Value of Transit is More Than Just Transit

As a native Charlottean and proud alumnus of UNC Charlotte, I’m excited to finally see the Blue Line Extension (BLE) from Uptown Charlotte to UNC Charlotte’s main campus open today. I hope this will help shift the mindset of Charlotte being an automobile-dependent city to a transit-dependent city.


Source: CATS, City of Charlotte

I wish I could write that I’m as excited to see the success of transit-oriented development (TOD) within walking distance of the BLE stations. While I realize development changes are often long-term, these changes are influenced by past and current planning and zoning decisions. My friend and mentor, Martin Zimmerman, researched how Charlotte has the zoning enforcement tools available to get the best value out of its $1.2-billion-dollar BLE investment.

Insiders know that zoning enforcement tools have been available for at least 14 years to assure orderly growth on transit corridors. It’s just that those granted the public trust lack the gumption to use the tools and say “no” to landowners who could care less about building to transit-friendly standards.

For readers that aren’t transportation or land use planners, I want to make sure you understand what I mean by “value”. While most of the Charlotte mainstream media’s focus on the new BLE has been on the light rail trains and stations, the BLE’s value extends far beyond this. The BLE is also impacting the surrounding land use and people’s travel behavior. As Martin’s op-ed shows, much of this is currently automobile dependent. Automobile-dependent land uses and travel behavior have many costly negative externalities. Through promoting TOD land use and encouraging active travel behaviors like walking, biking, and riding transit, Charlotte can get the best value out of its $1.2-billion-dollar BLE investment. Since I’m a visual learner, I tried to find a visual to explain this. I hope the below visual helps you. Do you understand what I mean by “value”?

Since this post was focused on Charlotte, I want to clarify that many cities throughout the US have the same issues with getting the best value out of their capital transit investments.

TOD education

Source: @adifalla


Dockless Automobiles vs. Dockless Bikes

I’m following up on my last post, which discussed Capital Bikeshare and dockless bikeshare in the Washington, DC region. While I agree that dockless bikeshare companies should be held accountable to making sure their bikes are parked correctly, why aren’t dockless automobile companies being held to the same standard? Dockless automobiles have been parked illegally for decades. Where is the public outrage? Why is most of the public outrage focused on dockless bikes?

Here are several examples:

Capital Bikeshare vs. Dockless Bikeshare

As a resident of Arlington, I have a unique location to watch Capital Bikeshare “compete” with dockless bikeshare. I put “compete” in quotes because the mutual goal of Capital Bikeshare and the five dockless bikeshare companies is to get more people biking. However, some bike planners believe dockless bikeshare will pull enough people from Capital Bikeshare that it won’t be able to compete with dockless bikeshare.

Since bikeshare is still new to most Americans, I want to make sure everyone knows the difference between dock-based and dockless bikeshare. As the below photo shows, dock-based bikeshare systems require the bike to be docked at a station. Capital Bikeshare is the main dock-based bikeshare system that operates in the DC region.

2017-12-08 15.40.01

Photo: Ray Atkinson

As the below photo shows, dockless bikeshare systems have bikes that are self-locked. The five dockless bikeshare companies operating in the DC region are Jump, LimeBike, Mobike, ofo, and Spin. While Jump is the only company with e-bikes, LimeBike and Spin announced last week that they plan to start offering e-bikes soon.

2017-11-15 16.01.00

Photo: Ray Atkinson

While all six bikeshare systems have apps, which are shown below, it’s possible to use Capital Bikeshare without the app by purchasing a pass at the kiosk. Since not everyone has a smartphone, this reduces the barrier to bikeshare. In addition, only Capital Bikeshare can be used by paying cash. Many low-income people don’t have a credit or debit card, so this gives them access to using bikeshare.

Capital Bikeshare vs Dockless Bikeshare

Source: Transit App

I have a unique location to watch this bikeshare situation because of how the permitting process is unfolding across the DC region. While Capital Bikeshare is permitted to operate throughout the region, only DC has given permits to all five dockless bikeshare companies. As this Greater Greater Washington post explains, DC and Montgomery County, MD had an easier process than local jurisdictions in Virginia to create pilot dockless bikeshare programs because they are governed by Home Rule. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means state law preempts local law. Local jurisdictions must receive permission from the General Assembly to act on local matters. Yes, Maryland is also a Dillon Rule state. However, Montgomery County became the first county in Maryland to adopt a home rule charter in 1948.

Since DC is geographically small and dockless bikeshare companies have been struggling to inform their customers that they don’t have permits to operate outside of DC, I’ve been watching how human behavior and government processes react to this issue. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which is impacting the ability of local jurisdictions to create pilot dockless bikeshare programs and regulate the dockless bikeshare companies. This is why Virginia doesn’t officially have dockless bikeshare yet. Arlington wrote this blog post to educate people about the different types of bikeshare. I found the following statements interesting.

“the six-month trial of dockless bikeshare is entirely a DC project at this time. The operators do not have an agreement with Arlington County so their operating location is within Washington, DC borders.

If you see a bike in Arlington, you can contact the operator to collect their bike to take back into DC, or you can ride the bike back into the operating location (JUMP bike offers a $1 credit every when a bike is ridden back into the operating area).

This is all still very early in the experimental phase so there is no telling right now how policies could change.”

If this wasn’t confusing enough, only four of the five dockless bikeshare companies have permits from Montgomery County, MD to operate in Silver Spring and Takoma Park. I believe the fifth company, Jump, has decided not to expand to Montgomery County yet because it wants to focus on DC. None of the dockless bikeshare companies have permits to operate elsewhere in DC’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Plus, they can’t operate on National Park Service (NPS) property. This is important because the National Mall and regional trails like the Mount Vernon Trail are owned by the NPS.

Dockless Bikeshare

Map of dockless bikeshare’s service area in Silver Spring and Takoma Park, MD. Source: WashCycle

Even if the NPS gave permits to the dockless bikeshare companies to operate on its property, e-bikes are banned from NPS-owned trails. However, I haven’t seen this ban enforced and it doesn’t appear to be discouraging many people from riding e-bikes on trails. I’m curious to see whether this controversial NPS ban becomes more heated as LimeBike and Spin join Jump in having e-bikes.

Since the dockless bikeshare parking issues have been reported everywhere, look at Dockless Bike Fail’s tweets for photo evidence. What do you think about the issues I have discussed in this post?

Achieving Busy Schedule In 2018

I’m about three months into my job search. As 2017 ends tonight and 2018 begins, I’ve been thinking about my new year’s resolution. Since a busy schedule helped me feel good when I was working earlier this year and interviewers have been asking what I’ve been doing since I lost my job, my new year’s resolution is to achieve a busy schedule again. While it’s tougher for me to have a busy schedule when I’m not working a full-time job, I’m determined to find a way to achieve a busy schedule again regardless of having a full-time job.

As a planner, I prefer to create a plan for how I’m going to achieve something rather than hope it happens. My existing volunteer work is a good starting point. One of the many things I love about the Washington, DC region is how many opportunities I have to get involved in exciting projects. As this post shows, I have been helping the Capital Trails Coalition by serving on its Analytics Working Group. Staff at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) and Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), who work together on the Capital Trails Coalition, have told me they are stretched thin. I’ve been offering to help them more than just at monthly meetings, so I’m hopeful to plug into a cool project.

I have been writing blog posts for Greater Greater Washington (GGWash). I’m currently in the process of writing two more posts for GGWash. One post is about State of Place’s walkability study for the Lee Highway Alliance. The other post is about dockless bikeshare in Washington, DC.

As the Transportation Issues Chair for the Mount Vernon Group of the Sierra Club, I’ve been advocating for the Sierra Club’s viewpoint on local, regional, and state transportation issues. I’m also running uncontested for a seat on the Mount Vernon Group’s Executive Committee.

After describing some of my volunteer work and realizing I need to make time for my job search, I’m asking myself whether I should be trying to have a busier volunteer schedule or acknowledge that I’m doing plenty to stay busy during my job search. What do you think?

Virginia’s Lee Highway Alliance experiments with State of Place’s walkability analysis tool

Today is the National Day on Writing, which asks people to share why they write using #WhyIWrite. I started this blog in 2014 and wrote the following post because I’m passionate about opening people’s eyes to transportation issues that I also used to be blind to. Since Greater Greater Washington‘s staff helped me write this post so it could be posted on their blog, the structure is different from what I usually write on my blog.

The Lee Highway Alliance (LHA) in Arlington, Virginia is working to make the Lee Highway corridor more economically vibrant, walkable, and attractive. State of Place is helping them achieve their walkability goals. Walkability is simply a measure of how friendly a given place is to walking. People who live in highly walkable places see a slew of health, environmental, and financial benefits.

The Lee Highway corridor is located in north Arlington just north of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Unlike the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which helped Arlington win the Gold 2017 National Planning Achievement Award for Implementation, the Lee Highway corridor remains a primarily automobile-dependent, suburban-style place.

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor Past-Present

Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor, past and present. Images by Arlington.

As is typical of most of the commercial corridors built throughout the country during the mid-to-late 20th century, the general development pattern of the Lee Highway corridor is low-rise commercial development with prominent surface parking lots and limited pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure.

It is a major automobile commuter corridor. In order to create the place that the LHA envisions, the Lee Highway corridor needs to become a place that prioritizes people and community over automobiles.

Since the LHA wants to provide people with healthy transportation choices and attract vibrant economic development, it hopes to improve the Lee Highway corridor through a new vision that includes distinct, walkable, mixed-use neighborhood centers.

Lee Highway Corridor Future Intensity

Proposed neighborhood centers showing a spectrum of density. Image by Arlington.

One of the proposed neighborhood centers, Lee Heights shopping center, is shown below:

Lee Heights Shopping Center Illustration

Illustrative concept for Lee Heights shopping center, existing and proposed. Image by Arlington.

There are many tools that cities or other planners use to determine how pedestrian-friendly an area is and how they can improve “walkability.”

So how do planners determine how walkable an area is?

You can see a walkability analysis in action in Virginia

Recently, LHA was one of six organizations across the US to win a five-block walkability analysis from State of Place, a software company that uses predictive analytics to quantify what people love about a given place.

State of Place uses ten urban design categories, such as density, connectivity, and traffic safety, to assess how walkable a block, a group of blocks, or an entire neighborhood is. During the past several months, they assessed the walkability of Lee Highway. Results will be presented to the public on Saturday, October 21 from 10am-12pm at the Lee Highway Alliance office, which is located at 4620 Lee Highway, Suite 208.

There are pros and cons to all walkability assessment tools

State of Place’s approach isn’t the only walkability assessment tool available. Another tool is called Walk Score, which provides a number on the 100-point scale that measures the walkability of any address.

Most cities use Walk Score, but State of Place walkability researcher Dr. Mariela Alfonzo says this tool tends to overestimate the walkability of high-access, low-income communities, among other problems.

Joe Cortright at City Observatory rebuked Alfonzo’s criticisms, saying State of Place’s metrics are highly complex, extremely labor intensive to gather, and consequently very expensive. Plus, they have not been implemented enough to let an objective third party assess their accuracy and utility.

While there is no perfect way to assess how walkable an area or city is, both tools are a great start to understanding how to improve the accessibility and livability of a given area.

Here’s how walkability scores are created

I’ve had the opportunity to personally use the State of Place tool to conduct a similar analysis in Tigard, Oregon last year. With help from three of my Master of Urban and Regional Planning classmates from Portland State University, we created neighborhood walkability assessments for the Tigard Triangle and Downtown Tigard.

Delta Planning Team with Client 2-10-16

Team of Master of Urban and Regional Planning students from Portland State University with client, Lloyd Purdy of Tigard, OR (left to right: Ray Atkinson, Curtis Fisher, Lloyd Purdy, Linn Davis, Wala Abuhejleh)

My team used the inventory tool to capture data on more than 280 built environment features, in ten urban design categories, that contribute to the walkability on every street segment in this area.

We underwent a rigorous training process where we practiced using the inventory tool in four different sample settings. Individual results from the four sample settings weren’t exact matches, so we understand our data collection in the Tigard Triangle and Downtown Triangle isn’t completely accurate. For example, one person could have felt safe walking on a street segment while another person didn’t feel safe walking on the same street segment.

We walked 74 street segments in the Tigard Triangle and 15 street segments in Downtown Tigard. The data was submitted to State of Place, who used their proprietary algorithm to generate an Index score for each segment on a 100-point scale. The results are shown below:

Downtown & Triangle SoP Index

State of Place Index for Tigard Triangle and Downtown Tigard

The index for the Tigard Triangle is 33 out of 100, a low walkability score meaning most trips require an automobile. For comparison, Downtown Tigard scored 66.

The profile breaks the index down into ten urban design categories that contribute to the walkability of the place, so cities can know where to prioritize walkability improvements. As the profile shows, the weakest category for the Tigard Triangle is lack of parks and public spaces.

State of Place Index & Profile Tigard Triangle

State of Place Index and Profile for Tigard Triangle

However, increasing parks and public spaces don’t do as much for walkability as adding density, pedestrian amenities, and traffic safety.

Since most cities have scarce resources, State of Place also provided the “Weighted by Impact and Feasibility (Walkability)” chart, shown below. Constructing a building is expensive and often depends on the private sector, so density isn’t the most feasible way to improve walkability.

Since the public sector has more control over adding pedestrian amenities and improving traffic safety, and the non-weighted profile shows these are weak in the Tigard Triangle, they are the most feasible ways to improve walkability in this place.

State of Place Prioritization Tigard Triangle

State of Place Prioritization Tigard Triangle2

State of Place charts for Tigard Triangle

The city used this data and my team’s recommendations to help create the Tigard Triangle Lean Code, which was adopted in August 2017. The lean code promotes building and site designs that improve walkability.

Tigard Triangle Lean Code

Tigard Triangle Lean Code. Image by Tigard.

If this analysis interests you, results from the Arlington walkability analysis will be presented to the public by State of Place on Saturday, October 21 from 10am-12pm at the Lee Highway Alliance office, which is located at 4620 Lee Highway, Suite 208. I plan to write a post with public reaction to the results.

Ray’s Professional Growth From 1st Full-Time, Permanent Job

As I update my resume and cover letter and prepare for job interviews, I have been reflecting on my professional growth from my 1st full-time, permanent job as the Bikeshare Planner at MetroBike, LLC. This job was an amazing experience. It helped prepare me for my next job because I now have more hands-on experience coordinating and leading office and site meetings with clients and public and private stakeholders. I was effectively able to listen to client and stakeholder concerns and find feasible ways to resolve their concerns.

I have seven years of experience learning and using ArcGIS. Since ArcGIS is expensive, I was asked to learn QGIS, which is free and open-source. I quickly self-taught QGIS and was able to provide my clients with professional maps, which they appreciated. My clients also thanked me for quickly incorporating their requested map edits. None of the maps have been publicly released yet, so I can’t share them with you.

QGIS wasn’t the only free and open-source software that I self-taught during my last job. Even though I learned Photoshop during graduate school at Portland State University, I was asked to learn Paint.NET so I could create bikeshare station footprint photos and aerials. Since I shared the below footprint photo of a planned Capital Bikeshare station at Gravelly Point to get public feedback, I can share it with you.

Gravelly Point Footprint3

Footprint photo of planned Capital Bikeshare station at Gravelly Point

Public speaking was a crucial component of my job. While I still get nervous when presenting, I was pleasantly surprised how much my public speaking skills improved during this job. I was able to remain calm and focused during presentations. I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the public when presenting to civic associations in Arlington. In addition, my former boss and I presented at the 2017 North American Bikeshare Association Conference in Montreal. As the below photo shows, I also presented the Fiscal Year 2017 Capital Bikeshare update to the Arlington Bicycle Advisory Committee.

I could share many other ways that I experienced professional growth, but I’m trying to write more concisely. I’m excited to see what my next job is and my continued professional growth.