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Smart Growth America: Sprawl Shaves Years Off Your Life

Want to live a long, healthy, prosperous life? Don’t live in sprawlsville.

These cul-de-sacs will kill you! Photo: ##http://indiemusicfilter.com/tag/sprawl-ii##Indie Music Filter##

These cul-de-sacs can kill you! Photo: Indie Music Filter

Atlanta, I’m looking at you. Nashville, you too. Southern California’s Inland Empire: ouch. Meanwhile, break out the bubbly if you live in Atlantic City, Urbana/Champaign, or Santa Cruz — which all rank close to giants like New York and San Francisco as some of the most compact and connected metro areas in the U.S. That compact development brings a bounty of benefits you might not associate with those places.

That’s the lesson from Smart Growth America’s new report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” an update of their 2002 report, “Measuring Sprawl and Its Impact.”

A team of researchers gave a development index score to each of 221 metropolitan areas and 994 counties in the United States based on four main factors: residential and employment density; neighborhood mix of homes, jobs, and services; strength of activity centers and downtowns; and accessibility of the street network. These are the essential buildings blocks of smart growth.

Based on those factors, the most compact and connected metro areas are:

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

Most compact, connected metro areas, nationally. Image: SGA

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HUD Expected to Loosen Restrictions on Mixed-Use Financing Soon

As Smart Growth America showed us earlier today, the costs of sprawl are high. So it’s a bitter irony that federal rules have made it more expensive to build compact, mixed-use development by tightly limiting the share of commercial space in projects that receive financing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Federal rules make it harder to build low- and mid-rise mixed-use projects. Photo: La Citta Vita/Flickr via creative commons license

Fortunately, those rules have started to loosen in recent years, and today on the Streetsblog Network, Rob Steuteville at Better Cities and Towns reports that HUD is expected to make more progress on this front:

The financing of low-to-mid-rise mixed-use buildings, restricted by federal rules since the 1930s, will likely become easier this year, the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) reports.

The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) raised its nonresidential loan limits to 35 percent from 20 percent in 2012 — now it looks like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is moving forward with reforms in other programs.

Officials from HUD’s multifamily unit recently told CNU president and CEO John Norquist, New York Regional Plan Association executive director Thomas Wright and Richard Oram of the Oram Foundation that further reforms are expected in HUD’s Sections 221d4 and 220 multifamily financing programs, due for release in September 2014.

“What is likely to happen is that HUD 220 and 221d4 caps will be raised up to 35 percent,” Norquist says. “This could vary by project characteristics and location, but allowing up to 35 percent non residential is a big deal.” The higher FHA mortgage nonresidential caps have worked, Norquist says.

Old mixed-use restrictions remain in place at mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, however. Reforming Fannie and Freddie is tougher than adjusting internal rules at HUD, says Norquist:

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Are Sidewalks Really Necessary?

A lot of big, surprising revelations are happening in the livable streets movement around the country today. Here’s a sample of what Streetsblog Network members are reporting.

Sidewalks: Are they worth it? Photo: Transportation for America

Miami Adopts Vision Zero Policy: Street safety advocates are elated after Miami officials suddenly announced the city would adopt a Vision Zero policy aimed a reducing the number of traffic fatalities to zero, Transit Miami reports. Similar policies have been adopted in New York City and Chicago, but nobody expected this notoriously hostile city for pedestrians to adopt such a progressive policy.

“My fellow commissioners and I have finally come to recognize that Miami is about two decades behind other so-called ‘world class cities’ when it comes to pedestrian and cycling infrastructure,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “We have a public safety crisis unfolding on our streets and we need to make our streets safer for everyone; we need to design our streets for people, not cars.”

The policy will necessarily result in a total overhaul of the way Miami designs streets.

The Case Against Sidewalks: People for Bikes announced today the organization views sidewalks as a “terrible idea” and is lobbying for their abolishment nationwide. The place for pedestrians is in the road, along with cyclists and cars, writes Michael Andersen. Oregon physician Joseph Eisenberg sum up why dedicated walking paths are death traps:

When I walk, I always practice vehicular pedestrianism. I run in the middle of the street, wearing hi-viz clothing and a helmet with multiple flashing head and tail lights. I always merge into the left lane to turn left, and never run in the door zone. Sidewalks are separate and unequal, and they are death traps with the risk of right and left hooks! Pedestrians just need more education about the proper way to walk. Then they would be perfectly safe, and respected by motorists.

Wise words, indeed.

More Stroads for Minneapolis: Drawing inspiration from nearby Bloomington, the city of Minneapolis has proposed a bold vision for the future of its streets, reports Streets.mn today:

“Ever since the opening of the Hiawatha Line, we’ve watched scores of Minneapolitans drive to their nearest park-and-ride and take the train down to East Bloomington’s distinctive urban center, just to experience the sublime pedestrian experience of 8-lane, 40+ mph roadways,” mayor Betsy Hodges said in a press conference Tuesday. “It’s time to bring that kind of distinctiveness to Minneapolis.”

By the way, happy April 1st, everyone.

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Walkable or Easily Drivable? Communities Can’t be Both

There’s a contentious debate happening in greater Portland about a highway expansion. Suburbanites are in favor, writes Scott Johnson at Portland Transport, and Portland residents are just as adamantly opposed.

Places that are easy to park are necessarily uncomfortable and bad places for walking and transit. Photo: Wikipedia

Places where it’s easy to park are necessarily bad places for walking and transit. Photo: Wikipedia

The conflict, Johnson says, is inherent: Infrastructure that is conducive to driving is necessarily bad for walkable, transit-friendly places like many parts of Portland.

Johnson explains:

In a large human settlement (i.e a city and its surrounding suburbs), you can have parts that are optimized for a low-car lifestyle, and you can have parts that are optimized to be convenient for automobile usage (by persons of average income). But you can’t have places that are both.

If a place is optimized for automobiles — and virtually all of Clark County is — you will have low density: cramming lots of cars into a small space will instantly cause congestion; spreading them out across a more expansive road network will reduce the number of conflicts for space that lead to cars needing to stop and wait for other cars. And you will have plenty of parking: Large parking lots at major attractions, driveways and garages in residences, and lots of street space allocated for vehicle storage. (And all of it free for users). Drivers in such environments will want to drive fast (if nothing else, to traverse the longer distances more quickly), and road topologies will be optimized for speed.

The large distances needed to get from A to B will make walking and biking impractical (and the high traffic speeds will make them unsafe). And the spread-out nature of everything will make efficient transit impossible. Thus, if a place is optimized for cars, they will become necessary.

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A Hard-Fought Legislative Victory for Indianapolis Transit

Indianapolis might not be known as a transit city — yet — but a legislative breakthrough at the statehouse this week opens the door for dramatic improvements to its transit system.

After three years of advocacy, state officials approved a bill that will allow the six-county Indianapolis region to vote on whether to tax themselves to pay for a plan called “Indy Connect,” which would establish a network of high-quality bus routes.

Shayla Williamson at Urban Indy says the legislation isn’t perfect — one drawback is that it specifically forbids spending the money on light rail — but it removes a major obstacle to significantly improving the region’s transit:

[T]he Indiana General Assembly closed the 2014 session by passing SB176, otherwise known as the central Indiana mass transit bill. After being scaled back, stripped, and amended here and there, an effort three years in the making now heads to Governor Pence for final approval before being placed on the ballot this fall for local voter approval. Voters will finally have the option of approving an income tax increase, of anywhere between 0.1 and 0.25 percent, to help cover the operating costs of expanded transit in their counties.

Pence has now signed the bill, which Transportation for America calls a great example of pragmatic political compromise:

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Philadelphia Pedestrian Plaza Welcomed by 98% of Neighbors

An overwhelming majority of neighborhood residents favor a plan to turn this Philadelphia street — at 23rd and South — into a pedestrian plaza. Photo: This Old City

Inspired by New York City, Philadelphia has created its own pedestrian plaza program. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s ambitions have so far been hindered by some pretty zealous restrictions, like one that would require 100 percent of adjacent property owners to agree to the change.

Nevertheless, Geoff Kees Thompson at This Old City reports that a new pedestrian plaza will be installed in an area called the Greys Ferry Triangle. The improvement was supported by an overwhelming 98 percent of neighbors, so Councilman Kenyetta Johnson used his authority to override the 100 percent rule. Thompson says it’s a huge win for everyone involved:

Plans for the space are impactful, thoughtful, and parking neutral. Below you’ll find the current plan of the space next to the future plan. Many years of legwork from The Grays Ferry Triangle Committee including garnering support for the project from property owners, organizing regular maintenance of the space, designing and reworking countless proposals, and direct engagement with elected and non-elected officials have meant this project will finally be coming to fruition. [The Mayor's Office of Traffic and Utilities] and Streets Department have also been shepherding this particular effort and should be commended for their vision in repurposing streets for other active uses and working with the Grays Ferry Triangle Committee to finalize an approved design.

We have every confidence that the project will be an economic boon to the many businesses flanking the triangle. Pedestrian amenities like planters, greenspace, seating, lighting, aesthetic improvements and programatic events (outdoor fitness, jazz, kids activities etc.) are all planned for this important gateway to Graduate Hospital and the South Street West businesses. We’ll follow up with additional details/plans as May approaches. Every space we reclaim for people and greenery is a win for public space and our city.

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Catching Hit-and-Run Drivers With Amber Alerts

A Portland woman whose son was killed by a drunk hit-and-run driver has proposed a new method to apprehend motorists who flee the scene of a deadly collision. She hopes to bring an Amber Alert-like notification system to Portland to help nab the bad guys. The proposal is based on a system that’s already up and running in Denver, reports Michael Andersen at Bike Portland:

Portland’s Kristi Finney, whose son was killed by a drunk driver who fled the scene, is pushing for an Amber Alert-like notification system to catch the perpetrators in hit-and-run crashes. Photo: Bike Portland

Kristy Finney, whose son Dustin was killed in 2011 by a man driving drunk on Southeast Division Street, is modeling her proposal on a similar system already in use in Colorado for “cases involving serious injury or death — and when a reliable description of the fleeing vehicle is available.”

Last week, Colorado’s governor signed a statewide rollout of apparently successful pilot programs in Denver and Aurora.

“The notification goes to all patrol cars, cabdrivers, news outlets, truck drivers and pedicab operators. A message is displayed on traffic reader boards and on Crime Stoppers’ Twitter and Facebook accounts,” adds the Denver Post.

That paper reported last year that seven such alerts had been issued in the area in 2012-2013, and “some have resulted in arrests.”

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Graphed: While Gas Tax Erodes, Transit Fares Climb

Fares for St. Louis’s Metro transit system are rising steadily and outpacing inflation while the Missouri gas tax stagnates. Image: NextSTL

This is an illuminating chart, produced by Richard Bose at Network blog NextSTL. It shows how Missouri electeds have let the gas tax steadily erode in real dollars while transit riders have been subjected to repeated fare increases.

Now, Bose explains, state officials are preparing to double-down on this double standard:

Metro is considering raising fares again. Missouri voters may consider a 1% general sales tax to pay for transportation this fall. A gas tax increase and tolls are seen as DOA, thus the push for a sales tax. Let’s see how the gas tax and Metro fares have fared since the last gas tax increase in 1996.

The gas tax of 17 cents would be 25 cents today, and the state would have raised about 20% more from the gas tax since 1996 had it kept up with inflation (I’m assuming the number of gallons taxed each year was constant, which is pretty close to reality)

As you can see the value of the gas tax has been eroded by inflation while Metro fares have outpaced it. Of course this isn’t the whole picture. Property and local sales taxes and the Federal gas tax (hasn’t increased since 1993) and general revenues also fund streets, roads, and highways, and local sales taxes, federal, and a minute amount of state money goes into Metro. But this puts into perspective just who is paying their “fair” share.

This is a great visual and it would be interesting to see the same data graphed for more cities.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bike League encourages people to contact U.S. DOT after the agency punted on establishing benchmarks to reduce cyclist and pedestrian fatalities. Urban Review STL says the city of St. Louis needs to establish upper limits on parking at local businesses instead of minimums. And Strong Towns attempts to determine the “winners” and “losers” from a Minnesota plan to raise the gas tax to fund road projects.

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Amtrak’s Marketing Overture to Millennials

Chalk up a win for the Amtrak marketing team, which has drummed up a ton of media coverage with its new residency program for writers.

The above video, produced by Amtrak, goes into the thinking behind this effort. Randy Simes at Urban Cincy expounds on the strategy today:

On the heels of kicking off their new Writers Residency program, where writers can ride intercity passenger rail for free, Amtrak welcomed 30 prominent new media “influencers” on a long-distance train ride from Los Angeles to SXSW in Austin. The new initiatives are part of a larger effort by Amtrak to connect with a demographic they believe is already open-minded and passionate about intercity train travel.

[Amtrak’s Government Affairs Specialist for the Midwest Region] says that the 30 participants had somewhere around 2.5 million followers on social media, and that the group logged their journey by using the #AmtrakLive hashtag.

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A (Quiet) Bike Renaissance in Rockville, Maryland

The DC suburb of Rockville, Maryland, is quietly becoming a bike-friendly city.

Greater Greater Washington reports that Rockville advocates and the city have worked together for the last 15 years to expand bike infrastructure. The result: a 68-mile bike network, including 34 miles of separated bikeways, 33 miles of shared lanes, and a multi-use path — a “bicycle beltway” that “connects together a number of neighborhoods and parallels several major roads that would scare off all but the most experienced cyclists.”

The Millennium Trail “bicycle beltway” in Rockville, Maryland. Photo: Bike Rockville via Greater Greater Washington

There’s more, writes GGW’s Shannon Brescher Shea:

Rockville has also developed Maryland’s first Safe Routes to School curriculum, built the Sister Cities bridge over I-270, and added bicycle safety classes to Montgomery College’s course offerings. Recently, the city has made even more significant investments in cycling as a mode of transportation.

With encouragement from RBAC [the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee], the city hired a full-time pedestrian and bicycle coordinator in 2011. While previous bicycle-related work was located in the Department of Recreation and Parks, the coordinator’s position is in the Department of Public Works, showing how the city is recognizing non-motorized transportation’s role in the larger system.

The bicycle and pedestrian coordinator has played a key role in system-level activities such as analyzing crash data, developing heat maps, running bicycle counts, and coordinating activities across the city government.

Rockville currently has 13 Capital Bikeshare stations. Thanks to a grant and matching funds from Rockville, Montgomery County provides free memberships, helmets, and cycling classes to residents with low incomes. The recently updated bike master plan calls for 24 new miles of bike infrastructure, including the county’s first protected bike lanes.

There’s still much to do, writes Shea, but daily bike counts are up, and in 2012 Rockville was named a bronze-level bike-friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists. Rockville’s goal, writes Shea, is a town “where bicycling is for all types of trips, for all types of people, and for all parts of the city.”

Elsewhere on the Streetsblog Network: World Streets explores the potential for rural car sharing, the Alliance for Walking and Biking maps a huge increase in memberships from 1998 to today, and Treehugger reports on a Simpsons subway expansion.