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.
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.
How do you encourage people to walk more? Someone in Waterville proposed a project where we create walking routes around town that head out from the library. I have been helping out with some mapping on the project and hope to include some of the work in another project of mine. The map below is an example map that families can check out at the library, pick a route and go for a walk.
Personally, I walk a lot. Partly because I have a dog, and partly because I like taking my time getting places and don’t mind a stroll for real life activities. I am probably in the minority here and don’t value my time the same way as others do, counting my walks as time well spent. I also enjoy being able to experience life at a human scale. I wrote a bit about a great post I read that talks about cycling and its importance in seeing the community as it is, and not at 50mph. You really get to know a place well when you walk or cycle through it.
I just wonder what it would take to get people to exchange one trip a week in a car for one on foot or bike? Will high gas prices do it? Diabetes? I don’t know. For now I am going to work with people on projects that encourage walking as a form of recreation and transportation. I want to mimic the efforts made in Raleigh, NC at constructing signs indicating distances to destinations. Those signs were removed by the city. Protest ensued and the signs were put back up. Change takes time and maybe a bit of encouragement.
Coming to a library near you Watervillians. Get out and take a walk. Combine it with a trip!
For a Presidential candidate or any candidate for office to make the claim that he or she can seriously influence fuel prices is ignorant at best and outright dishonest at worst. As the media monkeys follow Gingrich, Santorum, Romney and oddly Palin around still, and we continue to hear about fuel prices and how they would drill here, eliminate regulations there, and would somehow have gas that flows as cheaply as tap water. These are educated people who have advisers, interns, and staffers who are probably highly educated as well. So I am going to come out and say it: “These candidates and media figures are being dishonest. They don’t want to engage the public in serious discussion about what it would take to reduce fuel costs or more realistically, ways in which we can reduce the impact that fuel prices have on people.”
Reality is a difficult thing to discuss. It is often politically inconvenient to talk in a serious manner about things someone is paying you big money to not talk about. The right doesn’t want to talk about transit, the environment, and smart land use, just as the Obama doesn’t want to talk about Wall Street. Both sides of the aisle know who butters the bread. So what if candidates could only take public money, or private campaign contributions were limited to $100/candidate/contributor, and only from people within the sphere of a candidates constituency? Would they then be able to have real grown up people discussions?
There is someone willing to talk about fuel prices and how it impacts America. Montana Senator Jeff Bingaman in a speech on the Senate floor made an attempt. Sadly, I am not sure anyone was listening.
But what can Congress do to help ease the burden of high prices for U.S. consumers, when oil prices are determined mostly outside our borders? I think a realistic, responsible answer has to be focused on becoming less vulnerable to oil price changes over the medium- and long-term. And we become less vulnerable by using less oil.
He included some very simple, yet effective charts that I have callously copied and posted here.
The US has much cheaper fuel prices, yet shares in the same pattern of fuel prices throughout the developed world. I believe this is primarily due to taxes on fuel, something that we don’t have a taste for and choose to externalize costs of our road & highway infrastructure onto the general fund. European nations use fuel taxes to build their infrastructure as well as transit.
The above chart shows fuel prices in blue and production in red. Notice that in 2008-2009, we produced a higher percentage of fuel, yet costs increased.
This chart is a bit misleading because fuel production was trending back upward at the tail end of the Bush years and really took off post 2008. What is the most misleading is that exploration and infrastructure development take a lot of time before oil comes out of the ground. Regardless, the current administration hasn’t done anything to stem the flow as of yet.
Looking back through recent history, I think the most honest statement any President has made about our oil consumption was Bush. Yes, Bush, who in his state of the Union speech, proclaimed: “America is addicted to oil”. Not sure how his handlers let that one slip by, but he said it. This ran counter to Cheney’s proclamation that the “American way of life is not negotiable”, made after the attacks on American soil.
What is true however is that oil is becoming more scarce. Cheney was correct in a way that he may have not meant. We aren’t negotiating our way of life. We have no way to negotiate with supply and demand, it simply is the way it is. Because we are so dependent on oil, fluctuations in price have more dramatic affects on consumers. There is no negotiating the fact that you live 50 miles from where you work and must pay increasingly more for your travel costs. It is happening to you whether you like it or not. Those who are insulated from these cost increases will save money, whether it is because they live in a dense walkable neighborhood served by transit, choose to telecommute or if we ride a bike more.
So, how do we negotiate with reality? It is quite simple actually, we learn about how to create resilient communities. We build transit infrastructure, increase density, and as a result of better, more efficient land use, walk and bike more. This is a real way in which we can negotiate with reality, one that will insulate us from inconvenient truths. As a result, we will become a more fit and healthy people. We will get to know our community and those who live in the community. We will save money. Eventually we may realize that we don’t need all the road space we originally built. The four lane stroad can become a two lane road with bike lanes and good sidewalks. This too will save communities money. Granted the path is hard and we will fight like hell to keep business as usual, because that is all we know.
I haven’t been privy to such an eloquent and well placed argument about cycling, transportation and how we perceive our environment (urban or rural) in some time. Kasey makes a compelling argument that once on a bike, we can see the world through at a human pace. We notice things that we never would when we wiz past in our motor cars.
In Portland, Maine, I tend towards being a pedestrian as opposed to cycling. This has a similar effect, where you (the pedestrian or cyclist) can observe things at a pace and scale that allow for meaningful observation of the world around you. As I walk through Deering Park I notice the trash, the speeds at which automobiles race through the park to beat the light, and the traffic infractions and poorly designed infrastructure that creates dangerous situations for cyclists, walkers and drivers alike.
To be a planner, city manager, public works official, or even a citizen, perhaps we can learn more about the places we call home by walking or cycling past, instead of whizzing by. Autos insulate us from the ills of society, separates us from the commons, and create the conditions ripe for community decline. By getting out and experiencing the world at a slow pace, we will understand what disinvestment brings and the places it creates that are only worth whizzing by.
Get out and experience the places you live at a human pace. You might find something you love, something that is worth fixing, and a new extension of the place you call home.
Below is Kasey’s thoughtful essay on cycling that prompted me to write about this.
The Real Reason Why Bicycles are the Key to Better Cities
We all know the talking points. The benefits of bicycles have been tirelessly elaborated upon; bicycles improve health, ease congestion, save money, use less space, and provide efficient transportation with zero fuel consumption and zero carbon emissions. All of this is great, and the culmination of a population on two wheels can have a drastic impact on the overall wellbeing of a city.
However, none of these come close to the most meaningful aspect of cycling, a factor that cannot be quantified but has endless value to those fighting to improve their communities.
The most vital element for the future of our cities is that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding.
On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities.
In their cars, the world is reduced to mere equation. “What is the fastest route from A to B?” one will ask as they start their engine. This invariably results in a cascade of freeway concrete flying by at incomprehensible speeds. Their environment, the neighborhoods that compose their communities, the beauty of architecture, the immense societal problems in distressed areas, the faces of neighbors… all of this becomes a conceptually abstract blur from the driver’s seat.
Yes, the bicycle is a marvelously efficient machine of transportation, but in the city it is so much more. The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle - they must acknowledge their community, all of it.
Here lies the secret weapon of the urban renaissance.
You see, those of us fighting for our cities, we struggle because too few see the problems, and fewer understand the solutions. They are quite literally racing past the issue, too busy to see, too fast to comprehend.
I cannot approach the average citizen and explain the innate intricacies of land use and transportation relationships, how density is vital to urban sustainability, how our sprawled real estate developments are built on economic quicksand, how our freeways shredded the urban fabric like a rusty dagger, how deeply our lives would be enriched by a collective commitment to urbanism.
Not only will their eyes glaze over, but they may very well become outraged. No one wants to be told that they must radically alter their lifestyle, no matter how well you sell it.
The bicycle doesn’t need to be sold. It’s economical, it’s fun, it’s sexy, and just about everyone already has one hiding somewhere in their garage.
Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle.
“These cars are going way too fast,” they may mutter beneath their breath.
“How are we supposed to get across the highway?”
“Wow, look at that cathedral! I didn’t know that was there.”
“I didn’t realize there were so many vacant lots in this part of town.”
“Hey, let’s stop at this cafe for a drink.”
Suddenly livability isn’t an abstract concept, it’s an experience. Human scale, connectivity, land use efficiency, urban fabric, complete streets… all the codewords, catchphrases, and academic jargon can be tossed out the window because now they are one synthesized moment of appreciation. Bicycles matter because they are a catalyst of understanding - become hooked on the thrill of cycling, and everything else follows. Now that new freeway isn’t a convenience but an impediment. Mixed-use development isn’t a threat to privacy but an opportunity for community. And maybe, just maybe, car-free living will eventually be seen not as restrictive, but as a door to newfound freedom.
The real reason why bicycles are the key to better cities?
Some might call it enlightenment.