The Power of Nearness

February 9, 2010

Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.
– Albert Einstein

City planners aren’t usually on the list of people we associate with paradigm-shifting embers of wisdom. Spiritual leaders, artists, and philosophers — yes — they have sparked our collective imagination and shaped the course of society throughout history. While Be the change you wish to see in the world and I have a Dream will forever be guiding lights in our journey through a complex and often confusing world, it’s clear that each generation brings with it the need for new symbols and archetypes in response to the struggles of its time.

It was at last month’s Ecocity World Summit in Istanbul that I thought I’d heard a concept expressed that reflects and encompasses so much of the millennial Zeitgeist, as a theme to embrace as well as aspire to: The Power of Nearness

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Moving around suburbs costs more

November 4, 2009

An article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle titled S.F. transportation costs lower than in suburbs quotes a report being released by the Urban Land Institute with the all-encompassing title of “Bay Area Burden: Examining the costs and impacts of housing and transportation on Bay Area residents, their neighborhoods and the environment.”

Not that we didn’t know this already, but it says that “the average San Francisco household spends roughly $500 less on transportation each month than households in such suburban outposts as Antioch or Livermore.” All the talk about the inherent costs and problems associated with suburban life is great, but it’s the hard numbers that often drive the point home.

For families in more distant automobile-reliant suburbs, though, the monthly transportation costs spike. The estimate for Antioch is $1,311, for instance, while in Livermore it’s $1,281. Cities with little connection to transit also suffer – such as Pacifica, where a household’s monthly transportation is estimated to cost $1,246.

Read the whole article, it’s a good one to quote the next time someone tells you they live in the suburbs because it’s cheaper. Also check out the full report at bayareaburden.org. Also, check out the recent article Investment in public transit creates U.S. jobs for new green economy in The Hill.


California Moves on Bill to Curb Sprawl and Emissions

August 30, 2008

By FELICITY BARRINGER
Published: August 28, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — California, known for its far-ranging suburbs and jam-packed traffic, is close to adopting a law intended to slow the increase in emissions of heat-trapping gases by encouraging housing close to job sites, rail lines and bus stops to shorten the time people spend in their cars.

The measure, which the State Assembly passed on Monday and awaits final approval by the Senate, would be the nation’s most comprehensive effort to reduce sprawl. It would loosely tie tens of billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies to cities’ and counties’ compliance with efforts to slow the inexorable increase in driving. The goal is to encourage housing near current development and to reduce commutes to work.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has not said whether he will sign the bill.

The number of miles driven in California has increased at a rate 50 percent faster than the rate of population growth for the past two decades. Passenger vehicles, which produce about 30 percent of the state’s heat-trapping gases, are the single greatest source of such emissions.

The fragile coalition behind the measure includes some longtime antagonists, in particular homebuilders and leading environmental groups in California. Both called the measure historic.

“What California is doing for the first time,” said Ed Manning, a lobbyist who represents the state’s 25 largest homebuilding companies, “is planning for housing needs, transportation needs and climate-change needs all at the same time.”

Thomas Adams, the board president of California’s League of Conservation Voters, said the changes were “all going to support a development pattern that will help the state meet its climate goals.”

The bill yokes three regulatory and permit processes. One focuses on regional planning: how land use should be split among industry, agriculture, homes, open space and commercial centers. Another governs where roads and bridges are built. A third sets out housing needs and responsibilities — for instance, how much affordable housing a community must allow.

Under the pending measure, the three regulatory and permit processes must be synchronized to meet new goals, set by the state’s Air Resources Board, to reduce heat-trapping gases.

Seventeen regional planning groups from across the state will submit their land-use, transportation and housing plans to the board. If the board rules that a plan will fall short of its emissions targets, then an alternative blueprint for meeting the goals must be developed.

Once state approval is granted, or an alternative plan submitted, billions of dollars in state and federal transportation subsidies can be awarded. The law would allow the money to be distributed even if an alternative plan fails to pass muster.

State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said in an interview that he expected the Senate to approve the bill soon.

Mr. Steinberg, who will be the Senate majority leader in the legislative session beginning next year, said Wednesday that he met with Governor Schwarzenegger this week and received “positive signals, no guarantees.”

Environmentalists have long blamed profit-driven land-use planning around the country for creating the expansive, sometimes redundant network of roads that have carved up farmland near urban areas.

They have also praised regional planners in Portland, Ore., for that city’s clustered growth and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities.

The tools Portland planners have used are called urban growth boundaries, efforts to control sprawl by encouraging higher density development within an area and largely prohibiting it outside.

These boundaries have gained little traction in California, where developers have seen them as too restrictive and local governments have been jealous of their own planning powers.

Sacramento and San Diego have recently tried to build coalitions to support clustered development.

Most environmental groups strongly support the pending bill. Among them is the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major force in the development two years ago of the landmark state law to limit heat-trapping emissions from all sectors of the economy.

But some groups have expressed reservations, objecting to the relaxation of some existing environmental constraints on developers.

Jan Chatten-Brown, an environmental lawyer in Santa Monica, wrote in an e-mail message that the bill “gives up an important tool” by relaxing some requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and making it harder for citizen groups to sue developers.

Communities that take part in the process will be able to revise their housing plans every eight years instead of five; developers working with a state-approved plan will have to do less extensive environmental reviews of their projects.

Ms. Chatten-Brown also said the legislation overlapped with some of the provisions of the 2006 law committing the state, by 2020, to a 30 percent reduction in the projected level of emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the League of Conservation Voters estimate that $15 billion to $20 billion in annual federal, state and local transportation grants support highways, bridges, bike paths and light-rail systems.

Because there is no assurance that regions would lose transportation dollars if their plans fail to win state approval, a few environmental groups stayed in a neutral corner.

But Mr. Adams, with the League of Conservation Voters, said that “a land-use bill of this magnitude had not been successful since the 1976 passage of the California Coastal Act.”

The New York Times


U.S. Cities Orchestrate a Streetcar Revival

August 22, 2008

Posted: August 15th, 2008
Bob Driehaus
The New York Times Media Group

OHIO – From his months-old French bistro, Jean-Robert de Cavel sees
restored Italianate row houses against a backdrop of rundown tenements
in this city’s long-struggling Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

He also sees a turnaround for the district, thanks to plans to revive
a transit system that was dismantled in the 1950s: the humble
streetcar line.

”Human beings can be silly because we move away from things too
quickly in this country,” de Cavel said. A ”streetcar is definitely
going to create a reason for young people to come downtown.”

Cincinnati officials are assembling financing for a $132 million
system that would connect the city’s riverfront stadiums, downtown
business district and Uptown neighborhoods, which include six
hospitals and the University of Cincinnati, in a loop of six to eight
miles, or 10 to 13 kilometers. Depending on the final financing
package, fares may be free, 50 cents or $1.

The city plans to pay for the system with existing tax revenue and $30
million in private investment. The plan requires the approval of Mayor
Mark Mallory, a proponent, and the City Council.

At least 40 other U.S. cities are exploring streetcar plans to spur
economic development, ease traffic congestion and draw young
professionals and empty-nest baby boomers back from the suburbs,
according to the Community Streetcar Coalition, which includes city
officials, transit authorities and engineers who advocate streetcar
construction.

More than a dozen have existing lines, including New Orleans, which is
restoring a system devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Denver, Houston,
Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina, have introduced
streetcars this decade.

”They serve to coalesce a neighborhood,” said Jim Graebner, chairman
of the American Public Transportation Association’s streetcar and
vintage trolley committee. ”That’s very evident in places like San
Francisco, which never got rid of its streetcar system.”

Modern streetcars, like those Cincinnati plans to use, cost about $3
million each, run on an overhead electrical wire and carry up to 130
passengers per car on rails that are flush with the pavement.

Having doors on both sides also enables streetcars to pick up
passengers on either side, making for shorter stops than buses.

Streetcar advocates point to Portland, Oregon, which in 2001 built the
first major modern streetcar system in the United States and has since
added new lines interlaced with a growing light rail system.

Since Portland announced plans for the system, more than 10,000
residential units have been built, and $3.5 billion has been invested
in property within two blocks of the line, according to Portland
Streetcar Inc., which operates the system.

Critics, including Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato
Institute, a libertarian research organization in Washington, and a
specialist in urban growth and transportation issues, counter that
growth along streetcar lines is dependent on public subsidy and of
little use.

”It looks like it’s going to take you somewhere, but it’s only
designed to support downtown residents,” he said. ”If officials fall
for the hype and don’t ask the hard questions, voters should vote them
out.”

Cincinnati’s streetcar enthusiasts counter that they serve to shrink
residents’ everyday world of work, shopping and entertainment by
bringing services and businesses to one area.

”One happy consequence will be that streetcar customers who live in
the area will be less mobile by choice,” said John Schneider, a
Cincinnati real estate developer and downtown resident who championed
an unsuccessful 2002 county sales tax proposal that would have
financed a regional light rail system.

Since then, gas prices have risen sharply, and advocates have started
emphasizing streetcars’ ability to revitalize urban neighborhoods.

”In years gone by, people would move to cities to get a job,” said
the Cincinnati city manager, Milton Dohoney. ”Today, young, educated
workers move to cities with a sense of place. And if businesses see us
laying rail down on a street, they’ll know that’s a permanent route
that will have people passing by seven days a week.”

After looking into streetcar systems in Seattle; Tacoma, Washington;
and Charlotte, Dohoney became convinced that they spur growth.

”Cincinnati has to compete with other cities for investment,” he
said. ”We have to compete for talent and for place of national
prominence.”

A hundred miles northeast, Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio,
has come to the same conclusion and is pushing to build a $103 million
streetcar network along the city’s High Street connecting Ohio State
University with the downtown business district. The loop would be paid
for through a 4 percent surcharge on concert tickets, sporting events
and downtown parking and a $12.5 million contribution from Ohio State.

”It is directly tied to economic development, and when times are
tough in Ohio, we need an additional tool to create jobs,” Coleman
said.

While critics question whether scarce city money would be better spent
elsewhere, Coleman argues that streetcars are important to the city’s
growth.

”We have to plan for the future,” he said. ”I believe in 10 years,
we would ask, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’ It will be 10 times more
expensive, and the cost of gas will be unaffordable.”


Updated Velib’ Stats: Bike sharing transforming how cities look at public transit

June 24, 2008

From the Bike-sharing Blog.
The Bike-sharing Blog provides information on the emerging public transportation mode of bike-sharing. The Blog is provided by MetroBike, LLC, based in Washington, D.C., US

The latest Velib’ survey results are available and posted on the Velib’ Website. Just in case you don’t parlez Français, here’s a summary:

  • Trips to date: 20 million
  • Average trips/day: 70,000
  • Average trip time: 18 minutes
  • 190,000 annual pass holders
  • 42% of users are female, 58% are male
  • 1/3 of users come from outside the central city
  • 17% of users are 46+ years old
  • 94% of users like the service

These results are highly impressive. The stats that amazed me the most are the number of trips to date and the percentage of female users. As Velib’ is not yet one year old, there are still about two months of trips still to be made which could equate to another 5 million trips, or a total of 25 million trips, before the anniversary of it’s launch date of July 15.

Having nearly the same percentage of female and male customers shows how mainstream bike-sharing has become in Paris. In cities where lesser bike cultures exist, such as those in North America, males tend to dominate bike usage by 3 to 1. Women are less likely to ride a bike when concerned about their safety compared to men. Men also tend to be generally more risk-taking and will ride in less safe street conditions. While not 50/50, this male/female customer demographic shows that women are using Velib’ confidently, so Paris has done a good job in creating safe bike facilities before the launch of the program.

Fantastique!

image credit: Velib’


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