Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I'm Back

So I am back in NYC after two long weeks in the Pacific Northwest. I have not been to all four cities (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria) since 1999. It was great to go back but a lot has changed. I must say I was impressed with Victoria (especially the greenway/trails) and Portland for the ease of walking, great public transit, and bike infrastructure, although, I felt the downtown was lacking in comparison to downtown Minneapolis.

Over the next few days I will post about each city and the things I really enjoyed and didn't like. It was interesting to go back to these cities and have a fresh perspective and view things more from a urban planning point of view. Seattle and Vancouver, at least for me, did not live up to all the hype they get and the high cost of living.

Here is my list from best liked city to least:

1. Portland, OR
2. Victoria, BC
3. Seattle, WA
4. Vancouver, BC

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Vacation in the Northwest

Posts will be few and far between since I am in the Northwest on a trip. Here are some pics.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Friday, September 19, 2008

Park(ing) Day - Seattle

I am on a trip in the Northwest. Came across Parking Day in Seattle.

Downside of the Chinatown Bus

I will admit from the get go that I use the Chinatown buses a lot. They are affordable, your bike can easily be locked in the cargo hold, and they are a great alternative to the train or greyhound. This Gotham Gazette article does point out that they are still a major problem in Chinatown. I would beg to differ, are the buses causing the congestion or are they just another vehicle in a larger broken down traffic circulation pattern. For those not in the NE this is why they are so popular:
The trip from New York to Boston on Amtrak is $89. By car, at $4 for a gallon of gas, the 220-mile drive costs somewhere about $30, without tolls. The Fung Wah or Lucky Star bus leaving from Canal Street or Chrystie Street respectively is $15, and their upscale neighbor, the Bolt Bus, which departs from the sidewalk outside of Penn Station, is about $20 with a reserved seat and wireless internet. Given the economics, it's no surprise that the bus business is booming.

In 2006, Michael Lau, the commanding officer of the Fifth Precinct, told the City Council Transportation Committee that the crowding of discount buses in Chinatown brings dangerously congested streets, the possibility of accidents and even violence as bus operators compete for parking spots and passengers. He claimed that 30 different bus companies dispatch more than 100 buses each day from Chinatown's curbsides.
As the end of the article suggests, it has long been over due that the city embrace this vital service for many and find ways to make it work for the bus companies, the neighborhoods, and the city as a whole. NYC does lack vision when it comes to planning for buses (of all kinds), but I really don't think a solution is all that hard if the city was willing to close a few blocks to traffic and make it a transit mall for all the different bus operations. I think it could work just fine and law enforcement would be easier. Here is a longer story in the NY Times about the buses.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why all the hate?

The popular real estate blog Brownstoner had a post about cyclists dismounting at the bottom of the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brookyln side. Of course the 38 comments turned into a us against them argument. For some reason (actually many reasons) pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists are in a battle over the street space. This comment is the typical NIMBY knee jerk reaction that is making NYC a place where progress is very hard to come by.
The bike lanes are stupid. The bikers are stupid. You still live in a metropolis where there are cars and trucks and buses. Biking should be in the parks ONLY. For the new bikers that ride bikes with flip flops, ipods, and ice coffees in there hand and big sunglasses trying to steer a bike can be quite difficult. Also, I thought riding on sidewalks were a no no anyway next time I see a biker riding on a sidewalk they will get knocked down because its uncalled for. Oh! before I forget what they did to Vanderbilt ave in Prospect Heights is really stupid, with all of the traffic that has been there for years you go and put bike lanes and pedestrian islands in the middle of the ave. Now you have the existing traffic, bike lanes, and pedestrian crossing islands. I would like to be there when the horrific accident happens so I can say I told you so.
Cars have a right to the road. Pedestrians have a right to the road. Bicyclists have a right to the road. Let's redesign our roads so all have equal access.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Reinventing Grand Army Plaza

The design competition is done and all 30 designs are on display in Grand Army Plaza. Many of the designs neglect to actually deal with the current traffic issues and connecting the plaza to prospect park. It seems that many are not so happy with the plans that made the cut. Here is a comment that pretty much sums it up over at city room:
The ‘plaza’ area of Grand Army Plaza is a majestic, glorious public space designed by the inimitable team of Olmstead and Vaux, and is in absolutely no need of any ‘imagining’ or re-design — particularly not if the re-design is chosen via competition, which has proven in recent years to be a very poor and problematic method of soliciting the best designs for public projects (example: WTC memorial, Queens Museum of Art, etc..).

I would like to propose that the “problem” at Grand Army Plaza is not a landscape architectural problem, rather, a traffic engineering problem, and that the periphery of the plaza alone could use a redesign - not the interior, which, thank you very much, we in Brooklyn like just as it is.

Perhaps if the Design Trust truly had any stake in what’s most appropriate for Brooklyn, or had any sense of reverence for the democratic vision of Olmstead and Vaux, this would be apparent. As it is, this effort smacks of the same lethal combination of mediocre talent, opportunism, political access, and deep pockets that made possible Atlantic Yards, Frank Gehry’s outsized, outdated superblock-style monstrosity that no doubt has Jane Jacobs tossing in her grave… oh, Bruce Ratner is a supporter of this endeavor.

We in Brooklyn need to ask, who are the people behind these efforts to “reimagine” parts of our community? Particularly if a cursory look at the cast of characters includes sleazy Manhattan developers, a nonprofit with dubious qualifications, and — I mean, take a look at the exhibit itself. It’s a Manhattan graphic and display design sensibility, “giant cubes” just slapped down in the middle of Brooklyn.

As a New York Times editorial noted in 1963, after the demolition of Old Penn Station in Manhattan, “a civilization gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves” and “we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” The misinformation in recent articles regarding GAP and its functionality is starting to sound suspiciously like some of the rhetoric employed during the architecturally disastrous urban renewal period… a period very harmful to the architectural consciousness of the city.
Where are the design professionals - architects, landscape architects, etc., - of Brooklyn on this matter? Has anyone else opened up The Death and Life of Great American Cities lately? (No comment on the architecturally vapid and environmentally stupid -glass curtain wall- Meier towers)…

Does anyone else have a problem with rich folks and dilletantes making decisions for Brooklyn?
— Posted by A Brooklyn Design Professional
That pretty much sums up the way I feel about the designs that made the final cut. While one does seem to create recreation for the residents. Check out all 30 and see what you think.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Commuter Connection

So I just got back from Minneapolis/St. Paul this past week. I have to admit that they have some serious bike infrastructure - Greenway, Trails, plenty of parking, and counter flow bike lanes in downtown. As I was walking through the skyway to meet a friend for dinner I came across this commuter connection shop and was blown away.

In the twin cities they have this great service that will basically help you figure out how to commute depending on your mode of transit. Yes, they have the usual transit shop where you go to buy your pass and/or card and has all the bus routes and schedules, but this was completely different. They covered it all (pretty much) from walking, biking, car pooling, van pooling, light rail, and the buses. The best part is in todays world it is great when you can actually walk into a physical space and talk to a "real live human being." I just figured how great a service this would be to a new bike commuter or someone looking to carshare through official means. I wish every city had one of these shops.

Since I posted last week about ground transit to airports I figured I needed to include this. I had a 7:00 AM flight out of Minneapolis and was able to get there (35-40 minutes) in plenty of time by taking the bus to the light rail, it was fast and cheap $1.50 (to bad it took 2+ hours to get home from Laguardia airport in NYC).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Term limits hurt urban planning?

While I am a supporter that NYC should have term limits (I'll explain later) this article is discussing the pros and the cons.
Officials in New York City, however, are contemplating the unusual method of changing term limits through the City Council, rather than through popular vote. That may be easier to push through, given that voters would be likely to resist such a change, having supported term limits in 1993 and 1996. But it is also far more controversial.

“I like Bloomberg, but he looks like a politician if he does it, as opposed to a guy who came in to reform New York City,” Howard Rich, chairman of U.S. Term Limits, said of New York City’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. “To bypass the will of the people without their permission strikes me as profoundly selfish and undemocratic.”

There is precedent for what New York is considering. In 2001, the D.C. Council in Washington overturned a term limits law that had been approved by voters seven years earlier. Despite working around voters, council members experienced no serious repercussions, said Councilman Jack Evans, who led the effort. He pointed to his own re-election two years later. “Nobody ever raised it — and I was the guy who proposed it,” he said.
Here is why term limits should have no effect on urban planning:
1. The planning department should be doing the planning (not real estate developers, elected officials, or NIMBY residents).
2. All serious changes in regards to planning should be approved by the city council and planning commission making them law and outliving any two term elected official.
3. Clear goals, indicators, and benchmarks should be established in a larger master or comprehensive plan that the city uses and refers to for future planning.

4. Most elected officials projects are knee jerk reactions (and in NYC) have hurt our urban fabric more than have enhanced it.
The argument for NYC elected officials is a bit ridiculous since most are already looking at their next gig (elected office they can run for) before term limits are out. We need to overhaul the entire system before we extend term limits or eliminate them entirely. NYC can benefit from some fresh faces since a majority of state and federal seats are held by the same individual for years (no term limits). At least at the local (city level) we can hold our elected officials accountable since they know we can throw them out.

If the planning process is done right who your elected officials is and the number of terms they can serve should be minimal. Image is from Anthony Gonzalez

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting to the airport

This is a funny, but interesting, blog post at Planetizen from Josh Stephens regarding ground transportation to our nations airports. I have found that Portland and Minneapolis/St. Paul are the two best with a one seat ride that takes about 20-30 minutes to get you from the airport to downtown. Here are some from the blog post:
Most Conspiratorial: Las Vegas McCarren. Between the expanse of the desert and the enormousness of the Strip's buildings, it would seem that walking from McCarren to the poolside bar at Mandalay Bay would be a short stroll. As close as McCarren is, I found out the hard way that it's not walking close, not when it's 105 in the shade, and certainly not without sidewalks. It is, however, public transit close. Not surprisingly, McCarren ranks second in the nation for origins and destinations, and you can bet that almost all passengers are heading to the Strip (where else is there to go?). If they could get there via a spiffy express public bus line for a reasonable fare, it would probably be the most popular, and straightfoward airport bus line in the United States. Except that it doesn't exist. Instead, your cheapest choice is a slow shared van that stops everywhere between ancient Egypt and modern-day South Beach. Or you can always just flag down a Hummer limo and pop some Cristal en route.

Most Disappointing: New York Kennedy. The greatest irony of JFK's vaunted new AirTrain is that there are still luxury coaches stacked up outside Grand Central offering rides to the airport for $12 each way. AirTrain is that expensive and that arduous. It requires a long subway ride and if you transfer at Jamaica Station you're in for a haul of a transfer. AirTrain itself is fine, but for $5 on top of whatever the subway or LIRR cost, it really should be faster and easier, and if it worked properly it would put those buses out of business.

Best Overall (Business Class): San Francisco International. The Bay Area's vaunted BART system rolls right into the International Terminal at SFO with a clean, attractive new station. It's not a lame spur but rather a real BART line (passing through downtown San Francisco en route to Oakland and Contra Costa County and connecting with other BART lines and CalTrain) and is priced accordingly (i.e. it's expensive -- over $5 for the half-hour ride to downtown). The best thing about the SFO connection is also the best thing about BART: in the Bay Area commuters of all stripes ride BART, and, therefore, so does of a diverse array of airline passengers.

Best Overall (Coach): Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Hiawatha light rail line runs directly into both terminals at MSP and reaches downtown Minneapolis in less than a half hour, all for the standard $2 fare. Unfortunately, the system includes only the one line, but it's a remarkably efficient line, hitting many major destinations. (If Chicago ever resolves its maintenance backlog, O'Hare would take this category in a landslide.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Caught in the Mosh

This is a great article in City Limits about a long time bike commuter who happened to get caught in Critical Mass. Stuart Post gives us a detailed description of how he experienced Critical Mass last month with the "anarchists" and the NYPD.
I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s exemplary behavior: the cyclists stopped at every red light as about a half-dozen escort police officers on scooters rode patiently alongside or behind them to keep motorists at bay. I even noted friendly banter between a heavyset officer and a dreadlocked bike messenger-type. The ride was leisurely and meandering – down Seventh Avenue, east to Fifth, back over to Broadway and through Times Square. As we traveled through these heavily touristed areas, it was great to see the out-of-towners’ delighted reactions to our rolling crew: laughter, cheering, thumbs-up signs, digital cameras flashing away, smiles all around. What a great story for them to tell. Perhaps their snapshots of the impromptu bike parade will even encourage the folks back home to come to the Big Apple – with pocketfuls of Euros! – to experience such playful shenanigans for themselves.

Yet something odd happened just south of 14th Street. The scooter cops riding “sweep” started tooting their horns and slowly made their way into our phalanx of bikers. While we were all stopped for a red light by St. Vincent’s Hospital, a displeased-looking police commander strode into the crosswalk and announced, “Okay, let’s ticket some of them.” The scooter cops surrounded the six closest riders and got out their pads. Shocked by this sudden flexing of law enforcement muscle, I got on the sidewalk to watch as most of the bikers pedaled off with the changing light, to complete the ride. Although I was joined by several other observers, none seemed particularly upset or surprised. Random ticketing is apparently NYPD standard practice at Critical Mass rides.

I'd had enough. I hopped back on my bike and headed home with a sick feeling in my stomach. Yes, my lovely and wholly unexpected group ride was now history. But I was far more bummed about the future of the city I so love. How could such small-minded bureaucratic pettiness be tolerated by the Bloomberg administration? And how did this behavior jibe with the mayor’s fierce advocacy of congestion pricing, sponsorship of Summer Streets, and creation of miles of new bike lanes? I had a sinking feeling that this jarringly mixed message – pat cyclists on the head with one hand and smack them in the face with the other – might seriously undermine Mayor Bloomberg’s vision of a green urban utopia.
I have yet to ride Critical Mass in NYC as I am worried about the ticketing issue and the conduct of the NYPD. Once again, NYC rears its ugly head at bike commuters and illustrates that we don't belong on the streets.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Wind Turbines Part II

The New York Times has this article discussing just how useful wind turbines would be in urban areas.
But many experts caution that rooftops, while abundant, are usually poor places to harness the breeze. Not only are cities less windy than the countryside, but the air is choppier because of trees and the variation in heights in buildings. Turbulence can wear down a turbine and make it operate less efficiently. This is particularly problematic for houses with pitched roofs.

“In an urban environment, more times than not you’re better off with a solar panel,” said Mr. Stimmel, of the wind industry association.

A recent British study of wind on home roofs found that turbines generate less power than installers projected because of lower-than-expected wind speeds. Ian Woofenden, a senior editor at Home Power magazine who teaches wind workshops, estimates that electricity from rooftop turbines may cost $1.50 a kilowatt hour or more. (That is enough electricity to run a hair dryer for an hour, roughly.)
While this is a great alternative energy resource, will it be cost effective, much like solar panels, to cover our urban roofs with wind turbines? It seems the idea is better than the actual current technology. Maybe these rooftops can be better used for solar, green space, and rain water catchment.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hub and Spokes: Imageability of the Daily Bicycle Commute in New York City

The research project is finally done. Hub and Spokes: Imageability of the Daily Bicycle Commute in New York City was an online survey and interviews with bike commuters about their mental mapping and images of how they perceive NYC as a bike commuter. Here is an excerpt:
In a city that is dominated by automobiles (1.6 million people enter Manhattan by car daily and of those 1.2 million of them drive alone), I wanted to find out how its residents who use other modes of transportation actually view the built environment. Although all forms of transit modes can be studied, I find this small minority (0.5%) who commute by bicycles the most marginalized by the existing infrastructure of New York City. The sole purpose of this study is to record the subjective perspective (mental mapping) that New York City bicycle commuters have of the build environment, good or bad.

While New York City has a vibrant and active bicycle commuter culture, there still exists a stigma attached to people who commute by bicycle. While a cultural shift is important to making bike commuting more acceptable in New York City and nationally, to achieve an equal and multi-modal approach to our street space New York City must prioritize the creation of a comprehensive bicycling network that supplements pedestrian, open/green space, and public transit improvements.

The entire report is here. Email if you are interested in a hard copy.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Extreme Commuting

We have heard all the reports about people driving 2-3 hours one-way just to get to work. For those of us that use two wheels and push the pedals we have little to complain about. Mike Caslor is an extreme commuter but he does it by bike. Here is an excerpt from the story:
Mike Caslor decided to start riding his bicycle to his downtown office once a week last year as a way to get in shape for mountain-bike racing. The 31-year-old father of two says his schedule was too busy for training time, so the 90-kilometre (56 miles) commute between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg was a convenient way to get his exercise in. The ride takes Caslor, a social worker, about 2.5 hours in each direction — as much as three hours when there's a strong Prairie headwind, he said.

On the highway, Caslor said, he can use the shoulder as a kind of dedicated bike lane. But in Winnipeg, there are no dedicated bicycle lanes on major routes — something Caslor believes the city should introduce. City officials say that could be tricky. "Basically, we didn't really build the city for bikes the first time," said Coun. Jenny Gerbasi. "If you don't build it right the first time, to go back and fix it is difficult. But, you know, I think that's the direction we need to go."

I think Winnipeg can change the current infrasctructure and make more room for Mike, don't you?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Backyards in NYC

Here is a strange article in the New York Times about how New Yorkers create little havens in that plot of land behind their houses. While open space (which is private) is one of the golden gems in NYC (other than a rent stabilized apartment), this article and this report really are begging the question: Is NYC turning into suburbia?

From the NY Times article:
On West 120th Street in Harlem, Mark Pinn finds mowing his lawn to be less a chore than a respite from the grind of city life. "It's a little therapeutic," Mr. Pinn said. "I get out there and do my thing." Mr. Pinn and his wife, Katrina Parris, have a 16-by-18-foot plot of lovingly tended Kentucky bluegrass fringed with Mexican river rocks. At night, they sit outside and count their blessings: "A house, two kids, two cars and a lawn," Mr. Pinn says.
This recent study thinks so:
Today, leading transportation, planning and environmental groups will call on Mayor Bloomberg to change City policy that requires developers to build off-street parking with new residential buildings. This parking is required by City zoning rules, regardless of the building's proximity to transit or anticipated parking demand. The groups will release a study, Suburbanizing the City, which finds that City parking requirements will put 170,000 new cars on city streets by 2030. With little foresight, the City's zoning is transforming transit-centered neighborhoods into car-dependent ones and undermining city-wide traffic reduction goal

In a city where residents are clamoring for more green space, it is ironic that the zoning code dictates that more space still be used for cars. While this New York Times article shows these backyard green spaces, I am not so sure this is what most New Yorkers really want. Most people (in my opinion) seem happy to live in a concrete jungle and have access to larger parks as an oasis outside of the hustle and bustle of the streets. Do new homeowners with children want it all (a yard and a place to park their car)?