Thursday, May 28, 2009

Shifting Values, Shifting Behavior

By Greg Heller

This post continues the discussion about the balance between cars and people. As I mentioned previously, I am seeing a real shift in focus, with much more planning and concern for pedestrians and cyclists. This shift brings opportunities, but also challenges. Here is a Philly-local case in point.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has been out every day this week holding a safety education campaign. The location is the mid-block crosswalk that connects the Schuylkill River Park trail with the multi-use trail on the opposite side of Martin Luther King Drive. The impetus for this campaign was last week’s crash at this location that badly injured a father and son, out enjoying a bike ride.

Here’s the story: A law-abiding driver stopped to allow the father and four-year-old son take their bike over the crosswalk. However, another impatient driver in an SUV zoomed around the stopped car, and struck the pair as they reached the median island, knocking down the “pedestrian crossing” sign, and badly inuring the father and child.

This incident could be blamed on one unsafe driver. However, I have crossed at this and other mid-block crosswalks in Philadelphia many times, and drivers simply do not stop for pedestrians. I have seen firsthand that in other states drivers are extremely conscientious about yielding for pedestrians. I have been plenty of places in the U.S. where drivers slam on the breaks if a pedestrian even gets near the curb by a crosswalk. Many drivers in Pennsylvania are either unaware of the law or unwilling to abide by it.

And so I joined the Bicycle Coalition this morning. About a dozen Bicycle Ambassadors and Coalition members stood at least 20 feet from the crosswalk holding yield-to-pedestrians-within-crosswalk signs. The Coalition stationed some individuals about 100 feet away from the crosswalk, and others just near the crosswalk. They also positioned orange traffic cones on the shoulder and centerline to alert drivers.

Even with all of this activity, when pedestrians were waiting to cross, most drivers still cruised on through. So I tested something. I started waving and pointing at pedestrians when they were waiting. I noticed a significant increase in driver compliance when I did this; more drivers stopped when I motioned for them to glance toward the curb. This tells me that some drivers simply are not paying attention to the curb line – the possibility of a waiting pedestrian.

Another interesting phenomenon was that some pedestrians were hesitant to cross, even when traffic was completely stopped for them. It often took one of us telling the pedestrian “you may cross now,” before the individual took a step into the roadway. Pedestrians in Philadelphia are, sadly, so used to drivers not stopping for them, that they are caught totally unaware when drivers actually obey the law!

After the Bicycle Coalition members leave, I’m sure that the crosswalk will go back to its normal hazardous condition. So what can we do?

I have heard some folks say they think the City should install a pedestrian traffic signal at this location. Certainly there are plenty of other engineering solutions to make this crosswalk safer that do not include signalization (I know something about this since in my day job I am part of a three person team that carries out an annual traffic calming study). However, these types of interventions do not solve the larger issue. We can fix this location, but that would not change the Philadelphia region’s cultural ignorance to the yield to pedestrians law.

What we really need is a total commitment by the City and State to educating drivers about the law, while engineering the roadway to naturally slow traffic at crosswalk approaches, and have heightened enforcement of the law. Other states, regions, and cities have a different culture – one where it is common sense and the norm for drivers to stop for pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk. We should demand nothing less in Philadelphia.

We cannot engineer our way out of safety issues. Traffic calming literature is clear that safe roadways rely on a three-pronged approach: engineering, education, and enforcement. It was evident, standing out there this morning, that many people probably just do not know the law, are not used to complying with it, and do not often look out to the side of the road to see if pedestrians are waiting. Better roadway engineering needs to be coupled with a massive public education campaign, and periodic enforcement by the police.

Public education needs to come from the top. It is great that the Bicycle Coalition is taking this initiative, but ultimately educating drivers is the job of the police and the Department of Transportation. Car drivers do not deserve all the blame. Philadelphia’s cyclists are notoriously bad at following the law – often running red lights, swerving between cars, riding on the sidewalk, or riding the wrong way down one-way streets. We need better education and enforcement across the board if we want to bring true change to Philadelphia and to Pennsylvania.

We can alter the status quo. As our nation begins its shift to valuing pedestrians and cyclists, we also need to shift our behavior, values, and expectations. These shifts will come, but it needs to come from the top and from the grassroots at the same time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cars and People

Source: New York Times

By Greg

As you have probably heard by now, in New York City, part of Times Square is now pedestrian-only. According to the New York Times’s “Wheels” blog, the impact on traffic during the weekend and during rush hour has been just fine (“how would such a change in the heart of Manhattan affect weekday rush hour? / Not too much, actually.”) The Big Apple has defied the notion that pedestrian zones only work in Europe, and created a wonderful space for people in the heart of America’s largest city.

Meanwhile, the New York Times also recently profiled Vauban, the “car free” suburb of Freiburg, Germany. Seventy percent of the town’s families do not own cars, and cars are not allowed on most streets. I remember when I lived in the city of Regensburg, Germany, cars were practically not allowed anywhere in the old city. Vauban gets attention because it was designed deliberately as a car-free community, but plenty of European cities have significant car-free cores. I was recently in Galway, Ireland where there is a smaller, but still bustling car-free downtown area.

In the U.S., most Americans are still very attached to their cars. A dialogue hosted by the Times makes this point abundantly clear. This dialogue featured some major urbanist voices, such as Chris Leinberger and Witold Rybczynski. However, I was more interested in the readers’ comments. Some readers explained their success living car-free. Others explained how miserable it was trying to live carless. There are the typical car-loving commentators, for whom cars represent freedom. Then there are those who argue the utter impossibility of shopping, transporting a child or “a large sick dog” without use of a car.

I wrote previously about the notion of freedom of mobility. We rely on enormous government funding to build and maintain our road and highway network. We currently lack sufficient funding to keep it maintained. Studies show that oftentimes adding roadway capacity worsens congestion. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on our highways on a daily basis (or so my radio tells me), and a breakdown can entirely throw off one’s scheduled arrival. Not to mention the costs of owning a car, insurance, parking…

The fact is, a car only represents freedom for people who can afford its enormous costs, where there is an extensive and well maintained road network, and where there is no more than minor congestion. Otherwise, cars represent entrapment. It traps people who need a car to make every little errand, who sit for hours in traffic each day, who spend more money on transportation than dwelling, who are children, seniors, or the disabled and cannot drive.

Likewise, freedom without a car only occurs in places that are walkable, bikeable, and that have decent mass transit. The difference is that the latter scenario is much more cost effective, equitable, and healthy. As many people have written about, the American love of the car is cultural and nostalgic more than it is based in the contemporary reality of auto mobility and our nation’s fiscal ability to maintain our transportation systems.

In Germany my friends and neighbors walked to the grocery store, bought their fresh groceries, then walked home with them. In high school, when I did a summer exchange in Germany, I took the public bus forty minutes to school each day. It ran frequently. On the weekends there were special buses that took teenagers, like myself, to and from the nightclubs. I lived in a town of fewer than 8,000 people, but I had total freedom of mobility!

Much of this kind of thinking will require a cultural change. Nine out of ten Americans own a car, and people like myself who don’t own one may still feel like social outcasts in much of the U.S. However, I think we are at the beginning of a shift in cultural values. Foremost is President Obama’s commitment to high-speed rail. However, at the grassroots level I am seeing a shift, too. American cities are really trying to design spaces for the pedestrian, and value bikes and walkers on their streets. In the suburbs I am also seeing a shift to a more pedestrian-oriented mindset.

However, as we build more for the pedestrian, there is an important education component that has to go along with this shift. Last week in Philadelphia a father and son were badly injured by a car that hit them while they were in a well-marked, well-signed crosswalk in broad daylight. In cities like Philadelphia that have historically valued the automobile, drivers are less aware or respectful of the law.

So, in closing, for all of you Pennsylvanians out there, the law says that drivers must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, whether it is at an intersection or not. That means drivers must stop when they see a pedestrian crossing.

In any case, I do not want to end on that negative note. How about this: It’s a beautiful day, go out and take a walk or a nice bike ride!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A good idea long overdue...

By Ariel

Senators Rockefeller (D-WV) and Lautenberg (D-NJ) recently introduced legislation that would provide concrete goals to the next round of Transportation Funding. As this article in the Washington Post notes:
"the Senate legislation decrees that the plan must reduce per capita motor vehicle miles traveled on an annual basis, reduce national surface transportation-generated carbon dioxide levels by 40 percent by 2030, and increase the proportion of national freight provided by means other than trucks by 10 percent by 2020"
Not only does this prioritize transit funding, it also provides a measure against which funding can be measured and it implicitly prioritizes the funding of transit in mega regions.

Even more exiting is an article examining a hand written note leaked to the press that outlines Secretary of Transportation LaHood's vision for the new transportation bill. It notes that "The two-page outline offers a glimpse of Oberstar's vision for what he has repeatedly called a "transformational" authorization proposal that is expected to be unveiled in late May or early June.
Under the heading "the future of transportation," the framework seeks to create a new undersecretary or assistant secretary for intermodalism that would meet monthly with all modal administrators. The outline includes the phrases "national strategic plan" and "mega-projects" in the list of agencies that would take part in the monthly meetings
It also includes a consolidation of DOT's 108 programs into four "major formula programs": critical asset preservation, highway safety improvement, surface transportation program, and congestion mitigation and air quality improvement. The "surface transportation program" section suggests that metropolitan planning organizations receive suballocations based on population."

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Real Value of Historic Preservation

By Ariel

In 1964 Pennsylvania Station was demolished to make room for the construction of Madison Square Garden. Its destruction was the impetus for the birth of the modern Historic Preservation movement. Despite the fact that this movement gave birth to The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Register of Historic Places with over 80,000 buildings on its rolls, and despite the fact that the federal government has spent over $37 million since 1970 to help preserve these buildings, it is one that is constantly trying to justify its existence and worth.

Earlier, in 1961 Jane Jacobs gave one of the first economic arguments for historic preservation. Jacobs noted that old (though not necessarily historic) buildings are important to cities because their rents are cheaper and they provide an opportunity for what we now call urban pioneers to set up artist lofts and new shops or restaurants.

Today Historic Preservationists argue, and rightly so, that historic buildings are more sustainable. Their mantra “the most sustainable building is one you do not tear down,” alludes to the amount of energy (and the carbon footprint) required for new construction. Old buildings are generally also far more well built, they are cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and are the evolution of centuries of human adaptation to their environment.

The problem with these two arguments, and almost any other argument, is that they are what scholars call apologia. Apologias are rhetorical defenses and justifications of positions taken by classical writers in ancient Greece. The problem with these arguments is that they require a larger consensus to already agree with them in order for them to carry any weight. It is very hard to convince a developer or a public official to ignore today’s bottom line for tomorrow’s benefits, ones that they themselves won’t reap.

The problem is one of values; historic preservationists value a place’s past, while many developers (not all) only value a good rate of return, and public officials value a ribbon cutting. Against such forces Preservationists and their allies bemoan their perceived position of weakness. However, nothing could be further from the truth; Preservationists must realize that their value lies in “Values.”

What does that mean?

Last Friday (May 15, 2009) the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia hosted A Sense of Place: Preserving Philadelphia Neighborhoods. A Sense of Place brought community developers and community activists together to discuss, through a series of panels from “Religious Properties as Community Assets” to “Affordable Housing and Preservation,” how historic preservation can bring benefits their communities. The keynote speaker was Patsy Fletcher, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Historic Preservation Office in the District of Columbia Office of Planning. Mrs. Fletcher noted that all too often when historic places or neighborhoods get listed on a register of historic places, “official” historians with doctorates come and tell a neighborhood what is historic and of value, as opposed to listening to the community and their own home-grown historians who understand what the residents value as historical.

What Fletcher gets, and what more and more people need to get, is that historic buildings and a neighborhood’s history are the repository of a community’s values. Our desire to preserve old buildings has little do with how much energy they save, or how important they are for urban revitalization, but rests solely on our attachment to them as the building blocks of identity for a community.

So how do we use that as the basis for an argument for preservation that trumps any specific rate of return a developer tries to make, or how we make laws that govern and shape development in a city? Well, for that you we need to take a short digression into budgeting and management.

Any given organization has an operating budget and a capital budget. Operating budgets are the things that pay for electricity and paper clips. But they also pay for luncheons and conferences. What a good manager understands is that the soft costs of operations, the ability for people to get together, share ideas, are just as important as keeping the lights on.

Historic Preservation is or should be part of the “programmatic budget” of any community. To preserve old buildings, to create historic districts, communities have to get together and talk about what they value and what their community means to them. The act of historic preservation forces neighborhoods to come together and talk about values. In an age of declining social cohesion (as documented by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone) there can be nothing more important.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Philadelphia Controller Forum

Two groups I work with, Young Involved Philadelphia and Washington Square West Civic Association are two of the three groups co-hosting a forum tomorrow night (Thursday May 14th) to meet the candidates in the Philadelphia Controller's race. The City Controller — the city's chief auditor — is one of the most important local offices that Philadelphians elect. If you are undecided, want to learn more about the candidates, or just want to see them in action, please come out tomorrow night!

Controller's Forum: Meet the Candidates

Times are tough. Money is tight. So who is keeping an eye on our tax dollars?

The City Controller's job is to make sure that the City is not wasting our money, while engaging communities and recommending ways the City can make more effective use of our tax dollars. Especially in this economy, the City Controller's job is pretty important, and this year's primary election is highly contested.

YIP is hosting a forum where you can meet the candidates, hear their ideas, and get your questions answered. We hope that you can join us, but either way - don't forget to vote on May 19th.

Date: Thursday May 14
Time: 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM
Location: The Union League - South Marble Room
(use the 15th Street entrance)
**Join us for drinks at Time afterwards
**Dress is business casual
**Hosted by Young Involved Philadelphia, Center City Residents' Association, and Washington Square West Civic Association

Monday, May 11, 2009

Preservation and Sustainability

Memorial Hall under renovation

May is National Preservation Month, and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia held its annual Preservation Achievement Awards luncheon today at the beautiful (and historic) Park Hyatt at the Bellevue. Mayor Michael Nutter gave a brief speech, in which he proclaimed that the greenest buildings are the ones that are already built. He noted that this is a common theme of his sustainability coordinator Mark Allan Hughes (and I note it is also a theme of the National Trust for Historic Preservation).

At the luncheon, the Please Touch Museum was honored for its $88 million restoration of Memorial Hall, the monumental historic structure remaining from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition – America’s first true world’s fair. However, the children’s museum’s President and CEO, Nancy Kolb, noted that the museum is currently fighting to achieve LEED certification. How could the reuse of an existing building have any trouble getting certified as a green building? It seems counter intuitive, and yet this is a very real issue.

Ironically, the cities most associated with sustainability, like Portland and Seattle, have mostly new construction. It is possible that cities like Philadelphia with a largely historic building stock have the potential for a more sustainable built environment. However, too often we do not make the link between historic preservation and sustainability. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Position on Sustainability:

“Many historic and older buildings are remarkably energy efficient because of their site sensitivity, quality of construction, and use of passive heating and cooling, while other buildings require improvements to reduce their environmental footprint. Historic buildings can go green without compromising historic character.”

There are plenty of folks out there already making the nexus between historic preservation and green building. It is a natural and obvious connection, and one that I hope will grow as we begin to realize that many of our older cities are actually our most sustainable.

Of course, the best of both worlds is having a historic structure additionally outfitted for maximizing energy efficiency. Good news! There is legislation before the U.S. Congress, as we speak, that would provide funds to tackle this very issue.

The Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance Program Act (H.R. 1778), sponsored by Rep. Peter Walsh (D–VT), would provide $2.5 billion to states to support retrofitting existing homes and commercial buildings for energy efficiency. The bill is not just for historic structures, funding up to 50% of the cost of retrofitting any home or commercial building.

However, properties that are listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places qualify for 120% of the standard benefits. This act would create significant new funding for retrofitting newer homes for energy efficiency, and also for retrofitting historic structures – making possible a true nexus between historic preservation and energy efficiency.

This act would be a step forward in tackling the impact of buildings on our nation’s energy usage. As the bill notes, “Buildings are responsible for 39 percent of all energy consumption, 72 percent of all electricity consumption, and 55 percent of natural gas use in the United States.” In addition, it is a very real acknowledgement of the benefits of historic preservation, providing resources to make our sustainable historic properties even more so.

So go out there and appreciate the historic resources that we have in our communities. They create our nation’s beloved places and reflect the events, people, and ideas that shaped our past. In addition, remember that a commitment to historic preservation is also a commitment to an energy efficient and sustainable future. By saving our past, we win in the future.

Happy National Preservation Month 2009!

Friday, May 8, 2009

36 Hours in Philadelphia

I know my posts are often Philly-centric, but Troy can always balance me out with some commentary from Texas. In any case, check out The New York Times, where Sunday's travel section features "36 Hours in Philadelphia."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Philadelphia 2040: Neighborhood Choice

Philadelphia is in the midst of an urban planning renaissance. I say this not simply because we are currently revisiting a zoning code that was drafted in the ’60s, and I say it not simply because we have a new, energetic Executive Director of the Planning Commission (Alan Greenberger), or a Mayor who wants to “reestablish the Planning Commission as the nation’s preeminent city planning agency.” Nor is this because the City is gearing up to create a new comprehensive plan, done last in the ’60s as well, and has initiated a project called Imagine Philadelphia. I say this because I have seen Philadelphians pack local bars to listen to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (my, what Geeks we are!) and because I have sat in auditoriums filled with friends and neighbors eager to learn more about sustainability, and I have seen neighborhoods turn out to reclaim their street from cars, and plant trees.

Recently graduate students in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design were tasked with creating three distinct “Vision Plans” for Philadelphia. “Vision Plans” such as the Civic Vision for the Delaware Riverfront, paint a broad picture for what the future of a city could look like. Unlike Comprehensive Plans, or Neighborhood Plans, they deal with larger more comprehensive moves, and do not focus on those small or parcel specific details that are the hallmarks of other plans. Vision Plans, such as the ones developed by the UPenn students (full disclosure, I am one of said students) are particularly timely; they can provide the goals, values, and well, vision, that could guide the Zoning Code Commission and the Imagine Philadelphia’s work.

Some vision plans like Penn Praxis’s aforementioned ‘Civic Vision’ look to the near future, and others, such as the ones drafted by the planning students, look a bit further out (2040). These graduate students were split into three groups, and tasked with creating a vision for Philadelphia thirty years hence. They were asked to imagine a Philadelphia in 2040 that was a global city. They were asked to imagine a Philadelphia in 2040 that was “Green” and “Mobile.” And they were asked to imagine a Philadelphia in 2040 that was a city of thriving, healthy neighborhoods.

You can explore the “Neighborhoods” plan here.

None of these visions, a city of neighborhoods, a green and mobile, or a global city, are mutually exclusive. What is ultimately important is that Philadelphians remain engaged in these broader efforts, create together their own vision for Philadelphia and work together to make it happen.