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The Dance of Gentrification



That which is good ever does a dance with that which is evil. It's a wisdom that many intellectual traditions ancient and modern have dealt with. Gentrification is a phenomenon that falls within this realm.

I opened up the Providence Business News to read about improvements to Thayer Street yesterday, and found myself both elated and troubled by what I saw.

“We want to make sure that with this new development there is a balance in retail,” said Allison Spooner, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, which worked extensively on the plan. “That includes students, and making it safe for students, but also a mix. We are hoping that businesses targeting that [student] market don’t become the only thing on Thayer Street.” In this context, a more diverse Thayer Street means adding more boutiques and upscale shops with an older, wealthier clientele to the bars and eateries now so prominent. Marketing efforts will focus on potential new tenants in the “personal care, apparel, home furnishings and gifts and jewelry and accessory sectors,” the plan said in study findings.
“Thayer Street sucks right now – it has 50 percent restaurants and is not attracting the high-end retailers,” said Edward Bishop, a real estate agent, developer, and chairman of the Thayer Street District Management Authority. “It used to be a ‘town and gown’ neighborhood – now it is just gown, all students.”
The most visible near-term projects spelled out in the plan are a series of pocket parks, outdoor seating areas and bus stops in the corridor, some in what are now parking lanes, to make the area a more pleasant place to walk and spend time.
First among the changes will be a “parklet” in what are now two parking spaces outside the Brown University Bookstore. The parklet is slated to be installed this spring as part of “Pop-up Providence” and be paid for with $10,000 from the Providence Redevelopment Agency.
I was elated to see that fifteen parking spots will be lost on Thayer Street to improve pedestrian access, and that a parklet will appear at Brown Book Store. Back in the early summer when I first spoke to Brown Bookstore about Park(ing) Day, they were interested in the idea but acted as though they'd never heard of it. Now this will become a permanent thing.

My disgust lies in the fact that the parklet and pedestrian improvements have been traipsed around as a kind of gentrification tool. Although every possible economic model of transportation reform shows that giving greater access to pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users improves the lot of working people, the neighborhood association is already greedily envisioning some kind of exclusive area where even Ivy League students won't get in their way. Lord help the other kind of brown people that live in Providence. . .

What sort of interventions might be necessary in order to bring about this grand order? Just like many other absurd proposals, it will require public funding but will keep all the private gains to itself. I guess my ability to walk through the neighborhood and get a (relatively) affordable meal is too much of a challenge to the ambiance.

I opened up this piece with a Taoist theme for a reason. I want to emphasize that I recognize the inherent dance between improvement of an area and price, and I nod to its legitimacy. Obviously planting a tree, putting trash collection out, increasing transit frequency or span, or implementing any number of other vital improvements to our city each carry a price. That price reflects their impact on resources, labor, and so forth. Neighborhoods that are blighted and segregated, and impoverished came to be that way because of active and aggressive discrimination from government, business, and labor unions alike, and the solution to their redlined status is not to allow them to continue to decay. But there's something almost braying about the arrogance of a person who claims the problem with Thayer Street is that there isn't enough of a luxury market there. If luxuries were what the people of that area wanted, one imagines, they would have popped up by now (although, I should say, what exists at the moment is hardly low class fare).

The city continues to consider the outcome of the I-195 lands, and parking continues to be at the center. In an podcast with Eco Rhode Island's Tim Faulkner, Jan Brodie, who chairs the I-195 Commission, explained that the only housing currently possible on the I-195 land without some kind of subsidy is luxury housing. In the same interview she hand wrings over the need to provide parking garages to encourage business and housing growth. With garage spots going for $50,000 a spot, one must wonder why the chairwoman doesn't see that the easiest market path to providing affordable housing in the city is to not build the garage at all, especially if that requires public funds. There are better and more vibrant things we could put there. 

The 195 lands will require public funding first to undermine transit and affordable housing, and then even more public funding to clean up the mess. But let's be sure that once the parking garage is built, the part about providing for transit and impoverished people will be forgotten.

Adam Smith warned us that:


The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.
Could have been the Buddha. . . (Not to overly mix our Eastern metaphors. . .)

We keep being told what these projects need, need, need in order to be successful. Never do we consider that if people need something they might be able to provide for themselves in the market. But when it comes to things that are actual public needs in Rhode Island, like pensions, education, transit, or affordable housing, it seems that what we can't destroy with our meddling we certainly won't fix with public resources.

If rich people wanna' drive, let 'em pay.

~~~~

BRT on the SEPTA Route 65

By JAMES KENNEDY

As part of my soon-to-end holiday hiatus from Providence in Philadelphia, I'd like to talk about how some of SEPTA's bus routes could be made much more useful if they became Bus Rapid Transit lines, focusing on City Line Avenue*. I hope the articles from my home city have been as interesting and relevant as the ones I do about the Biggest Little.

Bus Rapid Transit is this:



It takes bus lines and makes them fast, frequent, and efficient, at much lower cost than putting in a trolley/streetcar line, but with greater mobility for users. The buses get their own rights of way and often have stations to help the comfort and speed of loading onto the line.

Why You Gettin' All Excited About This Stupid Bus Jawn?
It's funny how you don't notice certain things about the place you grew up until you leave and come back. The 65 is a bus that my cousin used to take to St. Joe's University when he was a student, and my aunt still takes it to work each day near the TV stations ("I get off at Channel 6 but get back on at Channel 10". --They're on opposite sides of the street). I've taken it a handful of times because it's the most direct way from the western suburbs to Germantown, where I have some friends. But overall, the 65 is a backwater of the SEPTA system. I would highly doubt that anyone bothers to write essays about very much.

The Subjectivity of Terms Like "Suburb"

The 23 trolley is currently a bus, but you can see why NW
Philadelphia might seem less like a "suburb" if you're
not from the area.
If you're from Philadelphia, you think of the places this bus serves as suburbs. I mean, I had a few friends who grew up in Mount Airy, and I would chide them that they were more from the suburbs than me (I'm from Upper Darby). But I would maintain that these places are all exceptional for the opportunities they have for transit, compared to much of the country.
Upper Darby, Home of Tina Fey and Bad Bad Leroy Brown

The bus starts in Upper Darby, goes through the Philadelphia neighborhood of Overbrook, and then straddles the Philadelphia-Montgomery County (Bala Cynwyd/Overbrook) line down City Line Avenue until it crosses the Schuylkill into Northwest Philly (Manayunk, Roxborough, Germantown, Mount Airy). None of these are though of as "urban". I think I've mentioned how I always thought that my trolley served suburb was the thing people were talking about when they mentioned suburban sprawl, but actually it was populated at 14,000 per square mile, which is quite a bit denser than Providence. Some parts of each of these suburbs-within-the-city have huge, old-style single family homes, originally for the rich, but now often for cops or teachers. But much of the housing in any of these areas is apartments and the traditional Philly rowhouse, as well as some twins. There are intact "main street" types of shopping districts. The most overtly pro-car area on this line, in Bala Cynwyd near the TV stations, is full of surface parking, but is basically of a Le Corbusier style--but as ugly and pedestrian unfriendly as it is (says my aunt, "I asked them for a pedestrian signal and they said 'it doesn't have the foot traffic'. Well, I think my life is worth the output of money."), the towers still mean that there's a huge density of people who could take transit. The appropriate zoning, to get infill on those lots, could even bring more business to the area.


The Potential & The Problems
When you ride the route, it mostly feels straight and logical. It veers off of City Line Avenue for a time to meet the end of the 10 trolley, but it doesn't do any of the shenanigans you'd expect of a RIPTA bus--the wild turns into parking lots, zig-zags to meet this or that state assembly person's grandmother, etc. 

Route 10

Philly doesn't have the problem of its transit system not being anywhere to anywhere in the extreme way that 1970s Portland or present-day Rhode Island do. The fact that the 65 exists, with so many potential interactions with other lines, is proof of this. It occurred to me only after returning how crazy it is that this bus crosses so many train stations. It starts out at 69th Street, where one can take the El, the 100, 101, or 102, in addition to a plethora of buses, it goes past the 10 trolley, R5 (the "Main Line" of the Pennsylvania Railroad, hence the upper-crust term "Main Line" for the posh suburban neighborhoods it sprung), the R6, the R7 & R8. The 65 kind of acts as a connector for what would otherwise be a hub & spoke commuter rail system. Wow! I mean, if you lived in Ohio or even Oregon, wouldn't you give your left arm to have such potential?! In all honesty, even the high ridership of a system like LIRR, which mostly serves 1950s style suburbs (podcast), is a miracle compared to this, because the neighborhoods served by these routes are some of the most multi-use places in the country.


The route comes to the head of the Schuykill River Trail and Wissihickon Park as well, meaning that there are major bike connections through the region.

Add to that that Saint Joe's is one of the regions major research institutions, that two of the three TV networks are on the route, that there are major hotels and department stores ad nauseum, and you see why this route could be very important.


I'm not sure who this weird young guy is, but the shorter guy is
Dave Roberts, who delivered the weather to Philly with
ugly City Line Ave. behind him for decades. 
The problem with this route is that City Line Avenue is a cesspool of traffic. As you may have gathered from my aunt's experience, this is not a fun place to be a pedestrian, and especially if you're anything but in perfect shape. (I once tried to ride my bike on City Line Avenue, and I would chalk this up to a karmic rebound on the fact that I never did stupid youthful things like keg stands. I would seem to me that what I did that day was probably much more likely to lead to instant and premature death. I got away with it. I don't know how).

Bottlenecks: A Key to Transit

The 65 intersects with Wissihickon Park, which spans 7 miles of NW Philly, is a major biking corridor, but can only be crossed by car in a few places.
Says Jarrett Walker of Human Transit Blog:
[T]he history of transportation, since the industrial revolution, has been about circular communities and places feeling attacked by the straight lines that any useful form transportation must draw.  In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau recognized the community-piercing and place-destroying role of railroads as clearly as Jane Jacobs did of freeways a century later.  The transportation technology didn't matter: what mattered was that something that had to be linear was piercing something that's naturally round: the place, at any scale. 
And so, today, we have an urbanist discourse that is all about somehow taming the straight line, bending it into a circle.  A long strain of urbanism, epitomized by Darrin Nordahl's work, imagines that transit planning could be based on the tourist experience, even though tourist travel is unlike destination-motivated in this exact respect:  The tourist'sdesire really is a circle: the loop shape of the tour.  But all other transport is motivated straight-line desires, the need to be there so that we can do something.  
This idea has come up in the fact that Providence keeps talking about the need for a "downtown loop" that would help "circulate" people from place to place. Walker argues that this shape doesn't work for transit. If you're at 12 o'clock on a clockwise loop, getting to 3 is fine, but to 9 takes longer than just to walk. The route is useless.

The good news is that in Philadelphia, the 65 is met by all sorts of natural and unnatural barriers that make it the perfect solution to the region's traffic. It crosses Cobb's Creek, the Schuylkill River and I-76, and Wissihickon, none of which have many potential ways to get across. It's these barriers that make an otherwise gridded city face so much congestion. But the limitations, because they create such linearity, mean that the bus route can thrive. 

BRT Saves Money & Works for Drivers

Lots of people may continue to drive to work in this area, but the real key is allowing those who don't have to a real option of getting around. Right now, the 65 is a route of necessity for those who must take it. But with the development of BRT, it could be a real rapid line. We have to keep in mind, too, that in developed countries the cost of running a bus is very much tied to high labor costs. It should meet both the needs of people like me who like transit unions and want transit workers to have power, as well as those who would rather bust unions and save money, to start thinking about how BRT can save on these costs. When you get a bus route to run faster, it's not just about that trip. It also means the bus can turn around and service the same route more often, without additional labor cost (people are paid by the hour, not the mile). 

When a bus has its own right-of-way, all of a sudden, all the incidental connections it makes between so many other rail and trolley lines become more useful. Alongside improvements to other stroads like the Roosevelt Boulevard, reforming City Line Avenue could put SEPTA on new footing.

BRT will mean that those who drive don't face as much traffic. It may take a lane in each direction away from cars, but it will also takes lots of cars off the road. Philadelphians should be aware from experience that so many of their streets work without unnecessary traffic, precisely because transit is a real option.

~~~~

*City Line Avenue is officially called City Avenue, but just as if you call South County "Washington County" everyone knows you're an outsider in Rhode Island, no Philadelphian I have ever met adheres to the street's official name.

Improving the Traffic Report

Every environmentalist has been flabbergasted when a sixty degree spell happens in December or January, only to see the local news go out for a stroll to talk with all the happy residents about how great it is to have such nice weather. There have apparently been improvements to at least the online written coverage of some Philly area stations, but I remember during this same period of winter warmth seeing lots of puff pieces interviewing people in their shorts at the park. Isn't it great?! 

I'm sure Rhode Islanders can think of the same.



The complaint has often been put forth that local weather forecasters do little to inform the public about climate change, despite the fact that local weather updates would be the most logical and streamlined way to get information to the public. Studies have even shown that weather forecasters--who may or may not hold scientific degrees but who in any case do not participate in peer-reviewed scientific studies--are less likely than their more highly credentialed peers at universities and in research institutions to believe in human-caused climate change, or even that any change has happened of any kind.

But what about the traffic report? I must confess, as someone whose television watching is fairly low, and especially as a non-driver, I all but never pay attention to traffic reports.

I caught a glimpse of one of these reports on the TV at a family member's house, and was oddly transfixed. Here before me was a report outlining the most dysfunctional stroads, state highways, boulevards, and interstates in the region. It occurred to me: Just as it's a wonder that people can get a more and more severe weather forecast each year, with warmer winters and more absurdly sweltering heat waves, and somehow not understand the connection to carbon emissions, shouldn't it also be obvious what's wrong with these roads? If your eyes are opened to the meaning of road planning, you might think so. Look! The Blue Route is still blocked! Should've never built that! Schuykill Expressway a parking lot? Maybe we should have enhanced biking on the Schuykill River Trail better, and increased the frequency of Regional Rail trains along that corridor instead of building an ugly interstate along the west side of the river. An accident on the Roosevelt Boulevard? Cottman's jammed? No surprise--Northeast Philly is largely a cesspool of post-1950s design.

What if between reports of shootings the Philadelphia press kept a tracker of how many people had been killed by cars in the city? It would be fewer than those who are shot, and that's a function both of the fact that many parts of the city are well designed for road safety and that gun control and poverty harshly affect many others, but the contrast is closer than I think many ordinary people would imagine.

What if the traffic report talked about the 24 foot streets carrying traffic slowly but smoothly at high capacity using protected bike lanes? What if it named the number of people who took the El into the city this morning instead of speeding down the unfortunately widened portion of Chestnut Street (and what if it noticed the fact that Walnut & Chestnut are an unusually sharp boundary line separating the most blighted portions of West Philly from the most gentrified, and drew conclusions about what such unsafe streets might mean for development)? When's the last time the traffic report took its microphone out of the helicopter and stuffed into a trolley stuffed into the stairwells with people, and asked questions about how many people could move down a narrow trolley-served street as opposed to one of the city's stroads?

What's hard as a transit and bike activist is the difficulty of explaining counter-intuitive ideas that go into street design. Why wouldn't it make sense that widening a road would improve traffic flow (and why would such widening not improve safety if it gives drivers more room to maneuver)? Why are transit and bikes such a market-oriented and fiscally conservative approach to moving people, if all appearances point to the more apparent vision that they're a socialist hobby upheld by top-down subsidies? What makes some streets have so many accidents, and others very few? 

A clever newscaster could give these questions five minutes a day, and over the course of time the voting public could actually start to understand what goes into making their morning and evening commutes so frustrating. It would be a great step forward.

The Rhode Island press would also do well to include this in their television traffic reports. This is one area where I have infinitely more faith in Providence than in Philly. I never felt like I could affect events nearly as quickly and fully in Philadelphia as I do in Providence, however frustrated I may feel with the current situation our city is in. Philly is huge, and institutional inertia is correspondingly overwhelming, but our stations could quickly educate the Ocean State's public to make us a leader on the East Coast.

~~~~

Now That's a Narrow Street!

We hear a lot of idle talk in Providence about how our streets are too narrow to do anything creative with. Sure, it would be nice to have exclusive transit lanes to allow our buses to move at 30 mph instead of, say, 5 mph as they do now. It would be great if we could have protected bike lanes like the Netherlands. But we're not Salt Lake City or Los Angeles. We have narrow streets!

Well. . .


This Philadelphia Street is approximately long enough for me to use the curb as a (rather uncomfortable) pillow.

It would be misleading to say that this is a major street in Philadelphia, but it's not an alley either. It's the site of businesses, a community garden, homes. And every other street (basically all the named "half"streets between the numbered ones) are about this wide. I'm a tall guy, but you can tell that if I put my head down, I wouldn't fit, laying flat.

Okay, you say, so you have some nice quiet back streets. 

Well, the arterial streets next to this one is about 24 feet wide. That's like Downcity Westminster. Philadelphians take it for granted that such a street is too narrow to have parking on either side (even though technically that would be possible). The street has one travel lane for cars, one equally sized buffered bike lane for bikes, and one parking lane. That's how to use 24 feet effectively. 

I think Rhode Islanders are no strangers to this kind of street from having visited Newport, but it's good to remind ourselves that a city of 1.5 million can survive on narrow streets too.

There's room to criticize Philly. 13th Street, the Street in question, is part of a pair of streets that have trolley tracks on them stretching from Chestnut Hill in the far Northwest all the way through Temple University and down to Packer Avenue beyond where Rocky used to punch carcasses. That trolley still has its guide wires and rail bed, and runs as a bus.

And interesting question to ask would be, is having a trolley back on this street worth the expense? It would certainly capture my imagination to see it, but so long as this street remains mixed-traffic, I'm not sure that the trolley would really bring anything all that exciting with it. Why not make just small sections of this street car-free, to divert traffic onto Philadelphia's geometric grid and back onto Broad Street (i.e., "14th Street")? Local cars could still come through to park or shop, but wouldn't be joined by through traffic. As yet, even the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia doesn't have the vision for something like that.
Yet. Key word. Yet.

Philly could also put some flex-posts or bollards on the edge of the protected bike lane, so that cars can't break the rules and double park in it. The Philadelphia Parking Authority did recently tweet that it would like bikers to tweet and text them parking violations in bike lanes, and the city seems to be somewhat serious about fining motorists, but bollards would make the whole situation simpler. It would also invite even more people to get out and bike.

What's upsetting to me about Providence sometimes is that it doesn't see how far it is behind its potential. I could say the same for my home city. As exciting as it is that Philadelphia is the #1 biking city in the U.S. above 1 million inhabitants (move over, Chicago and New York), with some (cheap, easy to engineer) extra effort, it could be a virtual Copenhagen.

And I think with some effort, Providence could too.

~~~~
Update & Small Correction: I'm looking closer at the twitter photo in its large version and seeing that the one I photographed isn't the one with the 23 trolley tracks. I think it's the next one over. I don't think this really affects the general point I'm making, although obviously it means the recommendation for a car-free thoroughfare would be for the trolley street, not the non-trolley one. 

Sound familiar?


1970s Portland, Oregon

Sound like anywhere?
The 1970 network consisted of bus routes radiating from downtown across the gridded eastside, which constitutes about 3/4 of Portland.  If you were anywhere on this network, you had a direct bus downtown -- a slow, circuitous, and infrequent bus.  Very few routes ran better than every 30 minutes during the day.  Only two routes ran north-south across the east side, and both were too infrequent to transfer to, so you couldn't really use them unless both ends of your trip were on them. 
Wow, it's actually a little eerie. Even down to the coincidence of the neighborhood names. Continuing from the article on Human Transit:
 
How did the 1982 network transform the possibilities of mobility in the city?
  • The old network was solely about going downtown.  The new network was about going anywhere you wanted to go.
  • The old network was infrequent.  The new network required easy connections, so it was designed to run at high frequency (most lines every 15 minutes or better all day).  Remember: Frequency is freedom!
  • The old network was wasteful, as many overlapping lines converged on downtown.  The new network was efficient, with little overlap between lines, and with lines spaced further apart to the extent that the street network allowed.  This is how the resources were found to increase frequency so much.
  • The old network was complicated, with routes often zigzagging from one street to another.  The new network was simpler, easy to keep in your head.  Many streets that were formerly served by a patchwork of overlapping routes, such as Division, now had a single route from end to end, so that you needed only remember "the Division bus."  Transit became an intrinsic part of the street.
Wow.

Thanks to Andrew at Map Center who pointed this out in a Greater City Providence thread about the proposed Garrahy bus hub/parking sinkhole from hell.

~~~~

Social Justice & the Streetcar

The streetcar in Cincinnati (New York Times)

We should be thinking about the social footprint of our projects as well as the environmental one. Consider the following, and discuss:


The New York Times wrote a great overview article about the Cincinnati streetcar, and in it the NAACP of Cincinnati is quoted as saying:

“The frustration is that the other 51 neighborhoods in the city are suffering,” said Christopher Smitherman, a City Council member and former local president of the N.A.A.C.P. “And these guys are talking about how they want a choo-choo train running through downtown.” (my emphasis)
The article goes on to talk about "fiscal restraint" as the opposition's position in the midst of a struggling city. I think anyone who studies this knows that market forces would not build a highway (say, like Cleveland's proposed "Opportunity Corridor"). The fact that private donors have had to pony up money for the streetcar is a major double standard. And there's real objective need to focus a project in order to bring success. I've even written about the need to consolidate bus routes in the West Side (effectively cutting some) in order to combine the labor outlay of those various routes into one, effective, frequent, predictable service. But even with this need to focus, what does it mean to leave out some of the poorest neighborhoods in a city? Coming from a suburb that had a significant black population, and having lived in the core city  that was majority black, and knowing the huge position of transit (note, Providence makes it to the list too, but not as high) in the lives of everyone in that region--but most especially poor and disproportionately non-white people--it's beyond shocking for me to wrap my head around an NAACP opposing a transit project. Maybe I just don't know the culture of Cincinnati, but to me, that would have been a wake up call that something must have gone wrong.


One of the most interesting posts I've seen about this question has been from former mayor of Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, who tweeted:

He also had this to say:

I know that Providence has proposed a kind of BRT, but as far as I know it has none of the positive attributes that would make BRT what it could be. There are no beautified medians, no physically separated, exclusive lanes, and no indoor stations to add to the comfort of passengers and speed of boarding. Could it be that if we tried a BRT system that had these features, it might also have a positive development effect for building density? And if the price is right, can we expand the pilot to include a larger swath of the city, perhaps going deeper into the South Side beyond the hospitals?

And lastly, unedited, I submit something my friend Kate Zaidan wrote on the tensions she feels about the streetcar. Kate is a Cincinnati native who moved back to her home neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine to help her ailing father with his store, Dean's Middle Eastern Food. The piece first appeared in Streetvibes, Cincinnati's alternative paper.


The interminable debate over the Cincinnati Streetcar has perhaps reached its pinnacle, even as the pavement on Elm Street has been sliced and shredded, with the rails literally in the ground. The five year debate has been given new energy thanks to the election of Mayor John Cranley and a cohort of city council members ambivalent (at best) about the project.  
The fact that the project remains controversial lends some insight into just how divided Cincinnati is, especially along of race, class and ideology. And no doubt, the streetcar is a complicated political project, pitting the young “creative class” against the (somewhat) unlikely bedfellows of the Tea Party and the NAACP . The streetcar’s base of support is largely middle to upper class white folks, while many poor folks and people of color, in addition to allies and activists on the left, see the streetcar as a project for moneyed urbanites, cementing Downtown and Over-the-Rhine as a playground for the rich.  
Is it possible to be anti-gentrification and pro-streetcar?  Right now, not really. One of the speakers at the Streetcar Town Hall two weeks ago referred to Buddy Gray’s poor people’s movement as a “separatist group”. The key players in the fight are mostly wealthy property owners and businesses, and the success of the project is consistently touted as economic development figures, not ridership projections or community benefits. As the pro-street car movement stands now, it is certainly of a particular race and class makeup, and as a result, the concerns of the poor are swept under the rug.  
But opposing the streetcar on the grounds of gentrification doesn’t actually do much to stem the tide of displacement, and more importantly, forgoes an opportunity to make real improvements in people’s lives. In this era of budget cuts, austerity, and policies that strip public services away in favor of private gain, opposing a massive investment in public infrastructure because of “gentrification”, a worldwide phenomenon rooted in the fundamental structure of our economy, amounts to little more than political posturing.  The real work begins when we fight to unpin community livability and public services to economic buying power. 
It is ultimately the logic of free-market capitalism that causes gentrification, not sensible planning and urban amenities. Improved city services, innovative transportation systems, better sidewalks and streetlights are all part of what makes a community livable, strong and thriving. When a community becomes livable, strong, and thriving, it also becomes a valuable commodity to be bought and sold. The bidding wars start, and eventually, poor people are priced out of their homes. Streetcars  (and bike lines and tree planting and litter clean ups) accelerate gentrification, a process that displaces poor people into neighborhoods without those amenities, until, of course, some developer sees the potential of an Avondale or a Bond Hill and starts the process over again. Mixed income housing is held up as the solution to it all, but the reality is that market rate development  can never be truly mixed, precisely because the market sets the rates. It’s such a pickle.  
As such, the question is not how to slow or stop gentrification, but how to chip away at the system that causes it in the first place. We don’t want to end gentrification, we want to end poverty. The process of creating a more just, more equitable society begins with an intentional leveling of the playing field, and part of that is building the necessary infrastructure to give poor people access to the same jobs, the same schools, the same safe neighborhoods as everyone else.  Affordable, accessible public transit is something we need to fight for, and the streetcar is a good as place as any to start.  
Furthermore, there are significant differences between the streetcar and other developments in Over the Rhine. The streetcar, while certainly benefiting from private funds, is a public project. The budget and all aspects are transparent and subject to democratic decision-making (hence the TWO referenda), and the project must conform to laws around minority and women contractors. But most importantly, it is for the public. It’s not an expensive condo or a fancy restaurant…anyone and everyone has access. Transit is actually one of the few places where the economic mixing so coveted by neighborhoods actually takes place, where rich and poor rub elbows and maybe has an opportunity understand each other a little bit more.  
Cincinnati is lucky to have a thriving and successful people’s movement in Over the Rhine, started by the visionary Buddy Grey. Part of what made the OTR’s people movement so successful is that it built something. People hunkered down, bought property and left a legacy. You can see it today as you walk down Vine Street, with boutique shops and restaurants sitting next to the Contact Center, Venice on Vine and Buddy’s Place. The purchase of those properties was future-oriented, and a savvy political step at creating the facts on the ground for the public to contend with. While those properties have most certainly taken a beating in the ongoing effort to gentrify Over the Rhine, that spirit could be easily transferred to the streetcar fight. Instead of opposing the streetcar, we should be demanding free fares, prioritizing routes that puts workers in front of their jobs, and connecting neighborhoods with neighborhoods regardless of their class status.   
We can have a vision for a just, equitable society, but that vision has to start somewhere. The streetcaris a fight that is happening now, and we need to decide where we fit in. We can either work against it, which is a great way for high-powered people to win political campaigns. Or, we can decide that we want to reduce our dependency on the private automobile (and mitigate climate change, oil wars, and poor air quality), and improve transportation access to jobs, shopping and entertainment.  There most certainly is a battle with the streetcar, and the battle should not be should it stay or should it go, but who it should serve and how.
I'd be the first to admit that even as city neighborhoods improve and rents go up, that the balance of not having to own a car can often mean that living is cheaper than it would have been with cheap rent and needing to own a car. And also, much of the "cheapness" we find so apparent about the suburbs is due to hidden subsidies, and what Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns Blog calls the "ponzi scheme" of suburban growth.

But with that said, and especially with the valid points brought to the table by Peñalosa, shouldn't we heed the call to take working people seriously when we think about transit expansion?

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Please discuss. You've got better things to say than I do.

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Some Things I'd Rather See in Garrahy Square Than a Parking Garage

By JAMES KENNEDY

Providence needs to start focusing on building places, not parking.

Garrahy Square is little more than a vacant lot right now, along what used to be I-195. Providence residents, most prominently Greater City Providence's Jef Nickerson and The Projo's Paul Grimaldi, have done a lot of work to bring attention to RIDOT's plans to build a publicly-funded parking garage in the square. The project would be a major fiasco. Advocates for transit now have to decide whether they'll accept a mediocre compromise that's being offered them in the form of a bus hub, or whether they'll steel themselves for the full fight to have livable spaces in Providence's downtown.

The fight to block public funding of a parking garage in the outskirts of the former interstate highway has made some headway. There's now a serious proposal on the table to have RIPTA put a bus hub on the first floor of the garage. A lot of people have flocked to this idea as the solution to the original car-centric garage. I think we're setting the bar too low.

Isn't a garage with buses included the kind of proposal that would bring balance to Providence's transportation design? Well, not really.

We're Not Playing With Monopoly Money

The first thing to keep in mind is just how expensive parking is. Parking structures per se are not a bad thing, and having a garage can be better than the sprawl of surface parking. The key is who pays for the garage, though. As I pointed out in a letter to the Audubon Society about the Rhode Island Statehouse parking, a garage goes from being an improvement to an outright hindrance to transit depending on whether drivers pay for the parking or someone else does. Garage parking runs around $50,000 a parking spot. Keep in mind, in certain neighborhoods of Providence, you can buy a house for the cost of one of those spots. Even in the East Side, stringing a handful of those parking spaces together and bringing them with you as collateral to a real estate auction would get you some nice digs to live in. If a private developer thinks they stand to make some money by building a parking garage and charging drivers to use it, then within reasonable limits there's no reason why some of that type of development can't happen in our downtown. But to have the state pay for the parking of private individuals when it can barely keep a functional school system going or offer a good tax climate for local businesses is ridiculous, especially since that spending will inevitably mean that poorer non-drivers have to pay for the life-style choices of wealthier car owners. Even if the garage parking doesn't end of being totally free, the fact that municipal or state government gave it access to special credit arrangements or grants means that the cost of building the structure will have been spread out to non-drivers.

Fixing surface parking by paying for garages is like fixing diabetes by creating a special slush fund for amputations. The root cause of diabetes is poor diet and lack of exercise. The root cause of parking lots everywhere is poor zoning and lack of transit. Providing a garage may treat the symptom of surface parking just as sawing off a person's leg may become necessary emergency treatment for a patient who hasn't managed their blood sugar, but everyone knows that in either case, dealing with the root problem will be cheaper for doctor and patient than letting things get out of hand, and slapping on sloppy last-minute solutions.

Density of Businesses and Residents--Not Cars

Then there's the question of what makes a transit hub successful. Transit needs people. It needs places to go to, that are walkable at wherever the bus lets you out.

There's very little likelihood that someone driving into the city in their car will park in a structure, get out, jump on a bus or streetcar, and go about their business as a non-driver the rest of the day. Once you've committed yourself to buying a car, paying for insurance, paying for whatever gas got you most of the way to your destination, and then (hopefully, if it's not free) paying for parking, you've got little reason to pay another $2 each direction in order to not drive the last half mile. So there's going to be little to no interaction between the garage part of the structure and the bus hub.

If you don't own a car and are being sent to this new hub instead of Kennedy Plaza, you've got to ask yourself what you're getting from the arrangement too. Is there anywhere to shop at the hub? (No. Want some parking?). Can I rent an apartment above the hub? (No, but we've got some parking for you!). I'm without a car and need to get some groceries on the way to or from work! (Eh. . . No, we can't offer that. We've got parking!). Providence Business News has already extensively written on the failure of free parking at Wickford Junction to encourage transit use. Transit advocates should block the same strategy for the Jewelry District even more ferociously, because Providence's downtown isn't some outer village of the state. It's the core.

People respond, "Well, it happens that there are lots of jobs with the state and at universities, either now or soon to develop. People will take transit to those jobs." Uh, well, maybe somewhat, but not as much as you might like to think. The jobs that already exist for the state are mostly 9-5 gigs, and on a slightly modified schedule it's more or less the same for universities. This means that we might get some really great "peaked" service from RIPTA at the hub to meet those needs. It also means that since no reasonable bus drivers would want to drag themselves out of bed to work a split shift for a couple hours at opposite ends of the day, that we'll have some crappy intermittent service that's infrequent and more expensive than necessary. Transit will essentially need a higher subsidy to exist if it ends up with a peaked schedule. Peaked schedules also mean that commuters that aren't sure about their schedule on a given day will be incentivized to drive. I occasionally commute to Boston by train, and if I miss a trip back, it can be a long time waiting in the station until the next departure (even worse if you happen to be a "reverse" commuter to Providence). In our downtown, we want to make sure that lower income people who tend to work inconvenient schedules have a way to get to work. We want to make sure that professionals who have the money to buy a car but want to be "green" can do so without worrying that they'll annoy their husband/wife/kids by being late to a family event. We want young people who went out drinking to know that they can get a bus conveniently at any hour in order to stop drunk driving. Peaked service ends up being economically inefficient and suboptimal for riders. Lose-lose. (But we've got parking, did I mention? Maybe you should drive to work instead. . . ).

Places That Work With Transit Instead of Against It

Lot of cities have public places that work. These places might have a place to park as an incidental aspect of the design, but the main features of what makes them successful is a lack of focus on cars. It makes the spaces cost effective. It makes them beautiful. It gives them mixed uses that bring a variety of people at all times of day, to allow for frequent, non-peaked transit service. Here are some places I'd rather see in Garrahy than a garage (bus hub or not).

Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I grew up in Upper Darby and Sharon Hill, two lower-middle class streetcar suburbs of Philadelphia. Starting around middle school when my parents would allow it, I could get on a trolley, ride to the endpoint of the El, take that to Center City Philadelphia, and go where I pleased on foot for the day. Reading Terminal Market was my favorite place to do this. I could actually take a trolley out in the other direction to a suburban mall, but I can't remember any times when I actually did this. What was great as a transit user was that I could get out, experience a place that had variety of fare (Thai food, pizza, Middle Eastern, unusual cheese, Indian, old-style ice cream, Amish farmers' markets, used books, etc.) all in one place.

There are lots of offices located in what used to be the headquarters of the Reading Railroad for the whole country, so the space doesn't survive on the farmers' markets and restaurants alone. Providence could copy a model like this and add parking-free apartments to boot, so that there would be a natural audience for transit use. Not including parking also makes apartments more affordable, which is key to meeting the needs of working class people as well as students, two groups of people who exist in large numbers in Providence. Empty-nesters would also find the apartments useful, and transit access would help older folks who can't drive anymore.

The Reading Terminal was so named because it was the terminus of the Reading Railroad. In the 1980s when Philadelphia connected the commuter lines that used to be part of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the Reading Railroad lines through an underground tunnel in Center City, people weren't sure what was going to happen to the old train station. But instead of tearing it down, adaptive reuse kept the market alive, and it's far and away one of the most popular attractions in the city. You can get any commuter train that serves the Philadelphia region, or jump on the subway/el, and it's only one stop to catch the other major subway line and intra-urban trolleys.

The market is helped by transit, but transit is also built by the market.

Findlay Market, Cincinnati, Ohio

My friend Kate's dad owned a Middle Eastern store in Findlay Market, in Cincinnati, and I was privileged enough to get to meet her dad on a brief visit to that city some years ago.





Findlay Market is part of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati, which is just now getting to celebrate its victory in preserving a streetcar proposal that had been challenged by a Tea Party mayor. The city of Cincinnati stood to pay nearly as much to not complete the streetcar as it would have to complete the project, even before federal authorities threatened to withdraw $40 Million in funding for non-completion.

The streetcar is great, and since Providence is trying to get its own going, we should look to this neighborhood for inspiration. But the rail project itself isn't what will make or break the success of Cincinnati. What upholds the possibility of successful rail is the fact that the neighborhood has preserved a multi-use, walkable, dense environment where transit would actually be useful.

Which would you rather have, a parking garage, or this?

The Embarcadero

Providence removed an interstate highway to get this development opportunity, so maybe we should look at what San Francisco did when it removed the Embarcadero.

After an earthquake caused part of the highway to collapse, San Franciscans had to ask themselves if it was really worth the money to put such an eyesore back in. They decided against it, and now they have a vibrant neighborhood for it.

(Note: the key to this success was not parking. It was transit, bike lanes, walkable spaces, parks, and mixed-use spaces.)



A Crossroads

Given the choice of a parking garage without transit, or a parking garage with transit, I'm not even certain I'd choose option B. Transit's success is based on there being actual locations that people want to visit, with multi-use opportunities to live, work, or shop in the location. Putting a bus hub under parking may actually doom the transit hub to irrelevance, and that will undermine the ability to fix the mistake with future funding if that means transit advocates loose credibility with the public.

We need to recognize that a parking garage with a bus hub under it is an unacceptable proposal. It's not a compromise we should be ready to take. We gotta' stick it out for the real fight, which is getting Providence to allow public or private money to build places that will make our city memorable.


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Why It's Time for Sheldon Whitehouse to Wake Up Too.

Look, I really respect and admire our U.S. Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse. I especially like him because I grew up in Pennsylvania, and my idea of the Senate growing up was at best Arlen Specter, and at worse, the famed frothy homophobe and big-pharma money whore Rick Santorum. Sheldon Whitehouse is one of the few strong voices we have in the Senate talking consistently about climate change, and god bless 'im.

Whitehouse just tweeted his most recent weekly climate change speech. Our dear senator has been trying his best each week for over a year to get the upper house of our bicameral legislature to do something about climate. Again, good for him.




But this is as good a time as any to highlight something I find lacking in progressive politics. It seems to me that a lot of progressives don't understand the nature of various government programs and how they fit together.

This might be why Whitehouse had this to say about the "Viaduct" near the Providence Place Mall:



Hmm. Anyone think this is a bit odd?

Now, look, the Viaduct is in bad shape, and the expensive overhaul is probably a necessary evil in light of the fact that there's no plan to remove the huge cloverleaf from our city anytime soon. But what does the Viaduct do for our city? It cuts the city apart in pieces, makes cars a necessary way to get around between certain neighborhoods, and adds greatly to our climate footprint.

There's an understanding among economists that some spending we do will undermine other spending, even if the two programs might seem to be a good thing to the average citizen. A price floor for food to protect farmers will also make the same food more expensive than it might otherwise be. Then a program will be designed to subsidize the cost of food for poor people (Full disclosure: I use food stamps and support the program). It's not to say that supporting farmers and supporting poor people are not both admirable goals, and there may be some degree of importance to have the government involved in both, but if you asked most people if there was a contradiction between chasing good money after bad to re-adjust what has already been adjusted with a subsidy, they just wouldn't see the problem.

With highway spending--especially the kind to cuts a city in half, and then in half again, like in Providence--you're talking about a very expensive subsidy to cars that makes walking or biking to certain places almost impossible. You're also looking at a subsidy that undermines transit. I'm certain that Sheldon Whitehouse thinks that supporting RIPTA and the MBTA are vital, but doesn't see how spending he supports on one thing completely undermines the other.

One can fall back on the idea of "choice".  Isn't it okay to support the highway and transit? It's just "balanced", right? But the whole point, again, is that if we were just going to leave projects like this up to market choices that people freely make, then the highway would be a toll turnpike without public support, and would have probably never been built (especially because eminent domain was necessary to create a path for it in many places). Transit appears to be this program that liberals can come to the rescue with funding for, but if their goal is to do that and maintain fiscal responsibility, they should start to look at how expensive boondoggles like I-95 (yes, like I-95) undermine this.

Around 5:00 in the Time to Wake Up video Sheldon Whitehouse goes into a very interesting talk about how much money the country has, and how it's not taking care of its basic infrastructure. He says, why in a country like the U.S. can we not deal with our most basic problems (I would recommend listening to his exact wording, because I'm not going to quote it here). Well, I agree, and our country should spare not expense when it has to to solve problems. But sometimes less is more. Sometimes not spending on a boondoggle will not only leave money for more important things, but it will stop undermining those important things with counter-subsidies.

With due respect to Whitehouse, who I think is a true statesman and an admirable man, it's time for him to wake up too.

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Good Grief.



I realized something odd this weekend visiting with family. I found myself in many a conversation with other adults where snow was the object of ridicule. Outright hatred. Frustration. Loathing.

My relatives who were younger than driving age all agreed with  me. Snow is great.

It may just be that I'm moving along an age bell curve. I"m somewhere between 28 and 29 right now, kind of balancing on the edge of that middle-aged precipice. But I also think it might be that the place I was in this weekend was out in a suburb. Even the people I spoke to when I came back into Providence, though back in the city with me, were drivers. The conversations went kind of like this:

Me: Man, this is some nice snow, huh? 
Other person: Ugh, I hate snow. Bad to drive in.
Me: Oh, yeah, it's true. It's pretty though.
Other person: Ugh, I hate snow.

I mean, it's almost like people can't see the transcendent beauty in the stuff anymore.

I've been having a fascination with even the frustrations of the snow. When it's this icy, especially if I'm not going very far, I'd rather walk than bike. But walking in Providence, even just the mile from my West Side apartment to my downtown job, is an exercise in caution during these storms. You think this is bad to drive in! Well... It seems like no one believes in snow shovels here. But even through that--I might add with the help of youth and an able body--there have been so many great things to grasp from the experience. 

We ran out of rock salt, so when we did our steps I just poured some regular table salt all over. And then I could here the ice crack and snap and press together. I came back later with just a big wooden broomstick and smacked the crap out of that ice, and it broke into tiny opaque white shards from what had been clear glass. It's great!

The concrete on my mile walk to work was full of all sorts of dangerous places. Areas of packed snow shaped like other daring people's feet. Huge mounds of plowed in piles. Smooth crystalline lakes, and bulbous formations that look like they could only come from the dripping of a cave, but which stood in rippling rotundity all on their own. How can anyone (who's not in a wheelchair--okay, big if!) hate this stuff?

Even the fact that people (most people, which is more than usual) start to slow down in their cars. They drive at speeds that they should be driving normally, because they suddenly understand the fragility of their control. What a joy! I'd crawl over all sorts of ice for that!

I wish people would shovel more, but I also just wish that people who can would get out of their cars and experience what they've been missing. Our fascination with the beauty of water in its solid form should not be taken away by our dumb vehicles.


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Be the first below to comment and say something other than "I hate snow, it's hard to drive in."



Update on the Audubon Society/Statehouse Parking

Some of you may have read Eco RI's coverage of the Audubon Society's letter asking that the Statehouse lawn not be the site of new surface parking. I replied to the letter with a small but at the same time very important complaint, which was that the main alternative offered by Audubon appeared to be to double down on the policy of park-ifying everything in Providence by building garages instead of surface lots.

On the 9th, I received this in reply:

Dear Mr. Kennedy: 
Thank you for your work to reduce the impacts of transportation and for your economic analysis of parking. Audubon Society has worked for public policy to entice more state employees from their individual autos to public transit. We understand that public transit is not always possible for people working at or visiting the state offices around the capitol. Our position on parking factors in the environmental, aesthetic, public and individual costs of parking at the state capitol area. [My italics] 
Best wishes in your continued efforts to rationalize transportation policy. 
Cordially,
Eugenia Marks

Definitely polite words, and I appreciate the cordiality, but... A careful reading leaves a person without a clear idea of exactly what the position at Audubon is on the issue of the state paying for parking structures, but I think it's fair to say that reading between the lines gives the impression that they do support the state or city paying for parking, and are sidestepping the issue with some kind of passive voice construction (I mean, technically the operative verb "factors" is active and the word "our" does take some direct ownership over the position, but for the most part it's six-to-a-half-dozen. Decisions were made.)

That said, I really wanted to give Audubon another chance to clarify their position, because maybe 

Hi,  
I appreciate your prompt response but don't feel that it answered my question. Does the Audubon Society endorse a policy of the state paying for parking garages in part or full in order to reduce surface parking in the city? I'd like to nail down exactly what the position is. In the letter on Eco RI, the specifics of who would pay for parking garages was left in the air, and I think this is a central question.

Thanks!

So far it's been radio silence for four days.

I really hope it doesn't seem like I'm beating up on Audubon, because I appreciate their efforts on this issue. It takes a lot of effort to step up as an organization and oppose Lincoln Chafee, because in some ways he's been a very good governor on certain ecological issues, and Audubon isn't exactly a 350.org type of direct action activist group. But the distinction of whether the state/city or private groups pay for parking garages is a very important one.

The best metaphor I can apply to this is the recent debate over beach front flooding due to climate change along Rhode Island's shores. The changed flooding maps have created a lot of financial hardships for owners of buildings along the waterfront, because the insurance rates for those buildings go through the roof. But what changing those insurance maps entails is making the owners of those buildings responsible for the buildings' care if a storm hits. This might sound regressive on face value--aren't we "all in this together"?--but people who tend to own beachfront property also tend to be wealthy, or at least above the median income. If they can't afford to upkeep an unnecessary luxury like owning a beach house, then they shouldn't. 

Car ownership is not exactly a luxury. People of lots of incomes drive. But the lowest fifth of Americans drive very little or not at all. Essentially anything you do to make car ownership cheaper rewards those who have the thousands of dollars a year to put into buying and maintaining a car, and gives nothing to those who can't do that. What's more, it also amplifies the need for a car, because that subsidy to car ownership sends all sorts of ripples through the economy for housing development, where jobs go, etc., which almost guarantee the result that driving should seem an "everyman" activity.


Returning to the beachfront metaphor: One of the realistic (but expensive) solutions to flooding along coastal waterfronts is to build buildings on pilings above the ground. But if Audubon came along and said that the solution to upper income people who own beach houses having to pay more for insurance would be for RI & Providence Plantations to start a free buildings-on-stilts program, we'd all laugh. We understand that this is a solution to the symptom of flooding, but we don't think the government should pay for beach house owners to retrofit their houses. It'd be crazy.

Offering money for garage parking, which is extremely expensive and will only ever be enjoyed by people who have the income to own cars, makes poorer people suffer by taking state money away from more legitimate public realms (if you're liberal, maybe those public realms are education or healthcare, but a conservative could also argue that a tax cut for businesses might be better than a Soviet-style diktat that there be enough parking at all times in all places for the Politburo's price of zero). It may solve the immediate symptom of their being surface parking everywhere, but it increases the subsidy to drivers while building nothing in the Capital district that will actually produce tax (or private, for that matter) revenue.

In San Francisco, where Donald Shoup first set his glance to the study of parking supply, the distinguished professor found that even though the BART trains had a $5 per square foot development tax to support trains from new construction, that S.F.'s zoning requiring off street parking had undone the subsidy, to the point that if he assumed that only one of the four parking spots required for a 1200 square foot building was above and beyond what the market would have provided without a zoning requirement, the subsidy to driving offered by that one spot was nearly five times as great as that to BART. Rhode Island, of course, is far behind most of its peer states (states with significant population density to support transit). So the effect is even worse here.

Plus, I just think the Audubon Society should have the cojones to say that when the map of Providence's downtown looks like this, that there's already enough parking. It's time to take some out, not add more.

One step forward and five steps back is no place good to go.