Friday, January 30

Lynchburg-D.C. train in jeopardy

Virginia residents from Lynchburg to the D.C. area were given the exciting news last November that a new rail line was being proposed between these two cities. We were told it could be up and running as early as next Fall. The Piedmont Rail Coalition had worked tirelessly to gather support for this proposal from 21 separate jurisdictions throughout the area. It looked as if thousands of citizens would have one more transportation option, and that the US 29 corridor would finally see some needed relief.

But things are now tenuous ...

Senator William Wampler has introduced to the Senate Finance Committee an all-or-nothing budget for the proposed new lines,

"It is the intent of the General Assembly that no Commonwealth Transportation Funds shall be allocated for funding the construction of any segment of the TransDominion Express, or like project, until such time as funding for all sections of the corridor from Bristol to Washington D.C/Richmond is included within the Statewide Rail Plan."
Meredith Richards, of the Piedmont Rail Coalition, parses this legislation in no uncertain terms,
"If this amendment passes it WILL kill our new service and jeopardize new passenger rail service across the state."
Lynchburg is up in arms about this. "Pernicious," says the Chair of their Chamber of Commerce. I imagine that many citizens concerned with either regional economic development or, on a broader scale, environmental sustainability are feeling much the same way. An investment of $17 million a year will cover BOTH this line and another to Richmond. This is small change in the world of transportation funding.

Thursday, January 29

Some serious rubbernecking

My Mom randomly sent me this picture, and I think its pretty amazing. The date is 1912. I'm not sure where it was taken.

Wednesday, January 28

Cities are safest

Sometimes when I tell friends that I live in a particular neighborhood in the city, I get questions about whether I feel safe living there. These concerns are from well-meaning people who have generated a conception of the "inner city" (even inner-city Charlottesville!) from some combination of movies, rap videos, and occasional news items. I assure them that my neighborhood is friendly, and that having so many people walking around and sitting on front porches in the summer makes it quite safe. Almost all of the violence that does occur is internal to gangs or drug networks. It does not generally have an impact on law-abiding citizens.

And sometimes I wish I would continue on ... even the most affluent suburbs and exurbs are more dangerous. Driving is the only means of transportation in these places, and most accidents happen relatively close to home. Although automobile fatalities and injuries receive much less media attention, they certainly substantially outnumber homicide cases. At least, that's my common sense take on it.

Now, thanks to a new University of Virginia study by Bill Lucy, I actually have some State-wide evidence to back up this hunch.

"During the five-year study period, annual traffic deaths ranged from a low of 922 in 2004 to a high of 1,026 in 2007. Traffic injuries were about 50 times the death rate, ranging from 49,138 in 2007 to 52,083 in 2006.

For homicides, the low was 390 in 2004 and the high was 416 in 2003. Cities that often are considered dangerous, like Richmond and Norfolk, ranked 19th and 30th in the number of traffic and homicide-by-stranger deaths among the 49 metropolitan-area jurisdictions included in the ranking.

The 10 safest jurisdictions were eight cities — Manassas Park, Falls Church, Alexandria, Manassas, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Virginia Beach and Colonial Heights — and two counties, Arlington and Fairfax.

The 10 most dangerous jurisdictions were low-population-density counties: in order, Charles City, Clarke, New Kent, Dinwiddie, Greene, Goochland, Fauquier, Fluvanna, Prince George and Campbell

Monday, January 26

Some looming transit cuts

The Washington Metro stepped into the international spotlight for last weeks presidential inauguration, and, by all accounts, they passed the test with flying colors. The WMATA shattered their previous ridership records on Tuesday, moving an estimated 1.1 million people around the city by train. Over the weekend, I talked to a system's engineer who used Metro for the Inauguration. He spelled out to me exactly how many factors had to be perfectly in place for the whole day to come together, everything from running peak electricity for an entire day to coordinating the auxiliary bus routes. He was very impressed. When something goes wrong the entire nation scrambles to assign blame, but the jobs well done often pass on in silence.

Transit agencies such as WMATA are feeling the strain of meeting increased ridership demands with shriveling funding sources. Transportation for America put up a handy map this morning to give some attention to all of the service and job cuts (and fare increases) transit agencies around the country are facing in the near future. The hope is that some of the stimulus pie may be put to work right away in these organizations who are already up and running, already employing plenty of workers, and playing a critical role in our cities.

Friday, January 23

Parking my bicycle (or trying to)

I stopped by Bodos Bagels on Preston Street for lunch yesterday and had a hard time finding a place to lock my bike. Almost no commercial establishments in Charlottesville have bike racks, but usually I can find a fence or post to wrap my chain around. In this case, it was a struggle. Poking around the dumpster area, I found a pleasant employee who guided me to this old drive-through sign that I could use as a bike rack. I suppose it worked, but I just hoped a second bicyclist didn't show up.

In line for my (delicious) bagel sandwich, I mentioned to the employee that they ought to consider putting in a bike rack out front. There is a dirt patch protruding from the parking lot that would be perfect. He must have confused my I'm-being-polite smile for an I'm-joking-with-you smile, because his answer was, "that would be hilarious." Not exactly what I was going for.

At home, I probed through the city ordinances to see what it had to say about provisions for bicycle parking. Annotations are mine:

"Sec. 34-881. Bicycle storage facilities.

Adequate bicycle storage facilities may be required for sororities, fraternities, dormitories, boarding houses and similar uses, multi-family dwelling structures with five (5) or more units, and all nonresidential uses utilized by the public, where such facilities are deemed by the director of neighborhood development services or the planning commission to be in the public interest [not commercial, office, industrial]. No such facilities may be required in excess of the following standards [maximums no minimums]:

(1) Sororities, fraternities, dormitories, etc.: One (1) bicycle space per five hundred (500) square feet of bedroom area.
(2) Multifamily dwellings: One (1) bicycle space for every two (2) dwelling units.
(3) Nonresidential uses: One (1) bicycle space for every one thousand (1,000) square feet of public space."

The language is vague, left up to subjectivity, and not very comprehensive. The Planning Commission doesn't even see any by-right developments, except under special circumstances. Off-street automobile parking is given pages and pages of explicit attention with absolute requirements, but this is it for bicycle parking.

I contrasted this with the ordinances from my previous community of Missoula, Montana. Bicycle parking there "shall be provided" for a variety of development types with very specific proportions, definitions, and quantities laid out in the code itself. Come to think of it, I never really had a problem finding somewhere to put my bike in Missoula.

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute provides a sample bicycle parking ordinance, culled from Best Practices around North America. It offers specific minimum requirements for everything from hotels to churches (1 spot for every 50 members), along with several design guidelines to ensure the the parking will actually be useful.

One of the points:

"Bicycle racks and lockers must be well anchored to the ground to avoid vandalism and theft."

That reminds me. Right after lunch, I rode over to the Albemarle County building. They did happen to have a bike rack tucked away to the side, but it was just sitting untethered on a patch of grass. By myself, I could pick the whole thing up with a bike and carry it away if I wanted to. And I'm really not that strong. I decided to stick with my usual strategy of locking my bike to the fence.

Wednesday, January 21

Two small places I like

Large developments and landmarks receive all of the attention, but the real character of a city is flavored by the hundreds of small places scattered around. Jane Jacobs had little positive to say about Central Park in her own New York City, but she reveled in the many "pocket parks" tucked away in neighborhoods across the city. In fact, her entire vision for neighborhoods of diverse uses counts on the shops, homes, even industry being small enough to fit together without overwhelming the adjacent properties with what she called a "border vacuum." Similarly, William H. Whyte's classic study, aptly titled Social life of small urban spaces, insisted that public space needs to be small enough to generate the energy of human interaction. Perhaps, in the words of another 70's iconic figure, "small is beautiful."

That's why I'd like to highlight two places in Charlottesville that I feel add significant value to the city, beyond their small size.

McGuffey park sits on a little hill two blocks north of downtown. Weighing in at only about an acre (the size of a largish suburban lawn), the park packs enough in to attract children of various ages and their parents. A walking path welcomes visitors to pace around, and gives a great opportunity for disabled residents to use the park. Benches and seats are supplied generously, welcoming people to simply linger for a while.

The park's location on a small hill creates the perfect balance between seclusion and participation with street life. This can be a difficult challenge for park design. Users want to feel safely removed from traffic, but barriers such as walls and fences create their own safety issues and a sense of claustrophobia. Being a few feet above street level solves this problem and opens up the view to the wonderful Episcopal church building next door.

While McGuffey is a new park, Timberlake Drug store has been in business for almost 120 years. I believe it is one of two places in downtown Charlottesville, where one can still purchase toothpaste (although there are rumors of a new grocery store). What I love about this store is that it has all of the charm and the prime location on the downtown mall to transform itself into a tourist-oriented souvenir shop, yet it remains the sundries store I imagine it has been all along, selling different drugs of course. A cafe in the back of the store is always packed with people year-round. I get the feeling this is one of those places that characterizes a living history of Charlottesville - a place that honors it's past without preserving it in ember.

There is no doubt that both the public face and the social or economic function of these places add to the community as a whole.

Thursday, January 15

The trouble with yellow lights

Traffic engineers have known this for decades, but I don't know if many people in the general public have given much thought to traffic signals. I know I hadn't until recently.

Consider the moment you approach an intersection and the light turns from green to yellow. You have a split second to make a decision between two entirely opposite courses of action, speeding up to pass before the light turns red or slowing down to a stop. This is a sharp either/or decision with no spectrum of moderation in between, and delaying the decision for seconds could jeopardize the outcome.

So how do you decide between the two options? You mostly need three pieces of information: your current velocity, the distance to the light, and the time before it turns red. The human mind calculates distances fairly well, but velocity is more complex, as it requires an estimation of how far away objects are as they pass through your frame of view. There are also several factors that can distort this judgment. The time of the yellow light is a bit easier to grasp, except for the fact that yellow light timing is not standardized and is up to the whims of local governments. Then you must decide whether an acceleration will allow sufficient time to pass through the light. And what is your risk coefficient? Are you willing to accept a 5% chance of a ticket or an accident to avoid wasting time? 10%? Is this coefficient adjusted if you are running late for a meeting? Remember, you have a split second.

And then there are dozens of other things competing for your attention. Are there other cars approaching from the side? Where does your lane continue after the intersection? Are there pedestrians attempting to cross? Suppose you are unfamiliar with the area, and you're not sure which direction you are going. And maybe you're on a cell phone or thinking about something important in your life. This is the context in which you must make the split second all-or-nothing decision.

We can all see where this is going ...

Stop signs, on the other hand, are unambiguous visual signals. When the meaning of a signal does not change, the human mind can form habits around its recognition. This allows for an immediate pre-cognitive response. Even more importantly, the stop sign indicates a single course of action with a spectrum of variation for correction. For example, if you misjudge the distance to a stop sign, you can correct this mistake by breaking more abruptly as you get closer.

Kenneth Todd, in a wonderful article "Traffic Control: an exercise in self-defeat," wrote,

"Traffic signal control is so unsafe that the official Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices already in 1935 recommended a 12-month trial of less restrictive alternatives. Today’s Manual lists 12 alternatives to be considered in preference to signal control, among them all-way stops and roundabouts."

Why do we keep putting them in? To enhance traffic flow, presumably. As a sidenote, the article brings up another crazy inconsistency. Pedestrians are typically required to cross the street at intersections, although by far the safest place to cross is between blocks. Sounds like common sense to me.

Tuesday, January 13

Friday's bicycle extravaganza

This Friday, Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT) is hosting their 1st annual Bike Extravaganza at Cityspace on the downtown mall between 6 -9 PM. Expect bicycles, expect extravagance, expect lots of fun people.

The Daily Progress wrote up an article this weekend on the planned event. It's nice that they are paying attention to this, but I do have to quibble with this sentiment:

"Like motorcycle riders, bicyclists have their own subculture. They dress oddly. They dodge cars. They like to toss parties and talk of two wheels."

Dress oddly? Recreational cyclists may don the spandex from time to time, but bike commuters usually just wear what they are wearing to work. There may be more brightly colored jackets, but that's less of a fashion statement than a method for not getting run over. The whole subculture label is something that, I think, ACCT is trying to counteract. For everyone from adolescents to grandparents, bike commuting is simply a mode of transportation with a variety of positive benefits. It's not a subculture. At least that's how I see it.

ACCT even produced this great video to promote this Friday's event:

Monday, January 12

In praise of Planning

A little while ago, I wrote a snide post about a particular article I came across in Planning magazine. But now I feel compelled to speak to the magazine as a whole. It really is a remarkable publication, with well-written and substantive articles on many of the topics I chew on here. In the recent issue, APA director, Paul Farmer, kicks things off with an editorial about Obama's stimulus package:

"This is an opportunity for the new team at the Department of Transportation to create a new vision for federal transportation policy, showing the clear link with related priorities such as climate change and infrastructure investment."

The clear link. exactly. He goes into some specifics from there. After this, the bulk of the issue approaches the cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul from a half dozen different angles, giving a holistic glimpse into one major U.S. metropolitan area.

I didn't expect to like Planning magazine. Maybe it's the blogging instincts, but I assumed that any major organization with a wide range of constituencies to please would speak in staid who-could-possibly-disagree platitudes about sustainability or equality. But the articles dive right into the specific ideas and tasks involved in planning good communities. In a trade magazine, I also expected to find plenty of "meta-professional" information on workplace conduct, job searches, lobbying for higher salaries, and so forth, but Planning keeps its focus squarely on the specific tasks planners have been entrusted with. Planning, typically a fairly localized profession, can gain immensely from the sharing of best practices from other regions with similar environments, so we need information-sharing sources like this.

Ok. I realize I'm being effusive, and, really, I don't have anything at stake in this. I just thought I would be non-critical about something - at least this once.

Friday, January 9

Walking and Thinking

"I can only meditate when I'm walking. When I stop, my mind ceases to think; my mind only works with my legs."

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau
I came across this quote in Jay Walljasper's The Great Neighborhood Book, and it provoked the realization that there is actually a long-standing connection between walking and thinking in the lineage of Western philosophy.
  1. Aristotle, according to legend, would walk around the Lycium Gymnasium in Athens as he espoused his ideas to the followers that had gathered. This group of followers were eventually labeled the Peripatetic school, derived from the Greek Pateo, to walk.

  2. Augustine of Hippo was anxiously walking through his garden, wrestling with the tensions between his own life and his neo-platonic ideals, when he famously overheard the children's song, "take up and read." His response was to pick up the Apostle Paul's epistle to the Romans, an act that he would later attribute to his conversion to Christianity.

  3. Immanuel Kant, in true Enlightenment fashion, structured his life around a precise routine. Every day, he would wake up early in the morning and go for a walk along a path to a nearby river. His neighbors were said to have set their clocks by the time he strolled by their house.
And these are just the famous stories I can recall off-hand. There seems to be something about walking that hits the perfect balance between peace of mind and energy of movement. Somehow I doubt that the survival instincts generated by a rush-hour drive to the regional SuperStore discount outlet and a lap around the parking lot inspires the same level of contemplation.

Wednesday, January 7

The Asphalt Factor

Everyone has been talking about the Obama infrastructure stimulus package in the making. The current plan is to pass money as quickly as possible through existing funding mechanisms into state transportation coffers, where many of the "shovel ready" projects happen to involve road-building. What has received less attention is the fact that road construction invariably requires asphalt, and hundreds of billions of dollars in pave-as-fast-as-you-possibly-can road construction requires a lot of asphalt in a short amount of time.

As it turns out, asphalt doesn't grow on trees. It's a byproduct of crude oil production, typically the heavier substance less easily refined into gasoline. NPR's Marketplace reports that there are already signs of asphalt shortages nationwide. When crude was so expensive over the summer, refineries invested in technology to derive gasoline-grade oil from what used to be only good for asphalt. According to Mike Pesce, owner of an asphalt refinery in New Jersey,

"The U.S. overall has a net shortage of around 20,000 barrels a day of asphalt. If these projects come in as we're seeing them come in, you're looking at a potential of extra demand in the United States of around 250,000 barrels a day."

Those are staggering numbers that I hope somebody important is paying attention to.

Three gut reactions:

1. If the ultimate point is to put people to work, one would think the goal would be to minimize material costs in order to maximize labor salaries. Skyrocketing asphalt prices would only serve to siphon a disproportionate amount of the money away from the U.S. economy altogether.

2. Maybe we could learn a lesson from the whole ethanol/corn debacle. Some commodities are so interconnected that their prices move almost in tandem. Could it be possible that just as the road-building binge reaches full steam this summer, Americans may not be able to afford the gasoline they need to use these nice new roads.

3. A diversified infrastructure stimulus plan would draw from a variety of materials, thus avoiding a shortage within any one industry. A more equitable balance between the steel needed by transit and the asphalt needed by roads makes more sense fiscally.

Tuesday, January 6

Plum Creek does the right thing

This is pretty big news, so I just have to indulge myself with a post about Montana.

The ongoing saga between Plum Creek timber company, the United States Forest Service, and the citizens of Montana has apparently come to a (tentative?) conclusion.

Plum Creek owns vast swathes of land in Montana, originally used for logging but now sitting in possession of the holding company. For the last two years, the company has quietly been in negotiation with the U.S. Forest Service in hopes of gaining easements to allow road access for potential residential development in the otherwise undeveloped areas of the state. Local citizens imagined the potential impact of wilderness lodges scattered throughout the open lands of Montana and the inevitable strain on public services they would incur. The prospect of protecting all of these second/third homes from forest fires was daunting enough. With a clear public mandate, the Missoula County Board of Supervisors expressed their disapproval of the plan.

Until recently, the expectation was for Mark Rey, of the department of Agriculture, to push the deal through in the last days of the Bush administration. But Plum Creek unexpectedly pulled out. From a letter sent to the Missoula County Board of Supervisors (and Mark Rey):

"Although we continue to believe that the easement amendment would be beneficial to the general public, given the the lack of receptivity, we have decided not to go forward with the amendment."

At least for a while, some of the pressure to sparsely develop the wild hinterlands of Missoula has abated.

The University of Virginia plan

A couple of months ago the University of Virginia's Office of the Architect released their 2008 Grounds plan (previous Master Plans were 1965, 1973, and 1990). With so much else competing for my attention, I shelved it for a while. This morning, sitting at the downtown mall with an hour or two to spare, I thought I would take a peek at the new plan.

UVA's situation is unique. The center of campus, Jefferson's "academical village," is not only a world heritage site but widely considered to be an original prototype for the classical American university campus. How can the University reclaim the Jeffersonian planning principles, philosophical as well as merely structural, while meeting the pressures faced by a contemporary education institution?

"Responding to changing demands of growth and transportation, UVa development since Jefferson’s time has shifted to common urban and suburban patterns/practices, unable to hold to the intimate relationship of the original campus. As a result, it is difficult today to experience the overall cohesiveness and clarity-of-place so evident in the early campus.

The 2008 Plan was created "in the belief that certain proven qualities of Jefferson’s Academical Village can be transferable to other parts of the Grounds

Some principles from the plan that piqued my interest:

  • A clear boundary to encourage a compact growth pattern. (specifically US29 and 250 bypass)
  • Identification of Redevelopment Zones already existing within the campus boundaries as possible infill sites
  • End of greenfield expansions entirely. The core grounds is where "all future development for UVa is planned to occur."
  • New Buildings will be broken into Academic/Mixed-use and Residential/Mixed-use, average 4-5 floors, designed to facilitate interconnection of uses.
"What planners refer to today as “mixed use” remains very close to the original Jeffersonian conception of the Academical Village. The University was modeled after a town or village - an all-inclusive settlement embodying Jeffersonian’s agrarian ideals."
  • Overall density of campus, as measured in Floor-to-area ratio (FAR), will be increased without sacrificing existing campus green space. Current FAR of the whole campus is .29, relatively low compared to other campuses in the United States.
  • Attention will be paid to four separate gateways, to establish a coherent transition into the campus.
  • Three central green spaces (including the central lawn) will be established as community centers for each precinct of the campus.
  • Even though some of the close-in parking lots are heavily used, there is no plan to augment parking facilities. All parking is appropriately priced.
  • Implementation of a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan with a number of elements to incentivize walking, biking, and transit. Actually launched in July of 2007
  • Heavy focus in integrating North Grounds into the rest of campus by increasing connectivity for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders.

Monday, January 5

A trip to Annapolis

This weekend I visited some friends in Annapolis on my way back to Virginia, and I had some time to walk through many of the downtown streets. Witold Rybczynski writes about the the original plan for the town in his book City Life. When the governor of Maryland, Francis Nicholson, needed to found a capital for his colony, he did what many of the educated class in colonial America would have done; he drew his ideas from the baroque designs of the Old World, specifically Paris.

Streets were laid out in a radial pattern, emanating from two major central squares. The plan clearly emphasized public space, with the institutions of civil government and church given the prime locations within the circles. Each street, even many of the alleys, had distinct terminus points providing a clear sense of direction and progress for those walking along it. Thanks to extensive efforts of historic preservationists, the center of town can still be experienced in much the same way today.

As it turned out, Annapolis and Williamsburg (the only other early baroque city in the U.S.) were commercial failures, and this tradition of urban design was thoroughly trumped by the more efficient and egalitarian grid of New York City.

Looking down the commercial Main Street toward the Annapolis harbor. The water is a clear terminus point.

The view from the other direction up Main street concludes with the Church at the top of the hill.

The residential East street points to the State Capitol.

The residential areas are extremely dense by today's standards, yet they are kept up nicely. We came across one average-sized residence on the market for $1.1 million. Even outside a major metropolitan area, it appears as if people are willing to pay an extraordinary premium to live in a walkable urban neighborhood. The rest of us, on the other hand ...