Monday, April 21st, 2014

The Urbanophile Interview: Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley

I was able to sit down this month with new Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley to spend an hour on such topics as Cincinnati’s incredible historic assets, its history of social conservatism, streetcars and bike lanes, the repopulation of the urban core, and more.

If the audio player below doesn’t display, click here for the MP3 file.

Mayor John Cranely. Image via Wikipedia.

Here are some edited highlights of our discussion. For those who prefer reading to listening, a complete transcript is available.

By far the most provocative thing the mayor talked about to me was his direct challenge to the idea of metropolitan government. Cincinnati hasn’t annexed territory since 1925, leaving it as a smallish, hemmed in city that is only 14% of a very fragmented region. Meanwhile cities like Indianapolis and Nashville had city-county consolidation, Columbus annexed, etc. He thinks that in a new urban era, this model of government is running out of gas and the pendulum is going to swing back the other way:

There’s a real cultural shift and renewed pride in Cincinnati. More specifically though, there are some unique advantages that we have. Think of it this way: if you took our Downtown and Uptown and the corporate base, let’s say it’s 70% of all of our major jobs and income taxpayers. If you take the same exact area and map it in Columbus, they’re going to have 70% of their companies Nationwide, et cetera, all within the same geographic area. The difference is that they have to spread that money among all of Franklin County. We have to provide for 300,000 people. And very quality 19th century historic neighborhoods that already have a sense of place and culture. And we get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.

Now, historically, the attitude of urbanists had been, like myself, the we’ve got to have metro government. In essence, the attitude has been, “We poor city.” We need you guys have to play Robin Hood for us. I think the shift is already underway. Now, we have more work to do but the shift is already underway that we’re going to be a better choice for the dollar value because of our historic infrastructure, our density, our diverse economies of scale. The home owner to apartment mix which looks bad at a distance but, candidly, makes it more dense in which it makes labor pools a lot easier to transport inside the city.

What we haven’t done, in my opinion, is be insistent enough on value for the dollar, because we’re spreading our dollar over a much smaller population than cities of size. So why isn’t the quality of customer service of all services of city government superior? You still get complaints today of people who say, “I live in a nice suburb and my snow is picked up immediately and it’s cleaner and my roads paved faster and less litter. Coming to a city, I can immediately tell it’s a city.” There’s no excuse for that. And I believe that we can provide a better customer service because we have more money over less people than our competitors do. Which if you think about the fact that we lost population to cities this way, people kept moving one suburb out — and I think most of us agree we’re going to repopulate from the inside out — we have more resources to invest in economic growth policies than our competitors do, and we intend to use that advantage to become the most exciting urban city in the country.

We’ll have to see how this plays out, but I think there’s something to this. When places like Indy, Columbus, and Nashville annexed all those suburban areas, they were able to capture that tax base to support the central city. Now though they are saddled supporting miles and miles of aging and decaying suburban type development that may ultimately represent a drain on the resurgent urban core tax base. To the extent that the urban core does come back, places like Cincinnati, from a municipal point of view, will get a bigger lift from it because it gets spread over a smaller area. It’s easier to turn around a small ship than a big one.

We also talked about the geography and architecture of neighborhoods like Mt. Adams, which is like a Midwestern San Francisco. Mayor Cranley likes that analogy:

As I always say, if Chicago is the New York of the Midwest, we’re the San Francisco — in fact, that’s exactly my mind is to say Chicago is the New York of the Midwest. We’re the San Francisco. Because we have the hills, the architecture, the arts, the culture, the big league teams, all the advantages of a major city with the livability of a small town. And everyone has an opportunity to be a big fish if you got that kind of ambition. And it really is. Again, we’ve proven that’s true because we’ve been able to maintain such a concentration of Fortune 500 companies which then, of course, leads to all kinds of spin-off businesses and a huge privately held company, group of businesses, that have really been family traditions that have lasted a hundred years and have really continued to come. As I like to point out, what city our size has an entire company dedicated to Shakespeare? We have a theater that does all Shakespeare. And it has full on season.

I pointed out one important difference vs. San Francisco: Cincinnati’s history of extreme social conservatism. A number of wealthy conservatives like billionaire Carl Lindner and Charles Keating (yes, the Keating Five Charles Keating) poured tons of money into anti-pornography campaigns. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt was convicted as recently as the late 90s of obscenity charges. In 1990 locals tried to ban an exhibition of explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and even put the museum director on trial for obscenity (he was acquitted). An anti-gay rights amendment was added to the city charter by citizen initiative in the early 90s. There was a race riot in Over the Rhine in 2001.

This is clearly a sore point for the mayor, as he answered at length. He acknowledges the history of these things, but says things have changed radically and wants to be able to get the word out on the new attitude in the city:

I think that’s changed. You take one rather prominent issue with gay rights. In 1993 an anti-gay law was passed in the city charter which was awful, and would stain our reputation for ten years. When I was on council we had a transvestite who was murdered, and even the very conservative chief of police said that this was a hate crime. And I led the effort to add sexual orientation to our hate crime law. And that was sort of — this was 2002, I believe, 2002 or ’03, it might have been 2003. And this had only been ten years since the charter thing had been passed. Remember, the charter thing was passed in the aftermath of Bill Clinton being elected and gays in the military, that first debate. And several cities, including Denver, Colorado, passed virtually identical [language] ran by a right wing group around the country.

Here, we went on a major effort and we progressively, in 2004, in the midst of Bush getting reelected in Hamilton County 54 to 46, got the thing repealed by a substantial margin, which showed a real shift in our culture and our attitudes. And then we immediately passed — reinstated — the human rights ordinance. We immediately reinstated the non-discrimination. We passed benefits for domestic partners and many, many other things. So candidly, and this is why I think it’s so important that you’re here, we need to get the message out. I believe that we have moved many, many miles since then.

In addition, we have been incredibly progressive as it comes to civil rights and to police-community relations. We had, in 2001, a very difficult time with police and the community, the black community in particular. And we voted to invite the Justice Department in the Cincinnati to mediate rather than litigate allegations of police misconduct. And we led to the 2002 collaborative agreement — which I’m proud to say I helped negotiate — which is now held up as a role model for how to improve police community relations around the country. In fact, the judge in New York who struck down the “stop and frisk” law in New York City specifically cited Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement as the right way for the police and the community to work together.

And so I respectfully say that I understand that we have some baggage in terms of what happened in 1993 on gay rights, and we’ve had on the 80’s and 70’s…Larry Flynt… So I’m not denying that there isn’t some reason for that reputation, but it’s no longer fair.

In addition to a Harvard Law degree, Mayor Cranley also has a Masters of Theology from Harvard Divinity School as describes himself as a man of deep faith. I asked him how that informs him in his role as mayor:

I think that all of this has to be done in the context of the common good and building a society that expands opportunity. And I think at the end of our lives we’re fundamentally going to be asked did we make the world a better place for those who didn’t have as many advantages as we had and did we leave it better than we found it. A sense of stewardship. And all that comes, I think, deeply from my faith, schooling and family, values, traditions, et cetera.

And so we spend an enormous amount of time thinking about how are we going to reduce the poverty rate. One of my major planks in my campaign was reducing the poverty by at least 5% over the next four years. We are engaged at every level, re-examining the dollars that are — federal dollars that come in to the city budget that are earmarks for low income individuals and must be spent to the benefit of low income individuals — are we really getting the most bang for the buck out of these dollars?

Right now we have a cohort coming out of the Great Recession of folks who have never had high school or college degree, with kids, who have got very bleak prospects, and that is not surprisingly where those folks live tend to be some of our toughest neighborhoods. If we can, I think, rise to the moral challenge of figuring out how to not write off this entire generation but invest in job training and skill set to get them at least ready to work at low skill, low paying jobs and bring the dignity back of having a breadwinner in the family, the social dividends of that are enormous in terms of turning those neighborhoods around, those families around, the city around.

But in addition, if we can do it on a systematic basis, we can then market Cincinnati as a place for companies who want to locate with a large, ready to work population. Now, obviously, 20-30 years from now I’d love for us to have a higher education rate. I’m not saying it’s good and we just want to leave the education rates where they are, but given what we have today, how do we turn all that into an advantage and, at the same time, tackle the moral issues of poverty?

And while it’s not the same thing — a very sensitive issue, this is not the same thing — but building a more inclusive and welcoming society for immigrants and for African-American, Hispanics is also, I think, part of my faith tradition of — it does come from a history of prejudice that Cincinnati has been part of. And so we do have a moral obligation to tackle those issues but I do think from a political standpoint, it’s better — and true, not just better political argument, which it is, but it’s also true — that it’s better for all of us to have a more inclusive and welcoming city.

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

How State DOT Math Works

Here’s a small gem for you. Remember that $260 million tunnel under the trees in Louisville? It’s part of the boondoggle Ohio River Bridges project. Would you believe the price went up by almost $80 million at the same time Indiana claimed it “saved” $209 million on it through design changes? Of course you would.

In 2010, the state DOTs were saying that the tunnel would cost $260 million. (See “The $260 Million Home.”) Keep in mind, this is back when the project scope called for a six lane freeway in the East End and when the entire project was supposed to cost $4.1 billion. The East End approach that included the tunnel was estimated at $753 million.

Then in 2012 the two states revised the project to reduce the number of lanes in the East End bridge to four among other changes. This reduced the total project scope to $2.6 billion. The Kentucky approach (including the tunnel) was estimated at $795 million (over $100,000 per foot, incidentally), which was actually an increase. Even if we assign 100% of the cost increase in the approach to the tunnel, which would make it $302 million. Keep in mind that media reports continued to describe the tunnel as being in the $255-260 million range.

Yesterday the Courier Journal reported that the actual tunnel was cost $338 million – that’s a $78 million increase over 2010 and a $36 million increase over our max burn scenario in 2012.

Yet the Indiana Department of Transportation is claiming that they saved $209 million on the tunnel. From the C-J article: “Design changes for the tunnels earlier this year cut about $209 million from the initial $547 million estimate made before bids were submitted. The tunnels have been shortened 200 feet, to a total of 1,800 feet. The number of initial lanes to be constructed was reduced in 2012 to a total of four with eight-foot shoulders on both sides, allowing for expansion to the original six lanes if eventually needed.”

I googled “drumanard tunnel 547″ and got 19 hits. There was nothing I could find prior to January 2014 (after the bid was let) with an estimate of $547 million listed for the tunnel cost in this or other searches. Dittos for the $209 million savings. The two figures appear to have come into existence at the exact same time.

Or did INDOT actually know all along this tunnel would be $547 million, but kept the info from the public? Even at the original price, they were under huge pressure about building it because it was so self-evidently ludicrous. For example, the lede in a 2012 investigative story in the Indianapolis Star was “All that stands between Indiana taxpayers and $200 million in savings is 11 acres of woods in Kentucky.” This was not long after the bridges project manager was claiming it would cost money to remove the tunnel. According to the News and Tribune, “[Bridges Project Manager] Sacksteder said removing the tunnel is not an option and would actually cost the project too much time and money.” Can you imagine them actually getting away with building the tunnel if they admitted to the public it was going to cost over half a billion dollars?

At this point I’d have to say it looks like either 1) INDOT created a ludicrously inflated estimate for the tunnel right before construction that was used for the purpose of generating bogus claims of savings, or 2) They were suppressing knowledge that the tunnel was vastly more expensive than they were telling the public. Take your pick.

In any case, only in the world of state DOT land can costs that escalate from $260 million on a six lane road to $338 million on a downscoped four lane road translate into a “savings” of $209 million.

PS: INDOT has been crowing that they saved $228 million during their contracting for the East End bridge. The tunnel was $209 million of that. So 92% of their claimed total savings are bogus right there – costs actually went up. What are the chances the other $20 million are bogus too? I know where I’d place my bet. I noted over six months ago that the amount of money flowing into this project – including increased taxpayer subsidies – indicated that costs were going up, not down. This is just more confirmation. That’s why INDOT has been frantically trying to land the plane by cutting scope and looking for “value engineering” like radically changing the architectural design of the East End bridge. That’s what project managers should be doing, actually. But let’s at least be honest about what’s going on.

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Don’t Design Streets For Death by Chuck Banas

[ Chuck Banas doesn't write that many blog posts, but when he does, they are money. Here's one he filed from Madison, Wisconsin during a CNU conference in 2011 - Aaron. ]

Let’s start with a specific issue: street design. The Congress doesn’t officially start until tomorrow, so I’ve used today to get to know a bit of downtown Madison and critique the design of the streets and public spaces. This didn’t stop me from trolling the online pages of The Buffalo News; during a break this afternoon I spied an article today about sidewalks and pedestrian safety. Author Bruce Andriatch merely scratches the surface of this important issue, falling short of addressing it properly.

But who’s to blame him? A design subtlety that is lost on most non-planners, including Buffalo News columnists, is that sidewalks are a necessary element for safe street design, but insufficient in themselves. If pedestrians are being endangered, the design speed of the road is usually the culprit. Many if not most roads in this country are intentionally designed for much higher speeds than the posted limit. A 30 mph speed-limit sign on a road designed for 50 or 60 mph is a futile—and sometimes fatal—exercise in wishful thinking.

Pedestrian Injury Frequency and Severity Based on Vehicle Speed (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, image from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington)

Here are the sobering facts: at 30 mph, vehicle-pedestrian accidents are fatal in about 5% of cases; at 40 mph, fatalities are 90%. This is not to mention injuries, which can be devastating in their own right: incapacitating injuries are significantly less likely and less severe at slower speeds.

Therefore, the actual, effective solution involves “traffic-calming” the roadway so that drivers naturally move at slower, safer speeds. There are many methods to accomplish this, used in various combinations according to the specific situation. These include: fewer and/or narrower lanes, planting orderly rows of roadside trees, allowing curbside parking, using brick or other types of pavers for the road surface, curb bulb-outs, employing roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, smaller corner radii, etc.

State Street in Madison, WI employs virtually all of the basic traffic-calming devices, including a narrow roadway, wide sidewalks, and orderly rows of curbside trees. This results in a street that easily accommodates all modes of transportation while being a pedestrian destination—it’s simply a pleasant place to be.

Done properly, traffic throughput is still maintained, with less stop-and-go frustration for drivers, and much greater safety and civility for all users of the roadway, including pedestrians and bicyclists. For the vast majority of surface roads, there is simply no reason to design for a speed limit over 30 mph. Doing so seems careless and downright irresponsible, but this is the unfortunate norm for most highway departments.

This isn’t to say that traffic engineers are malicious—they’re just following a prescribed set of rules. The engineering standards that govern most roadway design were written in the mid-20th century, in the midst of a obsession with the automobile and the high-speed expressway. Higher design speeds were considered safer for cars and drivers. This myopic goal ignored any other users, as well as the physical context of the road itself. That the road might be part of a town or city neighborhood hardly entered into the equation. Under these standards, still in effect today, roads are too-often treated identically to expressways, designed only for the high-speed convenience and safety of cars. What happens beyond the curb or shoulder doesn’t matter.

Buffalo’s Elmwood Avenue, the urbanistic equivalent of Madison’s State Street, employs many of the same traffic-calming methods, but sidewalks are often too narrow, driving lanes too wide, and street trees are often missing or poorly maintained.

The good news is that the rules are changing. The old standards, embodied mainly by the AASHTO highway design manuals, have been superseded by new tools and standards, most recently (and importantly) the ITE design manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, adopted in 2010. Traffic engineers and citizens alike now have a sophisticated set of official standards with which to design roads that serve all users and all contexts.

Incidentally, on May 24, Transportation for America released a comprehensive report on pedestrian deaths. Dangerous by Design studies 47,000 pedestrian fatalities in the US from 2000-2009, mapping them on an interactive web page. Enter any location, and find out details on fatalities, thoroughfare type, etc. Check out pedestrian fatalities in your neighborhood; you may learn something about street design and safety in the place you live.

This post originally appeared in Joe the Planner on May 31, 2011.

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Penn Station

PBS ran a documentary last week on the American Experience called “The Rise and Fall of Penn Station.” Here’s the video if you missed it. I suggest watching it on your TV since it’s long (it’s available through the PBS Roku channel if you don’t have a computer hookup). If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

This covers much more of the rise than the decline, and leaves many questions unanswered. But the look at the personalities, the technical challenges, and the daring that went into this was very good. On the whole I really liked it except for one of the talking heads who kept going on about how rare it was to have a private investment like this that actually benefits the public. He was the walking embodiment of why conservatives want to defund PBS, and his claims were both unsupported and dubious.

I also think they could have done a better job of explaining the financial decline of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Yes, the rise of autos and planes played a role. But the feds continued to regulate railroads as if they were still the only game in town. And if you wanted to make the case for government intervention, this was a great one. Long before the demolition of Penn Station, governments had acquired most urban transit systems if not commuter railroads. So there was already a precedent in place for the government buying out Penn Station, which is what should have happened. Merely landmarking a structure and leaving it in the hands of a bankrupt railroad might have equally have led to its destruction through neglect. Grand Central Terminal shows that this facility could have been reborn under government stewardship.

Yet it’s clear that a shift in the values not just of railroad barons, but also of society had occurred from 1910 to 1963. Much of this was for the worse, but let us also not forget much of it was for the better. We don’t just accept dozens of workers dying on job sites anymore, for example. Yet it’s undeniable that the type of American ambition which built Penn Station, that of a rising power wanting to send a message that this would be the American century, no longer exists. Today the very idea of an “American Century” is outright hateful even to many Americans.

A friend of mine watching this wrote me to say, “My Deep Thought was ‘where have the great minds who produced this kind of magnificence’ gone? Answer: Weapons design… military industrial complex. There’s a reason huge swaths of the country look like crap but drones look so cool.”

There’s clearly a lot that goes into this question. Some of it is as my friend said; this creative daring has been channeled into other fields than the civic. We’ve suffered no decline in our ability to blow stuff up, that’s for sure. And as I’ve said before, in the Great War and the Great Depression, something in the human spirit was grievously wounded. I’m sure there’s more.

But in part it’s simply a deficiency of love, or at least the right kind of love, for our cities. If Penn Station was inspired by the greatness of Rome, then as G.K. Chesterton put it:

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing–say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne or the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico: in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico: for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico: to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles; Pimlico would attire herself as a woman does when she is loved. For decoration is not given to hide horrible things: but to decorate things already adorable. A mother does not give her child a blue bow because he is so ugly without it. A lover does not give a girl a necklace to hide her neck. If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is THEIRS, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Chicago: Is the Illiana Expressway a Boondoggle in the Making?

I haven’t had much to say about the Illiana Expressway, a proposed 50-mile road linking I-65 to I-55 across the far south suburbs of Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

The road has been controversial in Chicago because it was not one of the strategic initiatives of the regional GO TO 2040 plan, and thus in a sense makes a mockery of the years of planning and community dialog that went into that project. Many in the city, as well as various independent organizations like the Metropolitan Planning Council, have said the Illiana is a sprawl producer and poor use of precious financial resources.

Northwest Indiana has been foursquare behind it, and why wouldn’t they be? NWI is Indiana’s premier example of sprawl in its purest form. The population of Lake County has basically been flat since 1960, but during that time there has been massive abandonment of the northern county (Gary, Hammond, etc) in favor of new greenfield locations like Crown Point. The existing freeway infrastructure was designed to serve the old built up areas in the north. The Illiana would serve the new focus of the county further to the south. So naturally they want it. Even if the road is a financial loser, that’s an even bigger win for them since it means subsidies from the rest of the state.

Which is exactly the scenario that appears to be shaping up on both sides of the border. As I noted previously, this road is being billed as using a privatization scheme, but the reality is that the public is backstopping the finances. It uses a so-called “availability payments” approach in which the taxpayer guarantees the returns to the vendor and assumes all the revenue risk.

How big is that risk? Looks pretty big. Greg Hinz over at Crain’s Chicago Business has the story, noting that the Illiana Expressway will likely charge tolls that are four times as high as the rest of the tollway system:

Any company that tried to sell a product at up to four times the competition’s price likely wouldn’t stay in business very long. Customers would walk right away, and management at a minimum would find itself out of a job. But things work differently in the wonderful world of government.

The story is that, based on documents recently, and quietly, released by the Illinois Department of Transportation, it appears the road quite probably would have to levy tolls two, three and even four times those charged on other Illinois tollways.

Yes, you read that right. Four times now charged elsewhere in the metropolitan area by the Illinois Tollway. A cool $11.81 for an auto to drive the road’s entire proposed 47-mile length, and an icy $58.13 for a 16-wheeler.

With no toll at all on the nearby I-80, an existing expressway that runs about 10 miles or so north of the proposed Illiana, guess where the trucks are likely to end up?

As Hinz notes, private toll roads around the country are experiencing significant traffic shortfalls, even when offering a congestion free alternate to a choked up regular route. If that happens here and toll revenues don’t match up with forecasts even with jacked up rates, guess who loses? The taxpayers and motorists of Illinois and Indiana, that’s who.

Don’t expect any high profile bailouts. Rather, an increased share of the two state’s annual highway fund will have to be diverted to covering the shortfalls, crowding out spending elsewhere. This is one of the big fears in the rest of Chicagoland, where there’s a massive infrastructure investment deficit. (From a Northwest Indiana perspective, it’s who cares since it’s the rest of Indiana who will likely see their major projects cut).

The jury is still out on this, but the Illiana deserves serious attention as a potential boondoggle in the making.

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

A Road Privatization Plan That Makes Sense

I’m a little late to the party on this one, but wanted to chime in on Long Grove, Illinois’ proposal to privatize residential streets by vacating them and turning them over the subdivision owners to maintain, either via a homeowners associations or special service districts.

This has been presented in some quarters as the cost of sprawl coming due, but I wouldn’t spin it that way. Long Grove is an affluent community and doesn’t even levy a property tax at all. Clearly the village has a the fiscal wherewithal to afford to maintain these roads.

Rather, I see this as intelligently recognizing the fact that the roads are already private. Many subdivision streets effectively serve no public purpose to anyone outside the development in question. Why should they then be paid for out of general taxes anymore than private driveways are? Indeed, the village actually wised up long ago and decided to no longer accept subdivision streets into its inventory. As the linked article above from the Chicago Tribune put it:

Local leaders first realized in the 1970s that to pay for maintaining roads without a property tax, something had to give, said Long Grove Village Manager David Lothspeich. After that, the board allowed public streets in new subdivisions only if they were main roads, and eventually entire subdivisions sprang up without a single public road, he said.

The article also notes that private roads are what allows gated communities, something that actually has proven a selling point. I didn’t see in the article whether or not the developments in question would be able to erect gates on their newly privatized streets, but why not?

So much of the traditional sprawl development is based on backloaded subsidies for things like street maintenance. By establishing up front that these de facto private roads are in fact actually private, and forcing the cost of maintenance, snow removal, etc. onto the private beneficiaries, we can start getting close to the true market cost of these houses.

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

San Francisco: Building BART

This week a couple of transport videos out of the Bay Area. The first is a 1968 short film called “Along the Way” that was designed to promote the still under construction BART regional rail system. Atlantic Cities posted an article about this a while back saying that “viewers are hyped to the then-under construction system with a hippie-lite jingle about how BART will make life better for Bay Area resident.” If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.

Here’s another one of more recent vintage, this a time lapse of the construction of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge. If the video doesn’t display for you, click here. h/t Likecool

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Blind Alleys of Urban Branding by Michael Scott

Liestal Alley in Sacramento

It’s the early morning of January 20th and I’m being driven around Sacramento by a friend of mine in hopes of finding my stop for the day, a popular coffeehouse in Midtown called Old Soul Coffee. Having navigated a series of one-way streets for nearly 30 minutes, it became apparent that this place was more than a bit tricky to find. We stopped on a side street to reorient ourselves, and discovered a clue that provided the insight our struggle needed: the coffeehouse is actually located in an alleyway adjoining the listed physical address.

Old Soul Coffee is a Sacramento gem that requires some urban savvy to locate. Nestled in an unpretentious alley connecting 17th and 18th streets, this gathering place resides in a loft-like warehouse space brimming with an eclectic mix of independent workers, casual readers and wandering bohemians.

In many historic European cities, alleys have long been an integral part of urban landscapes, revered as epicenters of cultural and civic activity. In the U.S., they have traditionally been seen as unappealing service corridors between buildings, synonymous with crime, vice, and bottle-toting street vagrants, not for public use.

Cities like Sacramento are refreshingly reversing these perceptions, recognizing alleys as assets to their social landscape. Transcending their traditional role as corridors of commercial delivery and trash collection, many alleys are being repurposed in pedestrian-friendly, economically viable public spaces that promote walkability and community. Cities like Seattle, Indianapolis and San Francisco have embraced the redesign of urban alleyways, using them to drive economic development by igniting street activity that draws people to local businesses and the cultural arts scene.

From a broader perspective, alley revitalization efforts that support the efficient use of urban space are being increasingly seen as a key strategic piece in the overall branding identity of a city. This is particularly true as local governments seek ways to boost declining revenues during our nation’s economic recovery. Many alleys because they are too narrow for a steady flow of vehicular traffic, are primed to serve as walkable thoroughfares, fueling consumer spending and commerce. Other benefits include bike storage and recycling, among other functional possibilities.

Alley rebranding projects taking place in U.S. cities often have a grassroots, organic feel to them. In the eclectic Midtown District of Sacramento, citizen-infused momentum is building around efforts to revamp these small urban spaces. The alley where Old Soul Coffee is planted is just one example of how aesthetic improvements can spur creative use of space for nearby businesses and homes. The story behind Old Soul Coffee and the rogue arterial it used to be is similar to that of a band finding an off-the-beaten-path garage space to practice in. I spoke to Jason Griest, one of the founders Old Soul, to get his take on the evolution of the alleyway as a destination point for local residents.

“My business partner and co-founder Tim [Jordan] and I wanted to open our business in an alley, but we were broke,” said Griest, who had owned area coffeehouses before. “We desired a space where we could practice our respective crafts, which, for Tim was cooking and baking, and for me, coffee.”

What the duo couldn’t know is that their coffeehouse dream would evolve into the diamond in the rough that it is today. “We opened in 2006, strictly as a wholesale coffee business. This was a pretty beat-up alley building with no plumbing, lights or dishwasher. There was no air conditioning or heating, so when it was 100 degrees outside in August, the month we opened, it was often 114 degrees or more inside. Outside, the structure was spewed with graffiti and the alleyway was littered with potholes. And to make matters worse, I started sleeping on the floor of this place because I had just lost my house. In one sense, it wasn’t a pretty picture. But I was thrilled to be working with my friend and business partner Tim in making the business better every day.”

The business was unexpectedly shut down in late 2006 after an unexpected visit from state regulators who cited them for running a business without the proper permits and licenses. After this setback, Old Soul began to forge a different vision for the business when it rebooted in early 2007. Griest credits the alley as being the ideal ecosystem for his business’s growth. “People would just wander down the alley and smell the coffee roasting.”

This activity spurred Griest and Jordan to diversify their business and move from their original wholesale model to one that could cater to the growing number of walk-ins patronizing Old Soul. “We priced every purchase at two bucks. Our motto became ‘grab what you want and throw your money in the jar.’”

Old Soul’s home, Liestal Alley, is one of the pilot projects being facilitated by the City of Sacramento. Improvements to make the thoroughfare more bike and pedestrian-friendly were funded through a public/private partnership. Lights were installed for safety, and big planter pots were strategically placed to calm the flowing traffic. Griest has heard reports that nearly 40% of Sacramento is composed of alleys. “If this is true, think of all the great things Sacramento could do for urban infill by fostering these alley projects,” he said.

Now that the alley has been beautified, Griest says that there is a great deal of pride had in keeping it neat and clean. “With anyone frequenting the alley, we stress the importance of picking up trash and not letting it sit. If you see trash along an alley and don’t pick it up, it’s a subtle sign for others to engage in that behavior.”

Dovetailing off of the Old Soul example, urban design is gaining prominence as a tool for transforming gritty alleyways into attractive, functional spaces. In the end, the hope is to attract pedestrian activity and turn what are otherwise seen as dark and dangerous passages into catalysts for civic and economic vibrancy. Models using alley regeneration as a branding strategy can be found in many North American cities. Some of the most notable are Seattle’s Nord Alley, San Jose’s Paseo de San Antonio, and San Francisco’s Belden Place.

Alley activation projects are also taking place in smaller, less recognized cities across the nation. Ferndale, Michigan, a Detroit metro area city with a population of around 22,000 features a downtown alley that provides public space for local events, as well as outdoor restaurant seating for eateries that back up to the alleyway. Acquired by the City of Ferndale in a land swap, the reconstituted alley has been landscaped with trees and flowers, giving it an attractive feel, amenable to foot traffic.

Despite the advantages resulting from the repurposing of alleyways, efforts undertaken to pursue the rebranding of these thoroughfares have met with varying levels of success. One big roadblock often is the logistics of converting what has been a vehicular arterial into a path amenable to foot traffic. As is the norm in dense environments, local drivers use alleys as cut-throughs to avoid traffic. In commercial districts, alleys are an access point for trash haulers or trucks making deliveries to merchants whose stores back up to the alley.

To facilitate the pedestrian-friendly quality of alleys, commercial districts must either restrict delivery and trash removal access to designated hours, or close the passageway down completely. Pasadena represents one model where delivery access is strictly controlled and enforced. Deliveries in the Mercantile Ally of the Old Pasadena Management District are restricted to designated hours. This flow is managed with retractable bollards, which are wooden or iron posts that open and close during the designated hours. Trucks that need to make deliveries outside these hours must call the municipality management to obtain special permission to reopen the bollards.

In addition to the economic and community development benefits associated with alley revitalization, cities are striving to incorporate environmental practices into their framework. Chicago’s Green Alley program, launched under former mayor Richard Daley, is perhaps the best example of this sort of initiative. Considered the alley capital of the U.S., Chicago boasts more than 13,000 of these passageways, encompassing more than 1900 total miles. The city’s ongoing repurposing efforts have slowly converted alleyways into green, permeable thoroughfares that absorb storm water and improve local water quality.

Fostering clean, environmentally sustainable alleys represents a fundamental shift from the trash-encumbered, grimy repute that these spaces are too often known for. In response, many downtown business districts are exploring trash management practices that incorporate new forms of collections and recycling. One of the most popular trends has been to exchange unsightly collection dumpsters for enclosures that accommodate commercial trash compactors and recycling containers. This offers a number of benefits over traditional trash collection methods: fewer hauler pickups, which means lower collection costs, better management of waste volumes, odors and rodent associated problems, and more efficient use of alley space.

The city of Boulder, Colorado has underway some of the most progressive efforts in support of the “greening” of its alleyways. The city currently offers a merchant program to incentivize environmentally sustainable waste reduction activities such as recycling and composting. City subsidization of composting provides merchants with a $2.50 per-cubic-yard reduction on their composting invoice when they elect this service through their designated waste hauler. Boulder has also moved toward the adoption of a “single stream” recycling system, enabling merchants to mix all recyclables together, with the goal of reducing trash collections to weekly.

Alley in the Mission, San Francisco

During my most recent study tour stop in San Francisco’s lively Mission District, I discovered, still another creative use of alleyways: as graffiti-infused art designed to add flair to an area heavily frequented by young millennials and hipsters.

Despite their history as dark, abandoned corridors decorated by graffiti-stricken dumpsters, unsavory characters and delivery trucks, alleys are now finding value as nodes of public vitality and economic activity. These long underused passageways now represent key avenues of community connectivity and civic pride, a major component of urban rebranding efforts.

Michael Scott is the Editor of UrbanWebcity, an online community examining the intersection between people and the urban environments in which they live. Michael can be reached at

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Improving Chicago Public Transit Idea #4: Put the Public In Public Transit by Natasha Julius

[ This is the last part in Natasha Julius' four-part series on Chicago transit that originally ran in the Beachwood Reporter. If you missed them you can go back and read part one, part two, and part three - Aaron. ]

The demise of the Jackson Park Green Line has been in the news recently due to Mayor Emanuel’s proposal to rename Stony Island Avenue in honor of Bishop Arthur Brazier. Most of these stories have focused on the 1997 demolition of the elevated structure east of Cottage Grove. However, the struggle over the last leg of track began much earlier.

In a sense, the Jackson Park line was always disposable. Built to serve the World’s Fair in 1893, the tracks originally extended into the park itself. The line was awkwardly and unceremoniously hacked off at Stony Island shortly after the Fair ended, and Stony remained the terminal for nearly 90 years.

View Former Jackson Park Line in a larger map

In March 1982, the line was closed south of 59th Street after a routine inspection discovered that the bridge over the Illinois Central (now the Metra Electric District) tracks at Dorchester and 63rd was no longer safe. It was around this time that calls for the demolition of the line beyond Cottage Grove began to grow louder. Ultimately, Mayor Jane Byrne decided the line was worth saving. It reopened as far east as University in December of that year, with plans to extend the line to Dorchester and build an intermodal transfer hub.

It is important to note that the rehabilitation of the Jackson Park line continued until 1994. In fact, part of the demolition order passed in 1996 involved forgoing some $9 million in federal grants and asking the feds to forgive $9 million that had already been spent. There is a lot to be said about the influence of clout in the CTA’s decision, but at its heart this is a story about the failure of the city to treat its transit assets as a public service.

This failure, which continues to color transportation policy to this day, leaves the entire system vulnerable to the whims of politics and profit. Chicago under Jane Byrne saw value in the Jackson Park line; Chicago under Richard M. Daley did not. And so, no matter the commitments the earlier administration made, the prospect of demolition remained an easy and available option, a political chip to be played when the new administration saw fit. The Jackson Park line offered potential connectivity between the CTA and Metra, and between the lakefront and the neighborhoods on the interior. We could be talking today about the dedication of the Bishop Arthur Brazier intermodal transit hub, and about the very real unification of dozens of south shore communities. We are not, and in all likelihood we never will be.

This pattern repeats itself in ways large and small throughout the Chicagoland transit world. Think of the bus lines that were removed or truncated earlier this year; the buses are gone, but plenty of decorative bus shelters remain at key intersections so JCDecaux can rake in more advertising dollars. In this atmosphere, it’s difficult to view initiatives like the Ashland Avenue BRT corridor as serious attempts to address transit issues. Who’s to say the city won’t abandon that idea after a year or so, under the guise of disappointing ridership – leaving in place, of course, a new series of mini-billboards on the median of a major arterial street.

It would be so much snappier to call this piece “Put the Public BACK in Public Transit,” but that would assume that those responsible for planning our mass transportation systems at one time had the public’s best interest at heart. If the powers that be – including Governor Quinn’s blue-ribbon committee – are so inclined, they can begin to earn the trust of a cynical ridership by abiding by a few simple rules:

1. Stop putting train lines in inaccessible areas.Truly strong public transit systems support the communities through which they pass and offer maximum flexibility.” It’s worth reading this statement again, because at its best mass transit does more than shuffle people from point A to point B. It allows for the idea that point A, and point C and all the other points in between might be worthwhile places to explore and enjoy. Have you ever been to a Red Line station in the middle of the Dan Ryan? They are non-descript boxes sitting over miserable spits of concrete in the middle of a 10-lane highway. There is nothing about the experience that inspires the imagination; nothing that might tempt the individual to stay. And because the station entrances are mired in the midst of busy entrance and exits ramps, there is a heavy incentive not to engage with the local neighborhood.

The Red Line’s Dan Ryan branch and the Blue Line’s Forest Park branch are lingering symbols of just how disengaged Chicago had become from the idea of a functional public transit system. They were built with the idea that private cars should take pride of place, and that the convenience of individual drivers is more important than the needs of the larger community.

Many of the routes under discussion for future system expansions – and many of the routes discussed in this series – are former industrial lines that could end up divorcing themselves from their surroundings in similar ways. But if these rights-of-way are treated as true public spaces, they can be developed in a way that returns space to the people of this region.

2. Stop building stations where stations already exist. There is a long stretch on the Green Line without a station. It runs from Roosevelt on the north all the way down to Bronzeville. There is a natural inclination to add a station somewhere along that route.

When, however, that station is placed one block away from an existing Red Line station, and when it just happens to be right down the street from one of the mayor’s pet projects, you start to wonder if the placement truly reflects the needs of the traveling public.

View New Green Line station in a larger map

Wouldn’t a station further north, in an unserved neighborhood, make more sense? How about 18th Street, allowing easy access to Ping Tom Park and the southern entrance to Soldier Field? Or how about 16th Street where, just for the record, an abandoned rail right-of-way snakes directly into McCormick Place itself? The construction of new stations should always serve the public first, not the whims of private entities and especially not the egos of public officials.

3. Start putting stations where stations don’t already exist. If you’ve ever been to the United Center, visited the statue of Michael Jordan, and stared out across the parking lot toward Chicago’s majestic skyline, you’ve looked right at the Pink Line. And if the timing was right and you happened to spot a train approaching, you probably noticed it not stopping. Because there is no station there.

View Pink Line tracks in relation to United Center in a larger map

Every other major sporting venue in the city has train station within easy walking distance. In the case of Soldier Field, it’s a Metra line but once we kill Metra that won’t be a problem anymore. In the case of US Cellular Field, there’s three train stations within easy walking distance. Wrigley Field, of course, has the Addison station. Why would the CTA not put a station at the doorstep of a major cultural institution in a rapidly developing neighborhood (and, incidentally, within walking distance of one of the city’s premier selective enrollment high schools)? Once again, it’s difficult to explain in terms of public benefit.

4. Don’t stop looking at your map until public transit is relevant to every person living in the Chicagoland area. The continued failure of transit decision-makers to place the needs of this region’s commuters first has very real consequences. It has allowed agencies like the CTA to adopt a strategy of periodic retrenchment, gradually thinning services in some areas until they are no longer viable for many of the people who need them. And so those people find other ways to travel, and their abandonment of inadequate services is used as an excuse for further reductions.

Starting today, Chicago’s transit officials should adopt a new approach. Pull out a map, consider the neighborhoods that are underrepresented and the institutions that aren’t served, and start a program of strategic engagement. Focus on the smallest changes that will have the biggest impact on real people, the simple shifts that could make mass transit viable to entirely new populations. And don’t stop until everyone is served.

This post originally appeared in the Beachwood Reporter on October 18, 2013.

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

New York: Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero

One of the proposals from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio that received a lot of positive attention is his so-called “Vision Zero” plan. The goal is to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes within ten years. As he acknowledges, this idea was copied from a similar goal set by Chicago.

For too long we’ve basically accepted a gruesome death toll from car crashes as the price of doing business in a modern society. The very word “accident” suggests something we simply can’t do much about. But in the same way that Rudolph Giuliani and others questioned the inevitability of sky high murder rates, a new generation of leaders is questioning the premise behind large numbers of deaths from car crashes, deeming them unacceptable.

The Vision Zero report lays it out:

In New York, one person is killed in a car crash every 30 hours. Every 10 seconds, a New Yorker suffers a traffic related injury, and every two hours a traffic injury results in dismemberment or disfigurement. From 2001 to 2010, more New Yorkers were killed in traffic than were murdered by guns.

The consequences for New York families is tragic: being struck by a car is the most common cause of injury-related death among children 1-14 years old, and the second most common cause among those aged 15 and older.

Enough is enough. There is no level of death or injury that New Yorkers should accept on our public streets.

As a starter set of proposals, de Blasio suggests redesigning 50 intersections per year, expanding 20 MPH speed zones, and stepping up traffic enforcement. All good stuff. You can read more about it and watch a Streetfilm of the announcement over at Atlantic Cities.

But while there’s a lot of goodness here, the idea of having a goal of “zero” needs to be rethought. I can appreciate the logic of saying any death is one too many. But there are some practical problems with it. Firstly, it’s unrealistic. The idea that in New York City you can completely eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries just isn’t going to happen. And by making that the goal, any sense of holding de Blasio accountable for results is forfeited. After all, everyone implicitly gets it’s only a feel-good aspiration. The stated goal allows the project to be judged on its inputs – intersections fixed, for example – rather than its outputs, namely the number of lives saved. What we ought to have the reverse.

I’d like to see some aggressive but realistic specific goals fleshed out. For example, continuous annual reductions in traffic fatalities at a rate 25-50% greater than the trend line. That way there can be accountability for actually achieving measurable and realistic targets.

Secondly, complete elimination of traffic deaths would likely entail trade-offs we don’t want to make. For example, the police on one local precinct just started a jaywalking ticketing blitz. An 84 year old immigrant was not just ticketed but bloodied by aggressive cops:

This is pretty ridiculous. As Nicole Gelinas put it, “Targeting errant pedestrians is something like arresting someone who breaks a window because he’s trying to escape a fire.” Streetsblog suggested a better approach is to apply strict liability in car crashes where the driver is always liable in any pedestrian crash, even if the pedestrian broke the law.

I certainly agree that going after jaywalkers is about the last place you’d want to start your safety campaign. However, at some point you will have squeezed out all the safety improvements you can from street design, traffic enforcement, and liability standards. What then? Clearly if you want to continue making safety improvements, you’d need to enforce the same strict standards on pedestrians and bicyclists.

In a sense, by jumping the gun, NYPD revealed the inevitable end result of any policy that demands a zero risk, zero adverse event profile. Such things always end up going too far. That’s why we have to do the TSA shuffle at airports and the NSA is tapping every phone call in the United States, for example. The truth is, risk is genuinely part of life and we have to be willing to accept at least some of it to live in a functional society.

So while Vision Zero has a lot going for it and is a step in the right direction, I think the notion of “zero” needs to be rethought in favor of aggressive but realistic targets for which officials can be held accountable and which don’t demand ridiculous actions like jaywalking crackdowns. Even if traffic deaths aren’t totally eliminated, they can still be radically reduced. And as the murder rate declines show, even when you don’t get to zero, if you make step change improvements over time you can still drive huge improvements in the livability of the city.

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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