Three Ideas for Big City Departments of Transportation

The United States is increasingly a metropolitan nation, with more of the population concentrating in urban areas. The largest of these regions contribute disproportionately to our national economy, serving as centers of innovation and activity that create jobs opportunities, and economic benefits nationwide.

Therefore, from a national transportation, political, and economic perspective, it is significant that the three largest cities in the U.S. are transitioning to new commissioners for their Departments of Transportation (DOTs). The most prominent of these is former USDOT Undersecretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg, who now serves as the new Commissioner of the New York City DOT, following the departure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan. But at almost the same time Rebekah Scheinfeld of the Chicago Transit Authority was appointed to be the new Commissioner of the Chicago DOT, following the departure of Gabe Klein. Our second largest city, Los Angeles, is searching for a commissioner to serve under Mayor Eric Garcetti, following Jaime de la Vega’s departure in October. These three appointments could potentially shape the biggest cities in our nation’s largest metropolitan regions for years to come.

That said, it is important to keep the potential impact of these individuals in perspective. For one, they are commissioners for their cities, not their regions. Each of these regions faces substantial challenges in fostering cohesive regional transportation networks that, in the case of Chicago and New York, cross state lines and in the case of Los Angeles cross numerous counties and municipalities. Moreover, the commissioners are typically only as effective as their mayors – they will have limited power without strong mayoral backing in each case.

Nonetheless, each commissioner has the opportunity to innovate and improve transportation in large cities with millions of people. These ideas can only be implemented after the commissioners focus on job one – the safety and reliability of the existing transportation network. This means that responses to snowstorms, hurricanes, and other potential disasters must be a priority, along with the overarching goal of reducing accidents, injuries, and fatalities on the streets. These priorities should go without saying, but it does not hurt to say them again. After those are locked up as top priorities, the following are some other ideas to consider: 

  1. Remember the automobile and the regular bus.

The trend in big cities—and these three are leading the way—is toward greater emphasis on pedestrians, bicycles, and transit, and a reduced emphasis on the personal automobile. This can be seen in new pedestrian plazas, a new design manual city streets, vast expansion of bicycle lanes and bicycle-sharing services, and the creation of more limited-stop bus service or in some cases bus service with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) features. All of these are welcome developments from these previous commissioners after decades in which every mode had to take a back seat (pun intended) to the automobile.

However, the new commissioners would be wise to avoid losing their focus on the private car and ordinary bus for two important reasons. First, many of their constituents still rely on these “traditional” modes to get to work. The private car and ordinary bus combined remain—and are likely to remain—one of the primary transportation modes for people in all three cities for some time. Second, the most successful initiatives to improve non-traditional modes are going to be ones that improve lives for drivers and non-drivers alike. This is why, in New York City, the pedestrian plazas that actually improved traffic and safety were an easier sell than some bike lanes that took away lanes of traffic.

The average street and bus route in each of these cities has been in place in its current form for decades and has not been rethought. While these DOTs do not control the bus routes, they do control the streets and can work to remodel them for modern cities. For example, there are many streets in these cities that work poorly for pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles alike; they are unsafe and congested for all. Simple things like adding sidewalk space, allowing on-street parking, and eliminating overpasses can sometimes make everyone’s commute easier. Working on small changes in streetscapes and signals that can dramatically improve transportation in the modern city is a worthwhile endeavor for these DOTs.

  1. Price your roads.

Easier said than done, right? Road pricing remains the Holy Grail for transportation planners and pundits but in the real world, at least in the U.S., attempts to implement it have typically fallen short. New York’s previous mayor made this issue a signature one during his first term, and saw it fail politically after getting tantalizingly close. Los Angeles has begun to create some High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes on some freeways with prices that vary by time of day, but this is a drop in the bucket in a city that faces the worst traffic in the nation.

All three cities need to take a run at this because even though the political challenges are enormous, the potential payoff for their cities is even bigger. Any attempt in this regard will require working closely with state transportation agencies in order to move forward. An effective pricing plan would reduce traffic congestion, improve reliability, improve public transit, and reduce emissions, and it could also provide an effective revenue source for the infrastructure investment all three cities desperately need. The biggest political hump is getting the scheme in place; once there these schemes tend to prove popular.

One backdoor into pricing could be to make the scheme revenue-neutral at first. Have all tolls paid into the system returned back to drivers or transit riders who are using the roads when they are underutilized (Richard Mudge of Mudge and Company suggested a similar scheme some months ago and cited examples where it has worked, and Sam Schwartz—AKA Gridlock Sam, one of the country’s leading transportation engineers—proposed something like this for New York City). With existing technology, this could be done in a way that does not encourage additional driving, perhaps by only providing toll credits rather than cash and by limiting the total rewards. If drivers knew that the money was being refunded, they might be willing to go along with a plan that could prove quite popular.

Another pricing avenue that remains underutilized is parking. Don Shoup, urban planning professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written extensively over many years about the need to better price our parking systems, and such a scheme has already been implemented in San Francisco. New technology makes assessing appropriate parking fees that are linked to demand much easier. If the benefits are clearly quantified and documented—lower emissions, more parking availability, better accessibility—variable (and much higher) parking pricing could become accepted. Similar to road pricing, a parking pricing scheme could be made revenue-neutral at first in order to gain acceptance.

  1. Allow technology to disrupt.

Nearly universal handheld devices that provide immense amounts of information and use satellite technology have already improved urban transportation dramatically. Applications on your phone can now tell you when the next bus is coming, call you a cab, find you the nearest bike or car to borrow, or direct you via side streets to avoid traffic. The benefits of these new concepts have been substantial, but they could not have happened without accompanying public policy. For example, knowing when the next bus is coming requires transit systems to be more transparent with their data, and existing taxi drivers and taxi commissions resist on-demand taxi services. Local policymakers, including city DOT Commissioners, play an outsized role in determining how fast these new technologies are fully adopted.

The next phase of this battle may be in public transit. The public sector has long held a monopoly over transit services within cities, and this is true in all three big cities. This idea is not without logic; it would be quite disruptive to have an unregulated free for all on public streets. But the public monopoly on transit service is mostly a product of history—when no one wanted to operate these services the public authorities took them on as a public service. The public authorities then often worked to shut down any competing services.

With the advent of these new technologies, and a resurgence of public transit in all of these cities, perhaps it is time to start breaking down this monopoly. Bus service in all three cities remains clunky, with enormous standardized vehicles running the same routes they have run since trolleys ran them. Enabling regulated, innovative transit service with on-demand features could revolutionize transportation in these regions, especially Los Angeles and Chicago where most areas are still served by bus alone. While Los Angeles has a county transit authority and New York has a state transit authority, Chicago maintains substantial control over their transit system and might be the easiest place to enable such innovations. But even in New York and Los Angeles, it could be possible for the city DOTs to take a lead role in enabling such innovation. In their favor is the fact that innovation and improved services are a challenging thing to oppose—the public will almost always be on your side.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eno Center for Transportation.

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