Thursday, December 23, 2010

Helping People to Get Out of the House

Sometimes, it is the things we don't really notice - unless we have to - that make a big difference to the independence and mobility of a group of people. For the visually impaired, sounds are essential to navigating streets; for the elderly and the infirm, a helping hand of a volunteer is crucial.

After two years of hard work, the American Council for the Blind (ACB) scored a victory for pedestrian safety for anyone who relies on his or her hearing to completely or partially navigate the crossing of streets.

The House [has] passed S. 841, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, legislation that will provide blind, visually impaired, and other pedestrians greater security when traveling in close proximity to hybrid or electric vehicles. The legislation passed the Senate on December 9. It now goes to the President for his signature.
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The legislation will require the U.S. Department of Transportation to begin writing standards that would set requirements for an alert sound that allows blind and other pedestrians to reasonably detect a nearby electric or hybrid vehicle. It also requires that those rules be finalized within three years.

Volunteer Engagement

The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A), in collaboration with the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities (NASUAD), AARP, and the Administration on Aging, among others, has created a technical resource center for the aging network to engage and train volunteers and provide technical assistance for volunteers and volunteer coordinators. More details can be found in the N4A press release.

Volunteer drivers are an important component of both senior and non-emergency medical transportation. Visit the relevant pages of the Community Transportation Association of America website.

Upcoming Events and a Call for Proposals

The deadline is January 14, 2011 for submitting session proposals for the annual conference of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL). Topics that NCIL is interested in include information and referral, skills training, transitioning into the community and increasing services to underserved people and communities.

DC Area Conferences

National Association of Regional Councils (NARC)
2011 National Conference of Regions, Feb. 13-15, Washington, DC. Sessions will address homeland security, transportation and infrastructure, livable and sustainable communities, and economic development.

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)
Washington Briefing
, Mar. 2-4, 2011, Washington, D.C. Details at Legislation, intercity rail and the financial outlook for transportation will be discussed.

American Public Transportation Association
2011 Legislative Conference, Mar. 13-15, 2011, Washington, DC. Reauthorization and other legislative developments will be addressed. There are many more events coming up that are listed on APTA's website.

National Association of Development Organizations NADO)
2011 Washington Policy Conference, Mar. 20-24, 2011, Arlington, Va. The focus will be on federal legislative advocacy, with sessions on rural economic development, sustainability and transportation, and regional development organizations. Dates for NADO's peer learning, economic development and training conferences for 2011 are available by links from its homepage.

And for Cherry Blossom Season ...

American Public Human Services Association (APHSA)
APHSA National Spring Conference, Mar. 27-29, 2011, Washington, DC.

National Head Start Association (NHSA)
Annual Head Start Conference, Apr. 4-8, 2011, Kansas City, Mo. Sessions will include planning and management, and partnerships and collaboration.

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A)
Aging Policy Briefing and Capitol Hill Day, Apr. 11-12, 2011, Washington, DC. Sharing of advocacy strategies, insights into federal policy making, and reauthorization of the Older Americans Act will be among the topics to be covered.


A little reading material for after the holidays: The National Governors' Association website has a page with links to state reports on how they are distributing funds and retrenching in light of the "protracted budget crisis like none seen in the last 30 years, and perhaps not seen since the Great Depression."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

High Demand for Intercity Bus Service and Insights into Quality Concerns of the Transportation Challenged

A few years ago, intercity bus companies took notice of successful routes that had sprung up to serve Chinatown in New York. Those companies and a few new ones changed the traditional model of station-to-station service and started curbside departures and arrivals, Internet-supplied tickets, free wifi, comfortable seating and very cheap prices compared to the airlines and Amtrak - prices competitive with driving.

Now a report highlighted by the American Bus Association, from DePaul University, The Intercity Bus: America’s Fastest Growing Transportation Mode - 2010 Update on Scheduled Bus Service, examines the numbers, the phenomenal increase in demand, though generally limited to major cities with good public transportation, that outstrips growth for air and long-distance train travel. Megabus alone boasts a one-year growth in ridership of almost 50 percent, with "33% ... a conservative middle-ground estimate of the growth in curbside traffic between the 4th quarter of 2009 and 2010."

Good Service Brings Alternative to Car Use and Ownership

Though Amtrak pointed to much more modest ridership increases this past year, Amtrak does not have the luxury of adding service and destinations very easily. The bus phenomenon of the last few years demonstrates the potential demand for long-distance service even in places where that demand has not been addressed. Indeed, the bus phenomenon also shows that for "discretionary riders" a nice atmosphere goes a long way, even without the guarantee of on-time arrival that a train generally delivers.

The report makes the rather large claim that:
curbside buses encourage “transit lifestyles” that place comparatively little emphasis on single-occupant automobile travel (and more emphasis on common-carrier providers) and thus apparently lower carbon footprints per mile traveled.
I think that intercity buses are a piece of the mobility puzzle for many people, a piece that means a car is not a necessity for everyone. The buses also provide a cost-effective way for families to reduce car use, which the train and air travel do not provide, a fact in evidence on the highways during the Thanksgiving weekend and the winter holidays every year.

Sea of Buses

In contrast to even a few years ago, now when you are entering the Lincoln Tunnel to head into the city for Thanksgiving, you see a sea of buses, a good percentage of which are these intercity carriers. And to what do we owe this recent change in the mobility landscape? A flexible private sector that has the ability to make changes without the delay of regulatory changes, infrastructure building and repair, and the other factors that slow down public endeavors. Not saying the private sector can do it all, just that this is a good example of its role in publicly-available transportation as well as the insights into markets that the private sector provides and that other public and private modes can learn from.

Deviating from Private Car Ownership

And intercity buses are not the only part of the private market that is seeing increases, creative car sharing businesses are being developed and spreading. Still an urban phenomenon, companies like Flex Car are branching out into more cities. RelayRides adds a new type of business model to the mix. The company, backed by Google, enables people to rent out their cars to friends or strangers for a nominal fee with a standard agreement that includes an insurance arrangement. Read about one person's experience in the Cambridge area. It started in Cambridge and is commencing service in San Francisco.

Different Picture in the Heartland

In the heartland of South Dakota, the availability of mobility options is a very different situation than in the urban centers on the East and West coasts. This is not a transit-rich area; in fact, for people with disabilities, the need is all too real. Assessing Existing and Needed Community Transportation for People with Disabilities in North Dakota outlines the challenges - "Adequate shelter from the weather while waiting, inconvenient schedules, and having a place to sit while waiting were most often cited as a major problem for people with disabilities." Added to the list a little more into the report is difficulty of boarding.

These seem like universal design issues. Though adequate shelter, for example, might allow a person with a disability to ride transit, it also makes transit more welcoming to the parent with a toddler and the guy who is considering taking the bus during the winter. Aspects of street accessibility to transit were listed as problems for more than half of the survey respondents, as was safety and travel information.

[T]hose who do not use transit were significantly more likely to say service is not available, transit users were less likely to think they are not capable of riding, and those who used transit in the past but do not anymore were more likely to say they do not have enough information.

The results indicate it is not lack of need that keep people with disabilities from using public transportation. Rather, lack of service, lack of information, thinking they are not capable of riding (whether true or not), and fear of riding can likely explain many of the differences between those who use public transportation and those who do not.

Insights into Quality of Paratransit Service

The report also addresses the challenges of using paratransit and the unique situation of people with cognitive impairments.

Two-thirds of respondents said that service not being available when they need it was a problem; 35% said it was a major problem. Other significant problems were unkept schedules for pickups and drop-offs or long waits, the need for scheduling trips too far in advance, and trip times that are too variable or unpredictable. Respondents were least concerned about the vehicles, in terms of their mechanical condition, accessibility, and seating availability.

This is an insightful and detailed study that would be helpful to anyone in transit or those serving people with disabilities. Really, it shows the opportunities in terms of demand and advances in quality of life that mobility options, sometimes the synergy of pedestrian-friendly streets and transit, sometimes other options, can provide.

Spreading the Seedlings of Creativity

I think that the innovations of the private market in cities, the willingness of Americans all over the country to vote for more public transportation funding, and the increasing unattractiveness of a fuel-intensive lifestyle will spur changes in places like South Dakota. Maybe different models of volunteer driver programs and vanpooling are just around the corner for rural areas and other places where people do not wish to or are unable to drive.

Here's to allowing Americans all over the country to have more and better mobility options. Next year, I want to hear about how you picture mobility; I want to learn from you about places where good transportation choices (be they taxis or shared rides), good street networks and good transit are working. Let's learn from the success stories, build upon them, and adapt them to the amazing quilt of places of we live in.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fiscal Realities Addressed

The Government Accountability Office addresses the current best of times and worst of times for transit - how systems are dealing with increasing in ridership at the same time that costs are going up and public dollars are in short supply. Transit Agencies’ Actions to Address Increased Ridership Demand and Options to Help Meet Future Demand discusses not only the current situation, but also demographic changes, such as a more urban America, popularity of transit and an aging citizenry, that will contribute to expanding ridership for a long time.

In terms of costs, the report examines the expenses of greater demand for transit and the inability of cash-strapped governments to supply the necessary funds. Attention is given to the pleas of transit staff to use funds to maintain a state of good repair. Likewise, streamlining of paperwork for federal programs is also discussed. On a positive note, operators with newer infrastructure and assets are heeding the lessons of old systems that require more funds for maintenance as they age.

Fiscal Report

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform's final report, The Moment of Truth, explicitly addresses transportation and recommends a 15-cent increase in the gas tax. But it goes further, calling for smarter spending.

Under current law, the Transportation Trust Fund has hybrid budget treatment in which contract authority is mandatory, while outlays are discretionary. This hybrid treatment results in less accountability and discipline for transportation spending and allows for budget gimmicks to circumvent budget limits to increase spending. The Commission plan reclassifies spending from the Transportation Trust Fund to make both contract authority and outlays mandatory, and then limits spending to actual revenues collected by the trust fund in the prior year once the gas tax is fully phased in. Shortfalls up until that point would be financed by the general fund.

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Congress must limit spending from trust funds to the level of dedicated revenues from the previous year. Before asking taxpayers to pay more for roads, rail, bridges, and infrastructure, we must ensure existing funds are not wasted. The Commission recommends significant reforms to control federal highway spending. Congress should limit trust fund spending to the most pressing infrastructure needs rather than forcing states to fund low-priority projects. It should also end the practice of highway authorization earmarks such as the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Not discussed were strategies for making sure better transportation choices, who should make them, performance measurements and mode splits.

The Commission recommends a cap on discretionary outlays, but really seems to desire a different approach to spending. For example, in terms of emergency response, the report suggests a planned budgetary response, instead of ad hoc after-disaster-hits spending. I quote at length here.

Any given disaster may itself be unpredictable, but the need to pay for some level of disaster relief is not. Yet federal budgets rarely set aside adequate resources in anticipation of such disasters, and instead rely on emergency supplemental funding requests. The Commission plan explicitly sets aside funds for disaster relief and establishes stricter parameters for the use of these funds. The disaster fund budget authority (BA) will be limited to the rolling average of disaster spending in the most recent 10 years, excluding the highest and lowest year. Any unused budget authority will be rolled forward to increase the disaster fund BA available in the following year. Any spending above the disaster fund limit must be offset with reductions in spending or subject to a 60-vote point of order (and all other requirements established for regular emergency spending).

The Commission recommends codifying a strict definition of what qualifies as a disaster, and requiring Congress and the President to separately designate spending as an emergency and as necessary for the purposes of disaster response.

The National Response Framework Center at the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has technical assistance resources for communities to learn about planning for disaster response and the role of different levels of government.

In terms of redundancy and questionable results of federal expenditures, the report, using the examples of multiple job training and math and science programs, calls for demonstration "to Congress or taxpayers [these programs] are actually accomplishing their intended purpose." Earmarks are expressly singled out as a practice that should be banned, but federal travel, printing, and hiring all receive attention.

Medical costs are discussed in detail, including a repeal or reform of the CLASS Act (Community Living Assistance Services and Supports). It is the Commission's opinion that the program as currently conceived is financially unsustainable. The Commission goes into detail about reforms of Medicare and Medicaid, including use of pilot programs and a long-term global budget for health care. Sections on Social Security, retirement and protecting those disadvantaged by disability and low income are well worth reading.

More Bang for the Buck

One method of addressing fiscal constraints, though certainly not a complete or a magic solution, is mobility management to achieve coordination. The premier digital issue of CT Magazine, Managing Mobility, a publication of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA), provides a mobility management primer as well as examples of mobility managers producing results for riders across the country. These examples demonstrate that mobility management can be employed both for transportation-challenged populations and for the public at large for livability purposes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Latest Resources and News

The Administration on Aging has a new newsletter, the Affordable Care Act News, which debuted with the November issue.

A new pro-transit news feed has started up with headlines from different sources about funding, legislation, projects, and transit-oriented development. It definitely has political leanings, but it does supply a stream of snapshots for whatever is happening on a particular day. The feed, called The Other Side of the Tracks, is put together by Jeff Wood, Reconnecting America's New Media Director and Chief Cartographer.

Read about the new multi-modal transportation facility serving an airport with buses, rail and parking. The Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) own Peter Rogoff wrote a guest post on the Secretary's blog, the Fastlane, about completion of a critical passenger rail route that connects Warwick, Providence, and Boston.

Transporting health care to children is part of the mission of the Children’s Health Fund (CHF). Now CHF is adding another mobile medical clinic to its fleet, this time taking it to the streets of Detroit (okay, could not resist the Motown lyric reference), specifically schools and youth centers.