Saturday, January 31, 2009

Accident? Not quite

Cycling advocates in the U.S. love to talk about the cycling facilities in northern Europe. Countries like Denmark have enormous numbers of cyclists of all ages and experience levels. What's more their rates of accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians tend to be much lower than ours. Some of their success in attracting cyclists is undoubtedly due to the extensive network of bicycle lanes, cycle tracks, and bicycle boulevard type streets.

A lot of cycling advocates here, along with planners and engineers in some of our more progressive cities, believe that if we simply "do as they do in Europe", our cities will have similar levels of success in getting people on bicycles. The idea is to create an extensive network of cycling facilities, with the belief that if you build it, they will come. This is true to an extent, but it's only part of the story.

The Achilles heel of bicycle, and for that matter pedestrian, planning in this country is the existing set of laws regarding roadway use and our underlying beliefs surrounding our view of the road. In most of northern Europe there is some version of a "vulnerable roadway users" law. In other words, those driver larger, heavier, vehicles have a greater degree of responsibility than those walking or biking. The understanding is that each roadway user is responsible for the safety of roadway users more vulnerable than him/herself.

By contrast, under our current system, drivers seem to have an implicit carte blanche to do as they please, and unless they're drunk, they are often given no more than a slap on the wrist when they kill or injure a cyclist or pedestrian. Normally, when you injure or kill someone they call it assault, negligent homicide, or manslaughter. However, in this country, if you injure, maim, or kill with a car and you're not drunk at the time, it's usually called "an accident". If there's any doubt as to the truth of this claim, take a look at the following expert.

The lenient treatment of American motorists is documented in Killed by Automobile, an analysis of 1,020 pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities in New York City from 1994 to 1997.

Using police records, the authors found that “drivers were largely or strictly culpable in 74 per cent of cases where sufficient information existed for culpability coding, and were largely, strictly, or partly culpable in 90 per cent of the known cases. Hit and run, turning into pedestrians at crosswalks, and speeding were the top three driver faults in killing pedestrians and cyclists.”

The police cited motorists for traffic violations in only one-fourth of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, although motorists were involved in 98 per cent of these fatalities and were unquestionably at fault in at least half.

In only one percent of fatalities did the police issue summonses to motorists specifically for violating pedestrian and bicyclist rights of way (such as failing to yield in crosswalks or driving in bike lanes).
Those statistics are appalling. No other word for it, simply appalling. The bottom line is that if we are serious about giving people choices in transportation, if we want to get more people walking and biking, then we need for government to do more than just build sidewalks and stripe bike lanes, as helpful as that may be in some cases.

What we need is for government at all levels to fulfill one of its most basic responsibilities - to protect it's citizens. Our laws need to be re-written so that driving is a serious privilege that comes with an accompanying degree of responsibility. Accidentally killing someone with car should be treated the same way as any other accidental killing would be. Northern Europe seems to understand this, it's about time we do too.

Friday, January 30, 2009

New Haven's Bike and Pedestian Plan: The City that "Gets it"

Last night there was a meeting at New Haven city hall to discuss the city's bike plan. This article, from the New Haven Independent, summarizes the the meeting nicely. I can't say I agree with the headline though. I was there and found the general reaction among the audience members to be, on the whole, much more positive. Then again optimistic journalists tend to get fewer readers. Just ask Rush "I hope he fails" Limbaugh.

Great. Where’s The Rest?

So responded cyclists after the unveiling of a multi-year plan to make downtown friendlier to bikes and pedestrians.

Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, a New York-based city planning firm, is finishing up a study of how to make downtown more amenable to bikers and walkers. More than 50 people showed up at the Hall of Records on Thursday evening to hear what they’ve come up with.

The consultants described a three-phase plan involving new bike lanes, improved walk signals, and new traffic rules. All of the ideas received the enthusiastic support of the crowd. But most agreed that it was just the beginning. The biking enthusiasts would like to see the extension of biking infrastructure to all areas of New Haven, not just the central business district.

The Plan

The Nelson/Nygaard study was funded by the South Central Council of Governments, an organization concerned land use and transportation issues.

Michael King (at center in picture at top), a staffer at Nelson/Nygaard, said that his firm’s plan for the city has three main goals: safer pedestrian crossings, a network of bike routes, and better pedestrian and bicycle connections to New Haven’s train stations.

To these ends, King presented a three-phase plan for downtown New Haven.

The first phase would prohibit right turns on red by cars; put in bike lanes or “sharrows” on most downtown streets; and paint “bike boxes” at intersections.

Phase two includes upgrades in pedestrian crossing signals and the conversion of some one-way streets to two-way in order to ease congestion.

The third phase would include more established bike paths on Elm, State, and Grove streets and the extension of the Farmington Canal bike route.

Full article here

To someone on the outside looking in, this may not seem significant. A small city is improving its infrastructure to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. So what? What was so momentous about this meeting and about the plan it showcased was that it showed that the city of New Haven "gets it" as far as transportation and urban planning goes.

  • They get that transportation is about moving people, not just people in cars.
  • They get that streets are places, and that they should serve as true public space and not simply automobile conduits.
  • They get that spending money to accommodate the two most economical and environmentally friendly forms of transportation isn't an expense, it's an investment.
  • They get that it's not a battle, that drivers are also cyclists and pedestrians, and that people who enjoy walking and biking may own cars.
  • They get that a livable city is a necessary condition for long-term economic success.
The plan laid out during last nights meeting was by no means perfect or complete. But it created a vision and set a tone that will serve the city and its residents well in the coming years. In many ways it was a formalization of the policies that local groups like Elm City Cycling, New Haven Safe Streets and CT Livable Streets have been lobbying for, for some time now. What these groups want, and what the city now seems to understand, is that the city's streets, its most plentiful and ubiquitous public spaces, should be re-engineered over time to become places that people increasingly want to be, and not simply travel through in a car or truck.

I look forward to continued work with the city, its consultants, and most importantly the community groups like Elm City Cycling that were advocating for these changes long before anyone else here "got it".

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Don't Squander the Moment

Design New Haven posted this today:

Call Today for $3 Billion in Transit Investment

Update, 1/29/09: Yesterday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a last-minute amendment adding $3 billion for transit into the economic recovery bill. The next step is for people to call or email their Senators, as the bill moves on. Rep. John Mica (R-FL) put it simply on the House floor yesterday: "Nothing will create more jobs than transportation infrastructure." The Senate will finalize the bill and vote within the next week.

For better or worse, this stimulus may end up being one of the single largest investments in transportation infrastructure that we see in a while. Let's make sure as much of this money as possible goes to projects that support, walking, biking, and transit. We've been spending endlessly on highways for over half a century, and now driving is our only realistic option in many cases. It's time we start moving toward a transportation system that gives us some choice - where the car is one option among many, not the option. So take (literally) five minutes and make the call to your congressmen.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The return of the REAL New England winter

Lots of snow and rain and ice today. Scraped the ice off the walk. Off the steps. Off my butt when I slipped (clodhopper boots, where were you?). But I was doing better than all the cars I saw sliding around. Not as well as the people plowing, they are having the best winter ever.

Verdict: walk to the store. Wait until tomorrow to clear off the car, because tomorrow it's supposed to be sunny and 34°. If you live in one of the millions of homes in this state where you can't walk anywhere, sucks to be you. Don't get mad, I've lived in one before and probably will again, and that sucked too.

And, I suppose, get active in advocating for change. Or wait and see how global warming pans out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Capitol Walking Update

Mayor Eddie Perez has been indicted as part of a two-year corruption probe. The walking connection? The mayor has been accused of accepting favors from a contractor who was awarded a $5 million streetscape improvement project along Park Street--a very delayed streetscape project. Details here.

The Courant also reminds us that back in 2007 the mayor apparently gave a preferential parking contract to a local power broker. How does $1,000 per month sound? Sheesh, if the city is going to sit on its vacant land, at least it could make a decent return on it.

So, at a time when Hartford needs all the political pull it can get to wrangle some stimulus out of Washington, we get our own Blogo to kick around instead. Regardless, I suppose Hartford was out of the running for stimulus money thanks to the mayor's snub of Obama when he came to town during the campaign. As Ken Krayeske of the Forty-Year Plan explained:
Perez is a Lieberman guy. If all politics is local, remember Obama came to Hartford in February 2008, and Perez snubbed him? Many state Democrats willing to take a chance showed up for Obama, like John Larson, Chris Murphy, and Rosa DeLauro. But not Perez.

In other news, Hartford Business reports that, to no one's surprise, one-bedroom apartments are big sellers in downtown Hartford.
[Trumbull on the Park developer] Kenny says he and other landlords — Northland
Investment Corp., David Nyberg and Phil Schoenberger — were correct about
downtown tenants’ desire to be within walking distance of cultural centers,
restaurants, nightlife, even work

(Don't forget a supermarket, too....)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bicycle Planning on the Cheap

I found this interesting article from TransportXtra today. Apparently, the London borough of Hackney has managed to get a significant percentage of their population cycling as a means of transportation, upwards of ten percent! Normally, this sort of thing isn't particularly newsworthy in Europe, where cities like Copenhagen have extensive networks of bicycle facilities and cycling mode splits of over twenty percent.

Here's the catch. The borough of Hackney has managed to get a double-digit modal split for bicycle travel with almost no investment in traditional bicycle facilities, like bike lanes or cycletracks.

Nothing against bicycle facilities, I think they can certainly increase the number of people bicycling, but when we're stuck in one of the worst economic downturns in eighty years, and every town and city in the state is crying broke, it's nice to see that there are ways we can promote cycling even on a recession budget.

Hackney shows you don’t have to have lots of cycling infrastructure to get more people on bikes

By Gary Cummins

The London Borough of Hackney has one of the fastest growth rates of cycling anywhere in the UK, yet planners and transport professionals visiting this borough with a view to imitating its success on their own turf may be surprised to see little in the way of conspicuous cycle facilities. Danish-style cycle tracks are nowhere to be found and the 1,000-strong local cyclists group, the London Cycling Campaign in Hackney, actively lobbies against the installation of cycle lanes.

That the penny has dropped regarding cycling as transport in London is well known but the reasons behind this success story are less clear, often being (incorrectly) put down to the development of a comprehensive network of segregated cycle routes. Attend any transport conference with a speaker endorsing the success of London and chances are they will present a slide of a London Cycle Network + (LCN+) route showing a section of segregation in Bloomsbury. Certainly some segregation within the LCN+ does exist but these sections account for only a tiny proportion of that network; probably amounting to not even one percent of the total. Outside of the occasional section of pedestrian-cyclist segregation in local parks there are few cycle lanes or tracks in Hackney itself, where the cycling modal share is ten percent and rising.

Of all the London Cycling Campaign borough groups, Hackney’s is the largest. It has benefited from a longstanding and consistent core of activists creating a mature and confident lobby group that speaks with some authority on what it believes to be the key issues behind the success of the bicycle as transport in this part of London.

Like many success stories, it is due to a combination of factors. These include: the congestion charge; a positive press reaction to the increase in cycle use; the free TfL London Cycle Guide maps and better bus lanes. Along with this there is peer observation (the general ‘fashionableness’ of cycling in London) and the cycling lobby developing a trusting and respectful relationship with local authority officers.

However, there are other factors that may be less familiar to a visiting planner: ‘permeability’ and what Hackney’s cyclists call ‘invisible engineering’.

Local cyclists describe permeability as ‘maximum route choice with minimum diversion’. For cyclists the bicycle performs best when it is used to travel as directly as possible to the desired destination. Diversions are a waste of time and energy. For a commuter with a four-five mile journey the occasional detour may be acceptable but a journey that involves travelling around three sides of a square to avoid a priority junction becomes unnecessarily tiresome.

See the full article here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sidewalk urbanism

In December, WalkBikeCT linked to a post from The Naked City about a simple shovel-ready project that could stimulate the economy from Wasilla to Washington, D.C.: sidewalks. That post reminded me of a chapter from Yale Professor Douglas Rae's book on New Haven's golden age of urbanism, City, on the city's long-serving Mayor Frank Rice. In 1910, Mayor Rice stated that his proudest accomplishment during his first year in office was "in the improvement of the city sidewalks."
The good labor begun on the walks has been continued, and as the perfection of that endeavor has been my particular hobby this year, I am pleased at the results obtained. (p. 84)
Here was a mayor who had no interest in the major urban renewal project of his time, the City Beautiful movement. He dismissed a plan by Cass Gilbert and Frederick Law Olmstead to make New Haven a Paris on the Q River. Mayor Rice recognized that the local government only needed to play a supporting role to the city's thriving "fabric of enterprise."

Unlike today, New Haven's turn-of-the-century economy needed no government stimulus. The mayor's sidewalk-level ambitions reflected his limited view of the government's role in the economy but also a prescient understanding of what the voters wanted. At a time when you had to walk through mud and manure to get anywhere, imagine how your life would have improved from something as basic as a paved sidewalk.

Although today's crisis certainly calls for government intervention, I think that our modern mayors ought to focus on quality of life issues first. Put sidewalks before civic centers. Build ramps and elevators so that everyone can access the city. Upgrade our parks and streetscapes and combat vacancies so that our cities are more pleasant places to walk and bike through.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Seperation Anxiety and City Planning

Among progressive transportation advocates there is a common, if often quiet, debate as to how to redesign or retrofit our existing roadways into streets that are safe and accessible to all users, including cyclists and pedestrians. At the heart of this debate is the issue of separate facilities vs. shared space.

Proponents of separate facilities argue that only designs that separate and insulate pedestrians and cyclists from fast-moving automobile traffic will result in large numbers of people eschewing their cars and walking and biking in great numbers. These separations can be either physical, as in the case of cycletracks in Copenhagen, or purely psychological like your standard bike lanes. To their credit, separated facilities in parts of Europe have been correlated with significant increases in the number of people making trips by walking and biking.

On the other side of the debate, there is the increasingly popular idea of shared space, the idea that all roadway users should be mixed together and that automobile traffic should move more slowly and be one use among many in a busy street. The idea of shared space has been brought into the mainstream largely by Hans Monderman and his disciples. While many planners, engineers, and policy makers cite this idea as faniful and impractical, it is beginning to gain traction in certain circles.

I reflected on this debate between seperate facilities and shared space, between what was ideal and what was practical, and realized that this isn't really a debate at all. The idea of encouraging more people to walk and bike by designing seperated facilities like sidewalks, cycletracks, and shared-use paths - and the idea of creating streets that are properly designed to be shared by all users are not two contradictory views. Instead, there are part of the same overall process and progression.

Shared space has as much cachet as it does because segregation of uses on city streets only reinforces the notion that an effective transportation system is one that allows motorists to easily and conveniently travel at high speeds through built-up areas, which in the end does not promote safety or livability. Segregated facilities in many cases have their origins in the idea of getting everyone else "out of the way" of automobiles. That being said, segregated bicycle and pedestrian facilities are obviously preferable to a street design in which every mode save for the automobile is excluded.

The most livable streets, the ones that people tend to enjoy to most, are so often those that adhere closest to the idea of shared space. Segregated systems are too often retrofits of formerly auto-centric streets, and while these are positive improvements, they're still auto-centric streets at the end of the day. Shared space was the de-facto philosophy behind street design for much of human history, so the idea is not new, unreasonable, nor impractical.

At the moment, segregation by speed and mass may be a more feasible policy in a country, and specifically a state, where the land use pattern either necessitates or tacitly promotes high-speed automobile travel as the primarily mode of transportation. However, moving forward, shared space ought to be the goal, with the exception of facilities like limited access highways.

Segregated bicycle and pedestrian systems should serve as a necessary interim step, while land use patterns (hopefully) begin to develop in such a way as to lessen our dependence on high speed automobile travel and we move toward a system of streets that are designed such that all users can access them safely and comfortably without having to be physically separated from.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Europe vs. the U.S. - A brief history of autocentric development

This is a fantastic essay by Michael Ronkin of Designing Street for Pedestrians and Bicyclists. In the debate surrounding transportation and land use in this country, we often look to Europe as a model. Cyclists will frequently speak of cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam as a sort of an urban-planning Shangri-La. We commonly assume that the Europeans are more enlightend, that they have always built there cities in a sustainable way. However, European planners in the post war period decided to turn their cities and towns over to the car just like their yankee counterparts. So fifty years back, American and European planners were on the same page. Michael shows us clearly and concisely why these paths diverged so sharply over the next half-century.

Here's one point we oftern miss when we try to make US/Europe comparisons. Let me preface this by saying this does not mean European solutions won't work in the US, as has been suggested by some.

But it's important to understand why our perspectives of the problem, and solutions, can be so different at times. A reminder: I am American, but I grew up in Geneva from 1955-1972 (ages 6-23), when huge changes in the streets were made to accommodate cars.

We like to state, correctly, that a major shift in urban planning occurred here after WW2, when we planned our cities, suburbs, land uses and streets with the single-minded perception that people will drive to virtually all their destinations.

But car ownership on a large scale rose slowly but steadily in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, whereas car ownership started off very slowly in Europe, but exploded in the 1st to 2nd decade after WW2. This point was made at a bike conference I attend in Geneva in 1992. The presenter had a very powerful graph that traced car ownership (in percentage of population) throughout the 20th century in the US and in various European countries. In the US it was a pretty steady straight line from 1900 to 1945. It flattened some during the depression and WW2, but not as much as one might think.

Starting in 1945 it rose steeper, and continued climbing steadily till nowadays, where a car is as ubiquitous as a TV. In European countries, car ownership rates rose very slowly between 1900 and 1950 (the post WW2 economy was still in shambles for years after the war), and then started spiking very rapidly. More rapidly in some countries than others. France, Germany, Great Britain had a sharp increase from 1950-1960, less developed countries like Greece lagged by a decade or more.

Regardless of when the spike occurred, it occurred in less than a generation, meaning people could see the devastating effects on their cities. Since the increase was more imperceptible in the US, most people here saw it as inevitable, but more importantly the post WW2 baby-boom generation (today's decision-makers) saw nothing else in their lives but auto-happy suburbs and streets. It was "normal." If you think of cities as living organisms, you'll see how this analogy applies: when an external condition changes slowly and gradually, we don't notice the change as much as one that occurs suddenly. In the first instance our bodies adapt somewhat, in the 2nd it sends a shock wave though our system. Like these wintery days, walking into an overheated house from the cold outside.

So US cities continued on the disastrous path of accepting, accommodating and encouraging more traffic in cities and suburbs. Many European cities saw the ruinous changes that were being made in short time to try to accommodate this rapid growth in traffic, and the backlash began early and swiftly. Late 60's for the more progressive countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, a bit later for places like Germany and France and Great Britain (70's-80s).

But the reactions were swift and dramatic. It was obvious that road-widening was impossible without tearing down the buildings that make up a city (unfortunately this trend had begun), and squeezing more cars into the same space becomes an impossibility too after a point. So the solution was to dismantle the harmful traffic-oriented infrastructure and limit or ban cars while supporting the alternatives: transit, walking and biking. One technique we ignore at our peril was limiting parking and making it very expensive.

This of course means the transit, ped and bike "facilities" we observe and debate so often here were implemented in lieu of, not next to the auto-oriented facilities we seem to have trouble letting go of here. This explains whey road diets are such a difficult concept for many Americans to understand, as they've known nothing but street "improvements" that widen roads, how can we suggest the opposite? Most Europeans 50 and older remember what their roads looked like before they were taken over by cars. We insist on having our cake and eating too, and adding transit, ped and bike infrastructure to already overly wide roads does not have the same effect as replacing travel lanes with the same features.

Michael Ronkin

A couple of PS's to keep the essay from getting overly long:

1. Car ownership in Geneva grew frightenly fast in the 60's and 70s. License plates are numbered consecutively. When we bought a car in 1962, the # was around 75,000. Two decades later they were in the 200,000 range, now over 400,000. Yet the road system has not expanded much, and most current street reconstruction projects are taking travel lanes away and adding backing streetcar lines, bike ways, wider sidewalks.

2. When I rode my bike all over Geneva as a kid/adolescent in the 60's, there were no bike lanes; there was room for all of us. When I started visiting again with my family and kids in the early 80's I could not conceive of riding into town with them; bike ridership was at an nadir. In the late 80's Geneva embarked on a bike lane system, and now bike ridership is surprisingly high again.

3. Totally trivial fun anecdote: I'm 3/4 of the way through a really trashy

1967 spy novel (in French) called "A hornet's nest in Geneva." Lots of accurately described car chase scenes that would be IMPOSSIBLE to imagine nowadays, as so many of the central city streets have been shut off to traffic, or at least through traffic! ;-)

4. Robert Moses was invited (or invited himself?) to Amsterdam in the late 50's to asses their traffic problems. His solution? Pave over those antiquated canals and turn them into thoroughfares for cars. Can you imagine what Amsterdam would look and feel like had they heeded this advice?

5. Auto industry bailout: why? We already have too many cars in this world; why make more? I suggest a 2-year moratorium on car manufacturing, and subsidize the big three for retooling to make things we really need: wind turbines, solar panels, trains, trams, buses.
Michael Ronkin is a national bicycle and pedestrian expert and the Principle of Designing Streets for Pedestrians & Bicyclists. Mr Ronkin was also the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Manager for Oregon DOT from 1989-2006.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Traffic cameras at the legislature

I thought it would be helpful to summarize the recent history of traffic camera legislation.  The legislature has considered proposals to install traffic cameras during the past two legislative sessions.

In 2007, Sen. Jonathan A. Harris, 5th Dist., and Rep. Beth Bye, 19th Dist., proposed a pilot program to install traffic cameras along Route 44 where it crosses Avon Mountain. S.B. 439 got through the planning and development and transportation committees, but was voted down at the judiciary committee.

Speaking in favor of the bill, West Hartford Police Chief Jim Strillacci said:
This bill would allow that technology, which is a factor in so many aspects of our lives, to save lives by improving driver behavior. There are automated traffic enforcement systems which can measure a violator's speed with radar or laser, multiple lanes, both directions at once.

They can be out there 24 hours, seven days a week. They don't get sick. They don't take vacation days. So they can be more vigilant that any police officer, even the most dedicated one.

If we couple this enforcement with warning signs and publicity we hope that the effect will be that the drivers will actually slow down rather than giving out a lot of tickets. We want them to slow down voluntarily.

We want them to realize that there's a place that they can't afford to speed and therefore they'll drive more safely. As a police chief I get more complaints about traffic than I ever do about crime.

There is a good reason for this. People are very seldom touched personally by crime. They don't get mugged, they don't burglarized everyday.

But everyday they step out their door they get in their car and they're surrounded by traffic. And they see violations. They feel the effects of traffic congestion. Careless driving causes death, causes injury, causes damage far more than crime does in our community.

This is an opportunity to use a 21st century solution to what's a perennial problem for us, to create an oasis of safety on what is now a very dangerous road.

In 2008, Governor Rell proposed implementing a similar program along a stretch of I-95 in Old Lyme. In her State of the State address, she (ominously) warned:

To those who use this congested highway as their personal speedway, we're going to see you, we're going to stop you, and it will cost you.
I am hopeful that this program will prove to be successful and that we will be able to add additional locations for
camera radars in other parts of the state. I see some of you smiling. Do not be out on I-95.

Threats aside, Carol Leighton from the Connecticut Citizens Transportation Lobby gave some good reasons for implementing the program:
This pilot program would be established in southeastern Connecticut in the area where the driver of a tanker truck and two state residents were killed in an incident that closed the highway for hours last November. The cameras will allow the state to capture images of speeders and mail tickets to them.

Our group has been advocating for the introduction of safety cameras in Connecticut for several years. Such technology is already in use [in] 35 communities in the United States and many more locations worldwide.

I don't know if you know that in England, there are over 6,000 of these road safety cameras. And at the installation sites, speeding has been reduced 30% and fatalities 42%. Over in the six years over 2 million speeders have been charged and over $200 million in fines have resulted.

And in one other location, just for another example, in Victoria, Australia, within three months, the number of drivers triggering the photo radar, the cameras, that number decreased by 50%. It is a deterrent . . .

I think in a state notoriously slow to use new technology, this would be an important step forward, and promises significantly safer highways.

Despite the governor's backing, S.B. 41 did not make it out of committee. The legislators were concerned about the ramifications for civil liberties stemming from the proposal. (Here's the ACLU's take on the 2008 bill, but see also the D.C. Court of Appeal's decision finding no constitutional violation from the District of Columbia's traffic camera system)

Legislators Propose Traffic Cameras

One of WalkbikeCT's top five proposals is installing traffic cameras at intersections to promote pedestrian and bicycle safety. 6th Dist. Rep. Hector L. Robles has brought a bill, Proposed H.B. No. 5258 that would "allow municipalities to install automatic traffic safety cameras for enforcement purposes." Specifically:
That the general statutes be amended to permit municipalities to develop and
implement a program for the installation of automatic traffic safety camera
systems at major intersections and at such other locations determined by the
local police department to be in need of additional enforcement activities.

Here's a more complete list of bills related to this issue.


1000 Friends of Connecticut's 2009 Agenda

1000 Friends of Connecticut's Smart Growth Working Group just released its legislative agenda for 2009.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Update on CT's new DOT boss

Here's an interview with Connecticut's new DOT Commissioner, Joseph Marie, published in the Hartford Courant yesterday.
"In the business of transportation in this country," [Marie said], "the commissioner
of the Department of Transportation in Connecticut might be one of the best jobs
to get."

Why? Because Marie thinks that Connecticut is on the verge of implementing some exciting mass-transit proposals, including building or expanding regional and local commuter lines around the state. In testimony before the legislature,
He offered a vision of trains, roads that are friendly to bikers and pedestrians and improved mass transit in Connecticut, linked to the rest of New England.

The columnist who interviewed Marie, Rick Green, expressed his Yankee skepticism:
I'm the native who thinks this is the place good ideas go to die. It's 5 degrees
and 6:45 in th
Publish Post
e morning and this guy is telling me we are on the verge of
something huge.

Even the editor of this blog would probably agree that transit talk is unwelcome before sunrise. Green's doubts are well founded, of course, given the DOT's track record when it comes to transit. But given Marie's experience in other cities and his enthusiasm for transit, maybe CT is in for a welcome change.

And I disagree with one more point in this article. With the right blend of leadership, investment, and activism, what's stopping Connecticut's cities from becoming the next Portland or Minneapolis? (Click here to learn why Portland was voted America's #1 Green City).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration day

I just watched the inauguration speech for the second time today at a party at the Red Rock Tavern on Capitol Ave. in Hartford.

In the course of his stirring speech, Obama talked about his empirical approach to governance. Out with ideology and bureaucracy, in with what works.  Let's hope he applies this philosophy to our outdated transportation system.

Wheels vs. heels on ice!

I have a confession to make: I drove in really bad weather. And was going well below the speed limit when my passenger said, "No, turn there!" So I hit the brakes. Because cars are better than they used to be, the anti-locks engaged and we skidded smoothly past the turn in a nice straight path.

Now I am really, really glad my car had those anti-locks and that I was driving so slowly. But it made me think about how walking stacks up to cars in bad weather.

Cost of walking: Decent cold-weather gear including hat ($5-$20), coat ($50 - $200), gloves ($10-$20), or umbrella ($12). Real boots ($100-$200). No operating costs.
Cons of walking: If you're a woman, you won't look cute when you get there unless you carry shoes along. And for both men and women, it takes a while. And you'll be cold.
Pros of walking: Exercise, not wasting fuel, personal experience of nature and life.
Worst possible outcome: You could slip and fall and possibly get a huge bruise.

Cost of driving: An automobile costing $15,000 to $40,000. Good tires costing about $100 apiece. Washer fluid ($10). About $0.62 operating costs per mile, plus gas. You'll still need a coat and gloves.
Cons of driving: Spewing waste into the environment. Feeding those gluttonous fat cells. You'll still be cold.
Pros of driving: If you're a woman, you'll still look cute when you get there unless you slip on those pretty shoes in the parking lot and arrive with a huge wet stain on your butt. It's fast for all sexes.
Worst possible outcome: Death. Paralysis. Killing/injuring other people or animals.

After I wrote all this up, I decided never to leave the house again in bad weather and that I would just stay in and drink. Then I decided to be braver. But as the editor pointed out in an earlier post, as attractive as driving is otherwise, the worse possible outcome is a lot worse. And a lot more likely.

Here's the problem, though: if I wanted to get where I was going on foot the day I braked past my turn, it would have been very risky. The only way to get there was along state highways that had plowed whatever level area there might have been to walk on into a 12-foot snowbank. So we would have been walking in the road, where a lot of drivers driving a lot faster than I did may or may not have seen us.

So I hereby vow to pester my congressman about taking pedestrian trips seriously and providing both infrastructure and maintenance. And to give up on the fashion editor's idea of cute. If I'm the only woman in the bar with clodhopper boots, I'll also be the one least likely to commit vehicular manslaughter.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Safety Myth

The following is an interesting essay by Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, reprinted here with the author's permission. Litman quickly debunks the "safety myth", that air-tight excuse you'll so often hear from people who have just used their car for a short trip that they could have easily made on bike, on foot, or, gasp - on the bus. I know this excuse well, it's one I've heard from many a friend, and one I've shamefully employed myself on occasion.

The only real problem with this excuse is that it's not actually true. Driving is not safe. It never was, and it isn't now. Over 40,000 Americans die each year from automobile collisions. Any mode of travel that kills 40,000 people per year cannot rightfully be called "safe".

Take a look at the essay below, and think about it the next time you grab the keys because you just don't feel safe walking to your destination; you might change your mind and decide to hoof it after all.

Most people have a highly distorted view of the risks they face, which distorts their decisions and ultimately reduces their happiness. We live in one of the safest times and places in history, yet, many people live in constant fear, and respond in ways that actually reduce overall security. This is a major obstacle to efficient transportation, healthy living, and livable community.

For example, I recently spoke at a "Philosophy Cafe" (a public discussion of a current issue using philosophical principles) on the theme, "What is the socially optimal level of motor vehicle use?" Because the audience was a thoughtful and progressive, many of them felt obliged to justify their use of automobile travel in situations when they COULD use public transit. The most common excuse: waiting for a bus on a city street is unsafe.

So I asked the audience, how many have had a family member of close friend murdered by a stranger? Only one hesitant hand was raised (it was not a really close friend). Then I asked, how many have had a family member of close friend killed in a car crash? More than half the audience raised their hand. This is statistically representative: for non-poor, middle-age people, the chance of dying in a traffic accident is an order of magnitude greater than the chance of being murdered by a stranger. In fact, the greatest single fatality risk for North Americans in the prime of life (that is, between five and fifty years of age) is dying in a car crash: greater than any disease or being murdered ( and

North American traffic safety experts tend to misrepresent the issue because they prefer to highlight statistics which imply that their programs are successful. Yes, traffic crash rates per 100 million vehicle-miles have declined significantly during the last fifty years, but this has been offset by increased per capita annual vehicle mileage, so per capita traffic fatality rates declined little, despite huge increases in the use of seatbelts and other safety devices, reductions in drunk driving, improved road and vehicle design, and improved emergency response and medical care. The U.S. has one of the highest per capita traffic fatality rates among developed countries, implying that conventional traffic safety efforts are not very effective, but few traffic safety experts acknowledge this failure.

Another little-recognized fact is that per capita traffic fatality rates are far lower in pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented, smart growth communities than in conventional, automobile-dependent communities. Automobile oriented suburbs have about four times the traffic fatality rate as smart growth communities. This appears to reflect the combination of increased total driving, higher traffic speeds, and society's inability to withdraw driving privileges to high risk drivers in automobile-dependent communities. All of those families that move to automobile-dependent suburbs to provide a safe and healthy place to raise their children are mistaken: they have actually increased their children's chance of dying a violent death.

These differences are even more significant when viewed from the perspective of society rather than just a single individual, since total traffic fatality rates tend to increase in a community with more per capita motor vehicle travel, while streets and public transit systems become safer as more responsible residents walk, bicycle and ride transit. One of many benefits of shifts from driving to alternative modes is increased safety and security.

Marketing encourages people to consider security just another commodity that we obtain by purchasing supposedly safer travel modes (driving in a large automobile) and locations (purchasing a home in a "quiet" neighborhood). Yet, security is not really something we consume, it is something we create through our own behaviors, by reducing total motor vehicle travel, shifting to alternative modes, and working to increase community cohesion and safety.

For more information see:
Lawrence Frank, Peter O. Engelke and Thomas L. Schmid (2003), Health and Community Design: The Impact Of The Built Environment On Physical Activity, Island Press (

Lawrence Frank, Sarah Kavage and Todd Litman (2006), Promoting Public Health Through Smart Growth: Building Healthier Communities Through Transportation And Land Use Policies, Smart Growth BC (; at

Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank and Richard Jackson (2004), Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building For Healthier Communities, Island Press (
Peter L. Jacobsen (2003), "Safety In Numbers: More Walkers and Bicyclists, Safer Walking and Bicycling." Injury Prevention (, Vol. 9, 2003, pp. 205-209; at

Todd Litman and Steven Fitzroy (2006), Safe Travels: Evaluating Mobility Management Traffic Safety Benefits, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

William Lucy (2002), Danger in Exurbia: Outer Suburbs More Dangerous Than Cities, University of Virginia (; summarized in

Robert Noland (2003), "Traffic Fatalities and Injuries: The Effects of Changes in Infrastructure and Other Trends," Journal of Accident Prevention and Analysis, Vol. 35, pp. 599-611; at

VTPI (2008), "Address Security Concerns" ( ), Online TDM Encyclopedia ( ).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reshaping the suburbs

A century of car-friendly zoning has put many miles between our suburban homes and work, shopping, and fun. If this is the land use pattern we really want, then why are "in-town" houses so much more expensive that ones on the outskirts of our cities? Witness West Hartford, where the region's well-to-do live on 1/10 acre lots for the sake of living "a little off center."

Recently, columnists such as the New York Times' David Brooks and the Hartford Courant's Tom Condon have written on the trend of urbanization within suburbia. Instead of spreading out, development in suburbs is beginning to contract and cluster. Some towns are adding mixed-use developments to their existing downtowns, thereby increasing the vibrancy of their town centers. In other towns, former big box stores and shopping centers are being rebuilt to reflect New Urbanist planning principles. Even your local mega-mall is trying to keep up by adding outdoor shopping options (so-called lifestyle centers) to the traditional enclosed space.

The positive outcome of this trend is that it offers new opportunities for people to live near where they shop and work, reducing the need for auto travel in a state where transit options are limited.

But it is unclear if this pattern will yield truly urbane spaces. First, because these developments are popping up in expensive suburban towns rather than our struggling cities, the housing that comes with them reflects the market price. Thus, in West Hartford's Blue Back Square, one-bedroom "lofts" cost about $1,600 per month, putting them out of the price range of pretty much anyone without a trust fund. Blue Back's success has also raised rents for surrounding apartments and made proximity to the center a key selling point. Walkability has become a luxury good.

Second, the rents for the commercial spaces are too high for most small business owners to afford, so the tenants will typically include chain stores appealing to the affluent middle-aged female consumer (think J. Jill and Ann Taylor). Ironically, the businesses that you would expect to find in an urban setting, like coffee shops, record stores and thrift shops, are priced out to the strip malls that high end tenants have vacated for the lifestyle center.

We are constructing walkable "downtowns" in the suburbs while ignoring our existing urban infrastructure. These new spaces are a choreographed version of what we imagine downtown used to be, rather than the dynamic and diverse space that it actually was.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

More of the Same

Here's a great piece from Design New Haven, originally posted January 15, on the planned federal stimulus and how it may affect transportation choices in Connecticut. While most of us in the transportation and planning communities are tying to be optimistic about the incoming administration and the planned stimulus it's getting harder and harder to do so.

The transportation infrastructure portion of the stimulus gives by far the most money to highway expansion projects. On a positive note, in Connecticut many of the projects that may get funding from the stimulus are transit projects or repair projects, however, the overall approach being taken toward transportation is more of the same. While transit and things like bicycle infrastructure are getting a little more attention and funding than usual, the proposed stimulus package represents a mere positive "tweak" to the old model, rather than the bold new change of direction that is so sorely needed.

Today the House Democrats' Committee on Appropriations released a draft of their proposed federal stimulus package. A PDF summary of the plan can be downloaded here. According to the report, the government plan is part of a "concerted effort to create and save three to four million jobs, jump-start our economy, and begin the process of transforming it for the 21st century.”

The plan trumpets its $275 billion in tax cuts, plus hundreds of billions in other spending including $90 billion in infrastructure, $87 billion for Medicaid costs, and $54 billion to encourage renewable energy production. Yet it remains to be seen what impact the bill would have on the lives of everyday residents of urban areas such as Downtown New Haven or Downtown Hartford, such as with job training for striving families or potentially-disasterous pending cuts to integrated school programs, or if this outlay will do what it does while also helping to reduce pollution, create jobs, promote public health and safety, and address the nation's crumbling infrastructure and unsustainable transportation policies.

As Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd recently pointed out in the New York Times, no less than 160,570 bridges across the country are currently in as bad of a shape as the Minneapolis bridge which collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 and injuring over 100 (shown in photograph).

Unfortunately, according to the draft plan, the vast majority of the $40 billion in transportation funds would most likely go towards expanding superhighways in places like the deserts of Utah, not investing in the types of 21st-century infrastructure that can get the residents of the nation's major metropolitan areas to work efficiently, safely and without owning a car -- even though over 40% of New Haven residents commute by means other than private automobile. Despite all the evidence that transit-oriented development creates jobs by dramatically saving large numbers of people time and commuting expenses, the stimulus bill seems more like it is shaping up to be a recipe for oil company profits than for smarter growth in metropolitan areas like New Haven.

Bottom line is that it appears that Congress believes that highways should be expanded even as bridges across the country continue to catastrophically fail and crumble; even as families, children and senior citizens literally find it impossible to walk more than a couple of blocks in their own neighborhoods due to the lack of proper pedestrian facilities; and even as many major cities less than 30 miles apart - like Hartford, Waterbury and New Haven - continue to have absolutely no viable mass transportation connections.
See the full post here at Design New Haven

Friday, January 16, 2009

Northland and Hartford's downtown

No walk through downtown Hartford is complete without speculating about the next move by Newton, Mass.-based Northland Investment Corp. Northland is the largest private property owner in downtown Hartford and was chosen back in September to redevelop the former Veteran's Coliseum site in New Haven.

Northland's signature building is the 262-unit Hartford 21 Tower, which is connected to the former Hartford Civic Center (it's called the XL Center now). Hartford 21 was planned as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment through a private-public partnership with significant state money.

Hartford 21, a 1 million- square-foot, mixed-use project, cost about $160 million to develop. The city of Hartford’s Capital City Economic Development Authority awarded the project $30.5 million in grant money as part of its effort to spur development downtown. The Connecticut Development Authority and Aetna Life Insurance Co. also provided the project’s remaining $59.5 million in equity investment.

In June 2007, the New York Times called Northland's head, Lawrence Gottesdiener, Hartford's Booster in Chief because of his optimistic view of that downtown's future and his huge
financial stake in its success.

Satisfied that the city is on the upswing, Mr. Gottesdiener wants to keep the
momentum going. “I’ve made money on everything I’ve done here, though not
necessarily commensurate with the risk I’ve taken,” he said. “If the momentum
dissipates in the next five years, that would exacerbate the risk.”

A year and one-half later, it is unclear whether Hartford still has that momentum. Northland's plans to build a supermarket in its high-rise luxury residential tower appear stalled (it has built the space but can't find a manager), the Goodwin Hotel is out of business three years after being purchased by Northland, the Whalers haven't come back, and most of the store fronts are empty along Asylum, Trumbull, and Pratt streets, the heart of the Northland empire.

It seems like Northland's sky high ambitions for Hartford might need some reconsideration. Hockey teams and expensive rentals and condos cannot bring downtown back. Downtown's promise lies in creating a neighborhood where people live, work, and walk. Retail won't come back as long as Hartford stays a 9 to 5 city (actually, it seems like more of a 7:30 to 4 city, but that's another story).

Not only does downtown Hartford need more reasonably priced housing, but landlords like Northland need to consider lowering the rates on their commercial spaces. Why not bring prices way down to encourage entrepreneurs to take a risk on Hartford retail?

If Northland can make it a little more affordable for people and businesses to move in, downtown might again be a place where you can walk to buy everything you need, and a lot of cars will be taken off the road.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Contributors

I'd like to welcome two new contributors to WalkBikeCT, Adam and J.B. Adam resides in the Hartford area and will be providing us with great posts on many of the bicycle and pedestrian issues in the capital region of our state. J.B. is a fellow Elm city dweller and a relative newcomer to bicycle and pedestrian advocacy who can provide a much-needed outsider's perspective on many of the topics discussed on this site.

Our two new contributors are off to a great start. If you haven't already, be sure to check out Adam's post on parking, and J.B.'s post on her experience with the all-to-common irate and entitled driver in New Haven.

WalkBikeCT is always looking for contributors from throughout the state. We'd love have some writers from the Stamford and Bridgeport regions, as well as bloggers from the eastern portion of Connecticut. So if there's a bicycle, pedestrian, or other progressive transportation issue you'd like to blog about send it here to WalkBikeCT "at" You may take credit for your post, or choose to blog anonymously. And for you fellow bloggers out there, WalkBikeCT will write a guest post on your blog for each post you submit to us.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Free Parking

Here's a simple proposal to combat the state's budget deficit while encouraging alternatives to the single-occupant vehicle commute. It's time to ditch one freebie that most state employees get as part of their generous benefits package: free parking.

As you know, parking is the true "third rail" of politics. Especially in Connecticut politics. After all, status in Hartford is displayed by how close you can park to the front of the Capitol Building.

Here's a link to Governor Rell's convenient spot. It doesn't seem to be occupied very often, but I doubt it's because she is taking the bus.

For those employees working in the State Office Building, there is about a square mile of parking right off Bushnell Park and within easy walking distance of downtown. There are also a few large garages serving the Judicial Branch and the Legislative Office Building.

Charging for parking would amount to a pay cut for state employees. The money could come right out of their paychecks unless they chose to opt out. There are nearly 12,000 state employees working in Hartford alone. At a market rate of $100 a month per spot, we are talking about $1,200,000 of your tax dollars per month or $14,400,000 per year that is going to subsidizing sprawl in the Hartford region.

Not only would charging state employees for parking save us all money, but it would encourage them to use buses, bikes and maybe their feet. Some might consider living closer to work to save on parking, contributing to the revitalization of urban centers where most of these jobs are located. Demand for parking would go down and demand for opportunities to live downtown would go up. See the virtuous cycle? The empty parking spots could become housing, shopping, or more office space and the state would start earning returns on its urban land.

Update 1/18/09: I found this budget suggestion posted to the "Public Budget Suggestions" page from December 22, 2008:
Charge a monthly parking fee ($30.00) to state employees. Charging a fee would put some money into the general fund and contribute to greater utilization of public transportation.

Say it ain't so Barack - Part 2

A few weeks ago WalkBikeCT ran a piece criticizing Barack Obama's choice of Republican Representative Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary. The optimist in me was hoping that Obama knew something about LaHood that I didn't - that perhaps this Republican with the thin transportation resume and questionable ties to Caterpillar Inc. would end up pleasantly surprising me. Alas, this was not to be.

In a post on, it's revealed that LaHood's confirmation hearing has been delayed. It appears that Obama's token Republican has all sorts of problems, including a penchant for earmarks, something Obama has opposed in the stimulus, and alleged links to disgraced Illinois GovernorRod Blagojevich and his indicted associates, some of whom were direct beneficiaries of earmarks put through by none other than Mr. LaHood. At first, LaHood was a purely political pick with no real qualifications. Now he's a purely political pick with no real qualifications, who's got questionable ethics to boot.

Check out the post from, below. LaHood's confirmation should be voted down for any one of these issues, put them all together and it's a no-brainer.

Today, Ray LaHood, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, was supposed to appear before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee for his confirmation hearing. However, the hearing has been postponed as “simply a matter of procedure,” according to committee chair, Jay Rockefeller.

The postponment comes on the heels of a story published in the Washington Post about LaHood’s penhcant for inserting earmark spending into appropriation bills as a member of the House of Representatives–including $9 million that was funneled to campaign donors. Obama has said that he opposes earmarks, so expect some tough questioning of LaHood on this front.

I am especially interested in his ties to William Cellini, the indicted head of the Illinois Asphault Paving Association, who acted to shakedown donors for disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich. Many of LaHood’s earmarks were paving projects that would benefit Cellini’s members.

LaHood should also be asked about his failure to support the National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act which was passed after the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota to improve bridge safety.

See the full post on

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This Road's not for You

This little statistic caught my eye the other day while I was perusing America Walks, a " national resource which fosters walkable communities by engaging, educating, and connecting walking advocates". I found it pretty disturbing.
  • Although 41% of all trips made in the United States are two miles or less, fewer than 10% of all trips are made by walking and biking.
I wanted to figure out why so many people were using their cars for trips that could be easily made on foot or by bike. A two mile trip on bike takes about ten minutes, assuming you're in mediocre physical condition. A car going 30 miles per hour will cover the same distance in two minutes. When you figure in things like traffic signals, stop signs, parking, etc. the total trip time is anywhere from about five to eight minutes.

In other words, most people are getting in their cars as opposed to biking to save a total of two to five minutes. Now I know the U.S. is a time-obsessed country always looking to do things quicker, more efficiently, but I simply can't believe that most people would hop in their cars most of the time just to save two to five minutes.

Many people are lazy, to be sure, however, a lot of people in this state truly enjoy walking and biking. Just go to the Farmington Canal Trail in Hamden or Cheshire on any given sunny weekend in the Summer. The trail is a victim of its own success, so packed with walkers and bikers that you can barely move sometimes. People clearly don't mind devoting some of their free time to walking and biking - they'll even drive to the trail and park their cars so they can spend the day walking! Yet these are the very same people who will more often than not use a car for a one or two mile trip that could just as easily be made on bike or by foot.

If time were the only motivator, or if people truly disliked walking and biking, you just wouldn't see this kind of traffic on a trail devoted almost exclusively to walking and biking. So people like walking and biking it seems, they just don't like walking and biking in most places. What is it about the Farmington Canal Trail that pedestrians and cyclists enjoy so much, and what is it about everywhere else that they enjoy so little? In an effort to answer this question, I did a quick back-of-the-envelope analysis of the Farmington Canal Trail vs. the Average Suburban Street.

The Farmington Canal Trail is a charming narrow pathway that is lined with trees and built at a human scale. It's fairly quiet and generally safe, save for the occasional cyclist who thinks he's in the Tour-de-France. Simply, it is a path that is a very pleasent place to be.

Now take your average arterial roadway (shown right), which houses the lion's share of the stores and offices in the suburban towns that are home to most of Connecticut's population. They are noisy places, dominated by cars traveling in excess of 40 miles per hour, which makes them hazardous to your average person walking or biking in the area. They are lined with billboards and garish signs rather than trees, and they're vast expanses of pavement usually over forty feet wide. Even the most intrepid pedestrian or cyclist doesn't feel quite right there. And why should they? These places were built for cars and nothing else. People don't walk and bike on these roads because everything about these places suggests that humans don't belong there unless they're inside of a car.

Going back to the statistic at the beginning of this post:

  • Although 41% of all trips made in the United States are two miles or less, fewer than 10% of all trips are made by walking and biking.
It's pretty easy to see what's going on here. We have another one of these circular arguements that the Connecticut DOT and too many policy makers are in love with. We don't fund bicycle and pedestrian projects because nobody walks or bikes anywhere. After all, even most short trips in this country are made by car. Therefore, the argument goes, we should only build roads for cars, because that's what everyone uses. What we get is an environment characterized by cars and sprawl where no one in their right mind would want to walk or bike anywhere, so they end up driving. Hence the need to build roads exclusively for cars. This is a brilliant argument in a twisted way. The DOT and other decision makers in the state use the inevitable results of their own failed policies to justify the continued implementation of their own failed policies.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Dodging the Two-Ton Weapons in the Street

As I was driving along Orange Street (yes, driving) and pulling into the left lane to turn the other day, I noticed that a fellow driver had apparently lost her mind and was shrieking, waving her arms, and honking as she pulled into the right-hand lane beside me. She came to a stop just ahead and started explaining loudly out the window to the car in front of me just why she was so upset. Then I noticed the bicyclist in front of her. Yup, she'd just been forced to follow a cyclist for a least a block, where the lanes are too narrow to pass safely.

I briefly considered hopping out of my car and approaching her to explain that the law gives cyclists the right to ride on the street in New Haven. In fact, it requires them to be in the street.
I've been that cyclist with some freak honking along behind me, ignoring the wide open lanes beside me so that they can inform me that I should "get off the f)$&#& street, you ^#&*E&". I've even tried to politely explain that I'm trying to follow the law.

I didn't have time to be assaulted by an enraged driver. I stayed buckled in and turned left, with a wince of sympathy for the poor guy in front of the crazy lady. Whoever you are: nicely done. I especially liked how you walked the bike across with the pedestrian light, then resumed riding in the lane and made like Lance Armstrong.

Because I have too much free time, I spent a while thinking of ways to inform these drivers that they are actually required to share the street. The "Share the Road" signs seem to be too subtle. Could we put them in the DMV? Hand out those brochures at gas stations?

Ideally, I could just say: "Look it up. It's on the website." That won't work either. Assuming the person driving the two-ton weapon alongside your bicycle, spitting with righteous anger, will listen, there's no easily found site that explains the law. You can read the vague and convoluted state law if you are patient enough to search it out. I can't find the New Haven law anywhere on the internet.

So please, chime in here. I'm assuming that if you are reading this, I don't have to convince you that bicycles can be ridden on the street and that it is, in fact, in accordance with the law to do so. How do we convince other drivers - because we mostly are drivers too - to actually share the road?

P.S.: while I never found the New Haven law, I did find this page which spells it out nicely after only five clicks. Easy to read but hard to find. Something else to consider passing out at gas stations.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bicycle Parking: Is that the best you can do Stamford?

Stamford station is one of, if not the most, heavily-used train stations in CT. So much so in fact that some city and state officials have expressed concern that the station is over capacity during the commuter peak hours; that the platforms can't safely hold the number of people waiting for the train during those times. Not surprisingly, the parking garage is over capacity too.

In some ways this is a good thing. More people riding the train means less people driving, which means less congestion on city and state roads.

The problem, once again, is that just like virtually every other train station in this state, unless you're driving, the old New England saying holds true: "You can't get there from here".

For most people in Stamford, going to the train station means driving, which sort of works against the whole "getting cars off the road thing". It doesn't have to be this way. The train station should help ease the congestion on Stamford's streets, not add to it. Stamford is one of the most densely populated cities in the state and many residents and workers there live within a comfortable biking distance of the train station.

Problem is, even if you are brave enough to bike through the city's uber-wide streets, once you get to the station there's no good place to lock your bike. Outside of the station, what the city calls their "transportation center", there is one lonely and pathetic "wheel bender" bike rack (see photo above). Stamford, you're spending over thirty thousand dollars per garage space to accommodate drivers, pony up and spend a tiny fraction of that to provide cyclists some parking too.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

New Roads to Crumbling Bridges

Take a look at the latest call to action from Transportation for America (T4America). Don't let the latest proposed stimulus package turn into the next government boondoggle that will do little to save the economy and leave generations to carry the debt burden. One of the key points of the T4America platform is a "fix-it first" policy, also coincidentally one the key points of WalkBikeCT's 2009 Agenda.

Are we building new roads to crumbling bridges?
Would you like to avoid another one of these? Tell Congress

When Minnesota’s I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, many Americans were shocked to learn that thousands of bridges across the country were rated “structurally deficient.” The last major survey in 2007 found that more than 72,000 bridges were structurally deficient — or about 12.1% of all our nation’s bridges.

With billions of dollars about to be spent on an economic recovery package, you’d think Congress would prioritize fixing dangerous bridges and repairing unsafe highways — as well as investing in ready-to-go transit or rail projects that can help meet our pressing national goals of reducing oil dependence and lowering dangerous emissions.

But the powerful highway lobby is pressing hard for nearly all the money to be spent constructing new roads and bridges. This makes no sense.

Check out the full post here.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Mean Kid on the Playground

A lot of people outside of the planning field think that urban planners are anti-car. It’s easy to see how people can get this view since a lot of modern planning is aimed in part at getting people out of their cars – by doing things like promoting walking, biking and transit, creating zoning to promote compact town centers, the list goes on.

Time and time again, you’ll hear libertarian and conservative types wimping and whining about planners being anti-car, out to destroy the American dream. If you delve deeper though you’ll see that most urban planners are not anti-car, in fact most of them own and drive cars. They don’t hate cars, they are simply responsible for looking out for the public good in a given town, city, or region. Cars, as helpful as they may be, are bullies. They’re the mean kid on the playground who will ruin recess for everyone else if he’s not kept in line.

You see, most modes of transportation are friendly. Pedestrians like busy streets full of other pedestrians. They tend to shy away from deserted, or empty streets. They like lively streets, the presence of other pedestrians only adds to their enjoyment of the street.

Cyclists like the company of other cyclists. As the number of cyclists on a road increases, it creates a positive feedback loop. The large number of cyclists on the road increases motorist awareness and biking tends to become safer, so more people ride their bikes on the street making it safer, and so it goes. In other words, bikes like other bikes. Just go to any critical mass ride, it’s a blast.

Transit riders, those citizens riding the bus or train are also social. Not quite as social as the pedestrian or cyclist mind you. Other transit riders can be a nuisance at times. See the smelly guy in the summer, or the crazy person screaming about the end of days on the subway. Nevertheless, transit rides benefit one another. As ridership increases, revenues go up and transit service (ideally) because more frequent and the coverage area becomes bigger, as new routes are brought on-line.

In the transportation world, most modes are friendly. The car is the big exception. This is the mean kid on the playground. Unlike pedestrians, bikes, and transit riders, cars don’t like anyone, not even other cars. The ideal day for a car is one where it’s the only one on the road. Each new car entering the scene only serves to delay and annoy its fellow autos. And when you get a lot of cars together, it’s an absolute mess. You get traffic jams - delays become unbearable and accidents skyrocket.

Cars don’t like any other transportation modes either. The pedestrians are like oversized squirrels getting in the way, cyclists are stupid hippies that the car needs wait to pass, and the bus is just a big dumb animal stopping every quarter mile or so to lick itself and impede the movement of cars.

This is where the planner comes in. One of the subfields of urban planning is transportation planning. The transportation planner is charged with developing, promoting and maintaining a transportation system that is safe, efficient, equitable and affordable. To do this, he/she needs to keep the car in check, basically prevent the mean kid on the playground from ruining recess for everyone else. Because cars hate everyone including other cars, a transportation system that relies almost exclusively on the car is bad for everyone, including drivers.

Everyone hates traffic-clogged roads. Drivers hate them, people on the bus hate them, and cyclists don’t have much love for them either. That’s the kicker, when everyone drives everywhere, drivers lose too. So when planners talk about reducing automobile use by promoting things like walking, biking and transit, they’re not trying to make driving worse, they’re trying to make it better.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Beyond Bike Lanes: True Urban Design

Ask most people how you can improve cycling in a city and they will unfailingly call for more bike lanes. The benefit of bike lanes, however, is a myth that often gets in the way of serious planning.

The reason cycling as transportation is not too popular in this country is that, as a policy, roads are optimized for recklessly fast automobile travel. Ask most people why they don't bicycle on the roads and they'll cite safety concerns - mainly due to motorists driving at wildly excessive speeds and feeling so entitled to do so that they'll often hurl obscenities at cyclists who dare to use their road.

As you might guess, bike lanes, i.e. paint stripes and a bicycle symbol on the side of the road, are not going to help this situation much. A few people might feel safer and venture into the road, but at the end of the day you still have cars traveling fast enough to easily and instantly kill a human being.

Designing towns optimized for pedestrian travel, where cars proceed slow enough that they can safely share the road with pedestrians and cyclists - that's a solution you can believe in. Anyway, you don't have to listen to me on this one. I got the idea from a list-serv post by Dom Nozzi of Aside from his closing paragraph, which I don't really understand, he presents a comprehensive, yet concise explanation of what we need to do to make our towns and cities more walkable, more bikable, and more livable.

For a downtown to be healthy for retail and all forms of travel, low-speed car travel is essential, and a "park once" environment must be created.

In a downtown, that means that the pedestrian, not the bicyclist (or car or transit), must be the design imperative. If we "get it right" for the pedestrian downtown, every stakeholder tends to benefit: not just pedestrians, but bicyclists, transit, retail, residential, children, seniors, well-behaved motorists, the disabled and everyone else.

However, if we suboptimize bicycling, transit or cars to the detriment of other community objectives, the unintended consequence is that most everyone loses.

I believe that bike lanes and the removal of on-street parking downtown serve to suboptimize bicycling -- and I speak as a bicycle commuter.

How do we make the pedestrian the design imperative downtown? Some of the more important tactics include reducing dimensions, increasing commercial intensities and residential densities, and obligating slow, attentive speeds by motorists.

Probably the most powerful, affordable way to achieve the above-mentioned tactics is on-street parking. Such parking effectively slows cars and obligates attentiveness by adding friction to the street. Such parking is also essential for healthy downtown retail. And such parking sometimes
dramatically improves pedestrian safety by reducing the street crossing distance.

In a downtown, bike lanes tend to undercut each of those design objectives.

Shoup's "High Cost" book is perhaps the best book I've ever read in the field of planning/transportation (a must-read for all planners,designers and elected folks). In that book, Shoup certainly identifies excessive parking as an enormous problem in nearly all American communities.

However, he points out that it is subsidized, underpriced OFF-STREET parking, required in excess by nearly all local governments, that is one of the most important problems in American cities. Shoup is a strong advocate of on-street parking (especially when it is properly priced and therefore efficiently used). I believe he would agree with me that for nearly all cities (even those w/ too much parking), an extremely important objective is to substantially INCREASE the amount of on-street parking and substantially reduce the amount of off-street parking. And that as much downtown street frontage as possible be lined with on-street parking.

In a properly designed downtown, car speeds are low enough that it is not only safe and pleasant for pedestrians and retailers and residences. Car speeds are also low enough to permit safe and pleasant sharing of the travel lane by bicyclists. And in a downtown, for those bicyclists who are
uncomfortable sharing even a slow-speed travel lane with cars, there tends to be nearby parallel lanes off the main street for the bicyclist.

Important downsides for removing downtown on-street parking:

*Smaller retailers tend to suffer so much that empty storefronts result and retailers flee to more remote locations that are inconvenient/unsafe to walk or bicycle or bus to. In other words, bicyclists should be strong supporters of a healthy downtown retail/residential environment, in part because it promotes a compact community with short travel distances.

*Unless travel lane width is dramatically reduced, bike lanes tend to add asphalt width to the main street. That can mean longer, more dangerous crossing distances for pedestrians, and higher speed and less attentive (and therefore more dangerous) car travel.

Again, downtown designers must be careful not to suboptimize bicycle, transit or car travel downtown, since doing so tends to be detrimental to the pedestrian, which is the downtown design imperative. The irony for bicyclists calling for the removal of on-street parking downtown is not only that it is detrimental to bicycling. On-street parking removal downtown was (and still is) most loudly called for by the motorist lobby (which fought to increase downtown street widths and car speeds beginning about 85 years ago).

And for the record, I am a strong advocate of in-street bicycle lanes on most all major streets in a city. I believe, however, that they tend to be incompatible with a low-speed, human-scaled ped-friendly downtown.

Dom Nozzi

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Better Way

Here's part of an article from the Stamford Advocate talking about some place-making going on in Connecticut's fastest growing city:

New development rules aim at upgrading Springdale

STAMFORD - Future developers of land along a half-mile stretch of Hope Street will face new rules passed Monday in an effort to give Springdale a more cohesive and pedestrian-friendly center.

The Zoning Board unanimously approved the new Village Commercial District designation for lots facing Hope Street, Springdale's main artery, from Mulberry Street to the Springdale Metro-North Railroad station.

The new rules require developers of new buildings to put facades near the sidewalk, parking lots behind the buildings and install windows and doors instead of leaving walls blank.

"For the first time in Stamford, we're creating a village commercial district with a high degree of design standards and controls," said Robin Stein, the city's chief planner.

If the rules are successful, officials hope the resulting development would eventually make a walk through the neighborhood center safer and more pleasant, encouraging people to park once and walk to complete errands instead of driving from one shop to another.

Full article available here.

So what's so interesting about new and different zoning regulations in Stamford? Quite a bit, it turns out. You see, we like to fault developers, SUV-wielding suburbanites, and the highway lobby for the fact that most towns in this state are sprawling disaster areas. Think East Haven. The land uses in most parts of this state are so spread out and badly designed that the majority of people here have no practical choice but to drive everywhere. When people finally do get somewhere, it's all too often an ugly strip mall surrounded by noisy four lane highways leading to other ugly strip malls. While developers, suburbanites, and highways builders are certainly great to demonize and mock, they're not the biggest villains here.

The real culprit is modern zoning regulations. In most parts of this state, anyone who wants to build anything has little choice but to build what is commonly considered sprawl. Buildings have be on over-sized lots, set way back from the road, surrounded by seas of parking, and separated from any other different type of land use. In other words you can't live within walking distance of anywhere you might want to shop, or anyplace you might decide to work. That would be mixing land uses and that's a zoning no-no in these parts.

By the time they satisfy all the necessary regulations, most developers find that the majority of significant design decisions have been made for them by the zoning regulations.

This is what makes the Advocate article so interesting. In a state that many planners have reffered to as one giant suburb incapable of any sort of town planning, here's a city using zoning regulations to help a neighborhood before more walkable, more livable, and generally more pleaseant. What a concept! A constructive rather destructive use of zoning. A Connecticut town that actually gets it. Let's just hope the rest of the towns and cities are paying attention.