Cycling roundup

What would help you get on a bicycle and ride to the store – yes, you there, the one who hasn’t ridden a bicycle since childhood but might be willing to try it if conditions were right?  People for Bikes has a nice series trying to sell cycling to the uncertain “swing voter.”  I’m even more curious how the completely committed cyclists react, because the overall message is not about how great cycling is, but how to advocate for better bike facilities which make cycling easier for everyone.  No one should be surprised that perceived (lack of) safety is a big obstacle, but more surprising that the safety of better facilities is also not much of a selling point. 

And then there’s all the good stuff about cycling:

Economic benefits of cycling

Building business support for cycling by way of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.  This piece has a great little 7 step guide to advocacy from within.

The only happy commuters are cyclists, or can urban design make people happy?  Long commutes and the combined cost of housing and transportation costs, while not about cycling, are getting some attention.

And how Groningen, Netherlands achieved cycling greatness.  Spending 15 minutes watching the video is fun and shows real people riding around town.  If you don’t want to spend the time, the secrets are: (1) not a piecemeal approach, (2) connecting places, (3) making cycling easier than driving in some locations, (4) separating cyclists from high speed traffic, and (5) political will.  The other comment made frequently: cycling costs less. Here’s a comparison of British streets and Dutch streets to see how different places allocated space differently to accommodate cyclists and here are all the myths and excuses about cycling in one place.

Who pays for roads?

Who pays for roads?

Is it OK to kill cyclists? asked Daniel Duane in the New York Times.  In the US, if you’re going to kill someone, bumping off a cyclist with your car is a pretty good way to get away with murder.  Even here in England, where the cycling climate (and the regular sort of climate) is quite different, killing cyclists goes largely unpunished (though “my” MP Julien Huppert has been working on it).  Apparently, we’re expendable.

I blogged earlier about strict liability (where the driver of the motor vehicle is presumed liable for the accident, unless she can prove she is not at fault) and “my” MP Julien Huppert has also raised this issue.  In a related development, exposing the “blame the victim” problem with pedestrian and cycling fatalities is on the upswing, see this New York example (police say pedestrians should carry flashlights so cars don’t jump the curb and kill them).

After the NY Times piece, the Economist has a very good summary of the policy and what would happen in a variety of circumstances.  To sum up:

This regulatory regime places an extra burden on drivers. That burden can be summed up as follows: before you turn, you have to check carefully in the mirror to see whether there’s a cyclist there. That’s it. When you are driving in the Netherlands, you have to be more careful than you would when driving in America. Does this result in rampant injustice to drivers when accidents occur? No. It results in far fewer accidents.

 

Next link in the TIGER trail project

TH3, Northfield's car sewer

TH3, Northfield’s car sewer

The tale continues…after the City Council authorized rebidding the TIGER trail project in September, 4 bids were received. All bids exceeded projected costs and the low bid is $828,465 over.  Although it took two tries to get the bids and much procedural grandstanding, let’s catch our collective breath.

TIGER supporters would probably agree that Trunk Highway 3 is a 4 lane “traffic sewer” through the middle of Northfield affecting land use, deterring bicycle and pedestrian crossing, and dividing the east and west sides of town.  Since this is also the picture drawn by the Council-adopted Comprehensive Plan (and other plans and policies I get tired of listing for those Council members who ignorantly or willfully avoid them), their understanding is well-grounded in the city’s public policy.

The City has been implementing the policies by adopting more detailed policies (like the Complete Streets policy and Safe Routes to School Plan) and following through on smaller improvements such as filling gaps in the sidewalk network (despite the failure on Maple Street) in annual street projects.  But, TH3 remains a big obstacle.  The 2009 Multimodal Integration Study (which involved collaboration among City staff, elected officials, various City boards and business owners) identified several grade-separated “concepts” which could provide better access across TH3/TH19 and subsequently form the basis of a grant application.  The TIGER grant application selected one of these and the Council approved the application…and so on.

Here are my questions about the project itself (in no particular order):

  1. Costs of retrofitting: This project builds capacity for non-motorized transportation which has not only been excluded from transportation planning until quite recently but made substantially more difficult by projects like the Highway 3 expansion.  What amount is reasonable to remedy a problem created by a mono-modal transportation project (and how can gradual improvement be added back into the transportation planning and budgeting in the future)?  When answering this question, try to identify the ways in which government subsidizes automobile travel.
  2. Cost and value of completion vs. cancellation: The state and federal government are spending money on this project; in addition to the financial contribution, what value is there in completing this project on time, honoring our commitment, and developing good working relationships with the agencies?  When answering this question, map how transportation dollars are allocated to local government from other levels of government.
  3. How does this project link to other bicycle/pedestrian facilities?  Does building this link help increase the usefulness of those facilities?  What other future improvements will further integrate this link into the network?
  4. Compared to other projects of similar scope/complexity, are the bids reasonable?  This is another way of asking whether the grant application underestimated the cost and/or complexity of the project (and that we can believe the bid numbers are the “right” ones). 
  5. Downstream effects: This project will provide jobs, help increase value in the neighborhoods most directly served, perhaps stimulate development at the stalled Crossings development as well as providing Northwest Northfield residents with additional access to jobs and services.  What are these worth?

Yes, the project costs a lot of money and more money than anticipated.  But determining whether it is “too much” should depend on a thoughtful discussion of how the trail serves the long-term transportation goals, what contribution this project makes to future projects, and how we want to build accessibility and equity into the system.

I would like to hear the Council discuss and reach a shared understanding (if not agreement) about the policy perspective adopted by the City which seeks to address transportation beyond cars and maintain and improve the transportation system in ways which serve the entire community.  It’s a big subject which could encompass everything from walking to air quality to storm water to freight to land use to economic development…but the conversation should start and providing for non-automobile connections is one place to do it.

If a majority of the Council believes the current adopted policy positions are misguided, then change the guiding policy with community participation.  Don’t get to the point of decision on projects and try to dismantle the policy one vote at a time.

 

 

More TIGER news

“MnDOT recognizes the impact Hwy. 3 has on the divide between the two halves of the city. They want to see this project happen”

Public Works Director Joe Stapf was quoted as saying in the Northfield News.  MNDoT has demonstrated their recognition by agreeing to fund 80% of the cost of the TIGER trail over the original estimate currently estimated at about $600,000.

Wow.  The money is very helpful, of course, but I’m really more impressed with the rationale which is the clearest statement of a change of philosophy at MNDoT I could imagine.

But back to the money.  Grant funding has its problems, certainly, and is probably worth a blog post itself.  Biggest problem is the risk evaluation – my sense is that projects are chosen for grant applications not because they are considered essential and would be funded by the local government anyway, but because if we win the grant lottery we’ll get free money for a one-off special project.  But grants, like tax breaks and statutes, are also tools to carry out policy by awarding grants to particular projects, the Federal government picks what it wants to encourage (but that’s the ideal – see another TIGER criticism at Strong Towns of the Feds not applying their own policy rationally).

The TIGER grant project, according to the grant guidelines,

“is multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional or otherwise challenging to fund through existing programs. The TIGER program enables DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits, explore ways to deliver projects faster and save on construction costs, and make investments in our Nation’s infrastructure that make communities more livable and sustainable.”

Northfield’s trail is multi-modal (bike/pedestrian – and “multi-modal” really just means “not cars), multi-jurisdictional (city, state and railroad) and it is challenging to fund given MNDoT’s previous planning and construction of TH3 and by adding value to the core of the city and connecting the two sides of town, I believe it does make Northfield more liveable and sustainable with a very small bit of actual infrastructure construction.  The faster, cheaper requirement seems to have been negated by the multi-jurisdictional component, but it’s still moving pretty quickly for a complicated project.

I fully accept the Strong Towns criticism of the teeny tiny amount of funding for Safe Routes to School or Complete Streets or multi-modal TIGER projects – yes, the grants and special programs (can) miss the larger point that Federal funding of massive highway expansion and car-only planning (along with mortgage interest deductions and more policies) has massively contributed to the problem we are now trying to solve (or at least mitigate).

However, Federal transportation funding will not be revised or rescinded quickly nor will attitudes be changed overnight (and however much I like the Hatch/Baucus proposal to start tax reform with a blank slate, I cannot believe it will happen that way).  So, for the short term, I’m in favor of these programs to help raise consciousness, publicize noteworthy projects, and gradually change the state of transportation in the US.  I’m in favor of this project in particular because it is so well grounded in city policy and earlier projects (read the history in the grant application) and not just plucked out of the air.  MNDoT’s decision to help with funding underwrites this gradual shift in design and planning and gives Northfield a little boost in the right direction.  Not perfect, but a good step forward.

Now we wait for the bids and the Council must act to move forward, but in the meantime:

Thanks, MNDoT!

 

Changing the terms of the debate: fix car-centric language

42 Bromptons (folded) to one minivan

One of my guiding principles is to make “transportation” when used in city and other planning and projects include ALL the ways people get around urban areas rather than transportation signifying only cars and trucks and then struggling to include other sorts of mobility with special terms: public transportation/transit (buses mostly), non-motorized transportation (bike/ped), etc. You know, just like “astronaut” should be gender-neutral. The Complete Streets model is, of course, one strategy encompassing both a planning philosophy and a shift in language for describing streets and their functions.

In pursuit of better ways to talk about transportation and land use which might help get to better ways to design and build the infrastructure, I’ve stumbled upon a new favorite blogger – in addition to considerable expertise on transit and transportation planning, Jarrett Walker also provides thoughtful commentary on the finer points of language and rhetoric on his blog Human Transit.

Like this post: Avoiding car-centered language which is a tidy analysis of a City Transportation Language Policy memo from West Pam Beach, Florida.  The memo is refreshingly direct in identifying car-centered vs objective language:

Biased: The problem is speeding traffic. The traffic queued back for one mile.
Objective: The problem is speeding motor vehicles. The motor vehicles queued back for one mile.

 

Or, more simply If you mean “car,” say “car.”

 

Could Northfield be the next Vancouver?

I’ve never been to Vancouver, BC, although it’s been on my “to go” list for a long time.  Now, even more, I’d like to visit.  Why?  Their transportation policy (and the cross country skiing in BC is excellent).

Here in Northfield, we’ve struggled to make even small changes in policy to help Northfield grow in ways which encourage active transportation, productive land use, and a viable transit system.  Even so, every policy gets challenged (or simply ignored) when a new small decision needs to be made.  Complete Streets?  Great, until a street project must be approved.  GreenStep Cities and sustainability?  Wonderful, but seldom considered.  Smart Growth Comprehensive Plan?  Super, until we try to take steps to implement it.

Vancouver, however, thinks big and has since 1997 when it approved an influential Transportation Plan which prioritized – rank ordered – modes of transportation.  Vancouver has just approved Transportation 2040 which affirms the priorities for moving people (for moving goods, etc. there are separate rankings): Walking, Cycling, Transit, Taxi/Commercial Transit/Shared Vehicles, and Private Automobiles.

The hierarchy is intended to help ensure that the needs and safety of each group of road users are sequentially considered when decisions are made, that each group is given proper consideration, and that the changes will not make existing conditions worse for more vulnerable road users, such as people on foot, bicycle, and motorcycle. Each time a new roadway is designed or an existing one changed, opportunities for improving walking and cycling will be reviewed…This is a general approach and does not mean that users at the top of the list will always receive the most beneficial treatment on every street. In highly constrained urban environments, it is not always possible to provide the ideal facilities for all users’ needs.

Even better, Vancouver links transportation and land use (“Use land use to support shorter trips and sustainable transportation choices”), does not flinch from saying the goal is to reduce auto-dependence (“Manage the road network efficiently to improve safety and support a gradual reduction in car dependence. Make it easier to drive less”) and understands that the economic vitality and emergency response must also be part of the overall plan (“Support a thriving economy and Vancouver’s role as a major port and Asia-Pacific gateway while managing related environmental and neighbourhood impacts. Maintain effective emergency response times for police, fire, and ambulance”).

Here in Northfield, we need to try to be more Vancouverish (at a scale appropriate for a community of our size/location) for the long term health (financial, physical, environmental) of the city.  

Have we outgrown zoning?

 Zoning is no longer appropriate, writes architect Roger Lewis in the Washington Post recently.  It is easy enough to agree – zoning is essentially segregation.  We put big houses here, little houses over there, multi-family housing way over there (check out some of the history of land use regulation and discrimination), industrial out there, and commercial on the highway.  The inappropriateness comes from both the inequities, but also the community costs in terms of excess infrastructure and unproductive development.

So, have we outgrown zoning?  Yes, but now what?  Here in Northfield, we have a pretty smart comprehensive plan which could use some updating and focusing.  Then we have some really lousy land use regulations which are slated for revision (and with some luck and leadership, for reform or replacement).  What a golden opportunity to move beyond putting things in their zones to plan and regulate for the long term health of the community.

Some inspiration (a very small selection):

Long term thinking, not easy short term answers: some thoughts from San Diego based Placemaker Howard Blackson.  Placemaking is rapidly becoming a planning buzzword which could become just as meaningless as “mixed use” (an oxymoron when you think about it), but I’d like to think of it simply as: identify and work with the specific characteristics of the place – Northfield – rather than overly generic solutions.  Here’s another good one from the Placemakers.

Don’t just ask the community “What do you want/like?” but also educate residents about the features, costs and benefits of various development choices.

Downtown is not a cute museum: work to reinvigorate downtown’s image as the vital and distinctive economic core of Northfield which generates significantly more tax revenue per acre than other areas.

Think local: Consider how supporting local businesses helps keep money in Northfield (some info about co-ops, infill and redevelopment) and how land use and related regulation can help rather than hinder local enterprises.

Streets are really, really important.  The street network helps define the density of a community, connects places within the city and the city to elsewhere, plays a huge role in safety, stormwater, municipal costs, economic development, and quality of life.  Street decisions are also long term and very hard to change. Indeed, how we manage car traffic is critical to thinking about other features of urban development.  Streets matter.

 

 

 

 

 

How much is that tree worth?

Don’t mess with the trees

Here’s the next installment of “What’s it worth?” – the dollarization of different community “items” (see the Zoo here and bicycling here): what are trees worth in Pittsburgh?  The iTree software tools (“Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests”) from the USDA Forest Service helps calculate what trees are worth by helping assess an areas’s urban forest composition and health, calculating the “eco-system services” trees are providing (pollution removal, stormwater management, and more), trees’ effects on building energy use, and assessing damage after large storms.

Great!  Having tools to help visualize and articulate the value of trees, bikes, art, sidewalks and other community goods can help demonstrate how these things do impact the community and raise awareness of their importance. In addition, since allocating scarce government resources means putting specific dollar amounts toward various goals in a principled, justifiable, accountable and transparent way such tools can help leaders at least approximate the apples to apples comparisons which can make the task possible.  

But not enough!  I am thoroughly pessimistic when it comes to policy-makers moving beyond the very specific issue on the table.  Or perhaps I am optimistic that elected officials will be distracted by details and staff will stay within their professional comfort zones.  Missing the forest for the trees, you might say.

These tools don’t touch the structural issues in city budgeting.  If a city spends more money on streets because those streets are wider than necessary, serve unproductive land use patterns which are insufficient to support the infrastructure that’s been built, then there will be less money for everything, including trees.  Considering how to maximize public investment in both gray and green infrastructure needs to happen in addition to tree-specific spending as an option at the end of the discussion.

Such tools can perpetuate isolating functions rather than integrating them.  Trees are an excellent example.  Ideally, trees and landscaping should be part of the basic planning for how streets (parks, parking lots, and more) are designed to manage both the traffic (multi-modal, of course), stormwater, energy use, utility management, etc. and not just an optional add-on at the end of the process.  Ideally, iTree would help make trees part of the larger discussion rather than creating a new department of tree management.

So, yes, please use iTree to assess and manage the community forest (I do like this term for its implication of shared benefit and responsibility – those are OUR trees out there), educate the public about the heavy lifting trees are doing, and strategically target spending where it will do the most good.  But keep the whole metaphorical as well as literal community forest in mind when talking about the trees.

Walkable urbanism and the future of the world

Whoa.  I’ve been trying to make the case that policy folks need to be thinking about the long term costs of some of our development strategies and not just the instant boost to tax capacity of new growth.  I’ve been thinking about the local sunk costs of late 20th century horizontal growth, but Foreign Policy’s Patrick Doherty takes it global with a New US Grand Strategy:

In the United States, the country’s economic engine is misaligned to the threats and opportunities of the 21st century. Designed explicitly to exploit postwar demand for suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan, the conditions that allowed it to succeed expired by the early 1970s. Its shelf life has since been extended by accommodative monetary policy and the accumulation of household, corporate, and federal debt.

The upshot: the current path is unsustainable as the planet tries to accommodate 3 billion new middle class members (and the consumption that comes along with them), depletion of natural resources (see my previous post), “contained depression” (and not just a down business cycle or two), and a “resilience crisis” (the drivers of the US economy, crumbling infrastructure, and the soft infrastructure which connect us to markets is fragile).

So, we need a grand plan and the sketch provided includes reforming government, addressing climate change, and vastly improving resource productivity.  It’s a top down vision of national change, but I’m more curious about what state and local efforts can accomplish.  Atlantic Cities picked up on the walkable urbanism part of the solution, but what else could we do?

 

 

How much space do 7 billion people need?

How much space do 7 billion people take up? It depends.

Check out this infographic for a quick visual introduction to how population density and development pattern makes a huge difference in land consumption, among other things.  Per Square Mile points out that the simple visualization just shows the people, but does not indicate the amount of land needed to sustain the population in terms of food, water, transportation networks, building materials, etc. So here’s another image of the size of the footprint the world’s population would make depending on what country is used as a development model.

Density is one of the dirty words of development.  Higher density is equated with grim high rise apartment blocks, crime and overcrowding…although it is also linked to walkability, thriving urban cores, and lower infrastructure costs.  Mostly, though, density is very measurable on a project by project basis (number of housing units or people per acre is very countable and thus easy to administer).  See Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn’s criticism of density (and planners), too.

So, let’s not get distracted by density and think about productivity, land consumption and carrying capacity and ask: What patterns of development are more productive, consume land more slowly and enable us to live within our resources and how can we foster those patterns rather than the ones we have now?  

Dear Representative Bly

A very nice deck chair from the Titanic

Still a very nice deck chair from the Titanic

So, Senator Kevin Dahle’s tweet about LGA sparked a recent post and now my state representative David Bly’s newsletter has me blogging on a related issue.

Really, the issue is how can the public conversation begin to address the relationship between property taxes and their friends (LGA, tax relief of various kinds, business subsidies), the crumbling infrastructure and the services taxes must fund, and what spending decisions we can make to change this landscape for the better.  Perhaps Rep. Bly and Sen. Dahle understand these issues very well, but so far they are only choosing to write the quick and easy stuff for constituents.

Dear Rep. Bly,

Congratulations on your return to the legislature and thank you for your continued service. Just as I took your senate colleague Kevin Dahle to task over his tweet about increasing LGA in response to requests from district mayors, I’m writing to challenge you to consider and, even more important, talk about the larger picture.

In your weekly newsletter of February 8, you said:

I agree with the Governor on his assessment that we need to reduce property taxes. The consistent increase hits low and middle-income earners much harder. Middle class families have been squeezed too much in the last ten years. Wages have remained flat while the cost of living has steadily increased. Many Minnesotans are finding it harder to save for retirement and send their kids to college. As the Governor said, this is not the Minnesota we want to leave our children. We need Minnesota to be a state that invests in its people and provides quality, efficient services.

Your remarks indicate you are concerned about equity for middle and lower income families.  I agree, but question the strategy you endorse for achieving it.  As with my letter to your colleague Senator Dahle, I question whether you are going for the quick fix without even attempting to figure out how to improve the tax system in the longer term for a sustainable state budget.

In particular, the relationship among taxes, local government costs, and policy choices which have skewed the market and the landscape remains unexamined, but it is these structural issues which desperately need your attention. My vote in the next election for you or any politician depends entirely on your contribution to shifting the conversation from short term fix to sustainable policy.  In addition the issues I raised for Senator Dahle, I have these questions:

How regressive are MN property taxes?  A new report Who Pays? evaluates state tax systems for regressiveness; sales taxes are much more regressive than property taxes, but I urge you to take a look at Minnesota’s overall tax burden on its residents and how regressive it is.  Minnesota’s sales tax was created to fund property tax relief back in 1967; this seems like a very inequitable method for change.  Please also consider how previous legislatures have tried to shift the burden to commercial/industrial property with higher class rates and the state general tax; this shift creates superficial equity for homestead tax payers while imposing an obstacle to our economic drivers who, typically, require fewer city services.  Again, please evaluate how the system is balanced rather than simply reducing one component.

Property taxes, housing costs and location: The size of homes has been increasing since the 1950s and, as a result, so have the taxes.  Part of the housing and transportation cost equation depends on where we live relative to where we work, too.  Since your district has Northfield, Londsale and other communities which became more attractive to commuters to the metro area in the last decade, there are also many homeowners who pay a great deal in transportation plus housing.  “Drive ’til you qualify” may have yielded more house for the money for individuals, but also increased household costs. So, it is not too surprising to read that housing and transportation costs taken together are outpacing incomes.  If households are paying more of their income for housing and transportation, then property taxes will be more of a burden.  Before cutting taxes, think about how the incentives for more efficient and economical development can help reduce both government and homeowner costs.

How good is Governor Dayton’s plan?  I’m not impressed.  MinnPost’s Steve Dornfeld critiques the plan and finds 3 big issues: increased complexity (see the final report from the Property Tax Working Group, too), creating new inequities, and providing incentives for local governments to raise taxes in the future. I’d add that Gov. Dayton’s plan adds economic development policies which will continue to incentivize the race to the bottom which will continue to use tax dollars to lure business to Minnesota through tax abatement and infrastructure subsidies while also including new sales taxes for business services which follows the historical pattern of trying to offset property tax issues with sales tax.

As I said to Senator Dahle, I’m counting on your leadership to help develop policies which benefit all Minnesotans for the long term, not just the constituents yelling at you right now.  Of course, I also know that change happens incrementally as you work to build support and make compromises (and that’s just within the DFL) and that I am asking for a staggering amount of reform, but I am looking for you to shift the conversation away from reactive government to thoughtful, sustainable policy-making.  Good luck!

Sincerely,

Betsey Buckheit