Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Call for Contributors and Guest Bloggers

WalkBikeCT was started to promote walking and bicycling as viable transportation options in the state of Connecticut through thoughtful, entertaining, and sometimes incredibly opinionated, posts.

As WalkBikeCT continues on its mission, we need your help. Connecticut is a small, but incredibly diverse state, and we certainly don't know all there is know about the important transportation issues in each and every town, city, and region. That's why we're making a call for contributors and guest bloggers. The format is flexible. You can send in videos, short blurbs, long form articles, opinion pieces, you name it! The only requirement is that your submission pertain to walking or biking - a touch of local flavor is always a plus. Naturally we'll review each submission for clarity, quality, and relevance.

You may request to go for the glory and be listed as the author of your submission, or you can post anonymously, if that's your thing. So if you have an interest in walking, biking, or sustainable transportation in general, fire up your laptop and write a piece for WalkBikeCT. Send any and all submissions to WalkBikeCT (WalkBikeCT at gmail.com).

And for all you bloggers out there, we'll even submit a guest post for your blog for each post you submit to ours.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

DOT "Hooks Up" Cyclists: A step in the right direction

Jason Stockman posted the following message to the Elm City Cycling listserv today from Connecticut DOT Rail Administrator, Eugene Colonese:

The Connecticut Department of Transportation and Metro-North Railroad
are pleased to invite you to try out the recently installed bicycle
hooks now being tested on a pair of M7 rail cars. They will be on
display in Grand Central Terminal on Tuesday, January 6, 2009, from
12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. Bring your bicycle and try the hook.

The newly installed bicycle hooks are being testing for intended use
on the new M-8 rail cars soon to be delivered for the New Haven
Line. The Department is seeking feedback from the cycling community
in its effort to safely and efficiently accommodate bicycles on
trains. The track assignment will be sent to you early next year.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Very truly yours,

Eugene Colonese
Rail Administrator
(203) 789-7189
At long last the Metro North cars will have a place to store bicycles. This is a huge step in the right direction. Much respect to ECCer Jason Stockman as well as Richard Stowe of RailTEC for all the hard work they did to make this happen. I'm sure I'm forgetting a number of people and groups, so to all of you who spent your time and energy to bring this about, I tip my hat.

For those of you wondering why enabling cyclists to bring their bike on the train with them is so important, take a look at yesterday's post.

Now that the Metro North cars will be able to easily and efficiently carry bikes, the next step is to get Metro North to do away with the myriad restrictions it places on anyone who wants to bring their bicycle on the train. Check out their byzantine policy here. My favorite is condition C, which basically says that you can bring your bike on the train, except of course when any Metro North employee decides you can't.

Monday, December 29, 2008

First Things First

It seems like everywhere you look on the transportation blogosphere people are talking about transit, rail mostly. Commuter rail, high-speed rail, light rail, freight rail, electric trolleys, etc. These are the massive infrastructure investments that are going to help us succeed in revitalizing America and building a greener more sustainable future, paid for by Mr. Obama and his trillion dollar stimulus package.

You don't hear a whole lot about massive investment in biking and walking infrastructure, in streetscapes and bike paths and greenways and sidewalks. Most experts will be quick to agree that such plebeian modes of transportation can't possibly begin solve the transportation woes of the 21st century. Walking and biking?!, that's nice and all, but it won't really help our ailing transportation system. It won't ease congestion on our highways or connect people with jobs. For that we need things like high speed rail at a cost of at least three to six million dollars per mile. That's a low estimate, by the way, published by a rail advocacy group.

You see, all these experts are one hundred percent dead wrong. We should be making massive investments in infrastructure that supports and encourages walking and biking before we spend a single solitary dime on mass transit.

Before all you rail fans jump down my throat, bear with me for a moment, I'm on your side. For any transit station, or transit system, to truly succeed you need top-notch bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Planners, engineers, and policy makers tend to forget that you need to actually get to a transit stop in order to use the bus, train, or trolley that's going to pick you up. Typically, you need to walk or ride your bike to get there. You could have the best train service in the whole wide world and it wouldn't do you a bit of good if there wasn't a safe and comfortable way to get to it.

You could of course drive to the transit station, as so many Metro-North riders in this state do, though this creates problems of its own.

First, instead of having housing, shops, parks and offices within walking distance of the station, you get oceans of asphalt so you can park all the autos that bring in the commuters and their precious fares. This creates an ugly, inhospitable, environment for everything but cars, and on a more practical level, it forces cities and towns to devote much of their valuable, taxable land to parking. Not exactly a best use.

Second, even if you do decide to drive to the station, you can't bring your car with you on train. Hell, Metro-North won't even let you bring your bicycle on. Most of the train stations in Connecticut are in suburbs and are essentially platforms poking up out of parking lots. This means that unless your destination is New Haven, Bridgeport, Stamford, or New York, you can take the train in, but you're pretty much stuck at the station. Oh, and most of the job growth in this state is in the suburbs now, so yes they do matter, and so do their train stations.

Third, under this scenario, you're not really taking cars off the road, the oft-cited benefit of transit. You're just shifting automobile trips from highways to local streets, as drivers all pour into the train station parking lots. Sure the trips are shorter, but the increased idling and stopping and starting caused by traveling on congested town roads means that there isn't as much of a reduction in auto emissions as you might think.

To be sure, our highways are congested, dirty and inefficient. We need more rail links to enable faster and more reliable travel between towns and cities, to replace short flights, to get more trucks off the road. There are innumerable benefits to having an extensive and effective rail network.

In way, the experts are right, we need more rail, more buses even. A lot more. However, investing in transit without first creating a world-class bicycle and pedestrian network is an absolutely ridiculous proposition. It's splurging on the big things without nailing down the little ones, the low-hanging fruit. Let's make sure that our train stations are accessible by bicycle and on foot whenever and wherever possible before we start spending big bucks on new rail amenities. In other words, let's worry about getting people to the train station before we start wringing our hands about how fast the trains go and how new and shiny they could be if only we spent a couple billion dollars more.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Top 5 Walkable Places in CT

Despite the best efforts of the Connecticut Department of Transportation and most local planning and zoning commissions there are, in fact, quite a few walkable areas in Connecticut's towns and cities. Steeped in rich history going back long before the auto age, many places in this state retain a charming character that can only be achieved when places are built on a walkable, human scale. Here are my picks for the top five walkable places in Connecticut's towns and cites.


5. Orange Street, New Haven

Orange Street was the first street in the Elm City to be striped with a bike lane. Residents in this part of the city take their streets very seriously and on any given weekend be seen walking, jogging, and biking in record numbers. Add in the on-street parking, slow automobile speeds, and wonderful architecture, and you've got a grade A street. Be sure to check out the Italian markets while you're there!







4. Church Street, Guilford


Church Street in Guilford connects Route 1 to Guilford's town green. Its beautiful old houses press up close to the sidewalks, and the street itself is narrow with relatively few cars on it. Best of all, there are actually things worth walking to! One of these is the coffee shop, Cafe Grounded, a great little cafe with outdoor seating. Further down, you hit the Guilford town green, where you can find an array of shops including a small grocery store, and the Broken Spoke bike shop. Church Street in Guilford reminds you about what's great about living in New England.





3. Essex Village, Essex


Essex village is a remarkably well-preserved old New England ship-building town. Because it was built at time when walking was not a form, but rather, the form of transportation, Essex Village is pedestrian friendly without even trying to be. It's a great place to spend a day or weekend walking around just enjoying the sights. There are restaurants, interesting independent shops, cool little pocket parks, and of course a great view of the water.





2. Atlantic Street, Stamford


In a city where most downtown streets are wide enough to double as landing strips and pedestrians are usually people walking from the parking garage to their jobs in banking and finance, Atlantic Street is the rare exception. It is a relatively narrow, tree-lined street, and is characterized by buildings that complement and enhance its charm. The on-street parking buffers the pedestrian from automobile traffic and the trees provide a sense of enclosure and security. The store fronts come right out onto the street, inviting the pedestrian to take a peek inside. The streets are studded with sculpture, including some oddly realistic human figures, from Stamford's yearly summer exhibitions. Altantic Street gives us hope that Stamford, Connecticut's fastest growing city, knows a good thing when it sees it, and will work to create more great streets as it continues to develop and transition from an overgrown suburb to a real, and livable, city.



1. Chapel Street, New Haven

It should come as no surprise the Chapel Street in downtown New Haven snagged the top spot. New Haven's city plan department really nailed it when they implemented an arrary of pedestrian improvements on this street. They narrowed the automobile lanes, added bump-outs to shorten crossing distances, and widened the sidewalks to provide space for outdoor seating and open-air retailers. Additional streetscape amenities such as old-fashioned street lights and brick pavers really make Chapel a great street in anyone's book. On any given day, Chapel Street is crowded with locals, students, and out of towners, all enjoying the finest public space in the city. Where else can you find great bookstores, coffee shops, and museusms all within a few easily walkable blocks from each other?


These are my picks, but i'm sure there are many other great "walkable" streets in this state. Send in your favorite streets, with photos preferably, and I'll add them to the list!


Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Bad Name for a Good Job

As part of their deal with the Federal Highway Administration, each state is required to have a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator, someone charged with overseeing the development and implementation of programs and infrastructure designed to improve the transportation network for cyclists and pedestrians. A lot of progressive cities, most notably Portland, also have bicycle and pedestrian coordinators. And the number of American counties and cities with bicycle and pedestrian coordinators just keeps growing. In the last several years, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee , and numerous other towns and cities have hired bicycle and pedestrian coordinators.

The League of American (LAB) Bicyclists' Bicycle Friendly Communities program, the most recognized rating system for a city's "bikability", strongly encourages cities to hire bike coordinators. In fact, when New Haven applied, and failed, to get recognized as a bicycle friendly community by the LAB, one of the strongest critiscisms was that the city does not have a bicycle professional on staff.

To its credit, the Elm City did receive an "Honorable Mention" from the LAB, which to my knowledge, is more than any other community in the state received. New Haven may even have been the only one of Connecticut's 169 towns and cities to even apply for the Bicycle Friendly Community award.

So, an increasing number of cities are hiring bicycle and pedestrian coordinators and the League of American Bicyclists is encouraging this trend. This is good news, right? Well, sort of. The states and towns that have bicycle and pedestrian coordinators have done themselves a real disservice. That title, coordinator, has got to go. Coordinator is the title you give the camp counselor who oversees the ordering of arts and crafts supplies, or it's the BS position a company creates (Environmental Coordinator) when they want to show the world how "green" they are without actually doing anything other than hiring an intern who spends 20 hour a week telling people to recycle and to stop printing their emails.

To0 often it's a title given to someone to get them to take on extra work, without actually paying them more. It's a crap title. It doesn't mean anything, and signifies no real sense of authority or power. We all know that the Federal Highway Administration could really care less about bikes and pedestrians, which of course is why they required all states to create bicycle and pedestrian coordinators, rather than say, Planners or Engineers specializing in bicycle and pedestrian issues.

This is not to say that the people who work as bicycle and pedestrian coordinators, aren't well-qualified professionals, most of the time they are. Roger Geller, Portland's Bicycle coordinator has a Master's degree from Tufts and has received numerous accolades for his work in helping Portland to become the cycling mecca it is today. That's just it. These jobs are serious and often require extensive skill sets in fields as diverse as urban planning, civil engineering, public policy, and marketing. The city of Philadelphia had a hard time finding a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator recently, eventually settling on Charles Carmalt, a man with over 35 years of experience in the transportation planning field, who spent the last 9 years running his own consulting firm. This is a man who is an established professional, someone who deserves a title commensurate with his experience, knowledge and ability.

The point is, cities and towns that value cycling and walking as the economic and efficient forms of transportation that they are, need to attract qualified professionals to help them realize their vision of a balanced transportation system that serves motorist and non-motorist alike. The first step toward this goal is to give bicycle and pedestrian positions a title that denotes some degree of power and respect. "Coordinator" does not. Cities like Portland and Philidelphia, have managed to attract talent to this positions in spite of their unfortunate titles. These are, however, first-tier cities, whose name alone means something on a resume or in a title. Smaller cities like Stamford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, can't rely on sheer gravity of place in the same manner. Most professionals won't openly admit it, but people do not want the word "coordinator" on their resumes. To often, it's a career cul-de-sac, unless you end up somewhere like Portland of course. With a title like "coordinator", you will, too often, end up with inexperienced kids fresh out of school, or worse, those individuals at the bottom of the transportation field.

If we want highly skilled professionals filling these positions, we need to offer them jobs whose title will be a highlight and not a scar on their resumes.

There are plenty of appropriate and attractive titles Connecticut's cities can choose from should they decide to hire a bicycle and pedestrian professional. "Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation" is one. "Director of Sustainable Transportation" is another. The possibilities are endless, and almost all of them are better than"coordinator".

The point is, we don't have to give bicycle and pedestrian professionals a bullshit title simply because other states and cities have already done so. Hopefully, Connecticut's towns and cities will come around and follow the lead of other cities across the country in hiring bicycle and pedestrian professinals. And, hopefully, they'll have the good sense not to call them coordinators.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Critical Mass

Off to Critical Mass, a bike ride through the streets that happens the last Friday of each month. More to come...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Walk in the Neighborhood

Most people around the state will sit down enjoy a big meal at some point today. Afterward, they will likely sit around, sleep, or plop down in front of the TV. While tempting, this type of activity, or non-activity, will just sap your engergy and contribute to an expanding waistline. By all means, we should relax and enjoy the holiday, no need to go to the gym or take a spandex-clad bicycle ride. There should be a balance though. Take a Christmas day walk. Your body will thank you, and the TV will still be there when you get back.

So if a Christmas day trip to Planet Fitness is not your thing, then give a walk a whirl to get some enjoyable holiday season exercise and activity. A Christmas day walk can be a great follow-up to a big breakfast or brunch.

A lot of neighborhoods in this state aren't really set up for walking. Newer suburban neighborhoods often have thirty-foot wide roads and cars often travel in excess of 40 mph. Add in a lack of sidewalks and zoning codes that forbid the construction of anything like a cafe or convenience store that you might actually want to walk to, and you have a lot of residential streets that people live on for years and experience them only from the inside of a car. Today though, is a great time to walk on most any street. Traffic is low or non-existent in many places, and the few drivers that are out probably aren't drunk just yet.

So go on, take walk this afternoon on your street. The weather's good and you can bring friends and family with you to make it a social outing. You'll experience your neighborhood in a new way, and maybe even see a few of your neighbors. When you get back to the house you'll probably feel a little perkier than you did when you left.

Go on, try it. Start a new tradition and take a holiday walk.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We Don't Compete

This was posted to the Elm City Cycling listserve today. It pretty much says it all. I'm just not sure if I should laugh or cry.

It seems that whether you choose to buy a car from the Big Three or not, or even if you don't buy a car period, GM & Co. will still find a way to take your money.












Source: AdFreak.com




Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Path of Desire

Walking around in the snow got me thinking about an interesting phenomenon we've all observed: the desire path. This is simply a path that has been worn into the landscape through the repeated footsteps of human beings. It's the most organic and natural transportation facility in existence.

In the fresh snow blanketing Connecticut, it is easy to see where people choose to walk, and what routes they take. The most popular paths are usually the most well-worn, where the snow is most packed . You can often see desire paths even without the snow to highlight them. Someone posted a whole bunch of these on Flickr.








Photo by Kake L Pugh

Available on Flickr: here

Desire paths are paths that are not so much constructed, but instead created from continued human use. They are almost always the shortest, most direct, and convenient way for someone to walk from point A to point B. Walking is hard-wired in human beings, and why wouldn't it be? For virtually all of human history it was practically the only way anyone got anywhere.

Despite lifetimes spent in cars we haven't lost this basic instinct for intuitively finding the quickest and best walking routes between here and there.

This is precisely why it's so utterly ridiculous to hear people complain about pedestrians not crossing the street in the crosswalk. And complain they do, just see my recent post about Hamden Police arresting students jay-walking on Whitney Avenue. Millions of years of evolution have blessed us with the gift of being able to find our way on foot in a manner that is direct and comfortable. Asking pedestrians to base their movements soley on the aribitrary guidlines of traffic engineers and some paint on the road is like trying to ask teenagers to stop having sex. It's a nice idea in theory, but it's just not going to happen. Never has, never will.

The practical solution is to create pedestrian facilities where people actually want and need them. And one of the ways to find out where people actually want and need to walk, is simply to look for desire paths. Rather than telling pedestrians where we think they ought to walk, let's find out where they do walk and plan accordingly. In other words, next time you're driving and you see a jaywalker, don't think "they should be in the crosswalk", but instead think about how to make that crossing safer. After all, walking was the original form of travel, cars are just recently arrived guests on the transportation scene.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ice Bike: Not Just for Crazy People

I stumbled upon this great website the other day: http://www.icebike.org/. It's basically a site devoted to bicycling in the Winter. Most people think of cycling as a Summer activity and that's too bad. Cycling is fun, inexpensive, and healthy. We shouldn't just give it up three to four months of the year on account of a little inclement weather.

Whenever you talk about biking as a form of transportation, even those with sympathetic ears will often moan: "Well what about the Winter?". What about it?! That's what the guys at IceBike.org will tell you.

I'll admit, I was more than a little skeptical when I saw this page. In the ice and snow it's hard enough to control a car on four wheels, never mind a bike on two. Throw in the stress from the elements and it looks like biking might just be a Summertime gig after all. After a visit to IceBike, I stand before you a corrected and humbled man.

These fine men and women have it covered. Everything from clothing, to equipment, to riding technique is laid out for you. It's a whole lot easier than you think. There's even instruction on how best to handle different types of snow and ice. What the site lacks in fancy graphics and web video, it makes up for in depth and sheer substance.

After looking at this page, I was sold. I'd be crazy not to bike in the sleet and snow. And for those you who are sitting there worried about the dangers, the folks at IceBike even posted this handy little chart listing the relative risk per hour of exposure to various activities:

                                              Fatalities
Activity per million hrs
-------- ---------------
Skydiving 128.71
General Aviation 15.58
On-road Motorcycling 8.80
Scuba Diving 1.98
Living (all causes of death) 1.53
Swimming 1.07
Snowmobiling .88
Passenger cars .47
Water skiing .28
Bicycling .26
Flying (scheduled domestic airlines) .15
Hunting .08
Cosmic Radiation from transcontinental flights .035
Home Living (active) .027
Traveling in a School Bus .022
Passenger Car Post-collision fire .017
Home Living, active & passive (sleeping) .014
Residential Fire .003

Compiled by Failure Analysis Associates, Inc.


(Appeared in Design News, 10-4-93)

So there we have it. Cycling is less dangerous than scuba diving, swimming, riding in a passenger car, and even everyday living (and yes that is a true statistic, believe it or not). Ah, but what about Ice Biking, isn't that super dangerous? Well no. Check this out:

Winter cyclists report few serious accidents.

There are the occasional crashes but because of extra clothing and a slippery surface to land on, these usually result in less injury than would be sustained by a bare limbed cyclist on dry pavement. Road rash is just about unheard of.

In the winter of 98/99 the ICEBIKE site conducted a survey of winter cyclists with an automated web based survey instrument.

One of the questions asked concerned the worst accident that respondents had experienced while cycling in winter. The results were surprising. These results are replicated below and on the full result page.

Only slightly over 4 percent had ever required medical attention for a winter cycling accident.

Source: http://www.icebike.org/Articles/HowSafe.htm

If you want to try Ice Biking, here's your chance. Meet on the New Haven Green this Friday at 5:30 PM for Critical Mass. It's a slow ride through the streets of New Haven with a great group of people. The perfect chance to sharpen your winter cycling talons.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Silly Students, Streets are for Cars



Fr
om today's New Haven Register:

Jaywalkers on alert in Hamden


HAMDEN — Police are cracking down on jaywalkers in the area of Quinnipiac University.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 11, police saw 10 university students crossing Whitney Avenue in the area of 3307 Whitney, Capt. Ronald Smith said Tuesday. The students were not using the marked crosswalk and one was under the influence of alcohol, he said.

Police issued two infractions for failure to walk within marked crosswalk; seven written warnings for failure to walk within marked crosswalk and one written warning for walking in the road while under the influence of alcohol.

In less than two years, there have been at least five reported incidents of pedestrians being struck by a car within a quarter-mile stretch of Whitney Avenue near Quinnipiac University.
A whole mess of things wrong with this picture.

Pedestrians get hit on a dangerous stretch of road, and the solution the Hamden police come up with is: ticket the pedestrians. That's one of the dumbest things I've heard. Yes the pedestrians are breaking the law by jaywalking, but there's a lot more going on here. What about the drivers? Motorists routinely drive in excess of 20 miles per hour over the posted speed limits on that road. Many of them do so while gabbing on cell phones, also illegal. Why no crackdown on them, Hamden? You ticket the pedestrian who's a danger to himself, but not the drivers who are a danger to everyone else? Way to protect and serve.

Enough with the police though, the problems run deeper than that. Why hasn't anyone stopped and asked why Whitney Avenue is designed like an expressway? It runs through several built up areas, including the area around Quinnipiac University. Even when you do use the crosswalks, it's not much fun traversing Whitney Avenue.

Bottom line: we shouldn't build high speed roads through towns and cities in the first place. If you want to go fast, we have plenty of interstates around here. In fact both Route 15 and I-91 run roughly parallel to Whitney Ave. There's options a plenty for cars. Not so for everyone else.

Here's a thought. Quinnipiac University is likely to continuing expanding in the foreseeable future, the current economic downtown notwithstanding. This means the number of pedestrians in the area is likely to keep growing. Instead of treating pedestrians like criminals, why not make the area around Quinnipiac more pedestrian-friendly?

When pedestrians jaywalk, it's not because they want to break the law, it's because crosswalks are often poorly planned and badly placed. Pedestrians will take the most direct and convenient path that is comfortable to them. That's human nature. If you look at jaywalkers on a given stretch of road, you'll see that most of them jaywalk in the same couple of spots - where it's most convenient and direct. Pedestrian crossings should be created where pedestrians will use them, i.e. in the places where they are already choosing to cross. Right now the general policy seems to be: put in a crosswalk as an afterthought, and if it's not convenient for pedestrians, well that's their problem.

The fact that we see more Quinnipiac Students walking around is a good thing, that last thing we need on Whitney Ave. is more cars. And if there are students walking around drunk, there's some good in that too; it means they're not driving drunk.

So Hamden, arresting drunk pedestrians isn't going to make Whitney Avenue safer. Designing it for all users, not just those who drive, will.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Plow it


This is one of Yale's mini bulldozers used for plowing the sidewalks in New Haven. Pretty cute. Yale plows the sidewalks all around its campus with these so its students can get around. Pretty novel idea.

In virtually every town and city in this state property owners are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses. No one really thinks about this policy much because it's so ubiquitous. It is, though, another example of how this state doesn't value walking as transportation.

I know, this sounds like I'm grasping, looking for discrimination against pedestrians where none exists, but hear me out. The idea that a property owner should clear the sidewalk in front of his/her business or home is absolutely absurd. The sidewalk, like the road, is part of our transportation system. In many urban areas it is a vital part of the system that allows tens of thousands of people to travel conveniently and inexpensively.

When it snows, cities and towns plow their streets. And why shouldn't they? It's public property, infrastructure to be exact, and it's their responsibility. Not the sidewalk though. For some reason this one piece of infrastructure gets passed over like the short guy at the bar. When the city asks citizens to shovel the sidewalk, they're basically asking them to maintain the public infrastructure.

Let's imagine that the cities and towns in this state started applying this logic to other pieces of infrastructure. There's a pothole in the road in front of your house - go fix it, it's in front of your house after all. Or maybe the water main on your street bursts. Get together with your neighbors and start digging so you can patch it up, the city tells you; c'mon it's on your street. Or perhaps the yellow centerline on the street going by your house is faded, better go down to Home Depot and get some paint so you can fix it up.

This of course would be ludicrous. Why should you have to maintain the city's property? You pay plenty of property tax already and anyways, you don't have time for this nonsense. Why then, should you be asked to keep the city sidewalks clear every time it snows? You shouldn't. The cities and towns in this state wouldn't dare ask citizens to maintain streets or gas lines or traffic lights. Why? Because those things are important to them, they're not going to risk leaving it to private citizens who may or may not get the job done. Sidewalks though, that's okay. Those aren't important.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Mighty Pedestrian

I'm going out tonight. Earlier I went grocery shopping. Later on, I went for a beer run. Normally this wouldn't be news, but tonight it is.

Our lovely and mostly suburban state is snowed under at the moment. Most people are confined to their homes because driving right now is stressful at best and downright dangerous at worst. The snow's still coming so towns haven't bothered plowing most of the secondary streets yet. The mighty automobile is, for the moment, held captive by a few inches of white powder.

Compared to a normal day in Connecticut, the streets are dead, empty of the cars and trucks that usually rule them.

For the pedestrian though, this is a minor inconvenience. In the city of New Haven, pedestrians go about their business as usual, albeit a little colder. Unlike their surburban counterparts in the rest of the state, city-dwelling nutmeggers have options tonight that extend beyond a movie at home or some reheated pizza.

They have these choices because the pedestrian is robust, while the automobile is fragile. The pedestrian can, and has throughout most human history, travel in almost any weather and over almost any terrain, while the automobile is resigned to pavement and doesn't much like the occasional storm.

When you design for people and not only cars, you get choices. Inconveniences like a little snow can be taken in stride, no pun intended.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sidewalk Chic - Sexy and Shovel Ready

Sunday night we ran a post about the real lack of progressive "shovel ready" transportation projects here in Connecticut. To recap, a "shovel ready" project is one where the plans are at a point where the project could begin construction almost immediately if only money were available to do so. The first round of the federal stimulus that Obama is planning, is aimed at these types of projects. Sunday night, we chastised the state for lagging behind the rest of the country and not having enough "shovel ready" projects on hand.

Well, we apologize. Along with officials from state agencies and towns all across Connecticut, we failed to see a real opportunity in this upcoming stimulus bill. It turns out we have a whole bunch of transportation projects that are "fired up and ready to go". What are they? Glorious high-speed rail plans? A bicycle superhighway? A new streetcar system? No.

A sidewalk, lots of sidewalks to be exact. That's right, the old sidewalk, the ugly redheaded stepchild of transportation infrastructure. You might wonder, and rightfully so, how building sidewalks could help out the economy. An explanation:

Discovered in a post at The Naked City, Michael Ronkin of Designing Streets for Pedestrians and Bicyclists LLC in Salem, Oregon makes a fantastic case for sidewalk construction in a short but sweet memo to President-Elect Barack Obama. Ronkin makes a convincing argument for sidewalks as a powerful economic stimulus for towns and cities.

Here it is:

You have heard from many about repairing bridges and highways. You have been receiving many 'shovel-ready' wish lists of projects. Big highway projects are rarely shovel-ready; there will always be legitimate environmental and political hurdles to overcome, requiring robust public debate.

However, there are many small-scale projects that require little or no red tape, provide tremendous benefit/cost, and create the greatest number of local jobs per dollar spent: sidewalk repair, infill and construction, and bringing existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance. Sidewalk projects provide many economic benefits for communities large and small:
* Most of the sidewalk cost is labor (60-80%);
* The labor force is usually local; the bulk of the materials (sand and
gravel) can be found locally too;
* The wages are living wages, but not too high for financially strapped communities;
* The minimal amount of design needed can be done in-house or by small local engineering firms.
* Local small contractors can perform the work;
* This provides work for small contractors hurt by the housing downturn, as they are doing less small concrete work for house foundations, driveways etc.;
* These are opportunities to make good use of existing incentive programs such as Emerging Small Businesses, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority-Owned Businesses;
* But most important are the positive results for the community:
* Sidewalks improve property values, make it easier to walk for short local trips, reduce municipal liability for trip and fall injuries, and help make the transportation system accessible to all pedestrians, including those the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to help bring into the mainstream.

The backlog of sidewalk infill and repair is huge in most cities. When I worked as Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I managed a small grant program (approximately $3,000,000/year statewide) that funded sidewalk infill projects. Every year we had to turn away many worthy applicants, as the requests exceeded available funds at a 5:1 ratio.

This memo is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity and practicality. Plenty of towns and cities across this state have incomplete sidewalk networks, which can make walking unsafe and uncomfortable. Many towns, in an effort to cut costs, rely on developers to build their sidewalks. When a development comes in, it is required to construct a sidewalk along the frontage of the property. Of course, this leads to a "Swiss cheese sidewalk network" full of holes that will take decades to fill in, as the town patiently waits for each and every property to be developed or redeveloped. And of course no developer wants to build a sidewalk to nowhere. It's like building a bridge to nowhere, but without government money.

The point is, these towns and cities have the sidewalk plans on the books. They have the specs for the construction of new sidewalks, the available right-of-way, and the public works staff to get it built. They just don't have the money.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Say it ain't so Barack

MARY PETERS: Well, there’s about probably some 10 percent to 20 percent of the current spending that is going to projects that really are not transportation, directly transportation-related. Some of that money is being spent on things, as I said earlier, like bike paths or trails.

That little gem came from George W. Bush's Transportation Secretary in August of 2007. She was being interviewed after the bridge collapse in Minnesota and was trying to explain why a developed country is watching its bridges fall and its infrastructure crumble. Her answer? We're spending all that money on things like bike paths, WHICH AREN'T REALLY TRANSPORTATION. Ridiculous. Where is this lady from, 1950's LA? C'mon, the money spent on bicycle infrasture is pennies compared to the money spent on even one major bridge project. This was grasping at its best. Of course we've come to expect this cold-war era approach to urban planning and transportation from the Bush Administration.

That's why there's been so much buzz in the urban planning and transportation communities surrounding Obama's pick for Transportation Secretary. One of the early names dropped was Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Rep. Blumenauer has made headlines by turning down his parking space in DC and riding his bike to his congressional meetings. He's even ridden it to the White House. Blumenauer was also the key player in getting the Bicycle Comutter Act passed through congress. He's been a champion of walking, biking and transit for his entire congressional career. In other words, he'd be a perfect pick for Obama's Transportation Secretary. He believes in a massive overhaul of our nation's infrastructure and investing in a green economy, two cornerstones of Obama's policy for the economy and the environment.

Another name floated out there was Janette Sadik-Khan, NYC DOT commissioner. I don't know as much about her, but I do know that she's been the driving force beyond New York's cycling and pedestrian renaissance. Ten years ago it would have insane to tell New Yorkers that they'd be giving up automobile lanes to build bike paths and pedestrian plazas. It would have been political suicide. Now it's called good policy, and it's thanks to Sadik-Khan's bold vision and steady determination to put people before automobiles and restore balance to New York's transportation system.

Walking and biking don't always get much respect in the transporation world where highways and rails rule. They are, however, a key component to solving our nation's transportation woes. According to Complete the Streets, over fifty percent of Americans say they want to walk and bike more and drive less. Around half of all trips made by car are three miles or less. Essentially, we could eliminate an enormous number of automobile trips by providing infrastructure that allows people to safely and comfortably make these short trips by walking or biking.

So, we've got at least two great choices for Transportation Secretary here, which one will Obama pick? Incredibly, neither. Instead, rumor has it that he's opted for transportation powerhouse Ray LaHood. At least that's what the associated press says.

Never heard of Ray LaHood? Neither has anyone else. It's because he's not a leader in transportation, he's a Republican Representative from southern Illinois that appears to be some sort of token gesture toward bipartisanship. It seems that no one knows much about his transportation policy, other than a few votes here and there where he broke with his fellow Republicans. Nice, but not the visionary our crumbling transportation system sorely needs.

A number of progressive planning blogs are already hard at work trying to explain this mess away. Some say Obama won't give LaHood much power, that the important work will be done by others in the administration. Others say that the rumors aren't true, that Obama is going to pick from the long list of brilliant individuals at his disposal. I really hope this last one is true. Our transportation system is vital to our nation's security, economy, and evironment. While the Transportation Secretary may not be a household name like the Secretary of State, or Defense, it is far too important a post to be used as a symbolic political geasture.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Policy and Irony

An ironic anecdote today, having to do with that all-important word bureaucrats love: "policy".

Monday evening the bike plan subcommittee, a working group of Elm City Cycling, held its monthly meeting. Among the topics to be discussed was the crucial issue of bikes on trains, Metro North Trains in particular.

Under the current MTA policy, bikes are banned on Metro North trains during peak hours, and during non-peak hours riders bringing their bikes aboard can be thrown off at the discretion of the conductor. If you actually look at the policy, it's about as byzantine as you can get outside of the third world. As a practical matter that makes it pretty much impossible to ride your bike to the train station if you need to use it at the other end of your trip. Oh yeah, and if you do get told to leave the train because you brought you're bike on, you'll miss your train by the time you lock up your bike and make it back to the platform.

A good transportation system relies on consistency of service and interconnection between different modes of travel. The current MTA policy on trains offers neither to cyclists.

By contrast, Shoreline East tends to have a much more progressive policy, and conductors generally don't give cyclists much of a problem, or so we thought. Richard Stowe, a long-time advocate for cyclists and rail users was scheduled to speak at the Monday evening meeting, but couldn't make it. Why? He boarded a Shoreline East train in Stamford after cycling in from his home in New Canaan, only to be told by the conductor that he couldn't bring his bike on board.

That's about as ironic as it gets. As one Elm City Cycling member put it, Richard ended up "missing a bike policy meeting because of a stupid policy".

The good news in all of this is that there are rumors that several state representives in both Connecticut and New York will be pushing a bill to require the MTA to lift its peak hour ban on bicycles. We'll have more on that when the legislature resumes in 2009.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Left Behind

Connecticut is in the process of creating statewide climate control, conservation and economic development plans. The federal stimulus package probably will come before these laudable plans are completed.

One thing is certain: Connecticut needs infrastructure that enables walking, biking, bus and train ridership, supports downtown revitalization, and maintains the road and highway network that we already have. Infrastructure projects that would expand the highway system would only work against our responsible growth and emissions reduction goals.


In a Sunday Op-ed in the Harford Courant, David Kooris, director of the CT RPA office discusses the sorry state of infrastructure planning in Connecticut. The short story is that in a few months the Obama administration will be throwing money at "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects in an effort to pump some life into the country's anemic economy.

"Shovel Ready" refers to a project that has been planned to the point that it is basically ready for construction the moment money is available. Unfortunately, Connecticut has very few of these, particularly when it comes to projects focusing on sustainable transportation, like walking, biking and transit projects. True to form, our Department of Transportation continues to lag behind the rest of the country in efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation and does not have its house in sufficient order to benefit from a deluge of federal money that will be raining down selected projects. As Kooris unhappily points out:

At this rate, any economic stimulus packages will come and go before the state is ready to receive any money.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ride it, Walk it

Living in Connecticut pretty much means that you end up driving everywhere. This means pollution, traffic jams, accidents, and expense. There are a few walkable, bikeable places, like parts of New Haven or Hartford, but these tend to be the exception and not the rule. This blog comes online today to join the chorus of voices calling for land use and transportation policies that promote a Connecticut in which there are more places you can walk or bike to, and more places that you actually want to walk or bike to.

Walking and biking are the two most economical, healthy, and environmentally responsible forms of transportation, but in Connecticut they are also the two most neglected forms of transportation. That needs to change.

Stay tuned for news, information, and commentary all about building a Connecticut that is built around people and not cars. In the meantime check out some of the links provided.