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.

Metrob├║s 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.