Archive for transportation

Stimulus and Suburbia

A number of urbanista bloggers have expressed disappointment with President Obama’s stimulus package and its focus on road infrastructure over transit (and tax cuts over transit).

As vehicle miles are declining and dense urban areas gentrifying, advocating for better transit certainly makes sense from a long-term planning perspective.

However, I think there is a good argument to be made that focusing on stimulating suburbia will be more likely to give the economy the boost it needs right now.

First, if road infrastructure improves, driving will be easier (at least temporarily, but that’s the only concern right now).  While gas is cheap, the combination of better roads and cheap fuel might encourage automobile sales — even sales of big motor vehicles still sitting around in dealer inventories .  And the last thing the Treasury and the Politicians and taxpayers who support the Big Three auto bail out would want is for those companies to go down anyway because no one bought the cars.

Second, if road infrastructure improves, then the unsold housing in suburbia might be more attractive.  Most of the unsold housing in outlying suburbs is low density, so wouldn’t support transit well.

Third, White House encouragement of better fuel efficiency standards and investment in greener automotive technology could help prolong the era of the individual automobile, and therefore suburbia.   At least, I see this as a hope in the policy — that the American car-centred way of life can continue but in a more sustainable way.

If I’m right, the stimulus package is partially designed to support the suburban way of life.  The question will be whether this can turn into something sustainable, or is just postponing the inevitable collapse of this economic and social way of life.

Another concern: if gasoline prices roar back to mid 2008 levels quickly, this could undermine the whole stimulus plan.

Is infrastructure spending the answer?

Many North American cities face crumbling infrastructure along with a need to offer residents new mass transit options.  During the current economic slow down, the conventional wisdom seems to be that investing in infrastructure is a win – win, offering short term employment and long term needs.

But, what if many of the people needed to design, manage or build the infrastructure are not available?   Or, only available at premium salaries and contracts.   What if the heavy machinery and resource inputs needed are not locally produced?  Will the stimulous still work?  Will this put to work the people who are unemployed?

These are questions raised by a recent Globe and Mail article by Tavia Grant. 

The knocks against infrastructure are that it is not as labour-intensive as it used to be, tends to employ many more men than women and, these days, requires skills in engineering, technology and architecture that are already in short supply, critics say.

“A lot of this ethos of infrastructure-equals-jobs comes from the 1930s when you put a lot of guys to work digging ditches and shovelling gravel. And we don’t do that any more,” said Dr. Jim McNiven, professor emeritus and former dean of management at Dalhousie University….

“If you want to create jobs, as opposed to buy equipment, you do daycare expansions, more help in senior citizens’ homes and more community services. And you need to be more imaginative.”

He’s not alone in his skepticism. As Canadian employment losses mount, questions are emerging over what will best bolster job growth as the employment outlook deteriorates.

While America may have a few more unemployed engineers than Canada right now, I think these challenging questions are still relevant.

Maybe Obama’s interest in community service offers an equally valid approach — consider it investing in America’s “social infrastructure.”

Transit should be an essential service

A transit strike has afflicted Ottawa — Canada’s capital city — for over five weeks.   Ottawa usually has a fairly good transit system, relied on by many people who have chosen not to have a car (or a second family vehicle) as well as those who cannot afford one.

People who have made the ecologically and/or economical choice to drive less have been held hostage by the strike, being waged during the height of winter with temperatures around -30.  Seniors, parents with young children, and others who cannot handle time in the bitter cold and use transit are stuck at home.    Presumably many people are struggling to get to work — and they will think that decision not to own a car.  The economy of Ottawa is no doubt suffering because people can’t get out.

In North America many urban planners, leaders, and  everyday citizens have been trying to reduce congestion, pollution and promote transit use.

But, if residents cannot rely on the transit,  they won’t give up their cars.  If oil returns to $137/barrel and gasoline to $1.50/litre in Canada or $4/gallon — or more — in the US, many more people will rely on transit — as will the city’s economy.

City and regional governments need to think ahead here.  Transit should be considered like electricity or fire fighting — an essential service.

Reinvention of the Lada

Moscow, 2002:  During my visit I noticed that the city streets contained a strange mix of automobiles.  The police and government as well as many taxi drivers drove fume-spewing  small Ladas that seemed to have a top speed of around 40 mph.  Meanwhile, the new wealthy as well as (or including?) the criminals drove fancy imports, with BWMs being the most popular. 

The message was clear — if you could afford it, you did not want a Lada.

The Lada, for those of you too young to remember, was the Soviet Union’s car for the masses (also known as AvtoVaz or Zhiguli).   Although the government-owned company made a few different varieties, the FIAT-inspired box was the most common.  The Lada has had only limited success outside of the former-soviet block, likely for the dual reasons of poor quality and aesthetics.

As it appeared in 2002, the only way for the company to stay alive and continue to provide jobs to the masses who build them was for the government to be the main buyer.

I fear the US government and General Motors are re-inventing the Lada.

Thinking ahead… (my social-economic science fiction effort for this year-end).

Washington DC, in the year 2015: – all police, and government vehicles will be built by General Motors.  Private citizens will be driving the likes of Hondas, Toyotas and of course, BMWs.

Actually, in any American city, you’ll be able to spot a police or government vehicle.  It will lack both quality and esthetics.   While the other companies will move forward in their designs, GM will remain stuck in the 1990s and just as Ladas do today, those vehicles will “stick out.”

Because of the massive jobs involved, the goverment is likely to become a major shareholder in GM.  As investors, they will soon realize that the consumer generally doesn’t want their vehicles.  So, in order to keep the company afloat, or otherwise justify their investment,key government officials will lobby (and event demand that) any tax-payer funded service that uses motor vehicles only buy GM products.

Once GM obtains a captive market for their products, their innovation will fall further behind the competition, and sales to the public will fall further.  To keep the jobs alive, GM then engineers the 1-year disposable vehicle that works great until 40,000 miles, and then breaks down forcing the purchase of another vehicle.

Is Congress bailing out suburbia?

There’s a lot going on this week in Washington DC and the economy.  It’s challenging to follow all the strands and interpret the econo-speak and political-speak in terms of what it actually means in the big picture.

I may be off base here, but could one not interpret the current plans as bailing out the suburban American way of life — propping it up?

First, the automotive industry is also receiving their corporate welfare cheque.  Atlantic Monthlyeconomic writer Megan McArdle picked up on this.  Sneaking through under the shadow of the banking bail out is a gift to the big three auto makers of a $25 Billion low interest loan. Her analysis:

Yes, I favor intervention when it looks like there’s a risk of a really severe recession.  But there is no such rationale here, not even arguably.  It’s pure pork, with a soupcon of economic nationalism thrown in.  If the Big Three can’t make autos people want to buy, then they should liquidate and open up the market to those who can.

The big three auto makers have built lobbying for roads and freeways (and the resulting way of life) part of their business plan.  While other global companies make cars to fit more compact cities and higher fuel prices, the big three lobbied for cities to be built around the car.  Here we go again.

Second, the banking bail out may also involve propping up suburban living — that’s where the houses in default are.  If the tax payers become stake holders in a bailout, they may collectively become owners of thousands of distant suburban homes that only have value if automobile travel and highways remain subsidized by the US.

Have I had too little sleep lately, or is anyone else seeing an implication for cities of these plans?

Parking and cities

Few things can make a street feel less engaging and less safe than a parking lot or stand-alone parking garage.

In most cities, new buildings — whether private homes or office towers — must offer a certain amount of off street parking. But are those minimal standards too many in an era when transit, walking, cycling and overall less driving is becoming more common and even essential?  Do parking spaces enhance or detract from a neighborhood?  Probably depends on the neighborhood.  There is increasing discussion on city and planning blogs as well as in the press about the relationship between parking and creating livable urban areas — or should I say the inverse relationship.

For many businesses and retail or restaurant entrepreneurs, something that frequently stops them getting their dream business open is city hall demanding more parking.  The most ludicrous bylaw on parking I’ve heard is in Vancouver — and I doubt it is a-typical.  If you want to open a restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol, you do not need to provide parking.  If you want to serve alcohol, you need to provide off street parking.

As reported via Planetizen on MSNBC there is an article describing how a number of planning departments in North America are starting to make exceptions.

Alice and Jeff Speck didn’t have a car and didn’t want one. But District of Columbia zoning regulations required them to carve out a place to park one at the house they were building.It would have eaten up precious space on their odd-shaped lot and marred the aesthetics of their neighborhood, dominated by historic row houses. The Specks succeeded in getting a waiver, even though it took nine months.

D.C. is now considering scrapping those requirements — part of a growing national trend. Officials hope that offering the freedom to forgo parking will lead to denser, more walkable, transit-friendly development.

Opponents say making parking more scarce will only make the city less hospitable.

If a city is less-hospitable to drivers needing to park, is it “less hospitable?”  Are neighborhoods built before the automobile “unhospitable” or are they different and even walkable?  And, if they are “less hospitable” why are real estate values holding in many such areas while falling elsewhere? Again, from MSNBC article:

“Half the great buildings in America’s great cities would not be legal to build today under current land use codes,” said Jeff Speck, a planning consultant. “Every house on my block is illegal by current standards, particularly parking standards.”

This suggests that revitalizing older neighborhoods might mean returning to their roots — walkability — rather than trying to make them fit the automotive era.  Indeed, this is happening:

In Milwaukee, one of a small group of cities that has eased minimum parking requirements, did so because they were impeding redevelopment of struggling neighborhoods, said John Norquist, the city’s mayor from 1988 to 2004.

The MSNBC article is worth a read.  The author raises the dilemma between making a city work for cars and work for people, which are not mutually exclusive all of the time.  Even people who live in walkable neighborhoods want to get around by car sometimes.

But this doesn’t mean automobile use should come first in city planning.  Designing cities around places to park large empty metal shells appears to be coming to an end in some municipalities.

Edge city growing pains

In the past couple weeks there have been (at least) two excellent blog posts about “edge cities.”  Edge cities are small cities or large towns interconnected with and attached to a larger metro area like a suburb.  Unlike bedroom communities, edge cities contain business parks as well as homes and significant retail space.

I expect we’ll be hearing much more about edge cities in the coming years.  They have the potential to offer people more affordable homes — and perhaps more space — than living in prime urban areas, but unlike many suburbs sometimes have the density to offer walkable neighborhoods (now or in the future), a variety or retail and restaurant locales, and rapid transit to the larger metro area’s business districts, as well as significant employment and business opportunities themselves.

Right now, we’re starting to see edge city growing pains.  In particular, the challenge of making these places slightly more urban, with higher density housing, retail and restaurants, which in turn will support more transit.

Dave Atkins of the Dave Writes Blog (and a book reviewer for All About Cities) offers an interesting summary of what’s coming to his edge city of Westwood, outside Boston.

Westwood is a town of almost 15,000 located on route 128 about 13 miles southwest of downtown Boston. Developers have just broken ground on Westwood Station, a 135-acre mixed-use, transit-oriented Smart Growth community—and an attempt to, in one massively-planned effort create a new mini-city. Its advocates describe a new urbanist utopia. But the fault lines of change are many:

  • The project is seen as a long term solution to local financing needs—a cure for the cycle of suburban property tax overrides necessary to keep schools funded. But the current economic downtown may jeopardize everything.
  • A significant number of residents oppose the scale of the project and feel betrayed by the town. Lawsuits to force traffic mitigation are followed by large public meetings of angry citizens. The project is supported by most, but some fear it will destroy the community as it pits one side of town against the other.
  • Another development, Legacy Place, only a mile away in Dedham, will complement or compete with this project.
  • Within the span of only a few years almost 2 million square feet of new mixed-use development will be completed—on top of two existing towns: Dedham and Westwood—towns that historically were one town. Within a decade, this region is likely to be transformed.

We may be witnessing the birth of a second generation “Edge City.” Can the mistakes of the past be avoided? Will this be a massive suburban sprawl nightmare or a model for the future of urban planning? Will the project integrate with the town or be a separate, tolerated entity?

Atkins asks important questions about what is happening in Westwood, which could also be asked of projects around North America.

Ryan Avent of the Bellows Blog, meanwhile, quotes from a recent article in Mother Jones about how edge cities typically grow until they have enough homes and businesses to create major motor vehicle traffic jams, but then do not evolve further to communities that would support a good transit system.

The density-gap corollary to the laws of density: Edge cities always develop to the point where they become dense enough to make people crazy with the traffic, but rarely, if ever, do they get dense enough to support the rail alternative to automobile traffic.

Of course, in any attempt to increase density, anywhere, numerous local residents often fight against it.  Sometimes for good reasons, but often for the wrong reasons — wanting to stop any change at all.  This creates growing pains.

Future transit oriented retail developments

When more people are taking mass transit, it creates new challenges and opportunities for offering urban retail conveniences.

Recently Richard Layman offered a good discussion of what might be ahead:

Picture the following scenario: Mr. or Mrs. suburban Anoka pulls into the parking structure adjacent to the train station along the Northstar Commuter Rail Corridor in Anoka. It is 6:50 a.m. He or she has 10 minutes to complete some errands and buy some essential sundries before boarding the 7 a.m. train headed for downtown Minneapolis. He or she can buy coffee, a breakfast sandwich and a newspaper before boarding the train.

If there is extra time, the same transit rider could drop off dry cleaning to be picked up later, leave the car at the nearby “convenience auto” stop for a wash and an oil change and deposit the toddlers at day care or pre-school.

The transit commute home in the evening presents more possibilities. How about a take-away, prepared food counter where a broasted chicken or take ’n bake pizza could be secured for the evening meal or a “mini-fitness” workout locker room?

Of course, the challenge with these “transit station marketplaces” is attracting customers and patrons during the midday hours when the train volume and passenger traffic will be at their low point.

 It seems that transit oriented “park and ride” stations as described by Lehman (who lives in the Washington DC area) may face the challenge of not having an adequate “daytime” population to patronize restaurants and retail.

Perhaps a key to future transit stations will be ensuring enough people live there or nearby.  For example, combining the concept of a transit station with a lifestyle centre complete with condominiums and townhomes.  Or, putting park-and-ride transit stops in existing”town centres” or satellite city downtowns seeing a renaissance could help.

Putting at Transit-Oriented retail development in the middle of a low-density suburb sounds like a recipe for retail failure, which could also lead to a failure to attract more transit users as going to an abandoned mall is far less appealing than going to a “happening place” full of people.

Transit needs some creativity

Despite rising fuel prices, agonizing congestion, and depressingly large portions of lives wasted in commutes, public transit is typically not viewed as a desirable choice in the United States. And most cities transit systems are woefully incapable of handling a significant increase in demand anyway.

The present situation presents a challenge and an opportunity for North American cities and society in general.

Most transit systems are crowded as well as uncomfortable for long commutes and frequently much slower than driving.

What if all that changed? Would more people take transit?

What if people with longer commutes could sit in a luxury coach, fully stocked with amenities, including:

  • Wireless internet (like the google bus in San Francisco)
  • A personal TV with a variety of programs (as on many airlines, especially in business or first class)
  • A comfortable tray table for your lap top, with a plug in
  • A cup holder for your morning latte
  • Free newspapers and magazines
  • Maybe even a bathroom

Imagine, you could check your e-mail and get some work done. Or, you could catch up on last night’s Letterman or Colbert Report, or a BBC news cast or world business report. This wouldn’t be wasted time, necessarily, unlike sitting in traffic in your own car.

What if for shorter commutes people could choose a ride in a comfortable smaller vehicle with a guaranteed seat but perhaps fewer amenities?

What if for all commutes people had a choice of services, as they do with air travel.
I think more people would get out of their SUVs for this than for what is currently offered.

But, these more comfortable transit options would not be cheap. The only way a private sector corporation could offer them would be if everyone had to pay the costs of building and maintaining the roads. The government would have to offer a level playing field and not subsidize single-occupant vehicle commuters.

If tax payers generally did not subsidize them to the same level as today, it could open up space for some creativity and entrepreneurial spirit (which the USA is famous for).

If driving 40 miles on a freeway cost a solo driver $20, each way ($40), plus gasoline (say $20), plus parking at the destination (say $15), then paying $20 each way for a seat on the luxury coach might be a more viable option.

Of course, transit system monopolies (sometimes attached to government-union agreements) would also have to end to bring this in.

But, look at the potential. Here are a few more ideas:

  • With mobile and internet technology, you could buy your ticket 10 minutes before heading out the door once you know you’ll be ready and confirm there is a seat for you.
    • Or you could advance book tickets, catching the 7 AM bus every day.
  • What if these luxury coaches departed from certain Starbucks (or equivalent) locations in the suburbs?
    • You could buy a latte and have a clean, safe place to wait. A bus company rep might even be in there with a mobile device to check you in.
    • As some suburban areas become higher density, this Starbucks might be at a Lifestyle Centre near peoples homes (walking distance or a park-and-ride situation).
  • What if some downtown workers who lived in suburbia could make extra money driving a nice coach into town. Presumably, there will be a need for some buses to drive in and stay until the end of the work day. An enterprising person could get his or her bus driver license and earn an extra $50 per day (and not have to pay their own commuting costs).
  • On shorter commutes perhaps different companies’ buses would be en route and you could check availability by mobile device and book a seat, catching it at a designated location. From the same mobile devices the driver would know whether to stop or not.
  • With competition among several commuting providers in a given metro area, service would be good. Creativity would be essential. Someone might offer regular customers Friday afternoon TGIF happy hour, for example.
  • One company might offer “business class” seating and “economy class” seating, similar to the airplanes.

If only some creativity could be unleashed.

Consider: Almost everyone takes commercial airline flights, even many people who can afford their own private jet. Airlines offer first class options, private lounges, complementary beverages, better food, etc. at a higher price. And there is considerable competition between airlines to offer these services. In wealthier Latin American countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Argentina, competing companies offering luxury Mercedes Benz bus service for inter-city travel attract numerous people who could afford to drive their own vehicles. But with toll roads and higher gas prices, along with the comfortable bus service, they don’t drive themselves. The cost-benefit assessment weighs toward taking the bus.

 Addendum:  Marco’s comment reminded me of another point.  More people will take metros or trains, the latter often offering a nicer class of service.  But building train and metro infrastructure if it isn’t there is very costly.  By contrast, a premium bus service can use the existing roads.

Roads: not just for cars anymore

 Using roads only for motor vehicles is wasteful.  As gasoline prices reach record highs and increasing numbers of North Americans embrace higher density living, allowing roads to be more than conduits for cars needs greater consideration.

Special events would be a place to start.

Today (Sunday) in North Portland an entire region of the city is going “car free” allowing pedestrians and cyclists to monopolize the streets. 150 blocks will be closed to motor vehicle traffic for six hours. Residents and visitors are expected to mingle, enjoy free events in the parks such as yoga classes, and enjoy the fresh air.  Portland’s event is modeled after one in Bogota where 2 million people come out on car free day.

I doubt that many will enjoy Portland’s day, in part because I doubt the combination of public transit and the roads could get that many people to the area.  But I expect it will be popular nonetheless and if it becomes an annual event — or even more frequent — it would draw more people each time.

Last weekend Vancouver had four car-free festivals in the city, each closing about an 8 block long stretch of a commercial/retail street. The traffic jams in the blocks around some of these areas were unbelievable — particularly the one in my neighborhood.  Many people clearly drove to car free events.  But, the events were packed.  There would definitely be popular interest in having a whole community car free.

We also can’t forget the spontaneous ones in which jubilant citizens take over the streets. In Germany — and probably much of Europe — soccer fans are joining together in the streets to watch and celebrate their team’s performances during the Euro 2008 soccer championships.

Perhaps these car free events will lead more city governments and residents to consider permanently closing some streets, making them pedestrian malls.  Or, if not every day, then maybe every Saturday or Sunday.  Allow the restaurants and cafes to add seating, creating a European-like sidewalk cafe culture.   Allow other retail and food sales to happen on the street.  And leave space for buskers.

Roads: lets see them put to use for community building and turn some cities from car-tropolis into places for people.

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