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.