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The Enormous Promise of a Carbon Tax-and-Dividend

Absent any foreseeable action from Washington, some states and localities are stepping up with policies that put a price on carbon. And that has a number of exciting implications for cities and sustainable transportation. California is using revenue from its cap-and-trade program, for instance, to subsidize housing near transit.

Enacting a carbon tax in Oregon would require overturning a state ban on spending gas tax revenue on anything except car infrastructure. Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland

In Oregon, advocates are now pushing a carbon tax that would rebate all the money to households. Even without spending the revenue on specific goals, carbon pricing would be a huge boost for walking, biking, and transit, Michael Andersen at Bike Portland explains: 

The group, called Oregon Climate, is pushing a concept called “tax and dividend”: instead of sending the proceeds into government coffers, all of the revenue collected from wholesale fossil-fuel transactions — gasoline to a distributor, coal to a power plant, and so on — would be pooled and divided evenly among Oregonians in the form of checks worth an estimated $500 to $1500 per year.

“This is the most climate-friendly progressive legislature that we’ve had, and maybe the most climate-friendly in the country right now,” Oregon Climate Executive Director Camila Thorndike said in an interview Tuesday. “States across the country have their eyes on Oregon, and we cannot let this opportunity pass by.”

Prices would rise in Oregon for concrete, gasoline, electricity and other fossil-fuel-intensive products. Dan Golden, Oregon Climate’s volunteer policy director, said Tuesday that their proposed tax of $30 per ton of carbon (increasing by $10 each year) would translate into about 27 cents per gallon of gasoline, increasing another 9 cents each year.

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The Remarkable Drop in Car Commuting to Downtown Seattle

Seattle has made impressive strides in promoting healthy transportation. Image: Commute Seattle

As Seattle has invested more in transit and developed housing downtown, the share of workers who commute without driving has quickly grown. Image: Commute Seattle

In a testament to how quickly travel behavior can change, new stats out of Seattle show that the share of downtown workers who commute alone by car has dropped significantly in the last 15 years.

The rate of solo car commuting to downtown Seattle was 50 percent in 2000. Now it’s down to 31 percent, report the Downtown Seattle Association and Commute Seattle.

Owen Pickford at The Urbanist provides some context:

The mode split by type has changed significantly since the last survey, which was completed in 2012. Nearly 4% fewer people drove alone compared to that survey and it seems likely that Seattle will reach its goal of 30% or less by 2016. The largest companies (100+ employees) in Downtown still had the lowest drive alone rate, but medium sized companies (20-99 employees) saw the most progress, reducing rates from 37% to 30% since the last survey.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic is that non-motorized modes have seen the largest increase. This is also great news for the city because it means people are living closer to work, which is likely only possible due to the immense amount of development that is occurring in Seattle’s downtown core.

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The “Urban Renewal Mindset” Persists in St. Louis

This building would be razed to make way for National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency relocation in St. Louis. Photo: Urban Review STL

This building would be razed to make way for a new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency campus in St. Louis. Photo: Urban Review STL

St. Louis is home to one of the more notorious failures of the “urban renewal” era: the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. When these towers were demolished a generation ago, it seemed like the end of an era in city planning. The clearance of city blocks to make way for mega-development projects is now considered a colossal failure.

But that doesn’t mean American cities have actually stopped doing it. The urban renewal mentality is still alive and well in St. Louis, writes Steve Patterson at Urban Review STL.

A current example: The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is looking for a new location for its St. Louis facilities, and Patterson says it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that a large portion of the city will be razed to make room for the agency:

Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities rebuked the ongoing land clearance policies advocated by supporters of urban renewal. By the late 1960s one of St. Louis’ most prominent urban renewal projects – Pruitt-Igoe – was a disaster. Before the 20th anniversary the first of 33 towers were imploded in 1972 — urban renewal was unofficially over.

But forty plus years later the St. Louis leadership continues as if nothing changed. The old idea of marking off an area on a map to clear everything (homes, schools, businesses, churches, roads, sidewalks) within the red lined box remains as it did in the 1950s. The message from city hall is clear: don’t invest in North St. Louis because they can and will walk in and take it away.

Here is a likely scenario for the relocation of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Patterson says:

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In Major Shift, Central Cities Edging Out Sprawl in Competition for Jobs

Jobs are moving back downtown. Graph: City Observatory

Dramatic reversal: Jobs are moving back downtown. Graph: City Observatory

Job sprawl — picture suburban office parks with lots of parking — might be past its peak. The last few years have been good ones for central cities, as far as job growth is concerned, and not so hot for mid-height, reflective glass office campuses.

That’s according to an analysis by researcher Joe Cortright at City Observatory. Cortright reviewed the data across American metro areas and found that central cities gained a key edge over suburban competitors in the last few years:

Our analysis of census data shows that downtown employment centers of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas are recording faster job growth than areas located further from the city center. When we compared the aggregate economic performance of urban cores to the surrounding metro periphery over the four years from 2007 to 2011, we found that city centers — which we define as the area within 3 miles of the center of each region’s central business district — grew jobs at a 0.5 percent annual rate. Over the same period, employment in the surrounding peripheral portion of metropolitan areas declined 0.1 percent per year. When it comes to job growth, city centers are out-performing the surrounding areas in 21 of the 41 metropolitan areas we examined. This “center-led” growth represents the reversal of a historic trend of job de-centralization that has persisted for the past half century.

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You Can Make a More Effective Bus System for Cheap, But It’s Not Easy

This bus system redesign forced some tough decisions, but should make it more user friendly for more people. Image: Human Transit

Houston’s bus system redesign forced some tough decisions. Click to enlarge. Map: Human Transit

Bus service in Houston is about to get a lot more useful — without costing any more to operate.

The city’s new bus network, which transit consultant Jarrett Walker of Network blog Human Transit helped design, will bring frequent service to much more of the city. The plan was unveiled last year and has been getting a fresh round of coverage after Houston transit officials approved it earlier this month.

Walker says that a system overhaul forces communities to make hard decisions between ridership and coverage. Low ridership routes (or “coverage” routes) provide an important lifeline to some people, but they also divert resources from routes where more people would ride the bus. To create a more effective bus network without spending more money, the Houston plan cut low-ridership service by about 50 percent, at the city’s behest.

In a new post, Walker writes that the process of overhauling the system is much more difficult than the headlines let on:

Much of the press about the project is picking up the idea, from my previous post on the subject, that we redesigned Houston’s network to create vastly more mobility without increasing operating cost — “without spending a dime,” as Matt Yglesias’s Vox piece today says. An unfortunate subtext of this headline could be: “Sheesh, if it’s that easy, why didn’t they do it years ago, and why isn’t everyone doing it?”

Some cities, like Portland and Vancouver, “did it” long ago. But for those cities that haven’t, the other answer is this:

Money isn’t the only currency. Pain is another.

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50 Years After a Highway Revolt, a Quiet Surrender

Can cities that won highway fights two generations ago still defeat destructive road projects today?

Interstate 90 through near east Cleveland. Image: Green City Blue Lake

Interstate 90 through near east Cleveland. Photo: Green City Blue Lake

Marc Lefkowitz at Green City Blue Lake is looking back at Cleveland’s history of highway revolts. In the late 1960s, the city successfully beat back a proposal — the “East Side Highway” – that would have obliterated neighborhoods. Now, all these decades later, Cleveland is actually moving ahead with a watered-down version of that same road, repackaged as the $331 million “Opportunity Corridor.”

Lefkowitz says at another time in the city’s history there was a whole resistance effort to preserve urban communities and green spaces:

There was, perhaps, more general acceptance in Cleveland that serving the least able might mean taking on the most powerful.

Then Cleveland Planning Director, Norm Krumholtz, helped in the fight to turn back powerful interests that wanted to build a network of highways slicing through the east side of the city and the suburbs of Shaker and Cleveland Heights. In his book, “Making Equity Planning Work” Krumholtz tells of how, in 1969, NOACA voted for an east side highway that would start at E. 55th and cut east through densely populated, lower income black neighborhoods. He was asked by Mayor Carl B. Stokes to come up with a strategy to rescind that vote.

“I could find nothing to suggest that the Cleveland City Planning Commission had been anything but supportive of all NOACA’s highway plans,” Krumholtz writes. “We had made no effort to define the proposed freeway as a problem—a project that would destroy neighborhoods, reduce the supply of affordable housing available to Cleveland’s low-income populations, and deepen racial isolation and the city’s fiscal problems. (City staff) looked at it in terms of highway engineering criteria—as an ‘improvement’ to the regional traffic flow.”

Under Krumholtz, city planning developed an estimate of the costs to the city of the highways, including the local share of the building costs, loss of jobs, loss of housing, loss of income tax. And they used the numbers in their presentations that opposed the highways.

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America’s Heartless Transportation System at Work

Fedora Henderson, 31, was struck from behind and killed by a snow plow driver earlier this week in Richmond, Virginia. Henderson was commuting to her job at a Target, and bicycling along wide, dangerous roads was “the only way she could get to work” because she didn’t own a car, a co-worker told the local CBS affiliate.

A 31-year-old woman was killed by a snow plow driver while riding her bike in this area this week. Image: Google Maps

A 31-year-old woman was killed by a snow plow driver while riding her bike in this area this week. Image: Google Maps

Network blog The Wash Cycle notes that, naturally, the state has pretty much abdicated any fault at this point, blaming Henderson’s death on the weather. That’s how society at large can rest assured that nothing needs to change:

So the driver hit her from behind. Sure, I suppose it’s weather related, but a snowplow operator — of all people — should know how to drive in the snow without running a cyclist down from behind. Was it even snowing in the Richmond area this morning?

She was wearing dark clothing, but that’s not illegal. She was riding without a helmet, which is also not illegal. She had a rear reflector, which is the minimum required, though a light is certainly better. She did not seem to have a headlight, which is required, but that wasn’t really the issue here. If meeting the legal standard isn’t deemed adequate to remove fault, then we should raise the standard. I’m concerned this is being brushed away as “just an unavoidable accident” which is unfortunate since the cyclist didn’t break the law (unless you count the lack of a headlight) but the driver did, by not driving at an appropriate speed and by hitting another vehicle from behind.

If we give people only terrible options, like biking in the snow on an unlit street before sunrise, bad things are going to happen. But at least the driver was wearing a seat belt, he could’ve been hurt.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Greater Greater Washington says installing freeway-style signs over regular streets sends the wrong message to drivers. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance explains two bills in the Oregon statehouse to mandate bike licenses. And Cap’n Transit asks whether better marketing is really needed for crowded bus routes that could use higher quality of service.

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Portland Sued Over Faded Crosswalk Where Driver Killed Two People

The family of a young woman who was killed trying to cross a Portland road is suing the city for not properly maintaining the crosswalk where she was struck by a driver.

Lindsay Leonard, shown here at high school prom, was killed trying to cross the street in Portland. Photo: Provided by the family, via The Oregonian

Lindsay Leonard, shown here at high school prom, was killed trying to cross the street in Portland. Photo via Oregonian

Lindsay Leonard and her roommate Jessica Finlay, both 23, were both killed when they were struck by Tito Feliciano while trying to cross S.E. Foster Road on a November evening in 2009. Though the victims were carrying a flashlight and records showed Feliciano, a manager for a grocery store chain, used his phone several times while driving that night, a civil jury found Leonard 51 percent at fault. But her parents aren’t giving up.

Aimee Green at the Oregonian reports they recently won an appeal that will allow them to sue the city of Portland because the crosswalk where she was killed was faded:

Leonard’s family had contended that it was more difficult to see Leonard — and her roommate, Jessica Finlay, 23, who died weeks later from her injuries — because the women blended into the dark gray asphalt of the road. Leonard’s family contended that if the crosswalk had been maintained, white paint would have provided a contrasting backdrop for the women — who were wearing dark coats and carrying a flashlight.

Leonard’s father, Lane Leonard, appealed the judge’s ruling to dismiss the city as a defendant. Last week, the appeals court agreed with him — finding that a reasonable juror could find that the city contributed to the crash by allowing its crosswalk to fall into disrepair.

Because Lindsay Leonard’s estate will now get a chance to pursue damages against the city, a new trial will be set. As a result, her family again will be allowed to ask a new jury to consider awarding damages against Feliciano and Moran Foods, which operated Save-A-Lot food stores.

By the way, check out the area where Leonard and Finlay were killed. This is the kind of urban design that invites pedestrian fatalities. Could lawsuits like this one at minimum force cities to be more diligent about maintaining pedestrian crossings?

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Political Environment reports the state of Wisconsin is rightfully moving on from the idea of a double-decker freeway for Milwaukee, but its preferred alternative is still awfully pricey and destructive. Streets.mn‘s before and after photos show an increasingly urbanized Minneapolis. And Cyclelicious explains that a bill introduced in Hawaii would exempt cyclists from receiving personal injury protection if they are hit by a motorist.

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High-Rises Don’t Cause Traffic; Parking Lots Do

Traffic is worse than it used to be in Austin, but you can't blame rising density, via Car Free Austin.

Traffic is worse than it used to be in Austin, but you can’t blame rising density. Image via Car Free Austin

Few things evoke carmaggedon hysteria quite like the construction of a tall residential building. As Austin has seen more growth, some have seized on the relatively few high-density housing developments as a source of the region’s traffic problem.

But housing density is not the cause of traffic congestion, says Carrie Gammell at Car Free Austin:

It seems that local media outlets constantly bemoan the statistic that 110 people move to Austin on an average dayTall buildings, skyscrapers, 10-to-50-story buildings full of people are presumably to blame. Meanwhile, the city is still not as dense as it was in 1950, 1960, 1970, or 1980.

In fact, 2015 Austin is only 68% as dense as 1950 Austin.

1950 Austin had no towers. An aerial photograph of the city shows a downtown almost entirely covered with trees and buildings, the tallest of which was the Texas State Capitol.

1950 Austin had no I-35. Residents traversed the city in buses manned by Austin Transit Corporation, Greyhound Lines, and Continental Trailways.

On the other hand, 2010 Austin had eighteen towers taller than the Texas State Capitol. It had I-35, Loop 1, SH-71, and US 183. While it may appear that our present-day city is more crowded and the traffic less manageable, that feeling of encroachment is most certainly due not to an increase in people but to an increase in cars, an increase in asphalt. Over time blocks of historic houses were destroyed to make way for expressway feeders. Parks and greenbelts were devastated to make way for commuters’ vehicular storage. Previous generations literally “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Better Institutions says transit in Seattle is held hostage to state highway-building interests. Transport Providence has ideas on how to improve RIPTA’s No. 1 bus route. And City Beautiful 21 says it’s important to understand the concept of “filtering” in discussions on affordable housing.

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Are Engineers Allowed to Speak Up for Reforming Their Profession?

In a case that has attracted the attention of the Union of Concerned Scientists, well-known and outspoken civil engineer Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns recently had his professional license challenged by a fellow engineer.

Engineering reformer Chuck Marohn recently had his professional license challenged for speaking up against industry dogma. Image: Strong Towns

The challenge to Chuck Marohn’s professional license was dismissed, but the complaint is going on his permanent record. Image: Strong Towns

The charges were quickly dismissed by the Minnesota licensing board, but the incident has raised questions about engineers’ freedom to speak openly for reform and challenge institutional dogma.

Marohn’s message is often critical of the American Society of Civil Engineers, arguing that spending less on infrastructure would lead to smarter long-term decisions. The challenge was put forward by Jeffrey Peltola, a fellow engineer who is active in the MoveMN campaign to increase taxes for transportation spending in Minnesota. Marohn has been an outspoken critic of the group.

Dave Alden at Network blog Vibrant Bay Area is also an engineer and a smart growth advocate. While he’s never had his license challenged, he says he has at times felt pressure to conform to political and ideological positions at odds. Alden thinks it’s part of the culture of the profession:

Marohn, I, and thousands more have survived rigorous academic training and government licensing to become professional engineers. Those licenses give us the authority to decide how to bridge canyons or how to deliver potable water to millions of people. Those are worthy goals and I’m proud to have professional brethren solving those problems.

But some of us have taken the skill set gained through academia, licensing, and practice to tackle a different problem, how to create a world in which our fellow citizens can live safely, affordably, and with joy and how to bequeath that world to the next generation. It’s also a worthwhile goal and one that should be supported. But challenges to licenses and pigeonholing assumptions aren’t supportive. They’re the reverse.

Writing for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gretchen Goldman notes that scientists and technical experts are often in a unique position to recognize the need for policy changes and that intimidation and threats can have a “chilling effect” on public policy debates. Marohn, for his part, says he won’t be deterred.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Urbanist reports that a remarkable 90 percent of new residential buildings in Seattle are either mixed-use or multi-family David Levinson at The Transportationist shares a write-up of his research showing an important break from historical patterns: Americans are starting to spend less time traveling and more time at home. And Greater Greater Washington finds that young people are increasingly residing in the center of the D.C. region.