Thursday, December 31, 2009

Fleeing the BIG CITY

Lately it seems more people are thinking about downsizing. Maybe it is with all the job loss and poor economy that folks don't want to get stuck in large expensive cities. I for one made sure it was time to leave NYC before the meltdown took place. Other colleagues and friends seem to start growing fond of the idea that smaller, in regards to a city, might just be better.

I know for my wife and I smaller was a major factor in our decision to move to Minneapolis. Rob Baedeker over at the SF Gate seems to be having that issue. It seems to be the new mid-life crisis: where should I live?

For at least a couple of years now, my wife and I have been rehearsing a break-up conversation with the Bay Area. As much as we love it here, we're just not sure if it will ever work out.

A lot of our uncertainty revolves around money, and our realization that we can't afford to buy a home here. That fact, rightly or wrongly, has become a touchstone for other uncertainties -- about finding a neighborhood we can stay in for the long term; about having good school options for our two-year-old daughter; about making enough money to afford the high cost of living without giving all of our waking hours over to work.

It seems that quality of life and money have a clear connection these days. Are bigger cities (NYC, SF, LA) really all that much better than say smaller (Portland, Minneapolis, Kansas City) cities. I would argue that they are different but that these smaller cities, and usually cheaper, tend to have a better quality of life but at the same time reduced costs. Are we on the verge of a new trend where people will want to live in affordable smaller cities so that a job at McDonalds (as the article points out) means you can still be a home owner.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Newburg Project: Embracing Density at the Urban Fringe

John Stillich with SUDA has this new plan, Newburg, for how to make density work in the outer fringes (or suburbs really). It is an interesting model and might just be a key to how we approach chaning behaviors and travel patterns to meet the new energy and sustainablity demands we will face now and for year to come. From Planetizen:

"Newburg: Embracing High Density at the Urban Fringe", published by the Sustainable Urban Development Association (SUDA), presents an illustrative and descriptive example of a high-density city-building concept for the fringes of urban areas. It is an urban form concept developed at SUDA that is inherently environmentally progressive, fosters social vitality, is economically efficient, supports a high number of jobs within the community, and reduces the impacts of future energy shocks.

The principal characteristics of the Newburg model that serve to increase density and sustainability are:
1- Elimination of almost all single-storey non-residential construction in favour of multi-story mixed-use buildings;
2- Apartment-style residential accommodation as a significant share of all residential units;
3- A reduction in the percentage of single detached homes to a very small proportion, replacing them with attached homes (rowhouses) with private backyards;
4- Minimal or no setback requirements for most buildings (non-residential and residential);
5- Replacement of most private parking spaces on non-residential properties with shared public parking lots and garages;
6-Reducing overall road space as a percentage of total transportation space, in recognition of higher modal shares for public transit, walking and cycling, and shorter trip lengths;
7- More efficient provision and use of parkland;
8- The integration of non-residential uses into the community in ways that support active transportation.

Pie in the sky or some real principles we can start to thrive for? While some don't seem to mesh with reality, I do like the approach and think just getting a few things on the list would be a major plus for communities and neighborhoods.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Central Corridor LRT line?

It seems that institutions and many organized groups would rather not see the Central Corridor Line get built in the Twin Cities. This would be our second LRT line that would connect downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul. It would enhance and replace bus service and bring much needed public transportation to the cities.

Instead of embracing this, the university of Minnesota, MPR, and local community groups have decided to challenge the project based on the environmental review and mitigation. Honestly, the only group that has any ground to stand on are the community groups worried about gentrification and displacement. But they are also taking the wrong approach.

What they should be doing is fighting the good fight and organizing to get, and maximize, the future benefits. C'mon, this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. They have chosen the hard road and are opposing the new line instead of trying to get the met council to make the needed changes they desire to the project. Another hurdle that threatens to derail the new line.

It is interesting that such a long term project and asset, which will benefit the region, can get bogged down in the local politics. Steve Berg over at Minn Post has some good insight into the entire situation:

The U dispute is only one of several that have placed Bell and the Central Line project in a bureaucratic vise. Various parties are taking bites out of the budget while time runs short on keeping the project viable for federal funding. The Federal Transit Administration has made it clear that lawsuits and other complaints, if left unresolved, would push the project off the front burner. Failure to get the Central Line into President Obama's budget next year could jeopardize the start of construction next summer and push its opening to 2015 or later.

More troubling, perhaps, are the unresolved civil rights complaints from two St. Paul community groups, the Concerned Asian Business Owners and the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee. The groups expect the Central Line to cause disproportionate damage to minority communities, and they want compensation. They accuse the Met Council of failing to address the issue in its environmental review of the project, as required by federal civil rights law.

While the Met Council should be more engaging with this process with all parties, it seems that right now we are bogged down in what can I get now, instead of what benefits will I receive later.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Spending because...

Next American City is asking about 2010. I found this excerpt from Minneapolis one of the most telling. Cities basically are going to prioritize what the federal government is going to be funding. Once again, the agenda is not going to be set on the local level and deal with immediate needs, but rather will follow the national trend of energy improvements.

Andrew Dahl
Assistant to the Economic Development Director for the City of Minneapolis.

2010 will be the year of energy efficiency. With few major economic development deals to look forward to, cities will launch varied energy efficiency programs to reduce their own expenses, free up discretionary income of their residents, and help their business’s bottom lines.

All major cities this year received an extra allotment of the CDBG through the Recovery Act, called the Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant, which can only be spent on fairly specific energy uses. Currently, cities are also competing for an extra, much larger, portion of these funds being distributed competitively. Here is Minneapolis’s plan.

I think this will be the big issue since there aren’t many other big deals to be had - companies aren’t expanding or relocating very much - and there’s less and less money available for cities to spend on other ambitious projects. This is the one thing that’s well-funded and an easy sell. I think this nation-wide push will really transform the way cities do business, both within their own enterprises and in collaboration with other organizations. We’re working more closely now than we ever have with our utilities, unions, non-profits, banks, state government, even our neighbors in St. Paul.

Let's hope this is not the trend.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Does community engagement stiffle good development?

As a community developer we take the lead from what the community wants to see in their own backyard. But having worked in NYC for 7 years I also came to realize that communities can be their own worst enemy. What is good for the larger community is not always what happens.

Is citizen participation a good or bad for good responsible smart growth? I would have to say I have seen it go both ways where a community will kill a project that would have been a major asset in the future, but could not get beyond knee jerk and NIMBY issues. Builder has this great article with Andres Duany. He states:

Citizen participation in the planning process is probably the biggest roadblock. If you ask people what they want, they don’t want density. They don’t want mixed use. They don’t want transit. They don’t even want a bike path in their back yard. They don’t want a grid that connects, they want cul-de-sacs. They can’t see the long term benefits of walkable neighborhoods with a greater diversity of housing types. This book is a quick read and is dedicated explicitly to them. It’s for the people, not for planning professionals.

There is a theory of subsidiarity that considers at what level a decision is properly made. Most of today’s planning decisions--large and small--are made at the wrong level. Take transit. You do not ask the neighbor next to a 16-mile bikeway whether they want a bikeway in their back yard because they will say no. That’s a decision that needs to be made at the regional level. Conversely, let’s say you want to have free-range chickens to provide eggs for you and your neighbors. Right now that’s controlled by municipal ordinance. City zoning codes say no chickens, when really this is a decision that should be made at the block level, because chickens affect the block, not the whole city. Then you have municipalities enforcing rules about what color you can paint your house, which is ridiculous. That’s the wrong level of decision making.

I see how this can go both ways, but you do have to realize that you can't please everyone in the planning process. You might just have to break some eggs to make an omelet.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ignorance of Geography

Fly over land? Does Illinois (stress the S) touch Canada? Dinner or supper? Pop or soda? These are just some of the things in my past that I have come across living in many parts of the country. It still amazes me that the coasts don't know the middle nor each other. It would help if people actually visited different parts of this country because most states In the US are mini countries.

Timothy Egan over at the New York Times gets to the point when a Costco opened in the center of the universe - Manhattan.

Geographic illiteracy from the Eastern Time Zone is a given, especially among the well-educated. A New York book publisher, and Harvard grad at that, once asked me if I ever take the ferry up to Alaska for the afternoon. No, I replied: do you ever go to Greenland on a day trip?

Costco is a brilliant retail concept, but it’s not news. It’s been around for, oh . . . a quarter-century or so. Some of the gushing posts on New York-based Web sites after Costco opened on East 117th Street have all the breathless urgency of a tourist who has discovered bagels in Boulder.

“It’s amazing how many things you can get for a fairly decent price!” One shopper wrote on Yelp New York, the online review site. Um, that’s the idea. And other observers have seemed befuddled in the big box, overwhelmed by the lure of tube sox and toilet paper to last a lifetime.
It still amazes me how ignorant we are of ourselves. Read the comments section for a good discussion and the proof.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Street cars in Rockford, Il

So I grew up in the Chicago metropolitan area and now live in Minneapolis. Some of my family in the past few years just moved to Rockford. This city is pretty much in the middle between Madison and Chicago. I have never thought it would come back other than a bedroom community with malls and cookie cutter developments. But Rockford just threw me a curve ball. This is a quote from this article in Rockford Register Star:

Streetcars are returning to cities around the United States. There are classic-looking ones taking tourists to the lakefront in Kenosha, Wis., and sleek, modern ones zipping around Portland, Ore.

They’re catching on so much, even Rockford is taking a look.City officials say a looped streetcar route might be a good way to move residents and visitors around downtown without clogging the streets with cars.

They like that the electric vehicles are energy-efficient and cut emissions. Advocates say they can spur economic development and promote tourism.“It’s a transportation choice that we can’t afford to overlook,” said Steve Ernst, executive director of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “They’re becoming popular, and the technology has gotten to the point that it’s affordable now.”

I really like the way they are thinking about the future.

“If someone gets dropped off at a downtown train station, how do they get from that train station to their ultimate destination?” Morrissey said. “If it worked before everybody had an automobile, maybe it’ll work for us again.”

With a population of 150,000 can this small city turn things around downtown by planning for future commuter rail and that connecting to streetcars downtown? I for one would love to be able to take Amtrak to downtown Rockford and then hope on street cars. Hopefully they keep pushing forward to see if this is a feasible plan.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Increased population in Philly

Philadelphia has always been one of the great east coast cities in my opinion. While it has always been in the shadow of NYC, it has some great housing stock, excellent walking neighborhoods, some good parks, and a mass transit system. It has the foundation to be a great city once again, but Philly has been a city with declining jobs, population, and lack of political will to make the needed changes.

It seems good news that the new census shows that population has increased in Philadelphia.

For the first time in 59 years, the city of Philadelphia actually increased its population in 2008, according to an official annual estimate made for metropolitan areas. That was the decision by the U.S. Census Bureau, which accepted a challenge to its previous estimate, one that indicated another decline.

The new number, representative of the city’s population on July 1, 2008, is 1,540,351. That’s about 93,000 more people than the Census Bureau had originally estimated. More importantly, it’s 23,000 more people than the city officially had on its books according the main census from the year 2000.

Congrats Philly, I hope this is a spark for brighter days ahead.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Final LRT station

The Hiawatha LRT line in Minneapolis opened years ago and has been a good success. Some criticize the fact that is goes from downtown to the airport to the Mall of America, not the most traveled route, but it has established LRT in the Twin Cities and successfully. Just this past week this chapter closed in the final station of the line was opened.

"It serves a section of the Airport South district that we hope will become part of a new residential neighborhood," said Larry Lee, director of community development for the city. "It's especially important for residents, but ... tourists and business people [also] have the option of getting around by LRT instead of riding in a car."

That vision of a community built around transit is already a reality at the Reflections condo development by Bloomington Central Station, Lee said. Many couples who bought homes there have gone from two cars to one and some are living with no car at all, he said.The new American Boulevard station is the only one of the Hiawatha line's 19 stations to have a split platform for north and southbound trains.

It is great to see the Hiawatha line completed. Now we just have to make sure the central corridor line makes it to the light of day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Green Homes

This NPR story talks about the need and market for green homes, but who is buying? It is always ironic that new windows and more energy efficient appliances get a home "green." The reality is that some older homes, because of design, placement, windows, and porches are and can be more efficient than new homes that have a few key features.

"I would notice things like a 1920s house with all of its original appliances, heaters, windows, all of that. And then another 1920s bungalow that had a high-efficiency furnace and Energy Star appliances," says Lacher. "And they were selling the same [price] per square foot, and that just made me really upset."
I think we need a new term; Green lite to label these homes. Yes, some homes are better off in the green realm than those that have made no improvements at all. But is it really fair to call a regular with some improvements Green, when some real and serious high efficient homes are being done.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Trolley line that never was

Great video about Ben Franklin Bridge leading into and out of Philadelphia.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Strasbourg, France: a Paradigm Shift

Ben Adler over at Next American City has this great post about Strasbourg, France. In about twenty years they went from a car dependent system to a mass transit city serving a city with a population of 700,000, the size of many American cities.
Most important, the system has been built and expanded with an understanding of the commuter’s psychology. Once people are in their cars, they would prefer to drive all the way to their destination rather than switch modes. So the city has created powerful incentives for suburbanites to switch from their car to the tram: Parking is provided at suburban tram stations, free with a tram ticket that covers everyone in the car (also incentivizing car-pooling). Conversely, parking is prohibitively expensive at the lots downtown. As a compromise with the business community, parking garages were constructed in the center city, but they are elegantly tucked away below ground, and are not even full.

In keeping with this approach, the city intends to improve integration between the suburban commuter trains, which enter the main station just a few tram stops from the heart of town, and the local tram system. One might expect that to be enough to get people out of their cars. But, Naas explains, if you live, say, a 30-minute drive from central Strasbourg, and you must drive to the train station and park, wait for a train, walk through the train station to the tram stop, wait for the tram and then walk from the tram to your final destination, it may take an extra 10 minutes door to door. So to improve ridership on the commuter trains they are building “train-tram,” a suburban commuter train that can move seamlessly onto the tram tracks once in the city. No transferring for suburbanites will mean less hassle, less time and, hopefully, more riders.

What I really like about this article is it demonstrates that with the political will things can change. I also like that Strasbourg was, and still is, open to different types of transportation to complete it's network. In America we get stuck on a the magic bullet (high speed rail these days) but forget to look at the bigger picture of how auto use, buses, light rail, commuter rail, walking, and biking all need to be planned for in one network. In the Twin Cities, we still tend to plan for these things separately not making the logical connection for the user. Hopefully Strasbourg can be a model for some of us to look at to make the needed changes moving forward.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

They call it a come back

The Infrastructuralist provided the above image that shows all the potential and proposed street car lines by regions. It is amazing that 50 years ago many of these same regions had extensive street car networks. Fast forward 50 years and we are back to where we started about 100 years ago. The difference now is that these lines have to be built with the current environment. The days of neighborhoods and commercial corridors popping up along street car lines are long gone. Instead we now have to make sure these new lines mesh in with the current urban fabric. A much more difficult task for sure.
Here is a link to the local plans here in Minneapolis.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Is Blight the New Eminent Domain?

Diana Lind at Next American City has this great post talking about how "blight" is now being used as a tool for urban renewal. I deal with this issue a lot in my day to day work, but this really gets to the issue of who is defining blight and for who? Usually projects that are initiated in the community, or have strong community support, never tread down this path because they don't have to. Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn is a great example of not getting community buy in or input early on and had resulted in law suits. When the word blight is used, nine out of ten times it is because someone from the outside is moving in.

While I would agree that there is much vacant land in the Atlantic Yards area, that there is an “inadequate street layout” and other problems, the fact is that the neighborhood is fairly vibrant nonetheless. And while I think that the train yards could be revitalized, I don’t think that other buildings, where people currently live and don’t want to leave, need to be taken over. Is the definition of blighted problematic or is the whole concept of eminent domain the problem? I’m curious to know if there are lots of instances when non-controversial eminent domain usage radically transformed a neighborhood into a much better place.

This is not to say blight is not a real factor in redevelopment and new projects. What is really key is that blight be determined by the community, because blight can take many different sizes, and one size does not fit all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Is Community Development Dead?

It seems with the current economic crisis, states and city's budgets, and the foreclosure crisis that community development work would be a top priority. With a long history and past community development corporations (CDC) have been able to make positive and long term changes in all different communities. Yet, today when they are needed most it seems that public and private support no longer agrees.

Noel Nix, an urban planning student at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, has spent the last several months examining these issues and has compiled a report entitled "Community Development at a Crossroads: CDCs, CCIs, and the Future of an Industry". It is required reading for anyone who has a stake or interest in exploring how to move the work of building healthy neighborhoods forward.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I am still not sure why PRT gets any attention. So it is not a car, but yet private. We have PRT, it is called the bicycle. Listen to the NPR segment here and read the article here. I think we miss the boat with PRT:
Steve Rainey is a sales representative for ULTra, the company that's building Heathrow's PRT. He can see a day when people will choose pod transit over driving alone. "It has gone for me from this journey of being a weirdo pushing exotic technology to more acceptance and more doors opened," he says.

But would people really switch to a driverless pod?

Jon Carnegie, executive director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, thinks so. He says energy prices over the next decade will have an impact on the way people choose to travel.

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 it 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. Oh, I almost forgot, we'll need some white paint.

By rethinking how our 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.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Downtown Ann Arbor

What makes a downtown district appealing? Why do people go out of their way to walk down one side of the street and not the other? Using the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan as a case study, this exploration of successful downtown streets weaves together pedestrian interviews with footage of streetscapes and sidewalk behavior to show what healthy blocks have in common.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Transit Freedom

Todd Litman over at Planetizen has this excellent article about automobility and freedom. He does a good job of illustrating the loss and gains from an auto focus land use pattern.
For example, is it possible that some motorists would actually prefer a transport system in which walking, cycling and public transportation were more convenient, attractive and affordable, so they could rely more on these alternatives for commuting, and to reduce their need to chauffeur children to schools and recreational activities, or senior parents to medical appointments and shopping?

In many situations, alternative modes provide more freedom than driving, because they are affordable and impose minimal costs to other people. A transportation system maximizes freedom by offering a diverse range of mobility and location options, so people can choose the combination that best meets their needs.

Automobile-oriented transportation systems and land use patterns tend to reduce freedom in many, sometimes indirect and subtle ways. Wider roads and increased motor vehicle traffic volumes and speeds tend to degrade walking and cycling conditions, which also reduces access by walking, cycling and public transit. Dispersed land use patterns, with individual buildings with large parking lots located on busy arterials and highway intersections are difficult to access without a car. Investments in roads and parking facilities reduce the funding available for alternative modes, resulting in a cycle of reduced service, declining ridership and reduced service. This causes major losses of freedom for anybody who, due to physical, legal or financial constraints, lacks unlimited ability to drive.

As Litman points out, is automobile use the new cigarette?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Energy, Windmills, and Electric Cars (the Denmark Way)

Denmark has always been a model we looked to for some great urban infrastructure. Now they are trying to get electric cars as the main fleet on their roads. In a country with a transportation mode split we would love to replicate, are they on the right path? This begs the question: Should more money be spent in automobile infrastructure, even if it is for electric cars?

From NOW:
Home to a worldwide summit on climate change in early December, Denmark is setting a global example in creating clean power, storing it, and using it responsibly. Their reliance on wind power to produce electricity without contributing to global warming is well known, but now they're looking to drive the point home with electric cars. To do this, they've partnered with social entrepreneur Shai Agassi and his company Better Place.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Front Yard Driveways No More

In NYC every square inch of land is overvalued. For years home owners have taken it upon themselves to create front driveways by paving over the front yard. This is the worse case of density and auto abuse. In a city with such small amounts of green space, the paving phenomenon has been going on (front and back) for years. It finally looks like that is about to change:

The Department of City Planning has proposed regulations that would restrict certain homeowners from paving over their front yards to create parking spaces, a move that could alter the residential streetscape, especially in boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn.

Responding to residents’ complaints of unsightly concrete driveways and lost street parking, the new rules would restrict so-called curb cuts — the sidewalk indentations created to allow cars to move from the street onto the front yards of houses — and tighten front-yard “planting” requirements. They would also require certain residential building owners to add parking if they modify their buildings.

Like the PlaNYC and other recent Bloomberg administration initiatives, the rules hold the potential for making the city more pedestrian friendly and create more green spaces. But if approved, they would inhibit homeowners who want to carve out parking spaces on their own properties.

Hopefully this new regulation will help the concrete jungle change the way we use space and think about it. Private home owners do have rights, but visual and physical pollution are real challenges that impact the livability of blocks, neighborhoods, and communities.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A new commuter rail, but limited schedule

The North Star line just opened here in the Twin Cities. From most accounts, it has been a huge success. Jill Burcum at the Strib points out one major flaw in the new commuter rail - limited schedule.

But after taking Northstar to work on Monday -- couldn't resist riding on its first official day of operation -- I'm back behind the wheel of my dusty Volkswagen. And with rare exceptions, maybe snowy days that really snarl traffic, that's where I plan to stay. The reason? The state's sparkling, much-needed new rail line has an Achilles' heel barely mentioned during last week's inaugural festivities: its limited schedule.

For those of you not all that familiar with the Twin Cities, our rush hours tend to start early and end early. Downtown Saint Paul can look like a ghost town at 5:30. With that said it seems the new North Star line has followed that schedule as well. While this was a huge negotiating point since the rail is running on a freight line, its seems to be a bit short sighted since some folks actually need to get in later and leave later for their jobs.

By design, it serves commuters lucky enough to have an 8-to-5 schedule who never work late, but few others. If you're relying on Northstar to see the Holidazzle parade, for example, you're out of luck unless you go on a Saturday. On Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, the last train out of Minneapolis leaves before the first light-filled float rolls down Nicollet Mall at 6:30 p.m. Planning to take in the Twins, see the Timberwolves or cheer on the Vikings? Some home games fit Northstar's regular schedule, but a fair number may not. Fortunately, Northstar can run additional special trains to serve sports fans or others attending big events, but only 30 times a year. The Twins alone have 81 home games in 2010.
I am not suggesting that the line run til 10:00 PM, but more like a few departures say 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, and 7:30? The same needs to be said for the morning commute as well. Would that be to unrealistic?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What Make Cities Work?

This is a great segment on Smart City Radio with Carol Coletta talks with Ed Glaeser about what makes cities work. I think Glaeser gets that stable and shrinking cities can't rely on methods of the past to be vibrant in the future:
Ed Glaeser is our first guest, and he is always asking the question, "What makes cities work?" He is a prolific researcher at Harvard University's Department of Economics, and he has challenged the wisdom of the ambitions of shrinking cities to get bigger.

Listen to the show here and another segment here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

BRT and Mexico City

It seems in the US it takes 5-10 years to plan for a major transportation project. Yet, around the world other cities get transit, especially BRT, up and running in just a few years. Mexico City is the latest city to push the envelope and get a BRT system up in a city that is choked with grid lock. The Atlantic has a good article:
The Mexico City Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) System, a public transportation system in the heart of a city better known for its smog, is a novel initiative to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous air pollutants from cars and minibuses, as well as the commuting time for workers, students and others who flood the city each day.

Metrobús also offers a remarkable example of how to put a new transport system into place in a relatively short time, how to foster cooperation over competition in a city known for its rough-and-tumble politics, and how to create a public-private transport system that does not rely on massive public subsidies. In other words, not business as usual

In 2005, a mere three years after planning began, clean, energy-efficient, high-capacity buses began carrying passengers down dedicated bus lanes on Avenida de los Insurgentes, the city's main north-to-south traffic artery and one of the world's longest urban avenues. Since then, expansion of the Insurgentes line and the addition of a second line has resulted in about 450,000 passengers each day riding buses running on clean-burning ultra low sulfur diesel fuel along routes currently totaling 51 kilometers (about 32 miles).
Can the Twin Cities and other US cities learn a lesson here. That with private/public partnership and proper planning we should have new transit in years, rather than decades. While I realize it always sounds easier than it is, we really need to figure out a new approach for planning, funding, and execution for our future transit lines.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Between Blight and Gentrification

Diana DeRubertis over at Planetizen has a good article on retail in neighborhoods. In my daily work we are always challenged by the balance of blight and gentrification. While we want revitalization it still needs to be a balanced approach that keeps the old (retail) and the new in harmony for the neighborhood. Here is the article:

Is there a happy medium between the run-down liquor store and the gourmet shop? What is the best form of Main Street retail, as people move back to the city and re-emergent neighborhoods acquire shops and services that were once lacking?

I’ve lamented the disproportionate number of liquor stores in San Diego neighborhoods that are otherwise revitalizing. Even though these shops also sell convenience items and provide an honest living for their owners, they do little to enhance street life. They could offer much more to their respective communities, both in terms of product selection and storefront design. Given their centralized locations, it’s a shame that they hide from the street (the corner of Main Street, in this case):

These would not have been acceptable retail outlets to earlier generations who relied on streetcars and walking for shopping. To reduce vehicle-miles traveled, the current generation needs easy access to a central market, at minimum.

An ideal replacement for the omnipresent liquor store is an affordable merchant that carries fresh groceries and appeals to a diversity of shoppers. By serving the daily needs of residents, it could become a gathering place that activates the street and defines the neighborhood. What sometimes appears instead is an upscale business that screams “gentrification”, a term that has come to be regarded as an undesirable flip side to blight. Such businesses, on their own, do not sufficiently rejuvenate small retail districts because they offer too limited a product selection for an exclusive group of people. When the local store sells only hand-crafted chocolates, residentswill need daily trips to stores outside of the neighborhood.

The best retail mix is often found in cities and towns that are well connected to a college or university — perhaps because students and professors have a limited budget but selective tastes. Students are also more likely to not own a car, so groceries and good restaurants need to be within walking or biking distance. A number of university towns boast cafes, used book stores, ethnic restaurants, grocery stores, office supplies, pharmacies, and specialty food shops — all affordable and all walkable from campus and residential neighborhoods.

Within these larger or established retail districts, there is a place for everything, including liquor stores and exclusive boutiques. But on Main Street, particularly when it’s the only show in town, the central market should live up to its name.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Commuter Rail in TC - History repeats

From the Star Tribune:
It took nearly 13 years, $317 million and a few political derailments, but the Northstar commuter rail line made its initial run this morning, moving full speed ahead out of Big Lake at 5 a.m.

While those of you in bigger cities that are use to commuter trains might not get all that excited, the new North Star line is a huge deal for the Twin Cities. While the cities have roughly the population of Staten Island, our expressways are jam packed during rush hour because of the sprawl that has taken place over the past 30 years. Honestly, trying to get around outside of St. Paul or Minneapolis without a car is very challenging. The reason being we have little public transit, especially when it comes to commuter trains connecting us to our surrounding suburbs.

The North Star is a great first step in re-establishing a commuter train network that will get people into and out of the city core without driving. Although the North stop goes to Minneapolis only, it will be connecting with the future LRT line that will connect Minneapolis to St. Paul, which is scheduled to open in 2014.

Even though the TC are trailing a little bit, it is great to see the North Star line up and running. You can see a video here and slide show here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parking Minimums = Asphalt Island

There is no such thing as a free lunch, and there is no such thing as free parking. Providing parking requires land, and land requires revenue to pay for its rent. Basic economic theory would have developers providing parking up to the point where revenue raised by last the car park equals the value of the next best land use alternative.

Minimum Parking Requirements (MPRs), by definition, force developers to provide parking above this economically efficient level, which raises development costs, subsidizes private automobile transport over other modes such as walking, cycling and public transport, and provides incentives to develop at low densities, encouraging sprawl.

MPRs distort economic decisionmaking because they do not allow consumers or producers of parking to avoid the costs of parking by providing or consuming less. MPRs inhibit free and informed choice, and they exacerbate social/cultural inequities by redistributing wealth across transport demographics.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Green Streets of PDX

OK, I really like Portland. So much, that it was on the short list of places to relocate last year. Ultimately the Twin Cities won out (I am very happy in my new home). SF Streets blog has this great write up on the streets of PDX. Portland still has its issues to work through, but I like the direction they are heading.

Portland's greenstreet facilities often take up multiple on-street parking stalls and replace the asphalt with beds planted in native species that help absorb significant volumes of streetlevel wastewater, near 100 percent in some locations. Facilities include swales, curb extensions, planters, and infiltration basins, and are typically linear and pool 6 to 9 inches deep [PDF]. David Elkin, a Landscape Architect working for Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), explained on the tour that the first experiments with greenstreet facilities in Portland were necessitated because the city had to meet mandates in a Clean Water Act lawsuit for polluting the Willamette River, which flows through Portland.

The city faced the challenge of increasing the number drainage pipes in east Portland, at a cost of $150 million, or develop another solution for reducing "upstream" water volumes, those that came from surface streets. By adding the greenstreet facility network, which initially cost $11 million, the city met its target stormwater capture and estimated that it saved $60 million in pipe replacement costs.

What I like is that PDX has made these changes with existing space and nothing too radical. I really would like the Twin Cities to take a similar approach on how to create a better environment for all transit users.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Moving on

With time constraints these days I am no longer able to maintain this blog to the level I would like. Therefore, I will be doing all my blogging at TC Streets For People. Check out the site if you haven't already.

Thanks for reading and leaving comments.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The watershed moment

It has happened! Bike Europe is reporting that more trips in Amsterdam are taken by bike then cars.

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands - The bicycle is the means of transport used most often in Amsterdam. Between 2005 and 2007 people in the city used their bikes on average 0.87 times a day, compared to 0.84 for their cars. This is the first time that bicycle use exceeds car use.

In 2006 the inhabitants of Amsterdam engaged in some 2 million trips a day, an 8% reduction compared to 1990. This is due to the number of trips per person per day falling from 3.6 to 3.1%. The number of transfers has fallen in the old city within the ring road in particular.

The number of trips by car, compared to 1990, has fallen in all districts (-14%), whereas the number of trips by bicycle has only risen within the ring road (+36%). The bike is used most often in the town centre (41% versus an average of 28%) and the car least often (10% versus an average of 28%). This can be attributed to the restrictive parking policies enacted here since the 1990s.

Dienst Infrastructuur en Beheer’, the infrastructure department of the city registered approximately 235,000 car movements in both directions at the city centre in 1990; by 2006 this had fallen to 172,000, a decrease of over a quarter. Over the same period the number of daily movements by bicycle rose from 86,000 to over 140,000 (+60%).

Which US city will be the first to achieve this?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Central Corridor Comments

Can we envision a future that creates transit for all users?

Biking on the Sidewalk: the two tier system

Tim Halbur is asking the hard queions over at Planetizen. Are there two types of cyclists? This has been a point of conflict within the bike community and skews the discussion on what infrastructure and network is needed to accommodate both. Below is Tim's post:

I am a bicycle commuter in Los Angeles, which on the face of it is a pretty tricky proposition. The major boulevards here are designed like freeways, and people use them as such. Pico, Highland, Sepulveda, Olympic- these streets were built for speed and make commuting not a little tricky for your serious bicycle commuter.

But there's the difference- I'm not a serious bicycle commuter. I don't shave my legs, seal myself up in neoprene, and take my fixie out zooming like a Tour de France athlete. My bike of choice is an Electra Townie, a sort of more flexible cruiser with a big cushy seat and a not insignificant weight. I'm lucky that I live only 1.5 miles from work, so I can take it easy, ride slowly, and enjoy the show as I roll past the La Brea Tar Pits.

So should I,at 10 mph tops, be forced to compete with the cars on streets like La Cienega? At a Los Angeles Transportation Committee meeting last week, the committee began to propose just that (LAist). Many people don't know that as the law currently stands, bicyclists are A-OK on the sidewalks of Los Angeles County. As long as you don't show "willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property." And in my experience, pedestrians are always willing to scoot over for a cyclist, and do not see them as nuisances. I try to be as courteous in return, slowly edging up on people so I don't freak them out, and using my bell quietly when necessary.

I submit that there are really two classes of cyclists, and they naturally sort themselves out on the roadway. Faster commuters on road bikes use bike lanes and weave through traffic because the sidewalks are too slow for them, while bikers like me use the sidewalks because it's safer and can easily navigate any obstacles at our slower speeds. And each type is suited for their chosen environment.

Bicycle planners, what do you think? Can we create a two-tiered system?

I'll admit that I fall into I'll ride in traffic any old day camp, but I do realize the need for safe and secure on street space to accommodate all cyclists. What I have always thought is that it should be safe enough for a family to be riding along, then we know it is right.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Top Biking Cities

Travel and Leisure cover the top biking cities around the world. It was good to see Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis on the list.

Open the garage, grip the handlebars, stand on the pedals, and go. That’s all it takes for Joseph Duffy, a graphic designer in Minneapolis, to start his morning commute to work. But what lies ahead—a 15-mile route starting on converted railroad beds in the suburbs and ending on the dedicated bike lanes of the city’s downtown core—is a trip made possible only by a decade of planning to make the city fully compatible with two-wheeled transit.

Like many of the world’s best biking cities, Minneapolis has built an infrastructure that promotes bicycling on many fronts. From bike lockers and designated street lanes to recreational trails and snowplows dedicated to clearing off-street paths, a system exists to make transportation on a bike efficient, safe, and hassle-free.

Check out the slide show here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is smart growth working?

From Planetizen:

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy spent two years looking at smart growth policies in a number of states to see how well they've achieved their goals. Gregory K. Ingram, President of the Institute, explains the results.

Two years ago, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy began to gather 21 leading researchers to analyze the empirical evidence on smart growth, choosing four states – Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and Oregon – that all declared formal statewide smart growth programs through legislation, executive order, and otherwise. Using the 10 Principles of Smart Growth as a reference, this group addressed five important smart growth policy objectives: promoting compact human settlement, protecting undeveloped land, providing a variety of transportation options, maintaining affordable housing, and achieving positive fiscal impacts. Though smart growth policies have been around, in the case of Oregon, for nearly four decades, this kind of comprehensive, objective-based evaluation had never been done.

What we found was somewhat sobering. No state was able to make gains in all five performance measures. Success was more limited and reflected each state’s areas of high priority. Maryland was successful in protecting natural resources through its land preservation programs and state funding for the purchase of farmland conservation easements. New Jersey’s affordable housing policies that responded to state supreme court decisions slowed house price escalation and encouraged rental and multifamily housing production. Oregon's commitment to urban growth boundaries helped reduce development on farmland in the Willamette Valley and encouraged commuters to use transit, walk, or bike to work.
Read the op-ed and the report.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The New Paris

Check out this great slide show and article in the NY Times Magazine.
One of the first things Sarkozy did after he moved into the Elysée Palace was to convene a meeting of prominent architects and ask them to come up with a new blueprint for Paris. “Of course,” he said, “projects should be realistic, but for me true realism is the kind that consists in being very ambitious.” His job was to clean up the city’s working-class suburbs, and at the same time build a greener Paris, the first city to conform to the environmental goals laid out in the Kyoto treaty.

The results, a year later, may be the beginning of one of the boldest urban planning operations in French history. A formidable list of architects — including Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel, Djamel Klouche and Roland Castro — put forward proposals that address a range of urban problems: from housing the poor to fixing outdated transportation systems to renewing the immigrant suburbs. Some have suggested practical solutions — new train stations and parks — while others have been more provocative, like Castro, who proposed moving the presidential palace to the

Monday, June 22, 2009

77 mode of transit, but no gas car

I am sure most of us have thought how would I travel around the country if I didn't need a car. Train or bike touring seem the two obvious answers. Boaz Frankel has been using any mode transit he can. This Minn Post article gives you the details:

Boaz Frankel is an adventurer. The 26-year-old Portland resident adventured his way to the Mall of America Wednesday, which may seem odd or at least not very adventurous, until you learn how he got to Bloomington.

Light-rail, most recently. Before that: walking, Amtrak, sailboat, scooter, kayak, crop duster, horse, hang glider, fishing boat, dog sled, camel and hot-air balloon. And more varieties of bicycles than Dr. Seuss could imagine.

The sharp-eyed among you will note that automobile does not show up on that list. And that's his shtick — 77 forms of transportation and counting, but no Ford, Chevy or Lotus Exige in the mix. He's also trying to avoid major highways."What does a car mean?" he said. "I decided four wheels or more and runs on gas — it's a car." He's been in electric cars and a vegetable-oil-powered ambulance.

With the right transit improvements Mr. Frankel should be stepping off one mode of transit onto another seamlessly w/ bike in tow.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hit and Run in NJ

Via the comments section of Streets Blog:

The man gets hit and cars continue to keep driving. WOW.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why we love car-sharing!

Great article in the NY Times:

Environmentalists have long hailed car-sharing as a more efficient, less polluting approach to urban driving.

For example, a 2006 survey done for CommunAuto, a Quebec car-sharing organization, found that each shared vehicle replaces eight individually owned ones, leads to an 1,800-mile reduction in distance driven per year per member, and resulted in up to a 44 percent reduction in fuel consumption.

A 2003 study of San Francisco’s City CarShare program found that fully two-thirds of members deferred car purchases.

And, as if the automobile industry didn’t have enough to worry about, a growing number of North American cities are also looking to leverage car-sharing benefits by allowing high-rise condo developers to reduce their underground parking requirements if they agree to provide on-site spaces for commercial or nonprofit car-share companies.

Having launched a review this week of its condo parking regulations, the city of Toronto appears to be about to join Seattle, Vancouver and San Francisco in moving to a system that would specify the maximum number of dedicated car-share vehicles inside apartment buildings, as well as a regulated threshold for eliminating individually owned spaces.

Car-sharing is much more established in Europe, but the World Car Share Consortium says the trend has now caught on in about a thousand cities worldwide.

Some of the larger North American players, like the 275,000-member Zipcar, are targeting university campuses and corporate customers with on-site vehicles, while large rental chains like Hertz are moving into a business described by Mark Levine in the New York Times Magazine as “both a burgeoning cult and a bright business story in a grim time.”

According to an I.B.I. Group car share study published in March for Toronto, a 250-unit building with 16 car-share vehicles in Seattle may eliminate up to 47 parking spaces. In Vancouver, the same building could have four car-share vehicles, and 12 fewer spots. San Francisco, for its part, mandates car-share vehicles in larger residential and commercial buildings, but doesn’t allow developers to reduce on-site parking.

Kevin McLaughlin, the president of Autoshare in Toronto, said he has seen a proliferation of condo parking spaces for sale on Craig’s List in the past 18 months — a sign that high-rise dwellers are increasingly going car-free.

That trend points to the need for looser parking regulations for developers, Mr. McLaughlin said. “If we’re building our cities for the next 50 years, we’re not going to need one or two cars per condo unit locked in the basement.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Big Dig II

Remember the Big Dig? Boston dug a huge hole to sink an expressway to deck it over and create a park. A very expensive solution to accommodate automobiles. Well, New Jersey Transit is about to embark on part II.

New Jersey is going to build a tunnel to get its residents into Penn Station in Manhattan and it will only cost $8.7 billion. While new transit access is desperately needed for commuters into Manhattan, this project just seems a bit out of scope. Are there really no viable alternative solutions?

From NY Times article:

New Jersey officials have been planning the next train tunnel under the Hudson River for so long that it is already on its third name. This month, work is scheduled to begin on the Mass Transit Tunnel — formerly known as the Trans-Hudson Express and, before that, Access to the Region’s Core — more than 15 years after it was conceived.

The Hudson tunnel was designed to help ease the jam-packed rides that rail commuters from the west have long endured. New Jersey Transit, which runs as many as 23 trains an hour through a century-old tunnel into Pennsylvania Station in New York, has said that it is nearing maximum capacity. The riders of those trains share Penn Station with passengers of the Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak.

The project, however, does have environmental costs, and would “destroy between 19 to 25 acres of wetlands and open waters and approximately 112 acres of upland natural areas including 1.7 acres of forest,” according to a decision from the Federal Transit Administration.

Some mass transit advocates have insisted that the tunnel connect to either Penn Station or Grand Central Terminal, or both, to be useful to many of the commuters. Others have argued that the proposed station, 18 stories below ground, will be too difficult to evacuate in a fire or other emergency.

Is the tunnel going to be worth the costs?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Portland Effect

In the US Portland is the model most turn for public transportation. Unlike the rest of our fine cities, in the 1970's Portland redirected highway dollars towards mass transit, specifically light rail. In the late 90's/ early 2000 they got the street car running through downtown. Portland is a huge success and great model. This model has come full circle as many small and mid-sized cities are starting to take advantage of the advantages of LRT. Here are some excerpts from NY Times article:

The project in Carrollton is among many nationwide to be planned around new and existing light rail lines. These so-called transit-oriented developments, along with downtown revitalization plans, tap into a move toward more pedestrian-friendly, urban-style living. While the credit crisis has halted many housing developments — notably subdivisions and stand-alone condominium buildings — some projects that are going forward are linked to broader revitalization or transit-related efforts.

Urban-style development may be the brightest spot in a generally gloomy market. A recent survey of developers and investors by the Urban Land Institute for its annual Emerging Trends in Real Estate report found that urban redevelopment had the best prospects among all types of housing, while urban mixed-use properties and town centers scored high among niche property types. “These are the places that will be creating and holding value,” Ms. Poticha said. She said proximity to public transit could raise property values significantly.

Are we finally seeing the key connection between transit and housing. The drive to qualify model is no longer viable. Will TOD be forced development because in our current and future economics it makes the most logical sense?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Urban Argiculture in St. Paul

Urban Agriculture is going to be our future in most metropolitan areas. In St. Paul one man is trying to get a head start with stimulus money and local support:

For one thing, he's not a farmer. For another, winter isn't exactly peak growing season in Minnesota.Hannigan runs a produce distribution business on Rice Street and plans to build a hydroponic greenhouse on his property to grow fruits and veggies for local folks. An urban farm, he calls it, that would use alternative energy, employ St. Paul residents and provide tasty, homegrown produce.

"I can sell it -- I can't grow it," Hannigan said. "But I'll find somebody who can." He has been talking to a lot of people lately trying to make his urban farm idea a reality. The St. Paul City Council recently gave its support to the project, which is awaiting final approval from the federal government of $500,000 in stimulus plan money.

I really hope he gets some of the stimulus dollars. In my mind this is exactly what is was meant for and will help ignite the local economy and provide fresh produce for a neighborhood that has been the victim of disinvestment for years.