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These days, the Boise mayor and council seem deeply uninterested in addressing urban decay problems south of the Boise River. Hundreds of Boiseans are at risk of being evicted from rickety trailer parks and hundreds of school children walk to school in dangerous conditions without sidewalks, yet the city is spending huge amounts of energy (and, possibly, money) on a downtown streetcar.

Boise City should be spending stimulus and other money on finally helping neglected Bench neighborhoods with better housing, reinvestment and life-safety features such as sidewalks. Unlike the downtown streetcar, these are all urgent needs.

In the past two years, at least four mobile home parks have closed in Boise and Garden City. In contrast to the streetcar committee of movers and shakers, trailer park residents are the moved and the shaken. According to a Boise State University study, about 5,400 Boiseans live in manufactured housing. Half are seniors and a quarter, astoundingly, live on $900 a month or less. Most are women and nearly half have a chronic medical condition. One in four live in a park listed for sale or redevelopment.

This issue has receded with the economy, but it will return and what is the city doing now to prepare? Helping these people is complex job that will require imagination and commitment, but it could be done in partnership with local housing agencies, the Capital City Development Corporation and federal stimulus funds.

If that’s not enough of a priority, the city could focus on building sidewalks, the lack of which is a serious safety issue on the Bench. One of the reasons our family and three children moved from the Bench was the severe lack of sidewalks; we just didn’t feel safe letting our kids walk to school. Nowadays sidewalks are required – much like electricity, indoor plumbing and fire codes – but the city decades ago allowed Bench neighborhoods to be built to primitive standards. Now is a good time to go back and fix this and connect these sidewalks with the new schools the Boise School District recently built. (Indeed, the Boise School District has done far more reinvestment in neglected neighborhoods than the city.)

If the city really wants a streetcar for the economic benefits that come with it, I suggest it build a streetcar line between the crumbling strip mall at Orchard/Emerald and the mostly vacant strip mall at Orchard/Overland. Don’t laugh – a streetcar in fact used to run on Orchard Street! A modern line there would spark private-sector urban renewal the city wants and show Bench neighborhoods that they, too, are worth the good stuff. After 40 years, the city has done a great job with downtown. It is a decade overdue for the city to turn its urban renewal efforts to the Bench.

The city will say the federal funds are only for transit projects, not for sidewalks or developing decent housing, but I think that’s just hiding behind process. If there’s a sincere political will to build sidewalks or help people who are about to lose their homes, the city will find a way to do it; the money is out there. In fact, on Dec. 1, The Statesman reported new federal grants for “projects that connect destinations and foster the redevelopment of communities into walkable, mixed use, high-density environments.”

This sounds just like what we need in some places south of the Boise River. I implore the city to stop doting over downtown and get to the real work of improving lives and safety in neglected Bench neighborhoods. Follow your consciences.

Trains have strong romantic appeal, but from a functional perspective, they are hopelessly unable of meeting the needs of a modern sprawling city and its residents’ demand for point-to-point flexibility.

That’s starting to sink in, after decades of local planners and wonks hoping for a commuter train system. A story in today’s Idaho Statesman quotes national experts who spoke in Boise, saying a train system faces enormous obstacles here because of track quality, too many crossings, insufficient right-of-way and high cost. However, the experts (at least in the story) didn’t discuss the inherent shortcomings of rail as a transportation technology and how we have done an exceptionally poor job of requiring rail-friendly land use.

The only reason rail technology evolved is because the first machines that could convert matter into motion (steam engines) weighed tens of thousands of pounds. There were no roads to accommodate steam engines, but rails could be built to sustain the massive weight and allow them to move people and goods faster than they had ever moved before. To make up for the lack of point-to-point flexibility, people had to unload the trains and put themselves and goods on smaller, light-rail trains or electric trolleys.

Urban theorists like Kevin Lynch hold the dominant transportation technology determines the built form of a city: ancient cities relied on humans and animals, port cities relied on ships, Industrial Revolution cities relied on the rail and modern cities rely on the automobile. Not surprisingly, entire cities and small towns were designed around the limitations of the train. For a hundred years and more, the system worked.

By the time the automobile began to eclipse the train some 80 years ago, trains had nearly a century of capital and investment behind them, so they remain common to this day. Trains still work well for some things, like moving large volumes of heavy cargo, where train cars can be lifted and moved onto ships and intermodal inconvenience is kept to a minimum.

But trains are hopelessly outmoded in a modern city. True, a rail car would be able to zip quickly past Interstate 84 traffic jams, but could it take people to where they needed to go (downtown, Micron, West Boise office parks, etc.)? People being dropped off near the Boise Towne Square mall, for example, would be left at what is agruably the most pedestrian-hostile environment in Idaho. If only something could take them a little closer to their office park, the system would be much more useful!

For their part, Idaho cities have done virtually nothing to require the kind of urban design necessary for trains: buildings that come to the street, residential and commercial sharing the same property and a nice public realm – you know, the built form of classic Main Street America.

It’s not a question of population. Around a century ago, a commuter rail system operated profitably, albeit briefly, in the Boise Valley, when our population was much smaller. It’s a question of the built form of the city. With the exception of the original downtowns and neighborhoods, Treasure Valley cities are built to automotive scale, with large parking lots, huge streets and a serious lack of sidewalks.

The humble bus, however, bridges these needs nicely. In fact, with a little imagination, we could combine the advantages of trains (route priority) with the advantages of rubber-wheeled vehicles (flexibility). The concept is the Curb Guided Busway, used to good advantage in Adelaide, Australia and Nagoya, Japan:

..the O-Bahn runs on specially-built track, combining elements of both bus and rail systems … Interchanges allow buses to enter and exit the busway and to continue on suburban routes, avoiding the need for passengers to change. Buses travel at a maximum speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), and the busway is capable of carrying 18,000 passengers an hour from the City of Adelaide

The busway is a low concrete trough and the busses are fitted with “guide wheels”

The guide-wheel, which protrudes from the front sides and aligns with the track, is the most important part of the bus when travelling on the O-Bahn. Connected directly to the steering mechanism, it ‘steers’ the bus while on the track and prevents the main tyres from rubbing against the sides of the track.

So, a busway system wouldn’t require an expensive refurbishment of rails or highly specialized vehicles. We could also take advantage of our existing rail rights-of-way, so when a bus crosses over an arterial street, the crossing arms could swing down, allowing the bus to pass, just as they already do with a train. Or, the bus could leave the busway and move about on city streets, something a train could never do. As an added benefit, emergency vehicles could use the busway system.

This still wouldn’t be cheap. We’d have to pave the rail corridors, design new interchanges and educate drivers on a new transportation mode. However, given the obstacles to developing rail and the limited return we’d get for it, a Curb Guided Busway seems like the best bet.

There’s been a lot of emotion but not enough light on the issue of a transit center in downtown Boise.

Hoping to get the project shovel-ready to take advantage of a federal grant that expires this year, officials from the Ada County Highway District, City of Boise and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho are putting the proposal on a fast track. It would bring pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and busses together in downtown Boise, and a rail system could someday hook up to it. More than just a bus stop, the idea is that people could switch between different transportation modes at the center.

I think it’s a great idea and should move forward.  But, as The Boise Guardian says, “…it looks to us like a recipe for disaster jamming passenger cars, buses, and pedestrians into a narrow side street.” Yes, possibly – or it could be a recipe for success, assuming that moving more people in and out of downtown is a good thing. It all depends on how it’s done.

As a public relations consultant, I have to say the agencies could be doing a better job at making their case, especially in the media. So far, print and broadcast media coverage has been your basic journalistic tale of people fighting some proposal with which they are unfamiliar.

My unsolicited  advice: local government PR people should be presenting examples of where these kinds of transit hubs have been successful, why they have been successful, and how they could be successfully adapted to downtown Boise. This is a great opportunity to invite the media into explanatory stories and show under what conditions transit hubs benefit the public and merchants in other cities.

Here are some good examples the folks at COMPASS have refererred me to:

  • The Bellevue Transit Center seems close to what is contemplated for Boise, maybe a bit longer, but it looks nice.
  • The Courthouse Square transit center in Salem, Oregon, is part of a larger project, including a 150,000 square-foot office complex, but it’s a good example of a transit center in an urban setting.
  • The Plaza is the hub for downtown Spokane’s transit system and is designed to host many arts, entertainment and holiday events.
  • Denver has proposed the Union Station, which would involve rehabbing an old transit station for the modern “multimodal center.”
  • Eugene, Oregon, has a very attractive transit center.

Some of these plans are much more than what we are propsing. But I include them to show that other similar cities have successfully pulled off ambitious and successful transit center plans.

Of course, questions about the public process will remain. Also, historical preservation needs will have to be accommodated. But for the time being, local governments could make their job easier, and improve public understanding, job giving their transit hub proposal some grounding and context.

I was fortunate to attend a Fettuccine Forum last night, where a leading urban policy analyst showed the “drive ’til you qualify” trend actually costs people more.

Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for Policy, Transportation and Communications at Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, presented some fascinating studies showing that higher transportation costs more than eat up the savings on the suburban mortgage. In some cases, suburbanites may spend two-thirds of their household income on transportation and housing, leaving one-third for food, clothing, utilities, education, recreation and discretionary income. When transit is available to these suburban residents, they can keep their transportation costs down, in some cases getting rid of one car altogether.

But transit alone isn’t enough; you need a certain kind of land use, one that allows people to comfortably walk from the transit stop to their home, store or office. The original downtowns of Treasure Valley cities are good local exmples, but certainly not the only way to do it. Grimshaw called for  for Transit-Oriented Development. Peter Calthorpe discusses TODs more detail his site, but it basically involves building high-quality but dense housing and neighborhood-oriented businesses around transit stops, a modern updating of the time-honored Main Street way of dense American development.

During questioning, a few people in the audience said the Legislature needs to give cities local option taxation authority, to better fund transit. For their part, however, cities haven’t done much in the past 90 years to build transit-friendly development, despite two decades of comprehensive plans calling for such development. Huge parking lots still intrude between streets and storefronts, cul-de-sacs and long residential blocks remain common and shopping centers remain walled off from neighborhoods. The Legislature isn’t developing our cities – we are – and until we show show they are serious about building for transit, we undermine our calls for greater taxing authority.

At the same time, cities shoot for the most expensive, least-flexible transportation option available: rail, which requires an extremely
dense urban form. I’d say less than 5 percent of the surface area of Boise is rail ready, none of it built in the past 90 years, save maybe for some upscale planned communities, and these are exurban or at the fringes. A busway (or bus priority system) is more suited to our Western sprawl; in a busway, existing rail corridors are paved for emergency and transit use only, retaining their crossing arms and priority to pass, but the busses can leave the busway and go onto city streets as needed. This combines the flexibility of busses with the priority of rail, but the idea isn’t even seriously considered in this area.

After the presentation, I asked Grimshaw if there was some intermediate type of development, something short of a full-blown TOD, that cities could shoot for. Grimshaw wasn’t immediately aware of such a development type, but agreed it’s something to consider. If and when the rails or bus lines do ever come, riders must be let off in a pedestrian-friendly area with housing, neighborhood commercial and workplaces all within walking distance. Such a development style could mesh well with efforts by Victor Dover and other planners to revitalize and redevelop strip malls, as well as with greenfield development.

If we ever are to make the leap from auto-dependent development to transit-friendly development, we will need some intermediate urban form. That’s more of question for professional planners than policy wonks like me, but I would like to see some suggestions on

that.

Once again, local option taxation is an issue in the Idaho Legislature. As i years past, the goal is to fund transit programs, which is a worthy cause. But urban planners, including the city’s own, recognize the importance of having a built environment that can actually make use of transit.

This is an opinion from the Idaho Statesman published during last year’s local option taxation struggle and it bears repeating.

 

Martin Johncox: Growth of the past 15 years is not conducive for transit

READER’S VIEW: Public Transportation

Idaho Statesman, January 23, 2008

By Martin Johncox

I’ve been following the discussion of local-option taxation and transit in the editorial pages of The Statesman. While I support local-option taxation and transit, there’s been little discussion if cities have been preparing their built environment to support transit.

From what I can tell, cities have a spotty record on enforcing the kind of development needed to make transit feasible. This lack of transit-oriented development undermines the cities’ otherwise good arguments in favor of localoption taxation.

Transit lacks point-to-point flexibility. To make up for that, people must bridge, on foot or bike, the distance between the transit stop and their destination. To get people to do this, you must build a human-scaled environment, where buildings come right to the sidewalk; things are stacked on top of each other to conserve distance; and homes, offices, shopping centers, schools and other destinations are directly connected with sidewalks.

The best examples of this kind of development locally are from a  century ago: the historic neighborhoods and the downtowns of Treasure Valley cities, developed when cars were scarce and the locations of tracks and train stops determined what got built and where. Transit friendly is necessarily pedestrian friendly.

But we’ve built just the opposite in the past 50 years. Giant parking lots, absent of sidewalks, encourage people to drive from one parking lot to the next; subdivisions are fenced from each other and neighboring shopping centers; and very long blocks and cul-de-sacs lengthen pedestrian trips.

In such an environment, people will not walk to the nearest transit stop, even if they could find it. If a train dropped off people by the mall, they would be in the middle of some of the most pedestrian-hostile development in Idaho. Could we expect a riderto catch a train or bus stopping 100 feet from their home, when it’s in a shopping center on the other side of a fence and the only other way is a half-mile walk out of the subdivision? No amount of local-option taxation flexibility will fix this.

To be fair, it’s been less than 15 years since Boise and other cities awoke to the need to build for transit. Indeed, for most of the past century, transit-friendly Main Street America was illegal to build under zoning codes. Only relatively recently have local governments become receptive to Smart Growth principles.

Yet in those past 15 years there’s been precious little progress toward enforcing transit-friendly development. Boise’s 1997 comprehensive plan was a visionary statement of urban planning that, unfortunately, has not been followed diligently enough to improve opportunities for transit. There are very few examples of shopping centers built in Boise in the past 10 years, for example, that are truly transit-friendly.

Shopping centers still have huge parking lots between the stores and the street. Cul-de-sacs are still common and many subdivisions still have just one or two ways in and out. Pedestrian- and transit-friendly development styles are mandated downtown only.

We’ve made some improvements, like mico-pathways in subdivisions and pedestrian networks inside parking lots. But from a practical, on-the-ground perspective – and compared to the examples people a century ago bequeathed us – transit remains a vestigial part of our built environment. (See “The Next American Metropolis” by Pete Calthorpe to learn how transit oriented developments can work in modern times.)

I fully support the vision for transit in the Treasure Valley and I believe local-option taxation authority should be granted. But we should realize that for more than a decade, we have had the local mandate to require transit-friendly development and have made little apparent progress.

Martin Johncox is a former Statesman reporter who covered local government and urban planning. He is currently a public relations consultant at Alexander and Associates, focusing on land use and public policy.