Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Seattle Mayor Wants to Solve Tomorrow’s Gridlock With Free Youth Transit Today

(Photo by SounderBruce)

This week, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced a plan to provide all public high-school students with free transit passes by next fall.

“At a time that our city is becoming increasingly unaffordable for families, we need to make transit more safe, accessible and affordable, especially for our young people,” Durkan said in a statement, as reported by the Seattle Times.

Five school districts in King County already give their students free passes during the school year, as Next City has covered. The students can use their ORCA cards to access King County Metro buses, Seattle streetcars and Sound Transit light rail and buses.

But when the school year ends, the cards are deactivated and youth ridership drops, as Josh Cohen wrote for Next City last year. On Metro buses, data found, youth ridership goes from about 400,000 rides per month during the school year to fewer than 100,000 per month in the summer.

Durkin’s plan, which would expand those passes year-round and offer them to all students, regardless of income, is somewhat unique, according to another article in the Times. Washington, D.C., and Portland offer free transit service to students, but only during the academic year. New York City gives out free transit passes to students based on certain factors, like age and the distance they live from their school.

The project would reportedly cost the city about $3.8 million for one year, with King County Metro footing another $1 million. It wouldn’t require approval from the Seattle City Council or Metropolitan King County Council for that first year.

That may sound like a fare-box loss for the system, but Durkin’s office appears to playing the long game, hoping that encouraging young people to use transit will make them less likely to rely on a car later in life.

“Traffic’s going to get worse before it gets better; megaprojects will lead to mega-gridlock,” Durkin told the paper. “The good news is more people are using transit and fewer people are driving alone in their cars and we need to keep that trend growing.”


Uber’s Latest Carpool Service Looks a Lot Like the Bus

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Uber is not here to compete with public transit — or so the company’s reps have continually stressed over the last few years. But for all its first/last mile partnerships, data offerings and leadership shake-ups, the company has also begun experimenting with fixed-route (and pooled) services that look a lot like, well, public transit.

This week, it rolled out one such service, Express Pool, in Philadelphia and five other cities — Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, San Diego and Denver. The company began piloting the service in San Francisco and Boston last November. Express Pool matches riders with drivers and additional riders (much like UberPool), but instead of dropping them off at their exact locations, it leaves them within “walking distance,” according to the Verge.

The service is up to 75 percent cheaper than UberPool and UberX to account for the inconvenience — and in Philadelphia, at least, that could be bad news for fixed-route transit, which is already seeing steep declines in ridership. Plan Philly reports that trips across Center City could go for less than $2.50, the cost of SEPTA fare. SEPTA says ride-hailing apps do impact its fares, but most ridership declines happen during off-peak hours, suggesting that Uber isn’t a part of most users daily commute.

Not so with Express Pool.

“In some areas, particularly areas underserved by transit today, people will see it as a viable option versus public transit,” Ethan Stock, Uber Express Pool’s product lead told reporters in a teleconference. “We would like to get into a state where people are confident in [Express Pool] for their daily commute to and from work.”

However, he clarified to the Verge that Express Pool wasn’t trying to compete with well-established lines.

“There are clearly corridors and routes where it makes sense to put a 60-passenger on that and drive it back and forth in a straight line,” he told the website. “And that is very much what we’re not trying to do here.”

Regardless of how the new service interacts with SEPTA, Uber (along with Lyft and taxi services) could face new fees in Philadelphia. The 50-cent surcharge proposed Tuesday by the Philadelphia Parking Agency (PPA) could raise up to $13.5 million a year, according to the agency’s executive director. That would be nearly $10 million more than what it collects now under a different tax structure, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

The fee would have to be approved by state lawmakers, but it could potentially make the extra-low fares of a service like Express Pool less sustainable for Uber.


Mayors Urge Trump Not to Dismantle Clean Power Plan

President Donald Trump signed an Energy Independence Executive Order last March aimed at unraveling former President Barack Obama's plan to curb global warming. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The Climate Mayors are at it again. This time, the 236 mayors from 47 states and territories have joined signatory power in a comment letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, opposing Administrator Scott Pruitt’s efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan.

The EPA is scheduled to hold a “listening session” in Kansas City on Feb. 21 regarding the proposed repeal, one of three sessions announced last year. Pruitt has suggested that the Clean Power Plan is not consistent with the Clean Air Act, and the EPA news release refers to it as “punishing regulation.” Pruitt has publicly denied the link between human activity and climate change in the past, and has recently begun speculating that a warming planet may be beneficial to humans.

The mayors argue, as they have done before, that they will bear the economic brunt of those disasters, and require federal assistance. From the letter:

“Not only are climate change impacts felt locally — our communities are also where climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts are being implemented,” the letter states. “But the legal authority of cities and other municipalities generally extends only as far as their state governments and federal law allow, and as a result, our local efforts to address climate change are highly sensitive to national policies like the Clean Power Plan, which shape markets, steer state action, and have large direct impacts on nationwide emissions.”

The group of city leaders began taking action after the 2016 election, first urging President Trump to act on climate change, then stressing the importance of national policies like the Clean Power Plan and vehicle fuel efficiency standards, then vowing to uphold the Paris Agreement locally after the president announced that the U.S. would bow out. At this point, there seems little chance that the administration will listen to them, but that doesn’t mean their efforts are in vain.

“The nearly 400 members of the Climate Mayors network have already begun to implement policies to drive emission reductions and address adaptation concerns in their cities,” Sarah King, a project manager for the Climate Mayors group, recently told Curbed. “I believe that this mayoral focus on effective climate policies will continue regardless of whether or not the Clean Power Plan is in fact repealed.”

The full letter is available here.


Austin Is First Texas City to Pass Paid Sick Leave

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Last week, the Austin City Council passed a citywide, mandatory paid sick leave policy — one of about 40 such laws in the country, but the first in Texas.

Not surprisingly, state lawmakers and lobbyists are already planning to overturn it.

“Certainly here in Texas, we will be pursuing preemptive legislation,” Will Newton, Texas director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a Koch Brothers-backed advocacy group, recently told the Texas Observer. “It’ll be a priority.”

The ordinance will extend paid sick leave to around 87,000 Austin workers according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The Observer reports:

The measure mandates that employees receive one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, capping at six or eight days annually depending on the size of the business. It takes effect for most employers on Oct. 1, and is enforceable through fines of up to $500. Paid time-off can also be used to take care of family members and to address domestic or sexual violence. [Council member Greg Casar] pledged that the council would soon apply the policy to city workers, too.

Opponents of the law claim that the process of adoption has been rushed, and worry that the policy will hurt business owners. Similar fears were cited when New York City officials passed the Earned Sick Time Act, but they haven’t been realized.

Still, as preemption laws become the favored tool of state lawmakers nationwide — and especially lawmakers in Texas — the fate of Austin’s policy could rest with its neighboring cities. Mayor Steve Adler called for cities and mayors around the state to join Austin, saying that having those cities follow Austin’s lead could be key to defending the new policy against the state.

In Dallas, at least one City Council member appears to be onboard. Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston said last week that he’ll be working to pass a similar measure in his city this year, the Dallas Observer reports.

“I’m extremely pleased for the overwhelming victory for workers in Austin,” Kingston says. “It makes me optimistic that the same development could happen in Dallas. I fully anticipate that there will be an effort both on council and from workers’ rights advocates to bring this measure to Dallas.”


Amtrak May Stop Running on Tracks Without Speed Controls

An Amtrak train derailed south of Seattle in December (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

Amtrak may suspend service on tracks lacking advanced speed controls by the end of 2018, a top executive said last week.

Railroads face a December 31 deadline set by Congress for installing a GPS-based system called Positive Train Control (PTC), which slows trains that are going too fast, takes control when an engineer is incapacitated and generally prevents crashes, the Associated Press reports. But some railroad officials have asked for an extension until 2020, citing equipment issues and testing delays.

Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson told a House subcommittee last week that the company is worried passengers are being endangered by those delays — particularly on tracks his company uses but doesn’t own, such as track owned by freight carriers. Those tracks make up a large portion of Amtrak’s network, according to the AP. Anderson says Amtrak may quit running trains on third-party tracks that receive extensions on the PTC deadline.

That decision could impact commuters who use regional carriers like MARC and NJ Transit, which may not be able to run on certain Amtrak-owned tracks starting in 2019. But Anderson was reportedly bullish in front of the subcommittee.

“Without PTC, the system is too vulnerable to single points of failure many of which are dependent upon the memory of a single human being interacting with a big, complicated system,” he said. “When an engineer loses situational awareness or forgets a rule, we have no systems to assist them and help them prevent that error.”

As Next City has covered, two Amtrak trains have been involved in fatal crashes on third-party tracks recently — one in Washington state south of Seattle and one in Cayce, South Carolina.

The Washington train was going 80 miles per hour on a curve with a 30 mile-per-hour speed limit. Its collision served as a potential setback for Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s vision of a high-speed rail line between Seattle and Vancouver.


New Pennsylvania District Map Gives Small Cities More Power

The new congressional map enacted by the Pennsylvania state supreme court on Monday (Credit: Pennsylvania Supreme Court)

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district has drawn comparisons to a sketch of Goofy kicking Donald Duck. It’s held together by a steakhouse. When Next City’s Jen Kinney attempted to navigate it last year, she had to exit the main highway and take back roads. It is, in other words, notoriously gerrymandered. Or it was. In a decision filed Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court enacted a new district map — which could be more favorable to the state’s Democratic party.

The court ruled last month that the state’s map was an “unconstitutional partisan gerrymander” according to NPR.

As Kinney explained last year:

States redraw their congressional districts every 10 years, based on new census data. In Pennsylvania, the majority party in the state legislature controls the lines on that map — thus ensuring that party’s dominance until the next redistricting. That’s how District 7 was formed in 2011, a meandering entity that pays no heed to natural boundaries in its quest to create a safe Republican majority. Or take District 16, which largely coheres to Lancaster County lines and then — seemingly arbitrary — sends out tentacles to snag Oxford and Coatesville in the east and Reading in the north.

When justices first declared the map unconstitutional on Jan. 22, they told the Republican-controlled legislature and Democrat Governor (Governor Tom Wolf) to compromise and draw up a map together, stipulating that the districts “should be more compact and contiguous, and should split fewer municipalities,” NPR reports.

But the two parties didn’t compromise and submit a map. Instead House and Senate Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Democrats, Lt. Governor Mike Stack, a group of Republican activists and the League of Women Voters all sent in separate maps. According to NPR, the maps did generally make districts more compact, but (as you might expect) they varied in terms of partisan advantage.

Ultimately justices drew up their own map. They were advised by Nathan Persily, a Stanford professor who has assisted judges in New York, Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia and Maryland with other redistricting cases.

That map, Wired reports, will be used for the midterm elections in November, opening the race to a Democratic advantage. The decision also stands to benefit Pennsylvania’s smaller urban areas. Many cities, like the post-industrial Reading, were swallowed up by large rural districts under the previous system.

“No matter who is representing that particular district, they have a much larger portion of population in Lancaster County, which is much more Republican-leaning, which allows them to kind of ignore the needs of Reading itself,” Judy Schwank, a state senator who represents the city of Reading at the state capital, told Kinney last year. “And this is a city with quite a few needs. We’re one of the poorest urban areas in the country.”


Three Cities Get Support to Fight Human Trafficking

(AP Photo/John Locher)

Like many complex and little-understood problems, human trafficking tends to be combated mainly through the efforts of local police. But strengthening a city’s criminal justice response is simply not enough according to the Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership dedicated to supporting victims and curbing human trafficking through a whole-systems approach. Last week, the organization announced funding for three cities — Atlanta, Minneapolis and Chicago — to boost their anti-trafficking efforts and increase support for survivors citywide.

“While law enforcement agencies play a critical role in the investigation of cases and prosecution of traffickers, this approach leaves gaps in the prevention of trafficking and the many services survivors need,” the organization said in a statement. “This problem is even more urgent now, as increased threats of deportation and heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric may cause immigrant communities to become more vulnerable to trafficking and less likely to seek help from law enforcement, report their trafficker, or access services.” (As Next City has covered, some law enforcement agencies in California are refusing to cooperate with ICE for this very reason).

The funds will support an anti-trafficking fellow in each city who will report directly to the mayor (or executive-level staff) and work across multiple city agencies with a range of stakeholders. The fellow will examine gaps in (and between) the departments of public health, human services, labor enforcement, legal services, housing and immigration, among others, that allow trafficking victims to cycle in and out of the criminal justice system without receiving the help they need.

Atlanta is one of the top cities in the U.S. for trafficking activity, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline — although the organization is obviously limited in that it can only record reported crimes. Last month, Atlanta’s new mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms joined State Attorney General Chris Carr to discuss the problem at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Fox 5 reported at the time. Local victims are usually girls between the ages of 12 and 14, according to the Attorney General.

“We’re talking about children,” Lance Bottoms said. “We’re talking about children being bought and sold and prostituted. This is a modern-day form of slavery.”

But many myths remain about the practice, as Next City has covered. One of the most prevalent — that major sporting events attract large numbers of human traffickers. This can cause a media frenzy, which can lead to a spike in the arrests of sex workers (but not necessarily traffickers).

“If law enforcement attempts to indiscriminately crack down on prostitution before the big game, some sex workers will likely be arrested, while most may simply move to more remote areas of town where they may be in greater danger from non-police threats,” Jake Blumgart wrote for Next City in 2013.


Mid-Sized Cities Could Lose Under Trump Infrastructure Plan

 (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Since President Trump unveiled his $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal Monday, state and city officials — and the organizations representing them — have scrambled to make sense of the plan’s central funding switch.

That’s because the $1.5 trillion is really only $200 million in direct federal spending, the AP reports. The administration proposes using those direct funds to leverage local and state tax dollars and public-private partnerships. It’s still offering an 80-20 funding split to localities (on road projects, for example) — but the 80 and 20 are switched.

The Huffington Post reports:

The administration’s proposal would theoretically spur additional investment in infrastructure by sharply reducing federal cost-sharing for projects to no more than 20 percent of the costs, down from the traditional 80 percent. The massive reduction in federal dollars would place a greater onus on state and local officials to find revenue to fund the construction of new projects ― which in many cases would likely mean allowing more tolls or usage fees to create revenue streams to lure in private investors.

The paper speculates that that arrangement could be particularly hard on rural communities, where sparser populations could have trouble coming up with enough in local taxes or attracting investors (and those small cities may not have an airport to sell, to make up the difference). But according to Wired, the proposal actually throws a hefty bone to rural America — $50 billion in no-strings-attached funding for communities smaller than 50,000.

The real losers are mid-sized cities — particularly mid-sized cities in need of standard repairs, not brand new roads or gleaming trolley cars. And maintenance — if unpopular among legacy-building politicos — is the country’s real need. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, bringing the country’s current infrastructure systems (bridges, water pipes, electric grid) up to good condition by 2025 would cost upwards of $3 trillion.

From Wired:

If you’re in the middle … in a town or a smaller city that hasn’t tapped into post-recession growth, critics say the “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America” won’t help you much. It’s long on reform, the sort of streamlining that city officials say is needed to cut down the expensive and aggravating gaps between proposal, design, and construction. But it’s short on actual money, allocating just $100 billion in matching funds over 10 years for infrastructure projects for the whole country.

“The infrastructure plan as proposed seems very much focused on leveraging private and local and state dollars,” Brooks Rainwater, who oversees the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions, told the magazine. “Oftentimes those dollars by the nature of private investment tend to flow to larger cities.”

But large cities are also sounding the alarm. Transportation experts and officials have said that New York state doesn’t have the resources to pay for a project like the Gateway Program, a rail tunnel between New York City and New Jersey (which has been one of the region’s top infrastructure priorities for several years), according to the AP. And New York’s subways could also be in (deeper) trouble.

“It is impossible to square President Trump’s stated desire to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure with his proposal released today,” the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) wrote in a statement released Monday. “The White House released a ‘1.5 trillion’ plan that is largely smoke and mirrors — funding a minuscule 13 percent of the stated need, with funds taken from some of our country’s most successful infrastructure programs, New Starts and TIGER.”

For now, however, Trump’s proposal is just that — a proposal. In the last week, it’s been booed by players on both sides of the congressional aisle, and many experts have speculated that it probably won’t pass as is.


New York Architecture Firm Proposes Floating Housing Complex

(Credit: DFA) 

Seawalls and flood insurance are all well and good, but a New York architecture firm has designed a more ambitious (but probably less practical) solution for housing people amid rising seas.

DFA’s proposal for a “floating” housing complex borrows from the often-mythologized floating cities concept that Next City has covered. But the complex would still technically be tied to the land — the latticed, cylindrical buildings would rise from New York’s dilapidated Pier 40 in the Hudson River.

(Credit: DFA) 

Dezeen reports:

By adapting the existing pier – which was built in 1962 and [has] fallen into disrepair – the architecture studio is offering several responses to current issues in New York City, including a lack of affordable housing and resiliency to flooding due to climate change.

“We see so many projects going up in New York that are quick, chart-driven responses to serious problems,” said DFA founding principle Laith Sayigh. “These short-term resolutions will not safeguard the city from rapid changes in the environment or protect future generations of people.”

The firm’s website describes “four tower typologies ranging between [96 and 455 feet] tall,” for a total of 450 units. DFA used an algorithm to find the best location for each tower cluster based on the pier’s structural base. An elevated pathway would wind around the towers, set over a number of landscaped pavilions — the idea being that the lower-level gathering spaces would remain open until 2050, when river water would cover them according to current climate projections. After 2050, residents would use the elevated pathways to get around.

(Credit: DFA) 

(Credit: DFA) 

For now, though, DFA’s proposal is purely an exercise in creativity. In real life, the pier houses a football field and parking facility that aren’t scheduled for demolition any time soon. In 2016, Hudson River Park Trust (the group that manages the pier) sold the structure’s air rights to a group of developers. The organization now plans to use the funds from that sale to rehabilitate its current facilities, Curbed reports.

Still, the design is yet another sign that floating architecture’s moment may have finally arrived. As Rachel Keeton wrote for Next City in 2014, images of “sparkling new cities lost at sea” tend to raise municipal eyebrows, but governments are slowly coming around to the idea of developing on water.

She wrote:

If cities like New York or Tokyo build two to three percent of their development on the water, they can sell this to developers, tax the owners and create a more flexible city. Win-win. Governments are interested in this because it presents a new market for them. While most land is privately owned or already built up, by changing policies to make floating structures available the government expands its real estate. It’s a business model that is attractive because it solves multiple problems. Floating structures can reinvigorate former industrial areas like old harbors or riversides, they can adapt to extreme weather conditions better than traditional structures and they create a profit from space that is currently unmarketable.


Seattle Group Wants to Bring Back Historic Trolleys

(Images courtesy of Friends of the Benson Trolleys)

When (and if) Seattle’s Center City Connector streetcar line goes in, several restored trolley cars that first appeared on city streets in the ‘80s could rattle back to life.

That, at least, is the wish of a streetcar enthusiast group called Friends of the Benson Trolleys (FOBT), which recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a feasibility study. The group’s end goal: To restore two of Seattle’s historic Benson Trolleys, originally brought to the city by former City Council Member George Benson for use along the waterfront. The trolley cars were “mothballed” (as the group puts it on Kickstarter) after 23 years of service when the trolleys’ maintenance facility was demolished to make way for a waterfront sculpture garden. In 2015, the city of St. Louis purchased three cars for the Loop Trolley, but King County Metro held onto two. They’re currently sitting in a storage unit in Anacortes, Washington.

“[T]hese vintage trolleys will connect the fabric of our historic neighborhoods and sites with an authentic historic experience that is increasingly hard to find in our city,” the Kickstarter site states. “In this time of record growth and change, it’s more important than ever to connect to our City’s history and cultural past. We have a once in a generation opportunity to preserve an important part of our city’s history.”

The group believes that modifying the trolley cars to run on a higher-voltage line wouldn’t be too difficult, although it would require some up-front engineering, the Capitol Hill Times reports. FOBT is seeking $28,000 on Kickstarter (so far $6,980 has been pledged) and once the feasibility study is complete, the group believes it can use it to leverage more private funding. Don Blakeney, a Friends of the Benson Trolleys board member, told the paper that the organization may also apply for a capital heritage grant from 4Culture.

But the City Connector streetcar line, which would link the already existing South Lake Union and First Hill lines, has been a target of criticism from several members of Seattle’s city council. Last October, Council Member Lisa Herbold questioned a number of rosy projections about fare-box recovery for the line, Josh Cohen wrote for Next City at the time.

(Image courtesy of Friends of the Benson Trolleys)

“The streetcar, from my perspective, has limited utility as a transportation infrastructure tool for people,” she said. “It may have value as an economic development tool.”

Cohen wrote:

Herbold’s council colleagues Kshama Sawant and Kirsten Harris-Talley echoed her skepticism, positing that the project didn’t meet the standards of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative and as such, the city’s $50 million contribution should be directed elsewhere.

“Is this the region of the city that needs the most urgent investment in transit?” asked Sawant. “Shouldn’t we be expanding transit routes and frequency in other parts of the city [that are currently underserved by transit]?”

Despite their opposition, however, a key budget deadline passed last year without the council pulling funding for the line, and utility work has begun. President Trump’s recently proposed infrastructure budget, however, would slash its federal financing.


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Architect Mahmood Fallahian

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