Thursday, January 22, 2015

Will Bikes Eliminate the Need for Big-Ticket Highway & Transit Projects?

I like innovation. Creative thinking to me reflects intellectual vigor. When we become afraid of change, we age all too quickly.
Miami, a beacon of youthful vigor in a state with the opposite reputation, is the site of an idea that takes poorly-used space and makes room for one of the most sustainable transportation modes available: bikes. The proposal, which unsurprisingly comes from consultants from the Dutch Cycling Embassy, is to build a linear park and bike path under Metrorail elevated transit in the southwest corner of town. This Metrorail line already has a pockmarked, bumpy, sorry excuse for a path underneath it called the M-Path. However, like so many similar asphalt afterthoughts built by DOTs in the latter part of the 20th century, it’s hardly used. The new path, entitled the Underline, would seek to recreate the same allure and excitement that the High Line created in Manhattan in these early years of the 21st century, except the addition of a proper bike route makes it far more useful.
A usable, attractive corridor is bound to attract economic growth. Witness the sustained boom taking place in the intown areas of Atlanta, particularly near the still-unfinished Beltline. The Beltline may seem to be a bit grandiose, with its promise of light rail transit, redeveloped neighborhoods, and multiuser paths. Expensive light rail projects are getting harder to fund as infrastructure spending throughout the US withers under conservative pressure.  For example, Arlington, Virginia, surrendered to such antipathy when it chose to kill a streetcar project in a low-income corridor after strenuous objections from right-leaning county board members, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt.  Luckily for Atlanta, the economic benefits of the Beltline are already coming in with only multiuser paths in place in some areas.
That raises a rather unsettling question for transportation and city planners: is the key to neighborhood vigor and economic growth a combination of low-impact, low-cost transportation infrastructure and parks? If the High Line, Underline, and Beltline are all successful in injecting vitality into close-in neighborhoods, with the latter two offering new connectivity, should we re-task funding away from elaborate road and transit projects designed to expensively move people between outlying areas and the central cores of metropolitan areas? If a rail transit system is too much for Arlington to stomach, for instance, should the county look to a long corridor of bike paths and parks paralleling the route of the defunct streetcar as a replacement?
Some signs of a new trend in this direction are starting to appear. In the early 1990s, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) finally realized its collective dream of building an expressway through the heart of north Atlanta after years of opposition during Atlanta’s Freeway Revolt. Georgia 400 was initially built as a toll road with an expensive MARTA heavy rail line in the center. The road recently lost its tolls (cue massive backups).
In a glaring oversight, GDOT chose not to include a bike path alongside the new road, as Virginia’s DOT had done years earlier along I-66 inside the Beltway (the Custis Trail).  GDOT is now going a little way towards rectifying that error by donating right-of-way along part of GA 400 to Atlanta’s PATH organization. PATH is part of a consortium constructing a multiuser path through north Atlanta’s Buckhead community that will connect to the Atlanta Beltline. The beginnings of a citywide bike network are starting to form.
That this is occurring in Georgia is positively earthshaking. This is the same state that gives no money at all to Atlanta’s MARTA transit system. That’s not to say that the Republican governor, Nathan Deal, has turned his back on that most traditional of congestion relief measures, the widening of urban expressways. Years of repeated failures of such projects to alleviate congestion have yet to have an impact on the governor’s transportation policy. However, big changes often have small beginnings.
In this era of diminishing budgets, more regions should look to these innovative ideas from Miami and Atlanta. It’s better to build something cheap that will keep its full functionality many years after completion than waste time on projects that will never get off the ground (Arlington Streetcar) or will ultimately fail to relieve congestion (any given urban highway expansion). If the Underline and Beltline can be completed and grow in popularity, as well as economic impact, the consultants at the Dutch Cycling Embassy will get a lot busier.