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The Small Indiana City That’s Embracing Livable Streets

Kokomo, Indiana, has put resources and energy into developing streetscape features to calm traffic and provide more space for walking and biking, Aaron Renn reports. Photo: Urbanophile

With a population of about 60,000 and a formerly industrial economy, Kokomo, Indiana, is not the type of city that recent economic trends have favored.

But Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile says the city has embraced some tenets of urbanism as an economic and quality-of-life strategy, thanks in large part to the leadership of Mayor Greg Goodnight. When Renn visited recently, he was impressed with the new downtown bike trail and pedestrian infrastructure. And thanks to careful budgeting and prioritization, the city is making these improvements without taking on any debt. Renn says:

They’ve deconverted every one way street downtown back to two way, removed every stop light and parking meter in the core of downtown, are building a mixed-use downtown parking garage with a new YMCA across the street, have a pretty extensive program of pedestrian friendly street treatments like bumpouts, as well as landscaping and beautification, a new baseball stadium under construction, a few apartment developments in the works, and even a more urban feel to its public housing.

I think they’ve done a number of good things, and I especially appreciate the attention to detail that went into them. You clearly get the feel of them walking downtown streets. I would say the commercial and residential development lags the infrastructure, however. That’s to be expected. They do have an Irish Pub, a coffee shop, a few restaurants, and other assorted downtown type of businesses. This will be an area to watch as some of these investments mature.

When you look at the downward trajectory of most small Indiana industrial cities, the status quo is not a viable option. Kokomo deserves a lot credit for trying something different. And regardless of any development payoffs, things like trails and safer and more welcoming streets are already paying a quality of life dividend to the people who live there right now. It’s an improvement anyone can experience today just by walking around.

It’s hard to tell from Renn’s post if the city’s parking policies are aligned with the improvements to street designs, but it looks like an admirable effort. You can get a better sense of what’s happening (and of Mayor Goodnight’s urbanist library) by checking out the many pictures on the Urbanophile.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bike League shares a post from a woman whose life was transformed by her introduction to bicycling and the dramatic weight loss she achieved. And Pedestrian Observations says hoping people will just move out of productive cities with high housing costs isn’t a reasonable affordability strategy.

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Boosting Transit Ridership With New Stations, Not New Track

Boston's new Orange Line station in Somerville is a great example of how older cities can boost transit ridership inexpensively with new stations in strategic locations. Image: MBTA

Assembly Station in Somerville, outside Boston, is a great example of how older transit systems can draw more riders with new stations in strategic locations. Image: MBTA

Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic calls them infill stations: new transit stops built in gaps along existing rail lines. Current examples include Assembly Station just outside Boston in Somerville, DC’s NoMa Station, and the West Dublin/Pleasanton BART station.

Infill stations are a pretty brilliant method to get the most out of older rail systems without spending very much, Freemark says. He’d like to see more cities adopt the strategy:

The advantages of infill stations result from the fact that people are simply more likely to use transit when they’re closer to it — and from the fact that the older transit systems in many cities have widely spaced stations that are underserving potentially significant markets. Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero, affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, have demonstrated that people living or working within a quarter mile of a transit station produce about twice as many transit rides as people living or working more than half a mile away. In other words, with fewer stations on a line, the number of people willing to use public transportation as a whole is likely reduced.

Assembly Station, which has been in the works for several years, promises significant benefits — 5,000 future daily riders taking advantage of a 10-minute ride to the region’s central business district, at a construction cost of about $30 million. The station fits in the 1.3-mile gap between two existing stations and is the first new stop built along Boston’s T rapid transit network in 26 years. When combined with the $1.7 billion Green Line light rail extension planned for opening later this decade, 85 percent of Somerville’s residents will live within walking distance of rapid transit, up from just 15 percent today.

The cost-per-rider comparison between the two Somerville projects is indicative of the value offered by infill stations: While Assembly Station cost about $6,000 per rider served, the Green Line Extension will cost $38,000 per rider served — six times more. Both projects will provide benefits, but the cost-effectiveness of infill stations in terms of attracting riders is clear. While infill stations will reduce transit speeds to some extent, within reason the number of new riders they attract will more than make up for the change.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on perverse transportation engineering standards that create dangerous streets in the name of “safety.” Systemic Failure says Caltrain will have to choose between bikes and bathrooms in its new electrified trains, and it should go with the former. And Beyond DC shares a quote that gets to the heart of the reason protected bike infrastructure is so important.

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Downtown Houston Will Get Its First Protected Bike Lane

Houston’s protected bike lane should look a lot like this one in Seattle. Photo: Seattle DOT/Flickr

A piece of top-notch bike infrastructure is coming to the largest city in Texas.

That’s the word today from Kevin McNally at Houston Tomorrow, who relays the news that a two-way protected bike lane is on tap for downtown:

The City of Houston will install the City’s first on-street protected bike lane along Lamar Street in Downtown, possibly as early as October, according to the Houston Chronicle’s Mike Morris. The two-way protected bike lane will help to connect Downtown to both the Buffalo Bayou trails and the Columbia Tap Trail.

The bike lane will be three-quarters of a mile long and will be painted green, the Houston Chronicle reports. It will be separated from car traffic by “armadillos,” or hard, low-lying plastic bumps. McNally says:

Based on the description from the article, the bike lane should look similar to the above photo of a two-way protected bike lane in Seattle, with the exception being that the white plastic bollards will be replaced by plastic “armadillos” or “zebras” (see examples of those here).

Bike Houston Executive Director Michael Payne said the objective is to make “people feel comfortable” about biking and getting “out of their cars.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Washington Bikes shares a poll showing overwhelming support for Safe Routes to School among the state’s residents. And Bike Portland reports that advocates in that region are trying to ensure that every school district has a Safe Routes to School program.

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New Parking in Seattle Comes With a Side of Mixed-Use Development

This new mixed-use development on a light rail line in Seattle will have 505 units, 523 parking spaces. Image: The Urbanist

This new mixed-use development by a light rail station in Seattle will have 505 housing units and 523 parking spaces. Image: The Urbanist

Part of the promise of Seattle’s Link light rail was its potential to create walkable places in the sprawling Rainier Valley. And that’s starting to happen, locals report, but developers are getting some important things wrong.

The proposed mixed-use development at MLK Way and Othello Street, for example, calls for way more parking than appropriate for an urban location near light rail. Will Green at The Urbanist explains:

The Seattle Housing Authority has found a developer for its 3.2 acre site at the corner of MLK Way and Othello Street, right next to Sound Transit’s Othello Link Station. The plans are impressive: 505 market-rate apartments spread over three buildings, 17,800 sq. ft. of retail space, and a 10,000 sq. ft. of public plaza intended to provide space for a farmer’s market and community events. But the developer, Everett’s Path America, has fallen into the same trap many have when planning TOD by forgetting the “Transit” and focusing on the parking. Instead, Path America is proposing a whopping 523 surface and underground parking stalls for those 505 apartments.

It’s a serious and well known problem: A recent report from the Sightline Institute found that 21 of the 23 recent multifamily developments studied had more occupied units than occupied parking stalls, with an average overnight parking vacancy rate of 37%. Those empty stalls do more than waste space; they cost developers a lot of money, costs that ultimately get passed on to tenants.

One study cited by Green estimated that parking costs add about $246 to monthly apartment rents in Seattle. Green continues:

 

It’s exciting to see development in the Rainier Valley take off. Seattle needs more affordable housing, and converting low-density (or vacant) land uses to medium- and high-density housing is a great way to meet that need. Likewise, taking advantage of major regional investments in transit is critical for ensuring affordability by freeing tenants from the burdensome cost of owning and maintaining car. Considering such realities, it boggles the mind that a major developer is planning to put more parking stalls than actual apartment units next to three frequent transit lines (Central Link Light Rail and King County Metro Transit Routes 8 and 36) in one of the poorest parts of Seattle. Not only is it a wasted opportunity, but it denies affordable housing in an area that desperately needs it.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Architect’s Newspaper reports that Michigan is getting its first bus rapid transit route, Grand Rapid’s Silver Line. And Urban Milwaukee explains Wisconsin’s history with the “wheel tax” — a local tax on vehicle registration that’s being explored as a way to boost funds for road maintenance.

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It’s Time to Rethink Old Stereotypes About Renters

Is the growth in renting in Philadelphia a cause for concern or celebration? Image: Pew via Plan Philly

Homeownership rates in Philadelphia aren’t as high as they used to be, and that’s not a bad thing. Map: Pew via Plan Philly. Click to enlarge

For a long time, renters have been thought of as a destabilizing force in urban areas. Federal housing policy encourages people to make the jump to homeownership in part because officials believe it will give people a larger stake in their neighborhoods and reduce crime. By subsidizing home purchases, these policies encourage people to “buy more house” and promote sprawl.

Now the spectacular housing market crash and crushing debt burdens carried by younger people are helping to upend these assumptions. Kellie Patrick Gates at Plan Philly reports on a recent survey of Philadelphia renters that flies in the face of some of the oldest stereotypes. For one, the survey found that in many neighborhoods, most renters are, in fact, engaged in their communities:

In Center City, 43 percent of surveyed renters said they knew their neighbors and 29 percent were involved in neighborhood maintenance or upkeep activities, Howell said. Outside the city center, 56 percent knew their neighbors and 51 percent were involved with efforts to keep the community looking good…

Howell said that she and some other city planners had a hunch that renters are more active in their communities than they generally get credit for, but even so, “the percentages were surprising.”

Plan Philly interviewed city officials who said they think it’s a positive sign that homeownership is declining and the share of renters is increasing. “People are coming from outside to see what’s going on here,” said Philadelphia City Planning Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger, who noted that some of the world’s most desirable cities, like New York, London, and Tokyo, have high shares of renters.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Biking Toronto shows the city’s solution for cyclists during construction on an important bridge –everyone is thrilled about it. Car Free Austin analyzes the city’s proposal for a $1.4 billion new rail line. And Exit133 reports that Tacoma is trying to work out a set of regulations that will help level the playing field between traditional taxi companies and firms like Uber and Lyft.

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Could DC Add Bike Lanes to Its Traffic Circles?

London is adding a bike lane to one of its famous traffic circles. Image: City of London via BeyondDC

Roundabouts can have big safety and environmental benefits, but can they be adapted to be great places for bicycling as well?

“DC’s big traffic circles are notoriously difficult places to bike,” writes Dan Malouff at BeyondDC. “They have multiple lanes of intimidating and zig-zagging car traffic, and sidewalks too packed with pedestrians to be good bike paths.”

Malouff says a city of London plan to add bike lanes to the busy Queens’ Circus traffic circle, pictured above, is interesting but has some drawbacks.

This is sort of a good design. It’s better than nothing. But with so many crossings, it’s still pretty confusing what’s the bike lane and what’s for cars. It seems likely there will still be a lot of intimidating cross traffic.

In fact, the actual design doesn’t even have the green paint; I added that to make the rendering clearer.

The other big problem with the London example is that pedestrians are mostly absent. Unlike DC’s circles that typically have popular parks in the middle, this London circle is just a road. The central grassy section isn’t a useful park, and there are no pedestrian crossings into it. That obviously changes how the entire thing functions.

Malouff says an older example from the Netherlands might actually provide more protection, by placing the bike lane on a wide sidewalk. But the London example might be a more politically realistic goal for DC, he says.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Architect’s Newspaper reports that Detroit has broken ground on its long-awaited 3.3-mile M1 light rail system. Price of Sprawl attempts to calculate the public cost of a newly approved sprawling development in Palm Beach County, Florida. And Human Transit explains how to develop a liberating transit system in a smaller city.

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Sioux Falls Builds Sidewalk-Free School, Tries to Stop Kids From Walking

Stories like this one help explain why we have a childhood obesity epidemic in the United States.

Sioux Falls’ George McGovern Middle School is close to many students’ homes, which is probably why kids want to walk there. Image: KSFY

Network blog the MinusCar Project reports that a new school recently opened in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, along two busy thoroughfares that have no sidewalks. A local TV station explains that children are still walking to the middle school because it’s close to their homes, which has parents concerned for their safety.

Here is the principal’s solution:

“[W]e’re trying to problem solve and trying to figure out how to best bus 100% of our student population.”

Principal [LaVonna] Emanuel wants all students to be safe and if anyone is walking to school, wants to find out why.

“We would definitely want to work with the family find out what’s going on, did the child miss the bus? Just what’s going on,” she said.

Granted, Principal Emanuel likely had no say as to whether sidewalks were installed — the school district says that was up to the city — and to her credit she says she wants the school to function as a “neighborhood school” soon. But parents wonder why proper infrastructure wasn’t built at the outset. Said one: “I’m glad they have school buses for everybody, but they should still have it set up so kids can walk. They did take the time to pave the roads and everything around this area that have been dirt and gravel roads. So I think they should take the time to at least put up some sidewalks.”

Elsewhere today: Delaware Bikes reports that a study ranked the First State the country’s most dangerous for pedestrians. The author of Transitized explains how he moved across the country with the help of Amtrak. And Better Cities & Towns offers 12 steps for cities looking to reduce pedestrian deaths.

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Will Spokane Give Downtown Transit Riders the Boot?

Transit in Spokane, Washington, is centered around a well-designed plaza in downtown. While the transit plaza is considered a national example of how to design good amenities for riders, a group of business owners is trying to move it somewhere else, reports Bruce Nourish at Seattle Transit Blog.

Spokane’s transit plaza is considered a national example of a dignified waiting environment. Will business leaders succeed in forcing it out of downtown? Photo: Jdubman via Seattle Transit Blog

Nourish says that would be a real blow to the city’s transit system and to downtown itself:

Photos of the Plaza are shown around the world by Jarrett Walker as an example of the kind of civilized, humane waiting-place that transit customers should expect, and which can be built even by not-lavishly-funded agencies. Such facilities are especially important to small-city transit agencies like STA, where there is no rapid transit system around which to organize the rest of the transit network, nor enough money to run a full grid of frequent routes out to the limits of the service area, and thus many customers need to make connections through a single central hub.

Recently, a handful of well-connected downtown Spokane property owners have tried to force STA to move this flagship facility out of the downtown core. The events involved in the lead-up to this are a little complicated: there’s a recently-reactivated plan to refurbish the plaza, the removal (and then replacement) of a smoking area for plaza patrons, and a sudden flare up of concerns about crime, vagrancy and indigence in the retail core. The opposition’s stated reasons will be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s been involved in any major expansion of transit out to suburban areas: Putatively, transit facilities are full of ne’er-do-wells and criminals, loitering around waiting to rob or beg someone of their money, and the solution is to make these people disappear by making the facility disappear — and besides, all those buses are empty anyway. Of course, none of these things are actually true.

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Don’t Blame Hills for Pittsburgh’s Pedestrian Injuries

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently published an in-depth investigation of the city’s pedestrian safety record. The paper reported that 2,100 collisions injured or killed pedestrians in the city between 2006 and 2013.

Being a hilly city doesn’t preclude being a safe place to walk. Photo: Wikipedia

That should be a wake-up call, says Bike PGH Executive Director Scott Bricker on the organization’s blog. But some local traffic engineers are trying to deflect blame to the city’s famously hilly topography. In a letter to the editor published in the Post-Gazette and on the Bike PGH blog, Bricker says blaming the city’s hills is a copout:

The suggestion by Todd Kravits, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 11 traffic engineer, that it is our topography that is at fault is confusing and unfounded. He suggests that if Pittsburgh had more streets resembling “nice flat tables,” it would enable our streets to be engineered more safely; in reality, according to the article’s accompanying map, our flattest stretches of roadway are seeing the highest number of crashes with pedestrians. Mr. Kravits’ assertion that our hills are at fault in some way for these crashes simply does not jibe with the data here.

Norway, home of the vertical city of Oslo, has the second-lowest pedestrian fatality rate in Europe. How do they do it? By putting people, not cars, first in their planning and roadway engineering. For 50 years engineers in the United States have done the opposite. Righting this wrong will not only save lives but also create great, walkable places at the same time.

The city of San Francisco, another famously hilly city, recently announced its adoption of “Vision Zero,” a plan to completely eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2024. I urge Pittsburgh and its partners at PennDOT to do the same. Adopting a Vision Zero policy will set in motion the strategies needed to eliminate serious crashes locally by uniting design and engineering, enforcement, legislation and public health into a singular vision for the safety and vibrancy of our streets.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns wonders whether it’s wise to count streets as public assets, rather than liabilities. And Mobilizing the Region reports that New Jersey legislators are finally attempting to piece together a solution to the state’s transportation funding problems.

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To Prevent Distracted Driving, New App Distracts Drivers

The new windshield display system Navdy aims to make texting while driving easier. Image: Navdy

The new “heads-up” display system Navdy “feels like driving in the future,” according to its producers. The dash-mounted projector displays images from your phone on your windshield. The idea is that you can text and drive while keeping your eyes focused in the right direction. “No more looking down to fumble with knobs, buttons or touch screens,” goes the pitch.

James Sinclair at Stop and Move is not impressed:

What the product does is project information from your phone onto your windshield. Some of that information is relevant to driving, such as map navigation, and possibly in the future parking information from SF Park. The rest? Not so much.

Apparently driving is so boring that drivers cannot resist texting and checking emails for the duration of their trip. Navdy comes to the rescue by blowing up your text messages onto your windshield so you don’t have to deal with the monotony of driving by instead engaging in a titillating text-based conversation.

The worst part is that this group of entrepreneurs is trying to pitch this as a way to PREVENT distracted driving. Their reasoning is that drivers won’t be looking down at their laps, but will continue to look forward. Their video says “you need your eyes in front of you – you need Navdy.” Problem is, that’s not how distraction works.

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