Posts by Author: Rachel Dovey

Measuring the Political Worth of Urban Tomatoes

(Photo by Elina Mark)

In 2010, Mara Gittleman needed to prove that New York City’s network of community gardens — half a thousand plots growing everything from eggplant to strawberries — weren’t vacant lots.

“In New York City, community gardens don’t have any land tenure or protection,” Gittleman says. “So if someone wants to use that land they can, even if [the garden] has been there for 40 years.”

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani had agreed to auction off 115 those “plots” for development in 1999. After three years of resistance from gardeners, the state’s attorney general signed an agreement protecting many of the neighborhood mini-farms in 2002. Eight years later, that agreement was about to expire.

As director of Farming Concrete, an organization that helps small-scale gardeners and urban farmers measure their produce, Gittleman wanted to quantify the value of those gardens for the city to see — not in abstract terms but in pounds of chard and sweet pepper. They began a data collection process involving kitchen scales, harvest logs and citizen science, and by the end of 2010, the organization was able to demonstrate that a sample of 67 gardens had grown 39,518 plants and 87,690 pounds of produce (including a whopping 7,150 pounds of tomatoes) with an estimated harvest value of $214,060.

In 2014, Farming Concrete released the Five Borough Farm Data Collection Toolkit, which Next City covered here. Last month, after continuing work with several partner organizations,, including Design Trust for Public Space, Farming Concrete released a new database: The Farming Concrete Data Collection Toolkit helps growers around the world to track their crops, along with other previously unquantified yields: pounds of compost diverted from landfills, market sales and even certain health benefits.

The point, Gittleman explains, is to allow urban growers to speak the same language as city officials: data. That data could help them advocate for more favorable policies, like a zoning designation that differentiates between community gardens and vacant lots. Susan Chin, executive director of the Design Trust, says that it could also be a useful tool for demonstrating infrastructure benefits to city leaders and worth to potential funders.

“Urban agriculture crosses so many boundaries,” she says, adding that according to the database, which has collected information from nearly 300 urban farms and community gardens so far, 200,000 pounds of compost have been diverted from local landfills and 68,300 gallons of rainwater have been harvested. Those numbers could be taken to sanitation and sewage treatment departments concerned with concentrated methane or overflowing gutters.

Like Farming Concrete’s 2010 project, the new toolkit requires a substantial amount of work from its users. As a series of instructional videos demonstrates, gardeners can track crop yields by measuring raised beds, counting plants, keeping a harvest log and weighing produce. They can keep tabs on “environmental benefits” by regularly weighing compost on a bathroom scale, and measure how many people from the local neighborhood or borough are participating in various tasks by keeping a homemade grid. And they can measure health benefits by taking informal surveys. All of that information is then uploaded to the database, which allows front-end searches according to state, city, “method” (i.e., “landfill waste diversion by volume”) or farm.

The tool’s emphasis on DIY data-gathering begs the question of whether any but the most devoted will use it — particularly because many community gardens are maintained by volunteers with a only few leaders.

But Chin points out that gardeners in 43 cities are already using it.

“A lot of the farmers and gardeners who are participating had been collecting data prior to this tool,” she says. “We’re just refining the work that they do.”

“No one is doing all 20 metrics,” says Gittleman, referring to the wide array of datasets the tool can record. “This just came out of different meetings and workshops we had with folks to hear not only ‘What are they collecting?’ but ‘What do they want to know?‘”

The database isn’t supposed to be a vast repository of, say, all the snap-peas grown in every city in 2016. It’s supposed to help gardeners with whatever organizing and fundraising needs they already have.

“It’s about letting community gardeners tell their own story,” Gittleman says. “Whatever they choose to do with that, whether it’s policy work, whether it’s fundraising work, whether it’s social justice work, this can help.”


What Detroit’s New Transit Authority Can Learn From Atlanta

(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

Until 2012, Detroit was one of the only major American cities without a regional transportation authority. Lacking any kind of umbrella organization, city and suburban agencies already divided in the manner of many U.S. transportation systems — by geographic boundaries representing divisions in economic status, class and race — were forced to compete for federal funds, a situation that further undermined regional unity and made for long, transfer-dependent bus rides.

Transit advocates greeted the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) with tentative support three years ago; after four decades and 23 failed tries, a regional transportation network finally looked possible. Now, with the October announcement of a new funding split and several continuous routes between Detroit and its suburbs, that possibility looks more tangible than ever.

But the work isn’t done. As research from the University of Detroit Mercy and the Mineta National Transit Research Consortium has shown, old patterns die hard in historically segregated metros. Particularly in Atlanta, the presence of a regional umbrella hasn’t always been enough to bridge urban-suburban divides.

The main regional players in Southeast Michigan are the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). As their names suggest, DDOT operates city routes while SMART runs in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties.

Until 2013, federal funds allocated to the two agencies factored in total ridership, and DDOT’s majority (about 115,000 daily riders according to 2011 numbers) gave it an edge over SMART, which has an average of about 36,000 daily riders. The funds were split 65-35 until the regional planning agency opted to allocate them according to population and vehicle equipment needs, a switch that gave SMART just over half the total sum.

The new split will be an even 50-50, a division that RTA spokesperson Travis Gonyou says takes both agencies’ metrics into account. It was finalized at an RTA board meeting on October 22nd, when the governing body also decided to expand SMART service in the city, likely along Woodward and Gratiot avenues.

“There’s some flexibility there,” Gonyou says, adding that both routes were proposed because they have “high ridership and cross county lines from the suburbs into the city.”

Those lines are currently a major pain point according to Megan Owens, executive director of advocacy group Transportation Riders United.

“Up until 2011, SMART would travel all the way from the suburbs into the city on several major corridors,” she says.

Those routes were reduced due to budget cuts in 2012. Now riders have to transfer to a city bus unless they’re riding during the peak commute hours of 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.

Adding that “there are very few details yet,” Owens expresses hope that the new ruling is a step forward.

But while it may be a landmark move for Metro Detroit, it doesn’t automatically signal clear skies ahead. The Detroit Regional Transit Study, published in 2014, compared the metro to four “peer regions”: Atlanta, Cleveland, St. Louis and Denver. And while regional transit umbrellas exist in all four, Atlanta, particularly, has struggled to shake its historic divisions.

Citing T-SPLOST, the road-and-rail initiative that failed spectacularly in 2012, researchers examined how the metro’s urban-suburban divides — and the racial and economic borders they stand for — crippled what could have been a powerful funding boost. Atlanta is home to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, an imperfect comparison because its jurisdiction doesn’t cover the entire metro area, but a step above Detroit’s pre-RTA lack of any regional body. Even so, the report details how the NAACP saw suburban commuters too heavily represented in the plan and advocated against it alongside the Sierra Club and the Tea Party.

Distilling that experience for Detroit, researchers point to the need for strong, metro-wide advocacy networks to speak in the interest of a regional system. The RTA is legally barred from advocating for funds, and researchers saw potential roadblocks in Detroit’s historic divisions.

“Recent surveys (University of Detroit Mercy Transportation Center 2013) have indicated that the majority of respondents value transit in general, but do not have a high regard for the existing transit systems in [Southeast Michigan], nor a high degree of confidence in the current transit provides in the region,” it states. “Therefore, the advancement of transit will be especially susceptible to divisive forces whose priorities and politics are focused locally, not regionally.”

Still, Leo Hanifin, a Detroit Mercy retired dean and the lead researcher for the project, sees the RTA’s creation as an indication that new, metro-focused working relationships may be on the rise.

The Detroit area, he says, “has shown greater sense of regionalism” in recent years. “I’m encouraged by the initiative that created the RTA,” he says.


Is Chicago’s New Pushcart Ban Really About Pedestrian Safety?

Michigan Avenue in Chicago (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Until September, Chicago’s 2,000 pushcart vendors serving everything from tamales to chocolatey champurrado operated without city-approved permits, subject to fines or closure if the wrong public inspector crossed their path. That ended when City Council passed an ordinance legalizing food carts on September 24th — but a month later, two aldermen banned them in high-traffic sections of their wards.

Pushcarts set up shop on sidewalks, often attracting lines of hungry customers. The space they take up — and congestion they potentially create — is driving amendments to the new ordinance from Aldermen Brendan Reilly and Tom Tunney. But according to some advocates, concern for local restaurants, not pedestrians, is actually behind the bans, which could hurt a burgeoning industry of primarily Latino entrepreneurs.

Citing street furniture, kiosks and other infrastructure on a number of high-volume pedestrian streets downtown, Reilly’s amendment states that “adding food carts to the mix of existing obstructions … would exacerbate current concerns for the functionality and safety of the public way.”

Tunney used similar language in a second amendment, calling out neighborhood density and the large volume of tourists around Wrigley Field.

“Sidewalks that are smaller in width, mixed with congestion and a steady flow of foot traffic is the main pedestrian safety issue the Alderman has,” an email from Tunney’s office states. “There are a number of uses on these narrow sidewalks that also get in the way — light poles, parking meters, bike racks, benches and sidewalk cafes.”

But Hilary Gowins, an editor for the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute, sees business interests in the ban.

“History has shown Chicagoans where Tunney and Reilly stand when it comes to culinary competition,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Huffington Post. Citing the density of traditional dining spots in Reilly’s ward and the fact that Tunney owns a local restaurant chain, Gowins added, “Tunney and Reilly were among the chief proponents of heavy restrictions on food trucks when City Council considered the topic over the last several years. Tunney made no secret that the main reason behind the city’s oppressive rules is to protect established businesses.”

Beth Kregor, director of the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, helped write the ordinance legalizing pushcarts. She says that while Tunney’s pedestrian concerns seem somewhat justified, Reilly’s amendment concerns her.

“Alderman Tunney’s ordinance was fairly limited and quite specific to a few blocks close to Wrigley Field,” she says. “Alderman Reilly’s ordinance blocked off major thoroughfares throughout the length of his ward.”

Food cart bans are permissible only on the grounds of “health and public safety concerns such as traffic congestion,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. But Kregor questions how the more widespread ban can be justified if there’s no real trial period.

“It sounds like Reilly would like to be cautious and ban them first and then pull back,” she says. “But I would hope the aldermen would make these amendments only if there is a clear case of a congestion or a safety problem. There will be no way to prove that a problem exists if the pushcarts are banned.”

“When someone makes such a broad move to limit entrepreneurs it does raise suspicions that it’s about protecting established businesses rather than protecting the public,” she adds.

Reilly’s office did not respond to phone and email queries seeking comment. When asked to respond to Gowins’ concerns, Tunney’s office pointed out that parts of the Alderman’s ward are now “welcoming” to food trucks, with established “food truck loading zones.”

But regardless of motivation, the bans could hurt a startup industry run mostly by Chicago’s Hispanic community. According to numbers collected by the Illinois Policy Institute, a slight majority of vendors are women (55 percent) and most support at least one dependent. Vendors earn about $691 per week in revenue and see about $328 per week in profits.

Vicky Lugo is vice president of the Asociación de Vendedores Ambulantes (Association of Street Vendors). She says the ban won’t affect most of the street vendors currently operating.

“We knew that aldermen would have a choice of having “No Peddling Zones” in their wards, but it really doesn’t affect food vendors because most of these folks work out in minority neighborhoods, particularly Latino ones,” she writes in an email. “When we were first speaking with [the aldermen] and getting their support, more than half supported us and so we think that they will not restrict those other neighborhoods.”

But the abundance of tourists, shoppers and general food traffic on the high-volume streets where the carts are now banned could have been a financial boon to the industry, Kregor says.

“This law was passed to allow all Chicagoans to start a business, and it’s the most affordable way to start a business selling food,” she says. “By shutting this business opportunity off to people on some of the busiest streets of Chicago, it cuts off potential.”

At a September meeting, Alderman Roberto Maldonado cited widespread issues of racial equity among his reasons for sponsoring the bill that legalized pushcarts.

“At a time when the national debate has turned toward demeaning our immigrant population, we must strengthen our laws to bring our immigrants and entrepreneurs out of the shadows and give them the respect and legitimacy they deserve,” he said, according to the Sun-Times.

Going forward, pushcart vendors will have that legitimacy in Chicago — just not on some of the city’s busiest streets.


Why Business-as-Usual Bike Planning Fails Low-Income Cyclists

(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

From bike lane placement to fatality demographics, it’s no secret that white, middle-class cyclists have better access to safer streets than cyclists of color and lower-income riders do. But while commonly cited reasons for this disparity range from blatant discrimination to racist zoning policies gone unchecked, one that doesn’t often make the list is standard-practice city planning.

A recently completed project in Houston could add to the conversation. By gathering input along high-traffic routes for transit-dependent cyclists, the women behind BikeHouston’s targeted outreach program managed to demonstrate just how exclusive the business-as-usual cycle of notices, public forums and plan updates can be.

“If you’re only holding public meetings, who is able to hear about the meeting and take the time out of their day to attend?” asks Mary Blitzer, the advocacy group’s manager of community and government relations. “Who is going to feel like the process will actually benefit them based on the incredibly racist history we have in the United States?”

Bicycle advocacy demographics tend to skew white and male, Blitzer adds. But national numbers don’t match that homogeneity. Between 2001 and 2009, the percent of trips taken by bike increased more for African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic cyclists than for white cyclists, according to a report from the League of American Bicyclists. According to that same report, the lowest-income households bike more than those earning above $20,000 a year. In other words, the people representing riders at meetings aren’t the only people riding — but often, they are the only ones being heard.

When BikeHouston partnered with the city to revise the Comprehensive Bikeway Plan, originally adopted in 1993, Blitzer wanted to gather input differently. The stakes were high. BikeHouston had raised $100,000 for the year-long process, slated for completion in early 2016. And the plan would envision an alternative transportation network at a key time for Houston’s infrastructure politics, with modal shifts apparent in the construction of a massive park — the Bayou Greenways project — meant to function as a car-free “spine” akin to Atlanta’s BeltLine.

Instead of inviting cyclists to come to them, BikeHouston decided to meet riders where they were — specifically, along the Metro Red Line during late-night and early-morning commute hours.

Nabiha Hossain, then an intern with BikeHouston, helped design the project.

“I knew that was a place where I would be able to come face to face with working-class and minority cyclists,” she says, adding that with little city-level data available, she had to rely on high-traffic corridors (she also visited the Third Ward Bike Shop, known to cater to cyclists without access to cars). The late nights and early mornings were meant to accommodate people traveling to and from restaurant jobs and other shifts that didn’t follow 9-to-5 hours.

Hossain spent 35 hours surveying 77 people. More than half lacked access to a vehicle and were dependent on their bikes for transportation. She gathered input on the need for pavement improvements at certain key corridors and collected anecdotes about where her respondents felt safest. All of them wanted to see drivers better educated about bicycle safety, and about half thought on-street safety would be improved with more active enforcement of cycling-related driving laws.

Hossain’s biggest takeaway, however, was how completely standard-practice city engagement tactics seemed to be failing the cyclists she spoke with.

“What really struck me was how unaware people were that the city was starting to do things for cycling safety,” she says. “The city has been promoting [the bicycle plan] but a lot of it has been through Facebook, social media and email. Many of the people I spoke with don’t use Facebook.”

The information gathered by Hossain will be folded into the update process, along with input collected by the city’s other partners, Blitzer says. Hossain adds that she wants to see other programs like BikeHouston’s coming from city planning departments with larger budgets.

“Even three people working on a set schedule could get better results than I did,” she says.

Discussion on the topic of unequal representation in bike planning and advocacy exists outside of Houston. Blitzer points to programs in East Los Angeles and San Francisco as examples of grassroots organizations driven by equity. But even in the ground-floor layer of national policymaking — data collection — she sees flaws. It’s no secret that the American Community Survey, which focuses on commuters, leaves out a lot of important information about cyclists. But even though most of the respondents to Hossain’s surveys were commuting to work, Blitzer expresses doubt that they would all be represented by federal numbers due to issues of housing insecurity.

Bottom line, failing to engage cyclists who can’t afford to advocate (or have culturally reinforced reasons to believe advocacy won’t benefit them) creates a vicious cycle.

“The current disparity between comfortable biking facilities in more affluent areas of Houston where cycling is viewed as recreation and in areas where cycling is viewed as a necessity is a huge issue for transportation planners in Houston,” Hossain wrote in her BikeHouston report. “[It] will widen if the working class is continuously being left out of the decision making process.”


Will City Regulators Treat Driverless Cars Like They’ve Treated Uber?

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

With several exceptions, the latest-generation ride service companies and city regulators get along about as well as Siamese fighting fish. Now, as more manufacturers begin investing in autonomous vehicle technology, it’s worth looking at how those regulators will respond to the mode that writers from The Guardian to Buzzfeed have dubbed, simply, “the future.”

Granted, questions of city-level regulation are mostly speculative at this point — state and federal rules barely exist. But a few forward-looking academics and urban researchers are starting to look at the ways that self-driving vehicles could challenge, break and shape existing municipal policy.

While the safety concerns that have prompted some U.S. cities to demand background checks for Uber drivers are irrelevant in a driverless vehicle, plenty of people have raised the hacking alarm. Despite data suggesting driverless cars will be safer than vehicles driven by error-prone humans, the cylon-fear buried deep in our collective psyche has glommed onto the new technology. Take the scene in HBO’s “Silicon Valley” where one character gets trapped in an autonomous vehicle and winds up in a shipping crate to the private island of a billionaire VC. Add the threat of an actual hack, not just glitchy programming (or the possibility that the machines will finally turn on us), and it’s clear that we’ll be demanding some good, old-fashioned government law-making.

Beyond safety, driverless cars could reshape municipal policy in several ways. One, according to Kevin Desouza, a professor with the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, has to do with pooled ownership.

“Every indication is that automated vehicles are not going to be owned by individuals, they’re going to be owned by groups or communities,” he says. “So when you think about the ways these vehicles are going to be used, no one driver [will be] held accountable because the machine drives on its own.”

That could chip away at municipal revenue streams, Desouza says, because many cities collect a yearly registration fee for each vehicle. But according to Randy Rowe, global chairman of the Urban Land Institute, it could also cause city leaders to rethink zoning mandates.

“We require a lot of parking,” he says. “If in fact we are going to have autonomous vehicles and a shared economy for them … a lot could change about our parking space needs.”

Zoning requirements for parking could be lessened, Rowe says, a move that would free up space for uses like housing and storage. Developer impact fees — the funds that many cities require developers to pay toward infrastructure — could also be affected.

“Many cities require a lot of parking impact fees,” he says.

Again, any predictions about how driverless cars will break or shape existing regulations are just that: predictions.

“A lot of major metropolitan areas are beginning to experiment with driverless cars, so we are in the very early stages,” Desouza says. “Until those experiments are complete and cities have learned from the process, trying to regulate things like parking and violations will not happen.”

Still, it seems safe to assume that driverless cars will pose both challenges and opportunities to cities in the areas of safety, funding and zoning. Whether — and how — municipal policy will adapt to meet those changes remains to be seen.


What a Bike-Crazy California Town Can Teach Us About Car-Free Cities

Bikes rule on the UC Davis campus. (Photo by Shea)

Davis, California, isn’t the place to be on national Bike to Work Day.

“We set up a breakfast for bike commuters at the park,” says David Takemoto-Weerts, bicycle program coordinator for UC Davis. “Some people stop and eat bagels, but then you look out in the street, and you’ll see hundreds of cyclists just passing on their way to work.”

Translation: Cycling isn’t a once-a-year novelty in the small city, which boasts the country’s highest percentage of bike commuters. According to the League of American Bicyclists, 23.2 percent of Davis’ population bikes to work. That’s roughly three times the percentage of commuters in Portland, Oregon (although because of Portland’s population size — 609,000 compared to Davis’ 66,000 — more people overall travel by bike in the northwestern city). It towers over the national average of 0.6 percent.

Many factors, including a mild climate and flat topography, contribute to that high percentage, but one has particular relevance right now. Several weeks ago, Philadelphia and Paris each closed part of their downtowns to cars. Soon afterward, a petition calling for more “open streets” weekends in Philadelphia launched and a Slate article urged more cities to try going car free. And Davis did just that — in 1967. For 48 years, 800 acres of the University of California, Davis central campus has been closed to cars.

Technically the university isn’t part of Davis (it abuts the municipality’s southern border), but it is the city’s largest employer. Which means that for roughly 30,000 workers and 35,000 students, a square-mile hub of daily life resembles Philadelphia during Pope Francis’ visit.

Former UC Davis Chancellor Emil Mrak ordered the closure, hoping to encourage cycling. Bike travel had been on the rise in Davis during World War II due to gasoline rationing according to Blake Gumprecht’s The American College Town. Hoping to build on that legacy, the chancellor told architects in 1961 “to plan for a bicycle-riding, tree-lined campus.” He had hundreds of racks installed, and then banned cars.

“Over night, the streets were converted to bike lanes,” says Takemoto-Weerts.

Mrak’s vision seems to have materialized. Commute data is famously limited because only about 16 percent of household trips take place between home and work — and UC Davis’ annual travel survey is evidence of that shortfall. Yes, 23.2 percent of Davis residents commute by bike, but 46 percent of those bound for the campus on a typical weekday use pedal-power to get there. Once on campus, roughly 46 percent of travelers also use bikes to get around.

That’s probably due to the school’s size. At 7,300 acres, it has one of the largest footprints of any California university.

“The campus is very large and spread out,” explains Brian Abbanat, a transportation planner with the City of Davis. “It almost necessitates cycling.”

Of course, UC Davis could have grown independently of the city — a car-free island surrounded by car-centric roads. But both Abbanat and Takemoto-Weerts say that wasn’t the case. In 1967, the same year campus closed to cars, the city began striping bike lanes and even created one parking-protected lane. It became a model for cycling infrastructure, helping to guide statewide policy. Now, bike lanes mark 95 percent of streets, and the city has installed cycletracks, bike paths and a protected intersection.

“Our infrastructure has always evolved alongside that of the university,” Abbanat says.

Because other campuses are closed to cars, you’d think college towns nationwide would be a good source of data on how car-free areas shape the cities around them. But according to Amelia Neptune, manager of the Bicycle Friendly University program with the League of American Bicyclists, it’s not that simple.

“UC Davis stands out in its history of being car free,” she says, adding that while other campuses are closed to cars, few are as large as the California college.

And, again, crediting the campus for Davis’ high commute percentage doesn’t tell the whole story. As Takemoto-Weerts says, many of the things that made Davis what it is are “serendipitous,” from the city’s flat topography to its mild weather and relatively small size.

But as other cities play around with car-free pilots, Davis is at least worth looking at. And it may not be so unique in a few years. According to Neptune, many campuses are implementing innovative bike infrastructure, and drafting programs that discourage car use, especially on larger campuses where pedestrian safety is an issue.

“I expect to see more campuses following those trends,” she says.


Should Sprawling San Diego Qualify for More Cap-and-Trade Funds?

Freeway-centric San Diego has struggled to get transit-oriented development projects off the ground. (Photo by Michael Huey)

By rewarding density and frequent public transportation, are the distributors of California’s new transit-oriented development fund incentivizing smart growth or hurting the cities with the greatest need?

It’s a question being asked in San Diego, where transit-oriented development can’t seem to take off. Since 2012, the region’s planning agency has come under fire (and litigation) from environmental groups, housing advocates and even Attorney General Kamala Harris for its freeway-centric approach to longterm growth. Now, with a new pot of cap-and-trade funds on the statewide table, cities have the chance to beef up their affordable housing and alternative transportation networks — an opportunity that San Diego’s metropolitan area could desperately use.

But according to some advocates, the region’s transit-housing nexus may be too weak to even qualify for a fair share of those funds. Which brings us back to that original question. Should the state cut San Diego a break and meet the sprawling metropolis where it’s at?

That’s essentially what the San Diego Association of Governments, SANDAG, would like to see.

The pot of money is called the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program (AHSC) and it’s 20 percent of California’s annual cap-and-trade proceeds — roughly $120 million for its inaugural fiscal year. In the first annual round of applications, SANDAG received $16 million.

Which doesn’t sound bad. But as Maya Srikrishnan of the Voice of San Diego explored several weeks ago, the ratio of applications submitted to funded shows San Diego lagging slightly compared to the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions.

“Low-income housing advocates say more projects would have been able to apply if the region had a more extensive public transportation network,” Srikrishnan wrote, adding that one of the criteria for affordable housing developments is location within a half mile of a transit station.

In July, SANDAG sent a letter to the California Strategic Growth Council (the agency overseeing AHSC funds) asking that the criteria be changed to one mile.

“Studies have shown that riders are willing, and likely, to travel up to one mile to reach transit stations,” it states.

“We were asking that that definition be broadened and that was really to allow for more funding opportunities,” says Coleen Clementson, Principal Regional Planner with SANDAG.

The projects had to be “shovel-ready,” she adds, meaning that they’d already passed a bundle of planning hurdles, including California’s famously stringent CEQA requirements. Opening up the buffer area to one mile would make more projects eligible to apply.

Because the region is historically low-density, her agency’s request seems reasonable in some ways. Right now, San Diego developments are not going to have the same proximity to public transportation as those in San Francisco, but transit-oriented development is cyclical, at least in theory. Improve your high-density housing stock, and ridership numbers for the nearby transit line will increase. Up your transit frequency and more people will want to live close by.

But the half-mile “catchment area” is an industry standard. And as Ryan Wiggins, a cap-and-trade campaign manager for TransForm, points out, plenty of cities already have potential developments within that radius.

“There are a limited amount of cap-and-trade dollars in this program, a lot of demand and a lot of projects that meet the current guidelines for being within a half mile,” he writes in an email. “Rather than suggest loosening a requirement that is based off a large body of peer-reviewed literature … SANDAG and its members should be pursuing meaningful TOD.”

Nicole Capretz, Executive Director of San Diego’s Climate Action Campaign, agrees.

Switching to one mile, she says, “would be a mistake.”

“We’re tied to the growth patterns of the past,” she adds.

For its part, the Strategic Growth Council released draft revised guidelines in September taking into account feedback from the various planning agencies. So far, the required radius hasn’t changed.

And because the funding comes from California’s cap-and-trade program, Wiggins’ statement is difficult to argue. Perhaps the finances would help San Diego build up its transit network and densify. But for now, they should go where they’ll do the most to reduce emissions. And that may mean rewarding the cities already engaged in more rigorous smart growth work.


Why “EV Tourism” Isn’t Just About Guilt-Free Weekend Getaways

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

From Drive Electric Orlando to the West Coast Green Highway, “EV tourism” — travel in an electric vehicle that follows a set charging route — is on the rise. And while still an early adopter-skewing niche, it shouldn’t be dismissed as the solar bikini of the EV world. According to the funders of a new report, the trend could be good for more than guilt-free weekend getaways: It could encourage more people to ditch their gas-powered vehicles and make the electric switch.

The report explores the feasibility, financial impact and environmental benefits of EV tourism in parts of New York State accessible to urban residents. Its authors — hailing from WXY Architecture + Urban Design, advisory firm Barretto Bay Strategies and energy consulting firm Energetics — found several factors that could encourage the micro-industry, including municipal enthusiasm for charging infrastructure and the presence of Metro-North stations, which could bring car-free tourists from New York City and sync them up with plug-in rentals.

Most of the report’s funding ($75,000) came from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA. According to Adam Ruder, program manager with the authority’s Clean Transportation Program, it was part of a competitive program to advance New York’s EV market under ChargeNY, launched by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2013. Thanks to that initiative, the state will install 3,000 charging stations and put 40,000 plug-in vehicles on the road by 2018. Ruder says the tourism model could help with those goals.

“One of the most effective ways to encourage consumers to buy EVs is giving them first-hand experience,” he writes in an email. “An EV tourism program that encourages people to rent the cars and try them out not only reduces emissions but can also encourage them to consider buying an EV for their next car.”

And while that wouldn’t necessarily make sense for New York City’s car-free crowd — 56 percent of the population in 2012 — it could serve the close-ring suburbs, where EV ownership is already clustered. Because range anxiety remains a barrier to widespread adoption (particularly for out-of-town road trips), the model’s emphasis on bulking up regional charging networks could be especially effective.

The report plots several grids around a variety of factors: whether a destination would support “the early adopter market” already likely to be interested in EVs, the other modes of transportation available, and the parking infrastructure already in place.

It’s a level of regional consideration often missing from EV plans, which tend to mirror the fragmented market. For now, Tesla’s superchargers are available only to Tesla cars. And even in cities with many electric vehicles, distribution isn’t often premeditated. Employers, private businesses and governments tend to set up their own chargers, and that’s a plus within each of their silos. In Atlanta, for example, employer-sponsored chargers are one reason the Nissan Leaf has taken off. But in general, city-sponsored chargers go on public land, businesses set up chargers on their property, and the big picture goes unaddressed.

As to whether EV tourism actually will boost ownership, we’ll have to wait and see. Ruder’s premise makes sense, and some research has shown that once drivers go electric, they don’t go back. But the trend is still new: No centralized database exists to gauge its real-world progress. The West Coast Green Highway, started as part of the $230 million DOE EV Project, isn’t a rental service, and Drive Electric Orlando only got off the ground in 2013.

If it does increase plug-in sales, the tourism model could be replicated in West Coast and Southwestern cities, where lower-density development means that more people already own cars. Currently, those are also the regions with the cleanest electrical mix.

A successful EV tourism model could also encourage more people to go car-free. Because many city-dwellers hang on to at least one car for out-of-town trips (even if they could manage to navigate their local streets by bike, bus or train), a well-advertised pilot could go the way of Zipcar, serving as a reminder that travel is possible without ownership.

For now, the report serves as an example of what long-range EV planning can look like when researchers think outside the municipal, business and employment sectors that too often establish piecemeal systems.

As Paul Salama, a senior urban planner with WXY, says, “We felt like this was a framework for choosing locations carefully, as opposed to having a pool of money and just putting chargers in the easiest place.”


Why Houston’s Politicized Drains Could Be Any City’s Drains

Cars stranded on a flooded section of Interstate 45 after heavy rains in Houston (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

From giant alligators to cannibalistic humanoids, horror movies have long promised that the contents of our sewers will catch up with us. But outside Hollywood, mayoral hopefuls should worry less about fanged clowns peering out of their gutters and more about the gutters themselves. It’s election season and municipal politicians beware: Your drainage infrastructure is out to get you.

Case in point: Houston.

Houston, as I wrote in August, is a place where the phrase “controversial drainage initiative” is a thing. Houston’s drains — and the crusade to fix them — haven’t just made an appearance at the Texas Supreme Court, they’re also helping to guide November’s election. And because the controversy surrounding them involves so many familiar players in the Annals of Crumbling Infrastructure, from a history of deferred maintenance to an allegedly misleading ballot initiative, Houston’s drains today could be all our drains in years to come.

The story starts on November 2, 2010, with the 51-49 approval of the Proposition 1 charter amendment. According to city documents, that vote OK’d the creation of a “dedicated pay-as-you-go fund for improving and maintaining streets and drainage.” Funding sources would include development impact fees, property taxes and a drainage fee that would collect a minimum of $125 annually.

It’s that drainage fee that has Houston on the hot seat. But first, a word about the vote on that ballot initiative.

In 2009, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) co-released a report with the transportation research group TRIP. Using Federal Highway Administration data, researchers published a list of pavement conditions in urban areas with more than 500,000 residents. Twenty-nine percent of Houston’s roads were found to be in poor condition. Of the 75 metro areas listed, it ranked among the top third for that unflattering title.

The drainage system built into those roads needed work too. In short, as Mayor Annise Parker recently told NPR affiliate WBUR, the city had multiple decades of deferred maintenance “coming home to roost.”

Officials hailed the vote that established the program now known as ReBuild Houston as a way to fund that maintenance. And according to Janice Evans, chief policy officer for the Mayor, it’s doing just that.

“The program has resulted in millions of dollars of completed projects since its inception earlier in Mayor Parker’s administration,” she writes in an email. “Without it, the city would be hard pressed to finance these necessary improvements.”

The controversy, which has recently taken the form of Supreme Court case 13-0047, concerns the language presented to voters in 2010.

Soon after the vote, a group of petitioners filed suit asserting that the ballot had been misleading. Central to their argument was the fact it hadn’t described the drainage fee, even though published city documents and media reports did. That missing information, they claimed, made it “impossible to discern the extent of the new financial burden on Houston property owners.”

Andy Taylor, of Andy Taylor & Associates, the petitioners’ legal representative, did not return my calls to his office and cell phone. But in June, Supreme Court judges affirmed his clients’ argument, stating that by “not describing the nature of the drainage charges, the ballot language omitted a chief feature of the proposition, thereby violating the common-law standard governing ballot clarity.”

According to Evans, the ruling won’t affect whether the city keeps collecting a drainage fee — a statement that some have questioned. Whatever happens, the lawsuit has cast a long shadow on this year’s election. City Council Member Stephen Costello, who helped pass the initiative that would become ReBuild, is now running for mayor. And that particular piece of history isn’t doing him any favors, at least with conservative opponent Bill King.

All of these pieces, from the history of deferred maintenance to the allegedly misleading ballot, are specific to Houston. But it’s impossible not to view them against national data and headlines from other cities. Texas has built more highways and bridges than any other state, but will fall $170 billion short of its maintenance needs over the next two decades, according to an investigative dive by McClatchy DC. And, as I’ve covered before, across the U.S., we’re statistically terrible at fixing our infrastructure, usually opting to build more instead.

In other words, Houston isn’t so unique. Watch out mayoral hopefuls. Your own controversial drainage initiative could be just around the corner.


New Museum Exhibit Shows How Transit Workers Respond to Crisis

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

When a plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, radio and cell service in lower Manhattan went down.

“The major cell towers were on top of the building, so there was very, very little signal available to [first] responders,” recalls Joseph Canova, speaking in a taped interview with the New York Transit Museum.

Canova, an assistant chief telecommunications officer with the MTA, explains that the attack also damaged Verizon’s underground cables, meaning that most of the land lines in the area went down too. So his department stepped in.

“We have eight full-blown PBX telephone switches around the city and thousands of miles of our own cabling underground, which serves the subway,” he says. “We were able to give the office of emergency management, FEMA, fire department, police department, phone service from below ground, for them to be able to operate.”

His interview is part of the Transit Museum’s new exhibit, “Bringing Back the City: Mass Transit Responds to Crisis.” The show, which opens September 30th, combines oral histories, photos and video to document the aftermath of September 11th, Hurricane Sandy and other citywide disasters from the perspective of transit workers who found themselves on the front lines.

“It really evolved out of Hurricane Sandy,” says Josh Feinberg, the exhibit’s curator. “Museum staff was hearing about all the things that MTA rail and transit staff did to prepare the system and then to get it back up and running.”

Workers in the Greenpoint subway tunnel after Superstorm Sandy (Credit: Metropolitan Transit Authority/J.P. Chan)

The result is a look at disaster relief you don’t often see — less dramatic than 24-hour cable’s looped footage, but still a fascinating exploration of the nuts, bolts and PBX switches that contribute, behind the scenes, to emergency response.

“When the transit system is shut down, when it’s not functioning, and then it comes back, that’s really this kind of signal to the city that we’re functioning as normal — that we can bounce back,” Feinberg says.

By shining a light on the days before that signal, the exhibit highlights just how vast New York City’s transit infrastructure is, and how many people contribute to its daily operation. The internal phone system is one example. According to Feinberg, the transit department also donated portable generators and heavy equipment to help with 9/11 recovery efforts.

“Transit systems have so many pieces, so you have people skilled in telecommunications, electricity, engineering, ironwork,” he says, adding that workers are often brought in to repurpose those skills.

Transit workers clear tracks near Coney Island after a December 2010 blizzard (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

As a result, many of those workers have witnessed New York’s defining disasters up-close, coming face to face with the flooding and structural damage that’s cleaned up and repaired by the time most of us would venture back to the tunnels and tracks. They get an unedited glimpse of what nature — or, in the case of 9/11, humans — can do. Photos show underground tracks devastated by flooding, impassable snow from the December 2010 blizzard, and the scorched, rubble-strewn entrance of the N/R subway station after the World Trade Center attacks. Connie Crawford, a former chief engineer with the MTA, provides eerie details of what the tunnels in Manhattan looked like after those attacks.

“You’d see steel speared down through the roof of the tunnel. You saw columns that took the impact damage and the column sort of snaked. I’ve never seen steel do the things that this steel was doing,” she says in another oral history recorded for the exhibit.

The Cortlandt Street N/R subway station after the World Trade Center attack in 2001 (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The show’s candor, walking viewers through those early moments before cleanup and repair, also serves as an urgent reminder of what’s to come. 9/11 wasn’t a natural disaster, but Sandy’s severity was very much in keeping with climatologists’ predictions about hurricanes and warming seas. And as icebergs melt and oceans rise, New York’s subterranean transportation system could be particularly compromised.

“We know that the transit system is vulnerable,” Feinberg says. “It’s underground, close to the water and close to flooding. The exhibit highlights that challenge and looks at some of the approaches being taken to prepare.”

Innovations for future resilience will need to answer a central question, he adds: How do you let people and fresh air in, but keep water out? Possibilities include pliable barriers, vent-closing devices and pumps.

“We know that the climate is changing,” he says. “The train systems are going to have to deal with that.”


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