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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Why South Main Should Be Top on Your List Feb. 19th

Current RIDOT plan for South Main Street: Two 12' (Highway width) double-northbound lanes & two parking lanes. Mega-fail.
(Thank you to Jonathan Harris for these Streetmix designs)

RIDOT is doing a redesign of S. Main Street. The current plans are a slight improvement on what currently exists, adding some pedestrian crossings, bump-outs, and taking 1' away from each lane. But the design that is left is nothing to be happy about. The two travel lanes will be 12' each instead of their current 13'. They'll continue to be in a multilane one-way formation. There will be a door-zone bike lane, but it will go only as far as James Street, and then stop. 

The Bike & Ped Advisory Commission in taking feedback on other designs, to help advocate for more in the RIDOT redesign. Please send your vote to eric@greenway.org and plan to attend the meeting on Wednesday, February 19th, 4:45 PM at 444 Westminster Street.

The Gold Plated Model: A two-way buffered or protected bikeway, two 8' parking lanes, and one 11' travel lane.
This model reduces the 12' lanes to 10' each, makes them two-way, and puts a 4' bike lane between one of the parking lanes and the travel lane (a 5' lane is typical, but Jonathan Harris did some research, and AASHTO allows 4'). I give this a C- but it would be better than nothing.
This is an interesting one: one lane of parallel parking, one lane of slanted parking to take away width, one 10' travel lane, a buffer, and a bike lane. B+ in my mind.

The most basic improvement: Making the street two-way, with sharrows. Two directional streets do slow cars down as compared to double lane one-way streets. I don't like this design because sharrows on an 11' lane beckon a cyclist to take the lane, while telling a motorist they control the road at whatever speed they'd like. This would be an improvement for pedestrians though. D+.

This is the last option, except the lanes haven't been narrowed at all. They're 12'. D-.


"But You Don't Have Kids..."

I was talking to a mid-level Providence official about the need to reform the city's transportation priorities away from car use, and he interjected that the reforms I was proposing would be fine for people like me who are "young, carefree, and without children" but that that comprised only a narrow segment of the population.

We're lucky in this stage of history to enjoy such a great degree of control over our reproductive choices. This is especially true for women, of course, but it's also true for men. Lots of people my age don't want to have children yet, or even at all. The freedom to make such choices is obviously good.

Personally, though, I would like to be a parent by this point in my life. Rachel and I talk about it at least a couple times a week. We both feel that way, but we look at our finances in this economy and don't feel that we can afford to. And when I say that we can't afford it, I don't mean that we've saving up for the fancy preschool we want our perfect trust fund baby to attend, or trying to get the right footing in our power careers. I mean that we question whether we would be able to afford basic nutrition and healthcare for a baby in anything approaching a consistent way.

I get irritated by the implication that not having children makes my opinion less valid, not because I don't agree that parenthood is difficult or know that it carries lots of challenges I don't yet face, but because the implication is also that I'm a selfish person, with a narrow life, and somehow not a full adult yet. I must not have children because I'm a selfish Millennial or Hipster (it turns out that the economic trend of being poor and riding a bicycle may not be as rare is we are told).

Of course, the official knew something I didn't know. Before 1950, there were no children. Everyone was born fully grown with male pattern baldness and interesting moustaches They wore trousers made of scratchy wool and rode velocipedes and trolley-trams and never had to pick anyone up from school or buy groceries or do anything stressful. It was a Victorian Paradise. And then cars came, and people suddenly had someplace to conceive, and so children came onto the scene.

I find the social implications of this worldview pretty off-putting as someone who would like to have a kid but can't afford to. The cost of the car-oriented project I was discussing with the official was $45 Million**. To put that in perspective, the renovation of Nathan Bishop Middle School, where I did Americorps service, was $35 Million. From the descriptions I've gotten from people who used to work in that building before it was updated, it was a bombshell. Now it's state-of-the-art (a lot of other middle schools in Providence I've been in, like Gilbert Stuart or Roger Williams, are not). The official felt that, as a person without children, clearly I opposed this $45 Million dollars of spending on a parking garage out of "carefree" youth and childlessness, not because I'm planning a better city for my future kids.

Creating a Providence that's good for kids doesn't just entail not wasting all our school funding on pork parking projects. It also means keeping kids safe when they're not in school. Traffic engineer and parent Chuck Marohn writes that 7,000 children die each year from car crashes, while only 100 die from kidnapping. He recounts a similar experience to mine with a city councilperson:

I had a city council member last week say that people did not want walkable neighborhoods because they were afraid of child abductions, that people prefer the "safety" of their cars. Sad to say, but I think he is right, despite being completely ignorant of the facts. In a single year, the U.S. has around 7,000 children die in auto accidents (many, many more injured severely) but only around 100 children kidnapped. *
We love our cars but, like all one-way relationships, our obsession has made us completely irrational.
I feel like we have a value in the United States which says that cars are the way we do things, and then we try to adjust everything we do to that preconceived position. While someday I expect that I may find it useful to get a drivers' license and use a car occasionally, I actually plan on carrying out my parenting duties mostly without a car. That's the way my great-grandparents did it. It's halfway how my grandparents did (they were each single-car households). And now car use is declining again. The ironically named Baby Boom generation is really a blip on the radar screen, even within modern times.

We've grown up with a baseline reality that says that cars are the tool that people use when they have more responsibility than themselves. So we understand that students might not drive, or perhaps some old people. We even make the allowances for the poor people, who we figure are marginal and don't matter. But we need to expand our vision beyond this. When someone expresses their desire that we start treating cars and not children as marginal, they're not being utopian. It's the other way around.

Let's make an economy where people can't afford to have cars, but they can afford to have kids.


*I did a little fact-checking on this because it sounded so absurd at first. While overall, there are many more abductions by family and acquaintances than this figure suggests, almost none are fatal. The Amber Alert website that Marohn cites counts 115 "stereotypical" kidnappings by strangers, of which 100 ended in death. While I think the way that Strong Towns stated this fact was kind of awkward, the main point they were making is accurate: your kid is in much less danger walking down the street amid a sea of strangers, unattended, than if s/he is in your car safely buckled in.

One could cite the much larger figures for non-fatal abductions, but then one would have to revert to a car-related statistic that includes all of the near-misses, fender benders, and injuries (some severe) that happen in crashes. To put this in perspective, a New York Daily News article from December 2013 points out that while only about two hundred people died as pedestrians in New York last year, that almost 10,000 were injured--this doesn't include the people who were injured inside cars. Applying this nationwide could obviously get dizzying.

**I'm questioning this $45 Million figure, so I want to give background on how I came to it. In an email conversation with a Rhode Island General Assembly member, the member said that the garage was a $45 Million budget item on the governors budget for the year. I did not directly check the budget, but instead did a quick calculation of whether $45 Million was plausible as the cost of a parking garage. It is. At $50,000 a parking spot, $45 Million would build 900 spots, which is a large parking garage, but within plausible range. Using Google Maps, I looked at the original parking lot next to Garrahy, which has six rows of about twenty spots in each row. With this footprint, the garage would be about seven to eight floors. 

The reason I'm questioning the figure is that the original Projo article on the garage by Paul Grimaldi says that there are 188 spots planned. This would probably be something like two floors based on the footprint of the current lot. 188 spots at $50,000 a space would cost close $9.4 Million, still nothing to sneeze at. But that would mean the total figure would be only 20% of the $45 Million I was told by the state rep. 

As I look into the total size and cost of the garage, I'll update readers. Either number is entirely too much money to be spending on parking. 

Wisdom of the Snow.

From my walk home: Methinks they didn't take the advice. (These cars were going around 15-20 mph, tops).
Via The Projo, we came across this tweet from the Rhode Island State Police:
Wouldn't it be great if we had a tool for signaling to drivers when the best times to travel were? Oh, it's such a shame that we don't have such a tool. What would it be called?

Oh yeah, road pricing.

Turns out the snow has a lot of wisdom for us. Streetfilms already coined the term "sneckdowns" for temporary neckdowns on residential streets created by snow drifts.

Snow is demonstrating how road pricing works too. Since a road is free at the point of use, there's no informational feedback about when traffic is the worst. Congestion pricing not only works to switch some users (video) to other modes of transportation (bikes, transit, etc.) but also more often acts as an incentive to change one's route or time of travel while remaining in a car (this link has the added advantage of giving the reader a bit of a giggle at Chris Christie being used as an example of a firm leader doing what he has to do to restore order to the roads, not to mention calling transit "social engineering", despite this and this. Hey, you take the support where you can get it. . .).


Smiley Campaign's Position on Westminster Bike Lanes

Printed in full. Comments from me in bold at bottom.


Hi James,

Below please find Brett's detailed position on Westminster and his vision for a protected bike lane that connects Olneyville to Downtown. Brett hopes to have the chance to speak with you as he further develops this plan.

"I am a staunch supporter of efforts to make Providence an easier place to walk, run, and bike, and I know firsthand how hard it is to be a pedestrian here. I’m an avid runner and I lived for years in Providence without a car. That’s why when I declared my candidacy for Mayor over a month ago, I said that making our city a truly pedestrian-friendly city is a top priority of mine and I emphasized my commitment to encouraging biking and public transportation as legitimate alternatives to driving. I understand the important difference a protected bike lane offers and believe we need to add them to our city’s transportation infrastructure.

We also need to always balance the needs of pedestrians, bikers and drivers with those of residents and neighborhood businesses. In this case, it is not clear that Westminster Street is the best location.

The residential and commercial transformation that has happened on Westminster Street over the last 15 years has been incredible. Yet despite clear growth, the success of many businesses is still fragile, and we need to be doing everything to support the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. Removing one – or likely even two – lanes of parking to accommodate a protected bike lane has the potential to seriously harm the businesses along Westminster Street. Further, this street is an important bus route and we would need assurances from RIPTA that we weren’t sacrificing bus service for those commuting by bike. If clear consensus could be developed between local merchants, RIPTA and the neighborhood, then Westminster could be an option.

My vision for Providence includes a protected bike lane that connects Olneyville to Downtown, and I look forward to working with Transport Providence, the City Planning Department, environmental groups, public transit advocates, WBNA, and most importantly, the Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission to find the appropriate roads for protected bike lanes connecting these neighborhoods. There is already a well-traveled bike lane in place on Broadway, though improvements should be made to fully connect these two neighborhoods.

Finally, it’s essential that we focus on implementing the “Bike Providence” plan released in November. This plan was compiled with the input of stakeholders and experts, and this is the process I hope to see for any plan of this type. While the November 2013 plan is more modest than I may have preferred, we suffer from chronically poor execution in Providence. Even a modest plan well executed will yield measurable results."

Let me say first that I appreciate an honest and detailed response that disagrees with my position far more than one that is quickly given without thought, which appears to support the position, but which has no follow-through. So this is a welcome response, and I thank the candidate and his aid Josh Block for their efforts on this.

Some points:

1. I fully agree that whatever we do it shouldn't get in the way of RIPTA. I've suggested before that I think the Broadway and Westminster bus lines should be combined into a super-frequent single line, but that's a separate thought and in no way is required in order to have a protected bike lane. I also think having a protected bike lane with actual medians would aid pedestrian/bus-rider access.

2. I also full support working with businesses to make sure that what is implemented is good for the fragility of the West Side. Several businesses have already signed to support on our petition, and indeed, this idea came from efforts at Fertile Underground to increase their bike customer experience. We sponsored a lot of bike events at FUG but found that the state of the street made it really hard to attract more than a handful of bikers. 

3. I think that the parking situation needs to be taken as a full picture. If you spend just five minutes on Google Maps you can see just how much parking there is. I'm coming from a context where I lived in Philadelphia for sometime, and in that city there is even less parking, and yet it's the areas with little parking that people want to visit. Just like in our city, the places with the most parking are often depressed.

There are quite a few parking lots. 

There are also side streets to park on. 

And the survey we did of on-street parking found an 11% occupancy during a peak period of service, with few of these off-street options taken (lots were empty too). If we go with the compromise solution, which is to take just one side of the street, there will certainly be enough space for the cars. 

4. The Broadway bike lane is just fine, but bike lanes built along parked cars without protection only offer a modicum of comfort to riders, and while I could ride my bike all day on the highway if I had to, what I'm concerned about as a bike access activist is making the street usable to children, elderly, disabled, and unathletic people. I think that businesses will do much better when we build a protected bike lane.

5. The proposal is for the bike lane to be tried as a temporary plan, which can be removed, I would suggest proceeding with that so that we can experiment, after there has been more time to consult with businesses.

6. I'm interested in finding other places to put a protected bike lane, and one of my suggestions between Olneyville and Downcity has been Harris Avenue, but I think that nonetheless the purpose of a bike plan is to connect as many streets as possible in as many ways as possible, so that wouldn't obviate the need for a Westminster plan of some kind.

Thanks again for your comments. I look forward to more work together.


Help the BPAC Help You.

The Bike & Ped Commission could use your help on an issue. RIDOT has given them a plan for S. Main Street that has two highway width (12') lanes in a double one-way configuration. The long and short of this is that this is a major recipe for speeding cars and nastiness. Adding insult to injury, this is a case where the merchants' association for the street has actually asked for only one lane, and for traffic calming, so this is entirely at the behest of the state and against the clear wishes of the business community.

The BPAC is open to the idea of pushing for one of the 12' lanes to become a protected bike lane. They need your support to do this.

The RIDOT argument for having the road be so wide, and with two lanes, is that S. Main is an "emergency route" if there's ever need to evacuate the city or call in emergency vehicles. But Jarrett Walker at Human Transit writes that wide bike lanes, just like transit lanes, actually promote safety by keeping part of the road clear in case emergency vehicles need to get through:

Surface exclusive transit lanes (for buses, rail, and arguably two-wheelers and taxis) improve the performance of emergency services.  This argument should be much more prominent, because even the most ardent car-lover will understand it.  Few things are more distressing than to see an emergency vehicle stuck in traffic, sirens blaring.  When confronted with this, all motorists do their best to help.  But if the entire width of a street or highway is reserved for cars (moving or parked), and is therefore capable of being congested, it can be impossible to get out of the way of an emergency vehicle even if every motorist present has the best of intentions.  Emergency response should be one of the strongest and most obvious cases for surface transit lanes.  Motorists understand the need to drop to a low speed in school zones, to protect the life of every single child.  Why do we not accept come degree of delay to save a child who may be dying somewhere else, because the ambulance is stuck in traffic?
It's possible to honor the needs of the merchant association, bicyclists, cars, and safety officials by adding a protected bike lane.

Please write eric [at] greenway [dot] org to let him know you support the protected bike lane. Eric is a supporter of this, but as chair of the BPAC he needs your voices to be heard so that he make his best case to RIDOT.



Road Pricing is Conservative & Progressive

Several times in the course of Twitter conversations, C. Andrew Morse of Anchor Rising has challenged my claim that user fees (for example, tolls) are a conservative method of paying for a road. I challenged him to back that statement up.
Morse states his case this way:
  1. 1. Conservatives in general believe that public good provision is in the set of things that government shoud do well...
  2. Breaking public goods into individual transactions isn't, in general, the best way to provide them...w/public good being used in its economic sense here, not to mean "anything that it might be good for the public to have".
I think it's easy enough to understand why liberals would feel discomfort at the idea of tolls (although they're wrong). The idea sounds an awful lot like "I pay for mine, you pay for yours. We're all individuals." In a proximate sense this is exactly how the system works for the road in question, but believing in tolls does not commit one to the belief that people don't have a universal right to certain basic access to sustenance. I would go so far as to say that as a progressive, I believe in a universal right to transportation--with cars as part of that mix. I do not however, either as a progressive or as someone who respects the power of markets to rationalize the distribution of goods, believe that we have a universal right to cars.

Adam Smith referred to the diamond-water paradox. This is the idea that something like a diamond, with virtually no practical uses (Okay, well, some...) is precious, while something as life-affirming as water can cost next to nothing. I think a road in some sense can be understood through this lens. Though not as precious a thing as water, roads are desperately needed for the functioning of an economy, yet despite their intrinsic value they are judged by most of us to be free.

Water is actually a good example to start with. We should have a universal right to water. A person needs a gallon of it each day to drink, and several gallons more each for sanitation, cooking, and so forth respectively. As a progressive, one should commit oneself to the idea that it is wrong for any person, no matter what their faults, to do without such a basic thing. But when we give away millions of gallons of the stuff to farms as a supplement to agriculture, it's not the same thing. This goes beyond providing the basic needs of every individual towards a more blanket subsidization of a private interest. Such a subsidy has serious consequences on the market efficiency of our agricultural system. It distorts any self regulation of environmental impact due to water usage that might be expected to happen from cost. And it's unfair: a farmer who does not receive this subsidy will be at a disadvantage to one who does, making this type of subsidized farmer a special protected class that sits outside of the normal realities for others in his/her industry.

Healthcare is another example. I believe that progressives are wrong to expend so much effort defending the flawed Affordable Care Act, because from my perspective it's basically a bail-out of the insurance industry. There are beneficiaries on the other side (I'll be one). But to quote the late John Kenneth Galbraith, one does not feed the birds first by passing the oats through a horse. I'd go a bit further than Galbraith. His criticism was that we shouldn't use a private entity to provide a public good. I would universalize his statement. We shouldn't argue for a policy because it has secondary or tertiary beneficiaries if the structure of the program is inefficient at providing those benefits. A free market or a single payer system both have advantages for provision of healthcare. The ACA essentially takes away the benefit of either.

If you assume that just as one has a basic need for water, one also has a basic need for transportation, then naturally you will follow that conclusion correctly to the result that government should have some collective role in providing for this need. Yet, just as in the case of water, while one has an overall right to access, that does not grant one the right to be given more than the basics. We should laugh at a policy of taxing everyone for highways and then leaving them free at the source of use just as we would laugh at a policy to tax everyone equally to provide the "public need" of a Mercedes for every household, or to "provide for public housing" by buying a Newport Mansion for every household (Okay, I suppose in the case of Alex & Ani, that's exactly what we did, but I digress).

Markets have a place in our decision-making about roads, because like every other thing under the sun, roads have a cost and a benefit. Too often, progressives and conservatives alike talk about their respective programs as if the money rains from On High without coming from someplace. Take this Atlantic Monthly article excoriating Chris Christie for his transportation policies as an example from the left. Overall I agree with it, but then there's this passage:
A staggering 400,000 people make the trip from New Jersey to New York each day by car, train, bus, and ferry, the most that commute between any two states. That exhausting journey gets messed up any time a choke point gets blocked (say, by a power problem in the Amtrak tunnel, or, in this case, the closing of several toll lanes in Fort Lee). For the typical Jersey commuter, it’s a rare week that passes without a glitch.
The ARC tunnel had been designed to relieve some of the enormous pressure on the few bridge and tunnel crossings between New York and New Jersey, where demand is expected to rise nearly 40 percent by 2030. The tunnel had bipartisan support from state lawmakers, and former Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, broke ground on the project in 2009 to much fanfare. Construction was already well underway on ARC, the biggest public works endeavor in the nation’s history, when Christie pulled the plug.
The federal government had committed to pay for 51 percent of the project, which had estimated costs in the neighborhood of $10 billion. Then-Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ray LaHood, made a personal trip to New Jersey to plead with Christie to reconsider his stance.
But Christie stood firm, winning kudos from Republicans across the nation as a tough-minded conservative who was willing to make difficult choices about reining in government spending. It was his breakout appearance on the national scene, and a lot of people liked what they saw.
Two years after Christie killed ARC, a report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office came out that suggested what he had said about the cost of the tunnel was wrong. Among other things, the report found that he had dramatically overstated the share that New Jersey would have had to pay. Christie had claimed that the state would be responsible for 70 percent of the ARC costs, while the GAO found that number would have been 14.4 percent. The state ended up having to repay $95 million to the federal government in a negotiated settlement. (my emphases)
This is the kind of statement you see on left and right all the time: an accounting of costs that talks about "how much the state will pay" after the feds throw in their share, as if the federal part of the expenditure doesn't matter. I fully agree that this was a project that was well worth its cost, but this is just bad accounting. The people of New Jersey are not just taxpayers in New Jersey. They also pay federal taxes. If a project is good on its own merits, then so be it. But if we're arguing that it's good because someone else is supposedly paying for it, we're fooling ourselves (You can count on conservatives like John Kasich of Ohio to make the same type of ridiculous argument in defense of a project like the so-called Opportunity Corridor in Cleveland, so it's a bipartisan disease).

If local and state governments thought about road projects in terms of the costs they carried, as well as the benefits, then the way we approached roads would be very different. Chuck Marohn of The Strong Towns blog makes this argument forcefully every week on his podcast. An engineer, Marohn was drawn to express himself on planning by what he observed on the job. He found that time and again, cities and towns allowed sprawl to be built for the benefit of the jobs, tax revenue, or outside grants that it would draw in its first iteration, without considering the long-term cost of maintaining the expensive infrastructure when it wore out. By building towns on large lots, one story high, with wide expanses of road, plumbing, and electrical connections connecting them at a distance, Marohn argues that the fantastic appearance of growth belies the fact that there isn't enough revenue to cover long term costs. This has obvious importance to progressives concerned about land use policy and "alternative" transportation, but it's fundamentally an example of where the basic mechanism of the market has been distorted by outside government interference.

Road pricing can be used to sustain the long-term costs of a project, like the Sekonnet Bridge, not only from a supply but a demand side. People's peak demand for a "free" service is always higher than if they had to pay its costs. Jarrett Walker of Human Transit describes this as being like the people who sleep out in tents all night to get free tickets to a concert. The campers are paying in time what they might pay in money. This is what happens to people on a clogged road. The "free" (actually subsidized) use of the road has no check on people's use of it, so that people pay in time during their commute for what they might have paid for in money.
Road pricing is only part of the externality of driving. Parking is among the most expensive aspects of a trip for most people, outweighing gas expenditures for the trips we make everyday (because so many of those--the commute to work, the trip to the grocery store, picking the kids up from soccer practice, are relatively short). We have a range of zoning requirements that force developers to create excess parking spots to meet a Christmas Eve peak demand, with the base assumption being that such parking spots are free (in reality, they average around $15,000 per space).

While making car users pay for the things they use, like road space or parking, has been portrayed by many so-called conservatives as "taxing", in reality what is happening is that the users of a product do not pay for it at the point of consumption. Since most Americans drive to work, this might seem untroubling--after all, if we paid for these things up front, wouldn't it mostly pan out the same way that it does if we did secretly through taxes? The error in this assumption is that the arrangement of our buildings, the distances we choose to travel, the methods we would use when we do travel, and so on are all static phenomena. The tragedy of the commons in this case is that the few people who try to break against the tide and ride a bicycle or take a bus someplace are left high and dry with no real infrastructure to support them, despite the fact that their way of getting somewhere is inherently more market-based and efficient.

What's far more precious than a diamond is our ability to survive and thrive on this planet. But if we're going to overcome the devastating effects of climate change, we need to address the market distortions in our transportation and land use.

It's sound conservative policy.

No Entiendo la Hipotesis Sapir-Whorf

My article on why I think we should have multilingual zoning in Providence:

It’s appropriate the zoning should be discussed in light of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, because it developed out of the practical considerations of daily life, rather than as some kind of abstract intellectualism. Sapir was a linguist, but Whorf was just an amateur who worked in insurance. He kept going to the sites of burnt factories to find that workers had lit their cigarettes around “empty” gasoline barrels. Whorf had an Aha! moment, and decided that this idea of “empty” shaped the workers’ views so deeply, that they couldn’t understand that an empty gas tank is more explosive than a full one. Zoning, like building insurance or safety rules, would be more effective if all of the people who used it could quickly understand what it means.
The rest of the article is at RI Future


Westminster of the Future?

A cool online site, streetmix.net, lets you set up your own arrangements for the streets you live on. I realized I've been talking a lot about what I think should happen on Westminster Street for quite a while but haven't put up an actual visual. (By the way, if you haven't signed our petition, please do. You can sign it if you're from Providence or not, but if you're not from Providence, please indicate your relationship to the city. Do you visit often? And if you're a West Side business owner, we especially want your support).

Matt Moritz of the Rhode Island Bike Coalition put up his idea for Westminster Street in the discussion thread about this on Greater City Providence, so I created my own as well.

This would be my ideal setup for Westminster Street:

Note: The travel lanes have been reduced from 11' to 9', to reduce speeding and give a neighborhood feel in accordance with the 25 mph speed limit that already exists. There are bike lanes separated by plant barriers (streetmix seems to think that we can put full blown trees, but I would settle for something less involved in such a small space). The barriers also act as pedestrian islands for people getting off the buses, although there could be some serious discussion about consolidating the Westminster buses to Broadway to get greater frequency on those lines with less route confusion. Just think of how having some extra trees will change the feeling of the street, even for pedestrians and drivers! It'll make sitting out at a table on the sidewalk a lot prettier.

The compromise position on the change would be to have just one bike lane, in one direction (two-way on one side is complicated and can be dangerous with turning cars at intersections). That would look more like this:

Note that this one leaves half of the parking in place. When we did a count of the parking one day, we found only an 11% occupancy on the street, with the majority of the parking lots near to empty, and with lots of side-street parking available. Getting people to bike in greater numbers would make the parking demand lower, not higher, but I can understand why businesses feel nervous about the prospect. 

I don't like having just one lane as much as two, but if it makes people feel more comfortable to know that they'll still have around five hundred on-street parking spots left right on Westminster, that's a good compromise I can live with.

What would your streetmix look like? 


How Do You Prevent a Surface Parking Lot?

Photo of demolition (from GCPVD)

What can you do to prevent a building from becoming a "temporary" parking lot? With people up in arms about the demolition-in-progress of one of our historic buildings on Atwells Street, I thought I'd poke around and see what the alternatives are once a demolition happens. Brett Smiley already wrote today to say that he would like to prevent another "temporary" lot, but how does one do that?

 Streetsblog had a great article on this outlining some of the things that Salt Lake City is doing: 
Over in Salt Lake City, city council “recently”passed a demolition ordinance that does the following: 
Buildings in the downtown area cannot be demolished for parking garages (heck yeah) 
Parking garages cannot be built on corners, or along Main street
New surface parking lots are allowed either behind buildings, or 75 feet away from the street
My favorite part? 
In the event that a building is deemed unsafe, the owner actually has to provide a bond for landscaping and maintenance of the site.
This is exactly what we need the mayoral candidates to commit to as a policy. 

Let me go a step further. Not only should a demolition require payment of a bond to maintain greenery on a space if no new development comes, but that should also be our policy for any new parking. The Garrahy parking garage, which we oppose, is supported by some other like-minded environmental folks out of a genuine belief that it will help to get rid of some surface lots in Downcity. But how do we know that the lots won't just stay? 

I would reverse my opposition to Garrahy if:

*The garage is parking neutral. As many spots need to be removed from the downtown as are added. 
*An added bonus would be if some of the spots removed were on-street ones, to create protected bike lanes or transit lanes with greenery separating them from car traffic.
*The garage has the proposed bus hub.
*There are ground-level shops.
*The garage is left open 24-hours so that it can limit the need for other lots (this happens when a garage is used only during the day, or only at night, instead of letting it serve both markets).
*Cars pay full market price to park.

I still think we can build something better there, but that would make supporting it a relatively even trade-off.

Any takers, mayoral candidates? I'd like to get a commitment on this one.


Keynes Twists in His Grave

For weeks now, I've been rolling around a lot of ideas in my head about the connection my views on the economy in general should have to my ideas about transportation. Then, on January 3rd, as if to taunt me, someone on NPR's Tell Me More, said this:
This whole issue of income inequality has really picked up a lot of steam lately...[I]f the lowest wage is $7.25, there are an awful lot of people - about 15 million - who make $8, $9, $10 an hour. They're low-wage workers, but they're key to what the minimum wage is. So if you were to raise that from $7.25 to $8, $9, whatever you want to set it at, that would push a lot of people up. 

The people who currently are making $8 an hour, they would get a raise, too. They would ratchet up as that floor goes higher. (my emphasis)
This is exactly how we talk about transportation planning, and it's incorrect.

To start off, let's get some things straight. We need to address the gaping income (and especially wealth) gap in this country. One need only look so far as education to see why this is important. You may believe--as I do--that having a competitive market for many of the things we used is a good thing, but when people are left out to the point that they're in a state of stress-induced shock, no one learns. This is why countries like Finland, which have highly unionized societies with expansive social safety nets have such consistently impressive educational results. They provide things like non-means-tested health and dentistry checkups for all students, so that there's none of that sitting in the classroom with a toothache business that goes on here.

Apples to Oranges
What strikes me about the statement that we all benefit from respectively getting a dollar extra an hour is not that its values or wrong, but that its understanding of economics is. Money is fundamentally different than physical goods.

So, for instance, if you have one orange to start, and I have two, and a third person has one hundred, getting you to have two oranges, me three, and the third person one hundred and one respectively is an improvement for everyone. It may not address the underlying unfairness of the fact that person number three was born to someone who owns an orange grove, and that you were born in a cardboard box and stole your orange for bare sustenance, but it does improve everyone's situation. You would be happy to have your extra orange. This is called a Pareto Optimal.

But with money, it's not so. If I'm making $9 an hour before your minimum wage gets lifted to mine, and I decide I want $10 an hour instead to make up the difference, that ripples all the way through the market until the money has been inflated. The basic relationship of inequality is preserved: you've got very little stuff, I've got slightly more, and the third guy's got enough oranges to toss a couple rotten ones at us and laugh. We're treading water.

Treading water is exactly what the minimum wage has done. In 1968, it was just $1.60, but counterintuitively, that was its high water mark. Since then, despite updating it from time to time, it has fallen in value. $1.60 was nearly $11 in today's money. During the 2008 campaign, President Obama said that he would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. The discussion going on about $9 an hour is a considerable backsliding from that. It's not wrong for progressives to expect that the minimum wage should keep up with general inflation. But in order for the minimum wage to really mean something, there has to be a maximum wage. So long as there isn't, we're always going to be playing catchup, and never progressing.

Road Inflation
The inflation of the minimum wage is much like the inflation of our roads. Nearly everyone in the U.S. drives to work alone, meaning that we have tremendous populist pressure behind an erroneous idea that we can alleviate that traffic through road widening. Road widening, like adjustment to the minimum wage, actually does work in the shortterm, but within a few years a road will return to its unpleasant-enough equilibrium of congestion. Jarrett Walker of Human Transit (and see also here) points out three situations in which this is not true:
  1. Economic collapse.  Traffic congestion tends to drop during economic slowdowns, because fewer people have jobs to commute to, or money to spend on discretionary travel.  A complete economic collapse, which causes people to move away from a city in droves, is always a lasting fix for congestion problems!
  2. Reduction of road capacity.  Ever since the demise of San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, it's been pretty clear that if you reduce road capacity for private vehicles, traffic will drop in response.  Destroying the Embarcadero Freeway didn't reduce congestion on the parallel surface streets, but it didn't increase it much either.  If you reduce road capacity, the remaining capacity is still congested, but this can still be called a reduction in congestion -- especially if you use standard highway metrics like "lane miles of congested roadway."
  3. Correct pricing of road space.  Congestion is the result of underpricing.  If you give away 500 free concert tickets to the first 500 people in line, you'll get 500 people standing in line, some of them overnight.  These people are paying time to save money.  Current prevailing road pricing policy requires all motorists to act like these frugal concertgoers.  Motorists are required to pay for road use in time, rather than in money, even though some would rather do the opposite and our cities would be safer and more efficient if they could.  Current road pricing policy requires motorists to save money, a renewable resource, by expending time, the least renewable resource of all.  
Road widening is like inflation, because our use of roads is like money. People rarely travel for travel's sake. True, you may take a bike ride or even a Kerouac-style cross country car trip from time-to-time with the process of getting to a place in mind more than the destination. But most of the time, even when we're on vacation, and certainly when we're on our way to work, we're all about the destination not the journey. 

When you start with a narrow road, and dense development, it may be okay that you only can travel conveniently a mile from you house. You might not need a car, or even a bicycle, to live happily. 

Building a wider road suddenly makes travel more possible. Adding tax credits for car ownership and single-family home-building even more so. And soon the convenience of travel means that businesses that don't want to pay taxes in the town can accept the benefit of taxpayer-funded mobility to escape their responsibility to the community. So now you can travel far and wide, but you almost have to. There's nothing near you that you'd want to walk to anyway. The numerical value (in this case in length and width rather than dollars) has increased, but the actual value of your travel has decreased on a per-mile basis. You've inflated the road.

Inflation is a problem even if everything else stays the same, but it's even worse if the cost-of-living changes due to some other non-monetary cause. Building a wide road doesn't just inflate your journey through loss of stuff-per-mile. It also means that now you have to own a car. This is making your life expensive! Progress seemed like such a great idea, but you can't even choose to live on less now. You've got to take a second job to pay for the junky piece-of-shit you drive around in.

The Ghost of John Maynard Keynes
Keynes though that governments should borrow and spend from time to time, in order to create a countercyclical growth pattern to stave off depressions (or panics, or recessions, crises, or what-have-you). Keynes thought that unemployment due to a depression was a serious enough problem that borrowing to create investment was worth going against classical ideas about balanced budgets. On its own, this is a valid idea.

The problem is that it has slipped into everything we talk about. Progressives say they hate trickle-down economics, but Keynesianism misused is like the flip-side of that coin. We've so confused our notions of value that we no longer can keep straight what a public good is from a private one. We want to "create jobs" with opportunity corridors. We describe our support for the bailout of the auto industry in terms of the union jobs it will save, rather than with any reference to whether it's appropriate for a private company to be upheld by government action (progressives do not all support the bailout of the auto giants, but have been as a group more forgiving of the idea than they were of the bank bailouts). In Rhode Island, someone I otherwise usually agree with, Bob Plain, came out in support of a fairly gratuitous tax loophole in favor of wine purveyors and "ordinary" artists. Some version of this criticism is also behind progressive objections to the Affordable Care Act.

The fact that we've so torn apart the distinction between private and public means that we reach for reasons why we support a particular (actually good) policy position when debating our conservative relatives at Thanksgiving, and can't. My cousin in the exurbs of Philadelphia, for instance, felt pretty sure that investing city money into a new stadium for the Eagles was no waste at all, even considering the poor state of the Philly schools, because after all "it builds jobs" and "brings people into the city". It's become the kind of phrase that one says without irony to support one's own policy proclivities, while dismissing others.

Keynesianism is all about growth. And growth is fine enough, but in a society that has limited resources, what we need to think about is how to best get wealth from the relatively flat-lined supply of stuff we've got to work with. The allusion that we'll all get an extra dollar ad infinitum only makes sense in this context of ever-expanding growth.

Riding the Curve
The issue is not that there's something wrong with having a hand in the market to limit income and wealth disparities, to regulate for safety or environmental safety, or build needed public projects. What's really at stake is that we've let this idea become flabby. Raising the minimum wage is a fine enough thing to start out with, but without an upper limit on income it's really just an inflationary Keynesian reach.

In the 1950s, we had a good tool for maintaining a modest gap between incomes. We had a 90% top tax bracket.

Any conservative will tell you (correctly) that a 90% tax bracket will yield very little revenue. The reason for this, described in the Laffer Curve, is kind of simple to understand. If you ask someone to give you nearly all their stuff at a certain income, they'll choose to have a lower income where they can keep more of their earnings. This is another conservative talking point that I feel that progressives misunderstand to their detriment.

We didn't have a 90% tax bracket to get revenue. The idea behind a 90% tax bracket (and to a lesser extent, 80%, 70%, and so on) was to create a barrier to excessive pay. The beauty of this system was that it simultaneously left companies open to decide how to invest any money they chose to keep out of executive salaries. A company might decide to hire more people, or make capital improvements to its facilities, etc. The government really had no hand in deciding what the company did with its money. 

One of the problems you encounter with minimum wages is that unemployment is sometimes affected. If you have an upper limit on income so that a company has an incentive to reinvest in itself in ways to mitigate this effect. Now when you say that someone's minimum wage is going to be $9 an hour, that increase means something. The power of working people to stand up for themselves with other improvements, like a decent-length lunch hour or safety improvements, also increases when you create an economy closer to full employment, because now the boss' threat to toss you out has much less power.

The 90% top tax bracket is occasionally discussed, but almost always the wrong way (just like the minimum wage). Take this exchange between Jon Stewart and Charles Krauthamer. I think this says something about our fundamental lack of financial literacy, that we don't understand the difference between a tax that is primarily for revenue collection and one with is primarily there to put a civilizing effect on the gap between rich and poor.

If a 90% tax bracket sounds vaguely Bolshevist, let's take into account the words of Adam Smith:

It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.
The beauty of Smith's ideas were not that they were some kind of Ayn Randian embrace of tossing the poor under the bus. What Smith really said was that we should have a decentralized method of choice through individuals' varied preferences to decide what we want in a market. It was this distaste for centralization that made Smith such a critic of limited-liability corporations, while Karl Marx was off writing optimistic pamphlets about how corporations were going to build a fundamental change is society (see Ha Joon Chang's book 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism, Bloomsbury Press). Progressives need to be able to set about forcefully eliminating the absurd wealth gap, but without indulging in silly ideas about what "ordinary" people need.

It's easy to see why giving lower taxes to rich people might seem kind of conservative. But then again, the more you think about it, the argument that lowering taxes will increase revenue is kind of absurdly un-conservative. What you're left with is a central government with a lot of cash to spend on stupid things, like a nuclear weapons program or a highway expansion. Better to try to deal with inequality at a macro level, and limit all this crappy spending to real public needs.

Bottom Line

Stop Building Expensive Crap: Progressives need to seize upon the appropriate conservative attitude that just because you can build it, doesn't mean you should. It doesn't matter what "job" or "growth" you can get in some perverted Keynesian spiral. We've got to be fiscally responsible.

Start to Re-imagine Limits: Concepts like the minimum wage do not mean anything if they are not joined by something like a maximum wage. Let's go back to the radical days of Eisenhower to make that happen again.

Stop Micro-managing: This idea of "ordinary" is dangerous, because it can be turned around on us. It's "ordinary" to my cousin that he should have a taxpayer-funded place to drink beer and watch football. In a less silly way, it's "ordinary" to most people to drive to work (after all most do). Until progressives disassociate themselves sharply from this idea of the "ordinary" ensconced in subjective value judgments about whether people should drink beer or wine, watch a football game or go to an art museum, we'll not be able to stand against Tea Party-style populism. This also essentially embraces that which is best about a market system, while allowing ourselves to go for the jugular on the social democratic goals we want to see flourish.


Spanglish attempt...

I hope people will excuse the lack of accents and potential translation errors. If you know Spanish and see mistakes, comment below. Spread far and wide!

Queremos Las Rutas Seguras por Andar Bicicletas (Por favor, firme)

Providence no tiene las calles mas grandes como la ciudad Los Angeles, pero muchas calles in Providence son muy ancho que las de otras ciudades de la Costa Este de los Estados Unidos. Aunque Filadelfia  tiene rutas separadas para bicis en las calles solomente ocho metros ancho, no hay el mismo en La Calle Westminster de West Side.  Esta calle en Providence es mas que trece metros ancho.

Queremos la ciudad hacer las rutas bicis separadas de los carros (en ingles protected bike lanes) porque:

Andadores de los bicis utilisan Westminster, pero con peligrez. Aunque la calle esta limitada a 40 kilometros por hora (25 mph), los carros van con rapidez a mas que 65 kilometros por hora (40 mph). Andadores de bicis debe << toma lacarril>> (un metodo de andando cuando una persona anda con los carros, juntos, en la mizma calle, sin separacion, por recibir respecto de los carros. Es necesario cuando no es espacio en la calle para andar separadamente). La Calle Westminster no es comoda porque es demasiada rapida.

La Calle Westminster es el luego de muchas escuelas, incluso tres escuelas secondarias. Las rutas bicis mas seguras y separadas de los automoviles ayudaran estos estudiantes ir a las escuelas con la independencia y seguridad.

Protected bike lanes mejoran las calles mas que las rutas menos moderna en Broadway. Muchas estudias demonstran que los abuelos, los ninos mas pequenos, las personas con las descapacidades, y las personas menos atleticas andan bicis con mas frecuencia cuando hay las rutas separadas de los carros. Estas rutas paren dooring cuando una persona choca una puerta de un carro a golpe.

Estas rutas ayudan las empreas tambien. Las personas quien andan bicis compran mas que las quien conduce un carro, porque el motodo de viajando es menos caro. Rutas bicis ayudan los pobres y la clase trabador tambien, porque estas rutas mejoran el barrio sin hacer los precios demasiado caros.

Queremos que las empresas de la calle probar estas rutas como un arreglo temporal. Tenemos confianza que las rutas se gustaran el barrio si sera capaz verlas. Los proyectos importantes en Nueva York como la peatonalizacion de Times Square estaban temporal antes ellos eran permanente. Estos cambios de las calles son mas populares y una inspiracion del mundo entero.

Perdon las equivocacions de la tranduccion por favor.