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Even Amsterdam Wasn’t Always “Amsterdam”


If you live in a city where people are trying to make it easier and safer to get around on foot, by bike, or via transit, you’ve probably heard that what works in other towns won’t work in yours.

Amsterdam is often held up as a place where people magically move about using bicycles, trams, and their own two feet, as if the city as it exists today was created from whole cloth.

But before Amsterdam chose to prioritize people over private motor vehicle traffic, it ceded its streets to cars. Matty Lang at Streets.mn posted the above video, which dates from the 1940s.

This short film shows a police officer patrolling the streets of Amsterdam in a Jeep with megaphone amplification telling women how to cross the street, telling people how to use the tram, exhorting a woman bicycling to keep to the right, and telling a young boy to get on the sidewalk with his scooter.

Of course, Amsterdam didn’t become a world leader in livable streets by shouting at people, but by designing a city for walking and biking. Cities in the U.S. — where we’re still shouting — would do well to follow Amsterdam’s lead.

Elsewhere on the Network: FABB Blog reports that WMATA is adding bike parking facilities at Metro stations, and Market Urbanism chronicles urban decay in Havana.

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The Kindness of Safer Streets


Is this really the best we can do?

Dave Alden at Vibrant Bay Area writes that the above ad from Dignity Health (dignity!) depicting a driver getting out of his car to help a senior avoid being run over in a crosswalk is a pretty skewed notion of “human kindness.”

[I]sn’t there something unkind about forcing the woman to cross the busy street in the first place?

How about if we instead define “humankindness” to include the building of neighborhoods where senior citizens of limited mobility don’t need to cross four-lane streets to do daily shopping? Or if we at least include traffic calming on four-lane streets so the vehicular speed are slowed, making respect for crosswalks more likely? That seems a better standard of “humankindness.”

Of course, more walkable destinations and slower traffic speeds are both part of the urbanist toolkit. I must be hanging out with kind people.

The bitter irony of this ad is that, in reality, good Samaritans who try to help other people in traffic often become victims themselves.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Washington Bikes on what it means to be a “bicycle-friendly” community; Biking Toronto reports on the possibility of new downtown separated bike lanes; and Cap’n Transit wonders why the NYC bus drivers union, now waging war on a traffic safety law, remains silent when it comes to preserving transit service.

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Milwaukee Could Pay Big Bucks for Downtown NBA Arena, and Its Parking

Rendering of proposed Milwaukee Bucks arena. Image via Urban Milwaukee

Rendering of proposed Milwaukee Bucks arena. Image via Urban Milwaukee

Publicly-financed arenas for privately-owned sports franchises are usually a bad deal for taxpayers. And the proposal for a new Milwaukee Bucks facility looks like a humdinger.

Patrick Small at Urban Milwaukee reports that city officials, including Mayor Tom Barrett, haven’t told residents exactly how much they could be on the hook for — though so far the Bucks have agreed to cover just $150 million of the arena’s $500 million price tag. “[T]here is still no public document with specific details,” writes Small, “and the numbers keep changing.”

When the New York Yankees built a new stadium in the Bronx, the city and state subsidized the development of thousands of parking spots with tax-exempt bonds. Small says parking for the new downtown Milwaukee arena figures into the Bucks deal as well.

[W]hen Ald. Nik Kovac asked why the mayor agreed to give the Bucks half the income from a parking facility the city would build for the team, Barrett revealed that the Bucks first demanded all the parking revenue, and also wanted to control the facility and have it be tax exempt.

The Bucks will nominally contribute $8 million for the parking facility and land it sits on, but under the deal that amount will later be returned to the Bucks from property taxes collected in a tax incremental financing (TIF) district the city will create for the Bucks project. In short, the Bucks will have no out-of-pocket costs the for parking facility while the city would take on $35 million in bonding to build it, yet would only get half the income, with the other half going to the Bucks. The city’s estimated take of $350,000 a year means it would take 100 years (and that would be with zero percent interest) to pay off the bonds. By that time there may be at least two more new arena projects, given the current average life span of NBA arenas.

Read more…

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The Globalization of Suburbia

“Orange County,” Beijing. Photo: Andrew Stokols/TheCityFix

“Orange County,” Beijing. Photo: Andrew Stokols/TheCityFix

The above photo could be a scene from Any Suburb, USA. Except … what’s the deal with the helmet-free cyclist in street clothes?

“Welcome to Orange County,” writes Andrew Stokols at TheCityFix. “No, not Orange County, California. This is Orange County, Beijing.”

Stokols says walled-off suburbs modeled on U.S. “gated communities” are gaining popularity among the affluent in China, India, and other nations — drawing wealth and attendant resources away from cities.

Beijing’s northern periphery is sprinkled with suburban developments bearing names of exotic Western locales: “Napa Valley, Yosemite, Vancouver Forest, Riviera. On the edge of Shanghai, a series of themed European towns have popped up, each in the style of a different European nation. In the early 1990s, these houses were mostly occupied by diplomats or expats. Today, gated upscale communities of single-family homes are often the sought-after choice of residence for rising middle classes in China, India, Brazil, and beyond, for wealthy, upwardly mobile consumers who want to enjoy the same comforts of suburban living that the West has long taken for granted.

There are indeed many reasons why those who can afford it are choosing to wall themselves off in exclusive suburbs. In cities with high poverty and crime rates, the allure of private security, privatized city services, and functioning utilities is hard to resist. The desire for the lifestyle symbolized by single-family homes is not something that can be easily dismissed as unimportant.

Read more…

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Portland Officials Expected to Adopt 10-Year Vision Zero Plan

Officials in Portland, Oregon, are expected to adopt a Vision Zero program, with the goal of preventing traffic deaths and serious injuries in the next 10 years.

Jonathan Maus of Bike Portland reports:

Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge. Photo: D Coetzee/Flickr

Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge. Photo: D Coetzee/Flickr

On Wednesday Portland City Council is poised to take two steps on the road toward a full embrace of Vision Zero. They’ll formally adopt a goal that “no loss of life is acceptable on our city streets” then they’ll accept a $150,000 grant from the Oregon Department of Transportation to develop a plan to help them reach it.

This week’s Council action comes on the heels of yet another high-profile traffic collision that has spurred a protest and more calls for Mayor Charlie Hales and PBOT Commissioner Steve Novick to take concrete action that leads to safer roads.

The main goal of the effort is to produce an over-arching plan that will guide the city’s engineering, education, and enforcement efforts as well as a communications plan that will include a new website. Why is this plan needed? In the City’s own words, “While safety is a component of many Portland transportation projects, the City of Portland lacks a comprehensive plan and strategy to address traffic safety and move toward this aggressive target.”

Maus says the city last formally responded to traffic safety concerns in 2003, forming a committee that hasn’t accomplished much to make Portland safer for walking and biking. With an ambitious Vision Zero plan — “to achieve zero fatalities or serious injuries on [Portland] roadways by 2025″ — there will be no time to waste.

Officials say it will take 12 months for Portland to develop its Vision Zero Action Plan, to be modeled on programs in New York City and San Francisco, according to Maus.

Elsewhere on the Network today: BikeWalkLee runs a local news column calling for engineering fixes to deadly Florida roads; and Better! Cities & Towns sees potential for a vibrant Ithaca waterfront.

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Houstonians See Folly of Debt-Financed Sprawl, Even If Leaders Don’t

Voters in Montgomery County, Texas, rejected a road-building bond referendum. Despite local support for transit, county leaders plan to give the referendum another try.

Suburban Houston won’t pave its way out of congestion. Photo: Michael Bludworth/Flickr

Suburban Houston won’t pave its way out of congestion. Photo: Michael Bludworth/Flickr

The Houston Chronicle reports that opposition to a $350 million bond measure, all of it for road construction, was led by residents of one affluent enclave who don’t want a traffic-inducing parkway extension. But there’s more to the story.

Like virtually all U.S. metros, the Houston region has a broken transportation system that won’t be fixed by building more roads. Jay Blazek Crossley at Houston Tomorrow points out that nearly half of Montgomery County residents surveyed for a Rice University study wanted improvements to transit, while far fewer think road expansions are the way to go.

“Fewer than one-third of the respondents in any of the counties (including Montgomery County) thought the best solution involves ‘building bigger and better roads and highways,’” writes Crossley.

Yet it looks like local officials intend to bring the same referendum back to voters, only without the parkway project.

Building new roads in unpopulated areas brings development, construction and road jobs, and a temporary period of free wheeling on those new roads. However, this scheme always inevitably fails as we have horribly seen across every part of the Houston region. Road bonds lead to road debt, ongoing maintenance costs, and growing vehicle miles traveled with which our local and state governments are not prepared to grapple.

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Minneapolis May Drop Parking Minimums Near Transit

Proposed changes to parking requirements for residential developments in Minneapolis. Image: Streets.mn

Proposed changes to parking requirements for residential developments in Minneapolis. Image: Streets.mn

Whether you own a car or not, if you live in a city, there’s a good chance you pay for parking. Building parking spots is expensive, but most cities require developers to build a certain amount of parking per residence, driving up the cost of housing.

Nick Magrino at Streets.mn reports that Minneapolis is rethinking that approach, and may drop parking minimums for residential developments near bus and rail stations.

Since the 1960s, the City of Minneapolis has required off-street parking for new residential buildings. There are recently enacted exceptions in downtown and university area neighborhoods, but the current requirement across most of the city is one parking space per unit. A great deal of the city was built before the 1960s, and much of it is still there — that area is grandfathered in. You can’t build a neighborhood like Loring Park or Stevens Square anymore. Much of the current, subtle density of South Minneapolis would be unbuildable as of right.

Next week, the Minneapolis City Planning Commission will be considering a proposal to reduce or eliminate off-street parking requirements for residential developments along bus and rail transit lines. This proposal would eliminate all minimum off-street parking requirements for residential developments very close to high-frequency transit stops.

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Making Urban Cemeteries More Urban

Urban cemeteries often have limited public access. Image: Google Maps via Streets.mn

Urban cemeteries often have limited public access. Image: Google Maps via Streets.mn

Should urban cemeteries be more accessible to the public? Alex Cecchini at Streets.mn thinks so.

Cecchini points out that many city cemeteries are fenced off save for a single entrance point, effectively disrupting the street grid more than any superblock. A graveyard in his Minneapolis neighborhood, for instance, allows motorists to drive through but requires cyclists to lock their bikes at the gate.

“I’m not advocating cemeteries remove all the fences along their edges and erect playgrounds for kids on their property,” says Cecchini, “but it would be nice to be a bit more welcoming to neighbors.”

Compare the number of official path entrances at most cemeteries to any public park with a similar size/surface area ratio, and then remember that without fences neighbors can enter a park at any point they please. As a result, even on a gorgeous spring day where hundreds, maybe thousands of folks were out walking and using the Minneapolis park system, Lakewood Cemetery was completely devoid of activity. Beyond failing at actually inducing people to quietly reflect, cemeteries become barriers to simply getting around the city on foot or bike.

I get it. Cemeteries aren’t usually public property and they also have the right to restrict the type of uses going on inside. I don’t think it would be appropriate to play a pickup game of frisbee or hoops among the dead. Yet as non-profits who don’t pay property taxes on enormous plots of valuable city land, cemeteries should be open to public input asking for better interaction while still respecting the nature of what they provide.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Mike’s Bogota Bike Blog says the Colombian capital is losing bike mode-share, and Greater Greater Washington notes that if cities don’t take cycling infrastructure seriously, motorists won’t either.

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The San Diego Leaders Who Sacrificed People for Parking

University Avenue at Fourth Avenue in San Diego, where a driver ran over a mother and her 3-year-old daughter. San Diego leaders killed a community plan to improve street safety after NIMBYs complained about parking. Image: Google Maps

University Avenue at Fourth Avenue in San Diego, where a driver ran over a mother and her 3-year-old daughter. Local leaders killed a plan to improve street safety after NIMBYs complained about parking. Image: Google Maps

Earlier this year a street safety plan for Hillcrest and other San Diego neighborhoods was derailed after NIMBYs complained about the loss of curbside parking.

The plan was prompted to prevent incidents like the 2012 crash when a driver hit a mother and her 3-year-old daughter in a Hillcrest crosswalk at an intersection with a history of crashes. Bike San Diego says such collisions are common, and that those who worked to stop the Uptown Bike Project, and the officials who placated them, are directly responsible.

We find it unacceptable that any pedestrian or bicycle rider might be struck, injured, killed, or terrorized by fast-moving vehicle traffic in a thickly populated, business district such as Hillcrest. We likewise find it unacceptable that our City and SANDAG turn a blind eye to this crisis, often times blaming the victim. Human beings make mistakes, which is why the infrastructure needs to accommodate people — actual human beings, powering themselves with their own energy — that use our streets for pleasure, for transportation, for meeting friends, going to church or school or the grocery store. Further, it is unacceptable that our City and SANDAG prioritizes parking over people. We also find it unacceptable and extremely disappointing that the powers-that-be, such as Councilmember Todd Gloria and County Supervisor Ron Roberts —  despite vocal support for community transformation — voted to maintain a street design status quo that has not worked for Hillcrest, and for reasons stated [that] fly in the face of evidence that businesses in the heart of the district already routinely close.

BikeSD lays out a seven-point plan to make streets safer in Hillcrest and San Diego at large. The group’s recommendations include reducing speed limits to 20 miles per hour and treating people who walk and bike as citizens, rather than “special interests.”

Read more…

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Virginia’s Chance to Improve Commutes Without Building More Roads

A Virginia state agency is weighing how to allocate new transportation funds, presenting an opportunity for the state to do more than widen and build roads.

Virginia has a chance to invest in projects that don’t bring more of this. Photo: Elisa Self/Flickr

Virginia has a chance to invest in projects that don’t bring more of this. Photo: Elisa Self/Flickr

David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington reports that the Commonwealth Transportation Board is developing a formula to allocate funds approved by the state legislature in 2013. Though a new state law requires the CTB to balance “congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety, environmental quality and land use, and transportation coordination,” Alpert says the board is being pressured to prioritize congestion reduction — that is, to make highway travel faster by expanding and adding roadways.

The problem is speeding highway travel doesn’t automatically reduce commute times, writes Alpert.

Consider two hypothetical cities. In Denseopolis, people live within 2 miles of work on average, but the roads are fairly clogged and drivers can only go about 20 miles per hour. However, it only takes an average of 6 minutes to get to work, which isn’t bad.

On the other hand, in Sprawlville, people live about 30 miles from work on average, but there are lots and lots of fast-moving freeways, so people can drive 60 mph. That means it takes 30 minutes to get to work.

Which city is more congested? … Denseopolis. But it’s the people of Sprawlville who spend more time commuting, and thus have less time to be with their families and for recreation.

“People might say they want their roads to be uncongested, but really they mean they want their travel to be easier,” Alpert says. In addition, new traffic lanes lead to induced demand. Writes Alpert: “[T]raffic models still undercount the extent a newly faster road will just entice people to move somewhere that requires driving on it, adding traffic back in.”

The state DOT has proposed that congestion mitigation account for 35 percent of the scoring system, ahead of job accessibility — whether a project helps people get to work in under 45 minutes — safety, economic development, environmental quality, and other factors. But Alpert says that’s not enough for the “congestion crowd.” Alpert encourages people who live in Virginia to email the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and ask that congestion mitigation be weighted at 35 percent or less.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Urban Cincy says Cincinnati could improve mobility by building smaller, less expensive, multi-modal bridges; and Seattle Bike Blog reports on a city plan for a major bike-share expansion.