Wednesday, December 31

A Visit to Troy

Inspired by two recent KunstlerCast episodes on Troy, New York, I thought I would take some time to explore this fascinating city myself. I spent the first several years of my life there and just returned for a wedding this past week.

When the Hudson river was a main artery of the adolescent United States, Troy's location on the banks of the river was the perfect setting for a manufacturing powerhouse. That all changed, of course, and Troy became as dessicated as any other former industrial center - only, in the case of Troy, the timing was very fortunate. When more prosperous cities made decisions to cannibalize themselves in the name of renewal, Troy had to watch from the sidelines. Many of their own feeble attempts at self-destruction never really got off the ground. Today's result is a wonderful urban environment with much of its fabric still intact, some buildings restored nicely directly adjacent to others with considerable restoration potential.

Here are some annotated pictures of my trip:

Blocks and blocks of Victorian row house are maintained. The architectural variety offers a colorful diversity while still blending together.

Some newer buildings are more successfully knit in than others. A new bank, built in the Georgian style near this picture, looks like it was just dropped in from Williamsburg. Someone must have believed that as long as it was old it would fit.

The Troy Music Hall is apparently one of the four "acoustically perfect" music halls in the world, the only one in the United States approved by Steinway for recordings. It shares the building with a bank.

Service alleys like the one pictured were always a great way to offer additional connectivity.

Monument square is clearly the central "living room" of the city.

Also on the square, this central focal point is strung with Christmas lights.

The concrete slab of a city hall constitutes the third side of monument square (Monument triangle?). It was apparently cool when it was built, but it's now being taken down. I've heard conflicting reports of what will go there. Some say open space, others a mixed-use building, or some combination of the two.

The "Grand Staircase" was once the connection between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on the hill and the city. Now it dumps you into the back of a motel parking lot.

The view from the top of the stairs. Notice the intentional symmetry with main street, with the off-center motel in between.

My father tells me highway engineers, in the mid-60s, wanted to run an expressway right at the bottom of the staircase. This was before the era of grassroots opposition when highwaymen got pretty much what they wanted. In Troy the plan apparently fizzled due to lack of finances.

Tuesday, December 23

Dogs on Private Property

There is an interesting property rights debate that has been simmering over the course of the last year in rural Virginia, and the recent opening of deer season has elevated the dispute again into the public spotlight. It revolves around whether hunters should be allowed to retrieve their dogs from private property. Virginians have been hound-hunting since there was a Virginia, and there had always been a tacit agreement that hounds could be retrieved if they strayed onto someone else's land. More recently, the State of Virginia has codified this privilege in a "right-to-retrieve" law that gives some conditions on how a dog can be fetched from private property.

However, according to state officials rural landowners have been increasingly complaining about hunters on their property. A study was initiated over whether landowners ought to possess the right to exclude from their property hunters in search of their dogs. Hound-hunters, on the other hand, are concerned that their own heritage may be lost.

What makes this interesting, from the perspective of this blog, is what may be fueling this emerging cultural clash between hunters and landowners. As an MSNBC report explains,

"A big part of the friction involves loss of rural habitat due to development. In Virginia, land is being developed at more than three times the rate of population growth, according to "Hunting with Hounds in Virginia: A Way Forward," a state-commissioned report. The upshot: More dogs are running on private lands, riling property owners."
Whatever side your sympathies lay on, it's pretty clear that the writing is on the wall for hound-hunting in Virginia - at least if land use trends continue as they have been for the last few decades.

Saturday, December 20

Car Talk Infrastructure plan

I've mentioned before that I'm an NPR junkie, and nothing is more classic NPR than Car Talk. I have been entertained by the banter between Tom and Ray for as long as I can remember, and I don't think I could even find the carburetor under the hood of our Corolla.

This morning, while sitting down to a cup a coffee, I was surprised to hear Ray answer his brother in all earnestness, "no, no, I'm serious about this." He had something he needed to get off his chest. 

He suggested a 50 cent gas tax increase, in order to encourage Americans to drive less and produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. The time is right while gas is so cheap, he said. The "cherry on top" of this suggestion was to use the billions in funds generated to build high-speed rail infrastructure between cities. The government could help GM, Ford, and Chrysler create train manufacturing divisions that would employ American workers for the task.
"The idea's time has come and I call on all non-wussie politicians, even the wussie ones, to get in line and stand with me. I'm calling on the president-elect too, because our country needs this! Whew, I have spoken."
Listen to the segment here.

Thursday, December 18

Paul Weyrich

Paul Weyrich, one of the key figures in modern Conservatism, passed away earlier today. He's known for such things as co-founding the Heritage Foundation, coining the term "moral majority," and helping Reagan into office. But what some people may not know is that he was a tireless advocate for mass transit throughout his entire life.

A year-end reflection he wrote, published today actually, contains this line,

"It is the worst of times because the Bush Administration has turned down 70 some cities which want light rail or streetcars. It is the best of times because Amtrak has set records in number of passengers carried. It is the worst of times because the airlines carry more people on one day than Amtrak does in a year."
Last month, he appeared on the Conservative Townhall site to tout election day transit victories. The 15 comments are nearly unanimously against him, which only underscores how much of a voice in the wilderness he has been in his own movement on this subject. He has made no pretense in hiding his opposition to the Bush administration, and he even abstained from supporting John McCain in the past election on account of his views on rail. From time to time, he has sharply criticised certain strains of Conservatism,
"Grassroots conservatives have told us that they, too, are disgusted by a conservatism that is defined as nothing more than "I've got mine."
Transit for Weyrich was not some idiosyncrasy, prehaps retained from a boyhood fondness for locomotives. It has always been integral to his worldview. He speaks with a reverance for traditional practices of all kinds, including streetcars, thriving cities, and productive farmland. Like Russell Kirk before him, Weyrich worried about a dispersed human habitat dominated by automobile travel. From a 2001 paper,
"In fact, we got to where we are through social engineering, massive amounts of it. In no other society in history have places to live, places to work and places to shop been separated from one another, separated so widely that you need a car to get from one to another. Why did it happen here? Because after World War II, social engineers rewrote the building codes to mandate it. In most places, if a developer now wants to build a traditional town, a place where you can walk from home to work or shopping, he can't. The codes won't let him."
Those who knew him attest to his unwaivering consistency of belief through many years.

Wednesday, December 17

Stimulus: Speed vs. Quality

Obama's stimulus package may be in the conceptual stages right now, but it's already stimulating quite a bit of debate. This is a good thing, because hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into our national infrastructure has the potential to shape the way we live for decades to come. We know there is at least a small window of time for the public to weigh in.

If it's possible to lump the viewpoints I've seen into two sides, I would break it down as such: the speed group wants to get money flowing through the economy as quickly as possible, and the quality group wants to be more cautious about which projects the money is spent on. This is not to say the speed group does not care at all about quality, or the quality group has no time schedule. Of course, both sides will say they are concerned with both speed and quality ("two sides of the same coin"), but reading between the lines reveals the crucial detail of where they place the relative importance.

The speed group sets economic revitalization as its number one priority. Just as Congress rushed to get the economic stimulus check to every household last spring and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argued this fall that a bailout of the financial sector was critically urgent, this view sets the same standard of quickness for any transportation stimulus package. There's no time for complicated innovations; we must stick with the "mechanisms in place" to surge the ailing economy with a cash defibrillator.

Not surprisingly, many of the transportation projects sitting on the waiting lists of State DOTs happen to be extensions of the status quo - highway lane additions, new arterial roadways, etc. From a planning and construction perspective, if this is what we know best this is what we can produce most quickly. There are also extensive networks of special interest lobby groups and quid pro quo agreements between various governmental bodies that would ensure that road-building projects are the most "shovel-ready."

The quality group would rather take the time to judge whether each project is in the best long-term interest of the country. There seems to be two different motivations behind the members of this group. Conservatives, already squeamish about unprecedented amounts of government spending, are urging caution. The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (tip from Richard Layman):

"It's important that the elected officials view public works investment not as a short-term stimulus for stimulus' stake, or a vehicle for politically driven job creation. The goal should be to create the best and broadest necessary and permanent infrastructure for the most responsible minimal price needed to build it. Being careful here is necessary because this is borrowed, finite money; it could become prohibitively expensive for the feds to borrow as debt levels skyrocket. Spending is not investing."
David Brooks essentially said the same thing last week.

On the other hand, environmentalists are also very nervous about the implications of quickly-built roads being strewn about metropolitan landscapes. Richard Coniff of the Yale Environment 360 wrote today,
"But so far, when it comes to [Obama's] economic stimulus package, the rush to get quick results seems to be pushing the environment to the background and sending the process down a familiar path, as lobbyists and contractors jostle for handouts in another round of what one commentator recently dubbed "K Street Capitalism.""
Friends of the Earth, an umbrella group of environmentalists, just kicked off a "new roads = new pollution: keep the economic stimulus clean" campaign with the goal of imploring the President-elect to steer clear of new roads altogether.

It's interesting for me to see these coalitions - not necessarily consistent with traditional ideological dichotomies - develop in response to such a critical question.

Tuesday, December 16

What parking would really cost

This month the City of Chicago voted by a wide margin to privatize their parking meters – the biggest contract of its kind in the United States. Morgan Stanley will hand over a cool $1.15 Billion in exchange for a 75-year contract allowing the corporation to handle Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters. As the city sees it, the funds currently generated from the meters could be made up for with just the interest from $400 million of the lump sum, and the rest can be used to help the city weather the tough financial times. What they are giving up however is the control and future potential of these important urban spaces.

From Morgan Stanley’s perspective, it’s a good business deal because they can actually charge market rate for the space motorists would like to use to store their cars (at least for a few years, then city council will have regulatory oversight over the pricing). In fact, most of the meters in the city will be quadrupled in price – and doubled again in four years. There’s obviously a fair amount of untapped potential here.

The rates will be the highest in the United States, and may even be comparable to some European cities. These higher rates are expected to make finding a parking space much easier, and thus reduce the number of cars circulating in search of spots. In the short-term these changes could lead to some financial hardship for middle-class drivers, but in the longer term behavioral changes will likely balance things out – that is assuming these rate hikes are accompanied with other viable transportation options.

The shift of a major parking supplier from the public to the private realm raises some interesting questions about the storage of our cars. Is parking a basic human right (like freedom of speech) that ought to be publically provided for free, or is it a commodity (like gasoline) that should be paid for by the individual user? Americans remain very divided over the answer to this question, but at least one major city has come down firmly on the latter side.

(tip from Streetsblog)

Monday, December 15

Another affordability factor

Charlottesville is having an important discussion over some new census stats on the affordability of housing. Almost half of the renters in the city are paying over 35% of their income toward housing, which is considered by affordable housing advocates to be an undue burden. Some have pointed out that the student presence here may be skewing the numbers, but these are thought-provoking numbers nonetheless.

There's a major element to this that hasn't come up: housing and transportation costs are inextricably linked. To measure housing without taking transportation into account is like asking for the price of one shoe without checking the price of the other. Rather than setting an affordability threshold at 30% of household income for housing, a better rule of thumb is to set , say, 50% for housing and transportation combined.

Failure to include automobile costs makes cities seem to have a higher cost of living, leading to the myth of "drive till you qualify" as you travel out through rings of suburbs. The reality is quite different. New York City, for example has notoriously high housing prices. 37.8% of the average household income went toward shelter. However, NYC actually has a lower overall wage-adjusted cost of living than the rest of the country, because transportation costs only consume 15.4% of the budget - more than making up for the higher housing costs.

It's fascinating to me how much the average U.S. household expenditures have shifted during the late 20th century. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, food was the biggest expense for a family in 1950. Since then, both housing and transportation have shot well above the food budget.

In 2008, AAA estimates the average annual car ownership costs at $5,576. Operating costs are an additional $7K (assuming 10,000 miles driven a year). Because of contemporary land use patterns, most families are required to own one vehicle for each driving-age person. However, living arrangements that allow a family to own one fewer car can translate to significant cost savings.

All of these numbers are needed to consider the economic health of a community.

Friday, December 12

Christmas season in public

I snapped this photo last week. The wife and I were pretty excited to find that the Capital Christmas Tree this year comes from the Bitteroot National Forest, the exact place where we fetched our own tree the last two years. Those connections between places are always nice.

Conventional thinking dictates that people want to be indoors during the cold months, perhaps shuffling between buildings on skywalks or walking through a mall, certainly not outside bundled up in layers of outerwear. But this is just not the way reality always plays out. How many crowds gather in "first nights" around the country, waiting in frigid midnight temperatures just to see some digital clock change numbers? People are surprisingly resilient, and we never lose that yearning for fresh air, public celebration, and the use of places we call our own.

The Project for Public Spaces has written about successful winter events around the world:

"PPS president Fred Kent and senior vice president Kathy Madden came back from a tour of European Christmas markets in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and Munich last year amazed at all the public activity in chilly weather. "People were out walking, shopping, going to markets, eating from street vendors. The city hall squares were full of events," Kent reports. "You did not want to go indoors at all because there was so much going on."

Unlike any other time of the year, the Christmas season allows cities to create and sustain public traditions. Ice skating in Central Park or the lighting of the tree on Rockefeller plaza are not only popular events, they have taken on an iconic status almost emblematic of New York City itself. The coldness is no deterrent at all. It possibly even enhances the experience with a highlight of perseverance. And there's usually a cup of hot chocolate as a just reward.

Charlottesville has a few winter public traditions. Last week, we paid a visit to the Lighting of the Lawn at University of Virginia. Students and residents alike meandered around Jefferson's academical village, while an extensive line-up of a cappella groups sang from the steps of the Rotunda. The various indoor events held in each pavillion, where professors live, integrated seamlessly with the outdoor festivites. Even the rain did not keep the crowds away. It just concentrated them under the extensive network of verandas.

The City of Charlottesville holds a holiday market on Saturdays on the downtown mall:

"Unique gifts & decorations to meet all your holiday needs will be offered at the Holiday Market. All items are Handmade, Homegrown or Home baked by local farmers, artists, or Bakers."

I love haw Bakers got the capital letter. Makes me smile (I used to be a baker).

Most people don't want to live a climate-controlled life all the time. There are ways cities can leverage the winter months to their advantage.

Room to breath

I changed the layout a little. The old template was not scalable to the window, and that had always been slightly annoying. It felt constrained, especially when I tried to place pictures alongside the text. With one semester of grad school down and a couple of weeks with a little more flexibility, this time seemed as good as any to give this old web page a new lease on life.

Tuesday, December 9

Brooks on Obama on Roads

What just happened here? A week has gone by, and president-elect Obama now sounds like he wants to usher in a new golden era of Interstate construction – and David Brooks is schooling him on the finer points of sustainable urban design. I don’t know whether a) I’ve misread both of these public figures, b) I’m witnessing some seismic shifts in ideological allegiance, or c) I’m just reading too much into too few words.

Anyway, David Brooks has apparently channeled his inner Bobo, dismissing golf courses as passé and embracing coffee shops. He sounds positively visionary about development trends:

People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.”

Given this shift toward community and compact development, now is not the time to make rash infrastructure decisions simply for the creation of jobs.

If, indeed, we are going to have a once-in-a-half-century infrastructure investment, it would be great if the program would build on today’s emerging patterns. It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.”

Monday, December 8

It's like a bus, except for cars

I came across an article in the magazine Planning with the intriguing headline, "commute by freeway and save energy." I had just finished reading a great story by Jay Walljasper on non-motorized transportation in the same issue, so I thought I would give this one a chance. Nope. For the life of me, I can't figure out how this proposal would do anything but add to the energy consumption of our current suburban commuting patterns. Maybe I'm missing something here.

The idea is to use 18-wheeler car carriers, the ones that dealerships use to cart empty cars around, to carry suburban commuters and their cars into the city for work. You would just drive from home to a loading station, dock yourself onto a truck with 6 -13 other cars, ride on the freeway to the city, unload and drive the rest of the way to work. Just like that.

So how does this system save energy? The idea is that these drivers would be using small, energy-efficient vehicles. Super. But this assumption is independent of the whole idea - if you've already switched to a SMART car why throw this massive truck into the mix? Now you not only have to use energy to cart your own car across the metro region each day, but you're responsible for at least 1/14 of a tractor trailer as well.

I don't understand any of the logic for the supposed "advantages":

"One driver can haul up to 14 small cars"

As opposed to 0 drivers if they just drove their own cars. Or if they took a bus, 1 driver could carry 50+ passengers and there would be no need to transport extraneous tonnage of steel to and from work.

"During transit, the land carrier's photovoltaic panels can charge the vehicles batteries, and provide power for lights, radio, laptops, and so on."

You could also slap a photovoltaic panel on a bus and share the energy generated more efficiently between all of the passengers. Or just put one on each individual car for that matter (once again, this suggestion is entirely independent of the whole car carrier idea).

"No commuter parking lots required."

Just lots more parking in the city, where the space is already apt to be tighter. And then you have to park these 18-wheelers somewhere too.

"The land carrier could serve double duty as mail carriers, thus reducing truck traffic on U.S. highways."

Does the U.S. postal service want to distribute mail in massive trailers designed to hold automobiles? How would they navigate residential streets? Even if there was a way to coordinate the shifting needs of these two entirely different systems, it would result in no reduction whatsoever in truck traffic. The trucks would just be different - and probably bigger.

And the truly surreal conclusion,

"To fund the land carrier system, I would look to the federal Department of Transportation, which now provides up to 80 percent of the money for many rail and bus transit systems."

Friday, December 5

A modest proposal for NIMBYs

The Not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) phenomenon has been a tough nut to crack for metropolitan regions around the country, particularly when it comes to accommodating the residential growth pressures that most cities face. On the one hand, it's a good thing for folks to take pride in their local neighborhood, feel a sense of civic engagement, and be a part of decisions that have an impact on their quality of life. This is something that should be encouraged. On the other hand, growth pressures are ultimately regional not local. When each neighborhood association challenges densification within their own borders, developers are forced to push out their projects to greenfields on the periphery of the metropolitan area. This has been the modus operandi in cities across the country for the last several decades, but most of us agree that the process is simply not sustainable into the future.

So here's a suggestion that may be too impractical to be an actual proposal - maybe more of a thought experiment - for how we can maintain rigorous citizen engagement with allowing new infill growth ...

When a neighborhood association expresses opposition to a proposed development, they should be asked the question: "If not here, where else should this growth be located?" They should then be required to point to a specific neighborhood on a map of the metropolitan region that has similar transportation access to the city as their own neighborhood. Transportation access should be the only condition, beyond obvious regulatory constraints (you can't point to a flood plain or a contaminated industrial site). This may be harder to measure in cities with a more polycentric form than more traditional cities, but some effort needs to be made for this proposal to make any sense.

Once a commensurate alternative has been selected, the local group opposing the initial development should have to meet with the neighborhood association in their chosen area and explain why the growth would be more appropriate there rather than in their own neighborhood. Face-to-face meetings would be ideal, but a letter could suffice if this is not feasible. If the citizens of the new neighborhood are convinced by the case and agree to accept the growth, the developer would immediately have by-right access to a site in this neighborhood (once again, taking other regulations into consideration). If they decline, the onus would be on the first neighborhood association to either select another location or accept the growth themselves. In fairness to the developer, there needs to be a time-frame to make these arrangements, after which the intial proposed site would have approval.

How would this play out? If anything, it could enhance individual citizen's ownership of their community and help them draw personal connections with other neighborhoods in their city. There may be parts of the city that would welcome new growth but are typically bypassed by developers for whatever reason. Developers would have an incentive take a closer look at these places. Finally, it should take the pressure off the exurban periphery of the city.

Thursday, December 4

The infrastructure we want

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has set up a website,, to collect public comments about federal transportation funding for the incoming Obama administration. As Streetsblog reports, their own proposal is par for the course for a highway lobbiest group - heavy on roads, light on everything else.

However, reading through the comments presents an entirely different picture. I've picked out a few snippets that seem representative to me (take a look yourself if you think I'm cherry-picking):

"That was $20 a barrel thinking. We need to innovate ways to get from point A to point B at $200 barrel oil."

"Support for mass transit and non-motorized transportation (bike/pedestrian) need to be a priority in transportation"

"bridges and overpasses need special attention for repair and renovation"

"More people bicycling would lead to a healthier population, less air pollution, fewer CO2 emissions, less congestion, and less dependence on foreign oil. However, we need complete streets that can be used by everyone, including bicyclists."

"We need places where we can walk to basic stuff of life."

"We need trains! Real, efficient, fast trains."

"Please, please raise the gas tax."

After reading upwards of 100 comments, I found only one person in favor of funding new roads. And this person identified himself/herself as a transportation planner for a State DOT. hmmm.

Monday, December 1

GM's Smithsonian exhibit

When I noticed that the new transportation exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History was sponsored by General Motors, along with State Farm Insurance, Exxon Mobile, and AAA, I wondered how this exhibit would be presented. I pretty much expected to see a gradual narrative of technological progress culminating in a glorious automobile age of unbridled freedom of mobility. After all, GM was the same corporation that sponsored the famous Futurama exhibit in the 1939 World's Fair casting this essential mythology of the American Dream into the future. Would not a complementary retrospective fit nicely into the arc of history?

But the story the exhibit told was quite different - much more honest actually.

From the plaque, "The Automobile and the City":

"In the 1950's, as new suburbs prospered and spread across postwar America, cities suffered. Rising car and truck ownership made it easier for businesses and middle- and working-class white residents to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind growing poor and minority populations and fiscal crisis. Transit systems lost riders and money and traffic jammed city streets ..."

And from another subtitled "sprawling metropolis":

"A rapidly growing dependence on the car helped reshape life in American cities and suburbs after World War II. It created the suburban landscapes and culture that have come to dominate much of contemporary American life ... Local and national transportation policy often encouraged suburbanization, to the detriment of older cities."

It's also worth noting that the "Interstate Era" was delineated from 1956 to 1990. It begs the question: what comes next?

Wednesday, November 26

"The first time Virginia has ever funded inter-city rail transporation"

ok ... just last week I was imagining a thriving rail station here in Charlottesville, and yesterday I discover that the reality may be closer than I realized. A new line will be added next fall between Lynchburg and Washington D.C. - or rather the existing AMTRAK line between Washinginton and New York will be extended down into Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT) plans to shell out $39.5 million, the full cost of both infrastructure improvements and three years of operating costs.

Says Meredith Richards, organizer of Piedmont Rail Coalition:

It’s unprecedented. This will be the first time Virginia has ever funded inter-city rail transporation.”

I'll be sure to reserve a ticket this coming fall.

Wednesday, November 19

The next four years of infrastructure

Transportation for America has just posted Barack Obama's response to their petition for strengthening America's transportation infrastructure.

Some key points:

"I support Amtrak funding and the development of high-speed freight and passenger rail networks across the country."

He expressed a commitment to work with States and localities on regional transit systems.

"As you know, all of these measures will have significant environmental and metropolitan planning advantages and help diversify our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Everyone benefits if we can leave our cars, walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. I agree that we can stop wasteful spending and save Americans money, and as president, I will re- evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account."

Super. A next president who gets it - that the transportation system we adopt is tightly interwoven with the land use patterns we develop. Currently, the Federal Transit Authority requires transit projects to take land use implications into account before acquiring federal funding, but according to a Brookings report in their transportation reform series:

"There are no requirements that local governments consider land use effects for federal highway dollars, but it is an essential part of new transit investments. Highway programs could benefit substantially if local and state agencies were asked to show how they will protect the investment by better interface with land use."

Ever since ISTEA legislation in the early 90's, the federal government has given formal assent to the notion that transit and highways ought to be on a level playing field. Perhaps the next administration and congress will be the ones to finish the job.

Tuesday, November 18

The weirdness of zoning

If you ever find yourself with some extra time on your hands, you might want to consider hopping over to Municode and checking out how your neighborhood is zoned. Do they allow dance halls? If so, what if they exceed 5000 square feet? How about veterinarians? Are they allowed to have tracks for animals to run on? Let's hope the crematorium check box is left blank - not even a special use permit for that one.

Charlottesville has 14 different mixed-use corridors. I don't want to make fun of this at all. It's great that this city has seen the need to overlap some of these uses and generate synergy in key parts of the city. Still, I wonder exactly how the decisions are made for what will be allowed in each district. An area I'm currently studying is the only mixed-use district to strictly forbid libraries. Yes ... libraries. Did someone from this neighborhood petition the City Council to keep all books out of his backyard? Were protestors carrying "down with libraries" placards? Or perhaps a planner working late into the night before a city council presentation simply forgot to mark the library box on the speadsheet, and the prohibition has become codified for all posterity.

I wonder how many of these idiosyncrecies are passed down from some ordinance written in 1919 (because Ebenezer Longfellow strongly believed libraries induced lascivious behavior). The occasion never really arose to address the issue, and even if it did nobody was really passionate enough to demand that anyone change it. When the zoning was rewritten in 1953, the boring parts were faxsimiled into a new chart. In 1986, it was simply a matter of copying into the PC clipboard and pasting onto a new spreadsheet. And now we have a living tradition of all of the hopes, fears, and couldn't-care-less attitudes of a community's desires for its land.

Monday, November 17

Is a dead-end public or private?

Most of us intuitively accept that we ought to pay for and take care of our own driveways. To ask the government of any level to step in and cover the cost of this private space smacks of socialism in its most extreme form. On the other hand, many of us accept that the major roadways a community needs to thrive are within the purview of the local or state government. Public funds should be used to pay for these. Pretty broad consensus here.

But what about those roads that are in between?

A high proportion of roads built within the last sixty years, particularly in suburban settings, have been deliberately designed to minimize public utility and maximize individual privacy. Take the standard cul-de-sac that serves a handful of households. The purpose of this design is to exclude the general public from passing through while serving the automotive needs of a small number of individuals. Does it pass our intuitive sense of fairness to declare that the entire public, say the local municipal citizenry, ought to foot the bill for what could essentially be considered a shared driveway? Perhaps a more important question: How does the government's decision of where to draw the line between public and private encourage or discourage the connectivity of the road system?

Many of these roads within subdivisions are currently funded with a mixture of private and public monies. Typically, the developer pays for the initial construction and the state (in Virginia's case) covers the maintenance costs. However, VDOT is considering shifting the balance away from paying for semi-private roadways at all. In technical terms, they want to require a minimum link-to-node ratio in order to fund the maintenance of any road.

"The link-node ratio is calculated by dividing the number of links (street segments and stub streets) by the number of nodes (intersections or cul-de-sacs). A perfect grid of streets will have a link-node ratio around 2.5 and a network of complete cul-de-sac or dead end streets with only one way in and one way out will have a link-node ratio of 1.0. It is suggested that a ratio of 1.4 will provide adequate connectivity in many situations"

This series of illustrations helped me understand the concept. Of course, this connectivity will have to be accompanied with traffic calming techniques and much narrower residential roads, but the ultimate result could lead to a vibrant multi-modal web of transportation. And our sense of fairness may find some relief.

Friday, November 14

The potential of rail

A few weeks ago, the wife and I were on a nice Sunday stroll down Charlottesville’s West Main St. when we noticed an unusual number of people passing us on the sidewalk. Certainly over a hundred people, all clustered together in small groups clinging onto some little brochure, were on their way toward the downtown pedestrian mall. I assumed there was some major event going on, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I asked a middle-age lady and her friend what the deal was.

Oh the train just came in. We’re all here on a trip from Greensboro, North Carolina.”

I later discovered that this is was a special tourist train that only runs two days a year. Imagine all of the economic vitality generated from just that one train. Not only did downtown have exclusive service for hundreds of visitors, but they were spared the enormous expense of having to find a place to put their cars while they shopped and dined. Walking tourists would be more likely to meander into open shops, generate the social vitality that tends to attract even more people, and – hey – all that walking makes you hungry.

I started thinking of what would happen if crowds of rail passengers unloaded everyday? Even multiple times a day? Charlottesville resides a mere 100 miles away from one of the most sophisticated and heavily-used transit systems in the country, the Washington D.C. metro. If we could somehow plug ourselves into this system, Charlottesville could reap the benefits of economic growth without the downsides of sprawl and congestion.

The whole city would benefit, as service and information economy firms based in D.C. find Charlottesville, with the University of Virginia right in the middle, an attractive location for operations. Currently driving up 29 North, with its numerous stop lights and rush hour traffic, is a substantial impediment to access to the Washington metro region. Conversely, many employees of firms in D.C. may find downtown Charlottesville a place they could commute from without having to own an automobile.

Some of the benefits would be localized.

The location of the Amtrak station could not be more ideal, sitting half way between the University and downtown. The City’s West Main corridor plan calls for mixed-use redevelopment of this underutilized part of town, but for some reason the financing and actual construction has not been entirely forthcoming. A busy Amtrak station could realistically become a third economic hub within city limits, bolstering the entire area within the 1500 ft. radius indicated on the map. The new life generated by Transit-Oriented Development has been demonstrated numerous times, with the Arlington corridor of northern Virginia a quintessential example.

These are some properties in the immediate vicinity of the Amtrak station that could use a little boost:

(Not pictured are a few underused surface parking lots and auto body shops)

The Organization CvilleRail has been advocating for something like this for a while now. At the federal level, the chattering classes are bringing up a renewed national rail network more and more frequently. With a new administration about to be sworn in, and a potential for a new Office of Urban Policy, these sorts of speculations may be more than simple pipe dreams.

Monday, November 3

The big parking questions

Parking policy is not mundane. Really. It has the ability to literally shape the urban form of a community. Greater Greater Washington reports on some potential changes in D.C.'s parking policy,

"The District of Columbia is taking its rightful place as a leader in progressive parking policy. The Zoning Commission last night agreed with most of the Office of Planning's recommendations to reduce minimum off-street parking requirements, implement targeted maximums, provide car-sharing spaces in large garages, and require bicycle parking and shower facilities."

This is a sensible combination of goals that could create a feedback loop resulting in more efficient use of space and energy. There's a broad consensus among those who study parking that any reduction in parking supply should be accompanied by an encouragement of alternatives to driving, and vice versa. Problems can arise if this balance is thrown off too much.

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute identifies this bundle of strategies D.C. is pursuing as the "new paradigm" of parking policy.

"Old paradigm: motorists should nearly always be able to easily find, convenient, free parking at every destination. Parking planning consists primarily of generous minimum parking requirements, with costs borne indirectly, through taxes and building rents.

New paradigm
: parking facilities should be used efficiently, so parking lots at a particular destination may often fill (typically more than once a week), provided that alternative options are available nearby, and travelers have information on these options. This means, for example, that parking lots have a sign describing available , that motorists may often have a choice between paid parking nearby, or free parking a few blocks away. It also requires good walking conditions between parking facilities and the destinations they may serve. Parking planning can therefore include Shared Parking, Parking Pricing and regulations, parking User Information, and Walkability improvements."

Charlottesville's recent parking study, conducted by Martin Alexiou Bryson and the local Renaissance Planning Group, fits firmly within this new paradigm. They recommend both pricing of on-street parking and providing "good-quality, attractive alternative modes of travel, so that people can and will respond to the price signals."

diagram from Charlottesville Downtown Parking Study

At this point, it remains to be seen whether the City will follow the advice of the consultants, or pursue the course of action recommended by a task force of stakeholders. A public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 14.

Friday, October 31

New Downtown Parking Garage?

A study of the parking situation in downtown Charlottesville has been released, and it's available online here. An important point from the study:

"On typical weekdays during the business day, there is currently enough parking overall for everyone. At the busiest time of the survey, only 63% of spaces were occupied. There were approximately 800 spaces available in the off-street public lots."

Yet a question may be presented if future planned developments all come to fruition:

"Planned downtown development are forecast to generate demand for approximately 1,700 parking spaces during a typical business day. This growth cannot be accommodated solely within the approximately 800 currently available spaces in the public off-street lots. As described above, some private lots may be suitable for public parking, but this may not be enough to accommodate the remainder of the forecast demand growth. If all the forecast developments come to fruition, additional parking spaces (and/or Travel Demand Management (TDM) aimed at reducing the parking demand) may therefore be needed in the future."

So ... there may be a problem in the future (assuming the current economy allows these developments to move forward), and the city could either:

1. Create more parking.
2. Encourage alternatives to driving downtown. (TDM strategies)

City staff has chosen the first course of action, and they want to act right away. On Monday, planning staff will address the City Council and ask for the financing and construction of another parking garage downtown. The city staff also wants to rescind Parking Exemption Zones (PEZ), urban areas in which developments do not have to meet the parking required by zoning.

From the study:

"The market is generally providing parking for developments within the Parking Exempt Zone (PEZ) at a similar level to the City’s requirements for areas outside the PEZ. The PEZ is not currently causing any problems. However, the City is concerned that once these
existing spaces are all in use, it may be less easy for the market to provide spaces for new developments."

Just in case parking in the PEZs becomes a problem in the future, the city wants to dissolve them and proposes that fees-in-lieu collected from developers who opt not to create more parking go toward the new parking garage. There is no mention of the alternative transit options suggested in the study.

Here's what Jim Tolbert, Director of Neighborhood Development, will tell Council on Monday:

"While the Water Street garage does not appear to be near capacity, the reality is that with the addition of the hotel spaces and its number of monthly permits it very soon could find itself displaying the “full” sign. When the two surface lots are developed, this problem will become critical. The proper course of action is to find a location for a new garage, secure the site, and begin plans for its financing and construction."

The entire staff report is here on page 64.

Saturday, October 25

Leaving room for families

Wendy Waters, at All About Cities, has some thoughtful comments about leaving room for families in urban redevelopment. The statistics show that most of the repopulation of cities has been done by young couples, singles, and empty-nesters. This lack of age and life diversity, as Joel Kotkin points out (over and over again), can be problematic for the future of cities. But Waters is more optomistic that families will eventually seek out this living choice, once some of the barriers to urban living are eased a little. The problem could then become the lack of living arrangements for these willing families. If we build all studios and two-bedrooms for current demand, how will we have the 3-bedroom townhouses and condos future demand may require.

Waters offers a creative solution:

"What if a building offered two bedroom suites with an attached small studio apartment of say 350 square feet. The studio would have its own entrance, like a back door, as well as a door connecting it to the main unit that could be locked. A couple or small family could live in the two bedroom unit and rent out the studio for a few years until enough mortgage is paid down or household income increases. Then, they could take back the suite and use it as a master bedroom."

A little flexibility is never a bad idea.

Thursday, October 23

Measuring the switch to Bicycles

Over the summer, plenty of anecdotal evidence was tossed around about how commuters around the country were leaving their cars at home and using a bike instead. There was a certain logic to this, given the high gas prices and heightened awareness of the social costs of driving. Yet hard empirical evidence for the shift has not been easy to come by. Traffic engineers have honed their car counting skills, but bicycle counting has, for the most part, fallen under the radar.

A few important measurements are coming in ...

  1. There is some pure counting going on. A new report on bike counts in New York City shows a whopping 35% increase from 2007 levels.
  2. You can always just ask. The U.S. Census American Community Survey for 2007 was released last month. Bikes Belong has some interesting statistics from this. It only records bike-to-work trips, but that at least gives some metric for the totals. We'll have to wait a while to see how 2008 compares.
  3. You can look at accident and injury reports. Minneapolis-St. Paul has seen an upsurge in bike commuter hospitalizations, and this in the face of many bicycle infrastructure improvements in the Twin Cities. This trend is probably a result of more bicycles on the street.
  4. Then there is the health of the bicycle retail market. Companies are reporting booming sales, even in the face of an economic downturn. This is particularly true of commuter models.
  5. The City of Houston reports that the number of cyclists using bike racks on their buses has doubled over the summer.
Add this all together and a pretty clear picture emerges.

Monday, October 20

Transportation for America now

As much as I admire the concept of various localities having self-determination over their transportation systems, this really hasn't been the case for a long time. As mobility has increased dramatically over the last century, especially since the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, oversight for the system has also required a wider and wider scope. With the complexity of interactions we now face, it seems that the federal government is the only act in town that can manage the task. Localities may get to tweak the road placement a bit, or push for comparatively more transit, but the essential backbone of our cities and regions has been ordained from above.

That's why the Transportation for America campaign, revealed last week, is so important. How so?

1. Every elected official in the federal government has probably uttered the ominous words, "dependence on foreign oil" hundreds of times over the last several years. Yet, alas, we are as dependent as ever on foreign oil. What's going on here? Maybe we have settled for blithe platitudes instead of doing the hard work of actually charting the course from A to B. Transportation for America has done this work, and the results are very straightforward and workable. Maybe each member of congress should be asked what practical steps they have made toward fulfilling their "energy independence" promises.

2. Lots of indices point to the fact that Americans now want walkability, access to transit, relief from congested and lengthy commutes. We are saying that in surveys, and we are saying that with our investments. The old mainstay of the apologists of surburbia has always been something about the American Dream, the ineluctable need for a huge lawn to play catch in, and some sort of "love affair with the automobile." How ever true that may once have been, it appears that our goals and desires have shifted considerably. Elected officials take note.

3. In the wake of a financial meltdown, our basic need for mobility will simply have to be achieved more cheaply and efficiently. Dragging around at least 3,000 pounds of steel with us everywhere we go will simply not be a feasible prospect even for the middle-class. The Highway Trust Fund is broke. State Departments of Transportation are broke. American families have to devote a growing percentage of their contracting budget to transportation. And digging a hole of further debt is no longer an option. The current course is leading nowhere, and it's time for a paradigm shift.

Monday, October 13

No need to be drastic

The Washington Post ran a front page article on a growing trend in insurance fraud: setting your car on fire. Apparently, more and more people are getting in over their heads with car payments, gas prices, and the overall burden of owning a vehicle. Some motorists are driven to the point of igniting brand new cars into blazing wreckages just to escape from repossession and bankruptcy. I learned from Lee Huang last week how much car ownership really costs, in comparison to using public transit. (For the Washington area, the APTA estimates over $10,500 a year). These charges all seem to go on in the background - a couple hundred here and there - and, like taxes, we take for granted that they just need to be paid. At least for the last few decades, this has been a non-negotiable cost in most of the United States, simply the entry price for participating in society.

The good news is that car ownership is not an all-or-nothing deal. There's no need choose between owning your own car and burning the car to the ground. We can own a fraction of a car - that is share. Instead of each member of a family owning their own car, families can try to get by with just one. In urban areas, Zipcars are becoming increasingly popular. I noticed three separate Zipcar lots wandering around Washington D.C. this weekend. Right now there are a full spectrum of ownership levels available, and as our nation's infrastructure (hopefully) evolves to allow us the opportunity to ease away from the automobile we can incrementally own a smaller fraction of a car. Political will and personal choices always move forward in tandem, step by step.

Thursday, October 9

Growth boundaries and the game of Go

The game of Go is probably the most elegant and sophisticated game ever conjured up. Unlike Chess, its only rival from the West, Go is a battle for territory carried out on a spatial plane. It consists of a multitude of small skirmishes all interconnected into a larger whole, hence the common dictum, "each move changes everything." Players are rewarded for long-range strategy over quick rewards, for big picture thinking over narrow goals, and for careful moderation over reckless excitement. As I'm learning about various strategies employed under the banner of smart growth, it occurs to me that planners can learn from this ancient game.

On it's most basic level, the game is about surrounding groups of your opponents stones. Yet this task is hardly as simple as creating a black ring around a group of white. The arrangement of pieces on the board is never a static position, but is always morphing and evolving into new forms. It doesn't take long for any novice to figure out that placing stones directly adjacent to your opponent is a losing game. The white stones will easily overpower your flimsy attempt to captured them. The idea is to back off a little and delicately dance around the group, slowly weaving a net and moving closer in as opportunity allows. This all requires assessing the target group's "influence" - its size and positioning of stones. The greater the influence the more room you must give it grow before having enough of your own power to surround it. Of course, this is only one drama that happens within the wider context of other similar face-offs.

A few decades of trial and error have taught cities some of these lessons. Early attempts of creating urban growth boundaries, or "greenbelts," around city limits had some adverse effects. Often they simply encouraged leap-frog development, pushing the new suburbs that much further from the urban core and putting that much more traffic on the roads. The problem, from a Go player's perspective, is that planners failed to match the power of pent-up demand for growth with an appropriate level of resolve for the boundary. You simply can't surround a group of white stones with a thin layer of directly adjacent black stones.

This doesn't mean that the practice of giving form to the urban area is futile, inevitably prone to be swarmed by the urge to sprawl. It means that an effective strategy involves a delicate choice of where to play stones. If a county or non-profit decides to purchase an easement, do they place the stone directly on the boundary or do they back off a bit and build a shape of influence for conservation? Just like a 9-dan ranked Go player, a patient community can slowly move in and shape their city according to their wishes.

Friday, October 3

Adventures of the Bike Commuter Act

Oregon's Rep. Earl Blumenauer introduced something called a Bicycle Commuter Act years ago, as a way to provide tax incentives for riding a bike to work. The idea was to include cycling to work as a recognized form of transportation and offer employers up to $20 a month in tax reimbursements for each qualified cyclist on the payroll. The language was woven into bill after bill over the years, but it never managed to hang on long enough to get passed and actually happen ... until now

... but somehow the circumstances are still sobering. The transportation fringe benefit was tucked into the sweetened bailout package that passed hastily all the way through the executive office today. It took me a good ten minutes just to find the darn provision buried in H.R. 1424 on the Thomas web site. The non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense estimated that $110 Billion in sweeteners were added to the initial $700 Billion purchase of mortgage-backed securities.

It's ironic that Rep. Blumenauer didn't even vote for his own Bicycle tax benefit due to his general opposition of the bailout.

Some perspective is important here. The bike benefit is expected to cost the federal government somewhere around $10 million a year, which is a small fraction of the amount currently doled out to help businesses pay for employee parking. Bigger yet are several more tax benefits for encourage automobile sales attached to this bill, and, of course, all of this is a drop in the bucket in the greater scheme of current events. Will this be the little push over a tipping point for workers around the country who have been meaning to save gas, get a little exercise, and help the environment? I guess time will tell.

Tuesday, September 30

Trains, for once.

Yesterday was actually a good day for AMTRAK. Buried in all of the media reports over $700 billion was a little senate vote to authorize $13 billion for Amtrak, mostly for safety measures but also to increase capacity for inter-city rail and high-speed lines.

A local group,, has been fighting for better passenger rail service through Charlottesville. They have the support of every governing body in sight. I noticed on the Uva blog today that there is talk of adding another daily line through town. In the midst of high gas prices, I'm surprised there is not more of a groundswell for changes like this. Most people I talk to think a viable rail infrastructure would be pretty cool (always referencing a Eurorail trip taken during college) but the conversation usually just stops right there.

Monday, September 29

Crisis not abated

Some passionate language from an engineer/blogger in California,

"This entire nation is dependently wealthy...dependent on cheap Asian imports, dependent on cheap Canadian and Mexican hydrocarbons, dependent on China not purging their dollar reserves, but mostly, dependent on hallucinations...hallucinations that we are somehow exempt from ecology, that we are entitled to perpetual motoring, that we can continue to pave over our prime farmland with strip-malls and exurban housing developments, that sprawl is our economy."

Some might say hallucination and others might say confidence, but surely this most valuable resource of ours has been drained even further today, now that congress has not approved the Paulson/Bush bailout plan. While the crisis has worked its way up the ladder over the last year into the largest credit market firms, it's worth remembering that it still is, at its heart, a housing crisis. The real brick and mortar problem is that there is simply far too much house, in both quantity and sheer size, out there and far too little real money to pay for it. It's also worth noting that the many of these "bad mortgages" we were supposed to buy are on the very fringes of developable land. That imaginary money was conjured up to finance paving our cities further and further away from their traditional centers.

Meanwhile ...

U.S. automakers have also been on their knees this week for federal assistance, and congress did authorize $25 billion to be wired to bank accounts in Detroit. Nobody expects this paltry amount to last for very long. I suppose folks need some way to get all the way out to those houses that nobody can pay for. The good news is that now that we are entering a recession, and demand for driving has slowed a little, we can feel some momentary relief from the steadily rising tide of oil prices.

Friday, September 26

The literal Main Street

Ever notice that many of the terms we use in our national discourse are, in a literal sense, related to urban form? This is interesting to me. “Wall Street” means the entirety of global finance (or at least the U.S. share if that can be teased apart). Yet Wall Street, of course, is also a physical location in lower Manhattan. “Main Street” is shorthand for the national economy as experienced by average citizens. The job market, inflation rate, exchange of goods and service all occur here. Then again, Main Street is also an idealization of specific historic downtowns throughout the country.

Yet these terms don’t fit reality very well. The flow of money really happens in the netherworld of the Internet and emerges physically wherever any shareholder or fund manager happens to be. Even many of the investment bankers who work at a Wall Street address actually take up residence in Connecticut, Long Island, or maybe Westchester County. Similarly, only a tiny fraction of the national economy happens on anything resembling a Main Street. Perhaps Walmart or the Toyota dealership out by the freeway interchange would be a more apt association.

Any pundit or blogger with a passing knowledge of finance is now weighing in on how to manage a “Wall Street” catastrophe, while shoring up levees to protect “Main Street.” I’m still stuck on the words themselves. Somehow we’ve retained these idealizations of both the big city and the small town in our language, even if these forms have, in reality, been exchanged for sprawling metropolitan areas or rural big box store shopping destinations. Maybe as these discussions occur in the “public square,” it’s worth remember that they are actually occurring in the privacy of our homes or offices in suburbia. Not too many soapboxes out there.

Maybe what this anachronistic language tells us is that we have a deep-seated desire for genuine places – even if we have to use a little imagination.

Flickr photo credit.

Wednesday, September 24

An Urban Tyson's Corner

The Washington Post reports that Fairfax County has approved a plan to urbanize Tyson's Corner.

Tyson's Corner was featured in Joel Garreau's 1991 book Edge Cities, Life on the New Frontier as the archetype of an edge city. These gleaming office towers scattered along a freeway interchange were deemed to be the "information age 21st-century nodes where the majority of Americans now live, work, play, pray, socialize, grow up and grow old."

But now it actually is the 21st-century and the original edge city is due for an extreme makeover. Is it too much to say that this is a transition of epochal significance? I guess we'll have to see how the transit lines, tree-lined boulevards, and art festivals actually play out.

Photo credit: Coalition for Smarter Growth

Residential Speedways

This is a residential street in my neighborhood that I travel along during my morning run. When I arrived here this morning, I actually took out a tape measure and measured the width of the street at 38' across! If I were in a car, I don't know if I could resist the urge to slam on the gas and fly down this straight and gently sloped mass of pavement. I bet you could even get some air when you hit the hill.

I should mention that there is both a park and a middle school on the other side of this hill.

Instead of writing my own snide remark, I thought I would just punt to James Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere.

"Highway engineers have developed a standard perfect modern suburban street. It is at least 36 feet wide - the same as a county highway - with generous turning radii. This makes it easy to drive well in excess of thirty miles an hour, a speed at which fatal accidents begin to happen. A perfect modern suburban street has no trees planted along the edge that might pose a hazard to the motorist incapable of keeping his Buick with in the thirty-six-foot-wide street. The street does not terminate at any fixed objective that would be pleasant to look at or offer a visual sense of destination - no statues, fountains, or groves of trees. Such decorative focal points might invite automotive catastrophe, not to mention the inconvenience of driving around them. With no trees arching over the excessively wide streets, and no focal points to direct the eye, and cars whizzing by at potentially lethal speeds, the modern suburban street is a bleak, inhospitable, and hazardous environment for the pedestrian."