Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Who's afraid of Livable Streets"

Good news- Sandy more or less left us OK-  no basement flooding, and no branches on the house.  The power flickered a bit, but we had it the whole time, which is more than some people can say!   I didn't ride today, partly because I got a flu shot and am feeling pretty cruddy afterwards,  and partly because I wasn't sure how bad the rain/ branches/ wet leaves would be.  I can see sunlight from my office window though, so it's going to be a decent day I think.

There's a good lecture this Wednesday (Halloween)  with Paul Steely White from Transportation Alternatives in NYC, and Aaron Naparstek  at Harvard's Kennedy School.

from the announcement:

Paul White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives and Aaron Naparstek, founder of Streetsblog… “Who’s Afraid of Livable Streets?”   
Wed, Oct 31   Taubman (HKS) 401, 4:30-6:00  [Note: If Sandy causes a cancellation, we will send out an email on Wed.]

Cities around the world are reversing decades of automobile-oriented planning and policy and redesigning streets to prioritize the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. Yet, despite successful efforts and a growing body of evidence of economic, public health and environmental benefits, political opposition to Livable Streets is deeply entrenched and difficult to overcome. 
For the last ten years, Paul White and Aaron Naparstek have worked to bring transformative change to the streets of New York City. In this Halloween session they will explore the myths and realities of American urban planning and transportation policy and provide advocates with tools to frame the argument, scare away the Livable Streets bogeymen, and create change in their own communities.

I would really like to go see this, but my week is likely to be too crazy for me to leave work early enough to get there for a 4:30 lecture.   It sounds good though, so if you're closer, you should really try to go by.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Beacon St: Volunteers Needed, and express your support

Related to yesterday's post,  Livable Streets Alliance and the Boston Cyclists Union are doing customer surveys on Beacon St Somerville to help determine how people get to Beacon St,  and what they do along that corridor.   We suspect that there are a lot of people who arrive here on bikes and by foot, and that that needs to be acknowledged in the planning process.  In order to do that we need volunteers to stand on the street and ask people to take a very quick survey.

I'm volunteering for both the times this weekend- Saturday from 4PM  to 7PM and Sunday from noon to 3pm.  We really need volunteers for this.  Please contact me at bikinginheels  (at)  yahoo (dot) com  if you can help out.

Unfortunately the businesses in the area where parking will be partially removed are organizing to stop the project.  They are meeting the Director of transportation on Monday night October 29th.  The survey is being pushed forward quickly partly because of the weather (and the possibility of the great winter winnowing)  but also so that we can have results before this meeting on Monday.
Again,  please consider volunteering, as we'd like 8 volunteers, and currently we have 2.  We need a minimum of 4 for continuity of the results.

If you bike down this corridor, and if you stop in the local businesses,  please try to express to them when you stop by that you bike, and that you are their customer just as much as people who arrive by car.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Biking and Business- Part 1

In the last couple of weeks I've been thinking a lot about bicyclists and businesses.

At the rate we're adding bicycle facilities in the Boston/ "Camberville" area, we're going to run out of low-hanging fruit pretty quickly.  We'll add bike lanes where there's plenty of width, and toss sharrows around with abandon,  but soon we'll start to run into places where there's demand for real cycling infrastructure, and to truly make that infrastructure safe there will have to be a reduction in automobile infrastructure.  There is virtually nowhere in this area where the solution is just to add a couple of feet of width to the road.

And increasingly the issue is going to be bicycle space vs car parking spaces.  Parking is at a premium in the Boston region,  especially in the winter, where you regularly hear about fisticuffs breaking out over the poaching of a space laboriously cleared of snow.  Very few urban neighborhoods have much in the way of driveways and garages, and businesses with off-street parking lots are probably a minority, at least in the close-in areas.  Parking garages are expensive, and on-street parking is underpriced,  giving people incentive to circle endlessly looking for a virtually free spot instead of paying $10-$20 or more to park in a garage.  On street car-storage on public streets is a subsidy for automobile drivers,  as each car takes a couple of hundred feet that could dedicated to a wider sidewalk, or a bike lane, or both.  Difficulty in parking does gives people an incentive not to to drive to downtown areas at all,  and a lot of what gives such areas their charm is the pedestrian scale and the hustle and bustle of people in these neighborhoods. When tourists from Dallas come to downtown Boston they're not there to see the parking lots.

But businesses are convinced that parking is an absolute necessity for their survival,  and they will fight anything that potentially limits that parking.  At the meetings I was at for both the Beacon Street reconstruction and the Longwood area/ Brookline Ave bike facilities,  there was a direct tradeoff between parking and bike facilities.  On Brookline Ave, they are taking spots at the Park drive end,  but closer to the hospital, where traffic is worst the bike lane dies away to only sharrows so that there can be 5 parking spots in front of the Dunkin Donuts and the gym.  No matter that my guess is that 95% of the patrons of those businesses arrive there on foot, because they're already in the area.

On Beacon, at rush hour, even without a bike lane, and with crappy cratered pavement, there are as many bicyclists as cars- an amazing statistic.  Beacon is a pipeline between the cheaper residential areas in Somerville and Arlington and the high-tech jobs in Kendall,  and the throughput on that pipeline is enormous.

All those people going down Beacon, whether in cars or bikes, need milk and laundry soap, maybe sometimes a pair of shoes or a birthday card.  They eat dinner in restaurants,  get coffee,  go out for drinks.  Yet we dedicate a huge amount of public space to parking cars near the businesses that provide these things, but very little of that public space to facilities which create a minimum standard of safe access to these businesses for bicyclists.

The question is, how to convince business owners,  in many cases in dense areas, small business owners that reducing street parking is not a negative thing for them?    In Part 2 of this post, I want to address the statistical arguments,  why those arguments are not necessarily helpful,  and open the field to discussion of how bicyclists can be noticed and counted as consumers.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Strong towns recap

I went to the Strong Towns lecture on Monday night (even though I had to miss the 2nd Beacon Street meeting),  and found it very interesting.

Charles Marohn is the founder of Strong Towns, and the thesis of his talk was that local government gets into a vicious cycle where road (and utility) construction  is offered as a technique for promoting growth in unimproved areas (often with federal initial investment),  Invariably these projects do not produce enough growth ( he had lots of case studies and scary cost numbers)  and property/sales tax revenue to cover the costs of upkeep and eventual replacement of the infrastructure, and the government is left holding the bag for these ongoing costs.

In the face of vast local financial crises in mid-sized towns throughout the nation he had the following suggestions

1)Stop any new expansion projects, because if you don't have the money to cover your existing liabilities, you don't want to take any new ones on.   Federal and state money often make such projects look more financially appealing than they actually are when you think about the long term costs.

 2)  Take stock of existing liabilities and infrastructure.  He said that it's shocking how many towns have no idea how many miles of road/ pipes/ sidewalks/ lights they have.  If towns were run like businesses, they would know these things and think about the lifecycle costs.  (There has been an increasing movement to government 2.0 which does take these things into consideration, but it may not have trickled down to smaller towns, and it's incompletely applied even in places like Boston and NYC)

3) Do Triage on what you can continue to maintain.   Politically it's difficult to make hard choices, but if you develop a rational system for evaluating what infrastructure you can continue to maintain, and what you have to give up. Detroit is the poster child for this discussion.

A funny detour during this point was his definition of a "Stroad"   A "Stroad"  is a street-road hybrid.  The picture he showed was instantly familiar to me as a child of the midwest,  but similar examples in Boston are Comm Ave from BU to Packards corner,   Huntington through the museum district, and Rt 9 coming into Brookline Village.   A "Stroad"  is a hybrid of Street and Road which does neither job well.  The  infill on both sides,  seems to imply the walkability and density of a traditional street,  but the oversized scale of the road (designed to highway standards for going fast from point A to point B  makes it impossible to easily cross the street, and unpleasant to walk alongside it.

 4) Commit only to new projects that actually add value.  He had lots of interesting examples of both boondoggles ( most publicly financed sports stadiums)  and of the financial advantages of density.  Lots of new-urbanist stuff about the value of streets and how good armature creates dense neighborhoods with high value development.
His most famous example (which is discussed in great detail on the website) is that developments which have reached the "end" of their lifecycle,  cannot depreciate any further, and therefore they are actually a good source of value relative to new shiny  projects.  I.e.  a crappy old 1950's strip mall isn't going to get any worse, so it's actually more valuable to leave it and keep collecting low property taxes than to tear it down and create a new lower density development that requires tax subsidy.  It's the "never buy a new car" approach.

5) Re-evaluate priorities and Systems.  Again with the government 2.0,  with an emphasis on smart systems, and a de-emphasis on huge projects with a zillion consultants.  There's a catch 22 that infrastructure is so big and permanent that no-one wants to make a mistake,  and therefore no-one wants to take a risk, and projects get bloated with consultants and process.   He had an interesting example of DIY infrastructure in Memphis
and a very interesting idea of a "Land Tax"  instead of a "property tax".   A land tax would be on the value of the land, not on the improvements to it.  Depending on where you set the land values highest (he would obviously do so in downtown areas), there would be no penalty for adding value to the land, and a significant cost for letting land in dense areas lie fallow.

After the lecture J-- (one of our Women who Brunch)  asked a question about the politics of public input on projects, specifically about the public opposition to maintenance of Bowker/ Mc Grath, and the Mass DOT insistence on going forward. Mr Marohn said that this speaks to point #5.  The current system is not set up to consider the relative costs of dynamite and a new at-grade road vs the incremental costs of upkeep, and is not in tune with the value in the density of a neighborhood like that around McGrath.   The system is equal parts about a pipeline of status-quo and expansion projects, and a crisis response to emergency maintenance,  and that things will not really get better until the system is re-thought.

His area of expertise is small mid-western towns that leveraged a dense city center into a sprawling suburban infrastructure.   Many of those towns are in severe financial crisis, and reading between the lines, he feels that out of the crisis, a completely new approach to public infrastructure will arise.  It's not completely parallel to what we see here in Boston,  but it's interesting to think of in this context where Mass DOT is clearly not responding to the will of the community.

A very interesting lecture, and I highly recommend a visit to Strongtowns.org,  where there's a really interesting "curbside chat"  of talking points about the economics of  "the suburban experiment" and the financial sense of traditional dense downtown development.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strong Towns at MIT

A bit of a last minute warning, but Charles Marohn from the excellent organization "Strong Towns"  is speaking at MIT at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning Monday night at 6PM
Information can be found here.

If you're not familiar with Strong Towns, you should really check it out.  It approaches "livable streets" through a development and economic lens.  It's also largely focused on a kind of town-  one with a pre-war center, but which has increasingly become dominated by automobile infrastructure- in which many people despair of creating livable streets.  The tone of the site is aimed at civic leaders and city planners, and I believe that Mr Marohn is a civil engineer, and I believe that he has experience from the "other side" of the table.

In Boston, the density creates a lot of easy arguments for non- automotive transportation. It will be interesting to see the rational arguments (as opposed to the sentimental ones of the new urbanist movement) for density in a more suburban/ small town context.  Aaron Naparastek will be moderating a discussion after the talk, and I think it will be a very interesting conversation.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Catching up

So it's been over a week, and I realized that I never reported on the Bike for Life.
I was planning to ride out to the start in West Newton, about 10 miles from my house.  But when I woke up at 7am, it was raining pretty hard, so I'm afraid I rolled over and went back to sleep, and got the Scientist to drive me out to the start.  Thanks to the quick release front wheel, the Shogun is much easier to take in the car than my other city bikes, which makes it easier.

Unfortunately the best way to describe the ride was wet.   The weather ranged from drizzly and damp, to pretty steady rain.   I wore a normal pair of unpadded shorts and a tunic-dress with a hip-length rainjacket, but the bottoms of my shorts and tunic got pretty wet over time.

I only did the 20 mile ride, and I was pretty glad, because I was getting cold by the end.  The route took us from West Newton, through Weston, and up into Lexington and back down to Weston.  It was pretty, but it was hard to focus on the scenery because of the rain.  I rode along with a group for a while, but I needed to go a little faster to keep warm.  The Shogun is so much lighter than my ordinary bikes-it's amazing how much faster it can go.

At the finish the organizers had brought in hot drinks- which was a great help.  I had a dry pair of wool tights and changed into them, and put on a mid-layer fleece under my rain jacket.   The wool tights made all the difference, and I was warm, even though I wasn't moving any more.

I stayed at the BBQ for a half an hour or so, enjoying food provided by Trader Joe's, and chatting with other Livable Streets volunteers and riders.  

I did ride home, despite the ongoing drizzle.  I took the route along the Charles river path, and I had it all to myself thanks to the weather.  30 miles under my belt, a hot shower, dry clothes and some hot tea later, I was happy and warm and felt like I'd accomplished something with my day.

I want to thank the readers who sponsored me, and let people know that it's still possible to donate to livable streets using the button below until October 17th -my birthday if you're looking for something to get me :) .

Monday, October 1, 2012

Important meeting Thursday

"traffic" on Longwood Ave c. 1920

I've had to bike to Brookline/ Longwood Medical area a couple of times in the last months.  I'm a confident, experienced biker, and even for me it's an unpleasant experience.  Traffic is bad, busses are weaving in and out, there's no bike lane, and drivers frustrated by the traffic do stupid, unpredictable things.   I can't imagine anyone who wasn't a fairly confident biker being able to ride in that area.  

But they badly need to increase transportation options   It's very difficult to drive there, the Green line barely keeps up with demand,  and the Masco busses can only do so much.
They could bring a lot more people in and out of the area with safer bike facilities which would encourage more people to at least explore the option.

Boston is having a meeting to discuss adding bike lanes to Brookline Ave, one of the one ways in and out of LMA.  This would require removing a number of car parking spots,  which means that some people will oppose it as a knee jerk reflex.   Boston Bikes has asked bikers to turn out and support the lanes to demonstrate that the needs of the many bicyclists who use this public space outweigh the desires of a handful of people to have parking spots.

The meeting will be Thursday October 4, from 6pm to 8Pm in room 306 of Dana Farber's "Yawkey Center"  450 Brookline Ave.  Some more info here
If you bike or would like to bike to the LMA, please consider attending and adding your voice to those asking for safer streets.