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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

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Research Exchange

Research Exchange gathers brief summaries of ongoing or recently completed research about critical topics in transportation. We invite readers to suggest studies that merit inclusion.

BRT Effective for Generating Development in U.S., Canada 

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has proven to be a potent catalyst for urban development in North America, even more cost-effective than light rail or streetcars, according to a report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). The study evaluated 21 surface mass transit corridors in 13 cities across the U.S. and Canada, highlighting the role that government investments and policies play in developing the areas.

HealthLine BRT

Jason Miller

“In the 21st century, we are seeing that mass transit can revitalize cities if governments act wisely—and the type of mass transit providing the best bang for the buck is bus rapid transit,” said Walter Hook, Chief Executive Officer of ITDP.

The report showcases Cleveland’s HealthLine as the continent’s greatest BRT success story to date. According to the authors, the system and its related infrastructure improvements required a $200 million initial investment at the time of its launch in 2008, but led to $5.8 billion in transit-oriented development (TOD)—a $114.54 return for every dollar spent.

Other findings of the report include:

• Government support is the best predicator of TOD, regardless of system type. Governments can invest in related infrastructure, change the zoning and other regulations, provide loans or tax abatements, and market the area to help support development. But if a government does nothing to support TOD along the transit corridor, there will be no impact. 
• Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT and Portland’s MAX Blue Line light rail leveraged the most overall TOD of the corridors studied —$5.8 billion and $6.5 billion, respectively. Yet, because the HealthLine cost significantly less to build than the Blue Line, Cleveland leveraged approximately 31 times more TOD per dollar spent than Portland.
• Downtowns tend to begin as stronger land markets, so routing transit through a city’s downtown leads to better TOD impacts. 

The report cited Pittsburgh’s Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway as a model for how urban planners retrofit older transit corridors for TOD. Built as America’s first BRT in 1983, the Busway was not conceived as a development initiative, but a connection from the city’s downtown to its suburbs. By adjusting zoning regulations surrounding the station, cleaning up industrial sites, and aggressively recruiting economic anchors, a public-private initiative attracted $900 million in new development concentrated around the East Liberty Station, according to the report. 

The full report, “More Development for Your Transit Dollar: An Analysis of 21 North American Transit Corridors” is available for download at www.itdp.org.

—Researchers: Walter Hook, Stephanie Lotshaw, and Annie Weinstock, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, New York.

Millennials Lead Change in Transportation Trends

A report from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund concludes that the current eight-year slowdown in driving is likely to continue for decades, as baby boomers conclude the phase in their lives when they do the most commuting, and driving-averse millennials move into that phase.

Young transit rider

According to the report, miles driven per capita peaked in 2004; the total number of miles driven by Americans peaked in 2007. Americans ages 16-34 drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001— the greatest decline in driving of any age group. In addition, millennials are more likely to want to live in urban and walkable neighborhoods and are more open to non-driving forms of transportation than the older generation of Americans, the study noted.

The authors contend the change in driving trends will have many implications on American travel, including: 

• Coupled with improvements in fuel efficiency, reduced driving means Americans will use about half as much gasoline and other fuels in 2040 than they use today, making the real value of gas taxes fall as much as 74 percent when adjusted for inflation.
• Traffic congestion will be less of a problem.
• Toll roads will be less financially viable.
• Forms of travel that are expanding in use, like public transit, will be a better investment.

“Given the magnitude of these trends and the implications for the future, we need to press the reset button on our transportation policy,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and co-author of the report. “Public officials can’t just stay on the only course they’ve known. They need to learn from current trends to rethink whether it’s worth building all those extra highway miles that were planned based on an obsolete understanding of future driving trends.”

The report, “A New Direction: Our Changing Relationship with Driving and the Implications for America’s Future,” is available at www.uspirg.org

—Researchers: Tony Dutzik, Frontier Group, Boston; Phineas Baxandall, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Boston. 

Drivers Fail to Check for Pedestrians at “Permitted” Left Signals

A study of how drivers respond to permitted left turn signals revealed what the authors termed an “alarming” level of risk to pedestrians.


Courtesy of Oregon State University

As opposed to a “protected” left turn, in which a solid green arrow gives a driver the complete right of way in a left-turn lane, a “permitted” left turn arrow indicates to drivers that they can turn at their discretion when they see a break in oncoming traffic. The risk of these signals, according to the study, is that drivers become so focused on the oncoming traffic that they fail to look left to see if people are crossing the street. The heavier the traffic, the less attention was reportedly paid to pedestrians. 

Researchers from Oregon State and Portland State universities monitored the eye movements of 27 subjects as they made 620 permitted left turns with a driving simulator. Between 4-9 percent of the time, drivers didn’t check to see for pedestrians before moving into the intersection. This suggests a major level of risk to pedestrians, researchers said, if they assume that drivers not only will look for them, but will allow them to cross the street. 

The problem is aggravated by the varying appearance of permitted left turn signals from state to state and sometimes even from city to city, according to the study. The signals may be a circular green light, a flashing circular yellow light, a flashing circular red light, or a flashing yellow arrow, depending on the location.

The danger is sufficiently high, the researchers concluded, that more states and cities should consider prohibiting permitted left turns while pedestrians are allowed to be in the crosswalk. David Hurwitz, the study’s principal investigator and an assistant professor of transportation engineering at OSU, noted that while the signals help move traffic, “Sometimes the goal of safety has to override the goal of efficiency, and we think this is one of those times.” 

The study, “Improved Pedestrian Safety at Signalized Intersections Operating the Flashing Yellow Arrow,” was released in April and can be downloaded for free at www.otrec.us/project/484

—Researchers: David Hurwitz, Oregon State University; Christopher Monsere, Portland State University.

Tech Cos. Trusted More than Traditional Automakers on Self-Driving Cars

Can Google go from dominating search engines to car engines? According to an October report by the advisory and accounting firm KPMG, U.S. consumers appear more willing to use a self-driving car developed by leading technology companies than traditional automotive manufacturers.

KPMG asked focus groups in Los Angeles, Chicago and Iselin, N.J., about their willingness to ride in a self-driving car for everyday use, including cars from the best-known premium and mass-market auto-makers, as well as leading tech companies. The tech companies scored highest, with a median score of 8 on a scale of 1-10 (10 equaling the highest level of trust, 1 for low trust). Premium auto brands received a score of 7.75, while mass-market brands received a score of 5.

According to report author Gary Silberg, self-driving cars could be “profoundly disruptive to the traditional automotive ecosystem,” changing not only who the industry’s major players are but people’s concept of what makes a good car. Among the potential shifts raised in the report:

• Selling points like powertrain, torque or how fast a car can accelerate from 0-60 may no longer matter if the owner isn’t driving.  
• Mobility on demand services that arrange rides wherever and whenever customers want them may mean the end of the two-car household. 
• Although people will initially have reservations about self-driving cars, incentives such as shorter and more predictable commutes, and the ability to use the vehicle in either self-driving or manual mode will make mass adoption inevitable.

“We realize significant hurdles and open questions remain, including safety, liability and even cyber-security concerns,” author Gary Silberg said. “In addition, technological innovation often moves faster than legal or regulatory systems. However, we believe the market opportunities for self-driving vehicles and technologies are enormous, and innovative companies will continue to drive the technology forward.”

The full report, “Self-Driving Cars: Are We Ready?,” is available at kpmg.com/us.

—Researcher: Gary Silberg, KPMG.

Teens Waiting Longer to Obtain Licenses

A report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that more than half (56 percent) of teens today are waiting over a year before obtaining their drivers license and just over half (54 percent) are licensed before their 18th birthday. These findings mark a significant drop from two decades ago when data showed more than two-thirds of teens were licensed by the time they turned 18.

Skateboard riderThe national survey of 1,039 respondents ages 18-20 found that cost was a significant factor for delaying licensure. According to the reasons cited in the survey, 44 percent did not have a car; 39 percent could get around without driving; 36 percent said gas was too expensive; 36 percent said driving was too expensive; and 35 percent reported they “just didn’t get around to it.”

Low-income and minority teens were the least likely to obtain a driver’s license before age 18. Only 25 percent of teens living in households with incomes less than $20,000 obtained their license before they turned 18, while 79 percent of teens were licensed by their 18th birthday in households with incomes of $100,000 or more. The findings for licensure by age 18 differed significantly by race and ethnicity, with 67 percent for non-Hispanic white teens, 37 percent for non‑ Hispanic black teens, and 29 percent for Hispanic teens.

The report, “Timing of Driver’s License Acquisition and Reasons for Delay among Young People in the United States, 2012,” and its associated survey results can be found www.aaafoundation.org.

—Researchers: Brian C. Tefft, Allan F. Williams and Jurek G. Grabowski, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. 

Conditions Can Increase Support for Transportation Taxes

A study by the Mineta Transportation Institute showed that public acceptance varied for a range of taxes and fees that could fund the nation’s transportation infrastructure. A national survey of 1,501 adults found that more people supported a gas tax increase when they were informed about how the revenue would be used, as opposed to an increase to be spent for undefined transportation purposes. This was true for every demographic that was surveyed.

In addition, respondents tended to support the increase more when told it would be phased in over a few years.
The results are part of a four-year survey project, according to a news release. Among the key findings this year:

• Linking tax increases to safety, maintenance, or environmental benefits substantially increased support among virtually all socio-demographic groups.
• When taxes were described with no information other than the tax type, a new sales tax was much more popular than either a gas tax increase or a new mileage tax.
• Eighty percent said that better transit is an important priority for their state.
• The majority did not support increasing gas taxes or transit fares to improve transit, but 64 percent supported spending current gas tax revenues on transit.
• Only 46 percent of respondents knew of the federal government’s role in funding public transit.

A number of the results may surprise legislators,” said principal investigator Asha Weinstein Agrawal. “Some taxes received very little support, while others are far more acceptable. For example, a 10-cent gas tax increase to support undefined transportation needs received 23 percent support. But if it was spread over five years, it received 40 percent support.”

The full report, “What do Americans Think About Federal Tax Options to Support Public Transit, Highways, and Local Streets and Roads? Results from Year Four of a National Survey,” is available at www.transweb.sjsu.edu

—Researchers: Asha Weinstein Agrawal and Hilary Nixon, San José State University. 

Report: U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Is Improving  

A Reason Foundation report examining state highway data from 1989 to 2008 counters assertions about America’s “crumbling infrastructure,” citing improvements in safety and the conditions of state-controlled roads and bridges over that time. 

According to the report, all 50 states lowered their highway fatality rates and 40 reduced their deficient bridges over the 20-year period examined. The number of deficient bridges nationally fell from 37.8 percent of all bridges in 1989 to 23.7 percent in 2008. 

The study also examined spending per mile on state-owned roads and road performance in seven categories: miles of urban Interstate highways in poor pavement condition, miles of rural Interstates in poor condition, congestion on urban Interstates, deficient bridges, highway fatalities, rural primary roads in poor condition and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow. Eleven states made progress in all seven categories and 37 states improved in at least five of the seven metrics. 

The report contends that while the amount of state-controlled road mileage increased by just 0.6 percent, spending per mile on state-administered roads grew by 60 percent, adjusted for inflation. Texas and Florida led the growth in spending, with Texas increasing its per mile spending by 174.5 percent and Florida raising its spending by 149.6 percent, adjusted for inflation. 

The percentage of urban interstates with poor pavement condition dropped slightly from 6.6 to 5.4 percent, according to the report. The percentage of rural Interstates rated in poor condition was reduced by from 6.6 percent to 1.93 percent. 

“The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape,” said lead author David Hartgen. “The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good.”

The report, “Are Highways Crumbling? State and U.S. Highway Performance Trends, 1989–2008,” is available at www.reason.org.

—Researchers: David Hartgen and Elizabeth San José, the Hartgen Group, Charlotte, N.C.; M. Gregory Fields, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Study: No Safety Benefit to Voice-to-Text Apps

Voice-to-text applications offer no significant safety advantage over manual texting while driving, according to a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). The analysis is the first to compare voice-to-text and manual texting on a handheld device in an actual driving environment, according to a news release.

Drivers first navigated the course without any use of cell phones. Each of the 43 participating drivers then traveled the course three more times performing a series of texting exercises—once using each of two voice-to-text applications (Siri for the iPhone and Vlingo for Android), and once texting manually. Researchers then measured the time it took each driver to complete the tasks, and also noted how long it took for the drivers to respond to a light which came on at random intervals during the exercises.

Major findings from the study included:

• No matter which texting method was used, drivers took about twice as long to react as they did when they weren’t texting.
• The amount of time that drivers spent looking at the roadway ahead was significantly less when they were texting, no matter which texting method was used.
• For most tasks, manual texting required slightly less time than the voice-to-text method, but driver performance was roughly the same with both.
• Although performance suffered equally with both methods, the drivers reported that they felt safer when using a voice-to-text application than when texting manually.

 “Understanding the distracted driving issue is an evolving process, and this study is but one step in that process,” said Christine Yager, a TTI associate transportation researcher who managed the study. “We believe it’s a useful step, and we’re eager to see what other studies may find.”

The study, “An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Voice-to-Text Programs at Reducing Incidences of Distracted Driving,” is available at www.tti.tamu.edu.

—Researcher: Christine Yager, Texas A&M University

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