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5 Reasons NOT to Kick the Buses Off Public Square

The overhaul of Public Square is done and it looks fantastic and everyone is very excited.  Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 1.07.54 PM

But among all the excitement some people are pushing for the reversal of one of the major compromises that made the project possible. In the first weeks after its opening, a petition has been circulated that calls for removing all “traffic” from the square. This is a misleading way to put it because cars are banned and there was never any question about that. The whole design and construction was designed to exclude cars, but allow buses on Superior only. Below I will try to explain why removing the buses after the fact is a bad idea.

#1. Removal of Buses Would Compound RTA’s Financial Crisis and Cause Real Harm to the People Who Depend on it

According to a study by the consulting firm Nelson Nygaard, shutting Superior to buses would cost RTA an additional $2.6 million in annual operating costs. This comes as the agency is staring down an $18 million shortfall — and just after painful fare hikes and service cuts. The closure of Ontario to buses already increased RTA’s operating costs by $1 million.

As important as great public spaces are to cities, strong public transit systems are equally if not more important. Undermining the quality of our transit system for the sake of public spaces works at cross purposes. Below I will try to explain why bus traffic shouldn’t harm the square and may benefit it anyway.

#2. Removing Buses Seems Easy — But It’s Not

I get why a lot of people think, ‘oh closing Superior to buses is no big deal. They can just go around!’ It SOUNDS easy. But actually it’s really complicated.

Closing Superior to buses would require RTA to reroute about 75 percent of its routes. All these routes will be forced to do a series of turns and wait at a series of light unnecessarily. Also, they would no longer have dedicated transit lanes, the way they did before the square was redesigned, so they’d be forced to wait in traffic.

About 20,000 transfers from bus to bus used to happen in Public Square every day. It was the center of the whole bus system, which carries more than 100,000 rides per day. Such a large number of transfers — a lot of people — requires a fair amount of space. You can’t just force all those people onto some narrow sidewalk. Also, moving them further from the square would put them farther away from transfers to the Rapid and to the Healthline, undermining the usefulness of the whole system.

#3. Buses Shouldn’t Hurt Public Square Anyway — And May Benefit It

I reject the whole idea that buses are going to reduce enjoyment of the square in any real way. On the contrary, more people can enjoy the square if it is used for yoga classes and picnics as well as for people waiting for buses.

Buses are slow moving vehicles and in this case they’ll mostly use Superior for stopping, not speeding through. Buses, unlike cars, are supportive of pedestrians — they deliver them to walkable spaces without hogging urban space for parking.

Bus riders, in addition, will be “eyes on the street” helping keep the square populated at all hours and deterring crime. Real cities — great cities — are full of bus riders and various types of activity. Rather than trying to segment every place into a single type of activity, they thrive off diversity and variety.

#4. The Square Was Designed with Stakeholder Input After-the-Fact Petitions Ignore

Ultimately, the decision to close Ontario to buses but leave Superior open was made after hearing out a number of different stakeholders — not just the kind of people that will drive to the square to do yoga, people that had been using the square prior to this redesign as part of their daily lives (well at least agencies representing them). The best projects consider not just the hoped-for outcome but also whether any groups might be harmed and if so how that will be managed. Disregarding that process after the fact is unfair and not in keeping with the best practices of city planning.

#5. If You Want to Get Concerned About a Threat to Downtown’s Image, Worry About the Giant Parking Lot to the West 

Photo: Green City Blue Lake

Photo: Green City Blue Lake

Here’s the great thing about bus riders. They come to your city and they don’t require a parking space. That means more space can be dedicated to cool urban amenities like picnic hills and less space can be devoted to dreary asphalt dead zones like the giant parking crater just to the west of this project. The more drivers that be converted into bus riders, the better downtown will be.

I urge people to email the mayor using this link and encourage him to leave the square open to buses.

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The Case for Overhauling Transportation in NE Ohio

A new report from the Century Foundation used Cleveland as an example of a how not to do transportation. I thought it was worth highlighting in full. TCF’s Beth Osborne writes:

Osborne_Fig4-1

Figure 4 shows the region in 1948 and in 2002, which over time, urban development spread across the county, yet the population actually stayed about the same. This pattern of urban sprawl means that the same number of people now have to pay to maintain almost double the amount freeway and arterial roadway miles. And for their increased investment, they now get significantly deteriorated transportation performance. While the population actually decreased from 1982 to 2007, the amount of travel time spent in congestion in Cleveland went from 10 percent to 23 percent, and rush “hour” has increased from three hours to five hours.

So we built a lot of highways. Traffic got worse. Costs went up and no new people showed up. This is why leaders in Akron and Cleveland are calling for a new approach.

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What Would a Real Urban Policy Look Like for Ohio?

Ohio’s cities are in bad shape. A recent economic distress study placed three of the state’s cities, Cleveland, Toledo and Cincinnati in the top 10 most distressed in the nation, using indicators like job growth, unemployment and educational attainment as the criteria. Cleveland, for its part, topped Detroit, for the number one spot.

A new study this week found that in the Cleveland region, along with Toledo, are in the top 10 nationally on concentrated poverty. In response, Democratic Party Chair David Pepper posted the following Tweet:

Ohio needs an urban agenda, reversing five years of raiding city budgets https://t.co/etJWq0DWfW

— David Pepper (@DavidPepper) March 31, 2016

I gotta say, I don’t know how serious he was about that, or whether it was just an opportunity to slam Kasich, but the idea of Ohio having a real urban agenda is something that excites me a lot. It’s hard to believe, urban leaders haven’t coalesced around some sort of urban platform in the past. All of its major cities except Columbus have been in some state of decline for decades. But in the past when I’ve inquired about this, I’ve come up empty. Ohio lawmakers spend so much time squabbling about abortion, they haven’t had time to come up with a comprehensive strategy to help Ohio’s cities from sliding further and further into the “most miserable” rankings de jour.

I think we should try to hold Pepper and at least our urban Democrat electeds to it.

I’m going to tick off some of my quick choices for best state policy improvements:

  • A fix-it-first policy for ODOT. Stop widening highways to save suburban commuters a few seconds and let’s fix what we’ve already built. While we’re at it, some real transit investment would be nice. It’d also be great if ODOT could figure out how to build roads in cities that won’t undermine the whole development potential and safety of the area.
  • Eliminate tax subsidies for companies that sprawl from cities to suburbs. This creates no actual value and undermines access to opportunity for vulnerable groups. Prioritize incentives for transit-accessible development.
  • Enable regional land use planning, so shrinking metros like Cleveland especially can try to get a handle on sprawl. This will save money on unnecessary infrastructure and also demolition.
  • Boost funding for brownfield remediation.
  • Preservation and potentially expansion of historic and low-income tax credits.

What do you think a real urban strategy for the state of Ohio would look like? Do me a favor and Tweet them at David Pepper, or your elected rep!

–Angie Schmitt

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The Last Days of the Idora Park Dance Hall

Idora Park was one of those local amusement parks all rust belt cities used to have before, you know, cars, highways, economic implosion. Now the 20-some acres that used to be a gathering place of Youngstown residents in the city’s heyday is an overgrown field. When I was working as a reporter in the city, some shady megachurch had brought the property and wanted to turn it into a “city of God,” with gold paved streets and everything. But they couldn’t seem to keep the tax bill paid.

This video remembers the city’s best years.

Cleveland is loaded with old dance halls too. Here they were generally segregated by ethnicity. The Beachland Ballroom is an old Croatian dance hall.

Why don’t we dance anymore — like get together for the purpose of dancing, well, unless you count twerking. That is a shame I think.

–A.S.

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Niagara Falls: Reversing decline in a bipolar city

My definition of bipolar urban areas are those that have two principal cities at their core but that have each taken nearly opposite paths socioeconomically. The two cities possess Jekyll-and-Hyde-like qualities–one being quite healthy and prosperous while the other suffering from poverty, economic distress, or environmental degradation. While every significant urban area has its areas of poverty, distress, and degradation, a bipolar region differs in the fact that one of two primary core communities is the site of concentrated problems.

Unfortunately, in some cases the socioeconomic differences can be so stark that it’s almost like a third-world city has developed directly adjacent to a first world city, even though in many cases they exist in the same country.

Here are some examples of bipolar urban areas in North America.

  • El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
  • Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas
  • Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada and Niagara Falls, New York
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey
  • St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, Michigan
  • St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois

A bipolar urban case study:

These stark differences can be easily observed by both the residents and the millions of tourists alike in the Niagara Falls region of New York and Ontario.

Source: vintagraph.com

The Niagara Falls region has been a tourist destination for many decades due to its awesome natural wonders–not just the waterfalls themselves, but the whirlpools, rainbows, nearby Great Lakes, and the impressive gorge below the falls. Combine those with numerous tourist attractions and historic sites and you have a recipe for long-term economic success on both sides of the border.

Source: postcardexchange.com

But Niagara Falls, New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario have followed two different paths since World War II and have ended up at nearly opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Niagara Falls, Ontario is a busy tourist destination with a pleasing mix of modern and stately hotels, gorgeous and carefully manicured parks and gardens, scenic parkways, lovely neighborhoods, and busy commercial centers. Granted, it can be argued that Ontario has the better overall view of the American and Canadian (Horseshoe) Falls, but that alone shouldn’t have led to such a vast and visible difference right across the river.

Source: niagara-falls-hotels-locator.com

For many years, parts of Niagara Falls, New York seemed virtually desolate compared to its vibrant Canadian neighbor. Instead of relying largely on tourism as Canada did, Niagara Falls, New York also used the enormous raw power generated by the falls to become an industrialized city. As a result, when those industries began to falter, the city declined in suit.

Niagara Falls, NY – Source: flickr.com

Downtown has seen a number of revitalization schemes put in place, some successful, others not. Much of the city’s breathtaking riverfront was marred by the limited access Robert Moses State Parkway, which also cut the city off from its source of fame and fortune. While the state parks abutting the falls remain busy, access to the heart of the city was impeded. Power plants and chemical plants were built (and in some cases abandoned) in the city, while electrical transmission and distribution lines crisscross the landscape.

Among the most heartbreaking legacies are the remnants of industrial indiscretions which have left visible scars —Love Canal being the most infamous. Niagara Falls, New York has never fully recovered from its industrial course and today remains a symbol of Rust Belt decay and dismay. The city’s population loss reflects this, as it has fallen from a high of 102,394 in 1960 to a mere 50,193 in 2010.

Niagara Falls, ON – Source: rosporkad.com

On the other hand, Niagara Falls, Ontario is simply a delight to visit. Beautifully landscaped parks and gardens, neat and trim neighborhoods, prosperous business and shopping districts, a growing and very impressive skyline for a city its size, well-maintained infrastructure, and a healthy and appealing ambiance all garner kudos. Each time I have visited Niagara Falls, Ontario I have been more impressed by the pride evoked by its citizens and business community. As a result, Niagara Falls, Ontario’s population has grown over the same decades, increasing from 22,874 in 1951 to 82,997 in 2011.

Are there ways to reverse the decline facing these urban Mr. Hydes without displacing those who have struggled to weather decades of socio-economic distress? Only time will tell. But, as urban planners, I believe part of our social, ethical, and moral responsibility is to seek viable solutions to such problems and do our level best to see them implemented.

Do I profess to have the solutions? Of course not; I would never be so vain. But I do know this–the status quo does not work. As Daniel Burnham so aptly said, “Make no little plans.”

In Niagara Falls, New York’s case, the first thing I would consider is demolishing and/or converting the limited access Robert Moses Parkway into a landscaped grade level boulevard with an adjacent but physically separated scenic bicycle trail overlooking the river and gorge. Apparently, I am not alone in the idea of removing the limited access highway. The multi-purpose bicycle trail would extend from one end of the city to the other and hopefully all the way to Lake Ontario.

Once the boulevard and bike trail have been established, a series of attractions could be developed along with a mix of low to mid-rise, ecologically friendly lodging and entertainment venues overlooking the lush surroundings. Linking these with attractions such as the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center and TrailheadProspect PointTerrapin PointCave of the WindsGoat Island, a proposed Nikola Tesla Science Museum in the world’s first hydroelectric plant, the planned restoration of the Niagara Gorge Rim, and the very successful ArtPark.

Most important would be to incorporate a variety of residential options along and near the boulevard/bike trail and provide direct walkable connections from downtown, existing residential areas, and other parks. The inclusion of residential options will assist in building a local client base for area businesses as well as provide new housing options within the city itself.

Unlike many cities facing difficult socioeconomic challenges, Niagara Falls, New York does have numerous great natural, scenic, ecological, and historical elements from which to build a strong economic base. It also has serious name recognition. From the list of existing and planned projects provided above, it is evident that they are working diligently to re-establish a thriving community. Kudos on their efforts to date and continued best wishes to Niagara Falls for the future.

— Rick Brown

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Checking in on the People Populating Lansing Michigan’s Growing Bread Line

It was 4:15 p.m. yesterday afternoon. Snowflakes were drifting down and there was already a line of 50 people waiting outside the North Lansing Police Precinct gymnasium in the February cold for food. Some of them had already been there more than an hour and the distribution was not set to start for another 90 minutes or so.  On this Friday night, we were not celebrating the bright lights of the gridiron, but instead trying to fulfill the basic needs of the less fortunate.

I had the distinct honor of unloading and distributing food items from the Greater Lansing Food Bank (link to annual report) to some of our neediest fellow citizens through their Food Movers program. For four hours, nine of us from my Unitarian Universalist Church covenant group unloaded trucks, set up tables, distributed food, and helped carry the selected items to the customer’s cars. We were among 25+/- volunteers, of all ages, assisting with a number of tasks from registration, to sorting, to distribution. The experience was both uplifting and quite sobering.

Last month, 73 recipients lined up for food on the third Friday evening of January amidst a snowstorm. Last night, more than 120 were lining the walls of the gymnasium to obtain their permitted allotment of food for the month.  At least 120 kind, hardy, and proud souls, each with their own story of why they were there. Foodstuffs were plentiful, but it would not be enough to supply everyone equally. Sorely lacking, were fresh fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile there was enough bread to open a chain of bakeries and more sweets and soft drinks than a nutritionist would likely recommend.

The first recipients whom I assisted were two neighbors who had arrived outside in line at 3:30 p.m. (distributions began at 6:00 pm). They were about fifth in line. A very sweet pair who enjoyed each other’s friendship and company. They were an absolute delight.

The third person I assisted stood in line for over two hours only to be told at the registration station that she did not qualify for receiving food because she had not registered at least 24 hours in advance. Needless to say, she was unhappy but resigned to the fact that she would have to wait until the March distribution.

If I were to have just one suggestion for improving this program, it would be to never, ever let someone leave empty-handed. Have individual bags of basic necessities held off to the side for such situations. Even though it was not my decision, I still felt heartsick, particularly since she had recently lost her home and had been living in a homeless shelter.

The fourth person I assisted was a very kind and proud older man with a big Russian-style winter hat on his head. He reminded me of the quintessential Norman Rockwell image of a caring and loving grandfather. Quiet, reserved, and resolute, he carefully chose each item for placement in his bags and baskets. He too had a arrived with a neighbor – a young man with special needs.

Next was an older woman and  her daughter. As I carried her basket she daintily gathered up the specific items she wanted. While you had the choice of numerous breads, she only took as many as she needed, leaving the balance of her allowed allotment for others with large families, who might need it more.

Lastly, I assisted a tall gentleman who had brought a plastic laundry basket to carry his food items. As he gathered up his goods, particularly canned vegetables and soups, the basket became so heavy that it took both of us to carry it out to his car in the parking lot.

All the people I assisted throughout the evening were grateful for the food, were extremely pleasant and enjoyable to talk with, and were thankful for our assistance and for the bounty of food that had been donated. Those of us who weekly cruise in and out of out neighborhood grocery store with carts full of goodies would do well to be more thankful for and cognizant of our bountiful blessings too.

I would highly recommend anyone with the time to consider volunteering to help distribute food for your local food bank. You will never take grocery shopping, and the bounty that is available to you, for granted ever again.

Rick Brown

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Doing laps around the “Circle City”

Source: flickr.com

My hometown of Indianapolis has been a logically designed community based on traditional geometric shapes ever since it’s designer Alexander Ralston first put pen to paper. Monument Circle (source of the ‘Circle City’ nickname) sits at the heart of the original mile square, with a radiating street pattern extending outward from there, though it becomes more grid-oriented in the midtown areas. Later, an outer loop (not circle) was created by Interstate 465 and a near perfect oval was constructed for high-speed excitement and adventure in the suburb of Speedway. Because of Monument Circle and the I-465 outer loop, the motor speedway was not the only place you could do laps in and around Indianapolis. You just could not do them at 230 miles per hour.

Ralston Plan - Source: ratioblog.com

As a young person, I found the grid layout rather boring compared to the winding streets elsewhere. For the longest time, Kessler Boulevard and Spring Mill Road were my two favorite streets because they had curves in them. In the end, I realized it was not the street pattern that bothered me, it was the lack of topographic change that was more of the problem. The big advantage of the city’s spatial form, you rarely if ever got lost.

Now that I have not lived in Indiana for many years, I find the city’s original spatial form to be inspired. However, the nickname of Circle City may have been co-opted by its rapidly growing neighbor to the north.

en.wikipedia.org

Today, if you want to do laps in metropolitan Indianapolis, the place to do them is in the burgeoning northern suburb of Carmel (2011 est. population of 85,000). The City of Carmel has the distinction of having more roundabouts than any other municipality in the United States – more than 80 built or planned at last count. By comparison, the suburb of Greater Lansing where I live has less than one hand’s worth. Compared to Carmel, we have only stuck our pinky toe into the whirling roundabout waters.

Because of Carmel’s documented leadership in roundabouts, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) held its third annual International Roundabout Conference there in 2011.

The advantages of roundabouts are numerous. A few of them are cited below, many of which are also included in a very useful brochure the city has published:

  • Roundabouts keep traffic flowing, which is much more energy efficient than stopping, idling, and starting at traffic signals.
  • Roundabouts force the vehicular traffic to slow down considerably at intersections which improves safety for pedestrians and cyclists and allows for freer movement of non-motorized traffic.
  • Despite the higher up-front construction cost,  roundabouts are much more cost effective over the long haul.
  • Repairs from accidents that occur in roundabouts are less costly.
  • Injuries suffered in accidents in roundabouts are less severe.
  • Roundabouts prevent head-on collisions.
  • Roundabouts are much more aesthetically pleasing, especially when landscaping and artwork are incorporated into the center island – a requirement in Carmel.

Roundabout on the western edge of downtown Carmel

Are roundabouts perfect for every intersection – of course not. Some intersection have insurmountable natural or manmade features. But as Carmel, Indiana has proven, they can be successfully employed in a variety of locations, even expressway exits (see photo above from the Keystone Parkway in Carmel). Kudos to Carmel, Indiana for being an innovative worldwide leader in roundabouts.

–Rick Brown

 

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