Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Hope Program for Transportation
by Michael Dobbins

We must learn to recognize transportation as an interdependent system comprised of networks of mobility – getting us around - and access – getting us there. We will not arrive at transportation adequacy by forever questing for magic bullet "solutions" competing with each other to solve the perceived problem of the day. Only by understanding transportation holistically, including both roadways and transit, as the lifeblood and determinant of economic development and residential settlement patterns can Atlanta and the state climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves, a hole that they risk continuing to dig.

Work by the Transit Planning Board completed last fall, dubbed "Concept 3,"and more recently by GRTA with its Investing in Tomorrow's Transportation Today, or IT3, offer promise toward recasting transportation strategy. The first gathers together the range of transit ideas that have been floating around, adds some new ones, and synthesizes a result that begins to consider the problem as a system rather than a competition among projects. In so doing, the emerging framework lends itself to understanding the transit pieces within a conceptual whole. Thus what needs to happen, when, and what it will cost becomes a framework for setting realistic priorities to respond to ridership demand. For ridership is the baseline measure for transit need and success. This general approach describes what many other metro areas have been doing over the last ten or fifteen years. With luck, Atlanta is just now coming to it, though far behind most cities in our tier.

The second, IT3, reviews the projects and programs put forward through the years for roads, bridges, transit, and freight. It casts them into a framework where they can be understood in relation to each other, where their interactions can be assessed for their contribution toward achieving a workable system, and how this system can support sustainable economic development and residential settlement patterns. Cognizant of the kind of hyper-sensitive knee jerk project competition that continues to characterize Georgia transportation policy (or non-policy), IT3 provides at least some comfort to most of the historic transportation interests, elevates the consciousness of how dire have become the systems' maintenance and operation needs, and at the same time makes, maybe, the case that development patterns are completely interdependent with transportation investment.

For all their advances, however, Concept 3 and IT3 at best loosely recognize the interactive relationships between transit and roadways, what it takes to create a workable transportation system. Thus, roadway initiatives should be complementary with transit initiatives, and both should respond to concentrations of travel demand, or, in transportation planning jargon, "trip ends." Cars work fine in dispersed, lower density areas, but without adequate redundancy, like parallel route options, they begin to choke up as they approach high density work destinations. Transit works best where it connects high concentrations of housing, jobs and other intensely used destinations. The interface between the two provides for a workable sharing of trip type and trip mode, that is, car, transit, and walking.

In this systems understanding, then, job centers, like downtown, midtown, Buckhead, Perimeter, Cumberland/Galleria, Emory/CDC, the airport, as well as larger towns and emerging centers, require internal circulator transit as well as center to center transit options. Roadways, on the other hand, can best be relieved of their congestion if the growth in car trips can be moderated by higher parking costs, smooth functioning transfer to transit or walking locations, as well as careful consideration of access points to the high concentration areas. A further major boost toward balancing travel demand with travel capacity can be achieved when these centers encourage high density housing in or near their traditional office and retailing concentrations. In this scenario, if the range housing costs reflects the range of incomes of workers in the job centers, an even greater reduction in travel demand is achievable.

Atlantic Station is a good example of both points. The circulator transit between the development and the Arts Center MARTA station, a distance a little over a mile, carries almost as many passengers per month with seven shuttles as the entire GRTA commuter bus program with about 100 over-the-road coaches, underscoring the importance of high density trip ends. On the car side of the equation, by including several thousand housing units in the development and a comfortably walkable set of connections, Atlantic Station's residents and workers travel on average less than a quarter of the distance of the average Atlanta commuter.

Unfortunately, even as agencies like GDOT, GRTA, MARTA, and ARC are beginning for the first time to seek common ground on policy and priority, the legislature continues to thoroughly misunderstand Transportation 101. With the House and Senate at loggerheads, both in approach and in priority, the likelihood is an outcome that exacerbates rather than eases the current transportation crisis. One hopes that the agencies respond to growing citizen pressure to collaborate toward a common program and that they are able to persuade the legislature to exercise common sense for the current session.

Common sense, with emphasis on positioning the state for maximum benefit from the federal stimulus program, would be to focus this year's legislative effort on five key priorities: fix what we've got; develop and phase priorities around system and economic development needs, not projects; evaluating systems alternatives according to their future energy costs and other "green" criteria; craft the program, initially prioritizing maintenance and operations, to maximize jobs and job training opportunities; and establish a transparent accountability system so that citizens can see where their money is going. Such an approach could kick start construction with hundreds of fix-it projects. It would reduce funding demands and give the agencies the time and the motivation to synthesize their efforts toward a better thought out plan and more sensible funding package for next year. Any outcome will most likely require a constitutional referendum that in any case can't happen until 2010, when maybe someone who cares could be elected governor.

Michael Dobbins, an architect and former Atlanta Commissioner of Planning, is an Associate Professor of Architecture and City and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech.   [full bio]

Editor's note: Hello, Georgia! The Georgia Online News Service has been around for just shy of three weeks. The response from publishers, editors, opinion leaders has been encouraging, very encouraging.

One person several folks have mentioned is Maggie Lee, who has been one of the GONSO reporters covering the Legislature. Maggie has been on top of consumer issues, especially Georgia Power's plan to charge now for nuclear plants it will build later. Today, Maggie has another story, an analysis, on how the utility giant is threatening to pull the plug on additional nuke plants if it doesn't get its way.

Also, the rest of the nation may have taken on a "bluer" tinge after the November elections, but Georgia remains determinedly "red." That means one group in the General Assembly, the Black Caucus, lives in a sort of legislative limbo. Veteran Georgia reporter takes a look today at the caucus, its agenda and its leaders.

Finally, our Soapbox today is by Michael Dobbins, a Georgia Tech architect and former Atlanta Commissioner of Planning, who tells us there is hope for the city's transportation dilemmas.

As always, we'd like to hear from you. GONSO is an enterprise founded and staffed by more than two dozen leading journalists and media executives in Georgia. We're providing content free -- for a limited period. Newspapers, broadcasters, bloggers and websites are welcome to use our articles -- please credit the writers and the Georgia Online News Service.

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Today's GONSO

Georgia Power Ties Nuclear Option to SB 31; Others Consider Alternatives

by Maggie Lee
Georgia Power will build two new nuclear plants near Augusta. That much is very nearly settled. But now the company says unless it gets the financing scheme it wants from either the legislature or the Public Service Commission, it will pretty much stop at two.
Full Story

Georgia's Legislative Black Caucus at a Critical Political Crossroads

by Maynard Eaton
The indictment that the Georgia Assembly’s black caucus is a “do nothing” group is a perception that its current leaders have passionately pledged to reverse.
Full Story


A Hope Program for Transportation

by Michael Dobbins
We must learn to recognize transportation as an interdependent system comprised of networks of mobility – getting us around - and access – getting us there. We will not arrive at transportation adequacy by forever questing for magic bullet "solutions."
Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
Nuclear Finance Bill Sails through House Panel
by Maggie Lee
Economy is toughest for (best) older workers
by Nadirah Z. Sabir
School vouchers: People are capable of making their own decisions
by Susan Laccetti Meyers

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