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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Better Know A Sustainability Plan: Part II

And now, a look at the Transportation aspects of the Huntsville Sustainability Plan, which focused around two major recommendations:

Reduce vehicle emissions. The plan outlines several potential actions to curb automobile pollution:

  • Enact Complete Streets initiatives. This idea runs off the theory that streets are for all modes of transportation-- car, bike, pedestrian, and transit-- and accommodations should be made for each of them. Some common implementations of Complete Streets include bike and bus lanes, crosswalks, and road "dieting" (where lanes are taken away instead of added; this was done on Providence Main Street a few years ago). The only obstacle I see to this that most major roads (University, Jordan, the Parkway) are maintained by the state, so any Complete Streets improvements to those roads would have to be approved by ALDOT, who has only now created a statewide bicycle/pedestrian plan and has never been too keen about alternative transportation.
  • Implementing the CommuteSmart program for carpooling. This has been in place for some time in the rest of Alabama's Big 4 cities, but not in Huntsville. Maybe it's because we already have a RideShare program. Using church parking lots for park-and-rides is a great idea, since they're only fully utilized a couple hours a week.  Madison began doing this a while back, if I recall.
  • Building High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV/carpool) lanes on major highways. HOV lanes are effective only in metro areas with chronic congestion, such as Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. Huntsville is definitely not on par with these cities when it comes to gridlock, so carpool lanes are neither feasible nor needed in the foreseeable future.

Develop a regional transportation system. In the short-term, this would involve getting state legislative approval to create a "Light Rail Authority" and creating a feasibility plan for Light Rail Transit (LRT), along with planning and building transit hubs, linked together initially by greenways and bus routes, and eventually LRT.

Idea: "Light Rail Authority" sounds silly and very restrictive; a "Regional Transportation Authority" sounds better and is more inclusive of all options. But why is Huntsville so determined to construct the most expensive mass transit option short of building a full-blown Metro (subway)? The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) evaluates new transit projects based on density, demand, "cost effectiveness," among other factors that can make or break a transit system. I can assure you that an LRT system in Huntsville, with our current size and lack of transit support (especially at state level), will not get FTA approval and funding, at least not for the next 10-15 years. However, there are plenty of other, less expensive options, such as commuter rail, streetcar ("light" light rail) and Bus Rapid Transit, that have been proven to work or are being built in other cities our size, so why not look at all of them? I've talked about this before.

What's missing: High Speed Rail. This has become a major transportation issue in the past year, and recently, $8 Billion in grants were given to states that wanted to upgrade their current Amtrak routes to allow trains to travel up to 110 mph. While a true European/Japanese-style high-speed network is years away, the Huntsville-Decatur region should perform feasibility studies for rail connections to Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, and Birmingham as a way to alleviate congestion and reduce travel times. Last year, I talked about a Memphis-Huntsville-Atlanta high-speed rail line as a substitute for a proposed interstate that would follow the same route.


NicoleC said...

"HOV lanes are effective only in metro areas with chronic congestion, such as Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Atlanta"

But they *aren't* effective in highly congested cities -- they make the cities more conjested as the HOV lanes go under-used or, in the case of LA, just unused. Plus they arguably cause more pollution as cars idle in the remaining lanes which are now even more congested.

This is the only part of the Green 13 plan I think is just way off base. It feels like they lifted it from a 1980's city plan without studying how effective HOV lanes actually are.

James said...

@Nicole: While HOV lanes might seem empty from the view of someone sitting in the "normal" lanes adjacent to them (there's a name for that-- "Empty Lane Syndrome"), in many cases, HOV lanes carry more people (not vehicles) than a congested normal lane adjacent to it, according to several studies, including one by the State of California (see below). In cases where HOV lanes are underutilized, some states have replaced them with HOT (High-Occupancy Toll) lanes, where single-occupancy vehicles can pay a time-varying toll to use the lane.

1999 California study on HOV effectiveness: http://www.lao.ca.gov/2000/010700_hov/010700_hov_lanes.html

Anonymous said...

I live in Washington, DC, and the HOV lanes here certainly get used during rush hour, which is when they're enforced. Outside of rush hour, anyone can drive in them. In fact, a lot of people pool together and form van pools just so they can ride in HOV.

I think the solution to less traffic is less sprawl, but in areas where sprawl already exists, HOV lanes work pretty well.

Having said this, I don't think Huntsville has enough traffic to justify HOV. Huntsville has less traffic in rush hour than the Washinton beltway has at 3am.

Anonymous said...

the fastest fix for reduction of emissions -- lower the speed limit on I565 in HSV to 55.