Mainely Planning

Why plan for an uncertain future? Our world is changing in ways that we can hardly comprehend. The planning we have been engaged in over the last 100 years, is geared to a world with abundant energy, a stable climate, and a dwindling natural resource endowment that is reliant on cheap energy for extraction. That world is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Oil price spikes due to supply/demand and geopolitical concerns, water shortages (Google Lake Mead, Central Valley, CA or the Ogallala Aquifer for details), and soil depletion are just a few of the problems we face. As we move forward, the notion that we can continue with business as usual (BAU) is not going to sustain us.

Thinking creatively and making difficult decisions will test our abilities, push our cultural boundaries and hopefully shape a world where these uncomfortable realities can be dealt with in an equitable and meaningful manner. I write about things I see, think, and work on as I transition from being a planning student into the world of planning. I am neither a technological optimist, thinking we can invent our way out of all our problems, nor a doomer, believing in returning to a world much like pre-industrial times. I believe that our creativity combined with the lessons from the past will be instrumental tools for laying the foundation for the path forward. Some of my ideas may seem radical, others are just based on common sense and keen observations.


Links of Note


Mainely Rural
The Old Pine Tree
Strong Towns
Project For Public Spaces
Streets Blog
Cap'n Transit Rides Again
Human Transit
Pedestrian Observations
Urbanophile
The Broken Sidewalk
Maine Architecture
The Vigorous North
Depot Redux
Reason and Rail
Car Free Maine
Walk Around Portland




Transportation for America State Fact Sheets


A Reason to Plan



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The City of Portland has unanimously adopted a complete streets policy at their last City Council meeting on December 17th, 2012.

“By adopting a Complete Streets policy, the city has taken an important step to assure that each dollar spent on roadways and walkways is done so that all users will benefit now and into the future,” Mayor Michael Brennan said in the release.

For those unfamiliar with a Complete Streets Policy it provides for consideration of all transportation users regardless of mode choice. Implementation is however susceptible to interpretation, but is a step in the right direction!

"Congestion is a byproduct of success — it means a lot of people want to be there."
- John Norquist, CEO of the Congress for New Urbanism

I have talked about improved rail service as not only a tool to increase mobility, but to build a sustainable development future for the cities and towns where rail is feasible. This Portland Daily Sun article speaks positively about the prospects for studying the link between two of Maine’s three metropolitan areas. Here is the link and text below:

Resolution Aims to Document Support for Portland to L/A Commuter Service

Published Date Thursday, 20 December 2012 18:06 Written by Craig Lyons

A plan to explore commuter rail service for Portland, Lewiston and Auburn is on track to get support from the communities’ governing bodies.


The Portland City Council’s Transportation Sustainability and Energy Committee endorsed a resolution that will be sent to the councils in Portland, Lewiston and Auburn to document the support for a commuter transportation system running between the two metropolitan areas.


Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said there have been some conversations among the cities about a bus commuter service but the decision was made to talk more about a rail service. He said the resolution is straight-forward and will show a joint commitment by the three cities to study a commuter service.


Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said studying a commuter link is an important piece of planning for economic and urban development. He said the service wouldn’t only accommodate existing commuters but could open the door for the under-employed population by linking the two job markets.


LaBonte said Auburn is committed to the creation of a commuter system and recently allocated $500,000 for a transportation hub along Route 4.


"We want to see this happen quickly," he said.


The committee endorsed a joint resolution among Portland, Lewiston and Auburn that would support a feasibility study to look at a passenger rail service between the two metropolitan areas. The resolution was requested by the committee to start the process to look at the rail linkage between the communities after hearing a demand for that type of service.


By endorsing the resolution, the cities would seek state and federal grant funding to pay for the evaluation, according to a staff memo, and the study would include pieces on land use, economic development, environmental impacts, congestion mitigation and economic justice.


The study would explore additional topics that weren’t addressed by a two-year-old study done by Maine Department of Transportation.
The cities would jointly seek grant funding for the study from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System and the Androscoggin Transportation Resource Center.


Gary Higginbottom, of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, said the study should look beyond the three cities but incorporate stops in the economic centers along the route. He said places like Falmouth, Yarmouth and New Gloucester could all benefit from a rail connection to the cities.


LaBonte said he’s interested in the commuter service having a long life and that’s likely going to require some sort of public subsidy. He said having a population density is key to building support for a contribution from the taxpayers.


Trying to serve more areas that might not have the population density could cause a public subsidy to lose its appeal, LaBonte said.

There was mention of commuter bus service, which does increase mobility, but will not inspire good urban development that is sustainable. Nobody ever built TOD around the bus station!

When considering where to make investments, I always think of where the return is going be made.

Looks like Maine’s 3 metros are increasing their share of the state’s GDP. 

What is most striking is that the rest of Maine is in decline compared to the 3 metro areas, with Portlandia leading the pack. Bangor and L/A are slowly recovering from the downturn and growing as well. Urbanists rejoice!

This data was sourced from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

For my planning activism with the Greater Waterville Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, I have been looking into a lot of crash data, trying to learn about the nature of accidents in and around Waterville and how they could be mitigated.

I happened upon a story that I didn’t expect to find, but did. Waterville is looking into fixing a 5 way intersection at the corner of Western Ave., Lincoln Ave., and 1st Rangeway. The intersection can be a bit difficult to navigate, but in looking at the crash data for the Waterville area, it appears that the intersection is quite safe compared to other parts of town (Interstate Interchanges & Downtown).

While the perception is that the intersection is unsafe, what generally tends to happen is that people navigating that intersection approach it with some level of hesitation and a heightened awareness. Because everyone knows it is a “bad” intersection, it is made safe because people treat it as if it were a place to be respected. In the list of projects for the City of Waterville and Maine’s DOT is a redo of this “unsafe” intersection. While the improvements may in fact change the perception of the intersection as an “unsafe” place, the data suggests that this is a gross miss-allocation of resources. 

Waterville has a downtown business environment that is fighting like hell to remain a viable center of business activity. People take economic risks here by opening up businesses, the downtown development group spends considerable energy building up the downtown, but what is clear to me is that the street network that supports downtown isn’t doing an adequate job.

By the numbers, a two block section of downtown has had 84 accidents in the last 8 years. Most of those are rear-end/sideswipes between people backing out of diagonal stall parking were rear-ended or parallel parkers were sideswiped. As a planner, I know the value of downtown on-street parking to downtown businesses. People need to get in, conduct a transaction, and leave. Eliminating on-street parking is a looser for these businesses and will make traffic even faster due to greater roadway widths. Stories here and here.

What is needed however is a traffic calmed environment that will be a more inviting place for patrons of downtown businesses, families spending a weekend strolling along the shop lined streets, and as a result will slow traffic down, leading to less crashes.

The Amtrak Downeaster is a vital component to Maine’s Transportation System. There have been year over year increases in ridership since its inception. As the Downeaster nears completion of track work to Brunswick, ME a vital connection to car-free travel opportunities will only be enhanced, with passengers being able to connect to the Maine Eastern Railway in Brunswick, with seasonal excursion service to Rockland, ME.

As a former computer network geek, it is shown that the value of a computer network increases with the number of connections that can be made. The simple office networks of the early 1990’s allowed limited transactions between other office computers. Fast forward to now, computers can connect to data and information across the globe. No longer are businesses, students, and researchers limited to local resources. Transportation networks operate in the same way. As the network ads more resources, it becomes more valuable and useful. I am sure that there is an upper limit to connectivity for both types of networks, where diminishing returns begins to outweigh expansion. Our inefficient and fiscally unsustainable automobile network is a prime example.

This leads me to the purpose of our discussion. The graph below is a summary of Downeaster ridership between 2002 and 2011, showing an increase in ridership year over year, with a couple blips. As are all transportation networks across the world, there is always a degree of subsidy involved and the Downeaster is no exception. The State of Maine and the Federal Government kick in approximately $7.5M/year in operating subsidy. When we divide the ridership by this cost figure, we see that the subsidy per trip is actually going down considerably from a 2004 high of over $30/trip to a present day subsidy of less than $15/trip.

It will be interesting to see what happens after Brunswick becomes the new Northern Terminus of the Downeaster and connections between the Maine Eastern Railway are established. I would expect to see ridership on both lines go up considerably as the network becomes more functional to people seeking opportunities for car-free travel to experience all that Maine has to offer.

It was predicted that Maine and New Hampshire’s Concord Trailways would experience a hit to their ridership due to the Downeaster. They provide bus service between Boston’s South Station and Logan Airport with points north in both New Hampshire and Maine. In some ways, they offer a competing service with the Downeaster between Portland and Boston, but ridership figures show that in 2003 they had 216,000 riders and that ridership grew to over 400,000 in 2006. More recent figures are unavailable, but anecdotal evidence suggests that ridership continues to surge on the route.

While there may be other factors involved, I believe that what has happened is the transportation network increased its size and utility, and has added value to the system as a whole. People from Bangor can now reach Portland, and either continue to Boston on comfortable coach, or switch to an equally valuable service to meet their transportation needs.

People are clamoring for more options beyond the automobile. Gas in Maine hovers around $3.65 as of this writing, and we have vast distances to travel between our urban areas, both large and small. Increasing the size of the car-free network will only help keep Maine connected to the rest of the Northeast region and the important economic opportunity it represents.

I had some time to kill before catching a bus back north while in Portland, ME. I decided to head out and explore the Fore River Trail, finding a gem of a place, exploring Thompson’s Point, and a place with a historic linkage to its industrial/commercial past. While the land use of long ago is no longer reflected in the activities that are going on there, relics from the past reminded me that not too long ago, this property represented a significant amount of economic activity. Now it looks like people park trucks there and perhaps warehouse some items in the dilapidated buildings peppered about the peninsula.

When you approach the trail, you can head off in a couple directions. Heading westish, leads you parallel to the rail tracks of what I believe is the Mountain Division Rail line. This is also parallel to the Fore River and the Fore River Santuary. Heading south, takes you around Thompson’s Point where you get more of a taste of the industrial/commercial side I was describing in the above paragraph.

When I went west on the trail adjacent to the rail line, the corridor is a actually owned by the electric utility. I encourage the building of trails on utility easements because they are essentially an underused resource. Yes, the electricity (magnetic radiation and the electricity actually) in large amounts is bad for you, I hear. Don’t build your house under the lines is how it should be stated.

While walking along the trail, I happened upon a number of people, but only one of which was enjoying the trail for its stated purpose. The remainder, had staked out little camps and were either sleeping, smoking, drinking, or some combination of the those. All activities that can be freely enjoyed, but it led me to think about the trail, the users of the space, and how I would feel if I were a young woman, or an elderly couple. I happen to be a large imposing fella and probably view situations quite differently than some others do, but I would be hesitant to recommend the trail to a woman looking for a safe place to run. I am not an expert on homelessness, but know enough to know that they aren’t bad people, however there is something disconcerting about running into a handful who are engaged in various stages of intoxication.

Personally however, I appreciate the juxtaposition of the natural world and our industrial past. Seeing nature retake what was taken from it has always been one of my little pleasures. As much damage as we can inflict, our time here is temporary and overgrowing weeds around a former industrial site reminds me of my temporary status. Speaking of temporary, there was a makeshift memorial for someone who I do not know or ever will know. I wonder about his life and who he had an impact on. Somebody found him important enough to construct this tribute.

Rest in peace….Mike Coppersmith.

In my daily rounds today I happened upon two picture perfect moments that describe some of my thoughts on institutional priorities at USM. The image immediately below is a bicycle “parked” next to a streetlight, which is used to secure the bike. I looked around the facility and didn’t see any appropriate facilities for bicycle parking. The next building over has a rack, that is often full, however Abromson Hall doesn’t seem to offer any facilities. However, if you look in the background, there is a large multi-million dollar parking garage to accommodate the automobile.

The next picture is worth a few more words. This building didn’t have any adequate facilities that I could see. The cyclist had few options and out of necessity parked his/her bike on the ramp. The background of the photo showcase’s USM’s commitment to the automobile and its temporary daily storage.

In light of USM’s efforts to become climate neutral by 2040, it appears they have made little headway in how to get there. It even appears that they have created a situation where being a cyclist and seeking secure bike parking, means becoming a scofflaw.

First action steps for USM if it really intends on seriously becoming climate neutral:

  • put in bike racks at every building entrance
  • put in high quality bike racks that aren’t wheel taco makers
  • give free coffee coupons to cyclists in recognition that they are making a difference and staying healthy at the same time
  • put in covered bike parking

These are just a couple easy steps that might promote sustainable mobility. There are more things that can be done, but start here now!

Ha, I used the word hip in a sentence. I am so not hip. Want to know where the those hip places are in Maine? Look no further than the 18-34 year old age group in my opinion. How do we find out where those places are for those not in the know? Simple, use a specialization ratio if you are geeky like me.

Attached is a simple map showing a simple ratio of where 18-34 year old people over-represent the population, as compared to other places in the region. Here we are looking Cumberland and York Counties. Unsurprisingly, Greater Portland and Brunswick are there, but Sanford, Kittery, and Biddeford? Hmmm.


The specialization ratio is pretty much a location quotient that economists use to determine if your area specializes in a particular industry or not. The basic equation looks like so:

Do this for every town in the entire area and you will know which places are more specialized for whatever it is you are measuring. Spreadsheets or a GIS are much easier than doing individual equations.

Data was sourced from the census.

OK, so Piscataquis County is the county where nobody lives. As of the 2010 census, there were less people in Piscataquis County than there were in the entire town of Brunswick. Below is a largely irrelevant map showing population growth rates by county in Maine, just to give you an idea of where the county is, and what the broad growth picture in Maine looks like. The dark blue counties are leaking people, red counties are growing. The largest share of growth occurs in Southern Maine. Northern Maine doesn’t grow all the much, and in the case of Aroostook and Washington Counties, they are on the decline.

So back to Piscataquis Village and why this is all relevant to anything. There is an idea out there that seeks to build a dense car free village in Piscataquis County. Details can be found at the links on the bottom of the post.

Let me jump out and say, “this is a great idea!”. Let me also jump out and say, “this is a dumb idea?”. The village looks like a cross between Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and a Medieval Village. They claim to model the village after a Medieval Village, and the description of their ideas suggest that it would achieve those sorts of densities. They propose to have a car parking facility outside the boundaries of the village.

I really like some of these ideas (well not the car parking lot one), but what really makes me question the project is: why put it in Piscataquis County? Nothing against Piscataquis County, but if the people wanted the project to have a high impact, couldn’t they pony up a bit more money and build their project on a transit route in Southern Maine or just outside of Bangor? Perhaps even buy property abutting a rail line that has good potential for passenger service. You could 86 the parking lot and instead of driving, hop a train to places elsewhere. I thin the point of the project’s location in Northern Maine is largely due to land prices. I can get a plot of land for about the same price as a cup of coffee. This is pretty attractive to home-buyers, but what is the cost of making a commute if you live 40 miles from the nearest place with more than 500 people?

What if you put the village in Vassalboro, Maine? It is on a rail route that could be served by passenger rail. It is between two employment centers: Augusta and Waterville. I am guessing land wouldn’t be as cheap, but over time the cost savings related to transportation would more than make up for the added expense of procuring more expensive land.

Call me skeptical of some aspects of the project, but actively watching for how they intend to make it work in a transportation starved location. I think it is the right idea, but the wrong place. Below the map are some links to info. about the project that are worth checking out.

Sources:

http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679237/piscataquis-village-building-a-car-free-utopia-in-the-us

https://docs.google.com/present/view?id=dfxsxhdw_251f75rgsg4

http://www.svweekly.com/joom1511/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7206:compact-car-free-village-proposed-for-piscataquis-county&catid=2:latest&Itemid=169

Let me start off by saying that trails are wonderful things. I am involved in a local trails group and wish that I wish we could have trails everywhere. Trails for recreation, transportation, routes to school, routes to work, you name it. When it comes to transportation investments however, would I value a trail or a decent functioning rail transportation system? I will take the choo choo any day of the week.

So the Rails to Trails organizational goals are to essentially ‘bank’ fallow rail lines until they are needed again. Let me repeat the most important part…..until they are needed again. So if I own a rail line, but I don’t have enough business to warrant continuing operation along that line, but I want to see that it is preserved as a rail transportation corridor, I can let the line be converted into a trail. My tax liability goes away and in the meantime, a fun and useful trail can be built on the line for people to enjoy. Win! Win!

However, once those trails become integrated into the community, people begin to consider the trail a community asset and it is difficult to see or remember that the existing rail line was even there at all. I understand this sentiment and can imagine how difficult it is for a community to let go of something like that.

So why bring this up right here, right now. There are a number of rail lines in the State of Maine that have been converted to rail trails. These are in fact great assets to the communities, but if they can safely and efficiently carry passenger and freight rail traffic on them, then they need to be railroads again.

America is at an interesting juncture right now. We are at a point where rail transportation is becoming economically feasible due to high oil prices. In  Maine where 3 rail corridors between the New Hampshire Border and the Greater Bangor area have nearly 60% of the population within 5 miles of rail line, we have a tremendous opportunity to establish sensible transportation opportunities. It won’t be for everyone of course, but if you live in a town like Augusta or Waterville and work in Downtown Portland or Bangor, this has the potential to save you money, increase your productivity, and get you somewhere safe and fast.

So what is the middle ground here? What if, where feasible, you could build a trail next to a working rail line? What if the track was at one time double track and only required a single track? Would it not be easier to seek easements and takings next to a functioning rail line to build trails on properties that abut the line, but don’t require a connection to it? I am thinking farms or forests here, not an industrial area. There is a middle ground in many cases.

Where it isn’t feasible or safe to build something like the trail above, then don’t do it. Rails to trails people, if the train is coming back on a line and it will take away your trail, let it happen. Seek the middle ground and see what can be worked out, but do not put up a fight to keep the trail where a higher use of transportation needs to be.

Transit people and bike/pedestrian people are on the same side. We want mobility choices that aren’t reliant on foreign oil, congested roadways, and time spent in gridlock. We want sensible transportation choices that don’t require over 15% of our income to be spent on the automobile industrial complex. When the train comes back to town, let it come. That is the time to start pushing for bike lanes, shared streets, and new bike and pedestrian easements elsewhere. I am sure that in most cases a reasonable compromise or solution can be made, it is just a matter of asking the right questions and thinking about reasonable compromises.

Source Materials: http://railswithtrails.com/

Photo Credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/luton/465706031/

When is my bus coming? GP Metro is putting QR codes on signs so users can access schedules quickly via smart phones and devices. Wonder if they will be using GPS tracking for real-time information? Would be nice.

Why plan for an uncertain future? Our world is changing in ways that we can hardly comprehend. The planning we have been engaged in over the last 100 years, is geared to a world with abundant energy, a stable climate, and a dwindling natural resource endowment that is reliant on cheap energy for extraction. That world is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Oil price spikes due to supply/demand and geopolitical concerns, water shortages (Google Lake Mead, Central Valley, CA or the Ogallala Aquifer for details), and soil depletion are just a few of the problems we face. As we move forward, the notion that we can continue with business as usual (BAU) is not going to sustain us. Thinking creatively and making difficult decisions will test our abilities, push our cultural boundaries and hopefully shape a world where these uncomfortable realities can be dealt with in an equitable and meaningful manner.

I write about things I see, think, and work on as I transition from being a planning student into the world of planning. I am neither a technological optimist, thinking we can invent our way out of all our problems, nor a doomer, believing in returning to a world much like pre-industrial times. I believe that our creativity combined with the lessons from the past will be instrumental tools for laying the foundation for the path forward. Some of my ideas may seem radical, others are just based on common sense and keen observations.