Building Urbanism and Transit in Small Cities

I’ve been following updates from the APTA conference in the Twin Cities this past week via Twitter and a friend who works in the area. A couple of the tweets I saw really caught my eye and helped to crystallize some thoughts I’ve been having for a while, since thinking about the role of transit in smaller cities during my time in Albany.

The state of transit in the US is, generally, pretty damn poor, and this is especially true of smaller cities and towns. I’ve written a lot about cities in the size class of Albany, New Haven, or Providence, say in the 100,000-500,000 range, but I’m talking here about somewhat smaller cities, places like–to use near-Albany examples–Utica or Kingston. Generally, transit in those places is, shall we say, not particularly useful; generally it’s conceived of as a last resort, welfare transit, the kind of thing that only people with no other options use. That’s a product of mentality, but also of lack of resources.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned from exploring Upstate New York, much of New England, and a few choice parts of the Midwest: a lot of the older cities, even (in some cases especially) the smaller ones, really do have “good bones.” They are potentially salvageable as places of good, safe, walkable mixed-use urbanism. But there’s a catch–often, in my experience and observation, this is true only in one or two choice corridors. A city like Albany or New Haven might have several or numerous corridors appropriate for high-frequency transit and dense urbanism, but smaller towns may only have one. In both cases, the most urban corridor is likely underserved, because of the general terribleness of American transit; but in the smaller cities, this likely means that the city has lost any chance at transit-based urbanism at all.

In transit-planning terms, small-city transit leans quite heavily toward the coverage side of the coverage vs. ridership debate. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s how the incentives–including funding incentives–are biased, as well as how local leadership generally directs transit agencies to operate. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the first point that Erik Landfried made in the tweets presented above–that the best practice in the transit world is to get your best corridors right first. So this post is, in part, a thought exercise about how small-city transit might look if more funding–or different funding–were available, enough to let agencies focus on intensive service on the best corridors.

It’s also a musing on the future of smaller cities. It’s not news that many of these places are struggling, facing economic marginalization and brain drain. In part–though only in part–those struggles derive from a lack of good urbanism; with terrible transit and general unwalkability, those who want or need an urban lifestyle often literally cannot find it in smaller cities. As Cap’n Transit has pointed out, these “small city exiles”–people who would have been able to stay if the good bones of smaller cities had better flesh built upon them–make up one of the gentrifying flows to larger cities. Note that this isn’t just a Creative Class follow-the-talent kind of a thing; it seems clear that smaller, fully car-dependent cities are simply inaccessible to many.

Whether Small City Exiles follow the jobs, or the jobs follow them, is of course a little bit of a chicken/egg problem, but it seems unlikely that many will return without the option of urbanism. The implication is that to have a shot at revival struggling smaller cities would do well to try to build at least one corridor where life can be conducted in a car-free (or, more realistically, car-lite) manner. Typically, discussions of urbanism, revival and/or gentrification occur at the neighborhood level, but one of the things that I think this typology of city can teach us is that the relevant unit may in fact be corridors. Not all efforts at revival have to be focused in one area; but there should be an emphasis on creating the ability to live urban daily life–with all of the uses that entails–along at least one given corridor in any city. That means frequent transit service; it means reviving or allowing mixed-use development; it means locating hospitals and schools and shops along that corridor to the extent possible. It’s the preservation, revival, or creation of these corridors that will make a small-city revival through urbanism possible. And it means that the identification and intentional development of these one or two possible transit/urbanist corridors is extremely important to the future of these cities.

What I’m aiming for here, then, is somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive; I don’t have specific infrastructural, financial, or operational ideas in mind, but I have, to illustrate, picked out a number of cities and corridors that I think fit this paradigm.

Utica’s a big enough city to have multiple viable transit corridors at some minimal frequency, but it has one that’s absolutely perfect for frequent transit and good urbanism. Genesee Street is Utica’s main commercial drag, is lined by fairly dense housing already, and is anchored on one end by Union Station–offering transfers to Amtrak and intercity buses–and on the other by a major mall. Current service is decent by small-city standards but the schedule is–typically of Centro, the operator–nearly incomprehensible.

Like Utica, the Binghamton area is big enough to support more than one transit corridor, but there’s one that really ties everything together. Stretching from Binghamton through the downtowns of the area’s several other decaying industrial cities, this corridor could, potentially, link a wide variety of different uses–although a strong system would need a link to Binghamton University too.

Kingston’s a relatively small place, but it still offers a strong corridor for building out an urban revival. Broadway links the Rondout–the somewhat touristy old port area–with the Stockade District, one of Upstate’s best remaining examples of the colonial era (and its urbanism), running in between through the good-bones Midtown area. It’s a short corridor, under 3 miles, but hey, that just means it only takes a few buses to operate frequent transit service on it!

I’ve highlighted two potential corridors in the Glens Falls area: one running north-south from the village of South Glens Falls up through the city proper to a suburban commercial strip, and the other running east-west from Glens Falls through even-more-depressed Hudson Falls to the Amtrak station and Champlain Canal trail in Fort Edward. Neither is a slam-dunk corridor for decent urbanism, but the east-west corridor especially takes advantage of the historic clustering of good-bones development along the Hudson.

Montpelier is notorious for being the smallest state capital in the country, but the area has a proud tradition of Sewer Socialism and is located in a river valley, which has the natural effect of concentrating development. There is, in fact, a little-used rail line linking the towns of the Winooski River valley, and while it’s potentially usable for transit service, it doesn’t hit some of the newer, road-based commercial development. The choice of a hilltop outside the river corridor for the area’s hospital and a major commercial development also illustrates the danger of poor planning that removes key functions from an area’s one viable transit corridor.

Cheating a tad maybe by looping in two towns and a major university, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the Pioneer Valley and have a lot of…feelings about its transit potential. The Route 9 corridor connecting Amherst and Northampton is the key transportation corridor in the area; both towns have strong downtowns, there’s a lot of travel between them, and there’s been significant commercial development along Route 9 in Hadley. As it is, though, the area remains quite expensive to live in due to limited housing supply in the historic cores of Northampton and Amherst, and Route 9 between them remains a horrid stroad. A previous study called for development of a BRT service on the corridor; while PVTA has (understandably, in my opinion) prioritized development of BRT on State Street in Springfield instead, this corridor seems ripe for some kind of consistently high-end transit, and while we’re making the investment, why not try to fill in the empty/stroadish parts with dense development and relieve the housing crunch in the process?

Michigan City has one major corridor, stretching from the waterfront through the thoroughly urbanly renewed downtown to a big suburban commercial strip on the outskirts. What sets this corridor apart from the others highlighted here is that it would actually offer connections to not one but two somewhat frequent rail services, the South Shore running literally in 11th Street and Amtrak’s Michigan corridor on the waterfront.

Many Great Plains cities and towns grew up around railroads and still cluster around their historic rights-of-way; such is the case in DeKalb and Sycamore, IL, west of Chicago. What’s added to the mix here is the presence of a midsize public university (Northern Illinois) and the fact that the commercial strip in the area has grown up along one road connecting the two downtowns. What it adds up to is quite a reasonable transit corridor, in an area that’s otherwise very auto-oriented.

There are lessons here, then, on both the transit level and the “regional priorities” level. Regions centered on a small city should seek to ensure that living an urban lifestyle is at least an option somewhere, ideally centered on a functional transit-centric corridor. And small-city operational and funding patterns should adapt to facilitate this. Perhaps it’s time to split rural and small-city transit funding into two pots: one with a coverage/welfare goal, where routes are expected to reach all those who need, but not to return huge ridership or hit specific financial goals; and another with a goal of maximizing ridership, connections to jobs, and economic benefit to the region. That would require a paradigm shift at multiple levels of government–never easy–but it’s worth thinking about. Rural and small-city transit agencies rely heavily on federal funding, but I imagine states have a role here too; would not, say, New York State have an interest in developing corridors like this in its decaying Upstate cities? With a need for both up-front capital and ongoing operational investment, there are numerous options on the table. As numerous, one might say, as the cities that could benefit from building out their transit corridors.

 

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Notes on Central Florida

I spent last week on vacation in the exurbs of Orlando (well, really Kissimmee) with my partner’s extended family. Since theme parks are, well, really not my thing, I spent a decent amount of time thinking about the planning and urbanist implications of an area that I found frankly fairly miserable from a built environment perspective. I don’t so much have an overarching argument here as a series of notes on a few things I found interesting.

Pod-based building

We were based at a resort called the Vacation Village at Parkway, off the arterial Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (US 192) west of downtown Kissimmee. In many ways, the sprawling urban form along that road is typical of suburban land use across the country, though perhaps in an exaggerated form. Developments occur in pods, completely disconnected from one another along property lines. Take, for example, this pathetic excuse for a pedestrian crossing from “our” resort to the strip mall and resort next door:

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Mind you, one has to traverse this after crossing four lanes and a median of road without a crosswalk of any sort.

The area in which our resort was located is also cut off from its surroundings in a more profound way. It shares a triangle of land with several other developments; the sides of the triangle are defined by I-4 on the west, Bonnet Creek on the east, and 192 on the south. But grid connections–and ways to exit–exist ONLY on the southern side, to 192.

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That turns what could be an easy stroll over to the as-the-crow-flies-neighboring Gaylord Palms into a 1.8-mile odyssey along high-speed arterials:

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such that Google Maps literally cannot calculate walking directions between the two. This area of Kissimmee is to the south of most of the major Orlando-area attractions, so this kind of thing also lengthens the (many) car trips taken between resorts and said attractions, resulting in even more congestion in an already congested region. It’s just thoughtless–and the result of a zoning regime that emphasizes massive parking lots and setback at the expense of all else, including common sense.

Latent demand for car-free vacations

Despite a built environment that seems to invite, or even mandate, car use at every opportunity, it’s clear to me that there is a latent demand for car-free travel from tourists that could be better met. Transit service in this part of Kissimmee is not completely hopeless, but it’s far from perfect. You can catch a bus to Lynx’s Kissimmee hub four times an hour from the corner of Irlo Bronson and Celebration Boulevard, and they’re even nicely spaced much of the time.  The bus stops are nice too:

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But service on one of the lines stops by 10 PM.

There’s also a whole network of resort-contracted shuttles that ferry people to and from theme parks, shopping, and entertainment. The vaguely vintage-styled coaches of Disney’s Magical Express, connecting their resorts to the airport, were ubiquitous on the highways, for example. Vacation Village provides shuttles to theme parks, as well as more local destinations.

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At the same time, the entire built environment–from single-use zoning to massive setbacks to street and grid geometry–basically mandates car use for the vast majority of trips. I’ve spent more of my life in sprawly suburbia than I really would like, but I got a sense for a latent demand for less autocentricity here more than anywhere else.

Celebration is…Weird

Vacation Village is basically across the street from Disney’s much-debated attempt at New Urbanism. Celebration occupies a bizarre place on all kinds of spectra: more small town than suburb, more private than public, kind of an independent governmental entity but not entirely. I didn’t spend much time there (really just one lunch that was mostly spoiled by rain), but it’s…weird. The built environment blows most of the rest of Central Florida out of the water just by dint of having been thought through even a little bit, but the materials used in the construction of the buildings doesn’t really seem much better than your typical suburb; I saw a lot of sagging gutters and cheap-looking vinyl siding. The main street, such as it is, is touristy but reasonably nice; parking is tucked behind the buildings per standard New Urbanist practice, but it’s still abundant and free. Though not a grid, the street geometry makes more sense than most suburbs. A couple of things jumped out at me, though. This is the main drag carrying cars into Celebration, creatively named Celebration Avenue:

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The speed limit drops to 25 mph as soon as you enter the residential part of Celebration–which is nice–but it struck me that despite a nice, wide ROW Celebration Avenue still has very wide travel lanes (much wider than one would expect for a 25 mph speed limit), and no provision for bike lanes.

The other thing that struck me about Celebration? It has zero transit.

Oh, sure, Lynx’s #56 circles through the much more suburb-y single-use commercial section ever half an hour:

But that’s, like, really far from the commercial and residential parts of Celebration:

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Celebration is better than other suburbs, sure, but it’s hard for me to accept the word “urbanist” anywhere in proximity to an area that entirely lacks transit service. I suspect the omission is intentional; simply because of the quality of design, Celebration is extremely expensive, and places like that tend not to welcome transit. Do better.

Toll Roads

I don’t want to comment on this too much without reading up more on the background of transportation planning in Central Florida, but the prevalence of toll roads was a common topic of discussion among the extended family. Certainly, it’s annoying that Florida’s extensive toll road network doesn’t accept the EZPass technology common in other parts of the country; outsiders get fleeced by paying higher tolls, in cash. The tolls didn’t seem especially high but the frequency of booths seems potentially counterproductive. I do wonder if a willingness to toll the roads has led to overbuilding of the network, since they may be less of a drag on gas tax revenues and the general fund.

The Great Sucking Sound

We had an enjoyable side trip to Lake Wales, FL, where my grandfather grew up and my great-grandparents and a great-aunt are buried. It’s a very pretty area made famous by the Bok Tower Gardens, but it’s also a struggling agricultural region whose citrus industry–Florida’s Natural is headquartered in Lake Wales–is not exactly at its peak of glory. Consequentially, downtown Lake Wales is struggling to a certain extent. As elsewhere in the country, that struggle is exacerbated by sprawl, particularly the sucking of retail out to low-rent districts on suburban arterials. 6-lane US 27 is the main north-south artery along the Lake Wales Ridge, and it’s characterized by on-and-off clusters of commercial development that become more consistent as one drives north, approaching the Orlando metro. Just outside of Lake Wales, however, the Eagle Ridge Mall stands virtually alone, isolated among cow pastures and citrus groves.

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It’s precisely this kind of thing that kills the functional downtowns smaller towns like Lake Wales need to survive in 2016. And the mall’s 20-year history is full of sinkholes and bankruptcies, so it’s not like the competition is going anyone any favors. The mall’s struggles are likely due to its odd, middle-of-nowhere location (I suspect it was placed so as to draw from both Lake Wales and nearby Winter Haven, but it seems to be doing neither). It’s the kind of sloppy economic development and land use policy that has landed so many places like Lake Wales in trouble.

They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

More than anything else, this is the overwhelming experience of Central Florida:

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Just out the back door of our building at the resort. 

That’s a high-rise looming out of a wetlands, which is cynically preserved to be pretty at right. Just beyond the fence, there’s a short drop to very muddy and wet land; the entire building must be built on a slab of concrete or else it would sink into the muck. It’s hard to go anywhere in the area without thinking of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Florida’s selling point is, to a large extent, its spectacular natural environment; but its growth as a tourist and retirement destination has been largely premised on the destruction of that environment. I’m hardly the first to point out that paradox, and as someone with training in archaeology, I recognize that destruction is sometimes inevitable. But my overwhelming takeaway from this trip is that there’s a lot of opportunity to just correct things that are sloppy, should political and public will exist. Or, you know, maybe the whole state will just slide into the ocean. That’s always a possibility.

Albany has a Choice to Make

Last week I wrote that Upstate New York needs to fundamentally change it development paradigm before it can demand more infrastructure funding. But choices about how to plan and develop aren’t just (or even primarily) a regional choice; they are, at their core, local. And at a local level, the choices are if anything even more stark.

One of my favorite planning-related books of recent years, for its challenging argument if not for my agreement with every aspect–is Chris Leinberger’s The Option of UrbanismHis argument is that given market and demographic trends, urbanism–a pro-urban agenda favoring urban growth, urban amenities, and new paradigms of transportation–is not only again viable in America, but the way of the future. While Leinberger’s case may be overstated–and his emphasis on market forces will certainly turn some off–the framing about cities and stakeholders again having the ability to make an active choice for urbanism, after 60 years of pro-suburban policy, is a useful one. And Albany is facing a critical moment where it must choose whether to make that choice.

Consider these recent cases:

Bus Stop NIMBYism

CDTA, the local transit authority, wants to consolidate several bus stops in the vicinity of the intersection of Lark and Washington in Albany, one of the system’s major hubs. The particulars of the plan are somewhat complicated and I can’t find CDTA’s graphics about it, but the gist is that it would consolidate the four stops on the corner of Lark and Washington into one mid-block stop on Washington between Lark and Dove, and pull in the current local stop at Dove as well. This would alleviate several complex situations that are dangerous to pedestrians and drivers alike. It would also allow CDTA’s #12 bus–one of the system’s busiest, running from downtown to SUNY and Crossgates Mall–to straighten out a kink in its route caused by the fact that buses can’t make a stop at the corner of Lark and Washington and then get back into the left lane to continue straight on Washington as it splits from Central Avenue. The stop can’t be moved any further west because it would create crazy congestion in the intersection, or east because buses would back up at the existing express and local stop at Hawk, just one block down.

The plan has sparked vicious NIMBY opposition–organized around a Change.org petition–led by the owners of the Iron Gate Cafe, outside of whose front door the new stop would be located. The opposition has also been given a boost by usually responsible Times Union columnist Chris Churchill, who I do think would typically recoil at the classist and racist rhetoric to which the opposition has predictably devolved (see below). To their credit, the Iron Gate Cafe owners have used relatively responsible rhetoric, affirming their belief in CDTA as a system, and limiting their complaints to the stop’s location right outside their door. Others, however, have predictably not been as responsible, as Martin Daley documented at a meeting last night that was publicly promoted by the NIMBY coalition, but not by anyone else (or believe me, I would have been there):

Of course, this kind of NIMBYish reaction happens everywhere. What’s particularly galling about this situation is that the owners of Iron Gate Cafe–who claim to value CDTA service–and their supporters haven’t even considered the possibility that government suddenly putting hundreds of riders per day on their doorstep might lead to increased business. It’s the kind of knee-jerk anti-urban attitude typically adopted by suburban NIMBYs, right there in the heart of the densest, most urban part of Albany. It’s a paradigm in which only parking and easy accessibility by car can lead to business–and the only people who ride the bus are the ones who can’t afford to eat at the moderately nice Iron Gate. It is, to say the least, a profoundly anti-urban attitude that doesn’t even attempt to understand a mode of being aside from that of the suburban paradigm. Aside from the issue at hand–to which a compromise solution may be possible–this anti-urban attitude is completely at odds with Albany’s ability to be, to understand itself as, a real city. 

Protected Bike Lanes? 

For the past several years Albany has been planning a road diet on Madison Avenue, one of the city’s primary east-west arterials. A grassroots group, the Albany Protected Bike Lane Coalition, has been vocally advocating for the inclusion of protected lanes in the final configuration of the road diet, which is to be decided upon in the coming weeks or months. Despite a thorough report, including a parking census, but the PBL Coalition, all indications are that the city is not going to include protected lanes in the final plan, primarily over parking concerns (advocates suspect stated concerns about the cost of plowing in the winter are largely a smokescreen).

Parking Galore

Albany has a lot of parking. It has so much, in fact, that even where perceived shortages exist, it’s largely because parking hasn’t been regulated well and no central organizing system exists. When Albany Med wanted to rip out two whole blocks of homes and replace them (in part) with a massive parking garage, the city commissioned a report on parking in the area from Nelson/Nygaard–and then meekly scrubbed the report from the city website when it found that the garage was unnecessary and Albany Med made it clear they were going to go ahead anyhow.

And yet–and yet! Albany continues down a path of not only not recognizing the existing oversupply of parking, but allowing even more. Capitalize Albany, the city’s downtown business development group, recently commissioned a parking study–not an access study by all modes as is best planning practice, but a parking study–that, when read honestly, basically confirmed the existence of oversupply in the downtown area at almost all times, yet called for more.

SUNY Polytechnic, the newest in Governor Cuomo’s long list of throw-gum-at-the-economic-development-wall-and-hope-it-sticks public-private partnerships, is planning three stories of student housing in downtown Albany–and three stories of parking to go with. The kicker? The downtown SUNY Poly campus is to be centered on the city’s old Union Station.

Union Station, 1948  Albany NY 1940s

Albany Union Station then, from the Albany Flickr group

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And now, with structured parking out back, on Bing Maps.

Aside from the absurdity of providing structured parking intended (at least partially) for students in the city’s downtown, which has literally acres of unused parking at night, Albany’s obsession with parking has serious costs. Prioritizing parking over bus stops, or housing, or other potential land uses, devalues urban land, treating it as nothing more than a place for suburban drivers to park their private property. And it sends the message that the city has nothing more valuable to do with itself than provide a convenient (“user-friendly,” as one suburban troll once told me it should be on Twitter) experience for those who don’t live there.

Albany at the tipping point

There are a lot of good things going on in Albany. Construction of residential units is accelerating in the long-depopulated downtown. The local MPO is finally studying removing the eyesore that is the waterfront I-787 freeway. I kvetch a lot, but there are a lot of really lovely things about living here.

At the same time, in over two years of living here, it’s become increasingly clear that Albany is facing a tipping point in terms of its ability to be a city. The city is facing a serious budget crisis, precipitated in no small part by the vast amount of city land taken entirely or mostly off the tax rolls because of institutional use (colleges, hospitals, state offices) or because it’s culturally believed to be valueless (all that parking). All Over Albany recently asked why people in this region are so determinedly pessimistic about everything.  For the city itself, I think, a lot of that has to do with the city’s inability to believe in itself as such. Decades of thinking about Albany’s most urban areas as little more than a destination for car-bound commuters have left the city without a self-image as an urban place–and without that self-image, Albany is left adrift in policy and purpose, unable to plow a clear path forward.

The Choice, or Not

I began this piece by framing Albany as facing the choice to adopt what Chris Leinberger calls the “option” of urbanism. But perhaps that’s not quite the right framework. The way I see it–and, admittedly, I’m an outsider, but one with the valuable perspective of having lived in numerous different places–Albany doesn’t really have that much of a choice. 60 years of being squashed by the suburban attitude, some of it self-adopted, has left the city constantly facing financial crisis, with its downtown just now recovering from being wiped out,  and with an entrenched classist, racist mentality that prevents urbanist improvements from getting done. Like many American cities, Albany’s tried suburbanism, and like most other places, it has failed. The option, such as it ever was, is no longer extant. It’s time for urbanism.