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@Jarrett Not being as accomplished a writer as you, I am not very familiar with the Socratic dialogue, but I have to say I found this FTA rendition quite impressive! It seems this must have taken a while to write (though I'm sure you enjoyed the exercise ^_^), as it seems to do a really good job of explaining quite a few complex problems related to transportation decision-making in a relatively straightforward and comprehensible way, so kudos. I think it is also so germane to the problems that I've witnessed in the transportation planning field in the U.S. Very few professionals seem capable of really identifying what the purpose and goal of a project is. This lack of clear thinking on the big picture of what a project is supposed to achieve makes it very difficult to have a clear and productive conversation about a project. As I learned as an engineering student, creative problem solving requires a solution-independent problem statement, which is either rare or drafted only after a solution has been chosen to some degree. The solution may have been chosen to the degree that a transit project is only looking at new capital infrastructure, rather than also looking at the rerouting of existing bus routes to complement that capital infrastructure. Or it may have been chosen to the degree that mobility improvements in a corridor/subregion are being considered but the only outcome of the planning process will be improvements to a predetermined highway segment because the planning initiative is project-based, managed by only a single jurisdictional agency, and therefore probably redundant and lacking in nuance and creativity. Even if a big picture goal is established, it's mostly meaningless if the only solutions to a complex urban mobility issue are centered on modifications to a single facility. It would seem that at least basic guidance (a policy or set of principles) for each facility-level project would need to come from a broader, comprehensive planning process that was actually considering the whole system over time. It's my impression that a lack of comprehensive planning efforts is often due to a "lack of resources" or the the desire to move things forward quickly. Rather ironically, I think it is also what contributes to greater controversy surrounding a proposed project. It's not usually controversy about the need for some project, but rather controversy about the crappy solution that lacked the input of crucial stakeholders or creative thinking. And the real kicker is that dealing with controversy or trying to drive a controversial project forward may be the slowest and most resource-intensive activity for a transportation agency. To illustrate from my personal experience, I've followed developments on several major transportation projects near me. As I often end up doing, I may dream up several creative solutions to the stated "purpose and need" based mostly on what I saw living in Germany or have seen traveling around the U.S. and Europe. But upon further examination, I see no evidence that any such solutions were considered anywhere in the documented planning process or alternatives analysis for these projects. Even at public meetings for such projects, after taking the time to carefully explain ideas that to me seemed obvious solutions to consider, I may get an "oh, we hadn't really thought about that, that's an interesting idea." However, it seems either the comment is forgotten or the project team has already spent too much time and effort in their initial (closed-door) analysis and planning work for the existing proposal and there's no hope of turning back the federal-approval-seeking juggernaut without risking that no improvement will ever be made. I can only assume that rather than thinking of creative solutions, they have spent all their time worrying about which popular, but inappropriate "off-the-shelf" (and domestic) solution would cause the least (political, organizational, or other) headache/opposition, and could actually qualify for funding. Or else there is too much local political influence on technical decisions, or even simply too few qualified and creative people in charge of planning at transportation agencies. Really not sure why exactly... Getting back to the topic of this post, I find it interesting that the majority of the critical comments here seem to deal with what I would call the importance of local priorities. It is impossible to say that a single metric should be used in every case and will ensure a good project. As lovely as it would be, you can't set up a perfect formula that makes your decision for you, there always has to be human judgement. As we also see so clearly in your post, transit affects so many different aspects of our urban and economic environment. Therefore, it makes sense that in a given region, there would be extra priorities related to transit that are given strong consideration or weight. If there is a need for economic development or a need for more visibility and popular sentiment for the transit system, then it may make sense to invest in a streetcar in mixed traffic. This could be a great decision for a given city. But as you so clearly point out, it's important to make the distinction that it's not accomplishing any mobility or access goals. Most of the extra riders attracted already enjoy access and mobility via car, bus, bike, or otherwise. This is why it's so so so so important for a local agency, community, municipality, county, region, and/or state to lay out very clear, well-defined goals that are solution-independent and consensus-based for what they are trying to achieve with their transportation investments. It makes it then a lot easier to create guidelines and actionable recommendations, as well as to settle upon a set of criteria that will help in deciding on the best plans and projects. That, however, is what brings me to my major criticism of your post: there is a great irony in how Socrates is trying to help the feds come up with a better formula for selecting "the best projects." These types of decisions shouldn't be made at the federal level, period. The very existence of such criteria highly undermines the ability of a local area to develop such clear, well-defined goals that they can stick to because it jeopardizes their ability to fund the implementation of those goals unless they significantly alter their project proposals to conform to the federal formulas--which you've just demonstrated teeter precariously between the highly arbitrary and the absurdly complex and can never be fair to projects across different areas with highly differing circumstances and needs. I believe that if we had local agencies setting clear goals, making clear plans, and then identifying projects that would implement those plans, then the only criteria that the federal government would need is a demonstration of conformance with local goals and plans. The feds could spend less time in a smoke-filled room tearing their hearts out trying to decide if they're funding the best projects, and instead they could start lending expertise to local partners, helping them set clear goals and helping them bring best practices--like a percentage-based travel-time/access/mobility metric--into how they evaluate their own plans and projects for meeting locally-defined goals. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen a major transportation entity in the U.S. that really has a clear mission/purpose that they are following, despite what they might like to believe or say. There's so much smoke being blown everywhere because the people making the decisions don't even know why they're making the decisions they're making. And, I think it's really sad, wasteful, and highly undemocratic to make decisions about hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in transportation investment when nobody seems to have a clear idea of why we are doing it, beyond just a lot of scattered ideas about how it might benefit us.
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@Jarrett On your last point, you are definitely correct. Just think of how many predictions have been complete busts because of the economic crisis and resulting glut in development. We have half-finished or ghost highways and I imagine at least some transit services that are completely underused, and who knows if the same types of development as originally predicted will ever materialize. I find it especially disconcerting to base a decision largely on predicted/expected land use changes when there are no land use controls in place to ensure that growth will actually be confined to development in the manner predicted or expected. Current automobile dependence, land use policies, and development practices seem to make it incredibly easy for development to completely sidestep any given area and move somewhere else in a region if the development economics shift slightly.
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The buses from the Hauptbahnhof in Mainz, Germany to the Universität Mainz take a route along a grade-separated expressway, and have stops at a modified diamond interchange, as can be viewed here on Google Maps: The bus stop (Haltestelle) called Universität in the upper right of this bus line diagram is essentially what you are referring to: Many of the buses exit the expressway and then re-enter. Then there is another bus stop actually on the expressway just a little further west at the stop called F.-v.-Pfeiffer-Weg.
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