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Meet Streetmix, the Website Where You Can Design Your Own Street

Streetmix lets users mix and match design elements to create the street of their dreams. Image: Streetmix

Last fall, Lou Huang was at a community meeting for the initiative to redesign Second Street in San Francisco. Planners handed out paper cutouts, allowing participants to mix and match to create their ideal street. Huang, an urban designer himself, thought the exercise would make for a great website. Now, after months of work beginning at a January hackathon with colleagues at Code for America, it is a great website.

The principle behind Streetmix is simple: it brings drag-and-drop functionality to a basic street design template. Users select a road width and add or remove everything from light rail to wayfinding signs, adjusting the size of each feature meet their specifications.

“It’s a little bit like a video game,” collaborator Marcin Wichary said. ”We were very inspired by SimCity.”

But Streetmix is more than just a fun way for amateur street designers to spend an afternoon. “What we want to focus on is, how can this enable meaningful conversations around streets?” Wichary said. “For many people it’s a kind of entry point.”

The first version of Streetmix went online in January, but the latest version, which has new features and a slicker design, launched less than two weeks ago. In that short time, advocates have used the website to illustrate possibilities for Dexter Avenue in Seattle and Route 35 on the Jersey Shore. Streetmix has profiled how people from Vancouver to Cleveland use the website. Residents of Sioux Center, Iowa, even used Streetmix illustrations in their campaign to stop the state DOT’s road widening plan in their town.

“It’s giving power back to the people, allowing them to vocalize what their streetscape priorities are,” Huang said.

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Plan Bay Area Passes in a Room Full of Paranoid Conservative Activists

Plan Bay Area, the 25-year regional development and transportation funding strategy, was approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments last night. The commissions passed a plan that includes some highway expansions and won’t meet the region’s own goals for sustainable transportation, according to projections, but which nevertheless represents a step forward for smart growth.

The meeting ran past midnight after about five hours of public comment. Some spoke in support of the plan, while others urged commissioners to approve an alternative draft that would take stronger measures to encourage transit-oriented, affordable housing.

Most commenters, however, decried the plan as a fundamentally “totalitarian” imposition on property rights, defending the status quo of car-dependent suburban development patterns as “organically grown” communities. As the Greenbelt Alliance and the Marin Independent Journal have reported, some conservative groups rented buses to haul in folks to rail against the plan. Much of their rhetoric smacked of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories.

Georgine Scott kicked off the public comments by reading off a notice she had drafted, declaring that she could seize the assets of the MTC because Plan Bay Area is a violation of the constitution.

“This committee, as subservants and foreign agents, give your allegiance to the foreign corporation of the United States,” Scott said. “I thus accept your ABAG/MTC actions, as said agents making rules ordinances and hearing decisions against the mandates of said constitution, as concerns property, as acts of treason, sedition, collusion, and money laundering. I may seize your respective properties as one of the people of the state of California following this notice, hereafter agreement.”

Scott’s reading elicited a roar of applause from a segment of the crowd, as did this comment from Richard Coleman of Orinda: “If we’re going to have unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats impose high density, high-rise housing on us, then all of the officers, directors and employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Association of Bay Area Governments must surrender their drivers licenses, ditch their cars, and move into stack-and-pack housing.”

Not everyone held the belief that planning for a less car-dependent future constituted a conspiracy to deprive people of their property rights.

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Wider Highways? Bay Area’s Smart Growth Plan Has Some Glaring Mistakes

Population growth in the Bay Area doesn’t have to mean more traffic and more suburban sprawl, if it’s planned for in a sustainable way. To that end, regional planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission recently released a draft of Plan Bay Area, a state-mandated blueprint for focusing housing growth over the next 25 years near transit hubs, where new residents are less likely to need a car to get around.

A high-occupancy toll lane on Highway 680. Photo: Laura Oda, Bay Area News Group

Sustainable planning advocates say the plan is mostly headed in the right direction, but it still falls short in some areas. One glaring mistake is that the plan calls for spending billions to widen highways to create high-occupancy toll lanes — carpool lanes that single-occupancy drivers can pay to use. Those lanes should instead be created by converting existing highway lanes, says TransForm, an Oakland-based group that advocates for better walking, biking, and transit policies on a regional and state level.

“MTC’s plan follows a 1970s-era Caltrans practice that limits Express Lanes to new construction only, without even studying the option of optimizing existing lanes,” wrote TransForm Deputy Director Jeff Hobson in a blog post. “This kind of outdated thinking is hardly the best approach to solving 21st century transportation problems – and would completely exclude some of the most congested stretches of highway from the plan.”

Because most of the revenue from HOT lanes will be soaked up to pay for the highway widenings, instead of just charging single-occupancy drivers to alleviate congestion in existing lanes, SPUR has pointed out that they will generate little money for transit improvements. Meanwhile, the new lanes will induce more demand for driving and do nothing to reduce existing congestion.

Shown in pink: Priority development areas, where housing growth will be focused over the next 25 years under Plan Bay Area. Image: MTC

“MTC’s plan continues the cycle of ‘build more lanes, attract more drivers’ by creating new options for solo drivers, but no new transportation choices,” wrote Hobson. ”Over the long term, this strategy is virtually guaranteed to land us back at square one: gridlock on heavily-traveled highways.”

The MTC’s draft plan also fails to include enough new transit-oriented affordable housing to reduce the projected costs of housing and transportation, TransForm says. While the MTC set a goal of reducing those costs from an estimated 66 percent of household income for low-income families region-wide to 56 percent, the agency actually projects those costs to increase to 73 percent of household income. That means living in a walkable community would be less affordable than it already is.

“Without stronger policies in place to prevent that from happening, folks will end up living farther and farther away from places like San Francisco, and we will then encroach on our precious farmland and open space that we’re so fortunate to have in the Bay Area,” TransForm Community Planner Joél Ramos told MTC commissioners at a recent public meeting.

The MTC does expect the plan to meet its goals in six areas, including providing enough housing for all of the Bay Area’s projected new residents without any expansion of sprawl; exceeding the state-mandated 15 percent reduction in per capita greenhouse gas emissions (the projected improvement is 18 percent); and reducing residents’ exposure to dangerous fine particulate pollution, which largely comes from trucks, by 71 percent. MTC Executive Director Steve Heminger also said that the spending plan for transit improvements focuses primarily on fixing existing systems first before embarking on expansions.

Yet Plan Bay Area falls short in addressing other major problems [PDF], with some even expected to get worse:

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Livable City: With Smarter Land Use, SFCTA Could Avert “Total Gridlock”

San Francisco’s South of Market district will be crippled by gridlock within a generation unless the city makes major improvements to its transit, bicycle, and pedestrian infrastructure and implements policies that entice commuters to travel by means other than driving.

That’s according to planners from the SF County Transportation Authority who aim to avert such a scenario by implementing a long-range transportation blueprint over the next 25 years [PDF]. But the blueprint misses some major opportunities to pursue transit-oriented growth, say advocates. In effect, they argue, planners are making it much harder to avoid a traffic-choked future than it has to be.

To avert “total gridlock” in SoMa, planners estimate that the anticipated increase in driving brought on by population and job growth must be curbed by about 20 percent, with another 20 percent reduction needed to have “a livable, functional, flowing system, that is meeting the needs of bicyclists and transit,” said Tilly Chang, the SFCTA’s deputy director for planning. “We’re talking about quite a big reduction in travel demand by car in the peak period in order to meet these basic functional network goals.”

The projected traffic tsunami comes from an anticipated 101,000 new households and 191,000 new workers between now and 2040, mainly in downtown and along the city’s eastern waterfront, according to the SFCTA. Under the status quo, that growth is expected to generate approximately 412,000 daily car trips, which is about how many are currently made across Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge combined. Chang noted that 80 percent of downtown driving commuters are San Franciscans, while 50 percent of downtown transit commuters come from within the city. “We have a lot of work to do,” she said.

The forecast even accounts for major transit projects currently underway, like Bus Rapid Transit routes on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard, the Central Subway, the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project, and the Transbay Center, as well as planned biking and walking improvements, Chang said.

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Despite Skewed Parking Math, Planning Commission Approves 55 Laguna

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Image: Woods LLC

The SF Planning Commission unanimously approved a major housing development at 55 Laguna Street yesterday, despite an excessive amount of car parking that livable streets advocates say should be lowered under stricter parking maximums.

The development would include two housing projects: one with 330 apartments, and another with 110 affordable apartments for an LGBT senior community. They would share a block at Laguna and Waller with existing buildings owned by the University of California, filling in what is currently mostly a parking lot, used primarily for the UC Dental School. All told, 310 underground parking spaces would be built on the site.

But the developers and Planning Department staff used misleading calculations and inappropriate zoning requirements to build a number of parking spaces that falls within parking maximums, say members of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association. As Streetsblog has written, more car parking generally means residents are more likely to own and drive cars.

In a letter to the Planning Commission [PDF], HVNA Transportation and Planning Committee Chair Jason Henderson claimed that developer Woods LLC is skewing the number of parking spaces by claiming that 51 of the 310 parking spaces will be used by the UC Dental School (even though the public can use 15 of them), and incorporating the 110 affordable housing units into the ratio, which HVNA doesn’t think should be counted. HVNA says the developers have refused the organization’s requests to reduce the number of residential parking spaces from 249 to 165, which would include only one parking space for every two market-rate housing units, or 0.5:1.

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New Ordinance Streamlines Conversion of Gas Stations to Ped-Friendly Uses

The Arco gas station at Fell and Divisadero Streets, where a queue of drivers regularly blocks the sidewalk and bike lane. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The SF Board of Supervisors today approved changes to the city’s planning code to make it easier for developers to convert gas stations to uses like apartments and storefronts on major transit and pedestrian streets.

“Gas stations have a lot of [drivers] coming in and out, and they can slow down transit,” said Judson True, an aide to Supervisor David Chiu, at a hearing of the Land Use and Economic Development Committee last week. “In a transit-first city, while we want to make sure there are some gas stations, on primary transit corridors, this allows them to be converted under certain parameters without a Conditional Use authorization.”

By removing the hurdle of obtaining a Conditional Use permit — an exemption from local planning regulations — the amendment is intended “to balance the desire to retain [gas stations] with city policies which support walking, cycling, and public transportation, and which encourage new jobs and housing to be located in transit corridors,” according to the Board of Supes’ summary of the bill [PDF].

In addition to attracting car traffic that often blocks transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks, gas stations are voids in the urban fabric that degrade the pedestrian environment. On a block of Divisadero Street between Fell and Oak Streets, which is packed with three gas stations, street safety advocates held protests in 2010 calling for the closure of a driveway at an Arco gas station where drivers regularly block the bike lane on Fell. The situation improved somewhat after the SFMTA painted the bike lane green and removed parking spaces to create a longer queuing space. Though major street improvements are planned for Fell and Oak, the Arco entrance would remain mostly as it is, and it’s unclear whether these routes would be considered primary transit or pedestrian streets.

The ordinance, which also includes a provision expanding the enforceable bike parking requirements within buildings, is part of a larger effort underway by Livable City and Supervisor Chiu to reform myriad aspects of the city’s planning code. Stay tuned for more coverage of this ongoing campaign.

A gas station at the corner of Market and Buchanan Streets, where the Wiggle begins, is currently being converted into a 115-unit condo building with ground-level retail space. Photos: Google Maps and Arquitectonica via Curbed SF

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Community Planner Cindy Wu to Join the Planning Commission Today

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The San Francisco Planning Commission has a new member today — Cindy Wu, a community planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) who received high praise at a recent Board of Supervisors committee hearing before being unanimously appointed.

Cindy Wu with SF Board of Supervisors President David Chiu (left) and Chinatown CDC Executive Director Norman Fong. Photo: CCDC

As a commissioner, Wu will vote on planning decisions that shape the city’s streets, from streetscape redesigns to enforcing regulations on car parking in new developments (which affects how much residents and employees drive) to crafting design requirements aimed at minimizing the damage of driveways to the pedestrian environment.

Wu told Streetsblog that she hopes to encourage the Planning Commission’s progressive shift towards a broader consideration of how projects affect walking, bicycling and transit. ”I think the Planning Commission has integrated transportation more into their thinking and opening the categories to be considered,” said Wu.

Wu replaces Christina Olague, the former commission president who was recently appointed as supervisor of District 5.

At her appointment hearing, colleagues roundly praised Wu for her strong educational and professional background, and her fresh perspective as the youngest person on the commission (Wu is 30). Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore took time out of a hearing to voice her support for her appointment: “She engages, she listens — an extremely important attribute in the position of a commissioner, and she operates within the public discussion,” Moore told the supervisors.

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Danish Architect Jan Gehl on Cities for People: The Safe City

Sibelius Park, a housing complex in Copenhagen, has cooperated with the Danish Crime Prevention Council to carefully define private, semiprivate, semipublic and public territories in the complex. Subsequent studies have shown that there is less crime and greater security than in other similar developments. Photos: Jan Gehl

Editor’s note: Streetsblog San Francisco is thrilled to launch a three-part series today by renowned Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts are from his book, “Cities for People” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog SF and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of Island Press. Visit the Island Press website to find many more great titles by the nation’s leading publisher of books on environmental issues.

Feeling safe is crucial if we hope to have people embrace city space. In general, life and people themselves make the city more inviting and safe in terms of both experienced and perceived security.

In this section we deal with the safe city issue with the goal of ensuring good cities by inviting walking, biking and staying. Our discussion will focus on two important sectors where targeted efforts can satisfy the requirement for safety in city space: traffic safety and crime prevention.

Throughout the entire period of car encroachment, cities have tried to remove bicycle traffic from their streets. The risk of accident to pedestrians and bicyclists has been great throughout the rise in car traffic, and the fear of accident even greater.

Many European countries and North America experienced the car invasion early on and have watched city quality deteriorate year by year. There have been numerous counter reactions and an incipient development of new traffic planning principles in response. In other countries whose economies have developed more slowly and modestly, cars have only begun to invade cities more recently. In every case the result is a dramatic worsening of conditions for pedestrians and bicycle traffic.

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Searching for Market Street’s True Identity

San Franciscans are dreaming big as Market Street’s transformation approaches in 2015, when the city’s most important street is scheduled to be redesigned and repaved. City planners are engaging with citizens to answer a century-old question: How can we make Market Street the glorious thoroughfare that it needs to be?

Better Market Street, a collaborative project of five city agencies, has held public meetings and webinars the past two weeks to field input from people who walk, bike, ride transit, and even drive along the street. The effort is being informed by a large swath of research brought to the table by city staffers, which is now available on the Better Market Street website.

“Market Street is San Francisco’s civic backbone, connecting water to hills, businesses to neighborhoods, cultural centers to recreational opportunities,” the site’s about page states. “The movement of people and goods, from the very earliest times, has dominated its design and use. But Market Street needs to be more than a transportation route. It needs to be the city’s most vibrant public space and many San Franciscans feel it falls far short of this ideal.”

Block-by-block, hour-by-hour data documenting the urban environment were collected by researchers to help inform input from attendees at recent workshops. Researchers note everything from fluctuations in pedestrian and bicycle traffic along the street, to the conditions plaguing its extremely high volume of transit trips, to the placement of trees and how the usage of plazas is impacted by the sun and wind. Comparisons and best practices from major streets abroad help put it all in perspective.

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Andres Power Helps Lead a Streets Renaissance One Parklet at a Time

City planners often get very little public recognition for the work they do, and can sometimes take the heat on a project if it doesn’t prove politically popular. In the case of San Francisco’s revolutionary Pavement to Parks program, the early resistance to reclaiming public space from cars to create convivial spaces for people has gradually subsided and parklets are now in heavy demand. None of it would have been possible without the hard work and determination of Andres Power, an urban designer for the San Francisco Planning Department.

As the manager of the P2P program, Power has spent tireless hours managing the city’s initial plaza and parklet projects and moving them through the vast city bureaucracy. He deals regularly with merchants, neighbors and community groups. He’s worn a hardhat on many a Saturday and is the guy who gets called at midnight if something goes wrong.  Power’s unwavering dedication, even in the face of fierce opposition, has made him one of the unsung heroes of San Francisco’s livable streets movement.

Along with some of his colleagues at the Planning Department, Power is working from within to change the dysfunctional and old-school culture of city government with an eye to then transform our streets. The Pavement to Parks program is now catching the attention of cities all over the U.S. Last week, San Francisco issued a new request for parklet proposals, which means they’ll be spreading to even more neighborhoods.

Power was born in San Francisco and grew up in the East Bay city of Albany. I sat down with him recently to find out more about his interest in urban planning, and his involvement in the Pavement to Parks program.

Bryan Goebel: What sparked your interest in city planning?

Andres Power: I’ve always loved cities. Being in a place that’s dynamic and changing and exciting has always been something that has intrigued me. I’ve tried to think back and to figure out what my motivators were and I think I just landed in the right place, to be honest. I had some great professors in undergrad at Brown University that really were forward and progressive thinking and inspired me. Then, after undergraduate, I went and worked in New York at the Department of Housing and Preservation doing economic development for the city and it was just an amazing place to be. It was so crazy and frantic, such a huge and complicated bureaucracy, but still, individual people could make amazing changes.

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