Travel/Tourism – Mobility Lab https://mobilitylab.org Moving People... Instead of Just Cars Thu, 23 Mar 2017 19:47:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 To the Rockies and back without a car https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/06/rockies-back-without-car/ https://mobilitylab.org/2017/02/06/rockies-back-without-car/#comments Mon, 06 Feb 2017 16:17:39 +0000 https://mobilitylab.org/?p=20249 A mother-and-son adventure in pursuit of a low-cost skiing vacation It started innocently enough: my teenage son begged for a ski trip to the Colorado mountains. His frugal mom decided to teach him how to save a few hundred bucks so he might be able to indulge his passion when on a college student’s budget.... Read more »

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A mother-and-son adventure in pursuit of a low-cost skiing vacation

It started innocently enough: my teenage son begged for a ski trip to the Colorado mountains. His frugal mom decided to teach him how to save a few hundred bucks so he might be able to indulge his passion when on a college student’s budget. Thus was born our ski-by-bus adventure.

Except for tickets between D.C. and Denver, I was determined to make all other connections from home to the slopes and back by public transportation. We cheated slightly on the home side, but proved that one can do this for less than $50 round trip plus airfare, a true bargain compared with the $800 for a rental car. And while my experience was considerably complicated on the trip-planning side, the solutions do exist for public agencies and private bus services to fix the hassle of separated route and schedule information.

Early morning flights mean really early morning bus and train rides

I encountered my first trip-planning surprise on WMATA’s Ride Guide when I learned that my local suburban bus could not get us to the Metro early enough to make it to the airport by 6 a.m. for a 7 a.m. flight. While we could have walked one mile to catch a different bus at 4:45 a.m., we instead took my husband’s offer of a ride to Metro.

Landed in Denver — now what?

There are several transit options that will get you from Denver International Airport to the resorts in Summit County. All require transfers. Schedule alignment with our flight arrival drove our decision to spend the extra cash on a private carrier — the Summit Express. It cost us $49 per ticket for a direct ride from the airport to the Frisco Transfer Center. For another $16 apiece, we could have transferred to their SUV and been delivered to the door of our condo in Copper. But what fun would that have been? Because our luggage was buried deep in the trunk of the bus, we just missed our connection to the free Summit Stage, but only had to wait 30 minutes for the next bus to Copper Mountain, which dropped us off within a block of our ski-in/ski-out condo in the East Village.

Had we arrived later that morning, we could have taken the RTD bus to Denver’s Union Station and connected to a shuttle bus over to the Greyhound station a few blocks away and then boarded a Greyhound bus to Frisco station. Total cost just $24. [Ed. note: a month later, the RTD A Line opened, which runs from the airport to Union Station.]

Those arriving in Denver in the afternoon can take the RTD to Union Station and transfer directly to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s new Bustang regional bus service.

Off the ski path: How to find a place to stay on a transit route

The trickiest task was finding accommodations close to a bus route. Evidently, this is not an oft-requested bit of information and is not a pre-established filter on either Airbnb or Vacation Rentals by Owner sites. I focused my search on VRBO, where at least property owners can highlight their “ski-in/ski-out” locations on the subject line. At a minimum, resort shuttles serve their ski-in/ski-out condos. With more knowledge of the local geography, or a lot more time, I may have been able to find less expensive off-resort accommodations on the bus route.

While airlines seem to be in a race to strip customers of basic niceties, bus companies are adding perks to attract new customers. Free Wi-Fi on longer-haul routes is now the norm, and real-time bus tracking apps, such as Summit Stage’s Smartbus, are becoming more common.

On the mountain

Breathtaking. Glorious. Enough said.

The return to D.C.

Because of earlier blizzards in Denver, our flight back was delayed three hours and we did not land at National Airport until about 1 a.m. Yes, we could have taken two Metro trains and probably made a late, Friday-night connection to our bus, but we opted for a $22 taxi ride. Transit is great, but I appreciate fallback options. A younger, poorer college student may have forgone the splurge and paid the $3.60 transit fare to get home. [Ed. note: under Metro’s current repair plans, late-night service is no longer available.]

Unfinished business: The need to make trip planning easier for the rider

Establishing that we could forgo the rental car was not a painless process: piecing together the various transit options required hours of research about the area and service providers in order to discover the best bus options between Denver airport and the slopes.

Starting with only the names of a handful of ski resorts and no initial knowledge of the counties or transit providers, I had to track leads from the airport and resort websites, knit together potential itineraries based on individually published transit schedules, check pricing, and verify stop locations in Google Maps. Before I could book a flight I had to learn enough about local transit to ensure that I was flying in at a time-of-day when I could make same-day connections by bus. Even with some hints from transit-connected colleagues in Colorado, I still had to call the RTD and Summit Stage customer service lines to properly identify stop locations.

All in all, perhaps the most demanding aspect of this trip was not the physical toll skiing took on my legs, but the prep work.

How to fix this

It doesn’t have to be this difficult. The technology exists to enable travelers to access this information in seconds from a single website or mobile app, just like many transit users in our cities are able to do today. For there to be a nationwide one-stop shop for transit users looking to not only travel by transit within cities, but between cities and towns as well, every service provider – whether publicly funded or privately owned – needs to voluntarily upload their route, schedule, and stop information into the national database designed for this purpose.

Google developed the General Transit Feed Specification in 2005 for its transit trip planning app. It has since been adopted as the standard by most transit agencies, with almost all the largest urban transit agencies and half the nation’s transit agencies overall sharing their data. To enable third-party app developers to publish the schedule information in easy-to-use formats, transit providers also need to provide a Creative Commons license for its use. Last March, then-Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sent a “dear colleague” letter to all transit providers urging them to upload their data in support of the National Transit Map project. While the public policy purpose behind the project is to connect workers to jobs by identifying gaps in transit service, this effort may result in more accessible transit information that can be used for leisure travel as well.

In conclusion

All my trip planning was worth it. The $800 paid by our friends, with whom we shared a rental condo, got them ski racks but no four-wheel drive. They had the white-knuckle pleasure of driving through two snowstorms on a mountain pass – the kind that would shut D.C. down for at least two days. The only purpose their vehicle served mid-week was to store their skis in the parking garage. We got to leave the driving to a professional; enjoyed electrical outlets and WiFi on the comfortable, new Bustang; and had time to take a peek at the fabulously refurbished Union Station in downtown Denver.

But most important, my son learned the ropes of affordable transit travel that will help him enjoy his passion during his financially lean college years ahead.

Photo, top: The author’s son waiting at a Summit Stage bus stop (Twitter).

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From Amsterdam to Arlington, comparing commutes https://mobilitylab.org/2016/11/07/amsterdam-arlington-comparing-commutes/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/11/07/amsterdam-arlington-comparing-commutes/#comments Mon, 07 Nov 2016 17:29:13 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19488 This post originally appeared on Arlington Transportation Partners blog. I laugh at myself now, thinking of how I always opted for my bike instead of the updated subway in Amsterdam, now that I ride Metro during my daily commute to and from Arlington. Transitioning back to the U.S., I am reminded of the importance of... Read more »

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This post originally appeared on Arlington Transportation Partners blog.

I laugh at myself now, thinking of how I always opted for my bike instead of the updated subway in Amsterdam, now that I ride Metro during my daily commute to and from Arlington. Transitioning back to the U.S., I am reminded of the importance of knowing your transportation options: not all commutes are equal, and they have a huge impact on your health, happiness and well-being.

Commuting in Amsterdam

My daily commute in Amsterdam was something I looked forward to.

It was my time of the day where I would enjoy moments of tranquility and beauty before and after work. Living in the north of Amsterdam, I would bike five minutes along the river bank to reach the free ferry or “pont” that ran every seven minutes.

Boarding the pont with my bike, my daily escape would begin; standing on the front of the ferry, I had access to the sunrise and some of the best views in Amsterdam. Being on the water in stillness, next to my bike for those 10 minutes a day was incredible and it sustained me.

Getting off of the ferry, I would merge with and become part of the sea of bikes behind Central Station. I would bike the rest of the way on a bi-directional path that was completely separated from car traffic. Upon arriving at work, I would have to scour for a bike parking spot even though there were over 100 racks outside of our building, due to the fact almost everyone biked to work.

Map from Motorwal to Piet Heinkade 179

One of the factors that made cycling such an easy part of everyday life was that it was easy to access all amenities I needed on my way home from work, or via a trip-chain. In fact, it would have been much more inconvenient to try to run errands with a car in terms of parking and the inability of getting around the city quickly.

Commuting to Arlington

As I try out different commute options to get from Alexandria to Arlington, I have mostly been biking from home to the King Street or Braddock Metro Stations (I find myself going to King Street more often, even though it is farther away. The bike parking in the station helps me feel my bike is more secure).

BikesParkedAtMetro.jpg

From there, I take the Blue Line to Rosslyn. In the morning, I’m usually lucky enough to get to settle into a seat with my favorite podcast on, a very pleasant way to start the day and only experience a bit of stress when the train occasionally stops unexpectedly.

Upon disembarking at Rosslyn, I get a bit of real-life Stairmaster when speed-walking up the escalator, before tapping out with my SmarTrip card. On my walk from the station to the office, I have enjoyed beginning to recognize some of the familiar faces on the street along the way.

Map from West Braddock & Russell Road to 1501 Wilson Boulevard

During my evening commute, I have experienced a few variances. I have ridden on trains where I have a short wait time at the platform and get a seat onboard, but have also had to fight my way onto overcrowded train cars where I cannot grab a railing, but am instead stabilized by the shoulders and bellies of my fellow commuters.

As I tinker with my commute options and compare my current commute with my daily travel patterns in Amsterdam, I have realized that the big difference is fluctuations in reliability. I have also realized that stress enters the transportation equation with variations in time and service, and the unreliability is what causes unwanted stress. Thinking about my commute in the future, I want to find the right commute option that brings me similar feelings of joy like my commute in Amsterdam, instead of stress.

What I find really exciting about being a part of the Arlington Transportation Partners team, is that I get to help people explore new commute options and to find out what is most important in improving their everyday life.

If you work in Arlington and want to try biking to work, your employer can implement bike benefits – they might already offer them. Download ATP’s guide on their site here, to see how you can set up and take advantage of the transit and bike benefits.


Photos: Top, a couple rides together in Amsterdam (photo by Sheila McGraw). Middle, Metro station bike parking (photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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Biking in Amsterdam: Living and loving the ride https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/28/biking-in-amsterdam-living-and-loving-the-ride/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/28/biking-in-amsterdam-living-and-loving-the-ride/#respond Fri, 28 Oct 2016 14:36:54 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19380 This post originally appeared on the Arlington Transportation Partners blog here. In larger towns and cities in the Netherlands, cyclists reach their destination 10 percent faster than car drivers. Combine this with the fact that it’s cheaper, healthier, faster, and more enjoyable, and you can begin to understand why there are more bikes than people... Read more »

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This post originally appeared on the Arlington Transportation Partners blog here.

In larger towns and cities in the Netherlands, cyclists reach their destination 10 percent faster than car drivers.

Combine this with the fact that it’s cheaper, healthier, faster, and more enjoyable, and you can begin to understand why there are more bikes than people in what some refer to as the City of Bikes.

Living in Amsterdam for the past two years, my bicycle was my lifeline. It was how I got to work and picked up my groceries; but more than a utilitarian tool, my bike afforded me enormous amounts of joy and laughter. It was how I connected with friends, as we rode alongside or on the back of each other’s bikes, chatting or laughing so hard that we swerved.

Riding along the cobbled streets ignited and stimulated all of my senses. It was my time during the day when I was free; free to think about my last meeting, a new dinner recipe, or simply nothing at all.

In Amsterdam and around the world, bikes are not really about bikes. They are about people. They are the tool by which people get to the places they need and want to go. They are a means to connect with others, both during and after a ride.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, I first went to Amsterdam as part of a sustainable bicycle transportation course during my undergraduate studies and immediately fell in love after stepping out of the central station into a sea of cyclists.

I vowed to come back and returned in 2014, to pursue my master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Amsterdam. During my two years there, my bike was my freedom. I was completely reliant on my traditional second-hand omafiets (grandma bike), whose brand had been lost under shoddy paint jobs.

sheilabikinginamsterdam

When people ask me how Amsterdam has become the best city for cyclists, I respond that the answer is complicated. It comes down to a continued public outcry and the work of dedicated civil servants who have really prioritized this mode.

An example of this phenomenon is the fact that when it snows, the city has a policy of clearing and treating bike paths first, prioritizing that mode of transportation. This simple policy has a compounding effect that when combined with other bike-centered policies makes the bike the most reliable form of transportation.

As one of the best places to bike in the world, I am excited to share the wonders that everyday cycling can do for people and for a city. Having lived and learned in a place that has prioritized active transportation and created a human-centered city that promotes healthy and happy lifestyles, I can’t wait to share and promote everything that I have learned as part of Arlington Transportation Partners.

Photo: Top, women riding bicycles in Amsterdam (Ismael Otero Campos, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, the author in Amsterdam.

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Pittsburgh emerging as a transportation leader, still has work ahead https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/11/pittsburgh-emerging-transportation-leader-still-work-ahead/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/10/11/pittsburgh-emerging-transportation-leader-still-work-ahead/#comments Tue, 11 Oct 2016 18:48:39 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19186 Pittsburgh’s time to shine has come. The city has been thrust into the national spotlight, viewed by many transportation leaders as one of the nation’s promising blueprints for how cities can finally do transportation well. But while visiting Pittsburgh last week, I had the chance to put Pittsburgh in context with what people outside of town... Read more »

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Pittsburgh’s time to shine has come. The city has been thrust into the national spotlight, viewed by many transportation leaders as one of the nation’s promising blueprints for how cities can finally do transportation well.

But while visiting Pittsburgh last week, I had the chance to put Pittsburgh in context with what people outside of town think.

The positives:

  • Mayor Bill Peduto is a real mover-and-shaker, something any city that wants to retrofit its car culture must have.
  • Pittsburgh made it into the final seven for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge (which was awarded to Columbus, Ohio).
  • Mayor Peduto is hiring for a director of the just-announced city Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, which will think more holistically about the ways Pittsburgh uses its streets and public spaces.
  • Pittsburgh has become a testing ground for Uber’s autonomous vehicles. It’s unclear so far how much the citizenry actually embraces this, but you have to hand it to Peduto and city leaders for trying something – anything – that’s an improvement over our current car culture.

The challenges:

  • That car culture is certainly alive and kicking in Pittsburgh. Anecdotally, at least compared to the rapidly improving Washington, D.C., region, there seems to be considerable amounts of honking, unsafe maneuvers in crowded areas, and a general animosity towards people on foot and bicycles.
  • Several times, I walked along Forbes Avenue – a major one-way thoroughfare that runs east from downtown to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Walking along on the sidewalks or waiting at bus stations feels terrifying, with fast-moving buses and cars passing dangerously close by. This is a street loaded with college students, who are the keys to our future and arguably one of the city’s greatest calling cards. Wouldn’t Forbes Avenue be better served as a red carpet of sorts for tourists and students to see what a great city it is they are entering? Traffic-calming measures, better and more creative sidewalks and bus stops, and protected bike lanes are all desperately needed. (The same holds true for the parallel, westbound and equally as dangerous Fifth Avenue.)
  • I loved the 28X bus that takes visitors straight from the airport to downtown. But apparently not many other people love it, which is a shame. It only runs every 30 minutes and the buses I rode had passengers, but they were not so full that anyone had to stand. More frequent buses and some sustained marketing could help make it more popular, because once you arrive in downtown or Oakland, it can be really beneficial not to have a car.
  • Healthy Ride launched as Pittsburgh’s bikeshare system just over a year ago and has been successful enough to see pretty phenomenal expansion, from 12 stations to 50 and growing still. As a tourist, I enjoyed the system and was able to quickly register and take $2, 30-minute rides throughout my stay. The challenge for Pittsburgh is its hilly topography. The city could install inexpensive wayfinding signage for the hills, similar to San Francisco’s The Wiggle, which directs riders to the easiest route around several hills.

I have a lot of hope that these challenges will be met. Pittsburgh is a hotbed of talented minds thinking about the city’s transportation issues.

In my time there, I was lucky enough to represent Mobility Lab and Arlington, Va., in presenting to two groups about how to identify and influence the decision-makers who can get things accomplished, and initiating little things, like pilot projects, that can add up to successfully changing resident’s perceptions.

First, I spoke to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University as part of a speaker series hosted by Traffic21, a group focused on transit technologies that is probably as close as Pittsburgh gets to having its own “Mobility Lab.”

Then, I spoke at the 4th Annual Oakland Transportation Fair to transportation experts from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The fair, at the University of Pittsburgh, had exhibits featuring fascinating tools and products, free rides in an autonomous vehicle, and was organized by the Oakland Transportation Management Association, which is itself directed by one of the city’s transportation leaders, Mavis Rainey.

Forbes Avenue doesn’t seem to be as dangerous through the Carnegie Mellon campus as it is around the University of Pittsburgh. But it’s encouraging that CMU’s chief campus architect Bob Reppe told me all about the plans for that stretch of roadway. PennDOT is renovating it as a complete street, with features that recognize the existence of pedestrians and cyclists. Where once there was an underused parking lot, there will soon be a much more attractive welcoming space to the campus, and parking will be placed underground and out of sight.

It won’t happen overnight, but for rebuilding a city that’s better for everyone – drivers included – there is a formidable braintrust in place to keep Pittsburgh heading in the right direction.

Photo: A bike lane on Clemente Bridge, installed in 2015 (David Kent, Flickr, Creative Commons).

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What biking across the country taught me about America’s transportation challenges https://mobilitylab.org/2016/09/27/biking-across-country-taught-americas-transportation-challenges/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/09/27/biking-across-country-taught-americas-transportation-challenges/#comments Tue, 27 Sep 2016 17:33:19 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=19042 Biking across the United States can teach one a lot about the different ways people get around it. It’s a huge place – an obvious concept that is difficult to really grasp until you’re using your legs to cross it, sometimes going a hundred miles without seeing another person. This size, with the geographical and... Read more »

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transponation

Biking across the United States can teach one a lot about the different ways people get around it.

It’s a huge place – an obvious concept that is difficult to really grasp until you’re using your legs to cross it, sometimes going a hundred miles without seeing another person. This size, with the geographical and social diversity that includes, affects how transportation evolves, especially in conjunction with planning that makes it difficult to connect the country in efficient ways.

Nationally, there is still a very car-centric culture that crowds out opportunities for multimodality, discounting accessibility as highways physically separates communities from each other. Most transportation solutions that I saw revolved around how to adapt to or supplement cars, rather than to prioritize other modes.

I noticed that, as I began writing about my experiences, the articles tended to stem from an underlying frustration in the difficulty of getting around without a car – as captured in the idea that the term for any other mode is “alternative.”

Even in cities known for their multimodality and active transportation culture, like San Francisco or Denver, I found myself traveling by car with my hosts as they guided me around their hometowns. And on my own, there were a few too many times that I couldn’t help but think, “this would be much easier if I had a car.”

Big ideas

It became a pleasant surprise, once I dug in, to find certain trends that show promise to gain momentum and improve transportation on a national scale.

What these same cities show is a growing awareness of the need to change how people move, and to mitigate the legacy of car-centric planning that has dominated the country. San Francisco’s surging bike population and infrastructure, Denver’s ambitious rail expansion (plus its adaption of the Flatiron Flyer rather than completely scrapping transit along that corridor), and different versions of highway teardowns in many cities reflect the growing sentiment among communities and planners that old paradigms need to be rethought.

Intercity passenger rail is also growing in a way that bodes well for connecting more communities throughout the country by providing an alternative to highway travel. Amtrak’s ridership and popularity has been growing, with some towns along its long-distance routes even fighting for the stops to service their area, as it provides a vital connection to the national economy for communities. While most funding and attention goes to the busy Northeast Corridor, expanding service throughout its national network would benefit the communities through increased intercity train travel that takes more cars off the road.

What really excites me is how more communities are embracing active transportation. With the advent of complete streets and Vision Zero initiatives, and the growth of bikeshare systems in diverse settings, cities and towns are making themselves more accessible to both residents and visitors. San Francisco, in particular, struck me as a realistic leader in this trend, with Davis, California, representing more of a model to aspire towards once active transportation becomes firmly rooted in a community’s culture.

CAM00888

Well-used, abundant bike parking: a common sight in Davis, Calif.

Small scale, big impact

Most interesting to me was my chance for a glimpse into local approaches to transportation that have big impacts on small communities. Generally, the majority of funding and attention goes towards larger cities, and therefore less populous parts of the country are overlooked.

An important part of this is the fact that smaller jurisdictions also tend to be more car-centric, lacking the same services as large metropolitan areas, and various factors make it more difficult to shift local attitudes. However, there are pockets of change that suggest planners are reconsidering how residents get around and pursuing more equitable transportation options. And in rural areas, even small changes can be impactful.

Carson City, Nev., exemplified the steep curve many smaller communities face in improving their transportation network. Between a lack of funding and stakeholders who are skeptical of projects like the city’s complete-streets plan, it is hard enough to keep up, let alone initiate change. Even with elected officials who are friendly to infrastructure investment, transportation manager Patrick Pittenger explained the trials of selling the public on even one road diet in downtown. Planners and advocates need to be creative in order to take the first laborious steps in their communities.

Most exciting for me at the local level was the potential impact of initiatives like the Trail Towns Program in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland. For rural communities with historic downtown areas, supporting a long-distance recreational trail and developing business around it helps the area thrive. This can be a boon for travelers and locals alike, and the associated benefits should encourage other areas to pursue similar ideas.

Going the right way

Ft Point

The author at his trip’s starting point, Fort Point in San Francisco.

Despite my frustration with many aspects of transportation systems across the country, there was a lot to encourage me. Strangers, drawn in by my bike, were curious about transportation issues, commenting that, yes, we do need better ways of getting around, and asking, is there is anything meaningful they can do to have any effect in their own communities? Hopefully they have begun to follow these issues while changing a few habits for the better where it’s possible. In addition, those working in this area are creative and impactful in their approaches. There is a long way to go in addressing transportation challenges, especially while many jurisdictions continue to plan around maximizing traffic flow while carving only small spaces for mass transit or active modes.

Overall, there are good ideas whose proponents will work with what they have to positively affect their stakeholders. Many places are trying to improve their transportation network, but any successes within these individual spaces will be hard to replicate without support at the national level to truly change how we get around.

There is a lot to learn from different communities, and incubating their ideas can help change the mindset nationwide that would allow the country at large to improve its transportation systems.

Photos: Top, the author’s bike on the Great Allegheny Passage (Andrew Carpenter). Middle, bike parking in Davis, California (Gerald Fittipaldi, Flickr, Creative Commons). Bottom, the author in San Francisco (Andrew Carpenter).

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“Trail towns” embracing economic benefits of long-distance biking routes https://mobilitylab.org/2016/09/14/trail-towns-embracing-economic-benefits-of-distance-biking-routes/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/09/14/trail-towns-embracing-economic-benefits-of-distance-biking-routes/#comments Wed, 14 Sep 2016 14:41:13 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18969 Editor’s note: This is one of the final parts of our Transpo(nation) series, in which Andrew Carpenter bicycled across the U.S. – from San Francisco back to Washington D.C. – to report on transportation options. The home stretch of my trip through Pennsylvania and Maryland followed the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal... Read more »

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Transpo(nation) logo

Editor’s note: This is one of the final parts of our Transpo(nation) series, in which Andrew Carpenter bicycled across the U.S. – from San Francisco back to Washington D.C. – to report on transportation options.

The home stretch of my trip through Pennsylvania and Maryland followed the Great Allegheny Passage and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath trails.

Meeting in Cumberland, Maryland, the trails form 325 miles of unbroken, off-street walking and biking paths from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. It was a relaxing finish to a cross-country route marked with close-passing freight trucks, potholed highways, and punishing sun.

Along the trails, I met multiple people on repeat trips of the GAP and C&O. These travelers praised the beauty and serenity of the route, but also the easily accessible destinations along the way. In turn, residents and local businesses also benefit from this increased access through active transportation.

Communities along the GAP and C&O trails, historically grown around the respective train and canal routes, have been enhancing their accessibility for recreational hikers and bikers on long-distance and day trips, which has improved options for active transportation within towns. With encouragement by advocacy groups, communities along these trails provide an example of the economic and social benefits, yet in a rural context, that can come with increased active transportation.

ac-trail-town

Embracing the trail town role

Along the GAP, as well as other developing rail trails in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland, Pennsylvania-based non-profit The Progress Fund has been running an economic development initiative called the Trail Town Program. It works to harness the economic potential that comes with access to quality outdoor recreation and communicate how walkability can benefit rural and urban communities alike.

The stretch of trails provides access to active travel for a significant number of people  – approximately 700,000 people are estimated [PDF] to have used the GAP in 2013. According to a user and business survey [PDF] that Trail Towns conducted in 2014, more than half of the people on the rail-trail were taking multi-day trips, and the number of first timers doubled to 46 percent from three years prior, suggesting an influx of visitors to the towns along the way.

Put into economic context, the benefits of accessible trails and outdoor recreation become very apparent. According to the same survey, 40 percent of all businesses along the GAP indicate plans to expand due to this increase of trail users. According to The Progress Fund, the Great Allegheny Passage has generated about $50 million in income from visitors using the trail.

trail-towns-user-survey-chart

The Trail Towns 2014 user survey found travelers spending more per night than in previous years.

With so many travel options to reach the Passage, there is a wide potential customer base, and the Trail Towns Program is working to ensure  there is a similar abundance of bike- and pedestrian-friendly options in these towns for lodging and eating. Through technical and marketing assistance, the initiative coordinates with businesses to improve wayfinding and bike parking, as well as fosters the expansion of resources for travelers, such as gear shops and campsites, creating a welcoming and attractive atmosphere for active travelers. Connellsville, Pennsylvania, exemplified this with free Adirondack shelters for camping, as well as route suggestions that encouraged me to spend extra time there and explore the restaurant scene.

Cultural benefits

Having developed around a canal and railway in the 19th century, these towns are uniquely positioned to bring that history to modern users of those routes. Each town I passed through showcased substantive historical exhibits and many promoted active arts scenes. There was a noticeable level of civic pride around what they had to offer travelers.

I also noticed that many more people were walking   than in other rural towns I had seen across the country. In the areas that did not have such recreational facilities nearby, anybody traveling without a car, like myself, seemed out of place, and drivers didn’t know how to deal with that presence. With so much development around active travelers, it has worked into the local culture as well , making the roads feel safer and welcoming for visitors and locals. Ohiopyle, Penn., especially seemed to embrace this role. Despite being a tiny community, there were wide sidewalks, green areas, and even bike lanes. The priority that the area gives to pedestrians and cyclists was distinct, with large groups of cyclists gathering at cafes and no cars on the streets in the few hours I spent there.

While each individual town along the two trails is small, they make up a thriving network rich in history that is also developing an impressive set of restaurants, lodging options, and cultural attractions. Such an extensive off-street trail like the GAP or C&O Towpath help promote this vitality while allowing communities to retain their rural identity.

The rise of the Trail Towns Project, and the focus it has brought to active transportation, demonstrates the role that biking can play even in a rural context. An initiative like this in conjunction with trail advocates like the Allegheny Trail Alliance or Rails to Trails Conservancy provides a great example of what is possible around the country to build and promote trails, which in turn connects communities and makes them better places to get around.

Photo, top: People riding bikes and hiking on the Great Allegheny Passage (Jon Dawson, Flickr, Creative Commons). Middle, a visitors center along the trailpath (Andrew Carpenter).

 

 

 

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Experiencing the national parks all too often means taking a car https://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/18/experiencing-national-parks-means-taking-car/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/08/18/experiencing-national-parks-means-taking-car/#comments Thu, 18 Aug 2016 19:25:27 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18824 Editor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew Carpenter bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation options. A road trip across the United States – using any mode – does not feel complete without a visit to one of the national parks. Naturally, I over-committed in my planning, telling... Read more »

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transponation sm

Editor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew Carpenter bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation options.

A road trip across the United States – using any mode – does not feel complete without a visit to one of the national parks.

Naturally, I over-committed in my planning, telling myself I would visit as many of the large, wild reserves as possible. But when I began to research the best ways to reach them, it turned out my only practical option was by car, considering I would have been biking along mountainous highways without much protection, food, or shelter.

Through the font of persistence and ingenuity that builds with biking over mountains and into rainstorms, I did manage a side trip to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks. After conceding to riding in a car, reaching these parks confirmed my impression that – while the remoteness of many national parks is part of their allure – the lacking transportation options makes them inaccessible to those without cars, money, or a lot of time.

A system that is so favorable to cars places a burden on itself and visitors for that very reason. With growing numbers of visitors, surpassing 300 million in 2015, the National Park Service is struggling to maintain its infrastructure as millions of cars wear down the roads. In addition, despite diversity initiatives – about 78 percent of visitors are white – indicating national parks remain inaccessible to many underprivileged and minority Americans. As the Park Service explores its options, the existing driving standard forms a barrier to many of these goals.

Getting around

The Park Service appears to be aware of the need for alternative transportation modes, both to attract more visitors and to minimize the impacts of cars. There does seem to be some funding plans to implement intra-park shuttle services and to encourage visitors to seek car alternatives.

As a result, non-driving mobility is fairly easy inside certain parks, such as Grand Canyon and Acadia national parks, both of which have extensive shuttle networks that accommodate significant numbers of people. Acadia’s free Island Explorer buses (above) have proven especially successful, moving more than 530,000 people around the park each year, and is supported by a grant from L.L. Bean. However, these two appear to be exceptions.

Most parks have warnings about traffic congestion and suggest alternatives, promoting shuttles where they are available. Yet congestion still persists, leading to items like Yosemite’s traffic graphs (below) that inform car-bound visitors what times they are likely to deal with congested roads. Without a robust system that allows people to leave their cars outside the park, it will be tough for NPS to shift many visitors to transit.

trafficforecast-2016

Getting in

Though the Park Service is working on several programs that get people out of their cars in the parks, reaching them is still a significant challenge. Of the 10 most popular parks in 2015, Smoky Mountain and Zion have no alternatives to driving access, while six others have confusing and indirect connections to nearby population centers. In the Southwest, there is the Grand Canyon Railway, which connects to Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route in Arizona, and there are private coach companies with confusing websites from airports to towns bordering Olympic and Yellowstone’s park entrances. However, they are often too expensive and time-consuming to encourage many people to consider them over their own or rental vehicles.

On top of money and time investments at parks that do have alternative connections, entrance fees benefit those using cars rather than forgoing them. The cost per person on foot, bike or even a park shuttle is generally $15, while a four-person car is $30 (a 4-person car, then, would only pay $7.50 per person). Unless traveling alone, it is more cost and time effective to use a private motor vehicle than not.

YARTS system map

Map of Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System.

That said, two large parks show promising connections. Glacier National Park provides direct access to Amtrak’s Empire Builder route and the cities that it serves in the upper Mid- and Northwest, while the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System offers an inter-city bus service whose fare includes park entry fees and connects riders directly to multiple cities and long-distance commuter options. YARTS, in particular, can serve as a good example of where to start, as it’s operated by the Merced County Association of Governments in cooperation with NPS and moves about 100,000 people – 2 percent of visitors – per year. Such progress is an important starting point and possible model for other parks.

Crucially, the Park Service would also need to promote and incentivize these services – Yosemite’s and Glacier’s information pages portray YARTS and Amtrak as secondary options to driving – to make them viable and popular options.

Finding our parks

The extra complexities of reaching into these wild areas through multiple jurisdictions, while maintaining the natural landscape, adds to the challenge of establishing a transit system. It makes sense that the large, remote parks tend to incentivize personal cars just from a logistical perspective. But in order to better preserve the natural wonders and existing infrastructure in the long-term, as well as improve the visitor experience and accessibility, it is in the national interest to establish systems that reduce the numbers of cars going into and around national parks.

With the uncertainties of transportation into and within the national parks, it is difficult to convince people to get out of their cars. Working with local and state governments is tough. Yet, as the Park Service knows, it is important to provide reliable alternatives in order to keep the wild parks wild while making them more accessible. Certain parks show what is possible, and creating more and better ways of getting around will truly help more visitors experience the outdoors.

Photo: A rider boards Acadia National Park’s Island Explorer shuttle at Jordan Pond (photo by Adam Russell).

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Outside of the Northeast, Amtrak plays an overlooked role in connecting communities https://mobilitylab.org/2016/07/26/amtrak-plays-overlooked-rural-role/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/07/26/amtrak-plays-overlooked-rural-role/#comments Tue, 26 Jul 2016 16:14:00 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18723 Editor’s note: This is part six of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew bicycles across the U.S. – from San Francisco back across to Washington D.C. – to report on transportation-demand issues. Due to a series of tornado watches and significant hail storms, I had trouble biking out of Denver to cross the Great Plains. Especially... Read more »

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transponation smEditor’s note: This is part six of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew bicycles across the U.S. – from San Francisco back across to Washington D.C. – to report on transportation-demand issues.

Due to a series of tornado watches and significant hail storms, I had trouble biking out of Denver to cross the Great Plains. Especially since I was traveling alone, severe thunderstorms aren’t something I wanted to play with.

Falling behind schedule and testing the patience of my friend whose couch I had commandeered, I decided to take the train to Chicago. Gazing at the great expanses of cornfields, I remembered an advertisement I’d seen tucked behind Amtrak’s baggage claim in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. It touted the important, underrated role Amtrak plays as a vital link for rural communities around the U.S. by providing the only scheduled passenger service among numerous places.

SoldierBy bike and now by train, I began to understand how disconnected some rural communities really can be from our transportation network. Airlines and bus companies such as Greyhound have been cutting services to small towns for a few decades, leaving many with cars as their sole transportation option over vast, empty distances. Far from interstates and commercial airports, the world can be hard to reach for such small population centers. For those along Amtrak routes, I could see how daily train service really does serve these small towns.

Long-distance relationships

In Amtrak’s 2015 fiscal year, its long-distance services carried 4.5 million passengers, many of whom live in rural communities that lack other reliable transportation connections. Certain towns along the California Zephyr, Empire Builder or Southwest Chief are far from the interstate and have limited to no commercial transportation services. Without the daily train service stopping in town, options for residents are restricted to lengthy drives, and those who cannot drive might not be able to travel at all.

By providing an alternate transportation option, long-distance train routes move people who might otherwise not have the opportunity to travel, such as Mennonite families who cannot utilize other travel methods to visit far-flung relatives in other remote areas, or disabled people who are unable to utilize air travel. More than 8 percent of passengers – a bit more than 2.5 million people – say they would not travel without Amtrak service.

There is a unique social aspect to long-haul trains as well: they bring people together in a way that other transportation modes don’t. Between the isolation of individual cars and the discomfort of airplanes, it was a noticeably different atmosphere on the train. The mode has developed a culture, with social media bringing enthusiasts together to celebrate train travel.

The communal spaces in the observation car, with its panoramic windows allowing wide-angle views of the scenery, and in the dining car where fellow riders share a table, encourage strangers to talk to each other and experience the ride together. On the California Zephyr to Chicago, I conversed and played cards with multiple riders from these small towns who I likely would never have met otherwise, and – ever the proselytizing cyclist – even may have convinced a few to replace some of their car trips with bike rides.

Rail connections not only help residents get out, but help bring visitors in. Many areas, particularly along the Empire Builder line through the northwestern states, are isolated enough that states like Montana would lose significant numbers of visitors without train service, taking a significant toll on their tourism economy.

Economic connections

Amtrak map_smallLong-distance trains connect rural communities economically as well. According to the Denver Post, the national network’s routes contribute significantly to local economies, creating an “economic stimulus that reaches over a 70-mile radius at every stop.” Through employment, procurement and tourism, the service adds millions of dollars to towns that otherwise would not likely see such income.

Amtrak directly employs thousands of rurally based workers, providing millions in wages across small towns for train and maintenance crews, as well as through employing manufacturers and their subcontractors for equipment and infrastructure. The service economy benefits as the trains draw people toward stations, travelers visit new areas, passengers wander on longer stops, and local vendors serve as supply stops along the routes.

Opportunity on rails

Amtrak service has proved its necessity to rural communities. What especially proves this is how hard small towns will fight to gain and keep stops. Due to consistent capital funding shortages, the burden frequently falls on towns for infrastructure and station costs. Yet many lobby hard for years, band together and buy in to the system to keep passenger trains rolling through, providing an economic boon to an isolated region and giving residents an efficient and environmentally friendly option to access the rest of the United States.

In a report on the Empire Builder line’s economic benefits to Montana, multiple officials refer to the service as a “lifeline” in some form, a sentiment reflected by the communities fighting for the Southwest Chief and other routes.

Long-haul passenger routes have proven their worth to areas that are typically overlooked in the national transportation system. They continue to grow as a result, with multiple non-northeastern routes setting ridership records in FY2015. The service to rural communities offers a non-driving option and boosts economies in a way that likely could not be replaced with car traffic.

And, watching the lightning from the shelter of a train car, I too came to appreciate how valuable a connection Amtrak is across the expansive landscape of the United States.

Photo: Jonathan Reyes (Flickr, Creative Commons). Images courtesy of Amtrak.

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Unique express bus service fills a transit gap between Denver and Boulder https://mobilitylab.org/2016/07/18/unique-express-bus-service-denver-boulder-flatiron-flyer/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/07/18/unique-express-bus-service-denver-boulder-flatiron-flyer/#comments Mon, 18 Jul 2016 15:28:19 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18646 Editor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation demand issues. Continuing my summer cross-country bike journey east, I twice encountered situations where, to avoid what appeared to be harrowing highway rides, I hopped aboard regionally operated bus services. From Carson City, an... Read more »

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transponation smEditor’s note: This is part five of our summer Transpo(nation) series, as Andrew bicycles across the U.S. to report on transportation demand issues.

Continuing my summer cross-country bike journey east, I twice encountered situations where, to avoid what appeared to be harrowing highway rides, I hopped aboard regionally operated bus services. From Carson City, an Intercity bus connected me to Reno, and in Colorado, the express Flatiron Flyer, launched in January, brought me from Denver to Boulder.

These bus routes – in Washoe County, Nevada, and the Denver region – serve as public transportation options that commuter rail might typically provide in other large metropolitan regions. Both regions’ services play different roles than usual systems by connecting major cities and the communities in between using public bus transit, rather than private companies, such as those in the Washington, D.C., region. The Flatiron Flyer, in particular, occupies a unique space in the regional transportation system.

Service adaptation

The Regional Transportation District, Denver’s regional agency, originally planned to build its Northwest Rail Line through Boulder into Longmont, to the north, as part of its extensive FasTracks rail program. However, due to low tax revenue and increased costs, that line’s opening has been delayed until 2044. A three-decade timeline does little to serve a growing metropolitan region, and the Flatiron Flyer routes look to bridge the commuting gap in the meantime.

FlatIronFlyer-Map-0415

The Flyer route, in which RTD labels it a BRT system.

The Flyers provide needed service in a place where rail became financially unfeasible. The system already averages 14,428 weekday passengers, removing crucial single occupancy vehicles from a congested corridor.

A unique transit option

Denver’s transit agency markets Flatiron Flyer as a bus rapid transit system, though it does not fit the standards of typical BRT systems. Critics have insisted RTD choose a different description. The largest sticking points focus on the fact that buses travel in mixed traffic express lanes rather than along dedicated rights of way, and the route lacks efficient amenities like off-board-only fare collection.

That said, riding the Flatiron Flyer is still an enjoyable and efficient experience. Underneath the trains at Denver’s Union Station is a bus concourse with assigned gates, intuitive information displays and ticket sales that help expedite boarding, the latter a noticeable improvement on critiques, as nobody on either of my trips had to pay their fare onboard. Flyers also have dedicated ramps onto U.S. 36’s express lanes, and can travel along the highway’s shoulder to bypass slower moving traffic. Along Route 36 are six stops set back from the highway, each with shelters, ticket machines, and bike-trail access. Additionally, while Flyer buses arrive every 10 minutes during rush hour, off-peak frequencies are on 30-minute cycles, which can be a turn-off.

When I rode north during rush hour, the bus had to wait an extra light cycle leaving one stop, but otherwise cruised past the thickening traffic in the other, non-express lanes. From Denver to Boulder, the ride was only five minutes longer than it would be in a car without traffic (40 minutes by bus, about 35 minutes by car). Considering it was rush hour, we moved faster than those driving cars outside the express lanes.

The Flyer certainly functions as an express commuter service, even if it’s not a true BRT. It was also significantly more comfortable than similar long-distance routes, like the Intercity in Reno or Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s 5A to Dulles International Airport, which use traditional city buses. while the Flatiron Flyer is a higher capacity coach bus with reclining seats, WiFi and power outlets.

While East Coast intercity travelers may be more familiar with Greyhound or Megabus charter buses, the Flatiron Flyer is an integrated part of RTD’s network. I was able to travel between Englewood, a suburb south of Denver, and Boulder for $9 round trip, utilizing the light rail and local bus systems in coordination with the Flyer on a single day pass. The Flyers also have the capacity to carry up to eight bicycles, and the stops along Route 36 provide access to the U.S. 36 Bikeway, encouraging active transportation to fulfill the first- and last- miles of some trips.

What also strikes me about the Flatiron Flyer network is that it exhibits a certain level of adaptability in a space that typically lacks flexibility. For a traveling newcomer, it’s a strong service, and shows that even stopgap measures can be fairly comprehensive. The buses are comfortable and the routes are fast, working toward providing a similar experience to commuter rail.

Intercity services like this are important for growing regions lacking the necessary rail connections that exist in denser metropolitan regions. Flatiron Flyer shows how an express bus system can fill a gap where trains are not available or feasible, still providing a key transportation option.

Photo: Travelers board a Flatiron Flyer bus in a promotional image (36 Commuting Solutions, Twitter).

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Forget the Motor (City), sightsee Detroit by bicycle https://mobilitylab.org/2016/06/24/sightsee-detroit-by-bicycle/ https://mobilitylab.org/2016/06/24/sightsee-detroit-by-bicycle/#respond Fri, 24 Jun 2016 14:30:34 +0000 http://mobilitylab.org/?p=18527 When I arrived at Wheelhouse Detroit to rent a bicycle, I explained to the people there that I like to tour any new city I visit by bike. Ironically, I was in town for the TU-Detroit auto-technology show, but bikes are by far the best way to quickly and enjoyably get a sense of the... Read more »

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When I arrived at Wheelhouse Detroit to rent a bicycle, I explained to the people there that I like to tour any new city I visit by bike.

Ironically, I was in town for the TU-Detroit auto-technology show, but bikes are by far the best way to quickly and enjoyably get a sense of the place. And even with its historic reputation for car-centrism in all aspects, Detroit proved itself a highly bike-friendly environment for this visitor.

IMG_4481

The author at Wheelhouse bike rental.

I mentioned to the workers at Wheelhouse that I had recently done a similar ride in Cleveland, which resulted in some kind-hearted trash talk about how I would enjoy Detroit much more.

While Detroit doesn’t yet have a bikeshare system like Cleveland’s UHBikes, Wheelhouse is roundly ranked as the best place to rent a bike in Detroit, and the central location can’t be beat. The shop is right downtown on the extensive RiverWalk trail along the Detroit River, which is about the only place in the U.S. one can look south into Canada (the city of Windsor, to be exact).

I even received a lunch tip, to make my first stop about 20 minutes away in the Mexicantown neighborhood at a favorite taco truck.

To get there, I leisurely cycled southwest past the iconic General Motors towers that distinguish the city skyline and provide an excellent place for people to commune and relax. I then continued along the beautifully-done riverfront path, bustling with people even on a weekday afternoon.

The RiverWalk abruptly cuts off at Joe Louis Arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. The trail ending there is not a big deal, though, because, like in Cleveland, the streets are so wide and carry so few cars that it feels like bicycling in the Sahara Desert compared to the car gridlock I’m used to throughout the Washington, D.C., region. In the last 10 years, Detroit has added 170 miles of painted bike lanes, and is currently extending a Copenhagen-inspired protected bike lane towards downtown.

Before reaching the food truck, I stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border; however, I was informed there’s no crossing allowed by bicycle, so stepping into Canada was off the list of great things to do for bicyclists in Detroit. (Bicyclists are awesome and should therefore get some kind of waiver for this.)

Continuing southwest, I rode across the five year-old Bagley pedestrian bridge, which connects downtown and Mexicantown. It crosses so many highways that I couldn’t even take a picture wide enough to capture the massive number of traffic lanes passing underneath.

Continuing on, Tacos El Rodeo appeared not far into the neighborhood. After lunch, I made my way back down Michigan Avenue to downtown. I had thought Joe Lewis Arena would be the best-looking sports arena in town, but Detroit’s other stadiums – Comerica Park for the Tigers and Ford Field for the Lions – don’t disappoint either.

A bike is also the best way to get great photos. As I glided along the sidewalks near Ford Field, I almost got in trouble for taking a picture when a stadium employee came out and claimed that, ever since the Paris terrorist attacks, the NFL had enacted a rule forbidding pictures on NFL stadium property. I still got this nice shot (see the employee walking towards me).Detroit's Ford Field, home of the Lions

Detroit’s downtown has plenty of sights to see and they’re all pretty close together, making it an excellent city for those who like to bike and walk to discover places – and improved by access to the automated Detroit People Mover train that circles above downtown on a three-mile track.

After exploring downtown, I still had enough time to go back past the Wheelhouse and head northeast along the water, where the RiverWalk picks up again on and off for quite a distance.

My last stop of the day was Belle Isle State Park – a three-mile by one-mile-wide island in the Detroit River. I was unable to see it all because workers were tearing down all the gear from a recent IndyCar racing event, but it’s a pretty amazing amenity for locals and tourists alike.

Even if you only have a window of about three hours – like I did – you can see a lot of the Motor City on a bicycle.

Photos by the author.

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