban economy makes terrific sense, because it’s not just about artwork: instead, it’s about strategically integrating transportation, small business, and public art in a sustainable way. Moral(s) of the story? Planning is good, and so is the Urban Initiative newsletter, which shares information on grant programs like “Our Town” well in advance of deadlines. So subscribe now!

Essex Street pedestrian mall, slated for public art master plan. Photo via Armstrong Field Real Estate: http://www.witchcityhomes.com/commercial/downtown-salem/images/essex-st-mall.JPG.

Guest Post: A Closer Examination of the Impact of Snow-and-Ice Removal Costs

This post was written by guest blogger Chris Nunes, who graduated with a Master’s of Public Policy from UMass Dartmouth in 2011. He is a budget analyst for the town of Concord, MA.

The MBTA has recently unveiled two ridership and service plans which are designed to cut a $161 million dollar budget cap.  While both of these plans differ in scope, they both propose raising rider fees while significantly reducing current service.

With the historically warm winter resulting in very low snow accumulation figures, multiple news outlets have recently reported that Governor Patrick is considering allocating a portion of unexpended snow-and-ice removal funds to the MBTA.  In FY12, through January 4th, The Patriot Ledger reported that the state’s snow-and-ice budget has spent “only” $10.5 million of an original $50 million FY12 appropriation (up to-date figures could not easily be found on the state’s open checkbook forum).

While a roughly 25% snow-and-ice state burn rate through January 4th may seem as “only” a minor dent in the original $50 million appropriation, the more appropriate statement is perhaps asking why the state has spent $10.5 million dollars on snow-and-ice removal in the first place—especially as snowfall has been rather minimal (also folks in the western part of the state, and the impending projected snow fall may not be in agreement).

Read more

What’s your walk score?

Go to www.walkscore.com and enter your address. How does your neighborhood do? My New Bedford neighborhood gets a 55:  “somewhat walkable,” which is based on the proximity of my house to restaurants, groceries, coffee, bars, libraries, parks, etc.

So sure, this is a fun tool to use–particularly if you’re house-hunting–but why does it matter? According to a study by CEOs for Cities, a one-point increase in a Walk Score can translate to as much as an additional $3,000 of property value. This subsequently benefits homeowners and a municipality’s property tax base.

But at the same time, accessible amenities are increasingly in high demand among the creative class that cities are desperate to court (thanks to Richard Florida’s work). It turns out that there’s a house in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood that shares the street address of my own. Their walk score? Ninety-four. “A walker’s paradise.”

And then there’s the health benefit. Walkable neighborhoods promote the reduction of carbon emissions and thus particulates that contribute to things like asthma. Quite obviously, they encourage people to walk more, reducing obesity and its related ailments (a University of Utah study found that an average man living in a walkable neighborhood weighs about 10 lbs less than peers in a less walkable community).

So what US cities are leading the charge in walkability? Unsurprisingly, San Francisco leads the pack, and New York, Boston, Chicago, and Portland find themselves on the list. But what’s a numerically un-walkable city like New Bedford (score: 65) or Fall River (score: 62) to do? Promoting neighborhood-based small business corridors has a huge impact, according to a study done by UC-Irvine. The key is that these businesses must not only support the needs of the neighborhood, the researchers say, but they must also draw from the outside to sustain the businesses’ viability. Read more in this Atlantic Cities article, or check out the published study here.

 

Federal budget watch

Unsurprisingly, this will be a lean year for federal grant programs, if they continue to exist as well. The Obama administration’s neighborhood revitalization initiatives are of particular interest to the Urban Initiative, since these programs have given major boosts to some of the country’s toughest urban communities while contributing to the knowledge base of what works. Choice Neighborhoods has squeaked through with $120 million, almost double the $65m allocated last year. Promise Neighborhoods has a still uncertain future–the program based on the Harlem Children’s Zone was allotted $60m by the Senate Appropriations Committee, while their counterparts in the House recommended zero funding. Stay tuned to the United Neighborhood Centers of America”s great Building Neighborhoods blog, which provides great updates on the status of these programs.

Meanwhile, HUD’s Sustainable Communities program has been axed, despite its ability to promote regional conversations about transportation, livability, growth, and civic engagement. Another transit loss is funding for high speed rail. However, the TIGER program made it through: $500m was approved to fund transit projects that support economic recovery. New Bedford benefited from this project in 2010, using TIGER funds to replace railroad bridges throughout the city to advance the prospect of South Coast Rail. Read more about the status of transit funds at Transportation for America’s website.