Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is High Density Required for Transit in KC?

Human Transit has an interesting post on the relationship between density and transit and pokes holes in some of the fallacies.
Transit does depend on density, but there are three problems with saying that “transit requires high density.”  

    * First, it offers no hope to places that are already built at low densities and unlikely to change.
    * Second, it gives public transit in low-density areas an excuse for descending into a cycle of underinvestment, official neglect, and lazy operations, because after all, nobody expects public transit in low density areas to be any good anyway. 
    * Third, it invites sweeping claims about transit’s viability based on the overall average density of a city, claims that, as we’ll see, make no sense at all.
Of course, we hear this argument all the time when transit is raised here in Kansas City. Transit can be a way to build up density. But since we already have low density, transit won't work here.

I think this is an astute point as well:
The emotions are inevitable: Whenever we talk about urban form, people hear us making judgments about their homes.  I can stand in front of a group of citizens and talk about how a certain kind of development pattern implies certain consequences for transit, and thus for sustainability, and thus for civilization.  As we talk, it may appear that we’re having a thoughtful and educational discussion about good and bad design.  But some people in the audience have chosen to make their homes in the very development pattern that I’m describing, and to those people, I’m saying that their home is good or bad.
If you talk about say a RCP light rail plan and the need for higher density, you will get resistance from Northlanders...even suburbanites for whom the the rail will not even affect. Some of that I'm sure is anti-tax sentiments, but I don't think we should overlook the defensiveness of suburbanites. No one likes being told they are making bad choices, particularly about big things like the choice of where and how to live. Implicit in the arguments for density and transit is a critique of suburban sprawl.

KCPT ran a program last year called "The Next American Dream" about the revitalization of downtown. They advocated for even greater density and urbanization of the metro area. But they were also smart not to criticize suburbanization. They emphasized greater "choice" - urban living for some, suburban living for others. This will be key for any discussion on light rail or higher density plans.

The last point I think is key:
Transit reacts mainly with the density right around its stations.  It is in the nature of transit to serve an area very unevenly, providing a concentrated value around its stops and stations and less value elsewhere.  So what matters for transit is the density right where the transit is, not the aggregate density of the whole urban area.
 What matters not is the density of the Kansas City metro area, or Kansas City proper, or even the imaginary boundaries of the River Market/Crown Center/Plaza corridor. What matters is the density around the transit nodes we select. If you put transit stops at the River Market, in the Financial District, at the Convention Center/Power and Light District/Sprint Center, at the Crossroads, at Crown Center/Union Station, at Westport at the Plaza, at Brookside/UMKC - will there be sufficient densities around those nodes?

League of American Bicyclists Recognizes Bike-Friendly Companies

The League of American Bicyclists has honored those Kansas City area businesses and organizations that are the most bike-friendly.

Fall 2010 Kansas City Area Bicycle Friendly Businesses
Silver Level
  • 360° Architecture
  • Family Bicycles, LLC    
Bronze Level
  • Foth Infrastructure and Environment — Kansas City       
Honorable Mention
  • City of Mission, Kan.
  • City of Shawnee, Kan.
  • Mid-America Regional Council 
  • Sprint Nextel
  • UMB Financial Corporation

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Bus Rider Concludes KC Buses Ain't So Bad!

Nice column from a reader at the Star about his first time using the MAX.

Initially I dealt with the fear that the bus would be dirty, noisy and crowded with “people who rode the bus.”
What a pleasant surprise to be proven wrong. If only I had opened up my commuting horizons earlier.
A window into the lives and habits of people in my own neighborhood, as well as the wide variety of those in neighborhoods between my own and the office has blossomed.
I had a short conversation this weekend with a gentleman who used to live downtown, but now lives in the suburbs telling me about how he used to ride the bus to attend Kings games at Municipal, but he would "never ride the bus now" for it was far too dangerous. When I asked him the last time he rode the bus, he said it was decades. So how did he know it was dangerous?
I encourage everyone to at least give the bus a chance, particularly when arriving at some of Kansas City's larger events. Yes, it could be more convenient than it is now, but any preconceived notions about lack of safety, smelly riders, or being hassled by poor people will be pretty quickly dismissed. And you may find avoiding dealing with bad drivers to be a welcome experience.

Public Transit Ridership Up Nationwide

2008 saw a dramatic uptick in public transit usage nationwide as oil prices soared. Well oil prices have stabilized, yet public transit ridership has slightly increased.
The American Public Transit Association is reporting that transit trips ticked up by 0.1 percent in the second quarter of 2010. APTA says that may be because the economy is actually shivering to life. “History shows that as the economy grows, public transit ridership tends to increase. This rise in ridership offers a glimmer of hope that we may be coming out of the economic recession and ridership will continue to move upward.”
It is promising to see ridership numbers stabilize, despite the recession (or perhaps because of the recession?) However, it is vital this surge in ridership is not undermined by slashing transit budget and making transit even less convenient for the people that need it most now.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Prairie Village Community Improvement District

Prairie Village has approved a 1% sales tax increase in only the Village Shops at Prairie Village and Corinth Shopping District to fund the Community Improvement District that will renovate the two shopping districts.

You can see the proposed improvements here on pages 43 and 97. There are some pedestrian-oriented improvements that will be integrated. The crosswalks will be emphasized more in the Village Shops center. The Corinth center will have a new courtyard for pedestrians to mill about and relax. Bike racks will be included and both developments will be integrated with a proposed trail.

Still, it strikes me as a missed opportunity. Both developments will still be areas to drive to and park, rather than centers that residents can walk to from their homes, despite the fact that Prairie Village can boast a sizeable biking and walking population. No parking is being reduced despite the fact that neither center has its lots much more than half full. Parking still lines Mission Road, which should be a walkable, pedestrian-friendly road that connects the two centers together.

City Councilmembers have emphasized wanting to preserve a "village"-type atmosphere for Prairie Village, and this will be a long-term development that will take decades (the tax runs for twenty-two years). My hope is that over time, as the economy recovers, the CID will be able to make more dramatic changes that fundamentally alter the auto-centric layout of the development and foster a more walkable community in Prairie Village.

Sanders Lays Out Commuter Rail Specifics

Jackson County executive Mike Sanders unveiled more specifics on his proposed commuter rail plan that would be able to take commuters from as far as Blue Springs all the way to Union Station.
Six lines in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Wyandotte counties would converge at Union Station. The system would operate 16 hours a day, mainly to get people to and from work but also to the airport, big sporting events and major shopping areas. The trains would scoot along at up to 70 mph and have amenities such as Wi-Fi. “Put your bicycle on there if you want to,” Terry said.

Terry puts the price tag at slightly more than $1 billion – less than $8 million per mile, far lower than systems in other cities – mostly because 70 percent of it uses tracks or old rail corridors that are already in place and are underused or not used at all. The line through Independence, Blue Springs and Grain Valley, for example, would use Kansas City Southern tracks that currently handle only five trains daily – four of them at night.

Its also interesting they note that the price tag - while large - is less than a third of what it would cost to expand I-70 by one lane. 

I applaud Mike Sanders for using his political capital on such a project. While it has its flaws, its one of the most serious mass transit proposals this metro area has seen, and he is actually going out and winning support for it, rather than letting others do the heavy lifting.

Its also embarrassing that Johnson County refuses to participate in this.

MoBikeFed Hosts Bike Safety Course

MoBikeFed will be holding a Traffic Skills 101 course to educate bicycle riders on bicycle safety tips, including "bicycle safety checks, fixing a flat, on-bike skills and crash avoidance techniques and includes a student text book."

Bicyclists can do their part by becoming safer, more aware riders who legally follow traffic signals. But it will also take drivers becoming safer, more aware drivers who legally follow traffic signals if we can avoid awful incidents like this one. Integrating bicycle safety and rules on bicycles as part of driver's education courses may not be a bad idea in getting drivers to at least acknowledge sharing the road.

Monday, September 20, 2010

MARC Presentation on Sustainable Communities

MARC continues its 2010 Leadership Series with a presentation from Sarah James a city planner and author of the book "The Natural Step of Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices."
Participants will learn:
  • What is and is not sustainable
  • Why a project-by-project approach is not enough
  • How broad participation in sustainable change makes a difference
  • How to bring about comprehensive community sustainability
  • Cost savings through sustainable development
 James will speak Friday, October 8 from 8-10 a.m. at the Sylvester Powell Center in Mission, Kansas.

Kansas City Seeks Input on Street and Traffic Plans

Just a reminder from Let's Go KC, that the city of Kansas City is seeking public input on its street and traffic plans.
Stop by one of these open houses to voice your opinion, all from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
North Community Center on Monday, Sept. 20.
Tony Aguirre Community Center on Tuesday, Sept. 21.
Gregg/Klice Community Center on Wednesday, Sept. 29.
Line Creek Community Center on Thursday, Sept 30.
Marlborough Community Center on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
Hillcrest Community Center on Thursday, Oct. 7.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Pitch: KC's Bus Service is Pretty Lousy

The Pitch steps up this week with a pretty decent expose on how the city continues to raid the coffers of the Kansas City Area Transit Authority to the tune of $5.4 million, over one-sixth of the tax revenues generated by the 0.5 percent sales tax that is supposed to be dedicated to public transit.

By any name, it keeps growing. The city's 18.3-percent cut follows a pattern of steady increases. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, the city kept only 4.6 percent of the sales tax....

An accountant by training, Rogers has put together a spreadsheet indicating that the city has withheld $22 million from the ATA during the past eight years.
We keep hearing how Kansas City should not build a light rail because people don't even use the bus system. Well people aren't going to use the bus system if its perpetually underfunded, inconvenient, and doesn't go everywhere riders need it to go.

It also begs the question of whether the KCATA might be better of serving as its own political unit, raising its own funding through a sales tax where it can keep all of its revenues, and being the truly regional authority it needs to be for this to be a healthy metro area.

Public Transit Helps You Lose Weight

Its always been a theory among transit advocates that if you implement a successful transit line, a welcome effect is a healthier populace. Well now there is evidence to support that claim as seen in a study of the Charlotte, North Carolina metro area.
Increasing the availability of public transit systems is one among a number of modifications to the built environment that offers opportunities for increasing physical activity and reducing the prevalence of obesity and its associated problems. In a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the RAND Corporation found that construction of a light-rail system (LRT) resulted in increased physical activity (walking) and subsequent weight loss by people served by the LRT. These findings suggest that improving neighborhood environments and increasing the public's use of LRT systems could improve health outcomes and potentially impact millions of individuals.
In this age of spiraling health care costs and and an alarming rise in obesity among younger generations, it makes sense for public policy to encourage people to get off their duff, walk out their door, and walk down the street.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to Slow Down Streets For Children

Bold. But I like it.

From the Canadian organization The Community Against Preventable Injuries.

Park(ing) Day is September 17

This Friday is Park(ing) Day an "annual, worldwide event that inspires city dwellers everywhere to transform metered parking spots into temporary parks for the public good." Kansas Citians will be reclaiming parking areas at 11th and Grand downtown at various parking lots at UMKC, and at Independence Center and  Independence Square in Independence.

Here's a great video showing how a car-dominated area can be converted to a much more enjoyable people-dominated area.

PARK(ing) Day: User-Generated Urbanism from Brandon Bloch on Vimeo.

Walk-Friendly Communities Program

 "Walk Friendly Communities" will be giving grants in November to communities that establish or recommit to a high priority for supporting safer walking environments. This is similar to the "Bike Friendly Communities" program which of course awards grants to communities that support safer biking environments. Our own Lee's Summit earned "honorable mention" in the most recent award.

This is a terrific program that Kansas City communities should be aggressively applying for. While receiving an award may take several applications, the process can still help communities guide their plans for developing more walkable, bike-friendly communities.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

McPaper Trumpets Streetcar Success

USA Today recently brought attention to some of the success stories of the Portland Streetcar system, which not only generates manufacturing jobs here in the States, but also spurs economic development in formerly blighted areas.

In 2008, a study by the city found that Portland's streetcar system had generated $3.5 billion in investments and prompted construction of 10,212 housing units within two blocks of the line.

The Pearl District has had "a fraction" of the business closures experienced by other Portland neighborhoods during the recession, says Joshua Ryan, executive director of the Pearl District Business Association.

"It's the hottest place in the city," he says. "It's the safest district, the cleanest district. ... The benefits of streetcars have surpassed our expectations."

Kansas City at one time had one of the most extensive streetcar systems in the United States, with lines even running as far as Leavenworth, Olathe, Lawrence and St. Joseph. The system was purchased and dismantled by General Motors so that people could buy their automobiles, and we have been without a rail system ever since. KCATA is currently studying the feasibility of a River Market-Crown Center route for a streetcar. St. Louis recently won federal funding for a downtown loop trolley.

Streetcars are a quaint, slow mode of transit that is nice for a neighborhood you are trying to slow down and improve walkability. For example, I think a streetcar would be wonderful at tying the Country Club Plaza with the Nelson-Atkins Museum, UMKC and Brookside. I'm not so sure it works as well as a major spine running through the heart of a city. If you want to travel from the River Market to Crown Center (and possibly onto the Plaza), you will want something that is at least competitive, if not faster than an automobile. With a top speed of about 30 mph, I'm not sure a streetcar will be that competitive mode of transportation.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Emmanuel Cleaver Boulevard to Become More Pedestrian-Friendly?

Kansas City, Missouri will begin public hearings to discuss design improvements for Emmanuel Cleaver Boulevard between Rockhill Road and The Paseo to improve streetscaping. Improvements may include better sidewalks, trees, enhanced crosswalks, improved pedestrian-level lighting, traffic calming, road diet, and bike lanes.

The strikes me as a rather significant opportunity. One of the complaints about the Plaza is that it pretty much sits as an island that doesn't mesh well with surrounding areas.  Connecting the Plaza to UMKC, Theis Park, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum together would do wonders for tying the area together and extending the vibrancy of the Plaza further eastward and would help develop areas east that have become neglected and blighted.

And imagine the foot traffic to Gates Bar B.Q.!

The first public hearing will be Tuesday, September 14 from 4:00 - 6:00 p.m. at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center at 47th and Troost.

New Crosswalk Design to Cut Down on Jaywalking?

The only reason jaywalking is illegal is to protect the safety of those jaywalking. Well what if we made it easier to cross at crosswalks by making them bigger and safer?

Korean designer Jae Min Lim has the clever idea to turn crosswalks into, well, “J”s. By curving the typical Zebra crossing to take up a wider swath of road, you carve out a nice, safe path for pedestrians -- one that reflects how they actually walk. 

You would have to make it illegal to turn right on red, which should be done in several places already as I see many cars parked on the crosswalk creeping towards a turn as people are trying to cross. But this crosswalk shows a clear design that sends the message that the roads are to be shared with pedestrians and cars must operate accordingly.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Seven Year Old Gardner Boy Hit By Car

Tragedy in Gardner as a child was struck by a car walking from his elementary school. The full details aren't yet known, although reportedly he was not crossing at a crosswalk. It it the second student struck in Gardner in the last month. Whether or not the automobile is at fault or it is simply an accident, it does highlight a bit that there are entirely too many cars picking up kids at schools these days.

Not to get all grumpy old man on you, but when I was a child, the only time anyone picked up their kid at school was when they left early for a dentist appointment. Now there is a cavalry of SUVs lined up outside elementary schools at 3 p.m. Many schools have cut back or eliminated bus service due to budget cuts and an emphasis on "neighborhood schools" which in theory allows most students to walk to school. So you have a combination of more kids walking to schools AND more vehicles around schools. Its not a good combination.

This is a good time to point out that the Obama administration did implement a new initiative called "Safe Routes to School" to fund community projects that improve the walkability of school routes. The primary goal seems to be to encourage walking and biking to improve children's health and stem the tide of childhood obesity. But the Gardner incident highlights what should be another major goal of such an initiative.

We have massive product recalls for cribs that don't even injure a single child. We implement regulations that require child safety locks for firearms. But we seem to do little to make neighborhoods safer for kids other than putting up a few signs that everyone can ignore. And the results reflect it - about 1200 kids are injured by cribs per year. 16,000 are injured by firearms. And 25,000 are injured by motor vehicles. Its time we got serious about making schools safe areas for children.