Monday, February 23, 2009

Can Rail Save Connecticut Cities?

On Friday, I attended the 16th annual Gallivan Conference at the University of Connecticut School of Law in Hartford. This year's conference asked whether rail (light, commuter, and intercity) is the answer to the problems of the state's cities, and also looked at some of the legal issues complicating the expansion of railroads in the state.

New DOT Commissioner Joseph Marie presented case studies from other metros that built light rail lines, including Phoenix and Minneapolis, where he led construction of the systems. Marie admitted that in his 23 years in the transportation business, he had never built a road--an encouraging sign. He said that rail cannot save the cities, but would be a step forward given the right leadership, etc. Seems like a realistic if unhelpful assessment. He said that the DOT was committed to expanding rail service, but said that building new parking facilities was key to increasing ridership. Nothing said about intermodal transportation or accommodating bikes and pedestrians who use the rails.

It was refreshing to see another panelist, State Rep. David McCluskey, a member of the transportation committee, call Commissioner Marie out on the parking issue. Rep. McCluskey was enthusiastic about the prospects of expanding rail service in the state, but encouraged the new DOT commissioner to realize that its not only up to the DOT to solve the parking "problem." He suggested that the state had a role to challenge local governments to meet the goal of bringing commuters to the station. Rather than build new lots, the DOT could leverage the existing privately-owned lots near stations, coordinate bus transportation better, and encourage biking and walking to the stations. Rep. McCluskey said he sees the current economic crisis as an opportunity to demand more from local government at all levels and to change the complicated structures of government that makes it difficult to reform our transportation infrastructure.

Prof. Norman Garrick advocated for building rails in Connecticut cities as a means of "placemaking"; that is, using rails to reshape the way people connect with our urban areas. Rails make cities central to the transportation experience, rather than peripheral exits off the interstates. He cautioned that rail should not be treated as an "appendage" to the highway system, which is essentially what Connecticut has today in Fairfield County. He said that if everyone drives to the train, the rail will do nothing to restore the centrality of cities.

Finally, Prof. Sara Bronin discussed how legal regulations have shaped the placement and preservation of our rail infrastructure and the current legal challenges facing railroads today.

Given his enthusiasm for transportation alternatives to the highways, the audience seemed focused on testing whether Commissioner Marie would live up to these committments during his tenure. One audience member asked whether Marie intended to reform the State Traffic Commission, whose mission works against "placemaking" by focusing on auto capacity rather than inclusion of pedestrians or byclists. Marie said that the mixed transit model which characterizes our state's DOT is actually the goal of most state transit agencies because it allow for flexibility in planning transportation. He said that the CT DOT was getting "better balance" in planning roadways. Another audience member said that Marie was "a world class jockey riding a hippopatomous," and said that the DOT was constantly sabotaging bike and pedestrian friendly projects. Marie defended his agency by saying that there were lots of capable people working at the DOT, that he had brought in some fresh perspectives, and that the agency was evolving in its attitude. He said that the DOT does not ask "why not" enough. But he added that the DOT was doing its "core mission" of maintenance well.

UPDATE: Connecticut News Junkie covered the conference, too.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Traffic cameras rolled out in West Hartford

West Hartford is experimenting with a solar-powered radar camera that takes photographs of drivers who travel more than 15 miles per hour over the speed limit at the intersection of Boulevard and Whiting Street.  Although the state doesn't allow towns to send tickets to drivers based on radar cameras (but legislation has been proposed and may be on the way this year), the town seeks to harness the power of moral suasion.  If you speed through that intersection, which is in a dense residential neighborhood near a school, you will be sent a photo of yourself from the town police reminding you of your bad behavior.

The town is setting up four displays, but only one has a camera.  The cost is $13,000.  The town claims this effort will be more cost effective than redesigning the roadway.  We'll see. West Hartford has been taking positive steps to slow down traffic along Farmington Ave. through various improvements and it's disappointing to see gimmicks when stronger action needs to be taken.  As a great example of a dense, inner ring suburb where many people live within walking distance of shopping, school, and work, West Hartford needs to do all it can to make pedestrians and bikers safer.  Perhaps if the traffic camera legislation succeeds, West Hartford's cameras will have the impact the town is looking for.  But it might be a better use of town money to combine that $13,000 with some stimulus money to do some shovel ready (ugh, sorry) traffic calming.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hartford's overpasses and walking

I like reading Real Hartford, which has great insights into this city's politics, culture and daily life.  While many people who live in and outside of Hartford tend to think of it as a ghost town after five, Real Hartford reminds us that a lot is happening away from our city's empty sidewalks. There was another great post today about the terrible state of Capitol Ave. between the UHaul rental center and Laurel St.  Hidden underneath Interstate 84 and the railroad tracks, this part of town is an urban planning nightmare.  The writer was on the way to La Paloma Sabanera (if you haven't been, it's the neighborhood coffee shop that you thought Hartford didn't have) and found that the sidewalk was icy and unsalted and covered with broken glass straight out of a bar fight.  The same sad conditions are present on my own commute to work along Park St. as it passes under Interstate 84.  When you drive to work along these major commuter arteries, it is easy to ignore the blight, but on foot, it's hard to ignore.  Over the years, there has been some talk of removing the so-called Aetna Viaduct, the stretch of 84 that runs over Capitol Ave. and past the Aetna HQ into downtown.  Turning 84 into a boulevard or sending it underground would be a great step forward for walking in Hartford.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Complete Streets Reception at the Capitol

A coalition of walking and biking advocates will be meeting at the legislative office building at the state capitol tomorrow afternoon to discuss the complete streets legislation.  It looks like the event starts around 3 pm and Rep. Tom Kehoe will be in attendance.  If you are in Hartford and have an hour to spare, this looks like it will be great event with substantial turnout.  New Haven residents and Yale students are taking two bio-diesel buses up to Hartford (facebook link here).  Is anyone who lives or works in the 'beat going to be walking or biking there?

Monday, February 9, 2009

DNH: Lost New Haven

Here's a great piece from Design New Haven on how auto-centric planning doesn't so much destroy cities outright, but instead slowly erodes and degrades them over time:

The New Haven Register covers a presentation that Mr. Joe Taylor gave last week to the New Haven Museum, entitled "Lost New Haven." Click here for a brief slideshow of Mr. Taylor's photographic collection, showing vignettes of what Downtown New Haven used to look like (note: some of these links may expire).

Perhaps no loss is as ironic as that of the Joseph Sheffield House, across from St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue, the home of two major city architects. It was originally the home of Ithiel Town, who designed Center Church and Trinity Church, both on the Green. It was expanded by his student, Henry Austin. The house was demolished in 1957 and now is the site of an aluminum-sided annex to the Dunham Laboratory...

Elizabeth Neuse of Hamden said she believed those who built the highways knew they were paving over history. “They knew what the devastation was there. They cut the east side from the west side, so State Street was radically changed,” she said.

Aside from all of the beautiful buildings (many of which, due in part to the tenacity of New Haven preservationists like Elizabeth Mills Brown, have survived in great condition), and a few neighborhoods that were paved over entirely for highways like Route 34, what is most revealing about older images of Downtown New Haven are the dramatic changes over time to the city's ancient street grid.

Many of these historic photos show streets which were narrow, walkable, lined with trees and wide sidewalks, and packed with pedestrians and cyclists. Although thankfully New Haven is still regarded as one of the most walkable cities in America, those same streets are now much wider, paved with thousands of square meters of expensive asphalt, and carry 3-4 lanes of high-speed traffic that is extremely dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. Church Street, which runs in front of City Hall, is a prime example.

Though arguably at least as significant, such changes are far less noticable than a demolished landmark or missing neighborhood, because as Jane Jacobs points out in her seminal work on American cities, "erosion of the city by automobiles" tends to happen very slowly, over time. A lane is added here, a sidewalk curb radius reduced there; speeds of 30mph rather than 25mph start to become acceptable (despite the fact each additional mile per hour of speed within that range nearly doubles the chance of a pedestrian fatality); parking spaces are added in place of a crosswalk, sidewalks neglected, curb cuts added; traffic lights re-timed to maximize automobile flow rather than the efficiency of the bus system, a no RTOR sign goes missing.

Individually, these changes can be barely noticable. For example, Chapel Street between Orange and State was widened by six feet after the Shartenberg building was knocked down in the 1960s. The work associated with New Haven's 35-story 360 State development and its $5,000 per month apartments won't include the rebuilding of the street back to its original pedestrian-friendly configuration. That extra six feet of road to cross on foot might not seem much to an able bodied person, but it could easy cost someone's life. Incrementally, these small acts of erosion serve to discourage walking, bicycling and transit use across the entire city.

Full post here.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A tale of two cities

I'm going up to meet with contributing blogger Adam in Hartford, AKA the "heartbeat" tonight. It's not often that I go up to our state's capitol, so I'll be sure to take some good pictures of the pedestrian amenities there. For two cities in the same state that are almost exactly the same size, the street life downtown couldn't be more

Hartford is a government town plain and simple. There's a vibrant dowtown during the working day, but after 5 PM aside from the bars, the place is a ghost town.

New Haven is college town. At one point it was more of a traditional city with a strong industrial base, but that base has mostly left, leaving Yale University as the biggest driver of the local economy. The upside to a college town is that while it may lack the busy and intense street life of a government town, it has more of a 24/7 feel.

In an ideal world, Hartford would attain more of a population beyond daytime workers and New Haven would develop a stronger employment base outside of Yale and both cities would have a bustling and robust street life.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The not so stimulating stimulus

More on the the stimulus from Design New Haven:

Economic Stimulus Bill "Discriminates Against Density"; Lieberman Gang Proposes Cuts to Transit; Senators Call For Prohibition on Bike Route Funding

Today's Boston Globe Op-Ed by Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser criticizes the House economic stimulus package for its major disparities between funding for urban infrastructure (such as viable mass transit systems that aren't 100 years old), and funding for suburban infrastructure (such as highways and rural broadband access). Glaeser argues that Congress needs to pass a separate bill to address urban transportation issues and make our nation more economically competitive:

"PRESIDENT OBAMA is the first urbanite in the White House since Teddy Roosevelt. He certainly knows the vital role that cities play in America. Yet despite the Chicagoan on Pennsylvania Avenue, infrastructure spending in the House stimulus bill follows a business-as-usual pattern that discriminates against density. The only way to break that pattern is to take non-repair-related infrastructure spending out of the stimulus, and craft a separate bill that looks beyond the current recession. Major infrastructure projects, especially in cities, cannot be done quickly.

Per capita transportation spending in the House stimulus package, including transit, is more than 50 percent higher in the 10 least dense states than in the 10 densest states..."

In other words, a very large proportion of the "stimulus" funding is proposed for use to build highways out into the middle of the fields of Utah and Nebraska, even as Americans drive less and less, transit ridership skyrockets even as service is cut back, and 160,570 exising bridges are in danger of collapse. Great for Caterpillar, Inc., but not great for the people trying to get to work in metropolitan areas like New Haven, where an "unexpected" bridge failure in Fair Haven recently inconvenienced tens of thousands of residents for a period of several years.

See the full post at Design New Haven.

And, from Streetsblog:

Senator Jim DeMint, the South Carolina Republican who said that directing stim funds toward bicycle and hiking infrastructure will not help the economy or create jobs, has gone too far. He and Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, another pro-highway Republican who is no friend of bicyclists, have just proposed an amendment that would kill all stimulus funds for bike and hiking trails.

In a statement, Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) said it shows how short-sighted and out of touch Republicans are:

Investment in bike paths will not only improve our economy, and take our country in the right direction for our future; it is precisely the kind of investment the American people want. American families have indicated time and again in the passage of bond measures across the country that they favor spending on alternative transportation, such as bicycles and mass transit, over spending on more highway capacity. Americans want a real solution to the economic crisis, not just a band-aid fix. These investments will stimulate the economy in the present and point our nation toward the economic and environmental realities of the future.

Call or write DeMint and Coburn and tell them what investing in bicycle infrastructure really means:

Coburn's Washington office: 202-224-5754 or email.

DeMint's Washington office: 202-224-6121 or email.

Full post here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Stimulus Update

From Streetsblog, here's an update on the infrastructure portion of the proposed federal stimulus package:

The Inhofe/Boxer stimulus bill amendment for $50 billion in additional infrastructure funds appears to be dead, with official word expected soon from Senator Harry Reid's office. Sources close to the negotiations say that at least five Democratic Senators were not going to support the amendment if transit and water provisions weren't improved, while Senate Republicans vowed to obstruct such improvements.

Specifically, the Dems wouldn't support the amendment unless at least two significant criteria were met:

  • Allocating a minimum of 30 percent of the total to clean water and public transportation/passenger rail. Of the total funds allocated to highways and bridges, 10 percent would have to be set aside for Transportation Enhancements, i.e. bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
  • Giving the Secretary of Transportation discretion to redirect funds from states that were not adhering to certain criteria to states that were adhering to them. The criteria Dems and enviros wanted to see, for example, would not have allowed states to receive funds by showing that a project improves vehicular Level of Service.

In other stimulus news, Senator Kit Bond's amendments, which would have funneled billions to highway spending at the expense of rail and other modes, are not expected to reach the floor either.

This is good news. While we here at WalkBikeCT have nothing against highways, we don't believe in spending massive amounts of taxpayer money expanding them when so many other parts of our infrastructure are crumbling or otherwise underfunded and consequently under-performing.

A good transportation system is a balanced one. Expanding highways when bridges are collasping and so many towns can't afford to properly build and maintain their sidewalk networks is ludicrous. It's good to see that the dems in congress seem to be waking up to the fact that highway construction is not a panacea for all our our transportation and economic problems.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

This was posted on Design New Haven today:

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

ULI New Haven-Hartford-New London Satellite Hosts 2nd Event

On February 9th, the Urban Land Institute's new Connecticut-focused satellite committee will be hosting its second event in New Haven, in collaboration with the Westchester-Fairfield District Council. The event focuses on adapting to changes in the real estate and development marketplace. See here for details and to register.

Panelists include Lyle D. Wray, PhD, Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments, Dara Kovel, Regional Director for The Jonathan Rose Companies Connecticut office, and Mark Scheinberg, President of Goodwin College. Laura Turlington, AIA, Principal of the Downtown New Haven architectural firm Pirie Turlington Architects is the moderator.

The event will be held at 45 Church Street, a stunningly beautiful turn-of-the-century bank building which was recently acquired by Jonathan Rose Companies' Smart Growth Investment I fund. That fund is committed to "acquiring real estate near transit or in walkable communities.”
In many ways land use policy is the most important ingredient in creating walkable communities. We here a lot of talk in the press and blogosphere about bike lanes, sidewalks, and pathways, but if a town isn't built on a human scale where complementary land uses are within walking distance of one another, we're going to end up with more of the same auto-centric developmement patterns that have marked the last fifty years. So, if we want to see real changes in our transportation system here in Connecticut, if we want to have options that extend beyond the autombile, we first have to take one step back and look at the way we use land.

I'll be at this event on Monday, and I would strongly encourage anyone interested in walking, biking, complete streets, urban planning, or architecture to attend. I've had the opportunity to meet a number panelists and steering committee members for the group, and I can confidently say that this is a great group of people, with a lot of interesting and innovative ideas.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Leave it to Dixie

"The Naked City" is one of my favorite blogs. The author, Mary Newsom, continually comes up with interesting and original pieces. Here's an excerpt from her most recent post:

S.C: What NOT to do with stimulus $$

Want to know what not to do with your state's stimulus money request?

Friends of the Earth, with data from the Transportation for America Coalition has analyzed the requests from 19 states. While praising Georgia, Massachusetts and California, the report rips South Carolina:

"South Carolina’s DOT wish list is a perfect example of how not to spend stimulus money. The state has requested $3.24 billion from the stimulus package, with 99 percent designated for roads, 80 percent of which is allotted for new road construction. This despite the fact that South Carolina has an abnormally high percentage of bridges that are structurally deficient: 14 percent. And, although eight percent of South Carolinians use public transportation, which is relatively high, less than one percent of the state’s stimulus ask is designated for public transportation."

Here's another fun fact from the article:

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the report notes, "building 10 miles of four-lane highway is like putting 46,700 Hummers on the road."
This stimulus should be an opportunity to take a bold new direction. Instead it is looking more like the desperate continuation of failed policies by state governments and DOTs too panicked to think about anything beyond the financial crisis and their next fiscal year, future be damned.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Coffee Cat

Looks like it's alleycat time again in the Elm City. Check out the coffee cat this Saturday in Wooster Square park. If you haven't tried one of these events yet, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bicycling: A Few Facts

I came across this interesting list of statistics on cycling on the Bikes Belong website.

  1. It's time to get kids riding. In just one U.S. generation:
  2. Bicycle commuting beats sitting in traffic.
  3. More cycling means less dependence on foreign oil.
  4. Riding a bike is cheaper than driving a car.
    • On a round-trip commute of 10 miles, bicyclists save roughly $10 daily and spare the air 10 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Commute Solutions, Emissions calculations They also burn 360 calories! SmartTrips
    • Based on gas prices of about $4/gallon, the annual direct cost of owning, operating, and driving a passenger car roughly 15,000 miles is nearly $14,000. (It costs about $300 a year to maintain a bike.) Commute Solutions; Moritz, 1997

  5. Biking can help you live longer.
  6. Bicycling is good for the economy.