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
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 "bicycling"

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.

One of the most important things about bike and pedestrian infrastructure is that it needs to go somewhere. As important as recreation may be, taking cycling and walking to the next level by fostering active mobility for real travel to meaningful destinations is key to building a healthy and sustainable community. Waterville is ripe for just such a network because everything in Waterville is remarkably close by. The map below is a topo map that show just how close people are to downtown Waterville. Within 2 miles of downtown are a number of major work centers, Inland Hospital, MaineGeneral’s 2 campus’, Downtown Waterville, plus Colby and Thomas College Campus locations. Just outside of that is the Hutamaki paper plant straddling the Waterville/Fairfield town line.

Below is a thematic map of work centers in Waterville, that shows where the jobs are located in town. What I wanted to show was the different places people in town work and how close those areas are. In Waterville, nearly 20% of people work in town or in neighboring Winslow across the river. The map was created with a census product called: On the Map, and can display commute data in a number of ways. For this map, I just focused on where jobs were located.

While I didn’t want to focus on towns outside of Waterville for the purpose of a bike boulevard network, it is important to consider the connections to neighboring towns when working on a network design. This map has only two connections, one to Winslow across the Two Cent Bridge, and to Fairfield via Dummond Ave. heading north.

As we get closer to working on bike routes through Waterville in the public participation process, it will be important to have an accurate understanding of where people want to go. The above map is merely my perspective on some meaningful routes and might not capture all the desired destinations. What these routes do however, is focus on streets that are bike-able and some destinations that I would want to have available if I chose to bike to them.

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.

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.
~ Ernest Hemingway

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.