Friday, June 28, 2013

Atlanta Transit-Oriented Development

I'm in Atlanta at the "Transit Initiatives and Communities" conference, and like many transit conferences there are tours of interesting things. Yesterday, two tours were offered, which tested our mettle for walking and standing in Atlanta summer weather (and it wasn't too bad...for Atlanta!)

Quick Streetcar Detour

Auburn Avenue looking east toward Ebeneezer Baptist Church

Monday morning was a walking tour of the new Atlanta streetcar line under construction. And we did walk the entire line, which is a loop, from Centenial Olympic Park on the west to Ebeneezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic District on the east. We got to see the streetcar line in several stages of construction, from barely begun to almost done. This pic on Auburn Street shows the track slab nearly done, with Ebeneezer Baptist in the background. This is the church where Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized and later became co-pastor with his father. The streetcar line will run northward beside the church before turning west on Auburn.

Atlanta's TOD

But I wanted to share the transit-oriented development scene in Atlanta. MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority) began running heavy-rail service in 1979. The system now consists of a north-south line with two branches on the north side of the city (Red and Gold lines), and an east-west line with one minor branch on the west side (Blue and Green lines), crossing downtown at Five Points station. ( Route miles total 48.1, wth ridership of about 72 million trips per year in 2012. The "bread and butter" of the system is its 91 bus lines, almost all of which originate at MARTA rail stations.

Credit: MARTA
In the late 1990s, MARTA decided to launch TOD. Lindbergh Center Station is their flagship development; several of us enjoyed a tour guided by Dr. John Crocker (MARTA Director of Development and Regional Coordination), and Gregory Floyd (MARTA Senior Land Use Planner). According to their narration (as I heard it), MARTA purchased land around the station during its initial construction in the 1970s for use as a park-and-ride lot. In 2000 they purchased more land, including some buildings, bringing the total land owned by the agency around the station to about 47 acres; at the same time, they lengthened the platforms to accomodate longer trains and added a second entrace with direct access to the lengthened platforms via stairs, escalators, and a second elevator.

Lindbergh Station, new section, looking southwest toward TOD apartments
To make room for new development without reducing parking space, they built two new parking structures; other work was done to encourage development, such as putting in water and sewer, electric service, and a gridwork of streets. The investment in the enlarged station, parking structures, and utilities cost close to $100 million, paid for largely by a Federal grant. Predictably, the neighbors resented having their area developed, and mounted a stiff opposition, which required sensitive negotiation and significant mitigation.

Lindbergh Station looking northeast toward AT&T west tower
Development came quickly in the form of two office towers just east of the station (about 10 stories tall) for use by AT&T - originally Southern Bell - whose world headquarters is about three miles south of Lindbergh Station. (Atlanta was - and still is - growing significantly in population.) South and east of the station is a mixed-use 3-4 story complex, and west of the station are two blocks of 4-5 story apartments. All very nicely decorated with trees and "street furniture", walkable and pleasant.

Credit: MARTA
MARTA has encouraged development by offering very reasonable 99-year ground leases. From this, they reap about $2.5 million annually. Compared with the investment of $100 million, this seems relatively low. I suspect - though I didn't ask - that the rate is not adjusted for inflation as the years go by. Absent inflation, this is about 2.5% return on investment annually, but if inflation is over 2.5%, it's a theoretical loss. There are two advantages for MARTA, though: first, the majority of the initial investment was paid with Federal, not MARTA's, funds, so actually most of the return is pure profit for MARTA. In addition, like most transit agencies, MARTA has difficulty raising the local portion of its operating funds - it uses mainly a 1/2 cent sales tax, and when recessions curtail sales, this income dwindles. The constant income from land leases like those around Lindbergh Station are a hedge against these fluctuations. The total coming from such leases around MARTA's region is about $5 million annually. Though a relatively small part of their operating budget, it's always welcome.

And in Michigan?

As our Regional Transit Authority plans to establish its transit lines, it will need to acquire land for any significant stations. If this can be done on terms as advantageous as those made to MARTA (a straight grant), it would be a significant chance to develop both income and TOD. There are only two problems....

First, Congress - especially the House - is currently in a very parsimonious mood. Very little money is being made available for grants like the one MARTA used, and though nobody's crystal ball is perfect, prospects for more free grants look very dim.

Second, the Southeast Michigan RTA, as enabled by statute, is required to use (mainly) rubber-tired vehicles. So far, at least, rubber-tired transit has not performed as well as steel-wheeled (rail) transit in attacting investors. Bus Rapid Transit by its nature cannot move as many people as heavy rail subway-type trains, so the commercial advantages of large numbers of people passing through subway stations is greatly reduced with BRT. What is more, the main attraction of BRT for Michigan is its low initial cost. With a small initial investment, such as modest stations, we can't expect large returns down the road.
So let's bear these variables in mind as we plan, and (as I emphasized in the previous post) plan for the long-term future as best we can.
Credit: MARTA

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Foresight Saga

You may be aware that I was a computer geek for thirty or forty years. As such, I became a member of two professional societies, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) and the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM). Disclaimer: in spite of the hardware-sounding names of both these organizations, I'm no way an engineer or computing machinery nerd. It was all software, save for some very amateur tinkering with the innerds of my own computers.

So what does this have to do with transit-oriented development, you ask? Well, I ran across a couple of articles in a recent issue of the ACM's Communications, their monthly "flagship" publication. And though the authors thought they were writing only about computer systems, their observations struck me as spot-on about transportation systems - and very applicable to southeast Michigan.

Peter G. Neumann
Both articles deal with planning infrastructure, the skills needed and mistakes one can make. Interestingly, they discuss not only the systems themselves but how people need to think and be educated to solve infrastructure problems. And that's been a topic of discussion among several people who think carefully about Michigan and its future, including Phil Powers (Bridge Magazine) and Lou Glazer (Michigan Future).

As the title suggests, foresight is a central theme in these articles. I've contended for years that one of the major problems in contemporary America is lack of long-term thinking. Lack of foresight. So as soon as I realized that "Foresight Saga" was focused on long-term planning, I tagged the article as a must-read. And yes, I stole the title. It is actually taken from "Inside Risks: The Foresight Saga, Redux", by Peter G. Neumann, which appeared in Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, October 2012, vol.55 no.10 pp.26-28. (I'd give you a link to the article, but it's restricted to subscribers.) Following hard on the heels of this article is another with thoughtful material we can apply to transportation: "Viewpoint: Computing as if Infrastructure Mattered", by Jean-François Blanchette, in Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, October 2012, vol.55 no.10 pp.32-34. (I know, these were published more than seven months ago, but trust me: I'm pleased to have read them while they were less than a year old!)

Jean-François Blanchette

Plan Ahead

OK. Here's what they have to say about foresight, interlarded with my observations...
Short-term thinking is the enemy of the long-term future.
RTA, are you listening? Ann Arbor Connector Study, are you listening?
In general, we know from experience that it can be very difficult to retrofit systems with new implementations to make them trustworthy... Thus, a well-reasoned understanding of the trade-offs is essential before potentially sacrificing possible future opportunities in an effort to satisfy short-term goals. One complicating factor is that much more knowledge of the past and the present - and appreciation of the effects of possible futures - is needed to intelligently mak[e] such trade-offs. (Neumann)
Neumann says "to make them trustworthy" because his focus is on computer security. We can substitute, "to add greater capacity," or speed, or economic value, or safety, or operating efficiency - any of the many factors that make transportation more worthwhile.

"Much more needed to intelligently mak[e] such trade-offs". Yes. Fortunately, transportation has been around much longer than computers, so we have knowledge and experience available - if we care to seek it out and apply it. Unfortunately, some Michigan people seem largely unaware of the wisdom that resides in communities all around us. One of my primary missions now is to gather this wisdom together and disseminate it to Michigan people in this blog and elsewhere.
Requirements. We should anticipate the long-term needs that a system or network of systems must satisfy, and plan the development to overcome potential obstacles that might arise, even if the initial focus is on only short-term needs. This might seem to be common wisdom, but is in reality quite rare. (Neumann)
Rick Harnish, of Midwest High Speed Rail Association, has been asking us to urge officials of the "South-Of-The-Lake" project to make plans compatible with true high speed infrastructure, capable of supporting 220 MPH running. What are our chances that such an alignment will be given the green light? My opinion...Slim to none. "We don't have the funding." True, in the sense that funding for any long-term project other than "national defense" is off the table in Congress. And anyway, a high speed alignment would take longer to build. "Don't we need to get this done ASAP?" And indeed we do need improvement quickly, since we've put off investment in rail for so long.

And what about transit for Detroit? "Bus Rapid Transit!" This is seen as a silver bullet by just about everybody. It's quick. It's cheap (compared to rail). And sotheast Michigan is aching, groaning, torn apart by lack of efficient, reliable transit. "Let's just get something done! Anything!!!" As Neumann says, anticipating long-term needs "might seem to be common wisdom, but is in reality quite rare."
With particular attention to critical national infrastructure systems, we seem to have arrived at lowest-common-denominator systems and have had to live with them, in the absence of better alternatives. The standards for acceptable levels ... and best practices are typically much too simplistic and basically inadequate. Relevant efforts of various research and development communities seem to be largely ignored.
The financial crises of the past few years present another example in which the almost total absence of realistic long-term thinking and oversight contributed to worldwide economic problems. Optimizing for short-term gains often tends to run counter to long-term success (expect for insider investors, who having taken their profits have little interest in the more distant future).
Remember this next time someone says, "The market knows best," or "Private enterprise can do anything better than government."
Research. Solving problems more generally with preplanned evolution, rather than just barely attaining short-term requirements, can be very advantageous. With some foresight and care, this can be done without losing much efficiency. Often a slightly more general solution can prove to be more effective in the long run. There is much to be gained from farsighted thinking that also enables short-term achievements. Thus, it seems most wise not to focus on one without the other. (Neumann)
Yes! It's not necessary to throw short-term solutions out the window in favor of long-term only. But it takes vision. It takes research and thought. This is where the education component comes in: we need people in Michigan who have been educated to apply long-term problem solving techniques.

Cognitive vs. subconscious thinking. A recent book by Daniel Annemarie (Thinking, Fast and Slow; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011) revisits some of the earliest studies of left-brain (logical, linear, methodical) versus right-brain (intuitive, subconscious, out of the box) thinking. Our educational systems tend to prod the former, while in some cases neglecting the latter. Kahnemann's fast thinking (more or less right brain) tends to be checked or modulated by slow thinking (more or less left brain). What is important in the present context is that long-term thinking inherently requires a well-integrated combination of both ... A holistic balance of human intelligence, experience, memory, ingenuity, creativity, and collective wisdom, with slow and fast thinking, is extremely valuable in exploring the trade-offs between short-term gains and long-term potentials within some sort of holistic big-picture foresight. (Neumann, emphasis added)
What is Michigan doing to encourage this "holistic balance of human intelligence"? Why, cutting back school funding, of course! Duh! What a great way to maximize the human capital of our state. (NOT!)
Indeed, for the graduate professional degrees...what is required is a set of skills to analyze the complex forces that direct infrastructural evolution. It is such skills that provide the means to anticipate the curve ahead in a continuously evolving technological world. (Blanchette)
So: Michigan, we need to take the long view. Foresight requires starting with a good, solid, well-rounded education for our kids, our college students, and our grad students. We all need to understand the past, be aware of present trends, and be very thoughtful about what the future may bring. Leaving a meaningful legacy - a sustainable, inviting Michigan - requires investing thought, intelligence, knowledge, effort - and yes, money - for future generations.

Let's get with it, Michigan!
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Thursday, June 6, 2013

What's Our Community?

What is "our community"? At its retreat on May 21 this year, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board members spent a lot of time discussing how much territory AATA should cover. With the (temporary?) rejection of county-wide transit, AATA has decided to focus on "the urban core". Since the retreat, the City of Ypsilanti has been accepted as an integral part of the agency, but let's look at the concept of the "urban core" first, then turn to the larger question of what "the community" needs.

What Is the Urban Core?

Washtenaw County Land Use

Not all the Board members share the same idea of what the "urban core" actually is. And the whole discussion is confused by the fact that political subdivisions within the county don't correspond to anybody's definition of an "urban core". The legal boundaries of local governments are one thing; people's daily travel needs are quite another. But since local governments are responsible for paying transit subsidies, they obviously have to be taken into account as well.

Washtenaw County Population Density
A logical, efficient bus system is based on population densities, destinations, and the network of roads connecting them. As the Board and staff think about the urban core, their planning should be based primarily on those facts. Citizens and elected local officials should consider those facts exclusively when deciding on service for the area.

So who's going to pay for it? The answer will actually depend on how the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) organizes its financial structure, and what the voters of the four counties in the RTA district approve. In all likelihood, the RTA will depend on current methods of raising funds (local millages) for local transit, though transit agencies have recently been given the possibility of a regional vehicle registration fee.

Washtenaw County political subdivisions
Darker is higher population
(U.S. Census Bureau 2010)

Does that mean Washtenaw County's service will need to be paid for by millages in the local subdivisions that include this urban core? Or will the RTA impose a uniform funding system throughout the four-county area? I expect it will be a while before we find this out, since the RTA legislation requires a 7/9 majority (77.7%) vote, including at least one representative from each county, before a tax request can be put on the ballot.

Here's the problem. Elected officials - who appoint RTA Board members -  have been very reluctant to propose transit millages. The county-wide transit proposal in Washtenaw County was never put to a vote of the citizens. It was killed in the council chambers of the cities and townships. Many elected officials seem to believe they are politically vulnerable if they allow people to vote on a tax issue. But a critical part of democracy is to allow people to vote on things that are important to them. Nationally, seventy-eight percent of transit funding issues have passed during the last 10 years, and even more - 82% - in the last 3 years. In Michigan in 2012, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, there were 35 ballot proposals either to renew, increase, or institute new transit funding. Of these, only one failed. That's over 97% success for transit millages. How much courage do elected leaders need to let their voters decide transit issues for themselves? When citizens have a say in what transit service they want, and when they trust the organization that delivers the service, they vote for it.

Serve Locally, Act Regionally

Of course, that's a take-off on "Think global, act local". A big factor in the defeat of the county-wide transit effort was people - especially local officials - thinking too narrowly about who their "community" consists of. Naturally, elected officials are responsible to their own citizens (often mis-named "taxpayers"). But the trap Southeast Michigan has fallen into is to act as if citizen welfare and prosperity is limited by the boundaries of the local jurisdiction within which they live. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it comes to transportation.

Driving from east to west through Washtenaw County on I-94 is a distance of 32.9 miles, and in light traffic takes about 29 minutes from end to end. People think nothing of spending that amount of time driving across the county, yet some Washtenaw County citizens seem to believe we don't need county-wide transit. And transit to Southfield, Farmington Hills, or Detroit? "How ridiculous!"

Some short-sighted Ann Arbor people have voiced a concern that people who work in Ann Arbor but don't live in the city - and so don't pay the AATA millage - should not be served by AATA - at least, Ann Arbor "taxpayers" should not have to subsidize their transit-ride. But it's short-sighted because it costs the city more to have commuters drive in - and widen the roads so they can get through - than to bring them in buses. And I'm not talking about the cost in money alone, but also the deterioration of city quality all their automobiles cause.That includes congestion, wear-and-tear on the roads, the cost of building parking structures, and the extra space required for the parking structures and surface lots. Ann Arbor is a much better place to work and live if AATA can get people downtown without their autos, regardless of where they come from.

What is Our Area?

Southeast Michigan is struggling. Think for a moment about some of the successful U.S. cities: Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Boston. Every one has extensive regional transit systems. Do we believe we can succeed without them? But Washtenaw County, one of the most successful in Michigan (choose your measure) can't even get it together to have county-wide transit.

In the age of "the global village," what fraction of the globe can we reasonably be held responsible for? Specifically, what is a reasonable area to expect a "transit system" to cover? Here's my suggestion: as far as you could drive, do a day's work, and get back in one day. It's a rough measure, but fairly practical. That embraces all of Southeast Michigan. Of course, an area that size is seldom served by a single transit agency, but all the transit agencies in this area need to be coordinated - woven into a single system that acts seamlessly for passengers.

And now we have a Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan to do just that. Washtenaw County is part of this fledgeling RTA, like it or not. Naturally, there are fears that our exemplary service provider, the AATA, will be dragged down to the level of the dysfunctional transit authorities east of us.

I think it's very unlikely for that to happen. I see the RTA is a bit like a family with three teenagers: one is promising, a good student, college-bound. The other two are struggling with addiction (debt), poor grades (on-time performance), absenteeism (opt-out jurisdictions), and in danger of dropping out of school (bankruptcy). There's no way the parents (RTA Board) are going to let their star kid's grades go down; anyway, their hands are full dealing with the problem kids. Benign neglect is the worst-case scenario for the "good kid".

OK, beyond that analogy, providing the transit service people need involves all of Southeast Michigan. AATA can only do that by participating actively in the RTA. AATA has sent people to both of the RTA meetings that have taken place so far. There was some question at the Retreat whether sending people should be a low priority to save staff time. No! It should be a very high priority!

Working with the RTA is a high priority for several reasons: it can solve some immediate problems, it can lead to future cost savings through economies of scale, and most important, it will lead to meeting more of the transportation needs of citizens in the AATA area.

One immediate problem that needs a solution is how to pay for the express service AATA operates between Canton and Ann Arbor. There was some desultory talk of negotiating with Canton Township officials to see if they could be persuaded to pay part of the cost. Highly unlikely! The solution is to receive funds from the RTA to cover the part of the route that isn't in AATA's funding district. (The problem is immediate, but the solution isn't: it will have to wait for the RTA to figure out how to raise funds.)

Another problem on the horizon, but not immediate, was discussed: transition to fare-payment cards and away from cash. Most cities now use them, but researching the best system and planning a transition are time-consuming and expensive projects. However, those are perfect things for an RTA to do: partly because the RTA can do it once for all the transit authorities in its jurisdiction, and more importantly because it would result in one system that can be used throughout all of Southeast Michigan. A region truly united by its public transportation system has one payment system that can be used everywhere. A single-payment system is one of the most important things an RTA can do to unify transportation in the region.

But sending people to RTA meetings is only half of the relationship. The other half is inviting Washtenaw County's RTA representatives to be part of the discussion of what AATA should become. Having them as part of the Board Retreat would have been an ideal way to help them understand where AATA's strengths lie and what issues need resolution. Yet neither Richard Murphy nor Elizabeth Gerber were at the AATA Board Retreat, where they could have added a lot of perspective to the discussions - and taken very helpful insights back to the RTA itself. Can we afford to think of AATA as "us" and the RTA as "them"? Not if we're going to succeed in the next few years.

Washtenaw's RTA Board members should be at every meeting of the AATA Board. In fact, serious consideration should be given to making one or both of them ex-officio members of the AATA Board of Directors.

Serve locally, act regionally.