To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Some Thoughts on Near Roadway Air Pollution and L.A.’s Future


By Joe Linton, April 10, 2014

 From Rob McConnell's presentation: air pollution spikes at freeways
From Rob McConnell’s presentation: air pollution spikes at freeways. Pollution levels drop quickly away from freeways.

I attended a forum event yesterday, entitled “The Collision of Best Intentions: Public Health, Smart Growth, and Land Use Planning.” Speakers focused focused on “NRAP” – an acronym I wasn’t familiar with. NRAP stands for Near Roadway Air Pollution. It’s the study of pollution risks near freeways and other high-volume roads.

I confess that I have been only vaguely aware of NRAP. Years ago, I had heard about studies that show health issues correlate to areas close to freeways. I vaguely recall some efforts to keep schools at a tolerable distance from freeways. I am still not all that up to speed on this issue, so apologies if I have characterized anything incorrectly in this article.

The fundamental question that this conference explored was, basically: In the light of air pollution issues, is urban densification good for overall health? There are a number of corollary issues: On congested-polluted streets, is bicycling and walking healthy? Is Transit-Oriented-Development and infill development bad for our health?

For me, a car-free bike activist, these questions go to my fundamental core. Of course bicycling and walking are good! For me, for my community, my planet. I think that there’s a body of research that backs me up. Cyclists live longer than non-cyclists. Health benefits of cycling outweigh risks by 20:1, according to a London study. Inactivity is dangerous, in the long run. There’s also research showing that car occupants are exposed to unhealthy air quality inside cars, so, even if bicycling exposes me to roadway air pollution, I don’t think I am at any greater exposure than other folks using the road. And cyclists and pedestrians are on the edge of that pollution cloud, not in the thick of it the way drivers are.

I suspect that a lot of people make poorly informed decisions based on perceived risk. The most common example is that of the person who drives to their destination because they afraid of flying. Flying is, statistically mile-for-mile, way safer than driving.

I haven’t seen a clear study on this, but I tend to think that a similar ill-informed trade-off takes place with driving and bicycling. Replacing a perceived-dangerous ~10mph bicycle trip with a perceived-safe 50+mph car trip may well put a well-intentioned person at greater risk. Not bicycling in a polluted city, while instead driving in a polluted city doesn’t make good sense to me. My hunch is that it’s a similarly false trade-off, like driving instead of flying.

From Rob McConnell's presentation: Asthma is worse closer to major roads.
From Rob McConnell’s presentation: Asthma is worse closer to major roads.

 Back to yesterday’s forum.

USC’s Rob McConnell presented on research that found clear relationship between proximity to freeways causes asthma and obesity. Apparently, historically, there was a general understanding that regional air pollution made asthma worse, but didn’t cause it. The current understanding is that roadway pollution causes asthma. Watch a similar talk by Rob McConnell here. McConnell also reviewed research linking NRAP with increased obesity.

These very real heath risks led researchers to investigate solutions. UCI’s Doug Houston spoke about a review of various structural tinkering to mitigate roadway pollution. Researchers have looked to soundwalls, sealed windows, taller building, vegetation, indoor air filtration, and more. Though those measures help, none of them quite solves the problem.

When there’s no airtight mitigation, health leaders turn to the solution that I mentioned above: keep people away from freeways. Don’t locate homes, schools, parks, work-sites, etc. within a 400 meter (~1200 foot) buffer of freeways.

I tend to think that this buffer approach results in a vicious cycle. Creating freeway buffers will spread things out even more, making for longer trips which are more difficult to walk and bike. Driving more for more trips increases traffic congestion. Congestion leads to road widening. Widening (and increased traffic volumes) means moving that initial buffer outward, compounding the problem.

As I was listening to all this, I felt like there was too much emphasis on dealing with our car-centric system as a given. Car-choked freeways are just part of the way god made our cities. We, health professionals, are just doing our best to adjust to the system we find ourselves stuck in. The discussion was all about how to keep people out of the way of pollution, but not to look at reducing or eliminating that pollution at its source. It’s as if health professionals looking at the tobacco problem just assumed that smoking happens everywhere, and then spent a lot of effort studying gas-masks for non-smokers. Taking on tobacco is a great public health success – because health professionals were able to ban tobacco from many places, and to stigmatize tobacco based on its threat to health.

(I also think that an overly narrow focus on near-roadway-air-pollution makes us miss other huge health risks associated with cars. Every year, driving kills 30,000+ people in the U.S., 1.5 million worldwide. There are greenhouse gases, water pollution, noise pollution, obesity, and plenty more issues.)

I was glad to hear Occidental College’s Mark Vallianatos, commenting from the floor microphone, suggest an important alternative. Instead of moving people away from roads, let’s change our roads to be safe for people. If we have schools, playgrounds, housing, etc. adjacent to a road, then, for the sake of health, let’s design and regulate that road to limit vehicle emissions to safe levels. Let’s traffic-calm and road diet our arterials, downgrade our freeways, hopefully get rid of, at least, some of them.

Reducing car capacity isn’t politically easy. It may not work everywhere right now, but, going back to what the forum was addressing, I think it’s important for our core urban neighborhoods. It’s important for the places where we’re trying to make smart growth and TOD work. If health professionals are questioning the health effectiveness of smart growth, of walking, and of bicycling, then we need to also question the unhealthy car-centric systems that surround and endanger these solutions.

Have U.S. Light Rail Systems Been Worth the Investment?


By Yonah Freemark, April 10, 2014

 Have U.S. Light Rail Systems Been Worth the Investment?

Five U.S. metros (Buffalo, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose) opened light rail systems in the 1980s to great fanfare. The mode offered many of the benefits of subway systems for far less public money; San Diego's system, per mile, cost about one-seventh of Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail. Light rail cities like Portland became transportation models for the country, pointing toward a transit-friendly urban future.

Thirty years later, light rail remains the most appealing mode of new public transportation for many American cities. Billions of local, state, and federal dollars have been invested in 650 miles of new light rail lines in 16 regions, and today 144 miles of additional lines are under construction at a cost of more than $25 billion. Many more lines are planned. No region has invested in a new heavy rail subway system, on the other hand, since 1993.

Based on the decisions to build these projects, which were made by hundreds of local officials and often endorsed by residents through referenda, you might think that the experience building light rail in the 1980s had been unambiguously successful. Yet it doesn't take much digging to find that over the past thirty years, these initial five systems in themselves neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use — the dual goals of those first-generation lines.

According to an analysis of Census data, in four of the five cities with new light rail lines, the share of regional workers choosing to ride transit to work declined, and the center city's share of the urbanized area population declined, too. San Jose was the only exception, seeing a quarter of a percentage increase in the percentage of workers using transit and a 6 percentage point increase in its center city's share of the urbanized area.

The light rail lines have been useful in transporting a large portion of transit ridership in the regions where they have been built, carrying more than 39 percent of riders in Portland, Sacramento, and San Diego. But while light rail may appear to make the public transportation system more appealing to the average rider, the construction of such a system will not automatically result in increased transit use. The data from 30 years' experience with the mode in the United States — certainly enough time for the demographic or real estate changes that are usually expected to parallel new rail investments — make that very clear.

Two of the initial light rail metros, Buffalo and Portland, had significantly higher transit mode shares in 1980 (7.9 and 9.7 percent, respectively) than they did in 2012. As shown in the following graph, Buffalo's share of transit commuters fell at a rate very similar to the median of the 15 non-rail cities with transit mode shares of above 7 percent in 1980. Though Portland did better, its ultimate transit mode share in 2012 was lower than that of Atlantic City, Boulder, Honolulu, and Iowa City — none of which built light rail during this period.

The three other early-adopter light rail cities didn't do much better. Between 1980 and 2012, the transit shares in these light rail cities remained virtually the same (in the case of San Diego and San Jose) or declined only slightly (in Sacramento). They did, however, experience less of a fall than the 61 other metro areas with similar transit shares in 1980, whose median transit mode share declined from 3.6 to just 1.7 percent. (Of this group, only Bloomington, Gainesville, Poughkeepsie, and San Jose actually gained transit share from 1980 to 2012.)

There is one metric by which the metro areas with 1980s light rail investments "thrived" more than others: core population. The following chart documents six early-adopter light rail metros (including Pittsburgh, which updated its streetcar line with a light rail tunnel) against cities that invested in rail during other periods or regions that didn't invest in rail at all. The median 1980s light rail metro saw its center city’s share of the urbanized area population decline by just 6 percent by 2012, compared to more than 10 percent for the 45 other regions with populations of more than 500,000 in 1980.

So cities that built light rail during this decade did have some documentable success in aiding their cores. Whether that relative success resulted from light rail is unclear; there are plenty of other urban growth factors that come into play. But light rail may have provided a boost to urban advocates — or, just as likely, the implementation of light rail may have been a result of urban advocacy — that, in turn, led to both overall transit ridership and center city population stability.

How getting from here to there is changing forever.
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Even this relatively positive outcome doesn't compensate for the fact that regions that invested in light rail in the 1980s largely failed to increase the share of workers commuting by transit, or to increase the vitality of their center cities with respect to the surrounding regions. Does this mean we should cease investment in new light rail lines? Certainly not; in many cases, rail has provided the essential boost to reinvigorate communities, and in some cases it has also resulted in higher ridership than before: just look at Rosslyn-Ballston in the D.C. region or Kendall Square in the Boston region.

But spending on new lines is not enough. Increases in transit use are only possible when the low costs of driving and parking are addressed, and when government and private partners work together to develop more densely near transit stations. None of the cities that built new light rail lines in the 1980s understood this reality sufficiently. Each region also built free highways during the period (I-990 in Buffalo, I-205 in Portland, US 50 in Sacramento, CA 54 in San Diego, and CA 237 in San Jose), and each continued to sprawl (including Portland, despite its urban growth boundary). These conflicting policies had as much to do with light rail's mediocre outcomes as the trains themselves — if not more.