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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Posts tagged "Portland"

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!

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.

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.

Misplaced investments abound anywhere you look. Investments whether public or private need to have a purpose and provide some sort of return. The place that I talking about today is in Portland, ME and is located just 1/2 a block north of the Amtrak/Concord Coach Station. The sidewalk is a private investment that facilitates travel between the parking lot of the Clarion Hotel and the hotel itself. Below is a handy Google Map of the site.


View Larger Map

What we see is a sidewalk that runs horizontally through the parking lot and abruptly stops nearly 5-6 feet from the public sidewalk leading to the train/bus station. Here are a photo looking out from the private sidewalk to the public sidewalk.

Notice that the fence isn’t there for security, but it does block passage through the majority of the parking area to the train station. I wonder if they thought a partial fence would be enough to keep hoodlums and vandals at bay, believing them to only put forth the effort if the fence prevented them from accessing 1/2 the parking area?

I am not sure why I am writing about this. People could in fact just walk around and through the roadway and enter the lot the way cars do. They could trample through the bushes or the hotel could have saved a couple hundred bucks in fence and spent it on completing the sidewalk. Now they have a fence that really doesn’t do anything, and an incomplete sidewalk that doesn’t facilitate travel to the train and bus station from their establishment.

I am not even sure I would have picked this up as a planner reviewing the site plan. It just seems that creating connections in logical places only improves a transportation system.

* It is noted that the private hotel owned sidewalk was built before the public sidewalk, which is the “only” way to get to the train station if one is on foot, unless you trespass on private property or walk in the roadway. Regardless, the investment should have been made by the city to link the two amenities up. The cost would have been negligible considering the entire cost of the project and reflects a serious lack of concern for how functional networks operate. It could be argued that the hotel wouldn’t want the sidewalk to be linked, which may be the case and that is their prerogative, but if an effort wasn’t made……

Portland, ME has been making huge strides to improve bicycle and pedestrian connectivity throughout the city. Here is an abandon rail line that has been converted to a paved multi-use pathway (MUP). It runs from Elm Street behind the Eastern Mountain Sports/Trader Joe’s Store to the east end of the peninsula where it meets with other trails. The photo below was taken from the vantage point of Elm Street looking northeast. 

Just to the left of the trail is the commercial area with TJs and EMS, but as you can see, there is no connection between the trail and the commercial area. You must go around the block.

Here is another view that displays the abandoned rail with some existing track infrastructure.

In talking to the manager of one of the stores in the plaza, I asked them about the missed opportunity. They indicated that the owner of the plaza property was angry at the city about the trail and felt that it was a taking that negatively affected him. I don’t know what exactly happened, but I am fairly certain that the abandoned rail right of way of the rail line is not the plaza owners property. He constructed the fence as a reaction to deny access from his property to the trail.

This is all hearsay of course and am not going to speculate on what really happened. Regardless it really represents a missed opportunity for increasing connections and promoting bicycling and walking as a mode of transportation to two places that seem to attract people interested in using those modes. Below is another picture of the route one must take around the block to access the plaza.

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!

Getting people to the grocery store is important. Food deserts, car free folks, all important considerations. However, there are 2 grocery stores not more than 10 minutes apart on GPMetro’s Route 4 schedule. One of the biggest destinations, USM, however is not on the schedule and during peak traffic periods has a 25 minute headway between the before and after stops. Considering that buses run late sometimes, it is difficult to tell if you missed the bus at USM or not, especially when there is 25 minutes between the bookend stops.

I understand that efficiency is important in designing a bus route schedule, and real estate on paper schedules is at a premium, but doesn’t USM deserve a spot on the schedule? They represent what could be a huge market for GPMetro and due to many reasons, too numerous to mention here, are largely untapped. I have mentioned USM’s climate goals before, and every step in the right direction helps out. Making transit easier for people to use will increase ridership, decrease carbon emissions, and make for better places. 

Below is a picture of a bus stop on USM’s campus. Can you see it? To the uninitiated it is tough to find. It is indicated by the yellow sign. For a campus that has signed onto an initiative to become carbon neutral by 2040, this is making little headway to reducing auto dependency.

How important is reducing auto dependency to achieving these goals? USM’s faculty and staff (estimated at ~2000 people) create 12% of the carbon emissions on campus by their commutes. The report doesn’t include students in its carbon assessment, but considering that there are 8,000 students, it is easy to see that emissions from students could increase that 12% figure substantially considering commute patterns and location choices.

Back to the bus stop and how this all ties in. If you want to become a climate neutral campus, you have to make some steps towards improving transit. Portland, ME has bad weather, so what about a shelter? There are steps being taken to use GPS transponders to track buses and through the QR Codes on signs, allow smart devices to pinpoint exact times buses are to arrive. That is a great step in the right direction at getting people the information they need to use transit more effectively. However, once you are at the stop, you need a dignified place to wait. Some place out of inclement weather.

I am sure there are questions about who would pay for such a shelter, but considering the asphalt parking lot and its high costs, a decent, artfully designed shelter would be pocket change to the University that wants to be carbon neutral by 2040?

The Portland Press Herald ran a piece today on the slowdown of our outward expansion to exurban blah. While I believe that this is true, the 2010 census suggests that the suburbs are still growing. Below are two maps, one is the percent of population growth in the York/Cumberland County region in Southern Maine. The second is the share of growth that occurred in the region.

It is important to state this early on: I think the press herald is correct in reporting this. Information from the housing market suggests that houses in the far flung exurban markets are sitting for a lot longer, and the prices are dropping precipitously. However census data is a tricky thing, especially since it captures what has happened in 10 years, and not a play-by-play account. That is what the ACS data is for.

The percent change map below indicates that the highest population growth rate is in the exurban fringe. For the most part, the core cities in Southern Maine are on the coast. This is a historical legacy.

The second map is the share of growth in Southern Maine, basically giving us a who contributes to the regions growth the most. Add up the percentages and you should get something like: 100%. We see that Brunswick, York and Ogunquit actually had a negative contribution to the share of growth. Now think about the top map and how it has red towns in the western part of the region. The share of growth map still places the most contribution to regional growth squarely in Portland and towns in its immediate vicinity, with the exception of Waterboro. These towns & cities are where the growth is, but in terms of percentage as indicated in the above map, they aren’t growing as fast.

I largely suspect that ACS’s next release will show the complete slowdown in the exurbs that experienced the rapid growth in the 90’s and early 00’s. As we begin to consider the impact fuel prices, congestion, and long commutes, have on our wallet and ultimately our quality of life, living in the far flung suburbs will be a thing of the past. Drive till you qualify, will be replaced with a nice inner suburban home and a bus pass.

There is a great little resource on the interweb called the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index. The index looks at housing costs and compares it to housing + transportation costs. Here is picture of the housing affordability in the Portland region.

Notice how much of the area is pretty affordable, indicated by the yellow color. This indicates that housing costs are less than 30% of household income. Now, what if we add in the costs of commuting, and just the tangible costs like fuel, insurance, car payments, registration.

The story changes considerably. The Portland Peninsula, Westbrook and South Portland fall below the 45% threshold of affordability, yet the entire rest of the region is greater than 45% representing a significant burden on household budgets.

When I think about the significance of this, I am pretty sure that it has much to do with density and good mobility options within the Greater Portland Region.

What is the take-away here:

- If fuel prices continue to increase, expect more people to move in from out of the sticks.

- Creating good mobility opportunities in dense places along meaningful corridors will be key to the success of many small towns outside the central region. Places like Gorham, Little Falls/South Windham, and North Windham will be able to succeed if they have these options available to their citizens.

- Towns that are not transit served may be in for a tough ride as markets reflect the new energy paradigm. State and regional planners need to ensure that investments reflect that fact, so as to not squander the public purse.

- Recognize that some places might not make it. It is tough to pick winners and loosers, but investments can’t be applied equally across the landscape or it would result in very little gain.

- Look for ways to encourage TOD investment in small towns that can support reasonable mobility options.

Source: http://www.pressherald.com/news/US-growth-of-distant-suburbs-falls-to-historic-low-.html & http://www.census.gov and http://htaindex.cnt.org/map/.

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.

College and University parking is a hot button issue and often there is significant negative spillover effects on surrounding neighborhoods. The relationship between a University and the area in which it sits are often strained to say the least, hence the common colloquialism referring to “town/gown” relations. Although many in the surrounding neighborhoods benefit greatly from the University with events, cultural happenings, diversity, employment, and the like, so much of the relationship is defined by the day to day. For Americans, sadly, it might boil down to the ease with which one can park on the street in the neighborhood where one lives.

The University of Southern Maine (USM) in Portland is located in a quasi-urban, quasi-suburban part of town. Forest Avenue to the northwest of campus is retail oriented but the neighborhood immediately southwest is primarily residential. The density is high (for a suburb), reflecting its historical past as a streetcar suburb in the days before the automobile. USM is essentially land-locked in its current location. The southwest part of campus is primarily composed of converted housing, now filled with administrative offices. The northeast is composed of large buildings and significant space dedicated to parking. The grey polygons in the map below represent surface lots, the orangish polygon is the parking garage.

During peak class hours, parking on campus is difficult to obtain. Without going into the numbers here, it is safe to say that many cars idle while waiting for turnover in the parking garage. Surface lots are reserved for faculty and staff and tend to fill up early. Many of those waiting for spaces to open resort to parking on neighborhood streets, much to the chagrin of nearby residents. The large polygon, in the map above, that nearly encompasses campus is neighborhoods that are likely affected by this parking spillover. This area is not definitive and effects could be occurring across Forest Avenue as well. For our purposes of thinking about solutions, I just included this area.

As a potential remedy to the strained relationship, what if neighborhoods issued permits to residents as well as students, faculty and staff, that would fund neighborhood improvement projects? Neighborhood residents who wanted to park on city streets would pay for a nominally priced, reduced rate permit, meant to cover the administrative fees of issuing those permits, and students, faculty and staff would pay for permits at a market rate. How is a market rate set you ask? Many transportation demand management researchers suggest that the target goal for parking should allow for 15% of spaces to be unoccupied at any given time. Logistically this is difficult with permit parking in an uncontrolled space. Rates would need to be adjusted periodically, and due to University scheduling, perhaps every semester, rates could be adjusted based on peak hour studies to achieve an optimal peak hour vacancy rate.

Administering a program such as this would require some monies, but much of the revenue would be surplus. To bolster relations with surrounding neighborhoods and foster good will, the revenue from those permits would be spent in ways that directly benefit neighborhood residents through infrastructure improvements such as improved signage, speed tables, and community events. A neighborhood association could be responsible for identifying improvements and work with the city to accomplish neighborhood goals.

I am not sure how something like this would play out, but as universities seek to grow from land-locked locations such as USM, surface parking lots seem like good choice for cheap real estate. A scenario such as this would have to be a small part of a complete suite of transportation changes on urban campuses. These would involve: land-use changes, enhanced transit offerings, financial incentives, financial disincentives, car/van pooling, and promoting walking and biking. A solution is out there, it just requires some planning!