“Near-burbia,” Walkability, and Poor Urban Design

My partner G and I live in Albany’s Center SquareHudson/Park area, a wonderful, walkable neighborhood with vibrant street life, diverse 19th century architecture, and street scenes like this. The one thing it lacks, though, is an organized Jewish life. As Sabbath-observant Jews, G and I don’t drive to synagogue on Shabbat, so we have taken to staying over with families who live closer to our preferred community, Ohav Shalom, for Shabbat once a month or so. Our decision to locate downtown, rather than in the kind of heavily Jewish neighborhood we both grew up in, was motivated by our desire to live in a really wonderful urban neighborhood (and ours certainly is one), by our experiencing a little bit of burnout from organized Jewish communal life after 20-some-odd years of intensive involvement in it, and not least by the little irritants of suburban-imitation urban planning that characterize the Albany neighborhoods closer to Ohav Shalom.

Though within city limits, the southwesterly areas of Albany are accurately described as “near-burbia,” a term I’ve heard people who live there use to describe them. Though from afar it gives the appearance of being organized on a relatively logical grid system, the area is in fact characterized by all kinds of impediments to true walkability, making living there basically aut0mobile-mandatory. We encountered many of those issues on our walk back to our host family’s place from dinner (which we had eaten with another family) on Friday night. Though the two houses are only about 4/10ths of a mile apart as the crow flies, getting between them on the shortest route requires tromping through a backyard and clambering over a fallen wire fence–not a pleasant experience when there are two feet of snow on the ground. And why is that tromping through a backyard necessary? Well, because the far-sighted urban planners of 1950s Albany didn’t see fit to connect two streets that run within a few dozen feet of each other (we’re looking here at Berkshire Boulevard and Kakely St.).

Given the miserable experience of slipping and sliding through all that snow on the way to dinner (which was actually very lovely!), we decided to take the “long way around” on the way back, taking surface streets all the way even though, due to the ridiculous disconnections in the grid, it would be far, far longer (at least 3 times the distance). The graphic below represents our walking path choices: red is the path we took to dinner, orange the way we got home, and the purple the path we should have followed had we known the neighborhood better. (click on the image to embiggen)

path map

This, of course, was a Big Mistake. It took us nearly an hour and a half to get home after dinner. The first thing to understand is that, as of Friday, Albany had roughly 2 feet of snow on the ground from previous snowstorms. Friday also saw a rapid warming, with temperatures reaching into the mid-40s, and several intense bands of rain moved through the area in the afternoon. After dark, temperatures crashed back down below freezing, making the entire town basically a solid sheet of ice. As one can imagine, struggling through 1.4 miles or so of ice and snow is not fun, especially for a big dude like me whose center of gravity is substantially away from the spine (G had an easier time than me, though still difficult).

More to the point of this post, though, our issues with the ice were made far worse by the poor planning of the area and the even worse stewardship of the urban environment by the city and the residents of the area. The primary problem, of course, is the ridiculous mock-grid way in which the neighborhood is laid out. Streets appear to randomly terminate rather than running up or down hills, without even pedestrian connections between sections. Legally, it is literally impossible to walk the .4 miles between the two houses we were shuttling between in less than 1.2 miles (according to Google Maps, at least). Faced with that kind of idiocy, OF COURSE city residents are going to abandon the idea of pedestrian living and take to their cars for every task. It’s a built environment that nods towards being urban while really embracing the suburban idea of a mandatory car tax, an unfortunate location for an observant Jewish community. We might call it the STROAD of “urban” neighborhoods.

The minor aspects of planning and custodianship in the area are depressing as well. Many streets in the neighborhood don’t have sidewalks (something which should, of course, be automatically illegal in urban areas), and those that do exist were, as mentioned, a completely solid sheet of ice. I don’t think we encountered a single property on our walk that showed signs of having been salted to prevent ice from forming, even though the icing was predicted well in advance. I ended up walking in the street a lot (because of car traffic, it was generally less icy than the sidewalks), and tromping through snowbanks at other times because getting snow in my shoes was preferable to falling on my ass on slick sidewalks. Many of the street lamps were out, making it hard to see ice at many points (my understanding is that the local utility is responsible for these, not the city, and that they’re not very responsive–another issue). It was a total exhibition of how not to care about an urban space. And I think that speaks a little bit to the sense of civic duty shared (or in this case, not shared) by the residents of the neighborhood. In Hudson/Park, whenever a property particularly egregiously neglects its duty to clear sidewalks of snow or ice, messages fly back and forth on the neighborhood listserv trying to fix the situation, because–GASP–people actually USE the  sidewalks. In an area where poor planning mandates car use over walking, citizens are less invested in maintaining a safe, usable pedestrian environment, thus the utter lack of salt on sidewalks and community apathy over non-functioning street lamps and absent sidewalks. I think planners often struggle to articulate exactly how the built environment impacts citizen mindset; this seems to me to be a particularly good example of the kind of vicious cycle that can set in when we neglect the pedestrian environment. We might envision the cycle something like this:

Poor initial planning of the “grid”–>residents of the area forced into cars–>residents neglect and fail to organize around making safer the pedestrian environment–>pedestrian environment is unsafe–>reliance of residents on cars is reinforced.

Though the cycle has in the intervening years taken on a life of its own, the initial mistakes of planning made in the neighborhood’s development primed the pump for its beginning. The process is a sobering reminder to planners of how fundamental mistakes can have ramifications far in the future.

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Re-post: Streetcars for New Haven?

This piece originally ran in the New Haven Independent, under the title “All Aboard? Define ‘Streetcar’ First” on 1/17/2014. Crossposted here with permission. Original link here.

(News analysis) Streetcars, innocent as they may seem, are in fact one of the most controversial topics among 21st-century planners—and among people who care about New Haven, as witnessed by passionate debate over a plan that the Harp Administration revived this week.

This seemingly never-ending discussion is of interest to me both as a New Haven expat and as a planner-in-training, since it directly reflects some of the loudest debates in the planning and transportation professions.

New Haven’s nostalgia for streetcars as a mode of transportation is certainly understandable. The city was once home to a comprehensive streetcar system, the last remains of which can be seen at the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven. Though the last trolleys operated in 1948, and despite the damage done by the misguided urban renewal efforts of the 1960s, the city still has “good bones” that make it transit-friendly—a logical street grid, densely built neighborhoods, a system of mixed-use arterial roads, and a compactness conducive to getting across town quickly even on a local bus.

It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the recent proposals for bringing a “streetcar” back to New Haven mean something entirely different from what existed in the city before 1948. The 21st-century urban streetcar, often built as a downtown circulator (as is proposed in New Haven), has only limited value as a technology for mobility. Streetcars that run in traffic lanes together with cars move no faster, and often more slowly (you can’t dodge obstacles if you’re on rails!) than bus service on an equivalent route.

Indeed, most advocates and planners point to the primary purpose of the modern streetcar as being not urban mobility, but economic development. Streetcars are supposed to appeal to a Millennial generation that craves the urban experience and living with few or no cars, and their “permanence” (it’s much harder to move rails embedded in a street than a bus stop) is supposed to indicate to developers a city’s commitment to dense and transit-friendly (and therefore profitable) development.

The logic of streetcars as propelling development, too, has been challenged, on the general premise that correlation does not equal causation. If a city is compelling enough to create demand for new development, that development will happen with or without a streetcar, and there is no way to know how the existence of a streetcar or plans for one has influenced development. New Haven’s experience, too, give some credence to that critique, with several new large downtown developments open or in the planning or construction process.

If streetcars are less than useful as a mode for moving people around, and their development benefits are questionable, should New Haven bring one to town? The answer would seem to be a clear no. But there are ways that the process of building a modern streetcar can actually be made to benefit the city.

First of all, the city and its contractors should clarify what they mean by “streetcar.” As noted above, in general the modern streetcar runs in the same traffic lanes as cars, leading to slow travel times. When given dedicated lanes of its own, an electrically powered railcar system is generally referred to as “light rail,” but in reality there is little difference between a light rail vehicle and a streetcar. If New Haven has the political gumption to dedicate lanes to transit vehicles (always a fight), then a downtown streetcar/light rail system begins to make sense.

The second key element of a successful rail system (or really, any public transit service) is frequency. Trains should come at close enough intervals (“low headways,” in transit-speak) that the rider has an incentive to choose that mode over another. In the case of a downtown circulator, the alternative mode is generally walking or a cab. Even when given dedicated lanes or right of way, running a streetcar with low frequency can be a ridership disaster, as the Utah Transit Authority has experienced with its newly opened S Line streetcar.

Finally, the routing of the line must be straight and uncomplicated, and to the greatest extent possible avoid splitting service in different directions on different streets. Unfortunately, past plans for the New Haven streetcar have shown all of these problems.

So a properly built and operated streetcar—one that blurs the arbitrary lines between “Streetcar” and “Light Rail”—can be a useful transit service. Is it right for New Haven?

Past proposals have been (not unreasonably) criticized as Yale-centric and not useful to the city as a whole. Critics have argued that the city of New Haven should not subsidize a service that will not be useful to the majority of city residents, a completely understandable position. However, with the proper understanding of the mission of a downtown streetcar system, and with the implementation of best practices as noted above, a streetcar system might, indeed, not be a bad contribution to the revitalization of downtown New Haven.

So under what conditions should New Haven build a streetcar? Most importantly, the streetcar should have limited impact on the city budget and encourage rather than discourage, a revamping of the rest of New Haven’s transit system. The city should pitch in money and resources to the streetcar project only on the condition that the system runs frequently in dedicated lanes along a simple route, thus serving a real transit purpose. The bulk or all of the operating costs in perpetuity should be born primarily by primary beneficiaries of the new service and its consequent development, rather than the city or state. Most prominently, Yale and Yale-New Haven (technically two separate corporations) should pay a yearly percentage of cost, with rest borne by a special taxing district for downtown businesses, with new developments paying a higher percentage. The idea that civic institutions and corporations which are the primary beneficiaries and proponents of downtown streetcar schemes should be largely responsible for funding it is currently in the process of bringing a streetcar to Detroit, and was recently responsible for saving Cincinnati’s streetcar from a hostile mayor.

What the streetcar won’t, and can’t, do is make job-access easier for New Haven residents, fewer of whom (particularly among the less affluent) have been able to find jobs in the city, even as overall employment in the city has grown.

Nor will it likely increase transit ridership in the city’s outer neighborhoods, though hopefully getting some momentum behind transit expansion in the city will spur CT Transit to give the city’s bus routes a much-needed revamp along with expanded service.

However, if the streetcar could be built with federal funds (no sure thing, given that federal budgets for such projects are generally unstable, and Providence was just denied funding for a similar project), and the majority to all of the operating costs could be covered by the project’s primary beneficiaries, then it could bring several benefits to New Haven.

The city could support the project with zoning for dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented, development along the route, allowing the city to add enough housing (ideally both upmarket and affordable) to bring down New Haven’s rental costs, which are exceptionally high for a city of its size and overall poverty. New residential development downtown, for which there seems to be significant demand, could finally begin to reverse some of the decay caused by the lasting damage from urban renewal, and support the city’s revitalization efforts in the Route 34 corridor. The streetcar could also be a key cog in the city’s attempt to turn downtown into a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, and human-scaled area. Developments along the route could be allowed to build without the parking minimums generally required by American zoning laws, making apartments cheaper and encouraging walking and biking among downtown residents. And, of course, the city would get the high-frequency, fast downtown circulation service many seem to want.

Bringing a streetcar to downtown New Haven is far from a sure success, even if the line does eventually get built. It is clear, though, that the idea is reluctant to die. And while city residents may rightfully resent Yale and downtown developers getting a luxury amenity on the public dime, there are ways to make such a project work for New Haven as a whole. Yes, tens of millions of federal dollars would be better spent on enhancing the city’s primary bus network. Unfortunately, given federal funding priorities that favor new projects over improving existing networks, that is not the choice that urban advocates are presented with. If the streetcar project ultimately achieves the political consensus and momentum it needs to be built, it is in the best interest of urbanist advocates, and of the city itself, to try to shape the project to be the best it can be.

Urban Activism, Emotion, Intellectual Honesty, and Opportunity Cost

A prominent feature issue among Albany urbanist and activist-y types recently has been the battle against Canadian Pacific’s plan to bring increasing numbers of trains loaded with crude oil to a transloading facility at the Port of Albany. Concern about the inherently polluting and noxious nature of oil, mixed with a reasonable level of fear over the recent rash of horrifying derailments of trains carrying crude, has led to the tossing around of rhetoric about “bomb trains” and “environmental justice” (the trains often sit outside Kenwood Yard limits, adjacent to some of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods). Activists have demanded–and gotten–a review of the state DEC’s previously pro-forma approval of the heating and transloading facility. It’s an inspiring urban crusade.

I wonder, though, if this is the best way for Albany activists to be spending their energy. In an ideal world, certainly, trains would not be carrying crude oil into our city. Some of the details of the proposal, however, have gotten lost in the furor. While Global Companies, the company sponsoring the shipments, has refused to publicly say where the crude is coming from, Scott Waldman of Capital New York wrote in the article linked to above that it is expected to be “Heavy crude from the Tar Sands of Western Canada, which needs to be heated to be transferred off of a train car…Albany deputy fire chief Frank Nerney said company officials told him heavy crude would be heated at the facility.” It’s worth considering the immediate environmental risks posed by heavy, as opposed to light, crude. Fred Frailey writes in the February Trains magazine (certainly an industry-friendly publication, albeit one more concerned with the interests of the railroads than of the oil industry) that “Both the Lac-Megantic and Aliceville accidents involved light sweet crude that originated in North Dakota. As for tar-like bitumen, you could probably hit it with a flamethrower with no explosive effects.” (“Five myths about crude oil by rail,” Feburary 2014 Trains) Bitumen, of course, is what is probably going to be brought into Albany under the current proposal. I don’t begrudge local activists their opposition to the operation (in fact, I agree that it probably shouldn’t happen), but not considering some of the technical factors involved doesn’t cast us in a particularly good light. Throwing around phrases like “bomb trains,” when in fact the crude at play is not explosive until heated (and off the train), is anti-intellectual emotional manipulation that undercuts our credibility as activists and affected residents. Let’s debate the merits of the project that exists, not some straw man out of our worst fears.

Which brings me to my other point. How is it that this issue, above all of the other challenges facing the city of Albany, has captured the public’s imagination? We live in a city with hundreds of abandoned properties, with inadequate city services, with creaky, minimally functional infrastructure, and with severe social dislocation between city and suburbs. We live in a city where someone who’s not able-bodied and is reliant on public transit can’t get around when there’s snow on the ground because no one bothers to shovel the bus stops. We live in a country where approximately 35,200 people died in car crashes last year. The images of the leveled center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec are horrific, and the images of fireballs going up from derailed oil trains are seared into all of our minds, but for all of the fear that inspires, fewer than 100 people, and probably fewer than 60 (I can’t find the numbers easily available online), died in accidents related to railroads and crude oil shipment last year in all of North America. Where’s the outrage about traffic deaths? Where’s the horror at our citizens’ lack of mobility? Where’s the organizing around these issues? The fight against the crude transshipment plan is a worthwhile one, but I fear the opportunity cost is too great. We’re sending the message that rather than organize about the mundane, but much more immediate, dangers in our everyday lives, we should be scared of ways of dying that are truly spectacular, but vanishingly unlikely. Are those the priorities we want to set?