Posts by Author: Josh Cohen

St. Louis Looks to On-Demand Transit for Downtown Mobility

Electric Cab North America is the manufacturer of the cabs for the pilot project. (courtesy Electric Cab North America)

Downtown STL, Inc, St. Louis’s downtown business association, wants to solve their neighborhood’s first-mile, last-mile transportation problems and bolster the economy in the process. To do so, they’re experimenting with on-demand transit, sometimes called microtransit. They’ve funded a four-month pilot project to serve downtown transit riders and drivers with free, on-demand shuttle rides.

From March 1 to June 30, a three-car fleet of electric cabs will operate in the roughly one-square mile downtown area. The five-passenger vehicles fall somewhere on the spectrum between a downtown circulator bus and UberPool and LyftLine, the ride-hailing services’ carpooling options. Customers will be able to order a ride with an app or by calling a phone number. The cabs will be able to pick up multiple passengers en route when they’re heading to and from similar locations. When the cabs don’t have passengers, they’ll drive fixed routes through high-use areas and people will be able to hail them, like a classic yellow cab. Downtown STL is funding the $135,000 pilot, which will be free for customers to use.

“This is about microtransit for the last mile,” says Downtown STL CEO Missy Kelley. “It supports both public transit and people who choose to use their cars.”

Kelley imagines people taking light rail to downtown, then calling up the shuttle to get from the light rail station to their office, or riding it mid-day to get to meetings around downtown. Similarly, for drivers, it would allow them to park once in a downtown garage and get around by cab during the day. Kelley hopes people will also use the service to go out to lunch more and spend money.

For the downtown association, the motivation is making it easier for people to navigate the neighborhood, thereby making it more attractive for visitors, workers and residents. Kelley says the downtown residential population has grown by about 7 percent each year since 2013. “We’ve got more people down here experiencing the urban lifestyle. We’re learning more about what the things are that enhance and support that lifestyle.”

Of course, Uber and Lyft already provide on-demand transportation in St. Louis. But Kelley thinks their free electric cabs will be more appealing for people whose trip is a little too far for walking, but maybe too short to justify paying for a ride-hailing service.

St. Louis is not the only city experimenting with microtransit and on-demand mobility. Most have had mixed success so far. Ford is currently operating its on-demand shuttle van company Chariot in six cities in the U.S. and England. Bridj, a startup that used 14-passenger vans to provide on-demand transit in Boston, Kansas City and Washington D.C., shut down last year after failing to get an infusion of funding. The company is relaunching in Sydney this year. A few years ago, Finland’s capital city Helsinki ran an on-demand transit pilot called Kutsuplus that cost passengers about three-quarters less than a typical cab ride. By the time the pilot ended on New Year’s Eve 2015, Kutsuplus was running 15 buses that required a 20 Euro-per trip subsidy.

Supporters said the subsidy could’ve been brought down to a reasonable level if the fleet was expanded. But Kutsuplus’s struggles illustrate the difficulty of private, on-demand transit—it’s very expensive and offering it at a price that’s competitive with other services likely requires a subsidy.

Accessibility advocates have frequently taken issue with private mobility services’ lack of ADA compliance. Last year, for example, the Department of Justice fined Chariot $50,000 for not complying to ADA standards. A Chariot spokesperson told Curbed that the company was supplementing some of the vehicles in its fleet with wheelchair accessible vehicles. The cabs in St. Louis’s pilot project can accommodate folding wheelchairs and walkers, but are not fully ADA accessible for motorized wheelchairs and other larger mobility devices. Kelley says they are looking into the possibility of accessible vehicles for the future of the program, but for now, wheelchair users have to rely on paratransit from Metro, the local transit agency.

Despite the cost and other potential shortcomings, some transit advocates see a place for on-demand mobility options in the transit landscape, especially when they can fill in gaps in fixed-route transit networks.

“The core idea is to save money on bus routes that are very expensive for an agency to operate [in low-density areas], but still provide comparable service on those routes. They can then use that extra funding to reinvest in other parts of system,” TransitCenter program analyst Zak Accuardi told Next City in 2016 after the transit research group released its report on transit agencies partnering with private mobility providers.

TransitCenter says another potential benefit of such partnerships is access to real-time data about user behavior that can help shape routes and service levels. Kelley says they’re planning to use data to dictate how many cabs are on the road at a given time and the routes they drive when they don’t have passengers.

Though the pilot is just getting started, Downtown STL is already looking beyond June. The end goal is to fold the service into Metro’s operations. When it does, it will likely switch from a free service to one with fare. “It would be a nominal fare,” says Kelley. “They’ll be short rides and we want to make sure it’s not cost prohibitive to anyone.”

To help offset the cost of operations, they’re considering running advertising on the side of vehicles and offering subscription services for large companies who want to make the cabs available to their employees.

 

Spokane Hopes Tiny Homes and Cottages Will Spur Infill Density

Examples of how the new small or tiny homes could fit into Spokane's urban fabric. (Courtesy Nathan Gwinn/City of Spokane)

Spokane city council president Ben Stuckart wants more infill development in his city. Denser infill will be key, he says, to bolstering the tax base, improving affordability and creating mixed-income neighborhoods in the eastern Washington city, the state’s second largest. Late last month, the city council took a step towards that goal with the unanimous adoption of an ordinance that makes zoning changes and creates density bonuses for pocket residential development and cottage housing they hope will make infill more financially attractive to developers.

“We’re looking at where there were barriers to development,” says Spokane city planner Nathan Gwinn. “This could allow some sites, especially those of a difficult shape or with development constraints, to be developed where they might not have been before.”

Pocket residential developments and cottage housing are both development types that allow multiple smaller housing units to be built a single lot amidst traditional single family homes. Both were previously allowed in Spokane, but the changes tweak their design rules to make them easier to build.

PRDs can be built on lots as small as 8,700 square feet (.2 acres) and up to 1.5 acres. They allow small lots that would normally only have a single house to be subdivided. For example, an 8,700-square foot lot could have two houses. A 1.2-acre lot could have 11 small houses on it. The new ordinance allows PRDs in residential single family zones without the upzone previously needed.

Cottage house developments have four or more units built on a single lot with a shared common yard in the center. Cottage houses can have maximum footprint of 1,000 square feet, though they can be two stories for a total of 2,000 square feet. One of the key pieces of the ordinance is the cottage housing density bonus. Developers can now build 12 units per acre instead of 10, in residential single family zones. If the units are tiny homes—500 square feet or less—developers can build 14. For both PRDs and cottage housing, the ordinance removes a rule that such developments must have one owner, meaning developers can sell the units like single family homes. The developments don’t necessarily have to be built facing a public street. They can be accessed by private road, giving developers more flexibility on a given site.

Like many western cities, Spokane has very suburban, single-family housing development outside the city core. Unlike like some of the booming coastal cities, Spokane has lots of vacant lots within city limits—around 3,700, according to a recent survey.

“We have a spread-out city and have quite a few lots that haven’t been developed,” says Stuckart. “We’ve got to figure out how to make it easier for people to develop them.”

His hope is that by making it more financially feasible for developers to build denser infill housing, it will increase the housing stock, improve affordability and keep people from sprawling further into Spokane County. “We still have a very low median income compared to coastal cities. The only way we’re going to provide the level of service people expect from their government is by getting more people living in city limits or raising taxes—and nobody wants their taxes raised. The second thing is density and infill are just less taxing on your physical services—water, police, fire, roads. It’s always cheaper to provide those services inside the city.”

Spokane’s median home prices have risen steadily over the last few years. Vacancy rates hit a record low of 3.7 percent in 2016 and have only increased to about 4.6 percent since. The Washington Department of Commerce’s 2015 Housing Needs Assessment found that around 24,000 homeowners and 28,000 renters in Spokane are burdened by their housing costs.

Stuckart says the tiny house density bonus is meant primarily to serve nonprofit affordable housing developers who might now be able to build affordable housing villages of sorts. “I’d love to see tiny home compounds around all our business centers and all over the city.”

Cottage housing and PRDs are the first of several actions the council plans to take to encourage infill. Later this year, it will debate legislation to loosen setback requirements and amend floor area ratio standards.

The new cottage housing and PRD ordinance takes effect on March 8. Of course, the new rules don’t mandate infill, they simply make it more feasible. But Stuckart’s got his fingers crossed that change is coming.

“We were blessed with too much space for too long and that allowed us to have [zoning] rules that were very suburban in nature.”

 

Seattle DOT Plans to Remove Hostile Architecture

(Photo courtesy of Jeff Few)

Last September, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) installed 18 bike racks under the Highway 99 Viaduct in Belltown. Their purpose was not actually to encourage people to lock up their bikes, but to prevent the occupants of a recently cleared homeless encampment from returning to the spot. News of the bike racks and their intended function broke in December, public outcry followed and some city officials denounced the department’s misuse of bike infrastructure. Last week, SDOT announced they would relocate the bike racks.

“Mayor [Jenny] Durkan has made it clear that bike racks should be deployed to support and encourage biking. … SDOT plans to remove the bike racks after a location is identified to ensure the greatest use to bicyclists in Seattle,” SDOT said in a statement to PubliCola. SDOT did not respond to request for comment.

The number of unauthorized encampments in Seattle has increased as the region’s homeless population has grown — there are at least 11,643 homeless people living in King County, 5,485 of whom are unsheltered. The city has a policy of clearing encampments they deem hazardous or blocking a public right of way.

Seattle resident Jeff Few lives right next to the former Belltown encampment site. Because there isn’t a demand for bike parking at that location, he was suspicious about the city’s intentions when the racks were installed immediately after the encampment sweep. He confirmed his suspicions with a public records request. The emails he obtained show SDOT coordinated the timing of their rack installation with the sweep as part of a “Homelessness Emergency Response effort.”

After The Stranger broke the news of Few’s findings, several councilmembers and the mayor spoke out against the project.

“It’s good news that SDOT went back to the drawing board and is moving away from using bike racks for displacement purposes,” says Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, one of the project’s critics. “While we’ve gotten resolve on the bike racks under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, we need to make sure if there is a fund being allocated for hostile architecture, it is redirected to housing options for those that are unsheltered.”

Using bike racks to discourage street camping is a textbook example of hostile architecture—though according to Selena Savić, co-editor of the book Unpleasant Design, this is the first she’s heard of bike racks being used this way. Other classic examples are spikes or bumps installed on ledges and windowsills that make it uncomfortable to sit or lay down and armrests in the middle of benches that prevent people from sleeping on them.

“The most important feature of hostile architecture is to function without being detected,” says Sara Rankin, Seattle University law professor and Homeless Rights Advocacy Project director. “It serves a function of forcing out targeted or undesirable users of public space, but is supposed to be imperceptible to non-targeted users. That helps shield public officials from pushback.”

Though it’s unlikely SDOT will use bike racks for ulterior purposes in the future, there are still plenty of examples of hostile architecture throughout Seattle, including benches with center armrests and so-called leaning benches that provide an angled bar for people to lean against, but have no seat to allow sitting or laying. The city has also spent millions on fencing to block encampments from returning after being cleared, though Rankin points out fencing is not technically hostile architecture since its purpose is very explicit.

She argues that the fences are, however, on the same spectrum of anti-homeless measures including hostile architecture and homeless criminalization laws that make life harder for homeless people without addressing any of the root causes or providing solutions.

“There are laws that prohibit or limit the ability to sit or stand [in public], receive food from other people, ask for help, protect yourself from the elements. They’re extraordinarily ineffective, cruel and wasteful. They do nothing but exact devastating penalties on our most vulnerable residents,” Rankin says.

Rankin co-authored a report on the cost of enforcing homeless criminalization laws in Seattle and Spokane. It estimates that over a period from 2009 to 2013, Seattle spent at least $2.3 million enforcing those laws.

“We know hostile architecture and criminalization laws are ineffective. They’re also terribly expensive. … Dealing with the laws would have a bigger impact on homelessness than dealing with one cruel, unnecessary fence or bike racks,” she says.

It’s an argument that has resonated with some councilmembers. Last year, councilmember Mike O’Brien proposed an ordinance to decriminalize RV and car camping on Seattle streets.

Discussing the issue of hostile architecture at a council committee meeting last week, O’Brien said, “There’s a lot of urgent need in the community and every dollar we’re spending on something that seems wasteful is a dollar that can’t be going to something that’s good.”

 

California is Considering a ‘Radical’ Statewide Upzone

(Photo: David Wilson)

That California is in the midst of a statewide housing crisis is not a particularly controversial statement. A 2016 report from the McKinsey Global Institute puts some stark numbers on it. Real estate prices are rising three times faster than household incomes and 50 percent of the state’s population cannot afford housing. The state is also adding new residents faster than it’s building housing. To address pent-up demand, McKinsey found that California will need to build 3.5 million homes by 2025.

While there’s widespread agreement on the fact of the crisis, there is very little on how to address it. California State Senator Scott Wiener has proposed a radical solution: removing density limits and parking requirements and up-zoning every transit-oriented neighborhood in the state. The controversial bill has drawn support from YIMBYs, the tech industry and others who say bold action that spurs lots of new housing construction is the only thing that will make a dent in the problem. It has garnered opposition from some mayors, neighborhood councils, low-income community groups and the Sierra Club California chapter who oppose the loss of local control, oppose new housing in general and worry the bill could accelerate gentrification and displacement in low-income communities and communities of color.

“The lack of housing affordability is harming our state’s economy as companies consider moving elsewhere because their workers can’t find a place to live. It is severely undermining our climate goals as we push people into longer and longer commutes. It harms our diversity as lower income people and people of color are pushed out of urban cores. It undermines the health of communities and families,” says Wiener.

His goal is to spur construction of tons of housing built near transit — not only increasing the supply, but increasing it with supply that doesn’t necessarily require people to use cars as their primary or only mode of transportation. If passed, his bill would preempt local residential zoning restrictions for areas within a half-mile radius of a major transit hub or a quarter-mile radius of a high-frequency transit corridor with no more than 15-minute waits between buses or trains. Maximum buildings heights could be between 45 and 85 depending on the neighborhood. Wiener points out his bill just raises maximum height limits, it doesn’t set a minimum height for developers and areas that have already been up-zoned to allow those heights won’t see further height increases. The bill would also get rid of minimum parking requirements and density limits for housing construction.

“For a long time we have allowed local communities almost complete latitude whether to build any housing at all,” says Wiener. “California has lots of major transit hubs zoned exclusively for single family homes and other low density housing as far as the eye can see. It makes no sense to have low density zoning around major transit infrastructure. That’s exactly where we should put high density housing.”

Analyzing the exact impact of the bill is difficult since it would permit greater heights and density, not mandate it. But efforts to analyze how much of Californian cities could be up-zoned show the affects would be widespread. Sasha Aickin, the former CTO for Redfin, produced a map illustrating roughly where California would see the bill’s effects. In transit-rich cities such as San Francisco and Oakland, almost every neighborhood falls within the definition of the bill. The impacts are not quite so expansive in Los Angeles and San Diego, but major portions of those cities would still see up-zones. Even small cities around the state get spots of height increases.

The McKinsey report found that intensifying density within a half-mile radius of transit stations is one of the most effective tools for addressing the housing shortage. They estimate California could build 1.2 to 3 million units within a half-mile radius of transit.

It is the sort of sweeping action the pro-housing activists YIMBYs (short for Yes In My Backyard) have been clamoring for.

“We are full throated super fans,” says Laura Foote Clarke, executive director of YIMBY Action. “It’s the boldest thing that’s been proposed in California housing. I think it could stop prices from rising. I don’t think it’s going to bring them down, but stopping them from going further up would be a nice change.”

She continues, “This really does target the single family owned whiter wealthier neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland. They are there ones that will actually see a change in their zoning.”

Some advocates worry, however, that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color will see significant changes that will further exacerbate displacement pressure. L.A.’s Crenshaw Subway Coalition likened the bill to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, and said that the up-zones in South L.A. will lead to displacement of low-income people of color as 5- to 8-story market-rate buildings get built and rents and property values rise.

The Sierra Club’s statewide chapter sent a letter to Wiener voicing its opposition on similar grounds and more. In addition to raising concerns about the potential for displacement, the organization worries that the bill could lead to less transit construction if communities worried about the up-zones fight new transit projects.

The Club’s opposition has raised some eyebrows, given the environmental impact of transit-oriented development. UC Berkeley environmental law professor Ethan Elkind points to a recent study that found building all new development in California within three miles of transit would lead to “annual reductions of 1.79 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the business-as-usual scenario.” That reduction is the equivalent of taking 378,000 cars off the road.

There are plenty of groups taking a middle ground on the bill—that it’s a worthy effort that still needs work.

“TransForm has been calling for more housing near transit for over twenty years now, and we’re glad to see all the conversation this bill has inspired,” says Joshua Stark, state policy director at TransForm, a social justice-focused transportation and land use advocacy nonprofit. “This bill has the potential to really benefit people, if it can also ensure gains for affordability and the climate. For example, it could include provisions to support affordable housing and transit benefits that help reduce driving and vehicle ownership.”

Wiener says he is open to the criticism, especially from low-income community groups who face the greatest risk of displacement. He points out that his bill does not override local rent control or inclusionary zoning requirements or limits on demolition (In San Francisco, for example, there are strict rules limiting the demolition of affordable housing). He is also working to expand the bill to include stronger language about displacement and possibly expand San Francisco’s demolition controls to other cities.

But, Wiener says, “Displacement pressure comes from a lack of housing and people with means pushing out lower income people. … To be clear we need housing at all income levels—market rate housing and low income housing. But shutting down development or stopping increased transit density is not how you stop displacement.”

The bill has yet to get a hearing in the state senate and surely faces an uphill battle.

“This is a hard bill, no doubt about it,” says Wiener. “It’s getting opposition, for sure. But it’s also getting a lot of support from all over the state because people intuitively understand that you need housing around transportation. That’s what prevents sprawl.”

 

Washington Car Tab Relief Could Hurt Light Rail Expansion

(Photo: Oran Viriyincy)

Late last month, the Washington State House passed a bill to reduce the motor vehicle excise tax — the tax vehicle owners pay for their car tabs — after voters agreed in 2016 to raise it to help fund Sound Transit’s massive light rail and bus expansion. Framed as a way to right-size inflated car tab calculations, the bill will cost Sound Transit $780 million in direct revenue and as much as $2.3 billion in added debt service from increased borrowing. Advocates and agency spokespeople worry that the lost revenue could lead to project delays or a scaling back of the voter-approved transit plan.

Sound Transit runs the Seattle region’s light rail system along with express buses and commuter rail. In Nov. 2016, voters approved the agency’s $54 billion third phase of expansion, called ST3, which will add 62 miles of light rail to the region over the next 25 years as well as increase bus and commuter rail service. Nearly half of that funding comes from a mix of increased motor vehicle tax, as well as and property and sales tax.

Even though voters approved the funding package, when the car tab increase kicked in last year, it caused some sticker shock, especially for people with newer vehicles. Car tabs on a vehicle worth $10,000, for example, jumped from $30 a year to $110. The cost calculation, which the agency has used since 1990, inflates the car’s value for the first 10 years of its life compared to its Kelley Blue Book value. The House bill would recalculate motor to track more closely with Kelley Blue Book values.

“It’s well past time for the Legislature to act and restore public confidence on this issue. … This bipartisan solution fixes car valuations and returns $780 million to tax payers to make up for these overpayments, while still keeping voter-approved light-rail projects on track,” said primary sponsor Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, a Democrat, in a press statement.

Though $780 million is a small percentage of the total expansion package, the lost funding will have an impact.

“If the money doesn’t come in, it could affect our ability to deliver the projects voters approved on the timeline voters approved,” says Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick. “The only alternative without the revenue is to take longer to build projects. Doing so offsets the period of revenue collection. It would require difficult decisions by our board in terms of how to manage that.”

The possibility of revenue cuts come at a time when Sound Transit’s budget is already being threatened by reduced federal support for transit and rising land and construction costs in the region. One option to offset the lost car tab revenue is to borrow more. That could cost up to $2.3 billion in interest and other payments related to borrowing.

The agency is hoping it doesn’t come to that, however. Patrick says. “We’re asking that any impact of reduced revenue be offset by the legislature. Whether finding other revenue to offset loss or reducing our costs in other ways.”

Transit advocates are pushing the legislature to commit to making up for the lost vehicle excise tax revenue, as well.

“We have historically been and continue to be opposed any direct effort to take money away from ST3,” says Transportation Choices Coalition advocacy Director Abigail Doerr. “We’re opposed to the bill passed in the House. However, we’ve been working very hard with legislators to meet in the middle.”

One idea advocates have floated for offsetting costs is the state cutting Sound Transit a break on land leases. Lots of the light rail expansion will be built on land owned by the Washington Department of Transportation. Sound Transit will lease the right of way. Advocates want the legislature to approve a lower lease rate to help reduce costs.

This is not the first time the legislature has gone after Sound Transit’s motor vehicle excise tax funding. An earlier version of Pellicciotti’s bill passed out of the House. The Senate passed its own version of a vehicle tax reduction. But neither would agree to adopt the other’s bill and the legislative session ended before compromises were made. Libertarian activist Tim Eyman has run several statewide ballot initiatives to cap car tabs at $30. Several of the initiatives have been approved by voters, but overturned by the legislature or the state supreme court. His most recent attempt failed to collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Though the car tabs cut is a strong possibility, some Republicans say it doesn’t go far enough. Sen. Steve O’Ban held a press conference last week to push his more drastic version of the bill.

“The most consistent email and call we get is, ‘when are you going to reduce our car tab tax?’” said O’Ban at the press conference. “When I talk to constituents … there’s less than enthusiastic support for the Democrat bill. My bill would reduce the car tab tax by 55 percent.”

Deeper cuts are unlikely to come from the Democrat-controlled legislature. Dem leadership has publicly stated that they want to find a balance between reducing car tabs and getting the ST3 package complete.

Sen. Marko Liias, the majority floor leader, told the Seattle Times, “We just want to make sure that whatever we’re doing here to provide car-tab relief doesn’t make light rail delayed or canceled to the places it needs to go.”

“To be clear, we don’t like that we’re having this conversation. Voters approved ST3. This is what they wanted. … But if we can figure out either cost savings or additional revenue, we would be satisfied with that. We want to support transit all over the state and think this bill is a distraction from that,” says Doerr.

 

Amazon Bid May Clear the Way for Indianapolis Light Rail

Indiana forbade Indianapolis from spending public money on light rail, so the city moved forward with developing a bus rapid transit system (as depicted in this rendering of the forthcoming project). Now, the lure of Amazon potentially locating HQ2 in the state's capital has some lawmakers reconsidering that decision. (Photo: IndyGo)

The Amazon HQ2 pageant is down to 20 finalist cities in the U.S. and Canada. Whichever one wins will gain a massive employer, but surely lose millions of dollars in lowered taxes, waived fees and other incentives. Much of the bidding process has been shrouded in secrecy, but uncovered and leaked bids have shown that the process is as much about what a city is willing to give up to attract Amazon as it is about the assets they already have. Finalist Indianapolis has no doubt offered deep financial incentives as well (though its bid is also secret, so it’s tough to say), but even if the city doesn’t win HQ2 it may get a consolation prize in the form of light rail.

Inspired in part by Amazon’s interest and the possibility of attracting other large companies, the Indiana state legislature is considering overturning its ban on light rail construction in Indianapolis. One of Amazon’s requirements of the HQ2 city is “access to mass transit routes,” but the state legislature prohibited rail in 2014 as Indianapolis sought taxing authority to build out its transit system. On Tuesday, the House passed a bill that would simply undo the ban and clear a path for future light rail.

“This bill doesn’t say that Indianapolis will build rail, it just gives them the option,” bill sponsor Rep. Justin Moed said at a Jan. 24 House Transportation Committee meeting. “As our state grows and as our city grows, we need to make sure that the tools are all in the toolbox for city leaders, community leaders, business leaders to implement a plan that meets the needs of existing residents, future residents and companies that are looking to come here.”

Indianapolis began pushing for a mass transit expansion nearly a decade ago. City leaders’ vision was to build out both bus rapid transit and light rail corridors, as well as increase the density and frequency of the existing bus network. To pay for the system, the city needed to ask the state legislature for permission to tax itself. After several failed attempts, the legislature finally relented in 2014, granting permission to run a ballot referendum in the Indianapolis region to dedicate a .25 percent sales tax increase to transit funding. But, the permission came with several compromises, including the ban on spending public money on light rail in Indiana.

Transit proponents forged ahead with the rest of their plan. In November 2016, voters approved the ballot measure. In January 2017, the Indianapolis city council gave the plan its final green light. Three new bus rapid transit lines make up the backbone of the system. The $54 million a year in income tax revenue will also fund an expansion of existing bus lines and increased frequency—the 70 percent increase in bus service hours will bring bus headways down to 10-15 minutes for the majority of the system. The money will also help pay for new sidewalk and bus shelters. Construction of the first 13-mile bus rapid transit line is slated to begin later this year.

“I happen to be in the camp that thinks the legislature should not be worrying about the technology itself. It was an overreach to dictate what money could and could not be used for. So I think absolutely the opportunity to repeal that legislation is important for us long term and it think [the Amazon bid] is as good a reason as any to move on that now,” says Kim Irwin, an advocate with the Indiana Citizens’ Alliance for Transit.

Even if the legislation passes, Irwin says it’s unlikely Indianapolis would change course now and introduce light rail into its plan. But, she’s excited about having the option to build it should they decide light rail best suits the region’s transit needs. “It helps us think long term about how we would transition or upgrade the BRT system to light rail over time. But that would be decades away.”

Bus rapid transit alone will be transformative, to Irwin’s mind. “There’s been such a mismatch between where people live and where jobs are and the ability to get to those jobs on transit. … This gives people another option for how they can get around in a quicker, more efficient, more reliable way than we’ve ever had before in terms of transit service.”

Rep. Moed’s bill passed the state house with a huge bipartisan majority, 90 to 5. One of those few dissenting votes was Republican Indianapolis Rep. Mike Speedy. Explaining his decision before Tuesday’s vote, he said, “This provision still represents the potential for billions of dollars in debt to be paid off over 30 years at a time when technology is changing and consumer interests are changing. … It takes a risk of financial boondoggles.”

The bill now heads to the stat Senate for consideration.

 

Free Transit Helps Combat Dirty Air in Salt Lake City

(Photo: Eric Pancer)

Come wintertime, the same features that make the Salt Lake region an idyllic ski destination—tall mountains, lots of sunny, blue-bird days—can turn the lowlands into a smoggy nightmare. The metro area is surrounded on nearly all sides by mountain ranges that hold weather systems in place over the valley below. The area is also prone to temperature inversions, where a layer of warm air at higher elevations traps colder air down low. If the inversion gets locked into place, the air stagnates and the pollution and particulates from automobile emissions, chimneys and factories collect in a low-laying haze over Salt Lake County.

“Pollution gets trapped and builds and builds over a two- or three-week period and all of a sudden it looks like Beijing,” says Carl Arky, a Utah Transit Authority (UTA) spokesman. “It’s not very healthy. We see a lot of respiratory problems.”

In December, the Salt Lake region experienced one of its first bad inversions of the season. A soupy haze settled in. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality rated the air between orange (air unhealthy for sensitive groups) and red (unhealthy for everyone).

Automobile emissions account for more than half the pollution in Utah. As such, getting people out of their cars during “red flag” days can make an important impact during an inversion. On December 22, in an effort to do just that, UTA, Salt Lake City Council and the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office partnered to fund a free fare day on all UTA buses, commuter rail and light rail.

The free fares had the desired effect. UTA saw a marked system-wide bump in ridership and estimates a big reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But, free rides cost the agency money and, short of a dedicated funding stream or new partnerships, it doesn’t think it can afford to make free fare days a recurring event. Local transit advocates were happy to see the bump in ridership, but rather than focusing on free fares, think the agency should spend money to improve transit service in a way that will naturally draw in new riders.

On Free Fare Friday, ridership increased 23 percent across the entire system compared to the previous five weekdays. On FrontRunner commuter rail, ridership jumped 66 percent. On TRAX light rail, ridership increased 32 percent. Bus ridership remained mostly flat. In total, UTA had an extra 22,800 people riding transit. They estimate the event got about 17,560 cars off the road that day, which equates to 200 fewer tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We had a lot of people who either hadn’t used the system or hadn’t used the system in in a while. It shows that people do like public transit. It doesn’t mean there aren’t hurdles to getting more and more people using transit, but the response we heard was ‘we like this,’” says Arky. In a poll of riders on rail transit, UTA found that, “approximately 90 percent of riders who knew it was Free Fare Friday stated that they would ride UTA on another free fare day.”

Though the free fare day accomplished its goals, hosting another will require another inter-agency partnership, funding from the state or sponsorship from a company or foundation. UTA estimates the free fare day cost the agency about $70,000 in lost fare revenue and the increased operating costs from accommodating the bump in riders. In December, UTA, the city council and county mayor’s office split the bill.

“In a perfect world, we could do free fares—and hopefully we’re striving towards a more perfect world,” says Arky. “But it comes down to dollars and cents. If we can find the money, I’d imagine we’ll do this more often.”

Salt Lake is not the first city to experiment with free or reduced fares as a tool to address air pollution. Recently, Seoul made transit free during morning and evening rush hour for three consecutive days when air pollution got so bad that a layer of yellow dust settled over the city. Paris also temporarily made transit free and restricted driving to combat air pollution in 2016. In both examples, critics worried about the high cost of making transit free.

Still, transit advocates in Salt Lake City were happy to see the bump in ridership.

“We were pretty encouraged by it,” says Christopher Stout, Utah Transit Riders Union president. “Free fares worked and did what we thought they would do.”

But, Stout thinks that if UTA does somehow find a new revenue stream, free fares are not the best way to spend it. “Our focus has been primarily on trying to get them to expand the late night and weekend service and create a real high-frequency network. Even if they could find more money to offer free fares, the service would still have big holes in it.”

As is often the case, UTA’s bus service primarily serves 9 to 5 downtown workers. If you fall into that demographic, Stout says, you’re likely to be able to ride a bus line with 15-minute frequency. If you need to travel in the evenings or mid-day or early morning, you might need to wait 30 minutes or even an hour for your bus to arrive. “That leaves a significant hole for the trips mothers, seniors, students that are outside of the normal 18-24 age group had to take.”

Unless they have dedicated travel lanes, buses will always struggle to compete with cars on travel times. But the Transit Union thinks a revitalized bus network could help close the gap a bit. According to Stout, a bus trip across the Salt Lake Valley takes as long as an hour and a half, compared to about a half hour in a car.

“If the high-frequency service was there, we think the people would be there. Until they revitalize the bus system, ridership will be flatlined,” says Stout.

UTA may, in fact be getting a funding boost in coming years. The state legislature is currently considering a bill that would increase sales tax and impose new fees on electric vehicles to help fund mass transit.

 

Boston Moves to Regulate Short-Term Rentals Like Airbnb

(Photo: Rick Berk)

Last October, a group of protestors organized by the Chinese Progressive Association, Community Labor United, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and UNITEHERE,​ marched through Boston’s Chinatown and downtown to a rally at the Massachusetts State House. Their message: investors on Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms are buying up property to serve as short-term rentals, putting even more strain on the already tight long-term housing market and displacing low-income residents in the process. As has been the case just about everywhere, the new market created by short-term rental platforms moved far faster than regulators in Boston.

“Chinatown is a small neighborhood and we’ve been deeply impacted by gentrification and displacement,” says Karen Chen, Chinese Progressive Association’s executive director. “We’ve been seeing a lot of whole units and whole buildings turned into short rentals that used to house long term residents. People who lived in Chinatown for many years and relied on doctors and social services here are being displaced.”

On Monday, Mayor Marty Walsh filed a proposed ordinance to change that dynamic by regulating short-term rentals. Much like Seattle, New Orleans and others, Boston’s goal is to allow homeowners to generate extra income by renting their own homes while discouraging commercial operations from using the platforms to turn long-term rental units into more-profitable short-term listings. Some critics say, however, that anything short of a full ban on rentals in non-primary residences will leave the door open for a continued loss of housing in Boston.

The proposed regulations create three categories of hosts, all of whom would have to register with the city and pay an annual fee. Limited Share Units are listings for an extra room in a host’s home where the host is onsite at the same time as the guest. There will be no limit on the number of nights per year a Limited Share Unit can be rented and the annual fee is $25. Home Share Units are a host’s primary residence (for at least 9 months of the year) that gets rented out as a whole when the host is not there. Home Share Units will be limited to 90 nights of rentals per year and pay a $100 annual fee. Investor Units are any non-primary residence listed for rent on a short-term platform. These could be an apartment or condo previously available for long term rental, a vacation home or units purchased specifically to rent on the short-term market. Investor Units are also limited to 90 nights a year of rentals and will pay a $500 annual fee.

Under the regulations, hosts will have to register with the city. The city’s hope is to create memorandums of understanding with each platform company to establish a data sharing standard that will allow the city to regulate hosts. Homes with multiple outstanding code violations will be barred from hosting. Existing bed and breakfasts and licensed lodging houses are exempt from the proposed rules.

“We’ve tried to put forward a balanced approach to allow short-term rentals as a way for people to make extra money on the side,” says Chris English, a policy analyst with the mayor’s office. “But having some control over losing a significant number of units to the short-term rental market will be the most important piece of a successful policy moving forward. With the nature of the housing situation in Boston, it’s important we do a whole range of programs to keep units on the long-term market.”

Boston rents have risen steadily in recent years. A recent housing report found that the increases are finally slowing down, but available housing stock is mostly “concentrated at the high end of the market” and that there are “persistent affordability challenges for working-class households.”

Because the platforms did not provide the city any data about the current short-term rental market, English and his colleagues had to scrape the listing sites themselves to get a picture. Their best estimate is that there are about 5,500 active listings in the city and 2,000 of those are whole units listed full time. The average unit is rented 230 nights per year.

A report by Community Labor United found that across all Airbnb listings in Boston, 12 percent of operators earn 45 percent of the revenue generated in that city, indicating that a number of operators own many units. English says they found hosts with dozens of listings and some with as many as 100 listings. He admits, “the cleanliness of our data limits how confident we can be, but there are definitely power hosts.”

A regulation is only as good as its enforcement. Failure to comply with the regulations will result in fines from $100 a day to $300 a day. Without good data from the platforms, it will be very difficult to enforce the 90-day limit. And English admits getting that good data could be a challenge as the platforms have been reluctant to do so in most cities with short-term rental regulations. The platforms often anonymize the data making it hard to connect listings to hosts.

In New Orleans, which has a similar 90-day limit on short-term rentals, hosts have been able to get around the regulations by renting for 90 days on one platform, then switching to another platform (for example, switching from Airbnb to VRBO). Unscrupulous hosts can fly under the radar by not registering with the city at all, on the bet that it will take a long time for a neighbor to report them or the city to track them down.

Howard Greenwich is senior policy advisor with Puget Sound Sage, a Seattle-based grassroots community advocacy organization. Sage produced a report on the short-term market’s impact on Seattle housing and lobbied the city to create regulations. Greenwich says one of the reasons Seattle moved from a 90-day limit to its eventual rule that hosts could only list their primary unit and one extra was the difficulty of enforcing the time limit.

There is also a question of whether the 90-day limit is enough disincentive to convert units back from short term to long term.

“For someone new to this, I would guess that 90 days is going to be a pretty steep barrier for making their money back,” says Greenwich. “But, for the people who are already quite experienced with running short-term rental businesses, the limit isn’t going to stop them.”

The coalition that organized October’s march is also skeptical that the 90-day limit will be enough.

“On one hand, I’m glad that the city put out a policy. This is happening so quickly and it needs to be stopped. But at the same time, we need stronger regulations that would actually address the problem in a way that stops speculation,” says Chen.

Community Labor United’s report outlines several regulatory requests. First and foremost is that short-term rental listings be limited to primary residences only. Their other recommendations include a mechanism for holding hosts responsible for the conduct of their guests—nobody likes a rowdy stranger moving in next door, after all—and that the city use funds generated by fees and fines for affordable housing.

The final regulations are sure to look a little different from what Mayor Walsh proposed this week. His ordinance now goes to the city council, who will debate the specifics and take public comment. The council has 60 days to act on a mayoral ordinance. If they don’t, it goes into effect as proposed.

The Massachusetts State Legislature is also taking up the issue of short-term rentals. They are currently debating Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to impose a hotel tax on short-term rentals.

 

Minneapolis Parks Thinking About Inclusion for People with Invisible Disabilities

A fiber-optic lamp at an indoor sensory space in Minneapolis. Come summer, the parks and recreation board will take sensory-stimulating tools like this to parks events, calling it the Sense Tent for people with autism and other sensory processing disorders. (Courtesy MPRB)

Loud, crowded and often held in the hot days of summer—outdoor concert and movies in the park and summer festivals can be intense experiences for anyone. For someone with autism or another sensory processing disorder, the experience can be overwhelming, which can lead to increased trouble with communication, shutdowns and other problems. Because of this, some people with autism and families of children with autism choose to just skip such public events rather than risking the issue.

The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board doesn’t want people to have to make that choice. In an effort to make its events more inclusive, MPRB is piloting a program called Sense Tents. The tents will provide a space at events where people with sensory processing disorders can go to either or soothe or stimulate their senses when they’re overwhelmed.

“Creating an alternative space to take a break from the hubbub is a good way to provide sensory accommodation,” says Ellie Wilson, executive director of the Autism Society of Minnesota, which consulted on the Sense Tents project. “There are lots of people with invisible disabilities. This is about understanding the needs of the broader disability community, offering broader accessibility and creating opportunities for success for people with those disabilities.”

Though the Sense Tents project will eventually be held in literal tents at outdoor events, MPRB launched an indoor version at last week’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event. They had a room separated from the event with a collection of tools and toys meant to both calm and stimulate the senses.

For some people with sensory processing disorders, it can be just as important to get more of a given sense. So the Tents provide noise-cancelling headphones, but also headphones that play soothing music or sounds. They also have toys such as a fiber-optic lamp that changes color and has strings popping out the top, stimulating both touch and sight. They have foams and slime, scented crayons, a mini-trampoline, calming lights and more. In the summer, they’ll set up a sensory swing, which is sort of like a large hammock that hugs you.

“My goal is to make sure people feel comfortable,” says Sarah Thorsen, MPRB’s Therapeutic Recreation and Inclusion Coordinator. “With something like this, you can have a place to go, you can still experience the events. And we can keep people engaged in our events and programing.”

This summer, the plan is to use Sense Tents at outdoor concerts and movies in Minneapolis parks. They also plan to have something like Sensory Sundays where the Sense Tents will be set up. The primary goal of the program is to make events more inclusive. But Thorsen says they also want to use it as a teaching tool for people who may not know much about autism or sensory processing disorders.

Sense Tents was funded by a micro-grant from the National Recreation and Park Association. The Association funded four projects meant to make parks and recreation programs more inclusive for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. In addition to Minneapolis, the association funded a project to bring adaptive cycles to Austin, an effort to increase physical accessibility at Pritchard, AL’s community gardens and a Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department program to teach pre-schoolers, both those who are neurotypical and those on the autism spectrum, about backyard nature. (The association also supports Next City.)

Wilson says that “the sensory friendly movement is getting bigger and bigger.” In Minneapolis alone there are several businesses and institutions recognizing that they have to make a conscious effort to be inclusive to people with sensory processing disorders. The Walker Art Museum offers tours for people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Stages Theater has sensory-friendly performances of some productions, as does the Minnesota Orchestra.

Sense Tents are not the parks board’s first effort to be inclusive to people with autism and sensory processing disorders. Prior to this, the board had created calming boxes for children participating in the before- and after-school rec programs. Similar to the Sense Tents, the boxes had different toys to address sight, sound, touch and other senses.

MPRB’s accessibility and inclusion efforts go beyond Sense Tents as well. Thorsen is in charge of the therapeutic recreation and inclusion program. She works with the rec centers to make sure programs are physically accessible as well as inclusive. Sometimes that just entails training staff on better ways of communicating. The program also provides inclusion facilitators to assist a child or adult with a disability.

Wilson is excited to see MPRB and other institutions doing work to be more inclusive and thinks everyone should take their lead. She says, “We want to challenge communities to think about accessibility as part of their infrastructure. The ultimate goal is that somebody won’t have to go at a special time or a special place to get what they need; that as members of the public and valuable parts of their community, people will want to accommodate them wherever they are.”

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

 

Nonprofit has an ‘Olmstedian’ Vision for Southern Indiana Parks

A concept rendering of the future Ohio River Greenway. (Courtesy River Heritage Conservancy)

Right now, the Ohio River Greenway consists of a few disjointed sections of multi-use trail along the bank of the Ohio River in southern Indiana, across the water from Louisville, Kentucky. When it’s completed this summer, the 7-mile greenway will connect the small cities of New Albany, Clarksville and Jeffersonville. If River Heritage Conservancy director Scott Martin gets his way, however, a contiguous biking and walking path will only be the beginning for the Greenway.

Martin wants to create a 500-acre park at the center of the Greenway. His vision is for something no less than, “an Olmstedian park system” that will transform the area into a draw for residents and tourists and restore the damaged land into wildlife habitat.

The Olmsted comparison isn’t flippant. The famed Olmsted brothers designed a parks system in Louisville with 18 parks connected by greenway streets. In his previous job as parks director for the Parklands of Floyds Fork, Martin helped create a new interconnected parks system in the Olmsted vision. The Parklands of Floyds Fork is a series of five parks on the eastern side of Louisville connected by a parkway and multi-use paths.

“The Louisville metro area is out-punching its weight class right now in terms of its park systems,” says Martin. “With this new systemic plan, we’re trying to turn the Ohio River into the front yard for communities in Indiana.”

Doing so will be no easy task. The nonprofit River Heritage Conservancy is hoping to solicit private donations, philanthropic grants and public funding to buy the private land that makes up their preferred park site. The project has garnered some support already from businesses and the Paul Ogle Foundation. Wendy Dant Chesser, president of One Southern Indiana, the local chamber of commerce, told the Louisville Courier Journal that she thought the project could boost quality of life and fits with the chamber’s economic development strategy.

The Conservancy recently purchased its first 37 acres. Much of the land at the site was used for industry or as junkyards. The brownfields will require a lot of work to transform into natural habitat.

There are obvious comparisons to Louisville’s Waterfront Park, another relatively recent addition to the region. The city transformed the abandoned and underutilized industrial along the river into an 85-acre park in the late 1990s. It has green space and playgrounds and hosts concerts and events, all of which draw about 1.5 million visitors a year. Though Martin agrees there are parallels, he says the Ohio River Greenway park will likely be a more natural space with native species that help attract birds and wildlife.

“We have dynamic landscapes because of the flood regimen of the Ohio. We have enormous wetland potential with this park. We get excited because we don’t have a lot of wetlands left. Where we do have wetlands, the wildlife diversity is off the charts,” says Martin.

He continues, “And it’s right smack dab in a metro area with 1.2 million people. That’s a real rare opportunity to get that much green infrastructure in the center of that density of folks.”

The Louisville metro area happens to be in real need of more natural green space. It is tied for 13th most polluted metro area by year-round particle pollution on the American Lung Association’s annual ranking. After a few years of improvement, Louisville recently fell back on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of cities that don’t meet smog standards.

Part of the problem is that prevailing weather conditions in the Ohio River valley tend to trap stagnant air. But another factor is that the metro region has a sparse density of trees. A 2013 study found that the region has about 30 percent tree cover and the city proper has just 10 percent. The same study found that the city of Atlanta has 45 percent, for comparison. A new 500-acre park with natural forest and wetlands isn’t a silver bullet, but it would certainly have a positive impact.

“This is a chance to get it right. It’s a chance to get rid of the junk yards, do environmental remediation, get rid of invasive species, to heal this landscape and have it perform useful functions for this next century,” says Martin.

Exactly how they design the park to “get it right” will be determined after the nonprofit hires a landscape architecture firm this year to do the master plan. They will hold a design competition to select the firm later this year.

In addition to restoring the natural land, the hope is to create a park that draws locals and visitors alike. Martin wants to see people out paddling canoes and kayaks on the Ohio River—something he says does not currently happen much—and walking and biking on the trails.

River Heritage Conservancy is working on a long timeline for its park vision. It could take as much as two decades to have everything complete. But Martin is hoping they can get pieces of it done quickly to generate excitement and support as they think about their capital campaign next year.

“It’s a community that realizes its river is special,” he says. “Our biggest opportunity is that the park will be right on the Ohio River. Any time you add water to a park, magic happens.”

This article is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.

 



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