ANYTHING WORLD CLASS IN BURLINGTON AND CHITTENDEN COUNTY TRANSPORTATION?...THE REMAINING PATH TO GET THERE
The following comments (third year with no particular response to date) were submitted to the Chittenden Country Regional Planning Commission on Friday, January 24 in response to their invitation to comment on their Unified Planning Work Program for the coming year.
“Achieve a world class transportation corridor with quality service and highest safety for those who walk, bicycle and travel by motor vehicle or transit.”
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the FY 2015 Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP).
The comments below reflect the kaleidoscope of transportation transformation and the desperate need for State and Chittenden County planning and policy in transportation to catch up with the resulting investments needed to accommodate the change whether it is light rail, passenger rail (including commuter), and most important walking and bicycling infrastructure.
No need to cite the shifting numbers—from 50% car travel growth in Vermont in the 1980s to the peak in urban car travel about 1990 symbolized by the subsequent decline on key Burlington arterials showing an 8 to 28% decline since (and very likely negative growth overall for the State this decade), the growth of Burlington commuter Link services from zero in 2003 to about 500 a day on over 50 schedule buses, the continued growth of Amtrak passenger numbers, and through the joint efforts since 2000 of Fletcher Allen Health Care, UVM and Champlain College who employ one-of-three workers in Burlington solo driving to work soon will dip under 50% compared to Vermont average still in the mid-70th percentile.
The challenge to public policy which CCRPC uniquely takes responsibility for comes from the fact that as family choices move from car-centered transportation to other modes, all those other modes depend on substantial public investment and support (forget the subsides to solo driving like the $150 million each year for employers to provide Vermont workers “free” employee parking!).
The financial issue is twofold. First, the Vermont household median spending on transportation—about 16% of the family budget—mostly goes to cars, about $1.8 billion for everything from car ownership and maintenance, gas, and insurance. Meanwhile, for example, regional public transit agencies in Vermont, like CCTA, must make due with about
$12 million farebox revenue to develop and maintain regional networks of primarily of bus services. The change of consumer choices is unprecedented with recent data showing 3% `of all workers choosing something else than a car to get to work—a shift of 9,000 since 2000 to walking, transit, bicycling and working at home (car pooling numbers haven slowly declined for decades).
On one side of the coin then, the “demand” side of transportation if you will, clearly moves and moves rapidly from motor vehicles to something else. The flip side of the coin which CCTA faces in policy and planning comes in the form of a strangulation of car-based revenue sources which in Vermont began in the 1990s when the car travel slowdown began (as it did in New England and to a lesser extent in other parts of the nation). From the 1990s car related revenues grew at a rate of about two percent and then actually flatlined at times, well below the costs of maintaining much less improving the highway system.
As Virginia as the first state did in February and Massachusetts similarly attempted, transportation funding for the future depends no longer on gas taxes and car-related sales taxes (though they need to remain in place) but on general fund revenues. Virginia cut the car revenue cord by abolishing the gas tax and established a new across the board sales tax to support all modes of transportation. Gov. Deval Patrick obtained about half the $1.9 billion requested including substantial income tax revenues to meet the Massachusetts transportation needs over the next decade. An equivalent increase in revenues for Vermont now in place in Massachusetts is $90 million—sufficient to fund commuter rail, intercity rail, walking and bicycling infrastructure needs in the urban areas and town centers, and light rail for Burlington and Rutland during the next ten year period—the sort of minimum program to meet the minimal current needs of Vermont, Chittenden and Burlington transportation to bring us toward the efficiency and safety enjoyed today by most Western European residents.
One last note regarding change. This set of comments submitted to your yearly invitation for public input. Three major changes in these comments are: (1) recognition of cycle track as an integral and necessary part in the company of roundabouts at key intersections, together comprising a “truly complete street” (TCS) versus the flimsy, fuzzy “complete street” language used in policy and law; (2) completion of my paper “An Action Outline for New Vermont Commuter Rail Passenger Service along Three Rail Corridors out of Burlington, Vermont” not only determines commuter rail feasibility but covers a number of issues ranging from demand management successes as well as trends in Chittenden County, State and New England related travel and transportation; and (3) through involvement in now several planning processes in Burlington and the region, it is clear that the preliminary language and public process in the North Avenue study gives guidance, a standard if you will, on what we need to seek as a community for our major urban thoroughfares serving all modes:
“Achieve a world class transportation corridor with quality service and highest safety for those who walk, bicycle and travel by motor vehicle or transit.”
The North Avenue goal sets the table for where we want to go. The North Avenue Advisory Committee discussion included calls for cycle track along the entire 3-mile corridor, single lane roundabouts at key intersections (pathed to allow bicyclists to avoid the necessity of using the vehicle travel lane), light rail to connect with the waterfront-Marketplace-Fletcher Allen—UVM-Champlain College line, and walk/bike infrastructure spurs to the Bikepath and key public and private facilities and schools. Bike lanes which primarily serve with complete unsafety young-adult-white-males generally do not belong on any high traffic volume urban street. The young, the old, non-male gender and less skilled in the population are excluded from use of simple marked bike lanes. The reason for the sudden move to install cycle track along busy streets comes form the fact cycle track along street segments provide a safe and comfortable environment for those of all ages, skills and gender.
Recommendation 1: Study all County intersections technically for conversion to roundabouts with the assistance of a nationally recognized roundabout design firm--much of the rejection of roundabouts arises from the use of traffic engineers who see the roundabout as, justifiably, a threat to the jobs in their profession.
This recommendation, needed now more than ever, continues to be a major problem. The study of Pearl St./Prospects Street/Colchester Ave., now sitting with a traffic light recommendation, completely missed the mini-roundabout alternative with its safety and no-delay benefits for walkers and bicyclists, and the ability through FAHC and UVM to manage peak traffic numbers (projected increases arguable in view of current and historical trends). The Parsons Brinkerhoff consultant for North Avenue lacked sufficient background or expertise in roundabouts nor did the firm obtain competent expertise knowing from the first instance that roundabouts would be a key consideration at all busy intersections. The Champlain Parkway with recommendations for roundabouts early for cost saving were reversed into signals, again, without even allowing offered roundabout expertise.
Now that cycle track has become a desired treatment on busy urban streets, the importance of bicycle safety at busy intersections escalates as a pathed single-lane roundabout in research shows performance of increased safety over signals approaching the walker reduction benefit of 90%.
Further, it has come to light over the past year the importance of roundabouts to seniors as half of all senior fatalities on our roadways occur at intersections compared to a quarter of all fatalities for all ages—it is little wonder then that AARP policies urge conversion of signalized intersections to roundabouts. It is time for the UPWP to undertake a Countywide planning process for evaluating and prioritizing intersections for roundaboutization, perhaps combining that process with cycle tracking thereby taking into consideration the prioritization of both so that that in the case of roundabout conversions accommodating cycle track is incorporated at the very first instance.
Recommendation 2: There are three studies of light density commuter/intercity rail dating from 1989. Vermont is unique with all of its cities connectable by modern single unit diesel-electrics similar to the Budd RDCs. For Burlington, runs from Main Street Station in terms of commuter services could operate to Barre-Montpelier, Vergennes, and St. Albans. Stops would include IBM entrance at railside and possibly the few hundred feet feeder to BIA. These services would integrate to the larger intercity services using the same equipment statewide in part designed to shift basic transportation to the tourist industry from cars to rail passenger.
My 2013 study—done at no cost—fulfills the request made in this instance. One other important aspect is for CCRPC review and provide for interconnectivity of all bus services under County jurisdiction—which includes GMTA services in Washington County—with Amtrak services. This study can be coordinated with Central Vermont Regional Planning, CCTA and Amtrak—and preferably through a statewide effort coordinated by VAOT. Right now there are service breaks—or no service at all—in terms of regional transit services and Amtrak stations. Transit agencies work to connect their own service routes but seem tone deaf when it comes to other transportation modes. Again, on this topic, the free College Street Shuttle changes route in the summer to serve the waterfront station adjacent to Echo but the needs of those connecting to the Lake Champlain Ferry during the summer season remain un-addressed.
3. The CCRPC needs to place emphasis on planning for those who walk, not those who bicycle whose interest groups have dominated the discussion and investments in non-motorized travel. Actually, roundabouts are themselves are primarily a benefit and fostering of the walking mode--even though all modes and transit also benefit. A roundabout qualifies as a bike/pad project too!
Let these 2014 comments alter the view expressed in 2012. While still maintaining “CCRPC needs to place emphasis on planning for those who walk,” it also should give equal weight and consideration to the needs of bicyclists who after those who walk are next on the list of those most affected by malign neglect among the transportation modes. As clearly pointed out above, the roundabout not only is critical to walker safety, it also fulfills the same function for cycle track at intersections—the bicycle community itself through the Palo Alto research decades ago identified the safety of sidepaths as one of high intersection crash rates erasing whatever advantage the sidepath might provide by giving the bicyclist physical separation from road segment traffic (as cycle track does). Simply, the roundabout with an off-travelway path for cyclists addresses the issue identified in the Palo Alto study for both sidepaths as well as cycle track. Note that the Champlain Parkway current design repeats the very treatment found unsafe in the Palo Alto study, a side path which passes through four signalized intersections!
Recommendation 4: It is fair to say that transportation planning and particularly projects in Chittenden County have failed miserably to serve business and economic growth and
viability. There are many blatant examples. Can any state be pointed out with a poorer entrance for its largest employer than IBM in Essex Jct.? A roundabout as an entrance at the Park Street and Maple Streets entrance would show that Vermont really is concerned whether IBM stays or leaves. While the decades old Church Street Marketplace cannot be overpraised, the failure to expand the "shared space" elements along Bank, Cherry, and College Streets remains inexcusable--time to work on expanding "shared space" to bring merchants on those streets the same kind of expanded opportunity to draw customers as those on the Marketplace. Other locations in the County need examination for Marketplace-type conversion to shared space.
With the possible sale of the IBM plant as part of IBM-Lenovo deal along with more Essex Plant reductions in force since this recommendation, is it not time to consider the entries on Park and Maple Street to IBM and space now shifted to others and called Technology Park?
With the construction of the new Burlington Transit Center the expansion of the Marketplace outward to serve businesses makes even more sense. So also does the introduction of cycle track along adjacent streets—Battery, Pearl, Main, and S. Winooski in particular. And, of course single lane roundabout where they can fit in—South Winooski/Main Street may well accommodate a single lane roundabout, act as a traffic calmer and a formal gateway to the Marketplace itself. While this may seem somewhat extreme, a study of how a “bicycle spaceway” along the center of the Marketplace might make sense now as increasing numbers of those accessing the marketplace or wanting to move within it will be traveling by bicycle.
Recommendation 5: Bike track needs to be installed starting in town and city centers--expanding off the Dorset/Kennedy Drive bike track type grade separated paths in South Burlington and off the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington. For example, why not bike track from the Marketplace down Main Street to the Main Street Safety [Landing}--with a roundabout first at Pine Street. Such an installation might well have prevented the tragic fatality at Main/St. Paul in December 2010.
“Bike track” means “cycle track” in the language of today—this is discussed in more detail above. Cycle track from the Marketplace to the waterfront became the one cycle track contained in the City’s “Plan BTV.”
Other recommendations: "…revising estimates of vehicle travel growth taking demographic changes into consideration, fitting housing development needs to changed demographics…”
Among a short list of other recommendations, it is clear that CCRPC lacks a coherent rationale for evaluating modal level changes, vehicle miles of travel changes, population and employment change, etc. Using the word “growth” must now be altered to “change” since many changes today involve decrease as opposed to increases. Certainly estimations and projections are not easy—perhaps a high and low estimate might be provided and project
determinations be far more nuanced by potential changes with consideration, for example, of employing demand management to maintain a low traffic estimate in a corridor as a way to utilize a safer roundabout alternative over the clearly less favorable signal alternative.
Review of 2013 Recommendations submitted February 19, 2013
The 2013 UPWP recommendations reviewed the 2012 recommendations which were generally ignored by CCRPC and with some variation repeated the 2012 recommendations. The initial commuter Action Outline draft received attention as did the "transportation tectonic shift" in state transportation finance just emerging in Virginia and Massachusetts. (Note that overall FHWA’s “Highway Statistics” shows of all public expenditures on highways, about $200 billion in 2011, 38% came from non-user levies including property taxes, general funds and bonding proceeds.)
Finally, the CCRPC invented population and employment growth projections which suggest a County growth of 1,700 each year 2015-2035, about 35,000 total. Yet statewide Vermont growth 2010-2013 amounts to 277 yearly or 23 monthly over three years. Not a very good warmup for the Chittenden “population express” launch next year. There is a growth of 1,700 a year, however, going on right now, the projection 2000-2030 of over-65 population by the Census doubling the percent of Vermont population over-65 from 12 to 24 percent (U.S. percentage by 2030 about 20%). Note the over-65 crowd car travel drops by 40% compared to the high car travel group aged 25-55. And not surprisingly seniors travel more by planes, trains, and public transportation.
The “black hole” of walking and bicycling infrastructure in Burlington, Chittenden County and the State—and the United States
The balance of comments directly relate to the “black hole” in walking and bicycling infrastructure in the City of Burlington Chittenden County and the State.
But first, consider the study needs already directly enumerated or implied:
1. The need for updates of feasibility and routing of light rail, a first phase to align from the waterfront through the Marketplace to FAHC/UVM, and finally (my vision) under Main Street to connect east and west UVM facilities and ending at the edge of Champlain College. In addition the waterfront section can be extended from the rail passenger loading platform northward parallel to Lake Street ending near the New Moran facility thereby providing access to tends of thousands of visitors and Vermonters to the waterfront facilities and services. And undertake a new study of a north-south light rail facility extending from Flynn School on the North End to the bottom of Pine Street on the south end.
2. Revisions of studies and approaches to project evaluation as they relate to population, employment, traffic, etc., such that flexibility is provided in possible options. Benefit cost analysis should be applied to all projects, costs and benefits which incorporate social costs as well as environmental, motor fuel, and crash costs and benefits.
3. Complete examination of all major streets and thoroughfares for inclusion of cycle track and roundabouts.
4. Working in a coordinated fashion with Central Vermont and Franklin County planning agencies, undertake an update of past plans and detailed feasibility for commuter rail services along with a consideration of potential and actual intercity services.
5. Initiate a series of town centers—Essex Jct., Williston, and Hinesburg, for examples—for full re-construction which includes both roundabouts and cycle track. Note the irrelevance of bypassing Essex Five Corners when single-lane roundabout accommodates all traffic (as also found, for example, in the Taft Corner scoping). Can the CCRPC explain why a simple solution is not even evaluated in a scoping study for that intersection?
6. Revision of all current designs for streets—particularly the Champlain Parkway with a cost of $37 million—to insure roundabouts and walkable/bikable infrastructure is included. Almost by definition the absence of roundabouts—like in the Champlain Parkway design—means the new roadway is neither walkable or bikable in spite of street sections with a shared sidepath. With an annual transportation program of about $160 million in federal funds it makes no sense to spend any of that money for poor quality, substandard walking and bicycling infrastructure.
When describing walking and bicycling modes in our nation, State, County and City one must only look to Rutgers’s Professor John Pucher and his study of walking and bicycling fatality rates and injury rates to determine the almost complete absence of safety for the “active” modes—our urban fatality rates for walking are four times per mile of travel on foot and almost three times by bicycle even though mostly young adult men bicycle in the U.S. while the Germany/Netherlands study comparison involves bicycling by all ages and skills in the comparison countries. An even more startling statistic is the U.S. bicycle injury rate per mile of travel 25 times that of the two Western European nations urban areas.
While Burlington does have a “bicycle friendly” and “walking friendly” designation it represents more a sport equivalent of making a good effort than any objective measurement against gold standards set by a multitude of Western European urban areas. In reality when it comes to walkable and bikable streets our urban areas constitute a black hole.
However we can point to few isolated examples of the kind of infrastructure here in Vermont, the seeds of what require hundreds of millions of dollars of urban and town investment to reach a status of solid walkable and bikable urban infrastructure. (Many urban areas since 1990 have developed excellent seasonable recreational paths, including the outstanding Burlington Bikepath and other similar facilities in other Chittenden County towns but these are by definition seasonal, generally unlit and unplowed, and do not qualify, therefore, as mainline transportation facilities.) There are two notable walkable corridors in Vermont. The first is the Burlington Church Street Marketplace, a four block long shopping walkers-only corridor on Church Street, which opened in 1981. The second, completing half a 1995 plan, Main Street in Manchester Center came on line with the completion of two roundabouts (three total now) in November 2012 including a “bridgebout” roundabout replacing “malfunction junction” there in the center of this self-described “Fifth Avenue of the Mountains.”
In the case of Manchester Center the three single-lane roundabouts with sidewalks provide first class walkability. The second half of the Manchester Center plan of roundabouts replacing two signals on adjoining Depot Street can easily be revised to include cycle track to create a true walkable/bikable street.
The Middlebury town center roundabout and Montpelier’s Keck Circle (1995) represent other points of light in walkability in an otherwise black hole of walkability. One can argue that although they do not meet the intersection criteria (pathed roundabouts, preferably of the one-lane kind) the cycle track along Dorset Street, South Burlington between Williston Road and Kennedy Drive, the shared sidepath along Kennedy Drive there and the Riverside Avenue shared side-path in Burlington qualify as bikable—certainly very close to bikable status. But compared to the East and West Winooski paths in Montpelier with a plan in place to connect the two at some point with a roundabout the Burlington and South Burlington cycle track and sidepaths remain on the lower rung of bikability. If one rejects the Champlain Parkway design—as it should be rejected as unwalkable and unbikable for lack of one-lane roundabout safety provision at the intersections and the lack of separate walk and bicycle space, then the other treatments until roundabouts are provided at intersections below a reasonable standard.
Finally, Burlington will be the site of the first busy public street roundabout in Chittenden and Franklin Counties when a single laner arrives in 2017 at the junction of Shelburne St./Locust St./St. Paul St. (we all call the location “the rotary”). The “Rotary” Roundabout completion in 2017 mark the 27th year since the first roundabouts were built in the U.S. and 22 years since the first roundabout in the northeast—Keck Circle in Montpelier.
To reach the equivalent French roundabout production rates 1993-2003 (1,400 a year) we would build about four roundabouts yearly in the county and 1-2 in Burlington, hardly a daunting task when you start from zero. Vermont does have two-miles of cycle track on Dorset Street, South Burlington and using relative Dutch proportions we would have in place today: 45 miles in Burlington, 170 miles in the County and 670 miles statewide.
We can and must do better to create the safest world class streets in our urban areas and this means miles and miles of cycle track and roundabouts at key intersections.
1. School Release Nov 1, 2013. Keck Circle Montpelier—walkable node. Shows bicycles, emergency vehicle going and returning, charter and school buses, walking
school bus—5:43 minute video by R. J. Lalumiere, Burlington
2. NHDOT—photos of 10 NH roundabouts, list of 28 NH roundabouts and 21 planned/under consideration, links, background, etc.
. Cycling safety what Copenhagen can teach global cities
4. Pathed roundabouts NL [Netherlands] Bicyclist, graphic, historic photos of Amsterdam location where pathed roundabout was built 2007—videos and text.
6. Glens Falls, NY five-leg roundabout—neighborhood views before and after construction
7. Dozens of photos of cycle track (with examples of unprotected bike lanes, a google grouping (?)
9. . Swedish national highway research agency, VTI paper on roundabout safety
Thank you for opportunity to submit these comments.