Monthly Archives: July 2011

Hubway Brings Bikeshare to Boston; Food Trucks Also Cool

It’s rare that progressive urban policies happen in pairs, especially in Boston. Bike lanes don’t come with traffic calming techniques, public space expansion doesn’t come with market parking rates or toll increases, etc., etc. This morning, or at least I found out about it this morning and it looks like I’m on-time for the party on one and city planners were a little late for the other, I saw that most elusive of pairs when I passed the new Boston Hubway —or bike share— and a brand new food trick space occupied currently by the Dining Car on Boylston Street near Copley Square.

boston hubway bicycles Hubway Brings Bikeshare to Boston; Food Trucks Also Cool

Boston Hubway copyright IBM Smart Planet

A couple bikes and some delicious sandwiches doesn’t qualify as the vision of a beautiful urban future that most of us have in mind. But unless you’re New York, where resources and public will typically overflow, or China, where one matters and the other doesn’t, the changes in a city are gradual and painful; the Hubway program by itself took years to find the correct balance of political and financial fortitude to come into being, but at least we got one before New York did.

dining car at copley Hubway Brings Bikeshare to Boston; Food Trucks Also Cool

Dining Car Food Truck Copyright Keramurphy Tumblr

That doesn’t mean we’re in a new age, there’s still a significant resistance to novel programs as an assault on traditional New England stoicism and, to be frank, staleness. Boston has been more than antagonistic towards mobile provision providers pushing most of them to that liberal and hungry enclave to the North across the Charles. The city has also been slow to adapt to cyclists whose ranks are growing but still represent slightly more than 2% of commuters while personal automobiles are still north of 50% (the reluctance to expand the city’s burgeoning bike lanes significantly before the rollout of the Hubway, a service that is likely to see its share of map-wielding tourists, is still a cause for concern though). It seems like the temprate Julian swoon put Mayor Menino and the city planning department in good spirits, and I hear from a good source that Governor Patrick likes the sandwiches over at the Clover Food Lab truck as well.

High Speed Rail and China’s Safety Record

A stream of infrastructure-related tragedy has trickled through China in the last few weeks raising emotional questions for domestic mourners and technical ones for foreign analysts. Today’s high-speed rail accident covered the front of page of the New York Times website and was especially shaking for both camps: the twisted carriages are disturbing not only because they lay in a heap but because of their sheer scale. There is little argument that the Middle Kingdom has led infrastructure development from the front in building thousands of miles of highway, connecting east and west with relatively affordable high speed rail lines, and dotting the country with new subway systems and airports faster than the world has known. The Times highlights the more vulnerable aspects of such a leap forward:

The wreck is one of several high-profile public transportation accidents in China recently. Early Friday, 41 people died when an overloaded bus caught fire in central China’s Henan province. Earlier this month, an escalator at a subway station in Beijing collapsed, killing one and injuring 28. Last week alone, four bridges collapsed in various Chinese cities.

Accidents happen, but almost a half a dozen accidents in the course of a few weeks should give even the most stone-faced Chinese official pause. Of course, china isn’t alone in letting safety lapse over cost or speed concerns —the U.S. bridge and highway stock has been called into question dozens of times in the past decade, especially after the collapse of a major bridge in Minnesota in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured 145. What makes China unique in its criticisms is its singular speed of development and many feel as though the race to make China a beacon for developing infrastructure has thrown the safety of the people who actually use it to the shoulder.

25china span articleLarge High Speed Rail and Chinas Safety Record

Copyright Zhaoyun/European Pressphoto Agency

There is something to be said about the power of deliberation when it comes to safety and infrastructure. The glacial pace of this country’s Department of Transportation stems as much from politicking as it does from the complex engineering tasks involved with building a new highway or high-speed rail. Though there doesn’t seem to be any trouble with telling people exactly what they can’t do on roads.

Is there an available third way somewhere? Americans and Chinese don’t need to look farther than their geographical midpoint —no, not Hawaii— in Europe to see what balanced infrastructure development looks like. Major and minor metropolises in Europe are in the middle of a progressive infrastructure boom, with countries like Spain investing billions in high-speed rail and other transportation projects and improved bus and transit systems dominating the landscape. The safety record in Europe is also comparatively pristine even when compared to the U.S. which prides itself on no-nonsense engineering and would rather make sure the wheel is up to code rather than reinvent it. European transportation policy, collectively and on an individual nation level, has been progressive without sacrificing the more boring, yet exceedingly important, aspects of infrastructure planning like safety and accountability.

China understandably wants to harvest the most potential from their white-hot economy and infrastructure investment yields consumer and industrial benefits on large scales. Moving people and product is a lot more important than people realize, but losing a gross of grain or steel beams is quite a different disaster than an HSR carriage tumble into a ravine.

One of Noam Chomsky more powerful, and typically enflaming, polemics, Profit Over People, presents the alliterative left wing axiom over the course of a couple hundred pages. While more an indictment of corporate avarice ruling over magnanimity, many in China feel as though their country’s hunger to catch up to the post-industrial world has led to wrecked trains, buses, and bridges. China needs to be given credit for pushing an aggressive infrastructure development plan but the recent record of accidents and oversights is indicative of a government directive that wants economic progress more than effective policy. And for those who would say that the rising tide of the Chinese economy will eventually float even the tiniest dinghy, the pictures from today’s wreckage show that the bodies on the road to economic hegemony are not, in fact, figurative.

A Day in California Without Cars

 OF A Day in California Without Carsall the novel activities during last weekend’s Interstate 405 closure —bikes racing planes (and winning), Angelinos walking (and enjoying it)— there was none more disappointing than the lack of pedestrian activity on the barren stretches of highway between West LA and Ventura Boulevard. Cyclists were barred from cruising down some serious decline terrain and potentially daydream about a future where two-wheels would eventually usurp four as kings of the road and; families were told that block parties, picnics, preposterously giant games of soccer or flag football, or any other brand of non-combustion based activity were banned on the 10-mile span (one band of friends did manage to throw an illicit dinner party, though). The LAPD isn’t know for having a sense of humor, but even the most solemn of officers would have probably cracked a smile at the sight of a 10 mile barbecue.

mattlogue openla2 A Day in California Without Cars

Empty 405, Copyright Matt Logue

LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith, along with others including the Villaraigosa administration and DOT officials, cited —somewhat legitimately— safety as a main concern in their rejection of community requests. Smith, for his part, didn’t shy away from a more proactive take on the non-fun when speaking to the L.A. Times: “Anyone who is looking to do something should think again. We’ll have a lot of cops out there and they will be looking for something to do.” The mirrored use of “something” was meant to intimidate through ambivalence.

The rigid division of geography —cars here, people there— is apparently unwelcoming to a sudden distortion of that reality. Even though the possibility of some one getting injured on the 405 with cars banned is about on par with getting hurt walking home (and probably significantly less because you could get hit by a car doing that), the logistical exercise was apparently beyond a collection of administrations that dexterously developed a plan to deal with a 10-mile stretch of highway being closed during a summer weekend. A block party would have been simply too much.

Safety as a legitimization speaks ambiguity to power, albeit subtly, where we are in terms of valuing people over places, and it’s not quite as evolved as some of us would like. The landscape, especially in Southern California where I call home, is uniquely antagonistic to pedestrians among major cities. There is a growing population of Angelinos who crave better transit and practical density but to say they are dwarfed by the petrol-propelled masses is like saying Marie Antoinette died of a sore throat. Defining a highway is not a flexible exercise so even when the landscape changes it stays the same. New York allowed thousands onto the West Side Highway this past Independence Day to watch fireworks —the inexplicable closure of Hudson River Park at Macy’s behest so they could hold a private party is another story— but Los Angeles couldn’t open the highways for any portion of the 56 hours that the 405 was closed; one step forward, a carpool back.

But then what was Carmageddon all about then? The destruction of a bridge and the expansion of a highway’s girth? The cognitive leap from occurrence to event often takes a little bit of faith and at least a modicum of idealism, which is why so many young people saw the carless landscape in Los Angeles as a turning point in an automobile-driven culture. By banning people from an empty highway officials deflated the dream something fierce— though the Luddite victory of the Wolfpack Hustle, an LA based cycling team, may have revived at least a part of the vision. There was a chance for one of the most maligned transportation cities in America to get some much-needed kudos but instead what we got was 56 hours of an ultimately intangible alternate universe where there are no cars and, strangely, there are no people.

Debt and the City

This post originally appeared in Next American City on July 19th, 2011. This is the author’s personal blog.

In Debt and the Citycase you hadn’t heard, the Federal Government is hovering dangerously close to its debt ceiling and the rising tide of debt is near to drowning our government like so many clichéd booby traps. The effects of a national default are clear cut: our credit rating would be docked by the Moirae of Moody’s, Fitch, and S&P, active duty military personnel would stop getting checks, the Department of Justice would stop seeing pay stubs, and the Federal Transit Administration and Housing and Urban Development programs would be frozen in place (the prioritization of funding categories was analyzed by the Bipartisan Policy Center).

The paralysis of Federal government programs is finite, but the effect of a default is less understood on the municipal level where debt is based on state and local statutes. Many states require legislative action if they choose to mobilize short-term borrowing to fill budget gaps usually filled by Federal government outlays, but with debt hawks stalking the Capitol as well as state houses throughout the country there may not be enough political will to grant such relief.

Media outlets tend to paint the effect of an outlay stoppage for cities and states as a nuisance rather than a potential catastrophe. State and Local Government Series Securities or SLGS (pronounced, in what can only be a Republican-strategist’s dream, “slugs”) are one of the ways states can generate interest on their bond holdings between receiving funding and paying their contractors —they’re legally prevented from arbitrage— and since SLGS are managed by the Federal government, states would no longer be able to have their cash flow generate additional income. This is, at best, an “annoyance”, but at $47.4 billion the market for SLGS isn’t negligible. Esotericism abounds with municipal funding minutiae but the issues that a Federal default will cause extend beyond government-approved arbitrage.

With all the furor over the encroaching specter of the Federal government on the God-given (see: Constitutionally granted) rights of the state to govern themselves one would think that a state like California, Virginia, or Texas would fare just fine on their own. But the Federal government outlays to states total nearly $3 trillion. Texas by itself received $210 billion in Federal-assistance in 2008, the most recent year that statistics are available. Of course, these funds are not donated to state coffers but are in place to assist with Federal programs that serve the defense, transportation, and general welfare programs, three broad based platforms that are generally well-regarded in the center of the political spectrum.

The latter two initiatives also disproportionately serve urban denizens, the less fortunate of which depend on welfare distributions and transportation assistance that the Federal government plays a role in. The Federal default has the potential to freeze HUD programs that assist with housing for the poor and disabled and with the Federal Transit Administration funding halted there would be a significant effect on public transportation services. The detriments aren’t just centered on dense cores; Section 8 housing vouchers go to families in townships nationwide and county transit programs are seeded with FTA Section 5303 grants, both of which operate on the Federal budget. The Federal government doesn’t have the dexterity to manage these programs with a broad stroke, which is why these grant and assistance programs for cities and people exist in the first place. Cities would feel the pinch of a government debt crisis acutely and while it wouldn’t give pause to residents on the Upper East Side or Chicago’s Gold Coast, Brownsville and Englewood would struggle through the budget negotiations.

Fiscal discipline is an admirable pursuit when paired with responsibility and purpose. Lawmakers, though, have replaced sympathetic perspective with disaffected cynicism —one resource that is in abundance within the girdle of I-495. For all the rhetoric associated with controlling Federal spending, it seems as though those in favor of controlling debt have lost sight of what Federal outlays actually are: support for the states and support for the people. For cities, it means the loss of billions in assistance for welfare, transit, and unemployment assistance for millions of Americans and potential furloughs for private and publically employed individuals. Stopping the Federal government won’t hurt the families that can operate independent of direct assistance, but it does handicap those who can afford to lose the least: the unemployed, the urban, and the poor.

Covering It Live from the Ford Foundation’s the Just City Forum

Hey guys you can also follow along here to get live commentary on the Ford Foundation’s the Just City Forum event:

Radials Blog at the Ford Foundation’s The Just City Event

497 hero Radials Blog at the Ford Foundations The Just City Event

Ford Foundation's The Just City

Radials Blog will be participating in the live blog for the Ford Foundation’s Just City Event in New York City on Thursday, July 14th. There are going to be 4 forums with some serious luminaries and public figures including:

 

Alejandro Echeverri – Former Director of Urban Project Medell ín, Colombia (yes that Medellín, Colombia)

Kasim Reed – Honorable Mayor of Atlanta

Bruce Katz – VP of the Brookings Institution

John Hickenlooper – Governor of Colorado

Shaun Donovan – U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary

Van Jones – Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Deval Patrick (!) – Governor of Massachusetts

Jean Quan – Honorable Mayor of Oakland

 

Everyone can follow the live updates from Next American City on their live blog and also follow my updates from the official Ford Foundation feed. You can also give them a follow on Twitter @FordJustCity and use the hashtag #justcity to get us trending! Hopefully everyone can follow along.

Linus and Superb

The newest member of the Radials family: a deep blue Linus Roadster Classic single speed. I just sold my car and I figured getting a pair of two wheels would make up for my years on four. (Check out pics of my personal one over on the Facebook fan page!)

 Linus and Superb

Linus Roadster 1

Radilarious | Stay in Your (Bike) Lane!

I am a sucker for good old-fashioned physical comedy from Looney Tunes to Mr. Bean to Jackass (the gross out stuff is another story) and everyone knows that transportation (bicycles, transit, urbanism, all that stuff) is what I’ve chosen to give my (limited) professional skills to. Isn’t it beautiful when those things just match up perfectly? The video below gave me more than just a few good chuckles and, just for good measure, it’s educational in that Johnny Knoxville meets Thomas Paine sort of way. (Via GOOD Magazine and Casey Neistat)

Cities Beyond the Horizon

The data artist and Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at the Google Creative Labs, Aaron Koblin, likes data points. The digital representation of information— flights, sounds, physical addresses— provide an oddly relatable medium. It brings the digital into the analog; it’s impossible not to be enthralled by his most ambitious projects because they tend to have people just like you as willing collaborators. Flight Patterns, a hypnotic blizzard of national flight paths musically backed with kitschy and endearing electronica, announced Koblin’s rise to infographic stardom. The most fascinating part of the piece is also the most mundane: the bursting eggs of light along the edges of the central shape (as well as two or three in the center) create a web of fireworks that is oddly mesmerizing but in reality those explosions of static are flights leaving from JFK, LGA, LAX, MIA, DFW, ORD, and ATL.

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

(Copyright Aaron Koblin)

The significance of the light concentration in Koblin’s work shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who finds themselves reading through the information on Next American City. The CIA Factbook —something of a clearinghouse for geopolitical factoids—puts the United States’ urbanization rate at 82%, or about 255 million people, but what does that really mean? According the U.S. Department of Transportation, the entity in charge of city planning because, well, think of how much money a given area needs to spend on getting around, tells us that “[a]n urbanized area is comprised of one or more places and the adjacent densely settled surrounding area together include at least 50,000 people.” A nebulous definition, at best.

The blurred definitions of town, city, and urban area potentially negates the entire concept that many of us have of the traditional American city: a densely populated core with tendrils expanding out towards a less populated, but still packed, periphery. Beyond that are the suburbs and exurbs, which endure those monikers because they are so inherently “un-citylike”, but they are still included in the calculations behind urbanization rates. When did a part of the landscape that urbanists disdain so much become an inextricable part of the movement towards making cities important? And how do we fix it?

Being at the mercy of outdated metrics seems to a global pastime. Most famously, Robert F. Kennedy’s criticism of Gross National Product as a measure of prosperity, and by proxy a majority of the drier economic rubrics, offered that “[GNP] tells us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.” Kennedy was not an economist but had a singular talent for accessing the most beatific notions of being American and attempting, until his tragic assassination in 1968, to drive progressivism by appealing to the more emotional angels of magnanimous patriotism. What he was asking for was a more complete way to judge our surroundings and, more specifically, how well people were doing in their every day lives. While concepts like purchasing power parity (how much that paycheck is really worth) and consumer price index (how much things actually cost) have caught on in the U.S., our economic well-being is still based upon the statistically sharp but practically enigmatic concepts of Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product.

The same argument could be made for cities today. Does all 579 mi2 of Houston, Texas (twice the size of Singapore in terms of land mass and a little more than half the population) count as a city? Of course not, and for everyone that has been to Houston it’s obvious that there are pockets of density where most of the people live and stretches of bucolic perpetuity where people, well, don’t. The USDOT, whose lexicon apparently hasn’t been updated since we used wagon trains to go west, labels the areas of a city with more than 1,000 persons per square mile as “densely settled”.

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

To put that statistic into perspective New York City has a density of 26,402 persons per mi2 while Farmington, New Mexico has a density of 1,613. In terms of urbanization rates these two places are siblings of similar weight but different heights; adobe and steel. The blindly empirical approach to judging how many of us live in “cities” is starting to fray at both ends: we are mathematically urban because of our suburbs, but we are functionally rural because of our cities.

In a vacuum, cities will always be defined by population. A town of 30,000 living on a plot of 30 mi2 in Arizona may look as dense as some parts of Los Angeles on paper but that, as geographically prejudicial as it may sound, does not qualify a place as a city not its people as urban. Urbanization rates need to be reconciled with the unkind realities of affluent modern America: suburbs and highways dominate our landscape. 82% of us do not live in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago but more likely live in Hamden, CT (pop. 58,119) or Lorain, OH (pop. 70,263). Are the latter two cities? According to government definitions, yes. But are they urban?

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns gives us a stylized view of America: making out the concave edges of the east coast and the vertical beach chair of the west is easy if you just follow the lights. Cities, usually where those points explode from, are surely the centers of innovation, creativity, and dynamism that thinkers like Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser make them out to be, but they are not where most of us choose to live. More and more young people are attempting to regenerate cities from the inside out and are, as young people are wont, recoiling at the thought of moving back to their detached family homes. Real cities with tangible urbanity are still the exception. We’re not static though, we can shift the demographics and data and give Mr. Koblin and his team another movement to track; not planes but people.