Featured Post

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...

Imagining a South County Bike Network

I lived for a time in Kingston, and I grew to love the William O'Neill Bike Path (which I'm just going to call the South County Bike Path from now on). 

Picture from the internet: South County's bike path.

The best part of the bike path is that it connects a lot of population centers, so I could do all my shopping by using it. I was even more fearless (read, younger) then, so I found the last-mile connections to be mostly pretty acceptable. But for most people, the last-mile is a challenge. I put some time into imagining a fuller network of bike lanes-- I assume most of them would be protected bike lanes-- as a means of fixing that problem. I also suggested using "filtered permeability" in places, so here's a link to what that means.

I imagined a whole network, but I would focus early efforts on population centers and places near schools. Wakefield, Peacedale, URI, and Narragansett Pier are the big population centers of S. Kingstown. The protected bike lanes to Point Judith and other further-flung places may actually be really easy to do, though, because those roads are really wide, and would just need something physically demarcating the shoulder as the bikeway.


Why Do We Make Our Best Neighborhoods Illegal?

I visited East Greenwich properly for the first time on Saturday. Kent County as a whole is kind of a Burmuda Triangle to me. It's really not that far from my home, and you would think I'd go there all the time. There are places I go to in Rhode Island that are much farther actually, and sometimes those places are so pleasant to get to that I'll even bike to them (I bike to Bristol all the time-- 18 mile bike ride-- but E.G. is 15 miles from my apartment). I don't even like to go to Kent County in a car. Awful!

I think part of the reason I never go to Kent County is that so much of it is a suburban wasteland. But there are treasures in between all that. The center of East Greenwich is one of them.

The thing that confuses me most about the horrific awful places in Rhode Island is that they're frequently located right next to, or even sandwiched in between two examples of, really nice neighborhoods. Wickford Village is nice. The center of East Greenwich is nice. In between is kind of awful.  And yet, East Greenwich's Hill District is obscenely expensive. Why is it that something that is clearly highly valued is not more plentiful in the town? Why is so much stuff that people don't like as much everywhere?
I turned to the zoning code for East Greenwich to find out why.

Lot Sizes and Exclusionary Zoning

Why is so much of East Greenwich a hell-scape worse than death? Because the town requires it by law. This was all zoned this way.
The code makes it clear that it values its historic center and the rural past of the western two-thirds of the town, and then proceeds to lay out a lot of zoning rules perfectly designed to destroy both.

A blogger from Los Angeles picked up on my tweeting about East Greenwich, and reminded me just how weird the lot requirements are for E.G.:
East Greenwich makes it illegal to build accessory units (also called "granny cottages"-- basically, small houses in the back yards of existing houses). The only exception is if someone in the family has a demonstrated disability that requires the granny cottage for access reasons. This is really at odds with the idea of preserving the rural character of the rest of the town. And also odd because why would anyone have a problem with granny cottages?
The only kind of housing allowed by right in East Greenwich is single-family housing. All other housing needs special approval. Different zones have varying lot size requirements, and they get even larger than the ones mentioned above. You can really understand what people are going for. They've probably seen a few decades of horrific sprawl, and they want to freeze things in place and hold onto the rural character of as much of the stuff around them as they can, so they create minimum lot sizes. But if I were in their shoes, what I would do is draw a simple map of the town, with two categories: No Development (Forest/Wetlands/Farm), and Develop Virtually Anything You Want (Infill Area). Chances are that if you allowed people to work things out on their own in the infill area, you could greatly expand the area you were preserving outright.

The only exceptions I might make to that would be ordinances fine tuning things. You zoning ordinance should be five or ten pages long, not almost two hundred. Maybe there are things you'd like to decide on as a community. Sidewalks should be x number of feet wide. Put trees in to provide shade. But if you collected all of these things together, they'd be less of a burden on developing new businesses or housing than the simpler looking lot sizes, parking requirements, and so on.

Parking is mentioned 69 times in the zoning plan. Some of the solutions the plan offers are kind of neutral (supporting valet parking is meh. . . ) but some are outright destructive and awful (page 99):
Innovative solutions [sic] will be required to solve the problem of inadequate parking on the waterfront. Sufficient parking facilities should be required [!] of new development projects and should be planned in accordance with the detailed master waterfront development plan. 
Many of the other solutions offered about parking involve some form or another of adding parking: requiring it of new development, subsidizing it through garage building, or coordination and top-down Poliburo planning of it to make sure everyone has valets or cooperative lots. There are innovative solutions, but they're not found in the E.G. plan.

Page 100:
Following state and federal approval, additional marina development may be allowed within the harborline provided there is adequate parking. 
Instead of using the success of a crowded, popular location to drive the development of non-auto transportation to help alleviate demand on parking, the town sees parking as a brick to be hung around the neck of any new marina. Kind of as backwards as you can get on this.

Lot of Empty Parking, But Nowhere to Park
Lots of empty, and semi-empty lots. Lots of space on the street
to park that was illegal to park in. No parking meters. Sad face.

When we visited, we were in a car, carpooling with Rachel's parents. We found no parking on the front street because it all was occupied (and free). We found lots and lots of open spots on the side streets, most of which were reserved for residents. We found lots and lots of parking lots which were reserved for various uses and couldn't be used. We did find some municipal lots, and those were free too, and luckily there was a spot in one of those. But if the town metered parking, returned the revenue to businesses, stopped requiring parking, and let people figure things out without all the reservations, all these varying reserved uses could be traded to better use. Chances are there's actually far more parking in the town center than is actually needed, it's just that people are encouraged to jealously guard it with these reservations.

The Indian food I got was $16. It was good, but not any better than the Indian food I got in my own neighborhood for $8. I can only imagine that the high price of my food was a testament to two things: the limited availability of real estate that looks like the Hill District (and thus, I gather, high rent on the restauranteur who served me, and no competition with that restauranteur), and the fact that the restaurants seem to have cooperatively provided "free" (as in, included in my bill) valet parking. This is an insane solution. Why would I suffer a high food bill to pay someone to take my car and stuff it into a lot when I could figure this all out by paying a meter, and by doing so, allow the development of alternatives to make it possible for me not to drive there in the first place?

Why is a tiny portion of East Greenwich heart-achingly beautiful and overpriced to the point of exclusion? Why is there no market to extend that beauty outward, to compete, and to add more greatness to the town? Why are parts of the town just outside that pale horrifically ugly, awful, and depressing? Because East Greenwich requires it to be so. The market could fix this if it was allowed to.


Hazardous Mailboxes!

The Hummel Report in Motif Magazine reports that RIDOT is ingratiating itself with neighbors along Rt. 116's Pleasant View Parkway. The agency repaved some sidewalks, which required removing the mailboxes. Unfortunately, the replacements proved flimsy, and many of them are broken. RIDOT representative Robert Rocchio explained that the reason for this was to avoid creating a hazard out of the mailboxes:
Jim Hummel (Motif): Why would the stat insist on its own mailboxes?
Robert Rocchio: That's a very good question and it comes down to safety. Safety reasons. We have to make sure, while we want the mailboxes to be sturdy and stand up to the elements or to vandalism, they also have to be safe when struck by a vehicle. That means they can't be so rigid that if a vehicles hits it could penetrate through to the passenger compartment or launch a vehicle. The mailboxes themselves have to be light enough so if they fly through the air as a projectile they don't penetrate the windshield and inure someone. So it's really because of safety reasons.
Transportation writer Tom Vanderbilt has shared this image of a tree growing in the middle of a street. In a presentation he explains how the local transportation officials wanted to remove the tree, which they described as a "fixed hazard."

You could see where if someone came driving down this street really quickly and hit this tree, they'd be toast, or at least their car would be toast. But on the other hand, the "fixed hazard" has a strong psychological effect on the safety of this street, because it slows people down. It physically narrows the lanes and it also provides aesthetic cues that "this is a neighborhood."

In the case of 116, I do have slightly mixed feelings, because it is clearly intended to be a relatively fast through route in a rural area. Generally one of the things that DOTs across the country have done is remove "fixed hazards" from neighborhoods, so as to create ugly, tree-less, speed alleys for cars. There's probably some balance to be struck between maintaining safety for drivers on a street like this that would be different than the balance struck in a more urban or town-center setting.

From Motif's coverage of 116.
On the other hand, "fixed hazards", even on relatively fast routes, help to protect the people on the other side of the fixed hazard. 116 isn't exactly going to get Thayer Street-like pedestrian traffic, but the fact that RIDOT was putting in new sidewalks suggests that someone considers this a place to walk. Kids can't safely walk to school or play in their front yards along a route where all the fixed hazards have been taken away, because guess what the new fixed hazards become? The kids.

The neighbors interviewed for this piece seem to think that one of the things RIDOT did wrong was put the mailboxes too close to the road, saying that their location causes them to be hit by snowplows. This is probably not true. In reality, the plows are probably being charged with keeping the entire width of 116 completely clear, when they shouldn't worry about being so neat and tidy. There's a strong body of evidence that shows that drivers don't need nearly as much room as they're given, and that they respond to "sneckdown" conditions by driving more carefully. The images I linked to are from urban neighborhood settings, but I've observed some even bigger sneckdowns on some of Rhode Island's larger suburban roads, created by the spaces not trampled by cars. On 116, a wider throughway is needed than in an urban neighborhood, but not necessarily the whole width of the road.

Just another day, another example of DOT rules that don't make sense.


Thinking Strategically About Disability Access

An article at RI Future had me thinking again about the need to stand up for disabled people, the elderly, and the homeless. 

There's no doubt at all that morally speaking, the people who demonstrated recently for free RIPTA fares for these groups are on the right side of history. But at the risk of being the town curmudgeon, I want to point out some ways in which I differ with their approach. Get out your cudgels to beat me with! I take pitchforks and torches too!

Why do I disagree with these people? And how can we get past that disagreement towards a better solution?

Barry Schiller, a retiree and former RIPTA-board member, wrote a good piece on this a while back. He pointed out some of the problems:
Reflecting the decency of Rhode Islanders who want to help the poor, many groups support the continuation of the free fares. It certainly is a feel-good position and there are folks in dire poverty that really cannot afford additional expenditures. But there is another side to the story. Low income people on medicaid are eligible to still get free rides to any kind of medical trip including pharmacy visits. Twice the Federal poverty level is $31,860 for a couple, $48,500 for a household of four which may be more than some low income working people who pay full fare. Perhaps this threshold could be lowered to protect the very poor.
As Schiller points out, there are really a bunch of very disparate groups being put together in one bunch. An elderly person who is fairly lower middle class can get a free RIPTA fare, while someone who is working as a single mom may have to pay full fare. I think it's pretty much common sense and shouldn't be contested that homeless people should get free unlimited fares, but assuming that the best way to help the poor is to create an age-based tier system isn't necessarily the right way to go.

That being said, having free fares for elderly people would be great-- my grandmother isn't in dire poverty, but she lives in Pennsylvania, where if she chose to get a free bus pass she probably could. If someone proposed taxing high income Rhode Islanders to do this as a social service, I'd be all for it. What I don't like is picketing RIPTA, as if the agency is able to offer free fares without sacrificing another aspect of their service.

The loudness with which this issue is heard doesn't always reflect the best of transit planning. Human Transit's Jarrett Walker addressed this concern within his own Portland, Oregon system in a good article:

You must be both money-poor and time-rich to benefit from a system that reduces fares but wastes more and more of your time due to low frequencies and bad connections.  
If, on the other hand, you are money-poor and time-poor — working two jobs and taking a class and rushing to daycare — you will benefit from a good network that saves you time as much as from one that saves you money. But that means you don't have time to go to meetings or be heard. We transit professionals see these busy low-income people on our systems and care about their needs, but we also know that we're not going to hear their voice as much from advocacy organizations, because they just don't have time to get involved.
I spend a lot of time thinking about transit, and I notice ways in which the system doesn't work that could be easily fixed, but very seldom do I find passionate involvement from people in order to bring those changes about. For instance, the 60 bus, which I've taken for a while to get to work, has stops that are about 0.1 of a mile apart. Someone probably set those stops apart with the idea that the only people using buses would be very old, or very disabled. Yet that stop spacing makes the bus take a much longer time to actually get going anywhere end-to-end, and undermines how useful it is to the general public. You might think this was an unsolvable quandary: either take care of the most vulnerable, or set up routes that attract broad ridership. But to me, it's clear that that's not the case at all. A little bit of effort making the bus routes faster, coupled with efforts at pedestrian and bike improvements, would mean that the most vulnerable would have mobility.

Today I was actually thinking of writing something about Barrington anyway. I've been really hawk-eyeing my morning bus route for observations on how to improve it, and today I noticed that all along 114 in Barrington, the sidewalks are so narrow that it would be impossible to get a wheelchair down one. The light poles have been installed in such a way as to block any access. Who would design a sidewalk like that, I thought. It defies logic.

Changing a pedestrian access issue like this would be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as running the bus route in a dumb way to make up for it. Smart planners would have identified the need to widen the Barrington sidewalks (sorry, motorists, even if that means losing your center turn-lane!) so that the most vulnerable would have a safe access point to a bus stop. But instead, we'll have the capital-intensive bus adjust to the one-time-cost mistake.

We design a lot of our bus routes so that they veer off-path to visit side destinations. This is a result of bad land use planning, and is also an effort to fix that bad land use planning after-the-fact by connecting "last mile" destinations to-the-door. But in functional transit systems, buses never do this. I can't think of any SEPTA bus routes in Philadelphia proper or the suburbs that go into parking lots, unless it's at the very endpoint of a route. RIPTA buses do this all the time. 

You can understand why someone wants to keep stops spaced closely, have the buses do to-the-door service, and so on, but it's just not a smart way to run the system. And as it happens, the biggest reason RIPTA has been in a deficit the last time around was because of unfunded flex-bus and medical service trips, rather than fixed-route service. If transit advocates that work on behalf of the elderly and disabled were smart, they'd work with the state and with municipalities to site housing for these groups better, so that it could be served more easily by fixed-route buses, rather than have the buses try to swerve this way and that to meet every location. They'd find a source of funding for free fares, rather than just demanding that RIPTA cut service elsewhere to meet their demands. And they'd work to make sure that buses do what buses do well-- carry people quickly between dense, linearly-connected points-- while having bikes, walking, rascals, and wheelchairs do the last jaunts.

I'm also bugged by this issue because it seems like there's a very large overlap between the people who demand that the car tax be lowered for all the Mercedes owners in Providence to give a small, unfunded taxcut to jalopy owners and the people who demand that RIPTA cut fixed-route service to provide free fares to seniors. It doesn't matter how much you explain the math to people, people hate math. They like moral high grounds to be math-free.

The point of this post isn't to rail against free fares for elderly or disabled people, and so I want to close this by reorienting people towards the fact that this is a false dichotomy. RI legislators have a lot of crazy notions about lowering the estate tax or doing other special favors for the very wealthy, and as the organizers for the elderly have said, it wouldn't take much money to ensure that our old folks and disabled have a guaranteed free fare. It's even sillier to take away access to the homeless, who are a small but extremely vulnerable population. But charging around without thinking about the fiscal issues that plague RIPTA is irresponsible. The organizers have a responsibility to think about how they're going to pay for their proposal, and what the reforms might be that would both bring in new revenue, as well as make better use of existing revenue. 

It's time to have that conversation.


Exploiting Scarecrows and Scare Quotes

Justin Katz and I have been having a back-and-forth both on Twitter and in articles about climate change. Katz is a climate change denier (he'd say skeptic). Nonetheless, I've been arguing that many of the ways that we could take action on climate change should be compatible with his market-driven worldview.

Katz responded to my last piece(s) on the carbon tax, and some of the points he made, taken in isolation, have merit. The problem I see with a lot of what Katz says is that he often refers back to a playbook of basic tenets without him taking regard to whether he's actually responding to what is being said by his debate opponent. So a lot of what Katz writes, intentionally or not, has the feeling of a strawman argument

My favorite part of his article was the apparent use of scare quotes around the words "exploiting resources." Katz seems to be implying that I'm calling the use of resources exploitative, whereas to my knowledge, no one uses this phrase with that meaning attached (the roots of the terms probably do diverge from a common root, though: if you exploit someone, you use them like a thing, without giving back). Katz uses scare quotes around the term not once, but twice, and then in a passage, says:
Policies to address climate change seem uniquely designed to lock in current power structures. Those who already have money and influence can find ways around them or just absorb (even profit from) costs and restrictions, while those who need flexibility in the economy are stymied by lost opportunity. That isn’t just a function of “exploiting resources,” but of costs. Even the most non-exploitative entrepreneur in the country could be thrown off the tracks with policies that drive up energy costs and collect taxes from the economy generally in order to give the money to favored businesses.
It might be that I'm misunderstanding Katz's meaning, but it seems like this is designed to push buttons with his audience-- a kind of painting of me as a bedraggled hippie yelling "exploitation" at an Occupy rally, or something.

Katz is not someone with whom I agree often, but he does have insights that are on the right track sometimes. And what's frustrating about his writing, as I mentioned before, is that he seems to align all the right arguments to take down a point that no one is making. For instance, in the first of the two articles I wrote on carbon taxing, I suggested getting rid of the subsidies renewable energy and home insulation that are contained in the Energize RI bill and creating a 100% refund of the proposed carbon tax. I said:
Imagine a wind energy company that receives money from the carbon tax. Does that company’s executive get paid too much? Is that company investing in the right kinds of wind investments to make sure it stays ahead of the marketplace in renewables? Are its choices about where to put windmills the smartest they could be? They may be, but maybe not. If a company is padding its bottom line, there’s not necessarily any check or balance to fix that. And when a company gets special assistance, even if it has the best and most upright of intentions, there is a natural human tendency to slack off, and relax, due to the incentives created by free money. No regulator can truly keep track of all the details.
So clearly there is an awareness that special favored businesses can benefit unfairly, and people who want to address climate change are working hard to structure laws in such a way that that's not the case.

What also makes this a strange tact for Katz to take in his argument is that in the Twitter conversation I cited, I suggested a lot of ways that climate change could be addressed by removing subsidies and special government relationships with certain kinds of businesses. This got nary a yawn from Katz, and he ignored it entirely in his response to me, even acting like I might be on the other side of the issue.

When we subsidize oil companies, create zoning that doesn't allow dense, transit-oriented housing (or even walkable rural villages), when we charge drivers $0.50 on the dollar for a constantly expanding road system, these are all ways that we contribute to specially favored industries, while also worsening climate change. It's just that these are the type of cozy industry arrangements you tend to hear liberals get upset about. They're no less distortions of the market. But they don't appeal to conservative (whatever that means) cultural values. 

You might ask at this point, Why shower so much attention on this conversation? Doesn't it seem clear that you're not going to convince Katz? And, I relent, probably not. But there's two reasons I do continue to address this. The first is that despite many instances in which I've found Katz frustrating, he has surprised me at times. I've posted a number of articles to his blog, and that access is something I consider generous from someone who probably regards me as a crank from the left. He also came out with a very reasonable position on the 6/10 Connector-- again, generous from his position.

The other side is of course more cynical: If Justin Katz is just someone who wants to preserve a sense of entitlement to an energy-sucking lifestyle, he's put in quite a quandary by my response. Will he admit that many of the examples I cite of subsidies are, indeed, distortions of the market? Or will he say that these are fine? My Uncle Charles taught me a lot of what I know about chess growing up. He said never to play "hope chess". You don't play as if you hope your opponent doesn't know what you're doing. You tell your opponent flat out what you intend to accomplish, with the hope that the attack you're making is strong enough to withstand that knowledge. The best attacks are double attacks. If Katz acts generously, as he sometimes has, and calls for the end to these subsidies, that's a win. If Katz blusters, as he sometimes does, and creates complicated evasions, then he exposes his concern for free markets as just a rouse. Win. I'd prefer the first, because it preserves a more positive spin, but either is a win for me.

And now, this (my uncle was also an amateur magician. . . family of nerds. . . ):

Your move, Justin.

The Train's Left the Station, Get On Board Current-Anchor

The first thing you owe your political opponents is not to scoff.

The reason it's important not to scoff is that the tension between left and right creates better results. I'm a very liberal person, but I've long ago given up any younger-person notion of wanting conservatives to disappear from the political scene. The interests they fight for, if properly applied, are good: being thoughtful about cost versus benefit, avoiding undue centralization of power, consideration of what markets can do versus government. Charter gets a lot wrong about the upcoming train station, but stay tuned through the whole piece for where I think we can find common ground.

What Chartier Gets Wrong
So, with that said, Monique Chartier gets a lot wrong about the Pawtucket-Central Falls train station, but that doesn't mean her insights couldn't be useful if used differently.

Monique Chartier gets a lot wrong about the Pawtucket-Central Falls train station.

First sentence: 
The Wickford Junction is an unmitigated disaster. So, of course, it makes sense (???) to strive to repeat it in Pawtucket.
This is a completely apples-to-oranges comparison. Wickford Junction was a project to extend an already quite long train line deeper into a rural/exurban area. Pawtucket/Central Falls is a project to build an infill station where service already goes, but where the stop was long ago abandoned. Central Falls is the densest place in the state, with a large car-free population, mixed-use development, and a walkable environment. The city is well on its way to adding the state's first protected bike lane. Pawtucket, too, is dense and has the bones of a walkable place (some improvements to crosswalks would help, but those are small potatoes). Pawtucket and Central Fall's respective downtowns are each within walking distance of the station.

Charter attacks the MBTA estimate of 89 net riders as not worth the investment, which taken on face value I can understand. The problem with using this kind of conservative MBTA ridership estimate is that it's a short-term figure. Connecting Central Falls and Pawtucket to Boston will completely change its connection to jobs, and that in turn will change the prospects for who might decide to live there. There are empty mill properties currently housing no one at all that can be filled by people not wanting to pay Boston rents, Parts of downtown Pawtucket, emptied by the decades following the disastrous I-95 build, also could take infill demand. The ridership estimate doesn't try to extrapolate future demand, but just looks at how existing travelers might make decisions about their trips.

We Need Conservative Insight on Transit Projects
The current route of the 72 is trying to accomplish east-west
goals, north-south goals, local goals, and express goals. But
much of what it serves isn't "on the way". It sits in mixed
traffic, and much of its route serves places with large parking
requirements (big government alert!). 

The length of the route, it's being in mixed-traffic, as well as
it's loopy route ensure that it's also infrequent.

Not a good investment.
Transit mis-spending takes many forms, and there's lots of it within RIPTA and the MBTA. Much of the misspending is directed by both liberal and conservative legislators trying their hand at transit planning without knowing all the pertinent details about how transit works. So we need fiscal hawks to look over projects and question how they're designed.

Central Falls has lousy connections to Providence as well, despite being dense, walkable, and poor. I've pointed out before that the 72 bus acts more like an exurban "last resort" bus: it weaves back and forth through a bunch of neighborhoods, at all times sitting in traffic, making it take much longer to get to CF than it otherwise would. This could be changed-- and what a smart conservative might ask right now is why we shouldn't just move the bus route around to connect it more directly to Providence. 

The answer I would give is that using a bus in mixed traffic to connect Providence and Central Falls makes no sense when an existing, operational train with good ridership is already in existence. Adding an infill station means serving a new "transit-shed" the watershed of development, pedestrians, and bicyclists who can easily use the train line, so it makes better use of a sunk cost. The bus capacity should be redirected, but it could be better used as an intersecting line to bring even more people to the station who are outside of that transit-shed.

I started toying around with a map this morning about what could be done with the capacity from the 72. It's not definitive. But the point is that resources from transit can be used and re-used in ways that are more efficient-- as was done in Houston-- while growing ridership on a fixed budget. Boston and Somerville's project to extend the Green Line into one of the densest urban areas in the country has merit, but ran into cost overruns. The response was to cut unnecessary fat from the budget while keeping the things that make transit work.. Many of the changes to the project had directly to do with economizing on station design, so this would be a good first place to start looking This is the kind of thing that a conservative blog could actually be quite helpful with. Help us to make transit work, instead of just being the voice of transit nihilism. :-)

What's Good for the Goose is Good for the Urban Highway (Er. . . Gander at This!)
I say this merely as a shot over the bow, but if conservatives want to be taken seriously, they need to apply the same standards to highways as transit. Conservatives like to point out that the apparent failures of capitalism all around us are often cases where a government regulation has perverted capitalism, and sometimes this observation is true. Urban highways are a great case study of this-- government coming in, knocking things down, building highways that cost more than the Eiffel Tower, and then pretending that the dissolution of transit all around those highways was a market outcome of choice, rather than a severe manipulation. A lot of Rhode Island conservatives have shown real maturity on issues like the 6/10 Connector: Rep. Dan Reilly, Minority Leader Brian Newberry, Justin Katz, and Mike Stenhouse-- people I don't necessarily share ideological common ground with in most cases-- have said reasonable things about the 6/10 Connector. Yet Chartier is unconvinced, thinking we should rebuild the highway as-is:

If $20 million is too much to spend for a train station that serves a dense walkable area, on a line that already has train service, why is spending several hundred million dollars acceptable for a route that tangles traffic and devalues neighborhoods? I suspect that a deeper Culture Wars-style politics is at play, instead of cool, calm, collected view of things.

Can the 60 Bus Be Improved?

It's not the first time I've thought about it, but I made a map.

In case you've never taken it, the 60 bus goes from Burnside Park to Newport via the East Bay, and connects some very bikeable, walkable places. Can we get this to be a more effective route?

Please comment.

UPDATE: I posted this as a stub article, but I wanted to update with specifics. 

*The stops on the 60 are too close together. In practice, not all of these stops are used, but in many places these stops are as close as a tenth of a mile apart. Just to give the most ridiculous example, to prove the point, look at this:

The other day I sat on the bus and confirmed this (though oddly, the Google Streetview wasn't able to turn up a good image). There are two stops (!) for the 60 between the two bridges that connect Barrington and Warren. Way, way, way too close.

There are many stops in Warren's downtown, when there should really either be just one (at Child Street, perhaps) or at most two (one at either extreme of the downtown). This needs to change.

*There's no walkable environment along the Wampanoag expressway, but nonetheless there are lots
and lots of stops along it for the 60. My goal would be to set up, at most, one stop, and to put a lot of effort into making that stop more pedestrian and bike friendly. There should be a traffic signal to help people safely cross the street, and there should be a bike path to connect people (because the area isn't dense enough to really expect people to walk).

*We should consider signal prioritization along the entire route. This would help the bus a lot, but would be a break-even for cars (at worst), and perhaps would help them move more quickly as well. Currently, some of the signals have "beg buttons" (the buttons that allow bikers or pedestrians to ask to cross the street). These should be removed (which would give those users less control over the signals) but in return the towns should pick a regular timing that can only be elongated or shortened by the buses. Something like this was done for the R Line, and it produced an 18% shortening of the end-to-end travel time for what had been the 11 and 99 buses.

*There's some areas of the route that have great bike path connections, but my experience as a substitute teacher has led me to realize that biking still isn't a normal everyday activity for much of daily life, even for groups of people you might expect to heavily bike (like high school students). Towns like Bristol that have great bike path access should add a network of bike routes, which would both help them to improve the mobility of students within the town as well as increase the "transit-shed" of the 60 bus. 

In Warren, there is a bike path that connects two schools, Kickemuit MS and Hugh Cole ES, back to the town, but the bridge that would cross the water into town doesn't exist. That should be a big goal for bike connectivity, because it would save the town money on bus service for students if students were able to get to school safely on their own. In Warren and Brisol, Metacom Ave. should be a big focus, because it is a wide road with room to add protected bike lanes. Other smaller streets could be connected as bike routes with less extreme changes.

*Bus lanes along I-195 would make sense. Existing bridges could get outfitted to allow rider access. I think only one stop is really needed here, at Broadway. In the meantime, another way to give access to EP residents would be to have the bus pull off of I-195 at the Broadway exit. Signal priority to cross Broadway could help the bus get back to the highway quickly and efficiently.

*Parking policies need to be looked at. I know that high school students are able to park for free at Mt. Hope  High School. Is this the case at other high schools? I don't know. But it's a big part of why students are not a larger share of transit riders, and in effect it also makes it necessary for underclassmen to be bused around in yellow school buses. Universities also have to look at their parking policies, since RWU and Salve Regina could be big contributors to ridership on this bus.

*A commenter (see below) mentioned the naval base in Newport. I think this is a really good focus to add ridership. The naval base should consider adding bike-share within its campus, the way that car companies have in Detroit. It doesn't make sense to have the 60 bus go into the campus of these places, because bus service should be "on the way", but it does make sense to help people connect better to that service, and bike share would be the way to do that.

*I suggested getting rid of the E. Main/W. Main split. I know that Portsmouth and Middletown are fairly rural and that this split increases the number of people near a stop, but it also means that the buses are less frequent on those stops. Focusing on one of those roads (I think W. Main is more built up) would mean more frequent service. The gap could be covered by improvements to biking, and I'm sure Bike Newport would be happy to help with that.

*GET RID OF PARKING MINIMUMS. Middletown's commercial areas are an ugly nightmare, and like a magic wand you cross into Newport and immediately the town becomes nice (and expensive). Why is it that Newport is in such high demand, and yet people don't build more stuff that looks like Newport right over the border? Seems odd, doesn't it? It's because Middletown has ridiculous parking requirements that make it likely for people to develop awful suburban strip malls instead of nice walkable infill. I think this could really help a lot. Please do this, Middletown.

The 60 is a good route. Let's take what's good in Rhode Island and make it excellent.


What You Don't Hear About Parking Meters

I had a good conversation with the Thayer Historic District today. The organization overlaps but is separate from the Thayer Merchants' Association, which has been-- like many merchants' associations in the city-- loudly complaining about parking meters. I wanted to let the Thayer people know that I think parking meters are a good idea, that I shop on Thayer a lot, and that even though I don't make a point to complain about my issues with Thayer (no bike infrastructure leading up to it, Thayer should be pedestrianized, etc.) that I wanted them registered, since I know that people who complain about parking are a constant overwhelming presence.

What the Historic District rep said was surprising to me. As it turns out, their organization had been supportive of meters, but now feels pretty dim on them. Why?

The reason is that the city promised that part of the meter money would be returned to the merchants, but in fact none of the money is being returned to the merchants.

Thayer merchants are also upset because they were told that all the districts would be metered, but they are one of only a few being metered.

When you take these criticisms into account, it's a very different picture than what you hear more prominently about parking meters. As it turns out, parking meters aren't so bad, it's just the people who are being metered want some of the money (preferably all, above the cost of metering itself). People also don't want to feel singled out. Totally reasonable complaints.

With city councilors like Seth Yurdin pushing against new parking meters, this is important information. I tweeted yesterday about Yurdin's position, after reading about it in his online newsletter. He said:
I have continued to advocate against proposals to install parking meters in our small commercial areas.  Following overwhelming objection from merchants and residents alike, the Mayor's office and Parking Administration have announced that they will not be installing meters this spring.
Yurdin immediatley prickled at my tweet's characterization of his position: 

When it's clear that the biggest issues for ordinary neighborhood organizations and their elected representatives are using meters for a revenue suck, why doesn't Mayor Elorza's administration rectify this? Instead of lowering the car tax for all cars fancy and clunky, the mayor could have allocated funding back to merchants' associations from the meters (as promised). That would create good will, which in turn would allow for a different political climate in which meters could be accepted in other merchant districts.

The ball is in the mayor's court. I'm glad that the mayor has worked to add meters in the past, but his administration's handling of the revenue has made it hard for people like me to continue advocating for parking meters. We need better leadership on this issue.


Who Would Pay a Carbon Tax?

The equity ethics of a carbon tax is often a hotly debated part of the discussion. Many object to the idea of making energy more expensive, because they assume this would disproportionately affect the poor. But to my mind, this is clearly not the case. It's pretty simple math.

Poor people are more likely to have smaller homes or apartments, and are less likely to own cars. When they do own cars, they are more likely to drive a great deal less than their upper-income counterparts. Upper income people also travel more, and are more likely to do so by plane (though this is less a "1%" vs. the "99%" thing than a gradual increase up the income scale*). Nonetheless, the expenditure for energy may be a larger percentage of the income a household has, and at the lowest end of the spectrum, spending more on basic necessities may be a real financial strain.

But think about how a carbon tax works, if it's refunded 100%. Those who use the most spend disproportionately, due to their higher use, but everyone gets the same refund. For the average, "middle class" user of energy-- the person who lives in an average home, flies an average amount, drives and average amount, heats their house an average amount, etc.-- this means that the amount of new tax exactly equals the amount of refund. For a household that uses less than the average amount, the refund is actually larger than what is taxed.

So with the awareness that low income households use less energy in virtually all aspects of their lives, what's holding us back? 

There's a lot of goal post shifting going on in this conversation. While it's completely reasonable to wonder what the effects of lowering carbon-intensive fuels will be for income distribution, you can see people who oppose climate action pulling wildly from both ends of the deck to cobble together an argument. For instance, over the weekend I had a conversation with Justin Katz after he grossly mischaracterized a Projo article on climate. One of his statements was that climate activism was in danger of sealing the position of the haves by reducing opportunities to exploit resources. This is not, in itself, a totally crazy hypothesis, as we saw above (though I think it's wrong). But here you can see him calling climate change activism a conspiracy to redistribute income to the have-nots. 

Taxing carbon isn't a conspiracy to redistribute income, because the reward to the recipient of a refund is due to their having economized on energy use. However, it's clear that those who already economize the most are the least well off. So a carbon tax-and-refund policy would be a break-even for the middle class, and would help the poor, while helping us to avoid a serious future cataclysm that could affect everyone. Who could be against that?

*Just to give an example., I've only flown once, before my memory, as a baby. My mom just recently announced to me on the phone that she'd be flying to see family. This is only her second or third time in her entire lifetime (we weren't "poor" growing up, but were probably best described as borderline working-class/lower-middle class). But for upper-income households, flying can be a many-times-a-year event. This is an interesting synopsis of a study from Germany talking about that.

Tilting at Windmills

My own state representative, Aaron Regunberg, is among a group of legislators who have been pushing to make Rhode Island the first state in the country to pass a carbon tax. Rhode Island would join the province of British Columbia in Canada, which passed a carbon tax-and-rebate in 2008.

It's exciting to see this discussed, and yet nothing has been passed yet. I have tremendous respect for Aaron, and for the other legislators who are supporting this measure, but I have a tweak to suggest to their proposal: rebate all of the money to taxpayers, instead of just 70% of it, as currently proposed. I think this would help us become the first state to pass a carbon tax.

A carbon tax works by putting a price on carbon pollution. The point of doing this is to “internalize” the cost of that pollution. In other words, it makes the person causing pollution pay for it, instead of spreading, or “externalizing” that cost across the entire community. A parallel would be a requirement to make dog owners pick up their pets’ poop (or else face a fine). If dog owners don’t clean up after their pets, it’s not as if the poop disappears. It merely becomes the problem of the entire community. So it goes with carbon dioxide: the problems caused by carbon pollution are disconnected from the motives to use more energy.

According to a report on the bill at RINPR, 70% of the money would be put into rebates to Rhode Island families. Families that wished to use that rebate to pay higher energy costs could, but smart recipients of the rebate would of course do well to spend their rebate on something else.

The RIPNR report states that:

The rest of the money raised by the carbon tax would go into the state’s newly established Green Infrastructure Bank to invest in energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy. Supporters say that would add jobs to those sectors. And they’ve marshaled support from more than 100 small businesses in Rhode Island.

It makes more sense to drop this part of the bill, and refund all of the money. It’s not to say that investment in clean energy or energy efficiency are not good goals, but the mechanism of the carbon tax should give people enough incentive to do this on their own. As carbon pricing gradually increases, there would be more and more reason to insulate one’s home with the rebates from the carbon tax, or to put the rebates into renewables. Allowing consumers to do so on their own rather than directly investing in particular companies would mean that there’d be competition to fill these needs in an efficient way.

Imagine a wind energy company that receives money from the carbon tax. Does that company’s executive get paid too much? Is that company investing in the right kinds of wind investments to make sure it stays ahead of the marketplace in renewables? Are its choices about where to put windmills the smartest they could be? They may be, but maybe not. If a company is padding its bottom line, there’s not necessarily any check or balance to fix that. And when a company gets special assistance, even if it has the best and most upright of intentions, there is a natural human tendency to slack off, and relax, due to the incentives created by free money. No regulator can truly keep track of all the details.

On the other hand, if consumers pay a higher cost for energy, but receive all of that money back, then the highest energy users will pay more, while those who economize will benefit. That means that those consumers can choose a variety of ways to make changes. Some might find that their electricity bill is the best way to approach the problem, while others might drive less. Some may choose to insulate their house or apartment, or to rent out a room so that the energy cost is shared across more people. That decentralized approach is what makes the carbon tax such a good tool, and is why 100% of funds, not 70%, should go back to consumers.

There’s a segment of the Republican Party that does not accept the existence of climate change, and perhaps among this segment there isn’t much that can be done to build support for any type of climate action. But there’s also a smarter group of people who may accept the need to take climate action, but resent the handout of government money to people perceived as insiders. Amending the carbon tax bill to be a true rebate will address this concern, and broaden the coalition for climate action. George H. W. Bush worked to solve acid rain through a similar measure, so there's truly an argument that this is the conservative way to resolve climate change.