Mainely Planning

Why plan for an uncertain future? Our world is changing in ways that we can hardly comprehend. The planning we have been engaged in over the last 100 years, is geared to a world with abundant energy, a stable climate, and a dwindling natural resource endowment that is reliant on cheap energy for extraction. That world is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Oil price spikes due to supply/demand and geopolitical concerns, water shortages (Google Lake Mead, Central Valley, CA or the Ogallala Aquifer for details), and soil depletion are just a few of the problems we face. As we move forward, the notion that we can continue with business as usual (BAU) is not going to sustain us.

Thinking creatively and making difficult decisions will test our abilities, push our cultural boundaries and hopefully shape a world where these uncomfortable realities can be dealt with in an equitable and meaningful manner. I write about things I see, think, and work on as I transition from being a planning student into the world of planning. I am neither a technological optimist, thinking we can invent our way out of all our problems, nor a doomer, believing in returning to a world much like pre-industrial times. I believe that our creativity combined with the lessons from the past will be instrumental tools for laying the foundation for the path forward. Some of my ideas may seem radical, others are just based on common sense and keen observations.

Links of Note

Mainely Rural
The Old Pine Tree
Strong Towns
Project For Public Spaces
Streets Blog
Cap'n Transit Rides Again
Human Transit
Pedestrian Observations
The Broken Sidewalk
Maine Architecture
The Vigorous North
Depot Redux
Reason and Rail
Car Free Maine
Walk Around Portland

Transportation for America State Fact Sheets

A Reason to Plan

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Posts tagged "Transit"

I have talked about improved rail service as not only a tool to increase mobility, but to build a sustainable development future for the cities and towns where rail is feasible. This Portland Daily Sun article speaks positively about the prospects for studying the link between two of Maine’s three metropolitan areas. Here is the link and text below:

Resolution Aims to Document Support for Portland to L/A Commuter Service

Published Date Thursday, 20 December 2012 18:06 Written by Craig Lyons

A plan to explore commuter rail service for Portland, Lewiston and Auburn is on track to get support from the communities’ governing bodies.

The Portland City Council’s Transportation Sustainability and Energy Committee endorsed a resolution that will be sent to the councils in Portland, Lewiston and Auburn to document the support for a commuter transportation system running between the two metropolitan areas.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said there have been some conversations among the cities about a bus commuter service but the decision was made to talk more about a rail service. He said the resolution is straight-forward and will show a joint commitment by the three cities to study a commuter service.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said studying a commuter link is an important piece of planning for economic and urban development. He said the service wouldn’t only accommodate existing commuters but could open the door for the under-employed population by linking the two job markets.

LaBonte said Auburn is committed to the creation of a commuter system and recently allocated $500,000 for a transportation hub along Route 4.

"We want to see this happen quickly," he said.

The committee endorsed a joint resolution among Portland, Lewiston and Auburn that would support a feasibility study to look at a passenger rail service between the two metropolitan areas. The resolution was requested by the committee to start the process to look at the rail linkage between the communities after hearing a demand for that type of service.

By endorsing the resolution, the cities would seek state and federal grant funding to pay for the evaluation, according to a staff memo, and the study would include pieces on land use, economic development, environmental impacts, congestion mitigation and economic justice.

The study would explore additional topics that weren’t addressed by a two-year-old study done by Maine Department of Transportation.
The cities would jointly seek grant funding for the study from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System and the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center.

Gary Higginbottom, of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said the study should look beyond the three cities but incorporate stops in the economic centers along the route. He said places like Falmouth, Yarmouth and New Gloucester could all benefit from a rail connection to the cities.

LaBonte said he’s interested in the commuter service having a long life and that’s likely going to require some sort of public subsidy. He said having a population density is key to building support for a contribution from the taxpayers.

Trying to serve more areas that might not have the population density could cause a public subsidy to lose its appeal, LaBonte said.

There was mention of commuter bus service, which does increase mobility, but will not inspire good urban development that is sustainable. Nobody ever built TOD around the bus station!

Getting people to the grocery store is important. Food deserts, car free folks, all important considerations. However, there are 2 grocery stores not more than 10 minutes apart on GPMetro’s Route 4 schedule. One of the biggest destinations, USM, however is not on the schedule and during peak traffic periods has a 25 minute headway between the before and after stops. Considering that buses run late sometimes, it is difficult to tell if you missed the bus at USM or not, especially when there is 25 minutes between the bookend stops.

I understand that efficiency is important in designing a bus route schedule, and real estate on paper schedules is at a premium, but doesn’t USM deserve a spot on the schedule? They represent what could be a huge market for GPMetro and due to many reasons, too numerous to mention here, are largely untapped. I have mentioned USM’s climate goals before, and every step in the right direction helps out. Making transit easier for people to use will increase ridership, decrease carbon emissions, and make for better places. 

The Portland Press Herald ran a piece today on the slowdown of our outward expansion to exurban blah. While I believe that this is true, the 2010 census suggests that the suburbs are still growing. Below are two maps, one is the percent of population growth in the York/Cumberland County region in Southern Maine. The second is the share of growth that occurred in the region.

It is important to state this early on: I think the press herald is correct in reporting this. Information from the housing market suggests that houses in the far flung exurban markets are sitting for a lot longer, and the prices are dropping precipitously. However census data is a tricky thing, especially since it captures what has happened in 10 years, and not a play-by-play account. That is what the ACS data is for.

The percent change map below indicates that the highest population growth rate is in the exurban fringe. For the most part, the core cities in Southern Maine are on the coast. This is a historical legacy.

The second map is the share of growth in Southern Maine, basically giving us a who contributes to the regions growth the most. Add up the percentages and you should get something like: 100%. We see that Brunswick, York and Ogunquit actually had a negative contribution to the share of growth. Now think about the top map and how it has red towns in the western part of the region. The share of growth map still places the most contribution to regional growth squarely in Portland and towns in its immediate vicinity, with the exception of Waterboro. These towns & cities are where the growth is, but in terms of percentage as indicated in the above map, they aren’t growing as fast.

I largely suspect that ACS’s next release will show the complete slowdown in the exurbs that experienced the rapid growth in the 90’s and early 00’s. As we begin to consider the impact fuel prices, congestion, and long commutes, have on our wallet and ultimately our quality of life, living in the far flung suburbs will be a thing of the past. Drive till you qualify, will be replaced with a nice inner suburban home and a bus pass.

There is a great little resource on the interweb called the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index. The index looks at housing costs and compares it to housing + transportation costs. Here is picture of the housing affordability in the Portland region.

Notice how much of the area is pretty affordable, indicated by the yellow color. This indicates that housing costs are less than 30% of household income. Now, what if we add in the costs of commuting, and just the tangible costs like fuel, insurance, car payments, registration.

The story changes considerably. The Portland Peninsula, Westbrook and South Portland fall below the 45% threshold of affordability, yet the entire rest of the region is greater than 45% representing a significant burden on household budgets.

When I think about the significance of this, I am pretty sure that it has much to do with density and good mobility options within the Greater Portland Region.

What is the take-away here:

- If fuel prices continue to increase, expect more people to move in from out of the sticks.

- Creating good mobility opportunities in dense places along meaningful corridors will be key to the success of many small towns outside the central region. Places like Gorham, Little Falls/South Windham, and North Windham will be able to succeed if they have these options available to their citizens.

- Towns that are not transit served may be in for a tough ride as markets reflect the new energy paradigm. State and regional planners need to ensure that investments reflect that fact, so as to not squander the public purse.

- Recognize that some places might not make it. It is tough to pick winners and loosers, but investments can’t be applied equally across the landscape or it would result in very little gain.

- Look for ways to encourage TOD investment in small towns that can support reasonable mobility options.

Source: & and

Transit ridership is on the way up, but what does this graph from TPM really mean? Is there a useful comparison to vehicle miles traveled that can really show how much transit is actually growing? I couldn’t find VMT of transit ridership and am guessing that is difficult to obtain since we don’t track when people get off transit vehicles. It is also not a real useful comparison because transit doesn’t serve far flung suburbs, which are relegated to automobile dependency.
Playing around with some Federal Data (below), we see that vehicle miles traveled in America is also on the rise with a similar recession dip in 2008 that transit encountered, and the tail of 2010 although somewhat level in appearance is trending back upwards as the economy regains its momentum.
Being a transit fan, I think that any increase in transit use is good, but thus far, it appears that transit use is merely in lock-step with VMT. Until some useful metrics (which there probably are, but I haven’t discovered) are available, these relationships are difficult to determine.
So what does it mean?

Transit use is growing. People still drive a lot. Until places can link transit and land use together in a meaningful fashion, people will continue to drive and seek out land use strategies that reflect that larger reality.How do we change people’s behaviors to encourage better land use decisions? I think an aging population will help as more people seek living arrangements that allow them abandon their cars. I also think it will be financial, but not entirely related to gas prices. The cost of sprawl are growing as we now face the maintenance phase of suburbia’s infrastructure. This will be the painful fiscal reality that will be felt at the federal, state and local level. It won’t be pretty.

Source of top infographic: via Omar on Pinterest

Couple questions:

- Is MTV relevant any more? Last I checked they sucked. Confession: I haven’t had a TV in 18+ years so how would I know?

- Fuel prices are part of the equation, but not the entire story. Is the younger generation environmentally conscious or merely frugal?

A statement disguised as a question:

- When will GM, Ford and Chrysler start building good transit vehicles, and not involve themselves in running (destroying) transportation services? Wait, they already did that.

A Statement:

- Rural areas will continue to feel a long slow death until they can build walkable villages and town centers that are transit connected to larger metros. It isn’t that we don’t like these places. It isn’t that we don’t want to live in small towns (pick anywhere in Maine outside Bangor, Portland, L/A). We might, but we need transportation options that are frequent enough to feel like we have freedom.

Source of confusion:

When is my bus coming? GP Metro is putting QR codes on signs so users can access schedules quickly via smart phones and devices. Wonder if they will be using GPS tracking for real-time information? Would be nice.

I rail (no pun intended of course) on about fuel prices, sustainability, and changing how we do business with regards to transporting ourselves. As I have noticed in Maine, we are lucky because the State has done a good job of preserving rail corridors. These will be instrumental to our transition to a more sustainable existence and density along those corridors is a big part of that. When crunching 2010 census figures, I found that within 20 miles of arbitrarily chosen (I looked at towns with rail and towns with people in them) station areas, over 900,000 or Maine’s 1.3 million people reside.This is a tremendous opportunity for conventional passenger service and allowing for people to have some great mobility options other than cars.

The map below is a view of the Southern Maine Portion of a proposed route map showing station locations, 20 mile buffers around the stations, and population density of census blocks within those 20 mile buffers. 

This map (below) is more of the same with 5 mile buffers around the proposed rail stations. More than 560,000 people live within census blocks 5 miles from these stations. At some point I will crunch the within 1 mile of stations numbers and get back to this, but regardless, this represents a great opportunity for both commuter travel and conventional longer distance service.

As we seek out ways to keep our population mobile and provide opportunity for employment, I think rail will play a big role in that mobility equation. For now I just wanted to talk about density, show a picture (map) of where Maine is at in terms of some initial feasibility. At a future point in time, I would certainly like to talk about current rail infrastructure, transit oriented development, rail vehicle technologies, and a few other important ideas related to this.

Here are some other maps that I created with station towns identified. Again, these aren’t official anything, just a boy, some data, and some ideas. Northern Maine above, Southern Maine below, just like it is on the map.

Enjoy. Comments welcome.

For a Presidential candidate or any candidate for office to make the claim that he or she can seriously influence fuel prices is ignorant at best and outright dishonest at worst. As the media monkeys follow Gingrich, Santorum, Romney and oddly Palin around still, and we continue to hear about fuel prices and how they would drill here, eliminate regulations there, and would somehow have gas that flows as cheaply as tap water. These are educated people who have advisers, interns, and staffers who are probably highly educated as well. So I am going to come out and say it: “These candidates and media figures are being dishonest. They don’t want to engage the public in serious discussion about what it would take to reduce fuel costs or more realistically, ways in which we can reduce the impact that fuel prices have on people.” 

Reality is a difficult thing to discuss. It is often politically inconvenient to talk in a serious manner about things someone is paying you big money to not talk about. The right doesn’t want to talk about transit, the environment, and smart land use, just as the Obama doesn’t want to talk about Wall Street. Both sides of the aisle know who butters the bread. So what if candidates could only take public money, or private campaign contributions were limited to $100/candidate/contributor, and only from people within the sphere of a candidates constituency? Would they then be able to have real grown up people discussions?

There is someone willing to talk about fuel prices and how it impacts America. Montana Senator Jeff Bingaman in a speech on the Senate floor made an attempt. Sadly, I am not sure anyone was listening.

But what can Congress do to help ease the burden of high prices for U.S. consumers, when oil prices are determined mostly outside our borders? I think a realistic, responsible answer has to be focused on becoming less vulnerable to oil price changes over the medium- and long-term. And we become less vulnerable by using less oil.

He included some very simple, yet effective charts that I have callously copied and posted here.

The US has much cheaper fuel prices, yet shares in the same pattern of fuel prices throughout the developed world. I believe this is primarily due to taxes on fuel, something that we don’t have a taste for and choose to externalize costs of our road & highway infrastructure onto the general fund. European nations use fuel taxes to build their infrastructure as well as transit.

The above chart shows fuel prices in blue and production in red. Notice that in 2008-2009, we produced a higher percentage of fuel, yet costs increased.

This chart is a bit misleading because fuel production was trending back upward at the tail end of the Bush years and really took off post 2008. What is the most misleading is that exploration and infrastructure development take a lot of time before oil comes out of the ground. Regardless, the current administration hasn’t done anything to stem the flow as of yet.

Looking back through recent history, I think the most honest statement any President has made about our oil consumption was Bush. Yes, Bush, who in his state of the Union speech, proclaimed: “America is addicted to oil”. Not sure how his handlers let that one slip by, but he said it. This ran counter to Cheney’s proclamation that the “American way of life is not negotiable”, made after the attacks on American soil.

What is true however is that oil is becoming more scarce. Cheney was correct in a way that he may have not meant. We aren’t negotiating our way of life. We have no way to negotiate with supply and demand, it simply is the way it is. Because we are so dependent on oil, fluctuations in price have more dramatic affects on consumers. There is no negotiating the fact that you live 50 miles from where you work and must pay increasingly more for your travel costs. It is happening to you whether you like it or not. Those who are insulated from these cost increases will save money, whether it is because they live in a dense walkable neighborhood served by transit, choose to telecommute or if we ride a bike more.

So, how do we negotiate with reality? It is quite simple actually, we learn about how to create resilient communities. We build transit infrastructure, increase density, and as a result of better, more efficient land use, walk and bike more. This is a real way in which we can negotiate with reality, one that will insulate us from inconvenient truths. As a result, we will become a more fit and healthy people. We will get to know our community and those who live in the community. We will save money. Eventually we may realize that we don’t need all the road space we originally built. The four lane stroad can become a two lane road with bike lanes and good sidewalks. This too will save communities money. Granted the path is hard and we will fight like hell to keep business as usual, because that is all we know.

Frequency is freedom.
- Jarrett Walker, Human Transit

Your car costs about $8.5k per year to buy, fill, fix and park according to the AAA. Living in a place with access to transit, without a car will save you most of that.