Friday, November 9, 2018

Why Complete Streets isn't really about bicycles

The other day I witnessed the following dialogue in my favorite Italian Deli while waiting for my sandwich to be fixed. Customer: "The police can't protect us and they spend their money on bike-lanes" while gesticulating towards the glass door  behind which a recently resurfaced street was in the process of receiving new white lane markers. Mike behind the counter agreed, adding "the guy across the street is paying $6,000 a month for valet parking and now his space is gone". The back and forth went on with both agreeing that this city has lost its way and has its priorities all wrong.
Complete streets is much more than bikes

Ryan Dorsey, the councilman who sponsored the Complete Streets bill which is close to becoming law in Baltimore, would agree that the city has its priorities backwards. But he sees the matter entirely different. And he isn't talking about bicycles.
“We are milking cars which will destroy our planet and city as cash cows and use nothing of those revenues to invest into a better future. I think that is morally wrong”
Dorsey spoke at an early morning presentation of the Transit advocacy group Transit Choices about his Complete Streets bill and placed it under the larger umbrella of his way of thinking about transportation. He said that the bill is about how we prioritize transportation funding and how "we need to be very deliberate on how we use space". He talked about how employee parking benefits should be portable so employees could use the cash value to use them for other modes of transportation.  He mentioned fire-lanes and how the national code for those had mistakenly been applied to all city streets and how another bill of his took car of this. Actually he hardly mentioned bicycles at all.
33% of Baltimore Residents lack access to a car. They rely on public transit, biking, walking, and ride sharing to move around the city. That number is as high as 80% in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. But Baltimore spends a disproportionate amount of money on streets designed only to move cars. (website)
Not speaking about bicycles makes sense, because in spite of public sentiment, complete streets bills are not about bicycles (or scooters) and it isn't about spending massive amounts of money, either.
Instead, the question of how we use the public space that makes up about 30% of Baltimore's entire real estate, is a question that isn't only entirely appropriate, it is also about economic development and resource protection. This question doesn't lead straight to bicycles unless one's creativity and historical knowledge is so limited that one can't imagine anything going on inside the public right of way than driving a car or bicycling. And unless one subscribes to the typical zero sum thinking that what needs to be good for one (mode) must be bad for the other. This type of thinking is obsolete.
THIS TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM MUST BE DESIGNED AND OPERATED IN WAYS THAT ENSURE THE SAFETY, SECURITY, COMFORT, ACCESS, AND CONVENIENCE OF ALL USERS OF THE STREETS, INCLUDING PEDESTRIANS, BICYCLISTS, PUBLIC TRANSIT USERS, EMERGENCY RESPONDERS,
 TRANSPORTERS OF COMMERCIAL GOODS, MOTOR VEHICLES, AND FREIGHT PROVIDERS
. (Bill)
Dorsey tends towards hyperbole and maintained that his Complete Streets bill is "the best such bill in the country" which immediately evoked the question, what in his bill is so different than in the hundreds of similar policies across the country? Dorsey's answer: Equity. He pointed out that he heavily learned from one of the earlier and most comprehensive Complete Streets policies in the country, that of Chicago. It was used by many cities as a model to emulate, not least for a very detailed and well thought out design manual. As Dorsey pointed out, though, it missed the social impacts that arise if one uses design as the only lens. He said that the "design framework" needs to be complemented by an "equity framework".
Many hearings, a good bill (City Hall)
Passing Complete Streets is one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Our City's streets and sidewalks are truly the fabric of public space that hold our communities together, and this makes them a crucible of competing interests, and a microcosm of our civic life.This law will touch on virtually every aspect of our transportation environment; how it is designed and built, how we prioritize and steward investments, how we engage with community, design for safety and equity, and report outcomes. (Dorsey)
Equity is a very popular word these days, everyone demands it, but rarely is it achieved. Dorsey gave examples: How the popular "Vision Zero" (the goal to have no traffic fatalities) policies have promoted three E's: Engineering, Education and Enforcement, but how, in the end, it was mostly enforcement that rose to the top. In several cities, with enforcement the only emphasis, it was directed dis-proportionally against poorer, disenfranchises African American communities where police has always used trivial infractions as a pretext to stop and frisk. Or how bike facilities and expenses were concentrated in well to do areas siphoning off funds to fix hardly passable sidewalks in poor neighborhoods. 
Many potshots against a new paradigm

Back at the Italian Deli, a quick view at the freshly paved street shows that the real money went into a new layer of smooth black pavement. The bike lane in question will take some of the excess street width to move parked cars on the east side of the street 5' or so away from the curb so the parking lane would separate the travel lane from the bike lane. Except for a few extra painted lines, there is no extra cost for this, practically no parking is lost and all the excitement of misplaced spending priorities is misplaced. Hardly anyone would disagree with how much City streets need  upkeep to remain passable, benefiting anybody who walks or rides on them, via buses, van, car, bike or scooter.
Traffic emissions and health have a close correlation

Dorsey's bill includes all the right language and sequence of events, including mandating the creation of an Advisory Committee, design guidelines and even the metrics to be used for those standards, performance measures and requirements for project prioritization and implementation and annual progress reports. Equity is written large over all of it. There are even deadlines by when DOT has to produce public participation models and design guidelines (10 months). What could possibly go wrong?

Baltimore has, indeed, an opportunity to become a leader in a comprehensive public discussion which seriously asks how in the next 30 years we want to use 30% of urban real estate for which demand is high, whether people talk about sidewalks, parking, ride share pick up spaces, delivery spots, bus lanes or bike lanes, not to mention automated robotic vehicles, trees, stormwater management, mail boxes, fire hydrants, outdoor vending or cafes or whatever the future may hold.  Aspirations go far beyond the physical, streets affect health, access, and, as discussed, equity. Much to chew off and many reasons for things to not go like planned. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows that Baltimore reality is a tough place for lofty aspirations. Cynicism like the one in the lovely deli is rampant here. But nothing really great will ever be achieved with cynicism. First it takes aspiration and then perseverance and vigilance. If the long journey of bill 17-102 is any indication, there is a majority for those three things in the current City Council.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

How the election results strengthen Baltimore in the region

While Democrats could not shake Maryland's popular Republican Governor out of his current office, in the Baltimore metro area, two counties flipped from republican to Democrat. the results reflect where the Governor has its base and where his suburban and frequently un-urban policies have found much less resonance.
The big winner: Governor Hogan

Hogan lost in Baltimore City, Prince Georges and Montgomery County but won everywhere else.

In Baltimore City Hogan had 54,136 votes and Jealous had 113,142 (without absentee ballots). In Prince Georges County the ratio was 209,485 to 83,595. In Montgomery County Jealous had 193,887 votes relative to Hogan's 158,573. However, in spite of what many observing demographic change predicted, those urbanized areas were not enough to carry a Democrat into the Governor's mansion. In Anne Arundel (69.2% Hogan) and Howard Counties (56.9% Hogan), the incumbent enjoyed solid leads.

Meanwhile the political geography of the Baltimore region changed quite significantly thanks to three new county executives coming into office in the surrounding large jurisdictions, two of those flipping the office from Republican to Democratic. This has the potential of creating a strong block of somewhat shared values in the heart of our region not known for a lot of regional thinking. In a time of ever increasing metropolitan growth and increasing urbanization worldwide, regional collaboration is more important than ever. Additionally, local government is increasingly expected to jump into the breech when national policies fail or dismantle liberties or environmental protections.
"Johnny O", under 40 and full of ideas for Baltimore County


Reinventing the suburbs

Many experts predict that the suburbs will be tomorrow's ghettos unless they are able to re-invent themselves. The suburbs cannot be sustained and won't be picked as a place to live by the younger generations because they don't over the urban amenities people increasingly expect, at least so the thinking goes.  It stands to reason that a core city with great architecture, parks, art and culture institutions and world class universities would be an attractive partner for jurisdictions which lack most of those assets. None of the jurisdictions around Baltimore City have truly urbanized areas with the exception of Annapolis, Towson and Ellicott City.  Except, in the past the smart collaboration hasn't happened except for small gestures such as Baltimore County's support of some cultural institutions. For the most part it was each for himself, no matter that the shrinking city can offer plenty of development space that the growing counties are increasingly missing. It would be real smart growth to stick jobs and some of the population growth into the core city instead of paving over large parts of outlying farm-fields in the counties, such as the embattled Turtle Run development in Anne Arundel which may have been instrumental in Steuart Pittman's surprise win. There are certainly metro areas in the US, where regional collaboration occurs including even some tax revenue sharing in cases where the development transfers result in revenue imbalances.
Calvin Ball (right) wins Howard County Exec race, Kittleman (left) concedes
in person, a rare gesture in partisan politics

While nobody doubts that Annapolis is a lovely small town, Towson still needs to work hard before anybody would call it a real town, no matter that the mall is called Towsontown. In Howard County there is Columbia and Ellicott City. All of those places are in various stages of seriously reinventing themselves for a variety of reasons. Annapolis has Parole as growth area (which actually is outside the city proper), Towson has an array of aborted plans to make the place really urban and walkable, Ellicott City is struggling how to exist in a flood prone valley, Columbia is midway in a comprehensive strategy of creating an urban downtown. None of these peripheral urban spaces are connected to the core city with any kind of robust transit.

While concentrated development can result in true urbanity and be successful in protecting open landscapes from sprawl these reinventions won't replace Baltimore as a cultural and economic hub. Synergy and collaboration would be much more successful for city and counties than cut throat competition.  One can only hope that the new, young and dynamic County executives will pursue regional collaboration with much more conviction and, hopefully, creativity than the previous crop.
An upset in Anne Arundel County for Steuart Pittman

Without that, they won't be able to compete with the much better planned counties around Washington DC such as Montgomery County (Bethesda, Silver Spring or the mall conversion of White Flint or Arlington County with very active urban nodes around Metro such as Pentagon City, Clarendon,  and Crystal City which was named as a potential place for Amazon.

Regional transportation

Of course, transportation is where the popular Governor is not at all on middle ground but is pursuing the policies of the 1950's, consisting in curing car addiction with enticements for more driving. The new Capital Transportation Program (CTP) diminishes transit to a 25% share, far down from the peaks of the O'Malley era when transit nearly reached parity with the other modes and included significant transit expansion projects.

It is in the area of transportation where the election results and the strong block of Democratic Executives may matter the most. Federal transportation law mandates regional planning organizations (MPOs) designed to coordinate local transportation in an efficient manner. This prevents parochialism in a field in which jurisdictional boundaries are quite meaningless, just as in some other larger infrastructure networks such as the power grid.

Mayors like to say that there is no Republican or Democratic trash, just trash that needs to be collected. This should hold true for transportation as well; sadly, the topic has been very politicized in our region with little chance of a rational discussion about the most effective ways to achieve mobility, access and equity. When MDOT Secretary Rahn was recently asked by City Council member Ryan Dorsey if there was any goal towards a higher transit share and fewer single occupant vehicles, he was told "we don't do social engineering". This term comes straight from the playbook of ultra conservatives like the Koch brothers who describe any attempts of reducing auto dependency or sprawl development as social engineering and "telling people where to live" or how to move.
TIP document prepared by BMC

In that situation the mandated influence of local government on regional transportation comes in handy, especially in a State where the operation of public transportation is heavily concentrated in the hands of the State. Even though the confusing and often overlapping array of plans and control mechanisms coming from regional and State agencies confounds citizens and sometimes even transportation officials, the mandated collaboration between the MD Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Metropolitan Planning Organization at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC) provides an opportunity for balance between the very divided opinions about effective transportation. BMC is a representation of all local governments in this region. The change in who will head those up will be felt.

While regional planning has fallen out of favor in spite of continued growth and urbanization it should actually be more important than ever. The results of the midterm election  present an opportunity to strengthen Baltimore City's standing in the region and improve access and transportation at the same time. That Mayor Pugh will be the chair of the BMC this period will further help.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA