Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why we need light rail: Snow Storms

The snow storm this past Thursday in the Twin Cities reminded me how fast cities get crippled by a storm. They get crippled because our modes of transit consist of private vehicles and buses. While I rode into work that day, I have skinny tires, I was not ready to make the trek home by bike.

Instead I decided to bus it home. Well that was a costly mistake. My commute home (from St. Paul to South Minneapolis) took over two hours. The express bus was not stopping at Rice and University. The 16, yes Mr. pokie, seemed to be the only bus running that was actually in service.

After I realized a 94 or 50 was never coming I got on a pretty jammed pack 16 (everybody else had figured the game out as well). University Avenue was a parking lot. We passed three stalled cars, still in the traffic lanes, and two stuck buses. While I don't ride the bus very often, it was a day like this that I am glad the Central Corridor is coming. My commute would have been about an hour long, what is usually is by bus, rather than 2 and half hours long.

The Twin Cities are no strangers to cold temps and hefty snow falls, so it is troubling that this storm so quickly, at least for me, crippled the public transit that gets people around. This service was so slow, next time I'll take my chances on biking instead.

I am looking forward to the central corridor and having more options when it comes to transit modes. 

Friday, February 27, 2009

David Goldberg, T4 America, on Smart City Radio

America's Transportation Strategy: Is There One?

Does America have a transportation strategy? We'll speak with David Goldberg of the group Transportation for America to find out what realtors, civic leaders, urban planners and non-profit organizations are doing to tackle the problem of how we get around. Listen to it here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Walking is hazerdous to your health

This NPR segment is a good one. As an advocate for safer and better pedestrian environments, it only helps this cause even more by making it clear how unsafe it is to walk around gabbing into your cell phone and/or blasting your ipod. While this is true for all modes of transit (cars and bikes) we need to keep ourselves safe and aware as pedestrians. The article is posted below and you can listen to the segment here. Read the comments section for the usual Darwin batter that doesn't really address the issue at all.

You've probably seen them on the street: cell-phone chatting, music-loving pedestrians who sometimes act as if talking into a mouthpiece or slipping on a pair of headphones raises an impenetrable shield.

But preoccupied pedestrians, especially those listening at high volume, risk more than hearing impairment. Their absorption can create a loss of "situation awareness" similar to that of distracted drivers.

Inattention can have serious — even deadly — consequences on roads and railroad tracks. Lisa Carolyn Moran, 20, a University of North Carolina exchange student from Scotland, was listening to an iPod while jogging when she stepped into the path of a bus in Chapel Hill last May. Joshua Phillips White, 16, was wearing earphones and walking on a train track in Cramerton, N.C., last November when a freight train hit him from behind, killing him; police said he apparently didn't hear the locomotive approaching. Alan Eaton-Chandler, 17, was killed under the same circumstances just last Tuesday when he was hit by an Amtrak train in Comstock Township, Mich. And Vicky Baker, 39, was talking on her cell phone when she was struck and killed by a train in Albertville, Ala., in December.

'A Public Health Issue'
Listening on the run creates "a public health issue, and it's one that, frankly, is incredibly easy to overlook," says Brian Fligor, who directs the diagnostic audiology program at Children's Hospital Boston and teaches at Harvard Medical School.

If pedestrians' ears are "occupied by some sound, whether it's another person's voice or a podcast," Fligor says, "it may isolate them from sounds they may need to hear, such as the train whistle, the ambulance siren, the car horn, the bike messenger's bell."

Emergency rooms around the country report treating pedestrians injured while texting or otherwise tuned in to phones and MP3 players, says Nicholas Jouriles, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. He's also a professor at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, in practice there and at Akron General Medical Center.

"I've taken care of patients who've been hit [by a vehicle] or walked off a curb," he says. Problem Hard To Quantify. The ER reports are anecdotal, but they're so prolific that the physicians college issued a news release late last summer warning back-to-school students to refrain from texting and cell-phone talking while"engaged in any physical activities that require sustained attention."

NPR found at least 11 cases in 2008 alone in which pedestrians' use of portable electronics may have played a role in their deaths, based on news accounts and on information from the emergency physicians group. Most of those deaths involved trains.

But while pedestrians' use of portable electronics has been linked to some injuries and deaths around the country, the scope of the problem is unclear. Aside from random news reports, there's little systematic documentation.

No federal entities contacted by NPR formally collect statistics on injuries or deaths involving electronics-preoccupied pedestrians; it can take years to implement such processes. Widespread use of the technology is relatively new, and no uniform reporting system exists among states."We do collect a lot of data about pedestrian fatalities. We know if a person was drunk. We know whether it was a hit-and-run," says Ellen Martin, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "We don't have a plan to add this factor, which is not to say it's not a concern. We're concerned about anyone using the roadways or the sidewalks … about their propensity for distraction."

Public Safety Measures
Concern over pedestrian use of portable electronics is significant enough to have prompted public safety campaigns in San Francisco and Texas and legislative efforts in at least two other states.

Last year, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency introduced a multimedia campaign in the wake of "some tragic accidents," spokesman Murray Bond says. A series of outdoor ads, radio and television spots aim to remind people that "headsets and handheld devices could be a distraction."

One sign shows a headset-wearing woman crossing the street while texting — oblivious to the approaching transit vehicle. It asks, "Do you want Beethoven to be the last thing you hear?" Bond says the agency sought "a humorous vein" to get audiences' attention, but its intent is serious. "A 40-ton bus and an 80-ton light-rail vehicle cannot stop on a dime," he says. Drivers of municipal buses, trains and maintenance vehicles are getting additional training "so they're constantly alert to someone who may walk into the street, against the light, with a headset on."Likewise, AAA Texas kicked off a pedestrian-motorist safety campaign in October. "Today's culture of multitasking can create a potentially deadly situation for both drivers and pedestrians who become distracted by the likes of cell phones, BlackBerries, iPods, other electronics devices or food, when they are either walking across the street or driving," the group's CEO, Tom McKernan, said in a statement.

'You Can't Legislate Common Sense'
In 2007, a state senator in New York proposed banning pedestrians from using cell phones, headphones or other portable electronics while crossing streets in New York City and Buffalo. Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) suggested a $100 fine for offenders. The legislation, derided in tech blogs as a nanny-state approach, went nowhere. In 2008 in Illinois, state Rep. Kenneth Dunkin (D-Chicago) proposed banning cell phones in crosswalks; the bill died quietly. "I think we're in a lot of trouble if we have to give people advice on how to use or not use wireless when walking down the street," says Joe Farren, a spokesman for CTIA, a wireless industry trade group.

"Unfortunately, you can't legislate common sense," Farren says. "We always encourage people to put safety first. If that means waiting to listen to or make a phone call, wait." The Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group that includes manufacturers of MP3 players, estimated 44 million such devices were sold in the United States in 2008. Spokeswoman Laura Hubbard said the CEA's Web site urges consumers to lower volume levels to avoid damaging hearing and to maintain awareness. "You need to be able to hear what's happening around you," she says.

Apple, the most prominent manufacturer, declined to comment for this story. Christine Monaghan, spokeswoman for its iPod line, said Apple's Web site offers guidance for safe use. Small-Scale Studies Indicate Risk

Meanwhile, some researchers are conducting small-scale studies on pedestrians distracted by portable electronics. Richard Wener, a professor of environmental psychology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, says the emerging body of research on distracted drivers led him and two colleagues to look at pedestrians. They found the same relationship between inattention and risk, but a greater vulnerability.

"When you're moving at 2 miles an hour, [you] have more time to make decisions," Wener observes of pedestrians, "but you're not protected by 2 tons of steel." Wener has collaborated on several studies led by Jack Nasar, an Ohio State University professor of city and regional planning. One study of 127 pedestrians on that university's campus showed that 48 percent of cell phone users stepped into a crosswalk as a car approached. That's a much higher rate of unsafe behavior than was demonstrated by pedestrians without electronics (25 percent) or iPod users (16 percent). Results were published last year in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.

The report called for better data on pedestrian-auto accidents — and perhaps smart technology that "could alert pedestrians that they were approaching a crosswalk or that a car is approaching."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Composting a better future

This NY Times article gives a good overview how urban dwellers can compost in tight spaces. While I think many people feel in high density areas composting is not possible, this overview of the vermicomposting process demonstrates how composting can be as easy as recycling.
The workshop covered the indoor composting method known as vermicomposting, in which worms are enlisted to speed up the decomposition of organic material, eating through scraps of it and excreting the “castings” that make up compost. (There are also commercial composters like the NatureMill, shown in the article below.) The “condo” where this should take place is a 16 1/2-inch-wide, one-foot-tall bin with air holes in which shredded newspaper sits atop green trash like the ends of carrots. Despite the enthusiasm of the audience, particularly the children, as containers of compost and worms were passed around, some of its members seemed to have misgivings. “Will the compost bin attract roaches?” one asked. (Not if you don’t let the covered bin get smelly, he was told.) “What happens when you go on vacation?” (The bin can stay unattended for up to three weeks.)

This article really helps to demonstrate what people can do on an individual level, but that will have a larger effect on our environment. While technology is helping us be better neighbors, composting, rain gardens, water barrels, and recycling are all steps we can take on a smaller scale, that will eventually pay off down the road.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A sustainable Suburb?

Reposted from Worldchanging:

Is green suburbia possible?

Forty miles north of San Francisco, on the site of a former industrial park, work is underway on the ambitious new Sonoma Mountain Village, a 200-acre development that aims to be truly sustainable. The development is America’s first to be certified as a “One Planet Community,” part of an effort to build healthy and sustainable neighborhoods in the UK, US and Canada. Built through a partnership between sustainability experts BioRegional and the developer Codding Enterprises, the community is based on the premise that an ordinary resident will be able to live there sustainably with little extra effort. Construction of the first homes will begin this year, in the face of a waiting list that is already 3000 people long.

As I drove up on a recent visit, I wondered if it will really be possible for one new development to achieve the goal of providing an effortlessly sustainable lifestyle. The main hurdle: the site is located in Rohnert Park, the sort of small-but-sprawling suburb where driving everywhere is the norm.

Greg Searle, executive director of BioRegional North America, admits that they can’t control the environmental impact residents will have when they leave the development. But the development company has done an enormous amount to improve the efficiency of the systems within the Sonoma Mountain Village, meeting the small community's water, energy and transportation needs with state-of-the-art green features like on-site renewable energy. BioRegional asserts that "every resident is no more than a five-minute walk to groceries, restaurants, day care and other amenities offering local, sustainable, and fair trade products and services."

The village center, which was designed around the reuse of existing buildings, will include a year-round farmers market, grocery stores and other businesses, entertainment options, and telecommuting desks. Alternative transportation services will be plentiful: free bikes, electric vehicles that connect to the smart grid, a biofuel filling station, plug-in hybrid carshare, and carpool concierge services. Thanks in part to lobbying by Codding, a commuter rail line linking the suburb to nearby cities has also been approved, and will be a ten-minute walk from the community.

The community will rely very little on outside resources. A combination of energy-efficiency technologies like passive solar heating will make buildings at Sonoma Mountain Village zero carbon by 2020. On-site renewable power will supply the rest of the energy required. In 2006, an enormous 1.14MW solar photovoltaic installation was installed on the roof of an existing building, which, among other things, will power the world’s first zero-carbon data center. The existing solar power array will likely be quadrupled in the future.

A myriad of other environmental measures are planned to improve the community's water, waste and food systems. A plan for ‘zero waste’ means that by 2020, only 2 percent of waste will go to landfills. Water conservation and re-use, including the use of greywater and rainwater catchment systems, will be so extensive that no more city water will be required for the site beyond what is already used by the existing buildings, despite adding almost 2000 new homes. Food for the community's grocery store and restaurants will be locally sourced, and residents will have access to community gardens, fruit trees, and a year-round farmers’ market. And the development will encourage biodiversity through green roofs and the restoration of local wetlands and other open spaces.

The development also makes strides to address social sustainability. The village will offer on-site jobs and will provide double the amount of affordable housing units required by law. Codding encourages its retail tenants to source fairly traded goods. And a non-profit business incubator for sustainable technology is already running on-site. As the sustainability manager for Codding said, “We’re hoping they develop technologies we’ll be able to use here.” After residents move in, Codding will conduct “happiness” surveys, and gather residents' input for the continual improvement of the community.

To make the construction process as green as possible, Codding has built a steel-frame factory on-site to provide 20 percent of the materials required. The factory runs completely on solar power and sends no waste to the landfill: even the steel frames created can be recycled at the end-of-life. Other materials will be sourced locally, with an eye to ensuring that they were made in a socially andenvironmentally responsible way. Codding will also be tracking embodied carbon in materials andservices. Finally, the village will also incorporate existing buildings, which have undergone energy-efficiency retrofits.Will residents truly be able to live entirely sustainable lives at Sonoma Mountain Village? That's a complicated question. Of course, any community with ties to the current outside world can’t be completely sustainable. Still, just as it’s easy to imagine possible negative consequences — for example, that many residents will move in with conventional cars, and will inevitably end up driving them at least some of the time -- it’s also easy to imagine that residents of surrounding neighborhoods will begin to walk more.

The development will bring a center to an area that currently lacks one, and connecting the surrounding suburban community to both a walkable mixed-use center and a new transit hub is no small accomplishment. While dense, compact urban cores remain the most potent land use strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Sonoma Mountain Village moves in the direction of the type of planning we will need to re-imagine the far-flung suburbs in years to come.

I also think that when they are surrounded by sustainability and conservation at home, residents of the community will undoubtedly think more about sustainability issues in the outside world. New commercial tenant Comcast, for example, has become more interested in sustainable business practices since becoming involved with Codding's project, and is considering adding hybrid cars to its company fleet. The community is a good example of how developers can go far beyond the highest LEED standards by taking an approach to sustainability that considers the full system.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Urban Planning goes mainstream, sorta

This new book "Where Things Are, From Near to Far" is bringing urban planning to children. This NY Times article has a recap of how, what, and why a planning book is geared towards young children.

A new children’s book may help shed light at a time when interest in the field seems to be growing.“Where Things Are, From Near to Far” (Planetizen Press, $19.95), by Chris Steins and Tim Halbur, depicts a mother and son on a stroll through a city and its surroundings. Mr. Steins, a planner by training, said that his target audience was children like his twin sons, Rowan and Grant, who are 3. “If we teach kids how to build them,” he said, “we will end up with better cities.”

Although I have not gotten a chance to look at the book in the flesh I am glad that a perspective view seems to be the norm. These days so many people think planning is about the bird's eye view and a top down approach, which for far too long it has been. Even better maybe this back to basics book should be taught in planning school's across the United States. Yes, I am only half kidding about that.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

$8 billion for high speed rail

Some how this little part of the stimulus package got very little coverage. Politico is reporting that $8 Billion was put into the stimulus package in the final hours. The good news is that this money is for high speed rail.

It’s a sum that far surpasses anything before attempted in the United States — and more is coming. Administration officials told Politico that when Obama outlines his 2010 budget next week, it will ask for $1 billion more for high speed rail in each of the next five years. Yet for all the high stakes, the pieces didn’t fall into place until the end of deliberations on the recovery bill. And the way in which they did is revealing of the often late-breaking decisions — and politics — that shaped the final package. As a candidate for, Obama spoke of high-speed as part of his vision of “rebuilding America. Campaigning in Indiana, he talked of revitalizing the Midwest by connecting cities with faster rail service to relieve congestion and improve energy conservation.

There has been planning and talk for years about connecting the Midwest cities with high speed rail. Currently one train a day goes between Chicago and St. Paul. Can you imagine the changes and spatial differences if high speed trains ran every hour between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

High Speed rail would change the travel patterns of the Midwest forever if high speed rail was fast and clean. Hopefully this will make up for some of the less than desirable appointments our president has made with housing and urban issues.

Friday, February 20, 2009

PRT - Personal Rapid Transit

In this recent article Michael Andregg is spot on: we need to get people thinking about PRT. The problem as I see it is that he is a victim of his own hyperbole. Do we really need PRT? Of course we do. If we think for just a moment, we already have PRT: the bicycle.

The old technology was light rail and the new technology Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT. Engineers at the U showed that PRT could do a superior job for about a third of the cost in energy and money compared to buses and trains, including "light" trains. It could do this because it involves very light electric vehicles carrying only one to three passengers on nonstop, one-way trips above existing transportation grids on 3-foot diameter guideways. They showed that PRT could operate 24 hours a day over entire areas rather than be confined to schedules on high-density corridors because it requires no drivers and that it could be built without tearing up neighborhoods or businesses for years. Per mile, it would cost about one-tenth as much to build as light rail.

I can think of an even better way to save money while improving transportation. Why not take the existing infrastructure that we currently have and redesign them for proper bicycle use. I am sure this would be at 1/3 the cost of proposed PRT, if not even less. As many cities around the world have proven it might cost nothing at all other than the salary of a few pedestrian and bike planners. I almost forgot, we'll need some white paint.

By rethinking how are roads are used and simply by retiming lights, creating bike right-of-ways, and changing some legislation and laws, we could have PRT in the matter of a few years. I guess my flawed theory is that my PRT is based on an old mode of transportation that has been working for more than 100 years. Maybe it is time that we caught up to the modern day of the two wheeled human powered vehicle.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Federal Government is the new ATM for Automakers

Just in case you didn't know, the auto industry is asking for more money. This time it is $14 billion. NY Times has this article:

The cash crisis will require fast action by the administration’s new cabinet-level Presidential Task Force on Autos, which is overseeing the reorganization of G.M. and Chrysler. The deteriorating finances of the two companies present the Obama administration with two options, neither of them appealing.

It can provide the money in the hopes that the companies will stabilize, and no longer have to keep pushing workers into a growing pool of people without jobs. But there are no guarantees, as the Treasury Department learned on Tuesday when the automakers filed updates on their restructuring plans, that they might not be forced to come back again with requests for more money.

But if the federal government balks at the automakers’ requests, that would mean the two companies probably would have no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection, because they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars each month.

And the car companies said on Tuesday that the cost of a bankruptcy reorganization, with the government providing financing to help it through that process, would be far greater than their latest loan requests. Without such help, the companies would have to liquidate, creating staggering new job losses.

This has to be the best ultimatum in quite sometime. Bail us out now, or the process of our bankruptcy will cost you even more. While I do not advocate the loss of good paying auto industry jobs, I do feel it is time to start holding these companies accountable for their own actions. President Obama might need to watch a few industries die so that new, and more sustainable ones, can replace them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Have we learned nothing?

David Brook's once again proves that he just doesn't get it. I don't believe we will get rid of the suburbs or cities anytime soon. There will need to be an equilibrium brought about where the two can work together in a supplemental fashion.

You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living.

Those dreams have been aroused over the past few months. The economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption.

The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They’ll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community — and maybe even superior beer. America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don’t seem to want the Dutch option.

The Pew Research Center just finished a study about where Americans would like to live and what sort of lifestyle they would like to have. The first thing they found is that even in dark times, Americans are still looking over the next horizon. Nearly half of those surveyed said they would rather live in a different type of community from the one they are living in at present.

Second, Americans still want to move outward. City dwellers are least happy with where they live, and cities are one of the least popular places to live. Only 52 percent of urbanites rate their communities “excellent” or “very good,” compared with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live in rural America.

Cities remain attractive to the young. Forty-five percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 would like to live in New York City. But cities are profoundly unattractive to people with families and to the elderly. Only 14 percent of Americans 35 and older are interested in living in New York City. Only 8 percent of people over 65 are drawn to Los Angeles. We’ve all heard stories about retirees who move back into cities once their children are grown, but that is more anecdote than trend.

Third, Americans still want to go west. The researchers at Pew asked Americans what metro areas they would like to live in. Seven of the top 10 were in the West: Denver, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland and Sacramento. The other three were in the South: Orlando, Tampa and San Antonio. Eastern cities were down the list and Midwestern cities were at the bottom.

Finally, Americans want to go someplace new. The powerhouse cities of the 20th century — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — are much less desirable today than the ones that have more recently sprouted up.

In short, Americans may indeed be gloomy and hunkered down. But they’re still Americans. They are still drawn to virgin ground, still restless against limits.

If you jumble together the five most popular American metro areas — Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa — you get an image of the American Dream circa 2009. These are places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage — filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle.

These are places (except for Orlando) where spectacular natural scenery is visible from medium-density residential neighborhoods, where the boundary between suburb and city is hard to detect. These are places with loose social structures and relative social equality, without the Ivy League status system of the Northeast or the star structure of L.A. These places are car-dependent and spread out, but they also have strong cultural identities and pedestrian meeting places. They offer at least the promise of friendlier neighborhoods, slower lifestyles and service-sector employment. They are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl. They are not, except for Seattle, especially ideological, blue or red.

They offer the dream, so characteristic on this continent, of having it all: the machine and the garden. The wide-open space and the casual wardrobes.

The folks at Pew asked one other interesting question: Would you rather live in a community with a McDonald’s or a Starbucks? McDonald’s won, of course, but by a surprisingly small margin: 43 percent to 35 percent. And that, too, captures the incorrigible nature of American culture, a culture slowly refining itself through espresso but still in love with the drive-thru. The results may not satisfy those who dream of Holland, but there’s one other impressive result from the Pew survey. Americans may be gloomy and afraid, but they still have a clear vision of the good life. That’s one commodity never in short supply.

Check out the chatter over at Streets blog.

Midtown Greenway - Thanks

Since we have thawed out here in Minnesota riding the Greenway has been a great treat. I just wanted to extend my thanks to the countless years of advocacy that made this all happen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Will New York City ever be the same?

The NY Times talks with 5 economists about the economic future of NYC. While they don't agree on much, what is clear is that NYC will not be the city it once was. Even in the dark days of the 1970's, today is a national recession and a city and state that are completely broke. Having left the city recently for a job in the Twin Cities I am curious if NYC will ever make it back to the days before and after 9/11.

Here is what the experts think:
There are other reasons to worry, he said. For instance, while many see the financial crisis of the 1970s as among New York’s bleakest days, he believes this current crisis could be more painful. Back then, the state’s fiscal health was solid, and the state was ultimately able to help the city. But this time, “if anything, the state is definitely in much worse shape,” because of its own deficit of approximately $14 billion, and the prospect of mounting costs in the future for pension, health care and debt service expenses.

Personal income taxes in the city are expected to decrease 35 percent between 2007 and 2009: a drop unprecedented in recent memory. The number of tourists fell for the last two quarters, by roughly 5 percent, compared with the previous year. And, anecdotally, she has noticed deep discounts at retailers all over the city, well beyond the traditional post-holiday discount season, as well as unusual real estate deals in which landlords are offering prospective tenants free rent for a month or other enticements.

“I’m very reluctant to trust my gut on this, because after 2001 everyone thought we were in a long-term bad time, but it was almost miraculous the way the city economy bounced back from that,” he said.

Bear in mind, she says, that from 2003 to 2007, the securities industry accounted for 59 percent of the growth in wages and salaries in the city, according to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even though it makes up only 6 percent of all private-sector employment. So the questions that will help determine the future, she said, include: How successful have the bankers and traders who lost their jobs been in finding new work? And if they remain out of work for a long period, how long will their severance checks continue to pump money into the economy?

“New York City isn’t like Elkhart, Ind.,” Ms. O’Cleireacain said, referring to a city that President Obama visited last week, one that largely depends on a single industry, recreational-vehicle manufacturing, and where unemployment has soared to 15 percent. New York, she said, “is a magnet for talent: for smart, enterprising, ambitious, innovative people, not only from this country but from around the world. Everyone wants to be here, and I think that sets us apart from virtually any other city.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stimulus Roadblock

President Obama's stimulus money is nearly out the door and on its way to the states, but will it be spent in the way it is intended?

One alarming example: Mass transit. Cities and states, strapped for money, are cutting back on mass transit even as it becomes more popular with Americans. Meanwhile, President Obama is calling for increased mass transit as a necessary step toward energy independence. Will the government's investment dramatically revitalize our national travel infrastructure, or will states spend the money according to 'business as usual'?This week NOW travels to North Carolina to see what the future holds for mass transit in these troubling financial times. Our investigation is part of a PBS-wide series on the country's infrastructure called "Blueprint America."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Daniel Sperling on Jon Stewart

Saturday, February 14, 2009


From TC Streets for people.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Electric Cars?

Tim Beatley has this great article in the most recent Planning magazine. He asks the tough question: are greener cars any better than what we have now? Does this change the fundamental patterns of travel? Below is the article.

Ever Green
By Timothy Beatley

Mixed Message

As I write, Congress is working out the details of the promised bailout of Detroit car makers. So it is a good time to consider the prospects of a world with ever more cars, and whether it makes sense to subsidize them further.

For many observers, the answer is yes — so long as the cars are "green." There has never been so much retooling and redesigning, with so much fanfare. Although the prospects of a fully functional hydrogen car have dimmed, there is great interest in hybrids like the Chevy Volt, which uses an electric engine to turn its wheels and a gasoline engine to recharge its batteries.

Some of the more interesting all-electric models are coming from small companies like the California firm Zap; Canada's Zenn Motors; and Porteon Electric Vehicles in Portland, Oregon. Zap manufactures a three-wheel, four-door sedan that sells for a bit over $10,000 and has a top speed of 40 mph. It would be great if these smaller, very efficient electric vehicles drastically changed our driving habits so that we would view the private auto as supplemental to a mostly pedestrian and transit lifestyle.

I'm not at all convinced that this is what will happen, however. The small electric vehicles actually encourage neighborhood car trips. And the message of the larger hybrids like the Volt or Toyota's Highlander Hybrid seems to be "don't worry, keep driving."

To be sure, many of the new green cars are promising. The sporty Mitsubishi i MIEV can travel about 100 miles on a full charge, and the Eclectic, the electric car made by the French company Venturi, produces much of the power needed to charge its batteries from rooftop photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.

Other new concepts might help to reduce the overall ecological footprint of cars. How about interiors made of biodegradable materials? (Think compostable car seats.) Architect William McDonough worked many years ago with Ford on a prototype of a recyclable car, called the Model U. Another promising concept is to bundle an electric car with home ownership. We can imagine every new house equipped with solar panels sufficient both to power the home and to recharge the car.

Still, the limitations of green cars are considerable. Long charging times and short mileage range make them unappealing to American buyers. In addition, if the energy source for the batteries is a coal-burning power plant, electric cars don't help us much — although they could certainly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

No guarantees

Making driving more efficient is no guarantee of green progress. We know from the past that energy improvements often result in more consumption rather than less, and focusing on making cars more efficient can lead us to ignore the other problems inherent in a car-based culture: the loss of community, encouragement of a sedentary lifestyle, and the general disconnect from the places where we live.

Meanwhile, we set a bad example for the rest of the world, which continues to emulate our car-based culture. Recently, for example, the Indian car maker Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, a tiny car that sells for a mere 100,000 rupees, or about $2,500, and has already acquired the nickname "the people's car." The Nano would not meet basic safety requirements in most developed countries and it's likely to add significantly to air pollution. But in India it is viewed as a great leap forward.

The prospect of major increases in the auto-traveling population in the heavily populated developing world coming just as our planet faces the double challenges of peak oil and climate change seems insane. Yet, to say this as an American smacks of an "I have mine, you shouldn't have yours" point of view.

What we should be saying to the world is that the private automobile, electric or combustion, is a technology of the past. Responsible, resilient cities must adopt profoundly different models of urban development that are far better suited to the global challenges we face.

European cities have terrific examples of emerging models of car-free or car-limited developments or neighborhoods. Vauban, a former army barracks in Freiburg, Germany, has emerged as a poster child for car-limited living environments in cities. Its design limits car access and provides green courtyards where children and adults gather in safety. The city has extended its tram network to serve the community, and residents have access to nearby car-share vehicles. Resident parking is in peripheral lots (with a hefty charge for spaces).

Why I worry

While the new technologies of green cars clearly are positive in the short term, my fear is that they will solidify the idea of the car as the dominant form of mobility throughout the world. At a time when the basic concept of a private automobile is becoming untenable, we are finding new ways to assuage our guilt about driving them. It would be far better, I think, to view electric vehicles as an interim step on the way to even more creative and greener forms of public transit, and a recommitment to planning walkable, bikeable communities.

Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Ecology of Place. Ever Green will appear every other month in Planning.

Beatley makes the case for disinvestment in the auto industry and instead takes a look at how the private automobile can supplement other modes of travel. A radical idea, maybe to some, but an idea that is worth further investigation and investment.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Shovel, I mean transit ready projects

Ben Adler has written an excellent piece for the nation that really lays out the point why Transit should be the focus of the stimulus package and new administration. While I have my concerns between the rhetoric and reality our new president promised, Mr. Adler gives us some concrete ideas. Here are a few excerpts from the article:

It is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you build highways, inefficient suburban sprawl will develop and, ultimately, so will traffic and the demand for yet more highways. Build mass transit and you see high-density, efficient housing construction and people living without cars. As the high demand for housing in walkable urban environments like Manhattan and San Francisco demonstrates (and as public opinion polls confirm), plenty of Americans want to live in dense urban communities, and their numbers will only grow as the country's demographics shift toward more childless households--less likely than families with children to want detached suburban houses.

Public opinion has been shifting toward mass transit, especially with such volatile gas prices. Transit ridership climbed throughout 2008, even though gas prices dropped in the second half of the year. "The public support for greater funds for transit is very clear in the last few elections," declares Parris Glendening, former governor of Maryland, now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. Initiatives to pay for mass-transit investments have been winning victories across the country, from Seattle to Charlotte. California passed a $10 billion high-speed-rail ballot initiative last year.

Investing in mass transit would benefit not just the environment but also poor people, many of whom can't afford cars, don't drive and so have been shut out of the new economy, with its service sector employment increasingly available only in suburban office parks. A study by the University of Wisconsin found that 74 percent of African-Americans and 66 percent of Hispanics ages 18 to 24 in Milwaukee County did not have a valid driver's license. As urban theorists like Joel Rogers have noted in their "Emerald Cities" proposal, building mass transit could also strengthen labor, providing a larger base of unionized construction and maintenance jobs.

The greenest way to lift the country out of a deepening recession would be to put people to work building mass-transit infrastructure, which could, in turn, ease the flow of goods and services, help generate economic growth and open economic opportunities to the disadvantaged. With a new president from Chicago and a House Speaker from San Francisco, the time seems ripe for Democrats to take advantage of the dual opportunities this year presents to alter America's transportation infrastructure radically: the upcoming stimulus spending bill and the Surface Transportation Reauthorization, due for renewal by September.
Simple ideas but they will be effective.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What a great idea!

The Metropolitan Council has a great idea: let's take the federal stimulus dollars and use it to keep the buses running in the Twin Cities Region.
Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said Monday the problem is so bad he'll need to raid other funds and use federal stimulus dollars not to build but merely to pay operating and maintenance costs to avoid cutting service.

The council — Metro Transit's parent agency — faces a projected $45 million shortfall over the next two years, and Bell said that deficit will likely grow as the economy continues to contract. A major reason is transit relies on proceeds from a tax on motor vehicle sales, which have plummeted.

While every transit agency in the country wants to do this I am glad some are starting to speak out loud and let the elected officials know what is going to happen if the dollars don't go towards maintenance and general operating costs. Is this the best use of money, I am not completely sure, but would we rather see the local bus system deteriorate over the next three years? I think not.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Downtown Minneapolis

Recent article from the Downtown Journal:

Downtown gained 785 residents and lost 3,335 jobs in 2008, the Downtown Council announced at its annual meeting yesterday.

Although Downtown’s workforce declined 6.9 percent, Downtown Council President Sam Grabarski sprinkled his year-end remarks with lots of positive news. The audience applauded when Grabarski noted that TCF Bank recently renewed its lease for 263,000 square feet in the TCF tower.

Grabarski recapped several other corporate comings-and-goings, such as SoftBrands’ move from Richfield to the LaSalle Plaza, Xcel Energy’s expansion to occupy 28 percent of Marquette Plaza, and OLSON’s expansion into four buildings in Loring Corners. Valspar is relocating 400 employees out of its headquarters for the past hundred years into an Ameriprise building at 901 3rd Ave. S.

Downtown’s top employer continues to be Target Corporation, with 10,000 employees. Wells Fargo is next in line with 7,180 employees, followed by Hennepin County with 5,200 employees.

Members of the Downtown Council patted themselves on the backs for creating a new Downtown Improvement District, an initiative they have studied for several years. The budget for the first year is now $3 million, just half of what was originally proposed, and the property assessments will pay for more cleaning services Downtown. The Downtown-based consultant Sarah Harris will oversee the new district as chief operating officer.

As for future initiatives, the Downtown Council staff said they will support “earnest discussions” related to the future of the Vikings stadium. They also noted that it was “critical to stay focused and stay positive” with regard to Downtown retail. Staff said they reached out to hundreds of retail prospects in the past year.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cities of the Future

Here is a great slide show put together over at Treehugger.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Escape from New York

Here is a good article covering the recent report from the Center for an Urban Future that argues that NYC's middle class is leaving in droves:

The rising cost of living in the five boroughs, combined with a city economy that has been unable to create enough well-paying jobs, has led tens of thousands of middle class New Yorkers to leave the city in recent years and kept others stuck among the ranks of the working poor, a new report shows.

The city, which for much of its history thrived as a place where people from poorer backgrounds could climb into the middle class, is in danger of losing that piece of its identity, the report says.

“New York has long been a city that has groomed a middle class, but that’s a more arduous job today,” said Jonathan Bowles, director of the Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan-based think tank dedicated to independent research on cities, and one of the report’s authors. “There’s a tremendous amount of positives about the city, yet so many middle class families seem to be stretched to their limits.”

More residents moved out of the five boroughs in each of the years between 2002 and 2006 than in 1993, when the city was far less inviting, the report says. In 2006, 151,441 residents left the city, a 7% increase over 2002. The overall population increased as a result of natural births and immigration.

“The extraordinarily high levels of those relocating through much of the decade — even as crime rates remained at record lows and the city economy was booming — suggests that growing numbers of New Yorkers simply couldn’t prosper here,” the report argues.

The number of New Yorkers with bachelor’s degrees who left the city rose to 29,370 in 2006, up 127% from a year earlier. But they weren’t the only ones leaving. Families with children concerned about the quality of schools and small business owners seeking lower costs and new markets have also left. The number of New Yorkers moving to such places as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia, for instance, doubled and even tripled during the period studied.

Joe Salvo, director of the New York City Department of Planning’s population division, questioned the report’s findings. He said the study looked at too narrow a time period and examined people leaving the city without looking at those coming in.
“What they’re doing in the report is looking at domestic outflow by itself,” he said. “You can’t do that.”

He said people have moved away from the city throughout history, but that immigrants have always come to replace them.

“We have a dynamic operating here,” he said. “People who come and people who leave, they come from everywhere and they go everywhere.”

He said if outmigration were a problem, it would be visible in the boroughs outside Manhattan.

“If you go to the Bronx, if you go to Brooklyn, neighborhoods of modest means, you will see that these neighborhoods are growing,” he said. “If we had substantial rates of outmigration, you would see it in neighborhoods from Marine Park in Brooklyn to Morris Park in the Bronx.”

The sky-high cost of living in the city is the lead driving force behind the squeeze on the middle class, the report argues. City residents pay among the highest prices in the nation for electricity, telephone service, auto insurance, home heating oil, parking and milk—and those prices continue to rise. Combined state and local taxes are tops among major cities, and housing is the most expensive. In the third quarter of 2008, only 10.6% of all housing in New York City was deemed affordable to people earning the median area income. And average rents in the fourth quarter were $2,801, or 53% higher than in San Francisco, the city with the second-highest figure, the report shows.
Manhattan is by far the most expensive urban area in the United States, according to the report, but the escalating cost of living isn’t the only factor hurting the middle class in New York, the report says. The city’s job mix has shifted away from positions that provide middle-income wages and benefits. The city has lost a far greater share of blue collar jobs than Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and other major cities. More than 150,000 goods-producing jobs have been lost since 1990, including 66,500 in the past decade.

While manufacturing accounts for about 3% of private sector jobs in the city, it employs a much larger share in other cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Charlotte. The city also fares poorly in other blue collar sectors like wholesale trade, while much of its job growth has come in traditionally low-paying areas like health care and social assistance. Those two industries together accounted for 17.4% of all private sector jobs in 2007, up 12.7% from 1990.

The result, the report argues, is that large numbers of people are working, but they’re not earning enough to live comfortably. Citywide, 31.1% of workers over the age of 18 are employed in low-wage jobs, the report says. Between 1975 and 2007, average weekly wages, when adjusted for inflation, barely increased in the boroughs outside Manhattan. Wages in Manhattan increased exponentially because of the boom in Wall Street salaries, but job growth in high-end sectors has not been strong enough to make up for the losses of middle-income jobs.

And things are not looking any brighter. The jobs expected to grow the most during the decade ahead typically pay low wages, including retail, home health aides, child care workers and janitors, the report says.

“The city, probably going back to Mayor [John] Lindsay really hasn’t focused on the middle class,” said Joel Kotkin, an urban historian and the report’s coauthor. “It’s becoming increasingly addicted to a ‘Masters of the Universe’ economy, which has now completely fallen apart.”

The report defines a middle class New Yorker loosely as someone who has enough money to pay the bills, have health insurance, own a computer with Internet connection, live in a safe neighborhood and take a vacation once a year.
Action is needed to make that lifestyle a possibility for future generations of New Yorkers, the report says. The authors urge the city to focus more attention on diversifying its economy. That was also a major theme of Crain’s Future of New York City conference, held earlier this week.

The report said such diversification could be achieved through a focus on the city’s 
ports, educational services, niche manufacturing and so-called “green-collar” industries and by nurturing entrepreneurs and freelancers.

More support for community colleges and stronger workforce development programs could help better prepare young people for fields that pay middle-income salaries, the report argues. Improving schools, parks and transportation in the outer boroughs could also make the areas more attractive to middle-class families.

“A New York inhospitable to middle class aspirations,” the report concludes, “will lose population, character and ultimately even its economic pre-eminence.”

You can get the full report here.