Monday, February 25, 2013

Universal Transportation Card

By Greg

For many Americans, a driver’s license represents freedom. It is our de facto government-issued photo ID in this country for just about everything. However, it is inextricably linked to its primary raison d’etre—the right to drive a car. Yes, you can order a non-driver photo ID card, but it is still issued by the state’s department of transportation. No matter how you cut it, your identity in the USA is linked to a car culture.

In Governor John Hickenlooper’s speech last week in Philadelphia he talked about the “freedom” to have transportation options—the right to have access to mass transit as well as auto-centric infrastructure. What if we applied this philosophy to transform our national ID card into a universal transportation license?

This could be a single card that serves both as a driver’s license and metro card, usable on any region’s mass transit system. You could load money onto your transportation card just like you do now on your Metro Card, Charlie Card, or Clipper Card. This card would have a real functional benefit, eliminating the status quo where each transit system has its own fare card. It could universalize the nation’s metro transit networks.

Imagine a single card providing access to all modes of transportation, all across the country. Suburban and rural youth would still cherish the freedom of the driver’s license, while their counterparts in more urbanized areas would grow up using the same card on the bus and subway, to get to school or visit friends. Business and leisure travelers could use the card on any transit route, anywhere they go.

The card would evolve to represent the true face of our nation’s transportation—not one dominated by the automobile, but one where people get around different places in different ways, all equally important to our civic and national identity. Now, when asked to show photo ID, we would no longer pull out a plastic symbol of car culture. Rather we would show an ID that is truly democratic, associated with freedom of mobility of all kinds, of all people, of all places, across this great, diverse nation of ours.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Big Ideas Are Possible

By Greg

Last night hundreds of people came out to honor the student winners of the 2013 Ed Bacon Student DesignCompetition. The event was inspiring, celebrating visionary ideas for the future of Philadelphia from some of the world’s best and brightest young designers. This year’s winning team hailed from Cornell, with runners up from University of Maryland, University of Nottingham, University of Tennesee-Knoxville, and National University of Singapore.

The event also featured a keynote address from Edmund N. Bacon Prize winner, Colorado Governor and former Denver Mayor, John Hickenlooper. I met Hickenlooper once before in 2009, and both times he was easy going, down-to-earth, and totally visionary, with a firm belief that realizing big ideas is possible. Far from a career politician, he was previously a geologist and a beer brewer (owner of Wynkoop Brewing Company). I’ll also mention he’s a Philadelphia-area native and he and I share an alma mater (Wesleyan University).

In Hickenlooper’s talk he described his work creating a more livable city in Denver, and promoting freedom (his word) by spearheading one of the nation’s largest mass transit projects in history—giving people a choice of how to move around the region. He made these big visionary ideas seem so obvious and achievable. Hearing Governor Hickenlooper last night took me back to my visit to Denver in 2009, and I want to relate an experience from that trip:

I traveled to Denver for a conference, arriving a few hours early. There was a baseball game that afternoon, and I decided a sunny day at the ballpark would be a good way to while away a few hours. I asked about the best way to travel to the stadium. “Walk,” replied the smiling woman behind the hotel desk.

I left the convention center and walked a few blocks until I arrived at the 16th Street Mall. What I saw stopped me in my tracks. It was a real pedestrian street, closed to car traffic, and amazingly vibrant. The street was packed with people eating at cafes, shopping, pushing strollers, watching street performers. A free shuttle cruised down the 1.25 miles of car-free zone for those who wanted a rest or a quick ride.

As a Philadelphian, this sight made me green with envy. Our fair city had its own pedestrian mall not too long ago. Twelve blocks of Chestnut Street were closed to automobile traffic in the mid-1970s. However, in the late 1990s cars were permitted again, Chestnut was in sad shape, and many blamed the pedestrian mall. However, others argue that Philly never did the pedestrian street the right way. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work in Philly, but it succeeds magically in Denver.

The 1.4 mile walk from the convention center to Coors Field took me through the LoDo district—a hip, downtown neighborhood with beautifully restored historic buildings housing destinations like the Wynkoop brew pub. Just beyond LoDo is Coors Field. The first thing that I noticed is that the stadium is located right downtown, surrounded by mixed-use buildings, and less than a half mile from the city’s main train station. The next thing I noticed is that it is not surrounded by parking lots. Many fans were clearly parking at downtown garages and walking to the stadium, maybe stopping at restaurants and attractions before or after the game.

Coors Field was built in 1995. In the late 1990s, Philadelphia was looking at potential locations for our new sports stadiums. It was thrilling to consider the possibility of a stadium at 30th Street Station, or at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. At the end of the day, Philly could not get it done. While the Linc and Citizen’s Bank Park are nice fields, they are isolated, far from downtown, surrounded by a sea of parking. They do nothing to help downtown businesses and attractions. There is no synergy, nowhere to walk to. As I watched the Rockies take on the Padres, I silently bemoaned another lost opportunity for my hometown.

At the conference, I learned about another Denver achievement that made me even more envious. It’s called Fast Tracks—a $6.5 billion, twelve-year investment to build a 119-mile transit system for Denver, including six new rail lines. It is being financed by an increase in the sales tax approved by voters in 2004. Fast Tracks required vision, leadership, and true regional cooperation. Meanwhile, back in Philly any project to create new transit lines seems to fall by the wayside, while SEPTA recently announced a $4.7 billion shortfall.

This takes me back to the present, sitting there, listening to Governor Hickenlooper’s speech last night, and thinking about the future of my own city. Philadelphia is at a turning point. Our city is finally gaining population, has a thriving downtown, and is well positioned for greatness. But we need bold, visionary, gutsy leadership to get there. Seems to me Philly’s current leaders should be turning to this hometown boy for a few pointers.

Of course, all is not rosy in Denver; the city has fiscal issues, and higher poverty and unemployment rates than the national average. There are also significant differences. Philadelphia is a much larger city, in the center of a larger metro region. Still, for whatever reason, Denver has succeeded in some big, bold, visionary initiatives, where similar efforts in Philly fell flat (did I mention Denver has had bike sharing since 2009?).

I hope that the next wave of Philly leaders take a cue from Governor Hickenlooper and truly believe that big, visionary ideas are necessary and achievable. That we can stop saying “no,” and start saying “yes.” Yes, we can foster regional cooperation and help SEPTA become a great transit system. Yes, our next major stadium will be downtown. Yes, we can invest in pedestrian-only streets. Yes, we can have bike sharing. Yes, we can have a great, livable city that attracts residents and businesses and becomes famous not for one specific initiative, but for being a place where our leaders and citizens feel confident that big ideas are truly possible.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


By Greg

Over the years I've sent about a half dozen letters to the New York Times. They published one of them in 2003. Anyway, here's the latest one I sent that didn't make the cut, but I thought may still be of interest to somebody out there:

To the Editor:
The great Pennsylvania convenience store rivalry is real (“Fuel and Food Are Quick, but the Fealty Is Forever,” February 10, 2013), but Sheetz and Wawa used to be more distinct. While once Wawas could be found all over Center City Philadelphia, feeding a cosmopolitan crowd, Sheetz was always the roadside stop with a gas station. Today Wawa has shuttered many of its downtown stores, in favor of new, suburban-style locations. Many urbanites were heartbroken as each silhouetted goose went dark, and in 2009 a crew of steadfast hoagie lovers marched in the streets with protest signs before the closing of the Rittenhouse Square Wawa. Other convenience stores have filled in key downtown locations, and today, brands like Old Nelson supply us with higher quality sandwiches and better coffee. Still, it’s sad to see the diminishing urban presence of a brand so indelibly linked to Philly’s identity.
Gregory Heller

For what it's worth, I had a similar letter published in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2009 when Wawa closed its store at 20th and Locust.