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The Stranger: If Safer Streets Mean War, We’re Ready for Combat

Image: James Yamasaki / The Stranger

Under the headline, “Okay, Fine, It’s War,” Seattle’s The Stranger blog this week published a manifesto “of and by the nondrivers themselves.” They’re sick of being called “militants” for caring about pedestrian safety, and they’re tired of the specter of a “war on cars.”

We heartily recommend that you read the whole thing, but here are some of our favorite parts. Like this, from the first plank of the manifesto: “The car-driving class must pay its own way!”

For cars we have paved our forests, spanned our lakes, and burrowed under our cities. Yet drivers throw tantrums at the painting of a mere bicycle lane on the street. They balk at the mere suggestion of hiking a car-tab fee, raising the gas tax, or tolling to help pay for their insatiable demands, even as downtrodden transit riders have seen fares rise 80 percent over four years.

No more! We demand that car drivers pay their own way, bearing the full cost of the automobile-petroleum-industrial complex that has depleted our environment, strangled our cities, and drawn our nation into foreign wars. Reinstate the progressive motor vehicle excise tax, hike the gas tax, and toll every freeway, bridge, and neighborhood street until the true cost of driving lies as heavy and noxious as our smog-laden air. Our present system of hidden subsidies is the opiate of the car-driving masses; only when it is totally withdrawn will our road-building addiction finally be broken.

They go on to demand better, more expansive transit, safer streets and sidewalks, and traffic calming. And this:

This antagonism [between car driver and nondriver] traces directly to the creation of the modern car driver, a privileged individual who, as noted, is the beneficiary of a long course of subsidies, tax incentives, and wars for cheap oil. But the same subsidies that created this creature (who now rages about the roads while simultaneously screaming of being a victim in some war) can—and must, beginning now—be used to build bike lanes, sidewalks, light rail, and other benefits to the nondriving classes.

That’s the kind of manifesto we can get on board with.

After the manifesto, The Stranger goes on to report on the rising numbers of crashes between cars and cyclists, the violent anti-bike rhetoric being spewed by car drivers that are the “victims” of some imagined war on cars, the massive disparity between funding for car infrastructure and everything else, and the heroes of the non-driver, beloved both for their advocacy and their tight asses. Read it, read it all.

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Biking to Work with Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn

When Seattleites elected a new mayor at the end of 2009, they really went for a breath of fresh air. In the general election, Mayor Mike McGinn, who rides a bike to work daily, was outspent nearly four to one. The race was very close, but with an energetic volunteer base -- and a campaign that emphasized many livable streets issues -- he pulled out the victory.

Only a few weeks into the new administration, I got the chance to commute with Mayor McGinn from his home in Greenwood to City Hall. It wasn't hard to convince him, seeing as he's a longtime Streetfilms fan, going back to his days as the founder of an organization called Great City.

As you'll see, McGinn has a lot of great things to say. Particularly exciting is a new website called Ideas for Seattle, which asks residents what they would like to see the mayor focus on. Take a look: A good dozen of the current Top 20 could be classified as livable streets issues. (Note: I think other cities should replicate this.) So we wish Mayor McGinn the best and can't wait to check back in a few years to see what kind of changes have taken place.

While San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom might not drop the suit to ride to work but once a year, he does a nice job of promoting bicycling and bicycle-friendly businesses in this clip on his Youtube channel.

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Planning Chiefs: Urban Planning Still Hindered by Politics, Past Mistakes

IMG_0566.jpgOver 200 people showed up to hear planning directors speak. Photo: Michael Rhodes

City planners have been on the hook for some of the last century's greatest metropolitan mishaps: urban freeways and "slum clearance," arbitrary minimum parking requirements, and land use laws that have left little room for the mingling of uses. Understandably, today's planners are a bit humbled. But when planning directors from some of North America's most progressive cities spoke at City Hall this week about the political challenges that face urban planners, several of them said the field needs to move beyond worrying about past mistakes.

"Because of the failure of the planning profession in the past, we've gotten quiet, we've gotten a little too meek," said Brent Toderian, Vancouver's planning director. "We serve at the will of politicians, and are often unwilling to speak truth to power loudly and persuasively and in public. I think that's really been an absolving of our leadership responsibilities in the profession."

SPUR and the San Francisco Planning Department hosted the discussion with planning heads from SF, New York, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis and San Diego, who were all in town for the Urban Land Institute's annual expo.

While the directors didn't lack for bold visions, some lamented the planning field's fixation on avoiding undesirable consequences. "I'd have to say, especially in California, unfortunately, the field has evolved into focusing on preventing bad things from happening instead of making good things happen," said Bill Anderson, San Diego's planning head.

Minneapolis planning chief Barbara Sporlein echoed that concern. "So much of planning is making up for past mistakes," she said. "It just feels like every time something happens, [we say,] 'That can't happen again.'"

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Streetfilms: Tap Foot, Lights Blink, Cross Street

Along Seattle's historic waterfront I happened upon a unique pedestrian-activated crosswalk that blinks as people cross. Yes, I have seen over a dozen lighted ped signals before in myriad cities, but all required the user to press a button to manually begin the cycle. So, you ask, how is this one different?

Well check this out: As you enter the crosswalk, make sure to step on the yellow rectangle on the sidewalk. This activates the lights that line the crosswalk. Drivers stop and it should be safe to begin your adventure. You'll feel a bit like an airplane coming in for a landing. Frankly, it's very empowering and a lot of fun!

Reason dictates that A) there must be a sensor contained within the yellow pad, or B) there's a helpful gremlin who lives underneath and throws a switch for pedestrians. Regardless, anyone else seen one like it?

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Streetfilms: Take a Ride on the Seattle Streetcar

Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar is a 1.3-mile line that opened in December 2007, the first leg in the city's commitment to new transit and light rail. It passed the half million passenger milestone in its first year, surpassing ridership projections.

The streetcar features many top-of-the-line tech amenities, including real time arrival message boards, solar-powered ticket vending machines, and human-activated doors to save energy while the train is in layover mode. If you go to the Seattle Streetcar web site, you can find out the next arrival time and actually watch the streetcars moving via GPS trackers.

As you'll see in the film, development is booming along the South Lake Union corridor. "If you build it, they will come" certainly seems to apply here.

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Streetfilms: Seattle’s Bus Chick on the Rewards of the Riding Life

Carla Saulter pens a very eclectic blog called Bus Chick, Transit Authority, which you can find on the Seattle Post Intelligencer's web site.

Carla, who lives car-free with her husband and young daughter, is all about riding transit and inspiring others to do the same. The bus has indeed figured prominently in her life: she met her husband on the bus; riding has provided her with a creative outlet for stories and interesting anecdotes; and she named her first child for the most renowned bus rider in history.

I was bowled over when I heard that Carla actually went by bus to give birth at the hospital (not to mention to come home afterward). I knew then and there that I needed to profile her. I just wish I lived closer to the Bus Chick family so I could ride the bus with them more often.

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The Nearly Extinct Bipedus Norteamericanus Makes a Comeback

Anthropologists and transit advocates have long bemoaned the rise of The Sacred Rac, its subsequent worship by the majority of the people of the Asu tribe, and the attendant demise of bipedus norteamericanus, or the common pedestrian.  But new evidence appears every day that the once-endangered pedestrian may be seeing a resurgence in urban habitats throughout the nation.  

Cities around the country have committed to recovering habitat for the pedestrian, with reduced Rac speed limits, bans on Racs in certain tracts of metropolis, extensive traffic calming, zebra crosswalks, and pedestrian countdown signals.

Last week billionaire conservationist Michael Bloomberg vowed to open a large swath of former Rac territory to the pedestrian in New York City, a move not without its detractors.  Following on the heels of his Summer Streets initiative, there is great hope this pilot reclamation will be a success.

Though it celebrated a temporary habitat recovery last summer for Sunday Streets, San Francisco lags far behind other cities in restoring the delicate biomes that support the safety and health of the pedestrian.  According to a report from an agency that monitors Rac safety, San Francisco ranks in the top-five most dangerous large cities for pedestrians.

Though San Francisco has plans for pedestrian priority and complete streets, clearly much work remains to be done to ensure the survival of bipedus norteamericanus.  We look forward to San Francisco's announcement of the new Sunday Streets schedule for this year, which we hope will rival Seattle's own Summer Streets program.

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Using Software to Find Walkable Neighborhoods and Live Car Free

Transit_Tree.jpgThe Bay Area's public transportation circulatory system.  Click for larger view
Though David Brooks might argue in his New York Times column that Americans want to live in small towns and suburban dreamscapes, the fact is more and more of us live in metropolitan areas, and discussions about what we want should have to do more with the context of those metropolitan areas.  Brooks should be looking at the quality of the public spaces where people live, and the walkability and ease of transit in those neighborhoods.

Front Seat, a civic software company based in Seattle, developed Walk Score to help people identify neighborhoods that range from totally car-dependent to walkers' paradises.  Not content to rest on the substantial press accolades they received on their launch, the company has been coupling their tools with real estate websites to pair a home with a walk score so that prospective home buyers can see how walkable a neighborhood is at the point of sale.  When the real estate site Zillow added Walk Scores to every house listing three days ago, 7.5 million monthly visitors got a clearer vision of the quality of their prospective neighborhoods.

Matt Learner, Front Seat's head of technology, said that their goal was to encourage a potential home buyer to consider neighborhoods that are mixed-use, transit oriented, and dense.  "We're trying to get it in front of people when they're looking for a place to live and give them tools to help them choose more walkable neighborhoods."

Building on the walkability concept, the next generation of Walk Score software will seek to provide more sophisticated tools for analyzing neighborhoods.  "What's exciting is the convergence of transit data and software geeks," said Lerner.  "At Front Seat we're trying to make the interface much easier for people who aren't transit geeks like us."

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 5: Wrap-Up

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Thanks all for reading and commenting on our non-motorized honeymoon travel series (see parts 1, 2, 3 and 4). Below is a table Susan put together to briefly summarize some of our observations on the cities we visited.

 

Transit

Bike Accesibity

Amtrak
Station

Street life
and art

Chicago

Loop El made all connections we needed

Pedicabs exist, but are limited; Lakefront greenway; Bikers are seen on most of the city streets too. Flat.

Great station, however the grand hall seems to be off to the side and therefore less used.

Bustling city; monumental public artwork.

Seattle

Many bus routes, some electrified

Lots of hills, didn't see many bikers.

Renovations to the ceiling will make this station a better place.

Pigs everywhere painted different colors; tech money allows for amenities

Portland

Modern light rail (two systems?)

Great greenway system and tons of on-street bike paths.

Classy bustling station. "Go By Train" sign on the clock tower was a welcome sight.

"Keep Portland Weird" is less a slogan, more a way of life

San Francisco

An amazing variety of buses and trains, some vintage

Hills, but cyclists persevere.

Amtrak serves the city only with buses; use Oakland, Emeryville or San Jose for trains.

Tons of performers, packed sidewalks, awesome walk-in fountain.

Los Angeles

Has light rail and clean new subway.

More time needed for additional study.

Amazing old station like a Hollywood movie set surrounded by palms with deco style, but some parts are closed.

Well-done graffiti and murals; few pedestrians.

New Orleans

Sexy vintage streetcars with big windows, grassy right-of-way

Flat. Lots of small streets and many bikers. Coaster bikes seem to be the regional favorite.

Functional but drab station right downtown. Service to Florida is suspended indefinitely.

Lots of street musicians, lots of tourists in French Quarter

For those of you who want some more U.S. transit-oriented travel stories, check out Twin City Sidewalks' visits to Chicago and Washington, Babylon, L.I., Savannah, Ga. and Durham, N.C., and also visit Dave KCMO, who liveblogged his 8,789 miles on Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada.

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Transit-Oriented America, Part 2: Three Cities

This is the second installment in a five-part rail travel series that began yesterday.

In between all that fun Amtrak travel I described yesterday, my wife Susan and I stopped on our honeymoon at six great cities with an eye toward observing their built environments and transportation systems (but mostly just being plain old tourists). Below are photos and brief observations from the first three, in the order we visited.

Chicago 

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The railroading capital of the United States is a great, great town, loved by New Yorkers for generations. We love it too, right?

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Chicago had a lakefront exhibit of great big globes encouraging people to adopt environmentally friendly but inoffensive habits, like setting one's washing machine to cold or switching to compact florescent light bulbs. But next to the exhibit, when we tried to hail a pedicab to take us downtown, we were told that pedicabs are not allowed in the Loop. Ouch. Our recently imposed pedicab restrictions were bad enough, but this takes it to a whole new level. On the plus side, Chicago has the coolest-sounding train-related terminology that we found: the Metra Electric District.

Seattle

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We had hoped not to get into a single automobile on the whole trip, but in Seattle (and only in Seattle), that broke down, mostly because we had a friend in town who owned a car and was putting us up at his place. This city has what seems like hundreds of bus routes, but the one we needed never came, even though two drivers on other routes and other passengers all swore it was running on the Sunday we arrived. After we got off the train we waited and waited for our bus. Then we took a different bus to a more central stop to try our luck there. Then our friend Matt offered to pick us up from the bus stop. We accepted because he said he completely understood our motivating principle, but was downtown anyway and would be burning the same amount of gasoline either way. He drove us again a few more times, including to Lake Union go kayaking, which was worth it.

However we still wanted to explore Seattle on foot, so we walked through downtown, adjacent Belltown, where new condos are going up like mad, and residential Queen Anne Hill. Somewhere in there we noticed the signs all around Seattle encouraging people to ride transit. They have sayings like "Take the monorail, Abigail," and "Take the bus and relax, Max." Slogans aside, Seattle already had what Ted Kheel knows is a better incentive. At least downtown, its buses are free.

Portland

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Like Seattle's downtown buses, Portland's downtown light rail does not charge a fare. Our hotel was in the free zone, and we felt a little guilty riding so much for free, so we vowed to spend our extra money in various Portland businesses, like the worker-owned bicycle cooperative where we rented bikes. The bikes were great, as they allowed us to really see the city and its nearby bike trails up close and personal. As I stood watching cyclists pass by on a fully-separated bike lane next to a light rail line and a aerial tram depot, I realized why it is said that Portland has the most diverse multimodal transportation network in the country for a city its size. One of those modes is the automobile, which in places is catered to as much as any suburb. On the way to the rail, we'd pass curb cuts used by cars and SUVs in the drive-thru restaurant and drive-thru Starbucks across from our hotel, engines idling as their occupants awaited their morning venti mocha frap. Portland leads the nation in many ways, but hey, it's not perfect.

And even in Portland, we learned, bike and transit networks are under attack. This newspaper article described the efforts of one Craig Flynn, a local activist and one-time city council candidate who "thinks city transportation funds should go toward relieving congestion on freeways and other main roads, specifically adding lanes or building new freeways." He told the paper: "I feel like honking my horn going over a speed bump to irritate the people who want them there."

In tomorrow's installment, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans.