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Atlanta Can’t Fix Its Traffic Problem Without Getting a Handle on Sprawl

Complaining about traffic is practically a sport in Atlanta. Which makes sense, since traffic in the region is absolutely miserable.

What’s interesting, says Darin Givens at ATL Urbanist, is how infrequently the people complaining about traffic mention the primary cause of that traffic — the region’s notorious sprawl. He says:

You can’t expect good alternatives to car travel to happen unless the built environment is accommodating to safe pedestrian and bicycle mobility. Atlantans often seem to have trouble understanding that relationship between city form and traffic flow, complaining that “MARTA doesn’t go anywhere” and not realizing that it only feels that way because the city sprawls everywhere.

Another way of stating this point comes from Fred Kent: “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

A recent article in the AJC explores the way that the automobile congestion on Atlanta roads is affecting decisions companies make about who they hire and where they locate: “Traffic becomes a factor for Atlanta businesses.” The piece includes this statement about public transit and how it is perceived as not being robust enough for convenient use. “Atlanta motorists and employers alike have long complained that the area’s traffic problems are exacerbated by a largely anemic public transportation system.”

Read more…

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Driver Smashes Through House, Hits Baby in Crib. Police: No Biggie!

Via Seattle Bike Blog

Whoopsie! Via Seattle Bike Blog

If you’re behind the wheel of a car, law enforcement will let you get away with just about anything — even smashing into a house and pulverizing a crib where an infant was sleeping.

Guess what the police had to say after a driver in the Seattle suburbs did just that? Here’s the story from Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog:

Someone learning to drive “mistook” the gas pedal for the brake and smashed through the wall of the Hampton Greens Apartments near the Bellevue/Redmond border Tuesday morning.

The person driving continued into a baby’s room and crushed the crib where the nine-month-old boy was sleeping.

His parents rushed into the room and dug him out of the rubble that used to be his bedroom. By some miracle, the baby was not hurt.

But after only a couple hours of investigation, Bellevue Police decided that nothing illegal had transpired.

“It was purely accidental,” BPD spokesperson Seth Tyler told the Seattle Times. “Our past practice is that we don’t cite the driver in that kind of instance.”

No harm, no foul. Cars will be cars.

No charges of endangering a child. No charges of property damage. Not even a token $42 ticket for “unsafe lane change.”

Read more…

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Will Milwaukee Fall for the Convention Center Shakedown?

Milwaukee's Convention Center has seen healthy growth in recent years. But a new study says it's not good enough. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

A consultant recommended that the way to fix dead zones near the Milwaukee Convention Center is to subsidize a bigger convention center. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

This is how it begins: Local leaders in Milwaukee commissioned a study examining whether the city’s convention center is up to snuff. Surprise, surprise, reports Bruce Murphy at Urban Milwaukee: Hunden Strategic Partners, a consulting firm that loves convention centers, says Milwaukee really ought to be pumping a bunch of public money into expanding its convention facilities and a new arena for its NBA franchise, the Bucks. Oh, and a large publicly subsidized hotel wouldn’t hurt either. This is the same outfit that did the study for Kansas City’s Power and Light District, which has turned into a notorious money pit for the city.

Does Milwaukee really need to double the size of its convention center and chip in for a 1,000-room hotel? Murphy does a good job highlighting some weaknesses in the report:

“The cost and investment of keeping the Bucks is one worth working hard for, as the loss of a team can be devastating to the downtown economy,” Hunden warns, but offers no evidence whatsoever of this contention. The clear consensus among economists is that there is no economic spinoff from such investments, and Hunden never addresses this.

As for the need to increase the convention center, its own data undercuts that recommendation. For starters, the study finds Milwaukee’s convention attendance has increased by nearly 130 percent between 2007 and 2014, while convention hotel room nights increased 26 percent during the same period. So the convention center has done pretty well in recent years.

As for what a bigger convention center might accomplish, the study’s analysis of the Wisconsin Center “suggests that the convention-generated business downtown is minimal. The sales generated by those coming downtown from the suburbs (and beyond) for major events, especially during the summer, is a significant impact on downtown.”

In short, the convention center is not bringing much business downtown. So why should the city invest more money in it?

Read more…

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Like Great Transit, a Compact City Gives People Freedom

The Congress for New Urbanism has posted a video of Jarrett Walker (of Human Transit fame) delivering a new presentation, “Learning the Language of Transit.” There’s a passage where Walker frames transit as not simply a mode of transportation, but a means to access your city and, ultimately, the freedom and opportunity to do the things you want.

Inspired by Walker’s talk, Dan Keshet at Network blog Austin on Your Feet says the same rationale applies to building a compact city:

Access here is the stuff of life. Can I get to that job interview on time? Can I get home from work in time to see a movie? Can I meet my friends for dinner? Does this okcupid match live close enough to make dating possible? When my daughter asks to play on the traveling soccer team, can she get to practice?

The context of Walker’s talk is public transportation network design. But access is just as much an issue in land use — what buildings, parks, roads, etc get built where. Whether you’re driving, riding, walking, biking, ubering, or whatever, the basic fact is that you can reach more destinations in the same amount of time when those destinations are close together. And more destinations means more opportunities — whether that’s opportunities to work, to learn, to shop, or to meet people. This was the basic lesson I took from living my own life in different parts of Boston.

This shouldn’t be a complicated or counterintuitive concept. Even with a car, traveling from one end of Austin to another is already quite a daunting trip to make more than occasionally. The more people Austin gets, the more destinations there will be — economic, cultural, or otherwise. But the more we spread out, the less access new and old residents will have to each other and to the destinations we create. We are foreclosing options by where we build.

Elsewhere on the Network: Systemic Failure shares five factoids from the IMF about the staggering scale of global fossil fuel subsidies — $5 trillion annually. And the Wash Cycle has some ideas about Capital Bikeshare can get subscribers to rebalance bikes.

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What Can We Learn From an Unbuilt Highway in St. Louis?

Route 755 was supposed to slice through the ? half of the city. But it was never built. Image: NextSTL

Route 755 was supposed to slice through the northern portion of St. Louis, but it was never built. Image: NextSTL

Back in the 1960s, planners envisioned a series of expressways slicing through St. Louis. And almost all of the Bartholomew Plan, as it was known, was eventually built. Today St. Louis has among the most highway lanes per capita of any American city. These roads teed up a wave of urban flight and astounding population loss.

One of the Bartholomew Plan highways was never built: Route-755 on the city’s north side. Brendan Wittstruck at NextSTL recounts the demise of the project:

It would have connected the City’s four major Interstates and provided an expressway route across the center of the City. But on its rocky path to fruition, it encountered a furious swarm of complications that would ultimately keep it from ever seeing construction. Public outcry, galvanized after seeing the adverse affects of earlier highways, took on a new and more powerful role in opposing the Distributor, and may have seen new, more effective tactics employed against the arterial expansion. Funding issues also served to derail the project, as did a cultural shift in how our nation views its major roadways. The North-South Distributor, the City’s massive unbuilt civic project, has within its history much of the story of the American roadway, and its failure remains — perhaps now more than ever — an important lesson.

The need for a general expansion of vehicular arteries in this country — from road widenings to the construction of highways and Federal interstates — continues to be predicated upon the assumption of a limitless propagation of vehicular traffic. Even as early as 1969, in the earliest years following the completion of the City’s major highways, Highway Department Engineer James Roberts lamented –without, it seems, a sense of irony — “these highways, particularly the Daniel Boone Expressway… are too small,” adding, “there’s just not enough capacity.” Discussions of the need to widen the highways were tragically immediate.

E. Michael Jones later wrote on what he terms “traffic generation,” pointedly arguing, “the automobile as a form of mass transportation is a self-defeating proposition. The more the culture builds roads and bridges and parking lots to accommodate the automobile, the more it creates the very traffic it attempts to alleviate.” Given the extreme dynamics facing urbanism between the 1940s and the present, it is somewhat difficult to pin traffic increase entirely upon arterial expansion, but Jones is correct to note that it did allow for more cars, as well as a more mobile citizen base that could commute from the County to the City.

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If Larry Hogan Kills Maryland’s Purple Line, It’s Not About Saving Money

Building the Purple Line, a major expansion of the DC-region Metro system in Maryland, seems like a no brainer. The project is almost fully funded, with federal, local, and private commitments covering most of the expense. It promises to spur development that will provide major economic benefits as well. Business groups in that populous and growing part of Maryland have been pushing hard for its continuation. But recently-elected Governor Larry Hogan has hinted that he may kill the $2.4 billion project since early in his campaign.

A vintage photo of the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Its members have been lobbying Governor Larry Hogan to kill the Purple Line. Photo: Library of Congress

Members of the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, Maryland, have been lobbying Governor Larry Hogan to kill the Purple Line. Photo: Library of Congress

Ben Ross at Greater Greater Washington says Hogan’s justification — cost concerns — just don’t hold up to scrutiny:

Given his sudden announcement last week of lower highway tolls, that’s clearly just an excuse. The real obstacle to building the light rail line is the pressure of a few well-placed opponents, chief among them the Columbia Country Club.

If the Purple Line dies, cost will be the excuse rather than the real reason. The project’s current financing plan calls for only $288 million in state outlays during construction. This is a very modest amount of money for a major transportation facility—the price of two highway interchanges. The savings that Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn has identified will make the number even smaller.

Over the six years of construction, Maryland will spend less on the Purple Line than on last week’s toll cuts. The toll cuts, targeted to benefit big trucking companies and owners of beach houses, will cost $54 million a year.

So what is Hogan’s real motivation? Ross says follow the campaign contributions from the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase:

Read more…

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The Case for Building a Garden in the Middle of the Street

The addition of this rain garden improved a Louisville neighborhood in more ways than one. Image via Broken Sidewalk

The addition of this rain garden improved a Louisville neighborhood in more ways than one. Image via Broken Sidewalk

Here’s a great example of how excess street space can be repurposed to beautify a neighborhood, improve safety, and bring people together. Branden Klayko at Broken Sidewalk shares this story out of Louisville, where a public utility helped a neighborhood fix a problematic intersection by building a rain garden:

Louisville's Germantown rain garden. Photo: Broken Sidewalk

Louisville’s Germantown rain garden. Photo: Broken Sidewalk

One of the top many-problem-one-solution projects we’ve seen is also among Louisville’s smallest interventions, and it’s tucked away on one of the German-Paristown neighborhood‘s most unusual intersections.

“If you look at this intersection, there are five streets that come together including an alley,” Wes Sydnor, program manager at Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), told Broken Sidewalk. He was describing the intersection of Ellison Avenue, Swan Street, Dandridge Street, and an alley that was once an enormous swath of asphalt with traffic coming from all directions and no signage or markings to help pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists navigate the expanse. “So you have an intersection where the signage wasn’t as clear as it should have been and as a pedestrian it was a risky endeavor to cross there,” he added.

Why was Sydnor, who oversees green infrastructure programs at MSD, so interested in traffic patterns on an obscure neighborhood street? Because the paving was sending rainwater into an already overburdened Combined Sewer System, and in turn contributing to sewer overflows that continue to pollute nearby Beargrass Creek.

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Capital Bikeshare’s Plan to Handle the Rush Hour Dock Shortage

Full docks are one of the big problems that bike-share users run into. Showing up at your destination and finding yourself without a place to return your bike adds time and erodes convenience and reliability.

Capital Bikeshare's "rebalancing" strategy is getting more sophisticated. Photo: Beyond DC

Capital Bikeshare’s “rebalancing” strategy is getting more sophisticated. Photo: Beyond DC

The problem is especially intense at commuter hubs, and bike-share systems in cities like New York and DC are ramping up their efforts to handle the extra demand. Dan Malouff at Beyond DC is excited about Capital Bikeshare’s solution to the vexing rush hour dock shortage:

One of the biggest problems limiting growth of Capital Bikeshare in DC has been that downtown docks fill up early in the morning rush hour. That won’t be a problem after Thursday, when two new bikeshare corrals open, offering unlimited bikeshare parking.

The two parking corrals will be at 13th and New York Avenue near Metro Center, and at 21st and I near Foggy Bottom. Once the regular bike docks fill up, a Capital Bikeshare staffer will be on hand to accept bikes and log out riders.

The bike corrals will be open every weekday morning this summer, beginning Thursday, May 14, and ending in September. If the service proves popular, CaBi may extend it into autumn.

Corrals will only be open during the morning rush hour, and only at those two locations.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Broken Sidewalk responds to Kentucky’s 49th-place ranking by the League of American Bicyclists. GJEL Accident Attorneys shares thoughts on some of the legal questions issues created by self-driving cars. And I Bike TO reveals Toronto’s disappointing explanation for removing a curb-protected bike lane.

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Too Many Cities Make Their Most Valuable Land Worthless

Downtown Memphis, as seen from a Bass Pro Shop. Photo: Charles Marohn

Downtown Memphis. Photo: Brad Tabke via Twitter

This image of downtown Memphis caught the eye of Charles Marohn at Strong Towns. A parking wasteland topped by a tangle of highway spaghetti, it was taken, perfectly enough, from the Bass Pro Shop that now occupies the top of the Memphis Pyramid.

So many cities have done the same as Memphis: take some of their most valuable land and make it worthless. Marohn writes:

On the left you have the city with all its people, businesses, hopes and dreams. On the right, you have the great natural resource of the Mississippi River and all its potential to enhance the prosperity of the community. In between, you have the wealth of the community — yesterday’s wealth, today’s wealth and tomorrow’s wealth — dedicated to moving cars and storing cars, culminating in the hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidy for the pyramid-shaped retail outlet from which the photo is taken.

What you see in this photo is the most valuable land in the city. There is no clearer explanation for why our cities are going broke than to see how this valuable resource has been squandered. There is no return here. No wealth. Just massive, ongoing expense passed from generation to generation.

This also explains why a great city like Memphis would feel compelled to gamble with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money instead of making small, incremental, low-risk investments in their core neighborhoods. They feel a desperate need to make up for the fact that their most valuable land produces nothing but expenses. That’s an impossibly high burden they’ve placed on themselves.

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Scott Walker’s Bid to Strip Street Safety From Wisconsin Road Projects

Scott Walker is putting the kibosh on complete streets in Wisconsin. Photo: Wikimedia

Scott Walker is putting the kibosh on complete streets in Wisconsin. Photo: Wikimedia

There’s really no argument: GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker has been an absolute disaster for transportation progress in Wisconsin. As governor, he’s slashed funding for transit, isolating urban workers in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, he’s increased funding for all sorts of wasteful highway projects, like the billion-dollar widening of I-94 in Milwaukee, pilfering funds for local roads in the process.

Now, writes James Rowen at the Political Environment, Walker’s budget would strip out Wisconsin’s complete streets provision, which requires sidewalks and bike lanes on road projects that use state or federal funds, where feasible. Rowen explains:

Current law already exempts the inclusion or sidewalks or paved shoulders for biking if the cost were prohibitive; Walker’s budget eliminates the requirement altogether, and since people will still bike or walk – – either by choice or necessity – – our roads will instantly become less safe and certainly less attractive for tourists.

Remember — not everyone owns a car, or uses it on every trip, or is a legally-licensed driver.

And also remember Walker is routinely hostile to transit.

Under Walker-the-Harley showboat, and Walker-the-chauffered-around politician, concrete is only for driving lanes, transportation means autos-only and more and more people are left out of public service provision with their own tax dollars.

Keep in mind that Walker is currently polling second in the Republican presidential primary race.

Elsewhere on the Network today: ATL Urbanist explains how bad urban design deadens a new public space. Rust Wire reports that Michiganders are really responding to recent investments in the state’s intercity rail system. And City Notes discusses Chicago’s less-than-ideal options for rail transit expansion.