Tag Archives: transit

Repurposing “streets with no name”

Source: flickr.com

In a number of cities, there are certain derelict streets that are nearly denuded of dwellings or businesses. Desolate and forlorn, these streets resemble something out of a post war apocalypse. Detroit may be the poster child du jour of such stark and sad emptiness, but there are many other examples across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. What to do with neglected streets has long been a source of planning discussion and conjecture. In some instances entire abandoned neighborhoods have or are being converted to urban agriculture or community gardens. However, this avid bicycle commuter has another suggestion for a few of these lowly streets without names – repurpose them to active transportation byways.

Quite often bicycle routes consist of abandoned railroad corridors, canal towpaths, or shared lanes in a sea of motor vehicles. I, like many other cyclists, am not necessarily enamored with having to pedal cheek-to-cheek with four-wheeled motorized metal missiles. Seems no matter the efforts to stave off accidents and injury, the metal missiles will always win the contest. The other problem is that there are a finite number of old railroad or canal corridors to choose from, so many populations go un or underserved.

Hence, if a street is already underutilized and virtually desolate, then why not just finish the job? Why not consider purchasing or re-accessing those land uses that have currently sole access to the particular street and then repurpose the entire street into an active transportation byway serving bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, roller-bladers, Segway users, and others?

In certain instances, “streets with no name” could be converted to mass transit corridors akin to busways. Needless to say, not every desolate street or remnant neighborhood would be appropriate for such a transformation, but I would be willing to bet that in certain cities and in certain locations, there are some excellent opportunities just waiting for foresighted leaders to actively pursue this idea.

Source: flickr.com

Converting an existing street would also seem to be an easier/effective/efficient/economical way to expand a city’s active transportation infrastructure rather than wholly design, acquire, and build a completely new route. Given the extent of economic decline that would precipitate a “street with no name,” it would be hard to imagine any land acquisition costs being a significant impediment. Lastly, necessary public utilities along the byway along the could remain accessible for care, maintenance, and serve the revitalized

areas.

The short-term goals of establishing active transportation byways are to:

· enhance the city’s and region’s active transportation resources;

· reduce the city’s and region’s carbon footprint;

· improve overall community health and fitness;

· reinvigorate the sense of place;

· to rebuild community pride; and

· infuse economic energy and cultural vibe.

Source: phillyrecord.com

In the longer-term, the goal of such a repurposing enterprise would be to effectively stymy and then to reverse the decline found along these desolated streets and their adjoining neighborhoods by utilizing active transportation corridors as the conduit.

Am I missing or overlooking something here? Any thoughts or feedback on these ideas would be appreciated.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under architecture, Art, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Public Transportation, Real Estate, the environment, Urban Farming, Urban Planning

Cities…they’re like Happy Hour

Editor’s note: This post comes from contributor Lewis Lehe, and contains his trademark blend of straightforward economics and quirky humor. -KG

A question for the ages
Today I posed a seemingly obvious question to myself: Why do we care about saving the cities we live in?

Some of us care about carbon emissions, but people were concerned about cities before we knew about climate change. I like living in the city because I would rather spend an hour reading my Kindle on a bus than sit twenty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, but that doesn’t explain why I want other people to live in Pittsburgh with me. In fact, the more people, the more traffic.

One obvious answer is that cities are full of people, and people care about people. But the death of a city often means people simply moving to other cities. Why do I care about tipping people’s decisions towards living in Pittsburgh, where I happen to want to live? (The exception is when a city dies because Godzilla attacks it.)

A blinding insight
The real reason we care about dying cities, I believe, resembles the reason our coworkers ‘huphs’ if Kate or I skips happy hour. Partly, it’s because Kate and I are interesting, smartly-dressed, and fabulously wealthy; and to be seen with us confers a kind of status…a discerned worldliness typically obtained only by the possession of a rare violin or Oscar invitation. You could say our presence is “de rigueur.” But mainly it’s because happy hour is only happy with lots of people. If you see someone downing five beers alone at happy hour, they’re unhappy no matter how cheap the Iron City (or Great Lakes Elliot Ness) is.

Just like how happy hour requires a group to be fun, businesses require a critical mass of customers to earn profits. Try finding a gay bar in rural California, and you’ll have a hard time, not because it lacks gays or because the place is stiflingly intolerant, but rather because the population is so sparse that there are not enough gay people near any one spot to sustain a gay bar. That’s why there might be more (underground) gay bars in homophobic Tehran (population 7.8 million) than in San Francisco (population 815,000).

Living in a dense, populous place means there are critical masses for more types of businesses. I only eat Ethiopian food like once per year. I doubt most Pittsburghers eat it even one third that often. But there are enough of us that our occasional trips make the restaurant Abay viable year round. This gives me a really neat experience occasionally, and it’s a godsend for those who eat Ethiopian weekly. It’s usually the people, not the specific buildings, that make a place. This is why, time and time again, residents of Tokyo have rebuilt their tiny cardboard skyscrapers in the wake of a Godzilla attack.

The idea of the critical mass is related to an economy of scale. Restaurants, bars, museums, and even concerts have high fixed costs, and, to a point, low variable costs, so they need enough customers that the average revenue per customer exceeds the average cost per customer.

Usually we hear about economies of scale with giant factories, and that’s a useful analogy in a way: just like economies of scale make more experiences available, they can also make our experiences into better values. Bus fares would be way cheaper if more people lived in the areas where my bus runs. My commute from Shadyside to South Side Works is a pretty fixed cost–one bus, one driver, one insurance policy, etc. So if twenty people rode the bus with me, we could each pay one dollar instead of two. Some buses, such as those on the East Busway, run at capacity in the morning, so it might seem like adding more riders would not lower costs, since the cost can’t be diluted any further. But more riders would mean more buses running, and more buses running means more frequent trips…or even express buses that make fewer stops but go faster.

To summarize, living next to other people gives us more options and makes some of our options cheaper. That is why we want people to live in cities with us. When they move away, they erode the critical masses, and it’s as if we ourselves moved a little farther out into the country.

A bold vision
I think it’s important to define why we want people to live in cities with us in selfish terms like I have above, because young urbanists are sometimes characterized as do-gooders…as though we want people to live in cities because (a) we know what’s good for them or (b) we hate the crass materialism of suburbia. But actually, deep down, I think some of us want other people to live next to us because (a) we know what’s good for us and (b) we want to have more nice things for less money. In the American political landscape, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you’re fighting openly for your own interest. (I also think that, in the climate change debate, an underrated argument is “I bought all this beachfront property and I don’t care about those coal miners if it means I lose money.”)

A new moral code
Finally, considering the scale economies behind the curtain of urban living casts many supposedly community-spirited actions in a different light. If you organize to stop a condo development in Squirrel Hill, then you’ve made my life in Shadyside worse: those condo-dwellers might have given the East End the critical mass needed for a sorely needed cheap southern restaurant…or an extra bus route. When people rally to stop new development, they presume a new building is the only thing we’re missing out on. They should actually feel they are snatching newer and cheaper experiences from residents citywide.

-Lewis Lehe

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What is Congestion Pricing? Is it Fair?

Take a look at these two quirky videos about congestion pricing by Lewis Lehe:

How do you price a road? Half res from Lewis on Vimeo.

Is congestion pricing fair? from Lewis on Vimeo.

“This series began as half of my senior thesis, which answered why it’s hard to visually show certain modes of economic thinking,” Lewis explained.

“I chose congestion pricing as an example, because it’s a policy that economists support and voters oppose, and because I care about transportation. By January, I’ll have finished a website with about six animations, links, interview clips, and FAQ’s about congestion pricing.

I’ve tried to make the material watchable by mixing the argument with surreal elements. Feel free to comment with any praise or encouragement. In ‘Is congestion pricing fair?’ there is a false ending.”

A bit of background about congestion pricing from Lewis: “Congestion pricing is close to free lunch. It raises money, lowers congestion, and improves efficiency (by letting individuals monetize their time). In the next ten years, many cities and counties will resort to congestion pricing, because (1) congestion is worsening, (2) infrastructure is collapsing, and (3) municipal pension plans are going totally broke. The biggest problem with congestion pricing is equity, but I am confident we can resolve it by using revenues wisely,” he believes.

About Lewis in his own words:
“After growing up in Birmingham, Alabama (‘the Pittsburgh of the South’), I studied math/econ at University of Pittsburgh, because I lose power if I go too far from an abandoned steel mill. Now I make charts and graphs for the steel industry. I learned After Effects partly at La FUC in Buenos Aires but mainly from online tutorials as I made this series. I get my equipment from Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I have been making movies for 7 years. My Dad is an urban/environmental planner.”

I like how these videos are funny and make a complex economic and transportation topic more understandable. What do you think?

-KG

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How Developers and Lobbyists Shape Transportation Funding

Spend a few minutes looking at this report from The Center for Public Integrity.

The study details how unfocused policy can lead to lots of goodies for special interest groups, especially developers.

From the report: “Virtually all players agree there is no coordinated vision in setting priorities for federal transportation projects. That vacuum has led to a tidal wave of earmarks by Congress. Quite naturally real estate developers and other interests make great efforts to influence which projects get funded. As a group, more than 100 real estate development interests – including both firms and local authorities—spent roughly $5.5 million on federal transportation lobbying in 2009 for projects ranging from rail investments to new interstate exits, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of lobbying disclosure records.”

-KG

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