Monday, October 15, 2007

Green Urbanism and EcoCities 10/14

It seems that there are two recurring themes echoed in the reading, which explain why cities in Europe are able to create “high-mobility-transit cities”. In European cities like Zurich, Dublin and Berlin there is public sentiment that supports public transportation as a necessary public good and essential aspect of promoting social welfare. In general residents in these cities are willing to entertain the notion of a car free society because improving the conditions of their communities is importance and, public transportation as a means of creating that improvement is thus important as well. In addition to public support of public transportation, local and municipal governments in European cities tend to set public transit as a high priority on the public agenda, which in turn has forced officials to be creative about ensuring that these priorities are met. Certainly, European cities face many of the same limitations that American cities face when it comes to the question of public transit. BUT, unlike American cities, European political officials are making commitments to improving their neighborhoods by using public transit. Instead, of abandoning progressive ideas of car free neighborhoods, these European city governments are stepping outside of the box and creating innovative solutions to land use problems. By making public transit “attractive and comfortable” as well as convenient and easy to use, cities such as Zurich are ensuring that its residents truly enjoy using public transportation. As native New Yorker I can speak from experience about what it’s it like to ride the Subway system. Like Zurich and Freiburg, the New York City transit system is fully integrated. Every subway station is connected to a bus route, which makes almost every corner of the city accessible. Because of this almost everyone rides the subway. New York, though, because of the high volume of residents, has packed subways and packed expressways. Thousands of people ride the subway but it still doesn’t free up the roadways. I digress: the reason that I mention New York and its subway system is that I want to draw attention to the lack of attention that the MTA pays to making public transit aesthetically pleasing. In New York there is a very visible bias related to the conditions of the subway stations. Subway stations located in poorer neighborhoods and consequently neighborhoods that are dominated by minority residents are in horrible conditions. There is no regular maintenance, so the stations usually look awful and smell even worse. As you move farther downtown on the subway to the more ritzy parts of the city the condition of the subway drastically improves. The stations are just short of immaculate. Its an interesting dynamic in that the city residents who use public transit out of necessity and have no other options cant enjoy their public transit experience, that is until they head downtown to work often times in the homes and offices of the more affluent. On the other hand, wealthier transit riders, who make the choice to ride the subway as a matter of convenience can sit back and enjoy their rides to work even further downtown. The problem with transit in New York City, among other things, is that many parts of the city are racially divided and services as well as conditions also vary along similar racial lines. The reading does not address equality of service or equality of access I assume that is because race is not as prevalent an issue as it is in the states, particularly New York. It would be extremely interesting to consider minority communities and how well they are serviced in these European cities. Is there equity in access and is there equity in services. If so, once again Europe would be surpassing America in the race to create sustainable communities committed to addressing the social welfare of residents. Furthermore, in comparing the New York transit system, which unlike other transit systems in the US is actually high utilized but still needs serious improvements, it also false to adequately accommodate elderly riders. Although buses are equipped to accommodate the elderly as well as the disabled, rapid transit systems in New York, such as the underground subway system does not at all accommodate the elderly or the disabled. It also definitely neglects the needs of parents with young children. I have seen many baby carriages get stuck in the doors of the subways cars as conducted attempt to speed to their next stop. I have also witnessed single parents struggle up or down a flight of stairs carrying their child and carriage in their arms as busy New Yorker wiz by. One extraordinary aspect of the tram system that many European cities are making use of is that it accommodates parents with small children, the elderly and the disabled. Timothy Beatley shares his observations in Green Cities in which he watch these disadvantaged riders easily make their way from point A to point B. Having a fully integrated above ground system really allows residents to have a comfortable, scenic, and convenient metro experience.

This week’s reading is extremely applicable. It can help us to re envision Ithaca and develop a sustainable 10 year plan for public transit in Ithaca. Ithaca as well as the surrounding cities and towns are extremely scenic. There is so much to see in Ithaca and so many places that could potentially serve as transit hubs. An above ground transit system that is fully integrated and non intrusive could be designed to fit the character of Ithaca and surrounding areas. It could connect Ithaca to surrounding hubs and make Ithaca a much more desirable place to be. As a college student I love the idea of incorporating a more developed transit system. I think that it would be extremely exciting to experience not only Ithaca but surrounding communities as well.

Europe vs. the US...

Transportation has always been an interest in my life. When I was young, all I wanted to do was be an engineer on a train. Though I have now moved on to being an actual engineer, my interest in trains stays. This past summer, I was fortunate to have saved up enough money to afford to travel around in Europe for a month. This had always been a desire of mine and I’m extremely glad I got the chance to do so. As I have been reading through these chapters, a number of the topics the authors bring up are very evident in European cities and I remember seeing them and thinking about them during the trip.

My first gripe, which goes back to my youthful love of trains, is how pitiful the train system in the US looks compared to nearly every public transportation system in Europe. We did nearly all of our traveling by train, many of which were high speed trains. These trains were easy to get to with hubs in or around the centers of every city. They were also very comfortable and enjoyable and offered private cars and pristine views of the countryside which would have been missed by air travel. I happen to prefer this kind of travel as it allows for more relaxed travel and walking around is far easier than on a plane. Seeing the countryside roll by also makes the trip far more interesting and a true taste for a country can be formed. Europe also offers a system where a rail pass can be bought for a single day up to several months making train travel flexible to any schedule. A big issue in the states is being able to travel between cities. Transportation systems often only span out from a single city and serve the surrounding areas. There is little emphasis on traveling by train between cities. Amtrak serves the eastern coast, and I try to take it whenever I can, but is unfortunately horribly inefficient and I often feel that I could walk faster. The biggest hurdle they have to overcome is the lack of attention they get for travel and privately owned rail lines often result in lengthy delays as the Amtrak train must wait for the commuter trains to pass. These delays cause people to fly more and the result is the extreme congestion that is seen at our nation’s airports.

My second gripe, though still on trains, is with city transportation. I grew up on Boston’s subway lines and have since moved to the subway lines of New York City. Until this past summer when I was forced to learn the 4-5-6 lines to get to work, I was baffled by the NYC subway system. There seems to be few or no maps and likewise with people to help you out. This is not the case in Europe. Even in countries where I didn’t even speak a single word, I could usually find my way around. Every major area was accessible by subway and the stations were clearly marked making them easy to find and navigate with. The subways were also linked together and nearly every station had a board displaying which train would be coming when and gave up to the minute estimates on when they would arriving. This system is in place in Washington DC and would greatly benefit New York City’s subway system.

My third and final rant is on bicycle transportation. I would be terrified to ride a bike anywhere in New York City, even on their “dedicated bike paths.” Roads are extremely crowded with cars and taxis and no one seems to even see pedestrians. The bike paths are also few and far between and only allow travel up and downtown, but offer little in cross town travel. In contrast, many cities in Europe have highly dedicated lanes and paths for bikes, and I often felt like I had to be more aware of walking on a bike path and getting hit by a bike than being in the road and getting hit by a car. With cities that had these major bike systems, I saw a substantial decrease in the number of cars. I also saw a number of cities such as Barcelona, Munich, and Amsterdam where bikes could be easily rented and deposited around the city at different locations. We took advantage of this in Amsterdam and I had one of the most pleasant trips through a city that I’ll probably ever have. Being on the bike got me away from the pollution and noise of cars and allowed me to slow down a little and enjoy the city. I think New York City could easily adopt a bike share system or at least a more substantial bike path system by taking away one of the lanes from the wide avenues. These lanes could also be used for rapid bus transit. Essentially what it comes down to is keeping the cars away from bus and bike lanes.

CRP Film Series THIS WEDNESDAY: "New York - A Documentary: the City and the World"

WHAT: Screening this week for the NEW CRP FILM SERIES
WHEN: Wednesday, October 17, 2007, 5-7pm
WHERE: Sibley 211

Pizza and Refreshments will be served!

New York – A Documentary: The City and the World
PBS documentary on the history of New York City, deals with Urban Renewal,urban decline and the role of Robert Moses, and includes the opposition to Moses led by people like Jane Jacobs. Focuses mostly on urban renewal, historic preservation and planning-related topics.

10 Policy Decisions and Some Unintended Consequences

One characteristic that I see is missing from many policy makers is their inability or unwillingness to point out the unintended consequences of their suggestions. This can and often does create the idea in the mind of those reading/hearing the proposal that the policy maker did not consider the consequences of what they are proposing. I believe that we are trained not to argue against our own ideas, but I have always felt that a person who is able to reflect critically upon their own idea is much more credible than one who is not. With this in mind, I will attempt to point out one key unintended consequence for each of the following 10 suggested transportation policy measures. Understanding the positives and negatives of any decision can only lead to better decisions. Many unintended consequences are clear, and are, in the eyes of many, worth the risk. This does not mean they should not be pointed out clearly en route.

UC = Unintended consequence

Creation/Extension/Modification of Heavy Rail
UC: Large investment = heavy commitment to the technology for a long time. Are we close to developing better technologies to heavy rail, or is it worth the large investment that may take decades to pay dividends?

Maglev Trains
UC: Incompatibility with existing rail structures. High upfront cost locks adopters into the technology for many years requiring us to ask, “If we are going to make a large upfront investment in a new technology, is this technology the best?”

Dedicated lanes/preferential treatment for trams and buses
UC: Creation of a situation where roads are freed up for drivers. The more successful the program becomes, the more enticing it is to drive, because the roads are becoming freer of cars. Policy potentially is limited in the effect it can have because its own success could work against itself.

Integration of payment among different modes of public transport in a city
UC: Other than a little extra administrative headache/cost, this seems like a wise idea without much downside.

Coordinating land use and transit
UC: Any restrictive land use policy runs the risk of being seen as anti-business. The use of categorizing land parcels to restrict parking for example may sit poorly with some business owners and may have a serious affect on that cities ability to attract and keep important businesses.

Use of low-carriage trams
UC: Difficult to see a downside here.

Restricting parking
UC: Restricting parking = expensive parking... yes always, unless gov't eminent domains all private parking. "Hmm mmm hummm mummm". Yes I'm humming the old Soviet National Anthem. Only the wealthy will be driving and parking. Earth-firsters don’t care, but what about you social justicers?

Graffiti zones
UC: Does allowing graffiti artists a legal palette for their work discourage graffiti from spreading, or are you creating more graffiti artists. Very difficult to answer. Best way is likely trial and error.

Restricting larger truck traffic
UC: Again, this measure comes at a cost of being seen as very business unfriendly. Quite probably, this puts downtown businesses at a further disadvantage to suburban stores that already have shipping/transportation/parking advantages over thier inner city competition.

General idea of making it more expensive to own a car
UC: Again, this puts the environment before concerns of social equality. Why do the suggestions that make the most sense always screw the poor?

The preceeding analysis can be seen as a glass-half-empty view. The intent is to the contrary. The more likely you are to ask yourself, "Self, can you live with this consequence of this policy?" and answer "Yes I can", the more credible the policy decision becomes.

ecocites ch 10

I read chapter 10 of Ecocities which is on “Tools to fit the task.” What the author was trying to do was to illustrate several ways in which to make a city more ecologically friendly. He began with first introducing the idea of ecocity zoning. This is the process through which a city is mapped out and particular attention is paid to green areas. Zoning is described as “simply a means of letting people know what they can build and where and what sorts of activities are allowed there.”(248) In other words, it’s a way of setting a basis for the control of development so that buildings and communities are built in the most supportive way possible. Poor zoning can be corrected in six ways: planning around making everything walkable and within walking distance, creating pleasant places for pedestrians to walk and congregate, 3-D thinking allowing buildings to go up rather than out, looking at the whole system instead of the singular building, long term results, and last but not least creating agricultural open spaces. These all point to shifting a community from a car dependent and covered landscape to a more useful one such as agriculture.

There are several ways to make a community more ecological. Most cities are just built up around a main street where people drive their cars to get to and take little account of the land they are building on. To a developer, as long as they won’t get sued for building on that land, it’s ok by them. They pay no particular attention to natural aspects such as streams or old trees and couldn’t care less if these sites were destroyed. To properly develop a city, however, these sites need to be observed and emphasized and will allow more spaces for people to wander around in and relax at and will bring more people into a place where they could spend money.

Along this same idea of preserving nature is the idea of “transfer of development rights.” This is basically a land trust and allows a property holder to sell off the land, but still keep the right to build on it even after it’s sold. This allows for a piece of land to be sold without fearing that this land will be developed on, not only creating more green areas but also promoting more dense buildings as the other structures will need to make up for this lost space. There is also the idea of using TDR as a credit system allowing a developer to allocate certain pieces of land in return for more lenient building restrictions such as building a few stories higher. I think this is a very good way of getting companies to realize the advantages of preserving natural space. It also provides a way of getting this land without actually having to fight for it because if providing this open space allows for denser construction, then the developer would opt to provide green space in return for a higher return on his construction.

All these ideas center around policy changes. The rational behind enacting policy changes is that they should be able to enforce productive and sustainable development without having to sacrifice much or anything. They not only provide increased business but also can create a more lively atmosphere and improve the lifestyles of the community’s residents. It would be great if developers would do this on their own, but the trend is to build in the least difficult way possible and often there is a sacrifice in quality for profit. Policy makes it unlawful to violate the building code and forces developers to build ecologically and the result should be a more vibrant city.