Posts by Author: Rachel Kaufman

Why Lyft Is Making Friends With Transit Agencies

(AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Even as cities continue to grapple with regulating companies like Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, the popularity of such services keeps growing. And when it comes to on-demand ride firms, some transit agencies are choosing to embrace the trend, not fight it.

At the end of October, Lyft announced its first formal integration with a transit agency. You can now find Lyft as a transportation option within Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s GoPass mobile ticketing app. Last week, Lyft launched its Friends With Transit page, which Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy, says is “a public-facing expression” of Lyft’s desire to work with transportation departments around the country.

According to the company’s data, 25 percent of Lyft riders say they use the service to connect to public transit. In Boston, 33 percent of those rides start or end near a T station. And transit hubs like Chicago’s Union Station, D.C.‘s Union Station and Boston’s South Station are among the most popular destinations for its users, Lyft finds. So riders already see on-demand rides as a solution to the first mile/last mile problem. Lyft thinks it can do more.

Lyft and Uber have been spending a lot of resources to ensure that their companies can operate in cities, especially after backlash from cab companies and municipal governments. But, says Castor, “about six, eight months ago, we got to a point where over half of the states had enacted legislation that allowed us to operate, and it started to open up a different conversation.”

Castor’s job shifted somewhat, from trying to ensure Lyft’s survival to figuring out how Lyft and transit agencies could coexist. “We needed to begin a concerted initiative to work with transit agencies and planners to have Lyft be integrated into that network and to … help advance the goals of these agencies,” whether it’s congestion reduction, connectivity or more.

So far that integration is not especially tight. Lyft is in discussions with many cities, but with DART, the first official partnership with a transit agency for Lyft, the integration is a link deep within the city’s mobile ticketing and trip planner app. “It takes you to their mobile site, their tools, so you can order your ride on Lyft or Uber,” says Morgan Lyons, vice president of communications for DART. (DART also has a link to Zipcar on the same screen of the app). That’s all it does. But it’s a start.

“I think in the next year you’ll see a deeper integration starting to emerge,” says Castor. A pilot will be rolled out in Portland, where the TriMet agency is integrating Lyft into its app so users can actually see real-time car availability without launching a separate app.

“What we’re trying to do in all three cases” — that is, with Lyft, Uber and Zipcar — “is to make it easier for people to have a complete trip,” Lyons says.

Skeptics may say that it looks like what Lyons calls a collaboration is actually just a way for Lyft to get free advertising. Not so, he says. Working closely with such companies is actually a way to capture more possible transit riders.

“It’s possible that you would like to use transit, but you live two, three miles away from a rail station. Make a quick trip on Lyft, get to the train station, go across town wherever you need to go,” says Lyons. “[This collaboration] introduces us to folks who may not have thought lately about riding transit. ‘Why would I ride the bus? I have a car.’ So it helps us become relevant to people who wouldn’t otherwise think about us.”

In the long run, Lyons also hopes that Lyft will allow users to plan a DART trip through the Lyft app.

“So you begin your trip with Lyft, and while you’re getting your ride, you can come straight out of that app and get back into our app.” This is not out of the question, Castor says, though she adds that most agencies haven’t asked for such a feature. Still, “I think that is something that could open up a new set of riders to us. It would benefit Lyft to encourage people to take trains for long journeys, because they’re unlikely to take Lyft the whole way.” A commute downtown from the outer suburbs would be cost-prohibitive if Lyft was the only mode of transportation. “They’re much more likely to drive that distance. But if they can take a Lyft to the train station, they’re much more likely to do that.”

Beyond the in-app integrations, Lyft is exploring other ways it can work with cities. Paratransit is one possibility, though Lyft and Uber’s record on serving wheelchair users remains spotty at best.

Lyft is also interested in sharing usage data with cities, helping provide indicators of demand to help make planning decisions.

Lyons, of DART, admits that his agency was the target of some skepticism when it announced it was working with Lyft and its ilk. “Aren’t you concerned you might lose some ridership?” he was asked.

“Well, we recognize that’s possible in some areas. We also recognize that in some areas, that may be a better solution,” he says. “One of the constant challenges for transit agencies everywhere is to decide … the best way to spend a limited resource.” Partnerships with private companies are one way to stretch dollars, he says. If this all sounds like one step toward public agencies handing over the keys to private companies, well, maybe it is. But, says Lyons, after announcing each collaboration, DART has received calls from transit agencies all over the country asking how to do the same thing.

Says Lyons, “If we were able to develop collaborations with providers [and] their customers — our customers, that universe of people who need to get from A to B — doesn’t that make the city work better?”

 

How a Not-Entirely-Polite Card Game Is Changing Urban Planning

(Credit: Cards Against Urbanity)

It started with a night of drinking in Washington, D.C.

The members of “Do Tank DC,” planners, architects, and activists, and the founder of Greater Places, an online hub for urban design, had a wild, not-entirely-sober idea to turn urban planning into a game. They thought maybe a couple hundred people would pony up for a snarky, inside-baseball game that poked fun at the tropes of trying to better a city. In the end, over 800 people pledged more than $28,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to bring Cards Against Urbanity to life.

Cards Against Urbanity is a (sanctioned) spinoff of the insanely popular Cards Against Humanity, which itself is a sort of unauthorized spinoff of the game Apples to Apples. The game works like this: One person plays a card that poses a question or fill-in-the-blank, like “The Mayor got in trouble for crowdsourcing ________”. Each other player plays a card that they think represents the “best” answer, like “The poor door,” “NIMBYs,” or “A stress ball shaped like Richard Florida.” The first player chooses their favorite answer, many laughs are had, and at some point, if at least one player is sober enough to keep score, one is crowned the winner.

Inevitably, say both Cards Against Urbanity creators and people who have played the game, there’s one person in the group who needs one of the cards defined. No really, why is “Stadium boondoggle” funny? Someone else will jump in and explain, and thus, Learning Happens. It may not be the kind of learning that counts toward continuing education credits, but it’s learning nonetheless.

“Even though it’s snarky and cynical — which planners are — it has terms in it that people might not know,” says Catherine Hartley, a senior planner at Hillsborough County, Florida. “If you’re an old-timer, you might not know what tactical urbanism is. If you’re not in historic preservation, you might not know what demolition by neglect is.”

Inspired by the ways Cards Against Urbanity players are educating each other about urban planning through in-jokes, the team behind the card game is launching a new, more serious stack of cards. Call it, if you wish, Cards For Urbanity.

Imagine, Do Tank and Greater Places say, a Pinterest board of urban planning — but in real life. Each card will have a single concept or buzzword on it — a woonerf or a protected bike lane or sneckdown — along with an illustration and a definition. The cards are remixable and rearrangable, of course, and the team thinks everyone can use these.

“The original game, you flip the cards and laugh,” says Brian McClaren, an architect and a member of Do Tank DC. “This next iteration will be a lot more flexible. It could be a ‘Pinterest board’ for a group talking about what they want their next local area plan to include. The mom or young couple that bought the house around the corner doesn’t know what these things are. Everyone says they want Starbucks, because that’s what they know. And nobody understands that they maybe want a makerspace, because that’s in Portland and someone in Akron doesn’t know what that is.”

“When a pilot takes off, they have a checklist,” says Abbey Oklak, a planner and architect and another Do Tank member. “That’s how I see these cards. As you’re doing a planning process, there’s all these competing interests that you have to look at. Having these cards laid out in front of you gives you that checklist to make sure that as you’re going through the design process, you’re not forgetting anything.”

Lisa Nisenson, founder of Greater Places, says she envisions the cards as being helpful in lengthy planning processes. After talking to people in the industry (mainly Cards Against Urbanity backers), she says the team discovered two “pain points.” “Everybody said, ‘we need to get beyond that small group of people that dominate discussions.’ The second one that started coming up is you constantly have new people coming into a public process that’s been going on for a while. What tends to happen is that as people get more involved in the process, the process grinds to a halt. The new people coming in say, ‘I didn’t know about this.’ One of the things we’re [looking] to solve with this project is, how can you give people a really quick way to get up to speed?”

Whether a set of cards will solve this problem is yet to be seen, but there is precedent. Design firm IDEO created an award-winning set of “method cards” that help designers communicate about certain design tactics to the rest of their team or the general public.

Meanwhile, Cards Against Urbanity continues to make waves. Most of the original sets have been sold. Catherine Hartley, the Florida planner, is also co-chair of the Florida Planning Association’s 2016 conference, and she gave partial sets out at this year’s conference as save-the-dates. Participants had to meet at least two other people in order to have a deck big enough to play the game, so it doubled as a networking tool.

“At first I was thinking I needed to take out the [cards] with the bad words, but … then I didn’t,” Hartley says. “I thought, ‘We’re all grown-ups here.’”

The success of the cards also shows, in a way, how the demographics of planning, architecture, and real estate are changing. McClaren, the architect, says several firms had asked about giving Cards Against Urbanity as Christmas presents to their clients.

“For years, I would give a book to a client to explain why we needed to design their parking lot this way instead of that way … but a book is not a fun way to learn.

“The client demographic is changing,” he adds. “You have the old, white-haired guy that’s maybe initiating the deal, but the people who sit there and have to justify everything, they’re much younger now. So … we’re not going to offend anyone.” He pauses. “Well, we might, but that’s OK.”

Planners in other cities have even created their own city-specific expansion packs, like in Richmond, Virginia, where community design nonprofit Storefront Richmond created cards poking fun at the city’s polluted sewers and Anatabloc, the dietary supplement illegally promoted by the state’s former governor, Bob McDonnell. “The cards were a good way to direct some of our discussions,” says Tyler King, program director of Storefront Richmond. “Or to like, just laugh about it and rearrange our frustration in a funny way.” And at a fundraiser where Bill Martin, director of the Valentine museum, showed up, he even took one of the Richmond packs for the museum’s collection.

“We are the city museum,” Martin says. “Everything Richmond we collect, from the beautiful to the profane.”

The Cards Against Urbanity team is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its successful Kickstarter tonight in Washington, D.C., as well as previewing the new product. Can’t make it to D.C.? Follow the latest news here.

 

NOAA’s New Water Center Will Help Cities Predict Floods

(Credit: NOAA)

When it comes to rising sea levels and increased flooding risk in many coastal cities, maps are crucial for disaster response and disaster mitigation. Local agencies use them to help predict who must evacuate and where to begin directing resources. They’re key to building urban resilience.

Some communities already have inundation maps — some provided by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and some generated by local agencies — but these are often misunderstood by the public. Or, they’re “low resolution,” meaning they show large blotches where floodwaters might rise, but cannot predict in detail where the water will go.

NOAA wants to come up with a national model that will be able to warn people if their homes or communities are in danger of flooding. “We want to be at the street level,” says Sam Contorno, a physical scientist at NOAA’s new National Water Center.

The Water Center opened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in May, and is described in a NOAA press release as “the nation’s first facility dedicated to water forecasts, research and collaboration across federal water science and management agencies.”

“We’re basically generating a flood prediction framework…[which] will allow us to predict floods several days in the future, at a high-level resolution,” Contorno explains. “It will be a considerable improvement over what we’re doing. It’s transformative.”

So instead of the National Weather Service (which is part of NOAA) sending out a generalized “flash flood” alert to multiple counties, they may be able to predict, block by block, which streets in a city are at risk of flood, days before the rain begins to fall.

“Instead of points along the river, we’re going to be going down to a stream level, to the street level,” Contorno says.

All this extra data will do for flood prediction what big data has already done for predicting the weather. As meteorologists gain access to ever more sensors collecting local data on temperature, pressure and wind speed, weather forecasts have gotten more accurate.

Hydrology models have lagged behind meteorological models, because of the complexity, Contorno says. Predicting the state of the atmosphere, he notes, requires knowing about large features — clouds, mountains, oceans. But predicting where water will go requires knowing where there are buildings, pavement and drainage culverts. In other words, these are micro features that need to be accounted for to predict floods. But, he says, “we have the horsepower, so to speak. We now need to … develop a national model.”

The Water Center officially opened May 26th, and the team is ramping up, hiring employees. But they’re also already working on a few projects, working with the Tuscaloosa fire department and working to launch a project with the fire department in Austin, to find out what interfaces and products would be most useful for emergency managers.

Even with a street-level tool, there will still be uncertainties, and those uncertainties can still be the difference between success and failure. In 1997, the National Weather Service predicted that the Red River, which bisects Grand Forks, North Dakota, would rise to 49 feet. Grand Forks’ levees were 52 feet high, and the water — well within NWS’s margin of error — hit 54 feet, causing billions of dollars of damage and damaging 75 percent of homes.

Had NWS made the uncertainty clear, those levees could have been reinforced with sandbags or officials could have attempted to divert the overflow to a less populated area. The good news is that since that flood in 1997, the service has learned the importance of communicating uncertainty (think of maps showing a hurricane’s path, which instead of showing a straight line, show a cone that widens as the path becomes less of a sure thing). And the new center will also share information with a healthy dose of uncertainty.

The model will also assist with other water-related queries: If NOAA knows how a local water table is doing, they can better predict how a community will respond to a period of no rain. “You have to know what’s going on in the soil,” says Contorno.

The center could even help with water quality issues, using new hydrology models to better pinpoint where pollution may enter a water system. “There could be farming in the upper Midwest that includes chemicals, fertilizers, whatever,” Contorno says, “and if there is a big flood, then some of those nutrients from the fertilizer can get washed down the river and flow all the way out into the Gulf.”

“If we can forecast the water flow, we can do a [more] accurate job of predicting water quality.”

 

City of Fort Worth Hopes to Get People Walking Till They’re 100

Forth Worth, Texas, pedestrian bridge (Credit: Rosales + Partners)

Fort Worth, Texas, is a year into a grand experiment: Can small changes lead up to citizens living healthier, longer lives?

The fifth-largest Texas city, with a population of almost 800,000, signed on to be a part of the Blue Zones Project, which aims to “reverse-engineer longevity” into a community by promoting a number of principles gleaned from National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner’s observations of healthy and long-lived communities around the globe. It’s the largest test city for Blue Zones yet.

The project involves encouraging individuals, restaurants, schools, employers and grocery stores to agree to pledges to improve their wellbeing. An employer, for example, could agree to promote biking to work. A grocery store could remove sodas from checkout lanes or use more whole grains in breads baked in-store.

In Fort Worth, says Suzanne Duda, vice president for government relations at Blue Zones Project Fort Worth, the city needs to get 111,000 people 15 and older to sign the personal pledge, 25 percent of schools, and enough employers to represent 85,000 employees. The city also needs to adopt a complete streets program and choose from a number of other possible changes to the built environment, transportation and healthy eating.

Already Blue Zones has shown impressive results in the small town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, where in 2009 the city worked with Blue Zones on a 10-month pilot. The city built sidewalks and bike lanes, built 46 new community gardens, and convinced schools to stop selling candy for fundraisers. According to Blue Zones, Albert Lea residents’ life expectancies rose three years and participants shed a collective 7,280 pounds.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is hoping for similar results on a larger scale. “Tarrant County outpaces the state obesity rate with a 33.6 percent rate among adults,” she writes in an email. “City leadership recognizes the importance of a healthy city for the sustainability of our economic growth.”

The project was inspired by Buettner’s travels to find five places where people lived to age 100, at rates far outpacing the general population. He found them in Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Costa Rica; Greece; and in a Seventh-Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California. What those places had in common became the principles that the Blue Zones Project espouses. They are things that “probably make a lot of sense,” Duda says — ideas like eating a vegetable-heavy diet, de-stressing, putting family first and moving naturally — “in none of the five communities did people actually exercise, but in all of them, people moved around a lot naturally in their day-to-day lives.” (It’s important to note here that these principles were derived from observation, but Buettner hasn’t conducted any studies to determine whether they are the root causes of longevity or if they simply correlate with health. But it’s also hard to argue with the health benefits of something that boils down to “walk more and eat vegetables.”)

The challenge is to insert these principles into Fort Worth without making them feel obtrusive. Since the project launch in 2014, facilitators like Duda have been working with community organizations and employers to help them implement those principles.

But, Price has emphasized, the project isn’t about making anyone do anything. “Blue Zones Project’s underlying premise is that when healthy choices are the easy choices, we choose them more often,” she writes.

That means that in addition to asking restaurants to add healthy items to the menu and asking employers to encourage bike commuting, Fort Worth is putting a hefty emphasis on improving its built environment. The city has introduced WalkFW, a pedestrian transportation plan, and a new bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee is working on improvements to a 2010 cycling plan. (One early result: over $11 million for bike and sidewalk infrastructure in the 2014 bond program.) The city is also working on a complete streets program as well as considering a program that would let vendors take produce carts into food deserts.

To make sure the benefits are felt by people of all income levels, Blue Zones Project Fort Worth is giving each part of the city individualized attention, reaching out to community groups and translating materials into Spanish.

The next geographic area Blue Zones is reaching out to is Southeast Fort Worth, an area with a relatively high proportion of lower-income individuals. “We’re doing planning right now,” Duda says. “We brought in the president of Southeast Fort Worth Inc., some pastors. This will be an evolving group.”

”The whole theory of it is the tipping point,” Duda adds. “If you can make a meaningful enough impact on enough of the community, you can impact the community as a whole.”

 

Here’s How Hoboken Could Pay for a Giant Anti-Flooding Bathtub

Flooded streets in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Hoboken, New Jersey, which was recently named a role model of resilience. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes, File)

Recent science argues that humans have already pushed Earth past the safe level for carbon dioxide concentrations — and that we’re heading toward, if not certain destruction, then at least a planet “much less hospitable to the development of human societies.”

This threat is what has cities focused on urban resilience, and preparing for the effects of climate change. Cities have hired chief resilience officers to make sure they don’t just muddle through the next hurricane or earthquake, but thrive through it. Minneapolis is hoping to create the most resilient neighborhood in the country. Post-Hurricane Sandy New York continues to plan for future flooding. To grapple with rising sea levels, Boston hosted a Living With Water design challenge.

Innovative — and pretty — ideas abound. Yet, amid partisan political battles and tight municipal budgets, it’s more difficult to make the case for paying for resilience.

“A city that is looking to pick between schools and spending a billion dollars on a seawall — you’re always going to want to budget for more immediate priorities,” says Shalini Vajjhala, founder and CEO of Re:focus Partners. Re:focus, in partnership with Goldman Sachs, risk modeling company RMS, reinsurer Swiss RE and the Rockefeller Foundation, is aiming to fix that with a new catastrophe-bond-like product called Re:bound. (Next City receives funding support from Rockefeller.)

To understand Re:bound, you first have to understand catastrophe bonds.

Imagine you live in coastal Florida. You likely want to buy good homeowner’s insurance, since the risk of your home being washed away in a hurricane is not insubstantial. But because the risk is higher than in other places, your premium is likely to be much higher. At some point — especially as tropical storms and hurricanes become more frequent and more severe— those premiums become too high to afford.

At the same time, an insurer who holds policies in a risky area could be financially wiped out if it had to pay out on all its claims at once. So insurers buy reinsurance, which transfers some of that risk to another party.

Both insurers and reinsurers can also sell catastrophe bonds, which, essentially, allow investors to gamble that a certain area will not be hit by a catastrophe in a certain time span. If no catastrophe occurs, the investors make a tidy profit; if a catastrophe does occur, the investors forfeit their money, which is instead used to pay insurance claims.

“A catastrophe bond is like life insurance,” Vajjhala says. “In the event of a really disastrous event, you get a giant lump sum payout. On the other hand, life insurance doesn’t make you healthier.”

What cities need, she says, is both life insurance and healthcare. Re:bound is “the combination of a life insurance and smoking cessation program.” In other words, an insurance program that helps pay for improvements that might make the insurance less likely to be needed.

Here’s how it works. RMS runs models to find a city’s likelihood of being hit by a catastrophe — say a severe storm — and predicts how much the damage will be. Then it runs the same model but adds in an infrastructure improvement, like a seawall, that can mitigate the damage. The difference in cost goes to the city to help fund that improvement.

Hoboken, New Jersey, is working on building an underground parking garage that, in the event of a severe storm, can hold millions of gallons of stormwater, “like an underground bathtub.” It would prevent basements from flooding and theoretically keep the lights on at hospitals. (In this scenario, the cars are collateral damage, but the benefits still outweigh the risks.) Hoboken is already pursuing alternate funding for this project to get it off the ground sooner, but the city — just recently recognized as a role model for resilience by the UN — has a number of other stormwater management programs on the boards that the Re:bound program could help pay for.

Re:focus and its partners are currently running the numbers on these projects and more — in Norfolk, Miami Beach and elsewhere — to make sure that Re:bound makes sense.

“We’re trying to get out of the world of the snake oil, of saying, ‘Do this nice pretty drawing,’” Vajjhala says. If they find significant savings, the program will be officially announced at the UN Climate Change conference, COP 21, in Paris in November-December 2015.

 

Here’s What Happens When You Let Artists Play With Big Data

Urban Heartbeat, which turns data into sound, was one of three winners in Data Canvas’ recent Sense Your City competition.

In just a few decades, we’ve turned into a data-producing species. According to some estimates, there is now more data produced every two days than in all of history prior to 2003. The promise is this: If we could just unlock and understand this data, our cities would be more efficient, our economy more vibrant, our lives better.

But data is not an easy thing to grab onto. It can be misinterpreted, skewed or plain wrong. It can contain noise that obscures the signal.

Enter citizen-science-cum-art collaboration Data Canvas, a partnership of San Francisco-based nonprofit Gray Area, Lift Conference and Swissnex, a public-private organization that encourages innovation exchange between the Bay Area and Switzerland. The idea: Give artists access to massive data feeds and see what they do with it, then project the finished visualizations on giant screens on the sidewalk.

“As we were studying what the content might be … we thought we needed to create datasets that are real time,” says Josette Melchor, executive director and founder of Gray Area. Real-time open data isn’t commonly at hand, so the project authors decided to generate their own for their most recent challenge. “That’s how [this] turned into the Sense Your City project. The goal was to create real-time data so that we could have more engaging projects that were basically alive.”

First, Data Canvas deployed 100 DIY sensors over seven cities in four continents, which are collecting data on temperature, light, noise, dust, pollution and more. A challenge to artists — do something interesting with this — followed.

The three grand-prize winners were Sonic Particles 2.0 and Urban Heartbeat, both apps that turn data into sound but in different ways, and “It Feels Like,” a website that lets users compare the weather in, say, Geneva, with the weather in Bangalore, to find when the weather conditions are similar in those two cities.

Some of the projects might leave you with a vague “Is this it?” feeling. Runner-up “Seeing the Air” uses visualizations to show how air quality differs in each of the seven Sense Your City cities and how it varies over time. The results, while pretty, show that Geneva’s air is typically better than Rio de Janeiro’s, which should not come as a surprise to most people. Or they show that Geneva’s sensors were placed in generally cleaner areas, or that one of the sensors froze and stopped collecting reliable data. It’s hard, really, to know, and even the builders of “Seeing the Air” admit that the data is collected by “off-the-shelf equipment set up by volunteers, and may not be as accurate as industrial equipment.”

Another project renders cities as — seriously — birds during mating season. The user sets her preferences for temperature, noise, humidity and so forth, and gets a matching “ideal city” based on those characteristics.

If it all seems a little silly, perhaps it is. But big data as a field is still in its infancy — and experimentation across all sectors, from mathematics to the arts, could prove worthwhile as we develop the big data rules we want to set as a society. And the more urbanists of all professions who kick around data, the better the chances for its applications not getting siloed.

Data Canvas, besides being a fun art project, was “also an exercise to show people that working with real-time data is actually difficult,” says Emina Reissinger, of Swissnex San Francisco. Case in point: Data Canvas gave one of its sensors to CERN, the particle physics research group. “It turned out … when they installed it, these particle physicists switched two sensors, which caused these numbers to be completely off the charts.” (They had also mounted the sensor outside, which promptly froze.) “We have had scientific advisors who work specifically on environmental sensing … . They have told us it is very difficult to work with this kind of data. [Data Canvas] shows people how sensitive it is, and how difficult it is to work with this data and make sense of it.”

Smart-city big-data projects have thus far run to the practical: New York City uses data — though not real-time sensors — to predict which buildings are most at risk for fire; startup SNIPS mines data to predict how full Parisian commuter trains will be up to three days in advance. Real-time bus arrival apps or signboards have become commonplace in many cities, so much so that their presence is taken for granted.

Real-time data of the sort that Data Canvas is releasing — as in, volunteer-generated, real-time data on noise, light, weather and pollution — does in fact have practical uses. The TenderNoise project (not part of Data Canvas) tracked noise pollution in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. “What this caused was a series of reports to 311, the Department of Public Health responding and having a dialogue with neighbors about the health implications of noise pollution,” Melchor says.

Next, Gray Area is working with the Urban Heartbeat project creators to expand it, adding new data streams from private partners who have information on real estate, transportation and more. Visualizations from the project will be displayed on giant, street-level touchscreens at Gray Area’s headquarters in the Mission District. Melchor says, “We’re working on … trying to figure out what’s relevant to somebody as they’re rushing by on their commute. How do you make people stop and look at data?”

 

Silicon Valley Tech Geeks’ Newest Neighbor? The Urban Farmer

San Jose and Santa Clara County were once part of the “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” a verdant paradise filled with orchards and flowers.

That all changed as San Jose began to grow (its population increased from under 100,000 in 1950 to over 400,000 in 1970). Not to mention a couple of guys named Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard whose little company started in a garage in Palo Alto. Santa Clara County was never the same.

It’s not surprising then that Santa Clara County may be the first county in California to take advantage of a new statewide law allowing counties and cities to encourage urban agriculture through tax incentives to landowners. Two county supervisors, Ken Yeager and Mike Wasserman, passed the proposal on for study in February, but the measure is expected to be a shoo-in, Yeager says.

“This is a great idea, and it doesn’t really cost you [the county] much. You lose a little bit of property [tax] revenue, but not anything significant.”

The statewide bill, AB 551, allows counties and cities to provide tax breaks for landowners who use vacant lots from .1 acre to three acres in size for agriculture. The end user could be a hobbyist farmer, a for-profit farm, or a nonprofit working to get fruits and vegetables into the hands of low-income community members.

Many of those parcels are vacant simply because a developer has purchased them and is waiting for market conditions or city approval to build whatever is planned for that site. Why not turn them over to farmers in the meantime?

It seems perhaps counterintuitive that a region known mostly for its digital products — Google, Facebook — would spawn a generation that wants to work with its hands, but that’s what’s happened. “My sense is,” Yeager says, “it just brings a lot of personal satisfaction to young people who really want to make this kind of investment in their community.”

It could also be a boon for the county’s low-income residents. While San Jose has one of the highest median incomes in the U.S. for any large city, there are still thousands of families living in food deserts and/or under the poverty line. “We really have to do better in those areas,” Yeager says.

Santa Clara County’s ordinance would affect only the unincorporated lands in the county, but Yeager notes that cities within the county would then be free to pass their own version of the ordinance, and city council members from the county’s 15 cities have already expressed interest.

One person who’s very into the idea is Zach Lewis, executive director of a nonprofit called Garden to Table. Garden to Table, which runs a one-acre farm in downtown San Jose and a number of other projects related to urban food systems, studied what would happen if San Jose — which is now the 10th-largest city in the U.S. — implemented AB 551. The upshot: The city and a few surrounding unincorporated areas have 370 acres of vacant land that could be turned into farms.

“Prior to [this ordinance], there was really no incentive for the developer to give that land up,” even for a temporary period of a few years. “Unless they’re a nice person,” Lewis says. And with the real estate market in Silicon Valley the way it is (“Good lord,” is the way Lewis put it), a little financial incentive can’t hurt. “If we know [a developer] isn’t going to build for five years, why not turn it over to an urban ag organization to do something in the meantime?”

Lewis says one challenge urban farmers will have to overcome is the potential of backlash once a developer really does decide to build — even if that means ripping up the greenhouses and raised beds that neighbors have come to take for granted. “We want to be pretty transparent,” he says. “These are temporary projects, but they can do a lot of good in the short term.”

He should know. While writing his master’s thesis on urban agriculture on vacant lots, he snagged an interview with Barry Swenson, one of the largest real estate owners in the Valley. “He’s like, ‘I’m not doing anything with that land for the next 10 years. You can have it.’ And that’s literally why my nonprofit exists.”

 

Owner Sees His Legacy in Tallahassee’s Upcoming Private Toll Road

(Photo by Urbantallahassee)

Florida is no stranger to toll roads, but the Sunshine State’s about to experience a pay-to-drive first: a privately financed, privately built toll road in Tallahassee.

Jeff Phipps, great-great-grandson of one of Andrew Carnegie’s business partners, is building the five-mile toll road on land he owns in the state capital, in what his team says is the most environmentally responsible way to develop that part of town.

The road will replace Orchard Pond Road, a dirt road on Phipps’ property that he has allowed the county to maintain as a courtesy to drivers. As this northeast part of Tallahassee grows — and like much of Florida, it is growing at a near unbelievable pace — the roads are becoming stressed. “If those people want to go to the west side of town, [or] to the airport,” says Steve Vancore, Phipps’ public relations consultant, “it’s damn near impossible.”

The $17 million road is being financed by a low-interest loan from the Florida Department of Transportation State Infrastructure Bank and some of Phipps’ own money; Vancore estimates that the loan will be paid off in 35 years and from then on, generate about a million dollars a year for Phipps or his heirs. Ninety-nine years after the road opens, ownership will transfer to the county.

City officials call it a win-win — they get a road that was in their long-range plan and don’t have to pay for it. Locals, Vancore says, have been supportive. So what’s the catch?

Privatized toll roads, whether built privately or roads whose management was transferred to a private entity, are scary for some people — and for good reason, says Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Baxandall, who has written extensively about privatization, says these deals result in a loss of public control and a lack of flexibility.

“If you’re a politician, you want your ribbon-cutting, [but] you don’t want the tax increase” that paid for new infrastructure, he says. That makes these “off-budget” deals look attractive in the short term. Over the past decade or so, as states and localities look at their infrastructure backlog and their increasingly cash-strapped budgets, privatized roads have become much more common. And as electronic tolling rises, toll roads, no matter who manages them, have become more convenient. They also have traditionally made for a safe investment. “There was a big push for … as banks were looking for new places to invest and diversify their portfolios, driving … looked like something you could count on.”

But if the U.S. is becoming less dependent on cars, Baxandall questions the wisdom of states and cities letting private owners buy their roads.

There are a number of concerns around privately built roads. Private operators often have to borrow money at a more expensive interest rate than municipalities can, and the fact that the road construction costs are paid off long before the operator’s contract to run it expires means millions of dollars that could go into city coffers are now staying in private hands. (The interest rate concern is less relevant in the Tallahassee tale, since Phipps is using the State Infrastructure Bank.)

“Even the best, most public-minded negotiator … doesn’t have a crystal ball, and can’t anticipate what the public’s needs will be in the future,” Baxandall says. “I think that’s especially true in transportation. Who knows if we’ll have self-driving cars in 20 years? That will [result in] completely different ways we’ll want to configure roads.” If that’s not written into a contract, a private operator would have no incentive to spend money to reconfigure that road, he says.

Then again, isn’t it often said (and often holds true) that innovation comes from the private sector?

Vancore, Phipps and the city of Tallahassee all say that this road is needed. Phipps, an avowed environmentalist, says he can build it better and more responsibly than the city could. Among the environmental features: large animal underpasses so that frogs, snakes and gopher tortoises can cross the road safely; and stormwater management in the form of holding ponds and berms to capture silt and sediment before it washes into nearby Orchard Pond. Phipps is also turning the existing Orchard Pond Road into a bike trail.

“It seems to strain credibility that building a road through a conservation area is ever going to be better for the environment,” Baxandall says. “If they’re comparing their road to some environmentally insensitive monster road, then that could be true. It’s like … ‘we’re logging this forest gently and it’s actually good for the environment, because if we cut it all down and burned it in a huge bonfire, that would be worse for the environment.”

Vancore counters that the road is good for the environment in more ways than the technology used for its construction. The 5,300 acres that Phipps owns are “in a perfect situation to be developed” — beautiful land in a rapidly growing part of Tallahassee. “He doesn’t want to do that, but he also recognizes that the county is going to come through and build this road. They have to.” Putting a toll on the road removes the pressure to develop it, he says. Phipps’ heirs will have less incentive to sell off the land if the toll is generating a million or more for them yearly, and who wants to buy a house where every time you go to the grocery store, you’ve got to pay a toll?

Anyway, says Baxandall, it’s possible that some private toll roads will work out. But we won’t know, he says, until the deals end — which is still 30 years away at the soonest, and more like 50 or 60 years on average, since most leases are for 50 to 75 years, and the idea of private toll roads really sprang up just a decade ago.

Till then, more private toll roads appear to be in America’s future. But a future where more and more roads are owned by someone other than the state is problematic, says Baxandall. “Building a road is different than deciding how to paint your house … any driver has experienced that what happens on one road affects what happens on another road. Or it affects … land use … it affects what happens to pollution and runoff. Roads are public infrastructure, because they have so much effect on what happens with future growth. All kinds of considerations are determined by roads.”

Phipps’ great-great grandfather’s business partner, Andrew Carnegie, built libraries with his wealth. Phipps’ family donated parklands to Tallahassee and supported numerous organizations, like the local museum and local universities. Now, says Vancore, “[Phipps] wants to preserve the land, he wants to conserve it for future uses, to make this part of his long-term legacy.”

 

How the Twin Cities Are Battling an Old Sewer Villain

In the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the local wastewater utility is spending $100 million a year — and plans to do so for the next 10 to 20 years — to replace 600 miles of aging sewer pipes.

In one neighborhood a sinkhole that opened last year revealed a half-mile of corroded sewer lines.

The cause? In part, water conservation.

“This is a huge emerging issue,” says Marc Edwards, an environmental and water engineering professor at Virginia Tech, who’s known as the “Plumbing Professor.”

Sewage feeds bacteria that produce hydrogen sulfide — the “rotten-egg smell.” That gas creates corrosive acids. When communities use less water — through low-flow toilets or shower heads — it changes the ratio of sewage to water, and that has had unexpected consequences on our nation’s infrastructure, says Edwards. In other words: This isn’t just St. Paul’s problem.

“We’re still producing the same amount of poop, and … if we cut our water use in half, the amount of water per unit of poop has gone down by half,” Edwards explains. Without getting into too much detail, less water makes for thicker, slower-flowing sewage.

Not only is that sewage more concentrated, it also moves less quickly, which means it spends more time in pipes. “In combination, that creates a lot more bacteria, which causes corrosion.” (One of those species was once called Thiobacillus concretivorus — “concrete eater.”)

Sewers were designed for cities as they were built decades ago, Edwards says, with certain assumptions about things as invisible as how quickly sewage flows through underground pipes. Change those data points and you have unintended, unanticipated consequences.

Of course, water conservation isn’t the only factor. According to a 2009 scientific paper presented at the Corrosion & Prevention conference in Australia, which is a real thing, engineers as early as 1900 noticed their pipes weren’t always holding up perfectly, though it took years before the root cause — sewage-eating bacteria — was properly blamed.

Slight variations in the type of concrete used can be a factor, says Tim O’Donnell, of the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council Environmental Services, as is the configuration of the pipes, which can cause either splash zones within the pipe or places where the flow stagnates.

But O’Donnell says that, while water conservation is unambiguously a good thing, “I think one of the unintended consequences is we’re seeing a little bit of lower flow through our collection system and consequently a slightly higher concentration of the solids.” MCES has also been working with communities to reduce the amount of clean rainwater that enters the sewers, undoubtedly a good thing for water conservation but another factor in the flow rates of the stuff inside the pipes.

“As we’re reducing those other sources of water,” he says, “that’s when we start to see these solids settling out, and it does go septic.”

Finally, in many cities, St. Paul and Minneapolis included, pipes are just old: O’Donnell says a typical concrete pipe is expected to last 50 years; some of the ones MCES oversees are a century old.

Nationwide, replacing wastewater infrastructure could cost $300 billion over the next two decades.

So what to do? Venting sewers to let the gas out works somewhat, but sewer gas smells … like a sewer, which is not popular with neighbors, not to mention that high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can actually be dangerous.

As the wastewater utility that serves the Twin Cities and more than 100 other nearby cities, MCES is repairing 600 miles of sewer over the next two decades.

In some areas, says O’Donnell, crews are using cured-in-place pipe liner, a “felt kind of material” injected with resin. A crew inserts the tube into a pipe and runs water through it, “basically like inflating a balloon.” Then hot water hardens the resin, and the pipe liner is strong enough that if the original concrete pipe deteriorated further, the liner could stand on its own.

In other areas that MCES serves, it’s replacing the concrete pipes wholesale with ones made of plastic, which resist corrosion. “We’re hoping that’s the best new approach that’s going to give us upwards of 50 years of extended life,” he said.

For now, though, it seems like the options on the table — in St. Paul and across the country — are to repair or replace sewer pipes, and hope those pipes keep flowing.

 



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