Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Report from the Rail~Volution

I was in Boston last week for part of Rail~Volution 2009, America’s premier transit conference. I was part of a panel on the use of social media for transit advocacy. It’s clear this is a topic a lot of people are trying to figure out. I don’t want to go too far topic, but maybe I’ll do a post on that in the future, since obviously I’ve got a lot of experience in the space. In the meantime, just ponder this: why are almost all influential blogs and web sites in this space run by more or less independent people instead of agencies or organizations?

Election Results 2009

First, a quick Midwest election rundown in some key races:

  • The great news is that Issue 9, the anti-rail charter amendment in Cincinnati, failed. I mentioned briefly before Issue 8, which would require a public vote before transferring the Cincinnati Water Works to a water district. That issue passed.
  • Issue 3, permitting casino gambling in Ohio, passed
  • Mark Mallory was re-elected Mayor of Cincinnati
  • Frank Jackson was re-elected Mayor of Cleveland
  • Cuyahoga County, OH approved a charter form of government
  • In Indianapolis a referendum on building a new Wishard Hospital passed
  • Dave Bing was elected to a full term as Mayor of Detroit
  • Macomb County, MI approved a government reorganization
  • R. T. Rybak was re-elected Mayor of Minneapolis
  • Chris Coleman was re-elected Mayor of St. Paul
  • Luke Ravenstahl was re-elected Mayor of Pittsburgh

John Robert Smith

I was able to catch up with John Robert Smith, CEO of Reconnecting America, and he recorded a short two minute video for me. If you only watch one of the videos I post, make it this one. He makes two incredibly important points that are too often overlooked when it comes to the livable cities agenda. The first is that we need to build an urban-small town-rural coalition around a new transportation policy. The other is that these issues are, or should be, non-partisan. (If video does not display, click here.)

Streetsblog and Streetfilms

I got to see an inspiring presentation by Aaron Naparstek, Editor in Chief of Streetsblog, and Clarence Eckerson, Director of Streetfilms. I’ve talked about Streetsblog here many times, but you might not be familiar with Streetfilms. Streetfilms produces short, high quality films on innovative transportation and livable communities projects from around the world. These films can be an extremely effective sales tool because they can show people in a very real and tangible way what a city looks like when it adopts these types of progressive ideas. The videos are under a Creative Commons license, so can be re-used as necessary. It’s a great resource.

I’ll share a couple of them with you today to give a flavor. This one is a ten minute piece on Bogotá’s “Ciclovia” program. This was one of the many innovations by Mayor Enrique Peñalosa and it has been widely imitated, including in the US. Every Sunday, 70 miles of streets are closed to cars and given to people for walking, biking, relaxing, or socializing. Also, exercise classes and other public events are held in the streets. It’s pretty amazing if you are not familiar with it. (If the video does not display, click here.)

This video has been viewed over 200,000 times.

Here’s another three and a half minute piece on students in New York “painting the pavement”. I hear people all the time say that livable cities initiatives are too expensive and that we can’t afford them. Well, something like Ciclovia does cost money for policing. However, there are all sorts of things we can do that cost virtually nothing. Here is the type of project that can be done for next to nothing. There is simply no excuse. (If the video doesn’t appear, click here.)

Here’s a similar example, where people paint wonderful murals in residential intersections. It’s in Portland, so it’s a little crunchy, but even if that’s not your bag, it’s a great idea. (If the video does not appear, click here).

Again, how much does it cost for a few buckets of paint? The video also talks about the practicalities, such as getting neighbor sign-off and working with city engineers. They even leveraged people sentenced to community service to help with the project!

Dallas TOD

Loyal blog readers know that I’ve written extensively about the challenges of inner ring suburbs in America. One of those inner ring suburbs is Carrollton, TX in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. They are trying to build a future for themselves based around transit oriented development. I also ran into Peter Braster, who is the TOD Manager from Carrollton, and recorded this 40 second teaser video. Anyone looking for lessons learned or someone to network with about TOD in an inner ring suburb, reach out to Peter. (If the video doesn’t show up, click here.

Boston Cityscape

Since the good people in Boston were nice enough to host us, I thought I’d share a few pictures from the city.

Remember the “Big Dig”? This is where it happened. Where once a huge elevated freeway cut through downtown Boston, now there is a park. At $20 billion, it is certainly questionable whether the expense was worth it, but they at least got the results they were looking for.

Boston was home to America’s first subway. Today, the regional transit system is known as the “T”. Here’s a picture of the Red Line as it crosses the Charles River. Note the iconic “T” logo.

Don’t be fooled by the MBTA maps. The Green Line is principally a streetcar. And the Silver Line is a bus.

Here’s South Station. It’s a rail terminal used by Amtrak and commuter lines. There is a North Station as well – located on the lower level of Boston Garden.

A pedestrianized street in downtown Boston.

Beacon St. in Back Bay

Boston Common

The Brutalist Boston City Hall

Topics: Arts and Culture, Public Policy, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Boston, Dallas, New York, Portland

11 Responses to “Report from the Rail~Volution”

  1. smh says:

    Also, Jackson County, Missouri (home to KC) renewed its C.O.M.B.A.T. (anti-drug tax) for another 7 years. It has proven to be a slush fund for Jackson County Executives, however it passed because it was the only item on the ballot and only 7% of registered voters made it to the polls.

    It should also be noted that it doesn’t expire for another year, but with nothing else on the ballot it made $$$ sense to spend $800,000 to stage the election.

    Viva Democracy!

  2. Curt says:

    That pedestrian street is fantastic!! I dont know the pros and cons of it, but it would be awesome to see something like that around the monument in downtown Indy

  3. cdc guy says:

    Sometimes pedestrian-only spaces look more like the forlorn plaza outside Boston City Hall, Curt.

    The Circle in Indianapolis is an example of “shared space”, even if it does have curbs and bollards. I like dodging people, cars, and horse-drawn carriages (depending on my mode of transit through the Circle).

    If pedestrian or bike advocacy turns into anti-car rhetoric, it won’t succeed. If it turns into shared-space promotion, so that MORE place become like the Circle, then it succeeds.

  4. cdc guy says:

    Aaron wrote “In the meantime, just ponder this: why are almost all influential blogs and web sites in this space run by more or less independent people instead of agencies or organizations?”

    Credibility and critical thought.

    Corporate blogs often demonstrate neither, preferring to amplify the company line or merely solicit feedback.

  5. Mike K says:

    Successful open space is tricky. When I was a medical student at the Mass General (1965), the area around Faneuil Hall was a slum. The Haymarket area looked like 1945 Berlin. The old Bullfinch market was still the vegetable market and the warehouses were just that, except for Durgin Park where we used to go for a cheap dinner. I came back 15 years later and it was transformed. Too many projects like that end up as money sewers and empty spaces. Chicago keeps trying that but it doesn’t seem to be very successful to me from visits.

  6. Mike gets it right. This is tricky. Lots of places like Louisville and Chicago experimented with pedestrianization and it failed. Pedestrianization only works when you have a very high density of, well, pedestrians, usually along a narrow but dense retail street like this one (or say Florida in Buenos Aires, which is as packed as streets in Tokyo). Otherwise you often kill the space.

  7. Steven Vance says:

    Boston City Hall looks like the FBI headquarters in D.C.

    I would like to have been around when State Street was accessible only to transit buses. I don’t think I’ve heard the full story. I was told that the lack of “drive bys” of private motorists hurt sales because people couldn’t look from their cars that they wanted to park somewhere and walk over to State Street and shop. State Street now could use some improvement in the bike friendliness department by fixing the potholes in front of the library, reducing the curb height northbound between Madison and Monroe, putting up signage to ask everyone to share the road (although signs on a “fancy” street like the shopping segments of State wouldn’t mesh), and putting a bike lane or shared lane markings on the pavement southbound between Washington and Madison (the double right turn lane here can be a little confusing and the southbound side is so wide and motorists like to make multiple lane changes in one manuever here).

    How come you link to the photo’s file and not it’s Flickr page?

  8. Steve, thanks for the comments.

    I remember State St. as a busway. Part of the problem is that it was a busyway, so tons of buses were constantly belching fumes. Also, I think perhaps it was less about spontaneous popping in to shop than the way it impeded navigability of the grid. And the design was tired. And of course the city has pumped a large amount of money into the State St. area to revitalize it other than by spending $25 million to redo the street. And given the general downtown resurgence, perhaps State St. would have come back anyway. We don’t know. I’m glad it is open to cars, however.

    Can you clarify on the flickr comment?

  9. Alon Levy says:

    The flickr comment is that your photos link to the jpeg files, whereas it’s more customary and courteous to link to the album the files are part of, so that visitors can see the photographer’s other pictures.

  10. Mike K says:

    North Michigan avenue has been pretty successful, although not a pedestrian mall.

    One example of failure that I don’t understand is San Francisco where Ghiradelli Square and The Cannery were highly successful when I was a college student in the late 50s until the late 70s, then went into decline. Some of it may have been a decline in San Francisco as a tourist destination as they were largely tourist sites. There was a loss of interest in tourism on the part of the city around that time and there was even talk of scrapping the cable cars.

    I still think the failure of public safety in the 70s led to the decline of many central cities.

  11. Hmmm. I have generally linked to an enlarged version of the photo for people who wanted more detail. Never had a complaint before. Maybe I should take a poll on this.

    In the meantime, my flickr account is here:

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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