Monday, August 30, 2010

Mission's Traffic Tax

I've had a chance to digest the new, yet controversial Mission "driveway tax" which isn't really a driveway tax at all.

First things first, while I generally applaud the coverage of the Star on development issues, they did a really poor job covering this issue. They adopted the "driveway tax" moniker, which is really misleading since its not a tax on driveways at all (one could conceivably still get assessed a fee even if one removed the driveway from their property). What it is is a "traffic usage fee" - an assessment based on the amount of traffic a property is generating.

The Star also failed to mention that the city of Mission cut property taxes by two mills, cut the city budget by 24% and froze city employee salaries. Well, they did mention it, but in a completely separate article. This amounted to tossing red meat to the anti-tax readers who predictably reacted violently to this talk of a new "driveway tax", thinking those out-of-control spenders at Mission were all-too happy to tax Mission businesses into submission.

Anyway, onto the substance of the tax itself. Like most people, I don't like new taxes, but I also realize that they are the price we pay for having a civilized society, and fund many of the services and amenities that make the areas we live attractive places to live. And if I have to choose between a property tax, a sales tax, and a "traffic usage fee", I'll glad choose the traffic usage fee, particularly if its being used to fund roads. It makes perfect sense to link traffic usage to road maintenance costs in an effort to get users to pay their own costs. It is also less regressive than a sales tax, and much more stable than a property tax or sales tax (meaning in dire times, the city is less likely to have to require an increase!)

Additionally, it may also get Mission businesses to think about the traffic they are generating. Mission is using funds from the fee to support the Jo Express Bus that will run from Metcalf to the Country Club Plaza. Businesses may want to start thinking about how they can better accommodate mass transit, encourage patrons to walk to their establishments, and reduce the size of their massive parking lots, if nothing more than to reduce their "traffic usage fee."

Mission has suffered some setbacks in their Gateway Project at the former Mission Center site, but I am encouraged that they are still pursuing modest steps to achieve their vision of a more pedestrian-friendly downtown district.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Vision Metcalf Update

I did manage to attend the Vision Metcalf open house last Thursday. It gave the public an idea of the concept of "Form Based Code." Form Based Code is a different type of zoning code that rather than looking at the use of a building, evaluates it on its form. It can be a good tool to give greater importance to more pedestrian-friendly rather than encouraging sprawling auto-centric form.

You can see the downtown Overland Park district they propose adapting to Form Based Code. They plan on building a "New Market Street" and a "New Broadmoor Street" with townhouses/row houses lining New Broadmoor.

It was also stressed this would be a very long process taking years, possibly even decades. Still, it was invigorating to see the enthusiasm from the young planners, and it is nice to see a community in the metro at least give some lip service on working towards more walkable communities.

Public hearings should take place this October.

Vision Metcalf - City of Overland Park

Flashing lights mean....what?

A recent Watchdog item in the Star highlights some of the silliness of traffic signs.

Greg Muleski of Kansas City wonders about two sets of push-button flashing yellow lights that Kansas City officials have placed at a crosswalk on Wornall Road at 74th Street.

“The button activates flashing yellow lights that confuse motorists and make it more difficult to cross than without the lights,” Muleski contends. “Drivers don’t know what to do in response to the flashing yellow. What’s the reason for the flashing yellow?”
Greg is absolutely right. All the lights do is either confuse motorists if they are not ignored by motorists altogether, while pedestrians tentatively, and perilously cross the street hoping the motorists know what to do. (in fact, it may actually make things more dangerous for pedestrians). In downtown Mission, the city even posted large signs in the middle of the street, telling motorists to stop if pedestrians are crossing, or face penalty under state law. And yet still I nearly saw a pedestrian struck by a large car there.

Why does this happen? I am currently reading "Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt, and he discusses the ubiquity of traffic signs flooding our senses.
Try to remember the last time you saw, while driving, a "School Zone" or "Children at Play" sign. Chances are you will not remember, but if you can, now try to recall what you did when you saw it. Did you suddenly slow? Did you scan for children? If you're like most people, you did nothing. You may not have understood what it was asking you to do, which is rather common - in one study, subjects who were shown a sign warning WATCH FOR FALLEN ROCKS, were split equally between those who said they would look for rocks falling at the moment and speed up and those who said they would slow down and look for rocks already on the road. 
Traffic signs have become so numerous they became white background noise, easy for motorists to ignore. And if we do notice them, they are so ambiguous, motorists don't know what to do. Its even more problematic in a town with so few pedestrians like Kansas City - motorists simply aren't accustomed to dealing with them.

So what to do? Vanderbilt cites the late innovate traffic engineer Hans Monderman who advocated removing street signs and simply slowing the street down - not through traffic humps - but through psychological means.

"How foolish are we in always telling people how to behave. When you treat people like idiots, they'll behave like that."
People behave like idiots when we drive because we are conditioned to rely on signs to tell us what to do. Outside of our cars, we don't need signs to tell us what to do. We use our intuition. We pick up on cues. When I walk, and a man approaches me, I subtly notice he shifts his shoulder to his right, so I move to my right to avoid contact with him. At the park, on a trail or an open field, I know I can run without risking running into anyone. But as I approach a crowded playground, or an area occupied by people sitting enjoying a fountain, I know I must slow down and take more care so that I don't slam into an elderly woman or young child.

We should use this same kind of logic in dealing with automobiles. Waldo has an emerging hot spot at 75th and Wornall with eclectic bars, restaurants and shops. There is a sizable residential and office community and it serves as a transit hub. It follows that there will be a good number of pedestrians and planners should begin to look at the intersection as more of a neighborhood that showed be slowed to a pedestrian-level pace, rather than a way to run cars down Wornall as fast as possible.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tonight in Johnson County

The JO's Strategic Transit Action Recommended Taskforce meets tonight at 6:30 at the Sylvester Powell Center at Johnson Drive and Lamar in Mission. 
The taskforce is charged with:
  • Studying the county’s Transit Strategic Plan
  • Evaluating current service options, both within the county and metro links
  • Presenting recommendations on future public transportation strategies, including both short-term and long-term financing options for a comprehensive county-wide transit system
Also there will be an open house for the Vision Metcalf project tonight from 4:30 - 6:30 at the Matt Ross Community Center at 81st and Marty, just west of Metcalf, with a presentation at 5:30. 

At the open house members of the public will be able to view the latest concepts related to Vision Metcalf and future downtown development. The presentation will illustrate the latest updates to the downtown form-based code and regulating plan. Recent revisions are based on input from community groups, the form-based code steering committee, the development community, and city staff over the last several months.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

New Johnson County taxi service

Bill George, who owns a number of taxi companies in Kansas City, is starting a new taxi service for south Johnson County.

A new Johnson County service, 10/10 Taxi, makes it simple - $10 for up to five miles and a maximum of $15 after that, and 10 minutes or less to pick you up or you get 10 percent off.

The taxi service will launch at 8 a.m. Wednesday and then run 24/7, covering two zones: Blue Valley (from 95th Street to 151st Street, State Line Road to Pflumm Road) and the city limits of Olathe.
It will be interesting to see how much this service is utilized. My guess is there are more elderly people in Johnson County that need to get to places than most people realize. I also wonder how this affects the JO's "special edition" for senior citizens that will provide curb-to-curb service on demand. Sure the taxi is more convenient, but my impression is that senior citizens aren't exactly pressed for time, and what is more important to them is saving a buck or two whenever they can.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Better Block Project

Impressive video on how a group of enterprising young people were able to transform a car-centric block into a more pedestrian-friendly, visually pleasing space in just two days spending only a thousand bucks.

From one of the organizers:

We've got the first complete street in Dallas…. It didn't cost millions of dollars. We didn't have to hire consultants from other faraway places to make this happen. It took us a day. And all we did was slow the street down. We made room for everybody. For cars, for people, for bicyclists.… We've changed the psychology of the street.

Straddle Bus - Wave of the Future?

Check out this futuristic concept bus being considered in China.
The innovating company, Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment, claims that building the infrastructure for straddling buses is three times faster and much cheaper than a comparable distance of new subways. The wheel-rail-hybrid buses are powered by municipal electricity and solar energy, thus reducing the cost of their operation as well as fuel consumption. They will purportedly reduce traffic jams by 25 percent. There’s even motion-sensing alarm system built into the bus to prevent oversize vehicles from passing through the bus and to warn cars if they swerve too close to the bus’ wheels.
I guess I still don't see how its that much more advantageous over regular buses since it still has to stop at intersections. But I guess it won't disrupt the flow of traffic it is traveling with and hey, it looks pretty cool!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Delaware to protect cyclists and pedestrians with new law

Delaware will soon enact a new law that will toughen penalties against drivers that hit and injure pedestrians and cyclists. The penalties include completion of a traffic safety course, community service, fines, and suspension of driving privileges. As Streetsblog points out, it helps to give prosecutors tools that are not as severe as vehicular manslaughter, but more of a deterrent than a traffic citation. Oregon and New York have similar laws, and even Texas, the libertarian, truck-driving capital of the nation, passed a similar bill, only to have it vetoed by the Governor.

Meanwhile in Kansas, we get no charges filed against an inattentive driver that paralyzed a world class international cyclist.

Delaware S.B. 269 - "The Vulnerable Users Law"

The JO celebrates expanding to five new routes

In a time when most transit services are cutting routes, the JO should be applauding for expanding their number of routes. In July the JO expanded to five new routes:

664 - Metcalf-Downtown
556 - Metcalf-Plaza
856 - New flex service midday on Metcalf-Plaza
575 - 75th Street and Quivira; Waldo to JCCC
875 - New flex service midday on 75th Street and Quivira; Waldo to JCCC

This, in addition to the recent K-10 route to Lawrence, helps upgrade transit service in Johnson County considerably. There is still a long way to go in making the JO a truly viable alternative to driving in Johnson County but at least the agency is being allowed to move in the right direction, when the county could be reactionary by imposing draconian cuts.

This Thursday, August 19th, the JO will be holding a publicity event to drum up attention for their new routes. Join them at the Price Chopper at 75th and Metcalf from 4:30-6:30 for free food and free passes and take a ride!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Dangerous Crossings - Buford Highway in Atlanta

This video is the impetus behind this blog. It aired a few weeks ago on PBS' new show "Need to Know" and it highlights the dangerous nature of Buford Highway in Atlanta. Fast highway speeds, limited visibility due to hills, and virtually no pedestrian crossings have created a perilous environment for pedestrians, at a time when the area is attracting more low-income residents that utilize bus services and need to hazard crossing the highway to get where they need to go. The inspiration of this blog was the Atlanta pedestrian-advocacy group featured in the story -

Blueprint America special report: Dangerous Crossings

The story also reminded me of some of the state highways in our area that pose a risk to pedestrians. The one nearest to me is Shawnee Mission Parkway in Johnson County. Most of Shawnee Mission Parkway serves pretty automobile-centric areas, but as you travel east into the denser areas of Johnson County, the highway poses more of a threat to pedestrians trying to cross. The developers of the Mission Gateway Project at Shawnee Mission Parkway and Roe wanted to slow down the highway and make it more pedestrian friendly, connecting their project to neighborhoods to the south, but they received resistance from KDOT.

Raytown has also made strides towards making areas more pedestrian-friendly, helping the local establishments, but it appears as if the presence of Highway 350 is an impediment towards those goals.

What other dangerous highways do we have in Kansas City?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Best Pedestrian Sign Ever


Reference here.

Overland Park lists dozen most dangerous intersections

Overland Park has released a list of its dozen most dangerous intersections. One of the comments makes an obvious but perhaps overlooked point - the intersections with the most accidents are going to be the ones with the most traffic. It is simple logic - more cars means more chances for accidents.

Which is why it would benefit drivers if we actually improved the walkability and transit use in this community. Fewer drivers would mean fewer accidents - particularly if we give the option not to drive to people that are higher risk drivers (in particular the very young and the very old).

KC Strip Trolley Doing Okay

This weekend the Star gave an update on how the KC Strip Trolley is doing. This is the privately-run trolley service that runs past certain bars downtown late at night that was subsidized to the tune of $195,000 from public tax dollars, and another $200,000 in secured loans while at the same time the city was cutting ATA service due to lack of funding.

On the one hand, I am glad to get a few more drunk drivers off the road (although people responsible enough to pay $10 for a ride are people that were probably already responsible enough to get a cab or a designated driver). And hey, it is mass transit of sorts.

On the other hand, its public money being handed to a private business-owner to provide a service that is already being served by the private sector (taxi-cabs) at a time when legitimately needed transit services are being cut.

The two biggest benefits of public mass transit are (a) to provide transportation at reasonable costs for those that cannot afford private transportation; and (b) to foster development.

This accomplishes neither of those goals. The service is only late at night, rendering it useless for the majority of people. The fare is $10, not much different from what private transportation would cost. And with such limited ridership hours, there is zero chance of any development spin-off.

So what is being accomplished here?

Meanwhile, the conservative think-tank the Show-Me Institute seems ready to use either the success or failure of this venture as evidence that public transit funding should be cut.

The KC Strip trolley service should prove to be a fairly good market test for trolleys in Missouri’s cities. If it prospers, it will show that such mass transit options do not require lavish public subsidies to survive. However, if it fails to make money, it’s a good indication that people are not terribly interested in riding a trolley system, so we should save our public dollars for more pressing needs.

Now if Show-Me Institute is simply saying there is no need to publicly fund these late-night drunk trolleys for tourists and suburbanites, then they are quite right.

However, I fear some fiscal conservatives will use this argument to be applied to mass transit more generally. See, if it works, that means the private market can better run mass transit! And if it doesn't work, that means there is no market for mass transit! Which of course, is silly. If there were a way to make mass transit profitable, the free market would already be providing this service (as it is for late-night drunks!). It is the absence of a market solution that publicly funded mass transit is needed. Not to mention that this is a very limited service with very limited application and cannot possibly be used to illustrate whether or not mass transit on a wide scale should be publicly funded.