Tuesday, June 30, 2009

More Food Access


By Greg

I want to continue my food access discussion by mentioning that some folks have been working on the issue of developing designs for urban markets that can be community assets and anchors. The Community Design Collaborative's Infill Philadelphia initiative focused on this topic, and exhibited designs back in February. They included a prototype for the new Weaver's Way store in West Oak Lane, a community food co-op in Chester, and a supermarket in Brewerytown.

This project was supported by some of the same folks who are running the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, showing an awareness of the intersection of these issues — food access and community development. However, awareness is not enough. The City needs to take proactive steps to ensure that through incentives, regulations, zoning, design guidelines, and/or public education that the next wave of urban markets look more like the renderings in the Infill Philadelphia document than the stores that have been built on the ground.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Picking our readers' brains.

By Ariel

Folks, I know you read this, some of you for some reason read us again and again (and we thank you for it). Generally we are content to do the research and thinking for you, but today I hope you can help us.

For some time I have had a theory that the general population explosion in the South could not have been made possible without the creation of the air-conditioning unit. Recently, while in South Carolina, I made that assertion in mixed company. By mixed company I mean I was the only Yankee amidst an assortment of Southerners... So now I want to test my theory. While it should be fairly easy to track Southern demographic growth via the census, figuring out how to track the spread of air conditioning in the south is a bit harder. Any suggestions? Or comments? (I am sure the massive electrification of the south also had something to do with it as well, though I would welcome any sources on that as well, aside from Robert Caro's biography of Johnson)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Food Access, Meet Community Development

Carrot image source
, House image source

By Greg

I received a lot of interest via email regarding my recent post on local food. One thing I neglected to do in my previous post was to put in a good word for the Greenworks Philadelphia plan, which includes this target goal: “Bring local food within 10 minutes of 75% of residents.” I look forward to seeing Philadelphia’s strategies for reaching this goal.

One of the programs that will probably help the city along is the state-wide Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (PFFI). This program was recently featured in The New York Times, profiling the new ShopRite in the West Philadelphia Parkside neighborhood. This financing program is extremely valuable in helping to make urban stores feasible. However, while the Parkside supermarket fulfills a valuable need in the community, I would argue that in another way it is far less successful — even damaging to other important goals.

The Times article profiled residents who walk to the new supermarket, but what the Times does not explain is that there are precious few people who can do this. The new supermarket is not an urban store in any sense of the word. It is a stand-alone, suburban-style structure in the middle of a brand new strip mall, surrounded by a sea of parking. Only a few dozen homes are within reasonable walking distance of the store, and even then residents have to walk through a gigantic parking lot.

Here's a view of the new Parkside shopping center:


And here is what the surrounding neighborhood looks like:

Many of these new supermarkets in Philadelphia are mainly accessible by car, and require a huge amount of space, designed at a scale that makes sense in the suburbs, but that is not appropriate for dense, urban communities. The stores are not very transit accessible, and do not contribute to uplifting older, struggling, commercial corridors. These supermarkets are physically in neighborhoods, but not part of communities.

Often in Philadelphia we seem to be satisfied to take what we can get — especially for poorer communities — rather than pushing for excellence. In the same article, the Times discusses New York City’s proposed zoning changes to include incentives for developers to integrate supermarkets in their mixed-use projects, and to reduce the parking requirements for urban supermarkets. At the same time New York is implementing its own food access financing program.

While New York is taking steps focusing on both local food access and making sure that new stores are seamless contributors to community vitality, Philadelphia has only gotten half of the equation right. Sure, we can argue that local food access is ultimately more important, and we should appreciate how far we have come. We can argue that Philly does not have the development market of New York; Supermarkets are certainly difficult to finance and sustain.

These are very real issues. However, I think we can do better if just set our mind to it.

Not too far from Parkside is the Fresh Grocer by the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. This supermarket got it all right: urban, walkable, built right up to the street edge, integrated into the surrounding area, parking stored in an upper-level garage. While the area around the Parkside supermarket is barren, the area around the Fresh Grocer is vibrant and booming. There are other examples of successful urban-style supermarkets in Philadelphia, such as a Trader Joe's in the ground floor of an apartment building at 22nd and Market, and the urban-style WholeFoods and SuperFresh on South Street.

Just because a neighborhood is poor, does not mean that it should have to settle for a half-baked supermarket. We should find the resources, the political will, and the incentives to bring supermarkets within close proximity to every community, and ensure that those stores can be positive contributors to community revitalization. These new stores should be a stimulus for reviving commercial corridors, and should be built for residents who rely on walking and transit. If built right, a supermarket can provide local food access and also act as a positive force for reviving communities.

Too often in urban policy we tend to separate issues, and then frame them as if they were in conflict with each other. If we want to provide both supermarkets and generators for community revitalization, then Philadelphia needs to set the bar higher, make new policies, and work harder to truly give our neighborhoods the resources they need for a healthy and prosperous future.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bike Art

The Moore College of Art has a new art exhibit devoted to Bicycles. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Light Reading about Heavy Matters

By Ariel

Recently a bunch of interesting articles have crossed my path that I thought I would share for a variety of reasons; the article on Philadelphia, Panama and Shipping will appeal to those of you who, like Heller and me, are obsessed with all things Philadelphia while the article on Paris should appeal to a few more of you.

I suppose I should no longer be surprised that Philebrity brings in some interesting news for the dorks in all of us (it does a surprisingly good job on politics big and small around Philly). However I have to thank them for finding the following article about a shipping agreement between Philadelphia Ports and Panama. This is big news. Rendell clashed publicly with Corzine across the river (and with tons of environmentalists and other skeptics) to dredge the bottom of the Delaware to widen it by some five feet. Philadelphia has historically thrived when its ports have, as an Economy League report notes.

Philadelphia’s ports rank sixth in the U.S. in imported cargo value and 22nd in export value. The Delaware River ports employ 4,056 workers who earn $326 million and generate $1.3 billion in economic output annually.

Port activity in Greater Philadelphia supports 12,121 jobs, creates $772 million in income and generates $2.4 billion in economic output annually.

But Philadelphia’s ports are relatively shallow for modern container shipping. The deal reported in the JOC suggests that Philadelphia Ports are proactively taking advantage of this upcoming new depth.

I am skeptical that the added benefit of this dredging (and this added volume of shipping signaled by this deal) will out weight not only the environmental damage done by the dredging, but what the $379 million could have been spent on instead. While talks of “missed opportunity costs” are not always applicable in big projects such as these (that amount of money would never be spent on housing for instance, unfortunately), one really can only hope that this deal brings in lots of ships if only to justify all the work Rendell put into getting the dredging.

In other news, one more bone for me to pick with the French; they turn to architects to re-imagine their city, in this piece in the NYT Magazine. While architects are indeed great at “visioning.” etc., many of their answers to Paris’s plans smack of physical determinism and the idea that great buildings will lift the smallest soul. This is not to say that great architecture can’t do great things, its just that the plans covered here seem to ignore market realities or are just too theatrical in concept. It could very easily be that I am full of professional jealousy that architects and not planners are planning Paris, and I would love to have such grand visions for Philly be as seriously considered here as they are there.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Operational Sustainability


By Ariel

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has made a concerted effort to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America. Early in his administration he established the Mayor's Office of Sustainability, hired a Bike-Ped Coordinator and has increased recycling frequency in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, and recycling opportunities in the central business district.

In April of 2009, the Mayor and his Office of Sustainability announced a Greenworks, “sustainability plan” for Philadelphia, one that targets the City’s own energy consumption, the promotion of mass transit and bicycling and “green” jobs and infrastructure. While Greenworks outlines a variety of large institutional changes from how the city monitors and pays for its energy to how disposes of waste, there remains opportunities for further “sustainable reform.” More importantly there are opportunities for making sustainable operational, part of everyday municipal functions.

The West Coast has long been a pioneer in sustainable practices and they are often praised for such larger initiatives as urban growth boundaries or new transit lines. However their efforts have also targeted less ambitious municipal practices; since the 1990’s cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle and San Fransisco have used goats to manage over grown vegetation in vacant lots and landfills. Goat aided vegetation management has the ability to both boost “green jobs,” save the city money and reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

Goats were first used in Los Angeles in the early 90s as an “effective tool for clearing underbrush on fire-prone hillsides” (McDonald). Not only did Sierra Nevada and Oakland quickly adopt this practice, but other departments within Los Angeles, adopted them the use of goats. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (LA CRA) began using goats to clear vacant lots and “won't collect a pension or charge for working overtime and won't call in sick” (Pool).

Today private land owners use goats to clear lots as well, and its not just large property owners such as Google who used over 200 goats to mow their 26 acres of property in Mountain View California. Small contractors such as John Iwanczuk of Seattle use goats on sites a as small as a quarter acre. In an article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer Iwanczuk related that he was
“faced with a steep quarter-acre lot on Dearborn Street covered with impenetrable brush. He figured it would take a crew at least a week to clear the lot, filling eight to10 trucks with waste. Four days and 60 goats later, the blackberry vines and Scotch broom were gone, and Iwanczuk had risen to neighborhood hero status. Elementary school groups came to watch and pet the goats as they dozed on the sidewalk. Moms brought freshly baked cookies. Local gardeners lusting for free fertilizer scooped the lot clean of droppings. Iwanczuk estimates he saved $6,000 to $9,000 on the job.”
Google, the LA CRA and Iwanczuk all hired goats from what are essentially professional goatherds, such as Goat Trimmers or California Grazing who for a fee transport a herd of goats and manage their consumption of thistles, shrubs and weeds. It is a practice that “Redevelopment agency head Cecilia Estolano said the goats were being rented for $3,000. The cost of hiring workmen to clear the 2 1/2 -acre hillside would have totaled as much as $7,500” (Pool). With savings ranging anywhere from $4,500–$9000 it is clear that their use could provide serious cost efficiencies to Philadelphia’s land management operations.

While the project has significant potential, there are serious questions that would shape its implementation in the City of Philadelphia. Any analysis of the use of goats in land management must analyze a variety of issues such as
  • The portfolio of land used by Philadelphia, where would the use of goats be most appropriate, in vacant lots, at the Philadelphia International Airport or in Fairmount Park

  • The management issues associated with the use of goats, their care, transportation and waste removal

  • The actual cost savings associated with their use
Goat aided vegetation management has the ability to both boost “green jobs,” save the city money and reduce the city’s carbon footprint. With such a large municipal commitment to sustainability, one that is evidenced at all political levels, it is time to see if such practices can be put to use here in Philadelphia.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What’s a Henweigh?

Source: Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia

By Greg

As most of my friends know, my father and his partner, Nancy, keep a flock of chickens in their backyard in Springfield Township, just outside the Philadelphia city limits. Not only do they keep chickens, but they run a chicken owners’ co-op called Chicken Owners Outside Philadelphia (COOP). Yesterday, Nancy, the chickens, and COOP were featured in Philadelphia CityPaper, in Bruce Schimmel’s column. Check it out!

So what do suburban chickens have to do with the future of urban America? As the CityPaper article touts, “in this little hamlet just outside Chestnut Hill, suburbia is slowly reverting to rural.” The COOP website lists 30 active members within this small community. On Dad and Nancy’s block, several families raise chickens, others have backyard gardens, and one family has goats.

For the past sixty years, most American metro areas have gotten used to the trend of urban decentralization and sprawling suburbs. Could backyard farming start to change this adopted land-use pattern by reclaiming inner-ring suburbs as semi-rural land? My parents’ backyard farm community, adjacent to the pristine, 426-acre Erdenheim Farm (recently permanently preserved) makes me wonder. When I take visitors out there they often are amazed that this is the closest inner-ring suburb to one of America’s largest cities. What does this mean for land-use and for local food production?

By farming their own eggs, these suburban chicken owners are part of the emerging local food movement in America. There are several important impacts of the local food movement: to reconnect people to where their food comes from, to build local food economies, enhance regional security, promote environmental sustainability, and to combat hunger and obesity. By now there are a number of books and organizations devoted to these issues.

In the Philadelphia region, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is running the Greater Philadelphia Food Study aimed at “a broad range of food supply issues, such as agricultural production trends, natural resource constraints, processing and distribution facilities, the origins and destinations of food imports and exports, and the efficiency of transporting from farm to plate.”

From an urban perspective, access for low-income communities to affordable, healthy food is a major problem. There are so-called “food deserts” in many inner-city areas, where there is no supermarket or outlet for purchasing affordable produce, meat, and dairy. Philadelphia is lucky to have two organizations working on this issue: the Food Trust and Farm to City. In addition the city is lucky to have a number of active urban farms.

On Monday the Philadelphia Daily News featured West Philly’s Mill Creek Farm in an article called “The little half-acre that could: Urban minifarms, like Mill Creek, are keeping many Philadelphians from going hungry.” Philadelphia has an impressive amount of urban farmland, from the Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences, to Weavers Way Farm, to Greensgrow Farms.

It its 2008 sustainability rankings, SustainLane ranked Philadelphia 7th in the nation in the category of “Local Food and Agriculture.” This ranking was based on farmers markets, community gardens, and urban farms per capita. Philadelphia was the only city with a population over one million in the top ten for this category. New York was number 25 and Chicago was number 27. In other words, for a city its size, Philadelphia is really a leader on urban farming and local food access.

One of the major arguments for local food has to do with transportation. On average, Americans’ food travels 1,500 miles from farm to plate. By promoting local food production, we can significantly cut down on a major culprit in America’s greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, local food production ensures greater access for a region’s communities. In other words, by focusing and investing in the local economy, residents can have access to fresh food closer to home.

As some of you know, my girlfriend, Annie, did an experiment last summer trying to only eat food that had not been transported by car or truck. While some items (like salt) are not produced locally, I was shocked by how much success she found. She grew food in her local community garden. She discovered that Weavers Way Farm transports some of its food by bike and commuter train to the Reading Terminal Market. She obtained local meat by biking to Saul High School, and dairy from Merrymeade Farm in Montgomery County, accessible by train and bike.

Of course, just because it is possible to eat almost 100% local and carbon free does not mean it is easy, or that it can go mainstream. However, it does show that in Philadelphia at least, it is possible. And that gives us a strong foundation to build up local food access and create a more sustainable and accessible food system for our region’s residents. We are going to get there through big-picture policy like the work that DVRPC is developing, and grassroots efforts by people who create a market for local food, and who produce their own (like the backyard chicken owners).

The CityPaper article points out that while chicken owning is legal in Springfield Township, it is not legal in the city of Philadelphia. However, there is a movement to lobby City Council to legalize chicken owning and egg farming in Philadelphia. According to thecitychicken.com, chicken owning is legal in a number of U.S. cities including Denver, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Minneapolis, St. Louis, New York, and Seattle.

If Philadelphia is serious about wanting to increase its access to local food for its residents, perhaps this would be a smart step forward. Meanwhile, here is a list of municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs that are chicken friendly.

And for the record, the answer to the title question is three to ten pounds, depending on the breed and age.

Friday, June 5, 2009

I want to land a dirigible on the Comcast Building; or Airports and Economic Development

By Ariel

Key to understanding urban growth is the transportation and land use connection. On this blog, Heller and I tend to focus on issues surrounding transit and pedestrian oriented development; the benefit of living near transit or in walkable communities. The size of city blocks, the width of city streets and the availability of transit are all markers of what makes a city livable. However there is a different, older and more fundamental connection between transportation and cities. The earliest cities all grew up around trade routes, rivers, oceans or cross-roads. America’s major metropolises sit atop major transportation hubs, the ports of New York and Los Angeles and the rail road yards of Chicago.

Philadelphia’s street car suburbs of West Philadelphia or Mt. Airy, or the rail lines that stretch through north Philadelphia, are a testament to Philadelphia’s rich transportation and land use heritage. However Philadelphia’s earliest success was related to the nature of its freshwater ports which were a boon to early wooden ships. The City’s early aristocracy grew rich off of the trade from the piers and luminaries such as Stephen Girard built their fortunes by controlling fleets and docks. For a whole slew of reasons (though it starts when those pesky New Yorkers built the Erie Canal) Philadelphia’s port is no longer the pre-eminent port in the U.S; ports such as Los Angeles and New York which can handle much larger container ships see much more cargo passing through their docks. None the less as the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia notes in their recent report Maritime Commerce In Greater Philadelphia the “Delaware River ports employ 4,056 workers who earn $326 million and generate $1.3 billion in economic output.”

However these ports were also important not simply because of the goods they moved, but the people they moved as well. New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles were the historic ports of call for the Italians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Jews (and the list goes on) who built this country. There are many who suggest that Philadelphia’s ability to attract new immigrants (which will account for 66% of America’s population growth over the next 50 years) relies on our airport. They argue that the more countries that first touchdown in a city (such as Philadelphia) the more likely immigrants are to settle in that city.

Airports are not just about moving people, in a New Yorker article (4/18/2005) “Out in the Sort” John McPhee describes the inner workings and impact of UPS’s cargo sorting and shipping hub in Louisville Kentucky. These hubs employee people around the clock, and in the case of UPS also pays for them to go to college; these hubs are economic and workforce development engines. Jon Ostrower of Flightblogger (more on him shortly) suggests that UPS might even be the largest private employer in Kentucy.

So what about the Philadelphia International Airport? UPS does in fact have workers and sorters at a facility at Philadelphia International Airport (PHI) though I doubt it is as large as complex as the UPS or FedEx hubs at Louisville or Memphis or even their satellite hubs in such as those in Indianapolis, Anchorage, Oakland, etc. Moreover some studies suggest that Philadelphia’s airport is threatened by rising sea levels and storm surges. It is also an airport plagued by expansion woes and busy airspace caused by neighboring smaller, regional airports.

To get a better understanding of the airport, and its potential for economic development I spoke with Jon Ostrower of FlightBlogger, an industry expert who blogs about the Airline industry for Flightglobal, “the world’s leading provider of aerospace news and data.”

To talk about the future of airports one has to get a better understanding of the airline industry. I began by asking Ostrower to describe the future of the industry, and what we as consumers can begin to expect. Ostrower noted that “From a passenger point of view, in terms of trends for business prospect, you are not going to pay one price for a ticket, one lower price, and then you will have to pay for everything else, bags, food. There business model has been found not to have worked. Oil is going up, the economy is going the other direction and fares not high enough to justify the flight.” In other words, over the long run, we can expect fewer and fewer flights that are likely to be more and more expensive.

However this gradual loss of passengers does not mean that airports necessarily close, even though nationwide there may be around fifty airports (Toledo, Ohio and Meridian, Mississippi) that have recently lost all commercial service. While there is, as Ostrower puts it “there is a net loss of runway ever year” airports keep running, though they tend to rely more on business and general aviation; that is to say charter flights and recreational flying. Airports make their money off of landing fees, gate fees and food services contracts, and they serve airlines shipping cargo nationwide as well. Which is to say, that there is a significant amount of business going on at airports, and with airlines, that we simply don’t know about or see on a regular basis as we are waiting in line to take off our shoes, belts and key chains. In fact Ostrower notes that if you really want to gauge the health of the Airline industry, or the economy as a whole, one should track the health of the cargo market; cargo numbers dropped long before other indicators of economic collapsed. The complex nature of airports, built off of trade and travel are holistic gauges of an areas health, the desire of people to go there, and their buying power.

While they are important gauges of urban economic health the important thing to look at when it comes to airports, as it always is with all transportation related issues, is access. While Ostrower notes that you can judge the success of an airport by the incentives used to bring airlines in, the cost of fuel, the length of the runway, quality of food or the on time performance, the key really should be the ability to move people and goods through the hub. Which means that in many ways the airport only as good as its connections to people and goods; i.e. an airport is only as good as its multi modal connections to different markets of people and goods.

Ironically, some of the most vociferous opponents of high speed rail are the representatives from districts with small regional airports. As Ostrower puts it “the US market is the largest market in the world for single isle short haul air craft” for flights between Boston and DC. These smaller airports see high speed rail as direct competition for the delivery of people into the hinterlands.

However the questions should be not whether an airport is thriving, but is it connected to other ports and other people? The development of the Philadelphia International Airport depends on its ability to be connected by rail to thriving regions in and around Philadelphia (which is the 8th richest metropolitan region in the world) and to its system of ports around the Delaware river.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Denver: Building a Strong Foundation


By Greg

I spent the past few days at a conference in Denver, Colorado. And, I’ll tell you, that city impressed the heck out of me. It’s a medium-sized city (just under 600,000 residents), and you can walk across its downtown in about twenty minutes. While the scale is much smaller than my hometown of Philadelphia, Denver seemed to be doing things other cities are only dreaming of.

Denver has a beautiful and efficient light-rail and bus system. The 16th Street pedestrian mall is vibrant, beautiful, and well-used. A free (!) two-way bus system runs every few minutes to take passengers across the fifteen blocks of stores, restaurant, entertainment, benches, trees, lamps, and chess tables. They also have bike sharing!

Cherry Creek and the Platte River run along the west side of the downtown with an extraordinary set of walking and biking trails. At the confluence of the creek and river, one encounters beautiful Commons Park and a stunning vista of the skyline. The gorgeous Millennium Bridge takes pedestrians from Commons Park to the pedestrian mall. The scenery is beautiful, all the while, surrounded by the Rockies.

The architecture definitely impresses. I am not usually a Daniel Liebeskind fan, but his Denver Art Museum is stunning. The new, edgy buildings of the civic center mix well with the historic architecture of the state capitol and other older government buildings. The Denver Convention Center is also a pretty exciting building (yes, that's a big blue bear pushing against the wall).

Everywhere I looked there was major public art. This is a city that clearly cares about creating a beautiful place for its citizens and visitors. Meanwhile, a host of new condo and apartment buildings are filling in the landscape, bringing more residents downtown.

The Colorado Rockies’ stadium, Coors Field, is right downtown, surrounded by stores and restaurants. It borders the hip Lo Do district and its brewpubs and nightlife. On my first day in town I walked to the ballpark (it took ten minutes from my hotel). Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Families streamed through the downtown streets to make their way to the stadium.

Mayor John Hickenlooper, who gave the keynote address at the conference I was attending, explained that the City did not build new car parking for the stadium. Since it was downtown, people could park in existing garages, or take the train, and walk five to ten minutes to get to the game. On the way they could stop at stores and restaurants.

Well, it works great. Unfortunately the Padres beat the pants off of the Rockies while I was at the game. But you know what? In the long-term a well-placed, downtown stadium will do more good for a city than a winning team.

Mayor Hickenlooper (whom, I will note is a Wesleyan alum from the Philadelphia region), is a newbie to politics. Before getting himself elected he ran the Wynkoop Brewing Company (they make the best milk stout I’ve ever had). In his talk, he told the audience how he runs the city the same way he ran his company – getting to know people, building partnerships, working cooperatively.

Perhaps the most stunning example of regional cooperation under Mayor Hickenlooper’s tenure has been the passage of an eight-county referendum to increase the sales tax to pay for mass transit expansion. Denver already has better light-rail than most cities, but after the FasTracks system is completed in 2016, the region will have 122 miles of new light rail and commuter rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit service, and 57 new transit stations. All this in the middle of the wild west!

As I walked for hours around and outside Denver’s central business district, it was clear that despite its stunning success stories, Denver has a long way to go. The landscape quickly transforms from urban to suburban. Walking east out of the downtown, I saw the thriving center morph into a landscape of check cashing and fast food restaurants. Even downtown there is not all that much there yet. Parking lots still dot the urban landscape.

However, this is changing… fast. Through my hotel window I could see one brand new skyscraper, another starting to rise from a construction site, and a large surface parking lot that was likely next in line for development. I called up fellow Urban Direction blogger, Ariel, and exclaimed of the light rail and other projects: “It looks like they are laying the infrastructure for a city that isn’t here yet.” Ariel answered, “Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing?”

Ariel is exactly right, and so is Denver. A few folks at the conference told me that Colorado is a pretty strong property-rights, car-loving type of place. However, here is a region that does not yet have a huge downtown hub, that does not have major congestion, and yet its residents are farsighted enough to vote for increasing their taxes to pay for a light rail system that runs through areas that have not yet been developed! The FasTracks referendum passed with almost 60% of the vote. This sounds to me like a region that has its priorities straight.

As is true anywhere, all is not sunny in Denver. The city has seen new challenges arise over the past 15 years. The city’s foreign-born population nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000. However, only about 8% of Hispanics in Denver hold a bachelors degree, and the city’s poverty rate is about 18% for individuals. Meanwhile, the state of Colorado had major job loss in the beginning of the 21st century. Denver is facing serious issues of inequality between the minority and white populations, a need for more jobs and affordable housing.

Still, Denver has been growing at a pretty steady pace (which is more than some cities can say). According to the Brookings Institution, “Among the 23 Living Cities, Denver had the second-fastest growth in household incomes, the sixth-highest share of college graduates in 2000, and the lowest poverty rate among African Americans.” While Denver tackles its challenges of poverty, education, jobs, and centralizing the region’s sprawling growth, the city is clearly doing a lot of things right. The question is: Will it be enough to really make Denver thrive?

In my opinion, the answer seems to be yes. I think that Denver is moving its way over the tipping point. The city is making the right investments to grow its population, encourage economic development, and make itself the competitive hub of the region. While the city still seems rocky (excuse the pun) in some respects, I would bet that in a decade or two Denver will be the envy of many major cities. Other cities that, like Denver, are only starting to boom, but are not investing in infrastructure are going to be kicking themselves. Denver has challenges to overcome, but it is laying a strong foundation for doing so.

So, to Denver, thanks for a sunny day at the ballpark, some great nights at the brewpubs, wonderful walks around your fair city, a fine conference venue, and a glimpse of what regions can achieve when they dream big, cooperate, and are not afraid to take bold action. I wish you the best and hope to come back soon.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Philadelphia 2040: Updated

By Ariel

Recently I discussed a Vision Planning process I participated in over the course of the past semester. I would be remiss if I did not mention or post the work of the other two teams. Collectively we envisioned a Philadelphia in 2040 that was:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Traffic and Building a Multi-Modal Culture in Philadelphia

By Ariel

I recently finished reading an interesting and compelling book by Tom Vanderbilt called Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) and it’s particularly interesting in light of Greg’s last post. The book both helps to explain (though not excuse) much of the worst in drivers’ behavior and also illuminates the challenges intrinsic in creating a culture of multi-modality. If that last sentence was too wonky for you, don’t worry, the book will still entertain you, but you also probably shouldn’t be reading this blog.

Both Heller and I have routinely argued that one of the biggest impediments to a Philadelphia that embraces all modes of transportation is the education of its drivers and bicyclists alike. However there are significant challenges, particularly for those who drive, and to do so we have to have a better understanding of the nature of traffic itself. Vanderbilt’s book is choc-a-bloc it with studies (as well as anecdotes and miscellany) but it has, I would argue, three main points that undergird it.

• The act of driving is fundamentally alien to how human beings have successfully adapted to travel, information processing and communications over the course of thousands of years. The difference between thousands of people streaming down Manhattan’s sidewalks and thousands of people driving down its streets is the amount of information that pedestrians and drivers can exchange. Passing walkers can easily talk to each other and say “watch it,” “excuse me,” or the like. However drivers must deal in a world of asymmetric information. A honk could mean “I like your bumper sticker” or it could mean “you are an a**-hole.” More importantly, the way our brains process information cannot, among other things, properly judge the speed of approaching objects or appropriately manage risk.

• Traffic has its own “physics.” Congestion is as much a result of origin and destination supply and demand, as it is a result of the ten to twenty feet before and after any given car. The two to three seconds that it takes a driver to signal something to another, to slow down or shift lanes, has repercussions for the car right behind it, all of which flow backwards in a cascade. As Vanderbilt suggests, traffic is not so much like water flowing through a funnel, but like rice or cereal, that ends up bulging and straining the middle of the cereal box.

• Traffic is cultural. I feel more comfortable stepping out into traffic in the middle of Skanderbej Square in Albania, than in the middle of an American road. I trust Albanian drivers to stop quicker and to even be on the look-out for the unexpected. Similarly, pedestrians in New York or quite different from those in Madison.

Promoting driver “education,” particularly as it relates to interacting with bicyclists and pedestrians in order to avoid tragedies such as those mentioned in Heller’s post, cannot be done without understanding the physics, culture or human elements of driving. Simply spending two or three more days in a AAA drivers ed. course on bicyclists won’t do it. Driver’s “education” requires communicating with drivers in such a way that acknowledges how human beings process information, it requires looking holistically at street design, and it requires political action.

Vanderbilt shows not only that drivers have too much information to process (and subsequently ignore all that information) but that with both smarter and significantly smaller amounts of signage, we can increase safety. The Netherland’s famous woonervern, those streets with few or no curbs, obstacle laden roads with no signs that force drivers to actively process information as opposed to simply allowing the smaller signals of what Vanderbilt calls the “traffic world” (as opposed to the “social world” of normal human interaction) are much safer for pedestrians, children and bicyclists. While woonervern may not be appropriate for all roads (though the lack of signage improves safety in other situations, as Vanderbilt shows), there are better ways to communicate with drivers. I would argue that the city of Philadelphia should invest in a fleet of mobile plexi-glass statues that mimic pedestrians jotting out on to the curb (or we could simply raid the Comcast Center) that they randomly distribute across critical intersections. Drivers tend to perceive information that they are already looking for, and forcing them to see bicyclists and pedestrians where they least expect them will ensure that they will see them everywhere else.

Implementing traffic calming measures at specific intersections prone to accidents is not enough. For traffic calming to truly work, similar measures should be designed and implemented along an appropriate radius out from a particularly worrisome intersection. Don’t just build a bulb out in the intersection where the most pedestrians cross, build bulb outs three or four blocks in either direction.

Only a public and prolonged political commitment to bicycles and pedestrians will change the culture of drivers in Philadelphia. Initiatives, such as creating an East – West connector between the rivers (no matter how many parking spaces it cannibalizes), closing down neighborhood thoroughfares for “bike holidays” during the summer, and proactively enforcing traffic laws will (over the long term) prove a political and civic commitment to bicycles and pedestrians that will truly create a culture of multi-modality.