Thursday, May 6, 2010

AAA is not a friend of balanced transportation

On a national bicycle-pedestrian advocates list of which I am a member, there was a discussion about the new, separate bike lane planned for Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC, as well as several other downtown streets in Washington. These lanes actually remove space from motorized traffic, and AAA put out a press release with a list of concerns.

The press release came from the Mid-Atlantic chapter of AAA, but there followed a long discussion about working with AAA on various projects, whether a boycott of AAA was warranted. and the coordination between the regional chapters and the national office. [If you want to go to the AAA Mid-Atlantic web site, say to comment, you may need to enter a ZIP code for the Mid-Atlantic area. One for the DC area is 20006, or use any ZIP from DE, MD, DC, VA, NJ, or PA.]

Since you may not be able to easily get into the web site, I will paste it below, so you can read it:


Protected Bike Lane Project Would Remove Six Miles Of Traffic Lane;
New Bike Lanes Won't Entice District Motorists Out Of Cars, AAA Poll Shows
WASHINGTON, D. C.  (Monday, May 3, 2010) – Pennsylvania Avenue has a new look. Over the weekend, D.C. transportation work crews converted two traffic lanes on “America’s Main Street”  into bike lanes, and, as a result, city traffic could become even more congested in downtown Washington and further increase commuter frustration with insufficient road and highway capacity, warns AAA Mid-Atlantic, which is encouraging commuters and District motorists to voice their concerns about the proposal.
 Bike lanes will also be built on four other major streets in the city’s busiest corridor.
 “If you build it, will they come?” It is unlikely the addition of new bike lanes inWashington’s Central Business District will entice most motorists out of their cars or attract more residents to bicycling to work. That’s according to the findings of AAA Mid-Atlantic’slatest survey of District motorists.
  “Given current levels of motor vehicle traffic in downtown D.C. and the depth of frustration with gridlock during daily work trips, many motorists are wondering why this plan made it to the drawing board in the first place,” cautioned John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs.
 “In the minds of many motorists and commuters this plan abounds with problems. Although they understand that a vibrant city like Washington needs to have a healthy mix of bikers, walkers, motorists and mass transit users, they think this plan is counter-intuitive.”
 If given final approval, the pilot bicycle lane project would remove six miles of traffic lanes along five major thoroughfares in the city’s Central Business District, including two traffic lanes on a mile-long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to the U. S. Capitol building.
  In addition, one lane of automobile traffic in Northwest Washington will be removed from 9th Street15th StreetL Street and M Street, under the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) proposal. The 30-day public comment period for the project closes 12 days from now.
 Polling shows some residents already have some misgivings about the proposal.  In fact, 53 percent of District residents say bike lanes and other added bicycle perks will not make them more likely to bicycle to work on a regular basis, the 2010 AAA Transportation Poll ® shows. Even so, 20 percent of surveyed AAA members in the District said the changes would compel them to become regular bicycle commuters.
 “Downtown Washington experienced the worst congestion in the region during the last decade, previous studies by local transportation planners show,” Townsend noted.  
 “If implemented, this plan could make things worse. Lane closures must be approached with extreme caution to avoid excessive traffic delays and the diversion of motorists into neighborhood streets, increasing cut-through traffic in peak periods.”
 “What’s past is prologue,” providing an object lesson about such impacts,  some D.C. motorists and taxi drivers complain. They still point to the impact of the decision 15 years ago to close a two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House that carried 29,000 vehicles a day. 
  As predicted, it increased traffic congestion in downtown Washington during rush hours, some critics grouse. The Secret Service closed the six lane avenue from 15th to 17th streets to motor traffic in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Since then, increased security concerns and terror threats have prompted officials to reduce lane width and remove parking spaces around some federal buildings, observed AAA.
 Each inauguration day the 1.2 mile-long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue down from the United States Capitol building to the White House becomes the “Promenade of Presidents.” It will be retrofitted with a “bicycle facility,” allowing bicyclists to travel down the center median, according to DDOT. Here’s a snapshot of the impacted streets and length of the proposed protected bike lanes:
 o        Pennsylvania Avenue NW from 3rd Street NW to 14th Street NW (1 mile).
o        9th Street NW from Constitution Avenue NW to K Street NW (0.7 mile).
o        15th Street NW from Constitution Avenue NW to W Street NW (2 miles).
o        L Street from 11th Street NW to 25th Street NW (1.3 miles).
o        M Street from 15th Street NW to 29th Street NW (1 mile).
  Under the pilot project, the “barrier-protected” bike lanes will be separated from vehicular traffic by either a lane of parking or buffer zone. Cyclists will still be permitted to travel in regular vehicle travel lanes in Downtown DC.
 “Although bicycling is an increasingly popular way to get to work in the District, the question  is whether the proposal will exacerbate the commute for the vast majority of workers in Downtown Washington, constricting already clogged traffic arterials, and causing even more delays during peak travel periods in the District’s most highly developed area,” the auto club spokesman said.
  “Motorists are concerned that congestion will become even more pronounced because reductions in lane width generally trigger reductions in traffic flow, travel times and capacity. That’s the biggest issue.”
 On average, 2.3 percent of District workers bike to work, according to 2008 data from DDOT. That’s 7,066 bicyclists daily. In contrast, 12 percent walk to work. Even so, 39 percent of employees in the District drive to work alone, while 21 percent ride to their jobs in carpools and vanpools.
 Another 40 percent use some form of mass transit, including Metrorail and Metrobus. Although advocates of bike lanes tout their safety benefits and impact on organizing the flow of traffic, some planners still debate the best approach for adding the lanes to existing roadways, commented Townsend.  
  The proposed bike lane project carries a price tag of $1.2 million and is slated for completion during 2010.  The regional Transportation Planning Board (TPB) has identified the “protected bike lane pilot project” as  one of four “new regionally significant projects” designated for inclusion in the 2010 long-range transportation plan. The 30-day public comment period will end at midnight on Saturday, May 15, 2010. 
  Commuters can submit their comments to the TPB online, or by or by phone at (202) 962-3262 or TDD: (202) 962-3213.  As of Spring 2010, the District boasts a total of 1,200 lane miles, including 44.7 miles of bike lanes and 56 miles of bike trails.  DDOT contends it will evaluate the effectiveness and impacts of the bike lane pilot project before deciding whether to make it permanent.

Several members of the national listserv suggested a boycott of AAA. Others mentioned that AAA in their area had funded helmet give-aways, kids bike classes, and share-the-road messages. There was a bit of back and forth about whether the national office could or should be held responsible for the actions and press releases of the regional offices. There was also discussion of the survey itself, and how AAA appeared to play  with the numbers: The commuter percentages add up to 114.3%; 20% of AAA members said the new bike lanes would entice them to bike to work; even people that might not use the lanes to bike to work might use them for other trips; etc.

Finally, as people debated whether they should boycott their local AAA because of the action of another regionals office, I felt I had to weigh in on why I do not have a AAA membership:
OK, wading in again, here's why I dropped AAA years ago, and why I will not become a member again.
Regardless of what my local chapter or office says, when I sign up as a AAA member, some of that money goes to the national organization. The national office lobbies, and often not in ways that we would like.
It's all fine and good to have share-the-road messages, or give away helmets, or even sponsor LAB classes, but when it comes down to changing the federal/state/local transportation policy, to favor a more balanced transportation system, don't get in their way. Less money for roads and more for transit, walking, and biking? Are you nuts!?
They will play nice if they can get away with sweet (and inexpensive)messages and campaigns, but they will support driving every time, and that means more and bigger roads. Everything else comes second (or third, fourth, or last.)
There is only so much money to go around, and likely less every day. Those few cents we want for better biking? They want those too. Buses and trains? No way, we can't afford those! Pedestrian safety money and complete streets? Only after the big highways get theirs, we'll see if there's any money left over.
When we walk in the door of our state legislature, asking for a change in transportation funding and priorities, or when we ask for a more rational TEA legislation next spring, we better remember who is coming in behind us with buckets of cash. I do not want my money or my name (as a member), used to undo the hard work we have done.
So, no AAA for me, thank you very much. I don't feel like putting any more cash or credibility in their hands.
For those who want the benefits of AAA - roadside assistance, discounts, etc - you can join Better World Club. They will even pick up if your bike gets a flat tire!