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In Search of Places With “Good Bones”

What do people mean when they say a city has “good bones”? Well, if the streets are laid out in a walkable grid pattern, that can be the “skeleton” for a healthy urban environment.

The key to strong urban areas is "good bones," says Robert Steuteville. Photo: Better Cities & Towns!

Healthy urban places depend on the “good bones” of a walkable street network, says Robert Steuteville. Photo: Better Cities & Towns

The United States used to regularly build places with “good bones” up until around the 1920s, writes Robert Steuteville at Better Cities & Towns. With walkable places in high demand, he argues that local governments should be focused on maximizing the value of places with good bones and figuring out how to create new ones:

A place with good bones may still need a lot of work before the streets are truly walkable. Times Square is a good example. This great intersection was traffic-engineered into an enormous confluence of automobiles in the 20th Century; it wasn’t repaired as a great public space until the 21st Century. All over America, traffic engineering compromised street grids. In places that have decent or good bones, the street network can be repaired — often delivering an exponential return on investment.

Good bones are in shorter supply in the suburbs, but they do exist in historic villages and towns that were overrun by sprawl in the last half of the 20th Century. Many of these communities are are now reviving. Less obvious opportunities await in the postwar suburbs, those built from the mid-‘40s to the mid-‘60s. Many of those have decent bones. Residential streets from this era tend to be curvy, but they generally connect and are not too wide.

Later suburbs are much harder to repair. Where development is taking place on a broad scale, however, communities can lay out a plan for a mixed-use neighborhood. This is not technically difficult, and it can create substantial value. The modern transportation and land-use system is set up to do the opposite of a grid, so this effort will not be easy — but it will pay off well over time.

Steuteville adds cities should be asking themselves two questions: Where do good bones exist and how can we improve those places? And where is there potential to create new places with good bones?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Mobilizing the Region examines Chris Christie’s decision to punt on Port Authority reforms. Bike Portland shames a travel site that describes “running cyclists off the road” as a local rite of passage. And Streets.mn argues that biking and walking should be part of the state of Minnesota’s transportation bill.

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High-Ranking Episcopal Bishop Finally Charged for Killing Baltimore Cyclist

The killing of Baltimore cyclist Thomas Palermo by a high-ranking official in the Episcopal Church two days after Christmas has caught the attention of the national media, raising questions about justice, fairness, and accountability.

High ranking Episcopal church official Heather Cook faces 10 years in the drunken driving death of a Baltimore cyclist. Image: Baltimore PD via Baltimore Sun

After declining to file charges immediately after the crash, the state’s attorney’s office finally announced on Friday that Bishop Heather Cook, the number two official at the local Episcopal Church diocese, will be charged with manslaughter, driving while impaired, and fleeing the scene of a fatal collision.

Cook, who has a record of drunken driving, returned to the crash scene half an hour after she fled. She still registered a blood alcohol level of 0.22 percent, about three times the legal limit. Officials also charge that she was texting at the time of the crash.

Khal at Los Alamos Bikes says the case speaks to our responsibility toward others, especially for those who in positions of spiritual leadership:

Unfortunately, the Bishop had a problem: when it came to driving drunk, she could not follow her own advice, as described in the Times piece from her own sermon, available on Youtube, and linked in the Times excerpt below (you can start at about the 6:50 mark):

In a sermon last year, Bishop Cook spoke about traffic safety and the consequences of unsafe driving. “My perception is that we live in the midst of a culture that doesn’t like to hold us accountable for consequences,” she said, “that somehow everybody gets a free pass all the time. Well, we do in terms of God’s love and forgiveness, but we don’t in many of the things that happen, and it’s up to us to be responsible.”

That’s the problem with our driving culture. We think we can screw it up and let God sort it out. Often enough, we only have that WWJD moment after we are facing the tragic consequences of our lax driving attitudes and find ourselves praying for forgiveness from a judge and jury, if not from our choice of deity or patron saint. Lesson learned? Heck, this is not the first such story. I hope, as a matter of penance, the local Episcopal Church takes a time out from its usual sermons to preach this story. Perhaps start with Matthew 25:40. Because it is not just sixteen time losers who kill or endanger. It’s the guy or gal in the mirror who lets his/her guard down, is in denial, or who thinks bad things happen only to those other people. And of course, its not just Episcopalians.

When a vulnerable Tom Palermo is riding his bike or crossing the street in front of you, How Would Jesus Drive? For that matter, how should you or I drive?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns says streets should be designed so that driving at unsafe speeds actually feels unsafe. The Political Environment reports that the state of Wisconsin is using cuts to schools and healthcare as well as new fees to finance an unsustainable and ill-advised road building spree. And the State Smart Transportation Initiative writes that cities are taking the lead on an important new innovation in safety for trucks.

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More Transit Service Is Great, But It’s Not Enough on Its Own

If your built environment looks like this, more transit service will only go so far. Photo: Nicholas Eckhardt/Flickr

A new report commissioned by Ohio DOT recommends that the state should double its funding for transit. At Notes from the Underground, Jason Segedy welcomes this  development, but he also notes that in many places, simply expanding transit funding won’t be enough, on its own, to make transit appealing. Places like Ohio need to complement additional transit spending with a new approach to development and planning, he writes:

We have to think about how to increase overall public transit demand — and that’s mostly an urban development, land use, and urban design issue, not a transportation issue.

It is neither wise nor effective to blindly increase the supply of transit service, by spending more money on it, and expect that action alone to translate into higher ridership.

We need to think about demand — what is it now, what will it be in the future, and most significantly — what could it be in the future?

Read more…

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U.S. Awareness of Protected Bike Lanes Is Literally Growing Exponentially

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Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

As people in the protected bike lane movement start to get a handle on 2015, it’s worth pausing to look at the magnitude of 2014′s success.

If any one chart can tell the story best, it’s probably this one.

There’s a word for that sort of growth: exponential.

In fact, we can even put a formula on it: approximately 38 percent growth every year since 2006, almost like clockwork.

Buried inside this trend is another one that shows how our language is changing. Last year was the year when most professionals settled on the phrase “protected bike lane” as the best way to describe these designs to a general audience.

Read more…

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How Chris Christie Throws Reporters Off the Scent of His Worst Transit Sins

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently vetoed a proposal to reform the Port Authority. Photo: Wikipedia

New Jersey governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie is back in the news for a decision that says a lot about his legacy as a governor.

Over the Christmas holiday, Christie and his New York counterpart, Andrew Cuomo, vetoed legislation to reform the bi-state Port Authority, which among other responsibilities handles transportation infrastructure linking New Jersey and New York City. Their counterproposal avoids substantial reform and includes the possibility of cutting off overnight PATH transit service, which has been getting most of the press attention. This comes a few years after Christie killed the ARC transit tunnel under the Hudson River for political reasons.

Benjamin Kabak at Second Avenue Sagas writes that Christie’s transit decisions should really anger a lot of his constituents, but he seems to have a way of playing the press to minimize the damage:

Christie established his conservative bona fides by canceling the [ARC] project despite the fact that his cost overrun projections were based on spurious data and that New Jersey likely could have worked out a deal with the feds and even New York to split overruns. But while Christie faced some criticism for the move, it was muted especially from New Jersey transit advocates who never supported the deep cavern alignment for the tunnel and wanted the Alt G version instead. So while Christie sometimes faces irate commuters on Twitter, he gets a pass, and editorial writers who try to tell the full story face a Sisyphean task.

Ironically — or perhaps intentionally — the Port Authority reform report that Christie signed endorsed a new Hudson River crossing which allowed for another round of hand-wringing over Christie’s duplicity. Again, though, the focus has been on the inconsistency of these statements rather than on the affect of Christie and Cuomo’s veto of the reform measures. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike PGH reports that Pittsburgh is planning to dramatically increase its budget for cycling infrastructure. Transport Providence uses a single bus route to illustrate the problems with Rhode Island’s RIPTA transit service. And Streets.mn spends some time questioning the familiar refrain: “but people like their cars.”

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Designing Roads for Higher “Level of Service” Isn’t About Safety

Officials in greater St. Paul want to knock over this building in the name of “Level of Service.” Photo: Streets.mn

Traffic engineers have an maddening tendency to hold out “Level of Service” — a measure of motorist delay — like a trump card. We need to widen this road, they’ll say, because otherwise drivers will angrily stew in traffic, and then there might be “accidents,” or some other dire consequence.

That’s what’s happening right now in greater St. Paul, on Randolph Avenue, Bill Lindeke reports at Streets.mn. Ramsey County officials are planning to knock down an apartment building to widen an intersection and add a turn lane by a Trader Joe’s.

They say they must do this, or else motorists will get frustrated by delays and start driving like psychopaths. This is not a very smart way to make street design decisions, Lindeke says:

Safety isn’t just the number of accidents that occur, but needs to also include the larger urban landscape. If we “improve” an intersection by allowing cars to travel fast or turn more easily, we are also making the intersection more dangerous for anyone on foot or bicycle. In an urban area like this, that’s a big mistake! Safety isn’t just about compliance with rules. Neither is safety about decreasing the total number of accidents, though that is part of the picture. In an urban area, safety is about reducing car speeds and creating a comfortable and welcoming environment for people on foot.

Ramsey County’s insistence that they are going to widen the road at Lexington and Randolph is an example of backward thinking. Tearing down two-story dense apartments and single family houses to make a turn lane is a bad idea, but doing it in the name of safety is particularly ironic. Hopefully, as neighbors and the city weigh in more clearly, the conversation will come to its senses.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Better Cities & Towns! says more transportation engineers need to step up and bring the profession into the 21st century. Street Smart takes on Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ claim that only small cities have torn down urban freeways. And Transportation for America reports that U.S. DOT has adopted an important new performance measure, promoted by advocates, that will track the condition of roads and bridges.

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The Feds Quietly Acknowledge the Driving Boom Is Over

After years of erroneously predicting rapid growth in driving, the FHWA finally made significant downward revisions to its traffic forecast last year. Graphic: U.S. PIRG/Frontier Group

The Federal Highway Administration has very quietly acknowledged that the driving boom is over.

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of rapid driving growth, the agency’s more recent forecast finally recognizes that the protracted post-World War II era has given way to a different paradigm.

The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

The forecast is a big step forward from the FHWA’s past record of chronically aggressive driving forecasts. Most recently, in February 2014 the U.S. DOT released its 2013 “Conditions and Performance Report” to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles (VMT) will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the “Conditions and Performance Report” issued at the beginning of 2014 to the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate by between 24 percent to 44 percent.

Read more…

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Oklahoma City Weighs 3-Foot Passing Rule — For Cyclists, Not Drivers

A proposed law in Oklahoma City would crack down on cyclists who pass cars to closely. Seriously. Photo: Richard Masoner

A proposed law in Oklahoma City would crack down on cyclists who pass cars too closely. Seriously. Photo: Richard Masoner

Lots of places have three-foot passing laws requiring motorists to give cyclists a safe buffer while overtaking them. Now one Oklahoma City legislator, Eighth Ward City Council Member Pat Ryan, has come up with a new, passive-aggressive spin on the passing law.

Local elected officials will soon consider a piece of “safety” legislation that would require cyclists to give three feet when passing motorists. Network blog Bike OKC reports:

The measure has been approved by the Oklahoma City Traffic Commission and will go before City Council in January. The law currently states that drivers must provide 3 feet between their cars and cyclists when passing.

In addition to cyclists giving 3 feet to cars, the ordinance has additional language about where they should be riding. For example, the proposed ordinance states “every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as is safe.” This basically negates the signs posted around town allowing cyclists to use the full lane, which is the safer way to ride on street without a bike lane, and forces them to ride in the gutter. The ordinance also states that “persons riding bicycles shall not ride more than two abreast except on bicycle paths” and “when riding on roadways with designated bicycle lanes, the bicycle operator shall ride within the bicycle lane.”

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Looking Ahead to the Year in Transit Expansion

After significant transit construction in the United States in 2014, the next year will see another impressive round of groundbreakings and new openings. That’s according to Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic, who has catalogued major transit expansion projects throughout the U.S. and Canada for the last six years.

In 2015, we’ll see major light rail projects begin service in Houston and Phoenix, new subway and commuter rail extensions welcome passengers in New York and Boston, and bus rapid transit routes open in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Hartford, Connecticut. Meanwhile, major projects will be breaking ground in Orlando, San Diego, and Baltimore.

Freemark says cities are finding ways to make transit projects happen, even without strong federal support:

There are dozens of additional transit projects in cities throughout the continent that commenced construction prior to 2015 and which will be completed next year or later. What is unquestionably true is that the overall investment in transit is enormous: There is more than $90 billion being spent on new projects under construction and more than $7 billion being spent on major renovations underway in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico (these are costs across the board, covering the entire construction process, which in almost every case is a multi-year affair), accounting for a total of 667 new miles of fixed-route transit services.

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Wishing for “Truly Open Streets” in 2015

It’s a new year, and around the Streetsblog Network people are posting their 2014 retrospectives and resolutions for the year ahead.

Kristen Jeffers at The Black Urbanist shares these thoughts to kick off 2015:


Remember this picture of me? I was playing on a B-cycle demonstration bike on the street that I helped paint, to have an open streets event there. Yet, from then to now, not just in Greensboro, but in many other cities, the streets haven’t been so open. In fact, many have been hostile. My wish is that we can start looking at people on our streets, not as threats, not as people to shake money out of, not as places to speculate our real estate futures and to shoot to kill, but as places where we can celebrate our achievements and what it means to be human. I might be wishing this every year, but I’m going to get us started there. If we block the streets in 2015, I pray that it’s to have a party, be at peace and be better neighbors.

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network: The Urbanist wraps up its first year covering Seattle with a look at its 10 most-read stories of 2014. Greater Greater Washington celebrates the opening of a new car-free bridge that improves walking and biking access to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station. And Bike Portland writes that the city’s evolving bike culture bodes well for the future.