Tag: 2021-04-nn-feature

Transit agencies praise Covid-19 relief bill

Transit agencies praise Covid-19 relief bill

By Sandy Smith, March 10, 2021

SMART Train in Santa Rosa, 2017. Because of COVID-induced funding shortfalls, many public transit agencies have been facing doomsday scenarios: fare hikes, massive service cuts, delayed projects. Photo: Haha169, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons, http://bit.ly/2gcyaCo

The $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” … includes a $30.5-billion life preserver thrown to the nation’s public transit agencies, whose budgets have been blown to bits in the wake of steep ridership losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Transit agencies across the nation are giving thanks for the infusion of money, which will help them maintain service levels and facilities for getting essential workers to and from work. But the relief won’t last forever, and ridership is likely to recover slowly at best. That’s now leading some agencies to examine other ways of raising the money they will need to survive. For some agencies blessed with large landholdings around transit stations, that means getting into the real estate development business themselves.

Meanwhile, even though the pandemic also caused vehicle miles traveled to fall, the fall hasn’t been quite as steep, and as the nation climbs out of the pandemic hole, it’s quite likely that some of those former transit riders will take to the roads instead out of concern for their own safety on board. …

And ordinary pedestrians in Pennsylvania and a handful of other states may also want to venture onto city streets and sidewalks with extra caution going forward, now that those states are approving legislation granting robot delivery vehicles the same legal rights as pedestrians.

Transit agencies welcome $30.5 billion Covid-19 lifeline …

… Railway Age reports that one of the revisions will funnel more money to transit systems nationwide than the original version had called for. According to the article, the original plan President Biden announced on Jan. 17 included $20 billion to “protect the future of transit,” and the original House budget reconciliation bill included $10 billion more than that. The bill reported out of the Senate added another $500 million to that figure.

The transit industry’s reaction to the news has been uniformly positive. The Railway Age article quoted American Public Transportation Association (APTA) President and CEO Paul P. Skoutelas as saying in a post-passage statement, “We greatly appreciate that the bill includes $30.5 billion of emergency transit funding and distributes these funds in a manner that ensures that all public transit agencies can continue to be a lifeline for our essential workers.” WPIX in New York reports that Patrick Foye, head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, called the bill’s passage “a great day for all Americans, mass transit customers, and our heroic employees.”

The bill that cleared the Senate gives urban systems $26.09 billion to support their operations, the same amount as in the original House bill. Combined with the two prior rounds of COVID relief, urban mass transit agencies will receive 132 percent of their 2018 operating costs.

Rural systems will get $317 million, up $36 million from what the House bill authorized. This amount will cover anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of their 2018 operating costs according to a sliding-scale formula.

Services for seniors and people with disabilities will get $50 million, and $2.21 billion will help cover personnel and operating costs of subcontractors directly attributable to the pandemic. Both of these amounts are unchanged from the House version.

Finally, the bill will fund capital investments to the tune of $1.675 billion, up $425 million from the amount in the House version.

… While searching for new revenue sources themselves

Even though the American Rescue Plan has produced hosannas in transit-agency boardrooms nationwide, many of those same agencies also realize that the assistance remains a Band-Aid on a rather large wound. A number of transit agencies are thus also searching for ways to generate more revenue to support their operations as the country emerges from under the pandemic’s shadow but public transit riders do not.

Fast Company reports that several large transit agencies are finding low-hanging fruit in the land they already own around their transit stations. A good portion of that land now has parking spaces on it — lots built on the assumption that drivers would leave their cars in the lots and take the train to their final destinations. …

[A]ccording to Jessie O’Malley Solis, transit-oriented development manager for San Jose’s Valley Transportation Authority, “In the ’80s, our transit agency built seas of parking, and the theory was if you build it they will come, meaning they’ll park here and ride. That’s not how it worked in our area,” she told Fast Company. “Just building seas of parking wasn’t going to generate ridership. You needed to generate connectivity along the system to make it valuable for riders. That’s been a missing element.”

The VTA is now betting that residents will provide that connectivity. The agency, which owns about 140 acres of land around its stations, has identified 25 sites in the most densely built parts of the valley that it wants to turn into apartments, offices, and shops. When fully built out, the sites would add about 7,000 housing units, 2,500 of them affordable, and several million square feet of office and commercial space to Silicon Valley’s tight real estate market. According to the article, the developments will produce $250 million in initial revenue for the VTA, plus ongoing revenue from the ground rents the developers of the projects will pay to the agency, which will continue to own the land beneath them.

The article also notes that the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) has similar designs on some of the 400 acres of land it owns, including both park-and-ride lots and air rights over rapid transit stations. It has 18 development projects now underway, with affordable housing mandated at seven of the sites. Two of the projects are already under construction, joining several developments MARTA has already facilitated.

Done right, such projects can go a long way towards filling empty seats on trains and doing so more effectively than park-and-ride lots do. The article notes that studies have found that transit-oriented development projects have caused ridership to rise by 20 to 40 percent at individual stations, and one study in California found that when people moved to within a half-mile of a transit station, half of them switched from driving to taking transit for their commutes.

Moreover, transit-oriented developments based on 99-year ground leases ensure steady streams of revenue for the landowning agencies. 

States say delivery robots are people, too

One of the features of our legal system that allows our economy to function is the legal fiction that a corporation is a person. Now a parallel legal fiction bids to make just walking down the street trickier at best for city-dwellers in at least five states.

Axios reports that Florida, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin have all passed laws giving autonomous delivery robots free or nearly free access to sidewalks. Pennsylvania’s law goes one step further, classing the robots, which look like picnic coolers on wheels, as “pedestrians.” Said “pedestrians” can weigh as much as 550 pounds and travel down the sidewalk at speeds as high as 12 mph.

So far, 10 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws permitting the delivery bots to operate. Robot backers and developers, including Amazon and FedEx, say the vehicles hold the promise of faster deliveries and reduced congestion and emissions from idling delivery vans parked on streets. But pedestrian advocates and the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) consider these laws spectacularly misguided; NACTO says the robots “should be severely restricted if not banned outright.”

According to a Pittsburgh CityPaper article on Pennsylvania’s law, which took effect last December, labor unions like the Teamsters also oppose such legislation, for reasons that need no explanation. That article also notes that most of the laws passed to date governing the operation of delivery bots class them as pedestrians as well, but Pennsylvania’s is unusually generous in its weight and speed restrictions.

Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

Read the full article here. (9 min.)

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Meet a Local Planner: Miroo Desai, AICP

Meet a Local Planner: Miroo Desai, AICP

By Catarina Kidd, AICP

Miroo Desai, AICP, senior planner at the City of Emeryville, is Northern Section’s mid-career planners’ group director. In 2019, she received a Northern Section Award recognizing her as an outstanding mid-career planner. Desai was elected Vice President for Diversity and Equity for APA California for 2020-21 and serves on the Chapter’s Executive Board. In 2020, she received APA California’s Distinguished Contribution Award. She holds a master’s degree in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, a master’s in urban planning from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Delhi University.

When did you begin your volunteer work for APA?

In 2009, I started volunteering for the Northern Section Board as a Planning Diversity co-director. Among all the diversity initiatives, my favorite was speaking to middle- and high-school students with co-director Cindy Ma, AICP. Together, we introduced students to planning as a career and advised young people how to be more civic-minded.

When did you begin at the state level?

In 2012, the APA California Board nominated me to represent Northern California as a Membership Inclusion Coordinator (Northern). One of the major tasks of this position was to organize the Diversity Summit hosted at the state conference each year. Previously, there was no funding for nominated members to attend the Board’s annual January retreat. One year, I decided to attend and just pay my own way. The California Board talked about the strategic plan for the year, with goals such as advancing diversity and inclusion. I advised that nominated members whose portfolio is “coordinating inclusion” activities should be sponsored to participate in the APA California Board’s strategic planning and have a vote in key decisions. This feedback resulted in a new elected and funded position, Vice President for Diversity and Equity, in 2018. I appreciate that APA California’s Past Presidents Julia Lave Johnston and Pete Parkinson, AICP, supported this change.

The focus on diversity is trending nationally. Your thoughts?

California has been slightly ahead of the diversity discussion. I am part of an APA National Task Force whose mission is to survey and share the chapters’ best diversity practices.

On what are you working for Northern Section?

Some mid-career planners find it hard to get involved with APA. Some are at the point where they are raising children, so it can be challenging to participate in events or volunteer. I would like to see more mid-career folks represented. These planners bring a lot of experience and perspective to the community and our profession. We want to increase their influence. Mid-career planners, please contact me with your ideas!

On what have you focused in Emeryville?

When I joined the City in 2004, I worked on a General Plan oriented toward high and medium density and mixed-use development. The stage was set in the late eighties and early nineties when a progressive city council changed the land use dynamic by seeking federal funding for brownfields to allow redevelopment on formerly industrial, contaminated sites. That contributed to Emeryville’s success story.

How was Emeryville different from your previous roles?

After being in large organizations (Oakland and San Mateo County), Emeryville was a change. It’s a small but progressive city. The first thing I noticed was that it did not have any single-family zoning districts. The General Plan established an area of stability, including duplexes, fourplexes, remaining warehouses, etc., with a focus on high density outside of that area. The trend for office space is toward the Life Sciences, which continue to have a big presence in the city.

What are Emeryville’s biggest challenges?

Housing affordability remains a problem. In Emeryville, redevelopment has primarily occurred on industrial sites with limited displacement. However, the housing developments I have worked on and approved are not places where I could afford to buy or rent.

How do you view state legislation for housing affordability?

State legislation is a result of cities encouraging job creation but not the needed housing to accommodate growth. Planners can customize the housing types that work for their communities — they do not have to be high-rises. There are plenty of two- and three-story buildings that are multifamily. State legislation that helps non-profit housing developers with funding is also needed.

What is the planner’s role in the housing affordability crisis?

Planners must re-examine their practices regarding housing affordability. They should facilitate housing approvals and not create obstacles. When we update our General Plans and promote “neighborhood compatibility,” we are advising decision-makers to keep things as they are. Is that the way to go?

We should advise our consultants that their job is to give progressive ideas and steer away from what has not worked. As an example, Berkeley has three BART stations, yet you come out of the Ashby station to a sea of single-family homes. In 2021, Berkeley is finally talking about densifying around BART stations, which is not a new concept to any planner.

What advice do you have for the many planners who work in politically difficult environments?

We get caught up with people’s complaints. A big portion of our work is educating our citizens and elected officials about what benefits them as a community and showing them how we can solve a problem.

You cannot talk with people who are not planners about some of the challenges you face. Talk to another planner outside your city, whether it is about a bad boss or a bad politician. When you connect with other planners, you realize your problem may not be unique and others may have found a solution.

Interviewer Catarina Kidd, AICP, is senior development manager at FivePoint and a guest writer for Northern News. All interviews are edited.

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The spatial heterogeneity of gentrification

The spatial heterogeneity of gentrification

Takeaways from a Feb. 12 webinar on research by Hyojung Lee and Kristin L. Perkins, PD&R Edge, HUD USER, March 9, 2021

Although gentrification is a significant concern among affordable housing and community advocates, most research examining the significance and patterns of gentrification has produced inconsistent results. On February 12, 2021, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University hosted a webinar in which Hyojung Lee, assistant professor in the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management at Virginia Tech, presented research into the relationship between gentrification and residential mobility.

[Download the 60 slides from the webinar here. PDF, 2.9 MB. View the 49-minute webinar video here.]

Lee undertook this research with Kristin Perkins, assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, who also fielded questions during the webinar. Lee and Perkins found a moderate increase in the chances of out-neighborhood migration by existing residents in a gentrifying neighborhood; however, the differing contexts of the neighborhoods’ broader metropolitan areas produce significant differences in these residents’ relocation patterns. Deriving more nuanced insights into the varying patterns of gentrification, Lee and Perkins suggest, can inform policies designed to ameliorate these displacement effects.

Different urban environments experience gentrification differently

To learn how differing urban characteristics might affect neighborhood migration patterns, Lee and Perkins sorted the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas according to 25 characteristics that describe cities’ population, socioeconomic condition, and housing, and they divided these MSAs into 6 general groupings: coastal and tech cities, immigrant gateways, southern and mountain cities, formerly industrial cities, Florida retirement cities, and cities in California’s Inland Empire and the Texas border region.

Within each city, Lee and Perkins classified each census tract as nongentrifying, gentrifying, or nongentrifying but gentrifiable, and they compared resident migration from gentrifying neighborhoods to gentrifiable neighborhoods using 1-year microdata from the 2011 to 2019 American Community Survey (ACS). This study defines a “gentrifiable” neighborhood as one that is located in a principal city of an MSA and having a median household income that is less than 80 percent of the MSA’s overall median income. A “gentrifying” neighborhood is a gentrifiable neighborhood that, compared with the MSA overall, has had an above-average increase in its share of college graduates and an above-average increase in median housing prices, as measured by either home value or gross rent.

Within cities, Lee and Perkins found a modestly higher instance of migration from gentrifying neighborhoods than from gentrifiable neighborhoods, which, says Lee, confirms previous research findings. Between cities, they found that the fast-growing metropolitan areas in the mountain states and in the south showed the highest level of movement out of gentrifying neighborhoods, surpassing levels in coastal and tech cities, the immigrant gateway cities, and the formerly industrial cities, which, according to Lee, surprised the researchers. One possible explanation for the level of movement out of mountain and southern cities could be an abundance of other housing opportunities, allowing residents priced out of their current neighborhoods to find more affordable options elsewhere in the MSA.

Next steps

Lee says that uncovering the spatial heterogeneity of gentrification may help explain some of the inconsistencies or ambivalence of previous research, and this study’s findings raise significant questions for future research. Perkins described one such line of inquiry: whether local regulations, such as tenant protections, impact residential mobility. The pair is currently working to better understand the kinds of neighborhoods where outmigrants have relocated and the demographics of outmigrants.

Lee and Perkins argue that a more nuanced understanding of the process of gentrification is needed to design more effective policies to prevent displacement and promote housing choice and stability. Lee underscored the importance that collecting richer, more granular data played in their analysis, pointing out that these insights were possible thanks to a change in the data collected by the ACS: it was not until 2009 that the survey began tracking individual moves by previous address rather than just by Zip Code. As cities experience gentrification in increasingly divergent ways, Lee and Perkins’ work is a helpful step in crafting place-conscious, evidence-based solutions.

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Post-pandemic planning, Part 1: Optimizing transportation networks

Post-pandemic planning, Part 1: Optimizing transportation networks

By Alan Hoffman, March 17, 2021

The pandemic has given metropolitan regions the opportunity to rethink assumptions about planning (see Shiramizu, Rhoades, Marks, and Schuppert). Many are now questioning the use of public space, much of which historically has been given over to vehicles (see Pontarelli).

In addition to the challenges of sustainability, resilience, and “smart growth,” the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the inequities in planning (see Sarkin and Tyler), adding additional impetus to the search for new frameworks.

A process for better outcomes

Transportation planning can lead to better outcomes by embracing a learning process approach and by inverting the order of planning, essentially asking the question, “What can this mode do for the region if we optimize infrastructure?” This approach — Advanced Urban Visioning — allows solutions to emerge through a process of optimization, in which attributes that are valued by potential users are maximized while attributes that detract from end-user perceptions are minimized.

A “learning process” approach

Too often, transportation projects are pushed through with no clear sense of whether they will be able to solve identified problems. Planners and politicians jump to efficiency and expansion before effectiveness is ever established.

The problem is at least a function of learning process:

  1. First and foremost, we need to learn how to produce the desired outcomes, even if it seems cost-prohibitive at first;
  2. Once effectiveness is demonstrated, we can focus on efficiency — how to achieve results with fewer resources; and
  3. We can then learn how to replicate that success.

Learning how to be more effective

One barrier to success is the lack of vision as to how any particular network — whether bikeways, transit, trails, or parks — can maximize its utility to a region.

This dynamic is at work in the Bay Area. Dan Marks, reviewing Plan Bay Area, noted, “We need new approaches — and soon. The Plans Bay Area have … failed to establish a compelling vision of that future, or to identify what needs to change in ‘business as usual’ to get us there.”

We need to learn how to create networks that achieve ambitious goals. Once planners learn how to produce a desired solution, they can then engage in value engineering.

A perfect example of learning process: Curitiba’s BRT

Curitiba, Brazil, didn’t set out to invent BRT. They first identified what their ideal rapid transit network should look like: a metro system with five arms and several ring routes.

Subways are expensive, so Curitiba’s leaders decided to replicate their ideal subway system on the surface, running extra-long buses along dedicated transitways in the centers of their major roads with stations spaced three to a mile. This transit corridor in Curitiba features a dedicated center-running busway with most traffic relegated to parallel roads.

The strategy was tied to a land-use plan that placed most of the region’s denser land uses within one block of surface subway lines. Use of transit for commuting rose from about 7 percent in the early 1970s to over 70 percent by the 2000s. As a look at its skyline reveals, the city developed around its transit network.

An integrated approach

What Curitiba did was not “just” BRT. It also involved shifting traffic to parallel streets (which became one-way, signal-timed, smooth-flow roads). This allowed Curitiba to create, in less than three decades, a widespread transit network that systematically reduced travel time to most destinations.

Curitiba grew around its transit system by restricting high densities to transit corridors. This strategy preserved single-family neighborhoods (below) and reduced the impacts of new growth.

Invert the “order of planning”

Most regional strategies embrace the importance of transit and bicycling, yet their importance is rarely reflected in planning, especially at a regional level. The order of planning reflects the priority assigned to different modes — the starting point for thinking bigger.

Most regions begin their transportation planning by focusing on optimizing their automotive systems, often where road congestion is at its worst. The logic is impeccable: most people drive, and too many transit and bicycle projects have only shifted a relatively small number of trips.

Once the automotive system is optimized, transit must then fit around the automobile. In most places, transit either shares the right-of-way with cars or is delayed by traffic signals and cross-traffic. Pedestrians must then fit around car traffic and transit, and bicycles are asked to fit around everything else.

This bicycle lane along the curb of a 50 mph expressway puts cyclists at risk from distracted drivers.

Advanced Urban Visioning

“Advanced Urban Visioning” begins with allowing an ideal transit network to emerge from a detailed analysis of urban form and trip patterns. The goal is to connect more people more directly to more likely destinations in less time, with an experience that makes them feel good about choosing transit. These standards imply a design approach over an engineering approach to planning for infrastructure.

ReX: an optimized express transit network

ReX, the Bay Area regional express transit network I helped develop for TransForm and SPUR at the request of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), is designed to take advantage of a parallel proposal to create a more robust network of tolled express lanes on the region’s freeways.

The proposed ReX network. Express routes (colored) and “ReXlink” feeder routes (in gray) are designed to radically reduce transit travel times for regional movement.

As ReX was designed to knit together the region’s transit networks and bring most major destinations within reach of the entire region, it couldn’t rely solely on express lanes. For example, downtown Berkeley has a BART station, but many surrounding destinations are too far from it, leading to excessive travel times by transit for many trips. ReX deals with this via a set of bus tunnels in Berkeley and Oakland that, together, radically cut travel times and maximize transit access to and from this dense urban zone.

Proposed ReX bus infrastructure for Berkeley and northern Oakland showing tunnels (in red) and potential (in green) as well as surface ReXlink BRT corridors.

At this point, many planners roll their eyes. Bus tunnels? Billions of dollars? All fair concerns, but if the goal is to create a transit network optimized for the region, then you can’t write off major destinations. “Self-censoring” by planners unwilling to consider what it would take for BRT to be effective is counterproductive. The goal should always be to maximize the effectiveness of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in regional transportation plans for large metro areas.

For example, a regional transit vision plan for San Diego featured infrastructure that permitted direct connectivity to most regional destinations, and it would be 25 percent cheaper to build than the then-official plan, even with several miles of such tunnels.

Leading with transit

Transit, not the auto, should be the starting point for any regional plan that seeks a major shift in how a region grows. Stations, in particular, need to be located where they will do the most good; even short distances in the wrong direction can make a big difference in effectiveness. As Robert Cervero discovered, the better matched transit is to a city, the better it can shape future growth.

Getting from an idealized transit network to an actual plan happens through a staging strategy that may take over whatever existing road infrastructure is needed, specifying new infrastructure where necessary to meet strategic goals. At this stage of planning, transit is free to take space from the auto, or to specify costly infrastructure if it solves the problem.

Brisbane, Australia’s, busway system includes many grade-separations so buses can operate unimpeded by traffic. Ridership is nearly double the busiest light rail line in all of North America, with minimal public subsidies.

An ideal bicycle network

Once an optimized transit plan is identified, the next step is to develop an idealized bicycle network. Drawing on lessons from the Netherlands, the network should be designed and optimized to provide coherent, direct, safe, and easy-to-use separated bikeways to minimize conflicts with vehicles and pedestrians. This approach prioritizes bicycles over cars when allocating space in public rights-of-way.

Amsterdam and other Dutch cities have some of the best-developed bicycle infrastructure in the world, with extensive networks of separated bike lanes.

People space

The third step in Advanced Urban Visioning is to use major transit nodes to create new “people space”— walking paths, public plazas, parklands, and open space trail networks, potentially on land currently used by cars.

In this example, from a conceptual plan for San Diego, a “Strategic Investment Zone” supporting high-density residential and commercial uses wraps around a linear park and two proposed community parks. Funding could come from an Infrastructure Finance District.

Only after transit, bicycles, and pedestrians are accommodated is it time to optimize for autos. But when these alternative modes are optimized, they become easy, convenient, and time-competitive with driving, and many people will shift to them from personal vehicles. The auto will no longer be needed to move people to denser nodes.

A strategic approach to planning

Advanced Urban Visioning turns the planning process into a strategic process. Its power lies in its clear targets. Projects can stage their way to the ultimate vision, creating synergies that amplify the impacts of each successive stage.

San Diego Connected,” a conceptual plan, demonstrates Advanced Urban Visioning, combining bicycle, transit, pedestrian, and automotive improvements that optimize their potential contribution to the region.

Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with mandated planning processes; it precedes them. For example, it may identify the need for specialized infrastructure that might not otherwise be apparent to planners.


Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about transforming their sustainability and resilience. It clarifies what optimal transportation networks look like for a region. It can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. And it inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each travel mode makes the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.

In Part 2 of this article, I will show how regional travel models can be updated to incorporate insights from market research, allowing planners to potentially capture many new trips for more sustainable modes.

Alan Hoffman is a founding fellow of the Center for Advanced Urban Visioning and an Equity Consultant to the Oregon Department of Transportation. He has consulted to the SFCTA on transit planning for the Bayshore community and developed TransForm’s Bay Area Regional Express Transit Proposal (ReX) for MTC. Hoffman holds an MS in planning from MIT, a master’s in administration, planning, and social policy from Harvard, and a BA in social relations from Cornell. He is the author of Sails to Trails: Reimaging San Diego’s Historic Growth Corridor, and the Federal Transit Administration’s Advanced Network Planning for Bus Rapid Transit. He resides in Walnut Creek. You can reach him at urbanvisioning@outlook.com.

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