Upcoming Presentation in Portland

Next week I’ll be making a pilgrimage back to the Beaver State to give a presentation at the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) Expo in Portland, OR. My panel session, Disrupting the Way We Age: Innovations in Senior Transportation, will deal with ways transit agencies are handling the surge in demand for senior transportation.

ctaa

My presentation, titled The Totally Foreseeable Disruption of an Aging Population, will go over how the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has addressed the explosion in transportation demand from its senior citizen customers. Among the strategies I’ll touch on are:

  1. Coordination with Councils on Aging;
  2. Trip grouping and negotiation; and
  3. Separation of senior services from the federally-required ADA service.

 

pvtawheelchair
A PVTA fully-accessible paratransit van. Source: wamc.org

Those of us in the paratransit business know, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

The post-war housing paradigm was to build a lot of homes in ever-further flung auto-oriented suburbs, far from medical offices or shopping and nowhere near a transit line. Our country has 70 million Baby Boomers living in these places and, once they aren’t able to drive anymore, will be dependent on transit agencies to get them to doctor’s appointments, pharmacies, shopping, or senior centers. Many eventually move to more centrally-located senior living centers, but for those who won’t or can’t, PVTA is often the life-sustaining connection to the services so desperately needed.

With these paratransit trips costing between 5 and 10 times as much as a regular fixed route bus trip, serving this skyrocketing demand is a real challenge for all transit agencies. Fortunately PVTA has a board and administrator committed to serving the needs of the region’s seniors, actively pursuing new ways of maintaining this important service. This panel is an opportunity to share best practices and brainstorm other methods of serving our paratransit customers.

So if you’re going to the CTAA Expo next week, stop by and check out my panel! It should be an interesting discussion that I expect will result in some valuable idea exchange.

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My Bike Week Post: Ken Jennings Is So Wrong

The other day I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and I saw this gem from Ken Jennings, the all-time undefeated Jeopardy champion:

 

How did such a smart guy tweet such a dumb comment? It was especially ironic that this was tweeted out on the opening weekend of National Bike Week, the one week out of the year that there is a special push to get people out and riding. Massachusetts celebrates by having a statewide series of events, Bay State Bike Week. Check out the calendar and pick up a free donut or watch a bike-related movie near you!

(As a side note, I’ll be pumping up tires and lubing chains near C-Town in Holyoke on Saturday, 5/21 from 10 to noon. Swing by and say hi!)

Since I couldn’t put together a sufficient response to Ken Jennings in under 140 characters, I present to you this blog post on why I choose biking.

Do the M.A.T.H.

Way back when I was the Northampton Bike Week Coordinator for the Pioneer Valley Chapter of MassBike, then-President James Lowenthal cited a cool mnemonic: Do the M.A.T.H.

  • Money
  • Air
  • Traffic
  • Health

Money

I save a ton of money by biking instead of driving. How much money? Let’s take a look. First, calculating the cost of biking.

There are the fixed costs of the bicycle, the helmet, lights, gloves, shorts, etc. I also threw in the purchase of a “beater” winter bike with mountain bike tires that I ride when there is snow and salt on the roads. To make things easier, I’ve pretended that I bought all those things with a 5-year loan at a 5% interest rate. This works pretty well, because most of those items I keep for at least five years (in fact, my commuter bike is now almost exactly nine years old).

Then there are the “operating” costs of a bike – the ongoing annual costs. That includes tires, tubes, chains, etc., in addition to the periodic bus fares I have to pay when something like weather precludes biking (I estimated on the high end at 75 bus trips per year; I probably take more like 40 or 50).

Bike Expenses
Estimated annual expenses for bike commuting. Interest rate is 5% annual divided by 12 months.

So I’m guessing that I spend about $700 per year by doing a mix of biking and riding the bus. I might have omitted some things, but it’s a good rough estimate.

bike expenses pie chart
Pie chart of bike-related expenses.

Now on to the calculation should I choose to drive.

There are a couple of ways I can calculate this. One is by taking the average cost per mile as calculated by AAA. In 2015, they calculated a small sedan going 10,000 miles per year costs about $0.582/mile to operate, or $5,820 per year. It should be noted that AAA’s methodology does not include the cost of parking, which ranges from “free” to “very expensive.” Using their estimates, biking saves me about $5,000 per year.

Using the same methodology I used to calculate my bike costs, I get about the same number as the AAA estimate. I imagined that I purchased a Honda Civic Hybrid, which is probably the kind of car I would be interested in buying. I then threw in the driving costs I could think of, though I’m sure I missed some.

car expenses
Estimated annual expense of car ownership. Interest rate is 3% divided into 12 monthly payments.

As you can see in the above calculations, by far the biggest expense in both examples is the cost of the car or bike. The rest of the stuff is pretty inexpensive in comparison.

car expenses pie chart
Pie chart of car-related expenses

It looks like by not buying a car, I’m saving roughly $5,000 per year. That’s a lot of Bueno y Sano burritos!

Air

Going by bike also helps to cut down on air pollution, both in terms of local air quality and global climate change. Focusing on climate change, the most likely impact in the Pioneer Valley is going to be the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like the tornado that cut through downtown Springfield in 2011.

More generally, though, Massachusetts is just going to get a lot hotter. And with that comes changes in trees (e.g. sugar maples dying out) and pests. By 2050, we could have the climate of present-day South Carolina.

climate change
Source: PVPC Climate Action and Clean Energy Plan

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the Pioneer Valley is from transportation; riding a bike is basically carbon-neutral, and can reduce the size of that slice. I like maple syrup, which is reason enough to convince me to keep riding my bike.

Traffic

Bicycling is also a much more efficient means of transportation than driving a car (though, honestly, driving a car is tremendously inefficient, so that’s not saying much). Car travel demands lots of space – wide roads with few curves to maintain high speeds, and on-street parking or large parking lots to provide a place to put your vehicle once you arrive. This hunger for space is fundamentally incompatible with city life, where lots of people exist in close proximity to one another. Jarrett Walker refers to this as a “fact of geometry.”

Marginally reducing the number of cars on the streets can have positive impacts on the overall traffic network. Even if you have antipathy toward cars and like seeing them sitting in traffic, you probably don’t like the busloads of people on transit stuck with them. Bike lanes are an easy way to add capacity to a street and provide for more efficient transportation.

congestion
Showing required street space for 60 people going by bus, by bike, and by car. Source: The Human Transit

Health

Finally, biking to work is the surest way that I can fit exercise into my daily schedule. I know that in the morning I am going to have to spend 45 minutes on my bike, and in the afternoon about the same – that’s an hour and a half of exercise, 5 days per week. This is even better than the CDC recommendation of half an hour of aerobic exercise, five days per week. I joke that my bike is my gym membership (which saves me another $300 annually).

The importance of exercise can’t be overstated. There is a lot of evidence correlating inactive lifestyles with obesity, diabetes, heart problems, and a host of other health issues. Together, the cost of our inactive, high-calorie lifestyles is estimated to be $190 billion per year. Now that’s a lot of Bueno y Sano burritos.

Inactivity
Inactivity Map by county. Source: Centers for Disease Control

The physical activity and health aspect of biking in particular hits close to home for me. I was very overweight in my younger years, and so today diet and exercise is a focus of mine. All of my grandparents died from heart or circulatory problems, and so strong heart health  is literally a matter of life or death. Today, I still struggle to maintain a healthy weight, but am certainly leading a much healthier lifestyle thanks in no small part to my daily bike ritual.

before_after
Left: Me age 9 or 10. Right: Me age 30 giving a weird thumbs up, I think.

Ken Jennings Got It So Wrong

While I may not have it totally “together,” Mr. Jennings, I do think that my decision to go by bike (most of the time) is a pretty good one. I’m satisfied with my transportation habits, and think the Pioneer Valley would be better off if more people did the same. So give it a try! Here are some fun pictures of bikes to inspire you:

bicycles

And also the Ballerina on a Bicycle, Lilly Yokoi:

Happy Bike Week!

“Are You the Police?”

Today I had a major reality check when I decided to take my lunch break in nearby Calhoun Park in the North End of Springfield. I had been there a few times before, but today was by far the nicest day I’d had the opportunity to enjoy it.

The North End of Springfield has a reputation for being one of the more dangerous parts of the Pioneer Valley. It was highlighted in 60 Minutes, likened to a war zone where “counter-insurgency tactics” are being used to fight gang violence. So, despite having several large office parks in the area, I never see any business suits or ties.

When I got to the park, I saw a group of young men, probably in their 20’s, hanging around one of the sets of benches. Keeping in mind the neighborhood’s reputation, and knowing that I would find their music and chatter annoying, I chose a bench on the other side of the playground from them.

Painfully aware of my “otherness,” I started reading my magazine. I’m a typical Anglo-looking guy in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, and the only person wearing any business casual clothing. Before long, one of the young guys came up to me.

“Excuse me, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a police officer?”

I must have looked really puzzled – I don’t consider that there’s much about me that exudes the authority of a police officer.

“Uhh… Why do you ask?” I countered.

“Because you’re new around here, and people like you don’t usually come to sit and read.”

Ah, people like me. I smiled, and said, “No, I’m not a cop. I just work down the street.”

He laughed, and said, “I figured,” as he walked back to the other four or five guys who were back at the other benches. Meanwhile, I was seriously confused and more than a little uncomfortable.

After thinking about it a little more, I realized a few things from this encounter:

  1. As uncomfortable as I was around a group of young Hispanic men hanging out by those benches, they were also uncomfortable with having a white guy sitting in their neighborhood park;
  2. really stand out in that neighborhood. Like, way more than I thought;
  3. It’s unbelievable that my presence is such a curiosity. As I mentioned, there are several large offices nearby. I guess all of the (mostly suburban) office workers are too scared to walk around, even on a nice day?

I honestly don’t know if those guys are members of a gang, or if there was some other reason they wanted to know if I was a police officer. Given the national notoriety that police have had lately when it comes to relations with low-income residents of color, I can understand why that guy would want to know. I would want to know, too, regardless of whether I was doing anything illegal (though I might not go up and ask).

That’s not the first time I’ve been asked if I’m a cop, but it’s usually by a little kid as I ride by wearing my day-glo vest. Those times it’s happened, it’s always been when I’m in a low-income neighborhood. I hate to think that the quickest association in low-income neighborhoods of “white guy – day glo vest” is “police,” but that seems to be the case

I contrast this with my other park-sitting experiences, in Boston and Belmont. In the Public Garden or Belmont Common. I feet so generic on the street, I completely blend into the scenery like a garden-variety shrubbery. The North End of Springfield truly is a world away.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out the obvious: this is one of the most tangible examples of my privilege that I’ve experienced. I walk around this Springfield neighborhood oblivious to the social dynamics of the area – I didn’t even give my presence a second thought. And, indeed, I only got sideways glances from the residents because they guessed, a white guy like that? He must be a cop out to bust someone. It was only my perceived power over them that made them at all on edge.

And that’s a really weird feeling.

*Author’s Note: This is an especially poignant piece for me given a recent racially motivated assault on a close friend. She was in the streets in Manhattan with her two small children when a person screamed racial slurs and attempted to pepper spray them. The person was restrained by passersby and arrested, but it still underscores the currents of racism, power dynamics, and privilege – even in an urbane, diverse city like New York. 

The Struggle of Planning, of Engineering, of the Next Six Months

Today is the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, which basically every urbanist, plannerlytype blog and Twitter account has been posting about all day long. It’s also Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you!), and the day after the improbable nomination of Donald Trump.

As a person keenly concerned about matters of equity and opportunity, the nomination of Donald Trump has been immensely troubling (as I noted toward the end of this blog post). Furthermore, I realized that even though we’ve gone through ten months of primary election backstabbing, name calling, and incoherent rants, we still have six more months before the general election – and the next six months are going to be even more intense than the primary.

In the context of profound disagreement and existential consternation, I thought I would take a moment to revisit a topic I presented at UMass recently – why planners and engineers clash, and how they can better get along.

The Match of the Century

The great cage match of the built environment in popular imagination is that of Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs.

jacobs_moses
The rumble in the (urban) jungle, Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs

For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Moses, he is perhaps the most consequential person in the history of 20th-century urban development. Most of his life is chronicled in this superb biography, The Power Broker. I won’t get into everything about him, but in brief, he oversaw the transformation of the New York City metropolitan area from a transit-dominated place to an autocentric megalopolis, and led the way for similar transformations around the country.

He oversaw the construction of countless highways, razing neighborhoods to the ground (usually low-income areas populated by people of color) in the process. He eventually butted heads with Jane Jacobs, resident of SoHo, over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

lomex
Map of proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Source: Wikipedia

Having seen what similar highway projects had done in other parts of the city (like the Cross-Bronx Expressway, which totally shattered the Tremont neighborhood), Jane Jacobs led the successful fight to kill the highway project. She fought Goliath, saved her iconic neighborhood, pioneered a new branch of social science concerned with urban placemaking, and inspired generations to carry on her work. It’s the kind of anti-highway, grassroots community swell that makes planners go all gushy, wanting to sit around a fire holding hands and singing “We Are the Champions” to acoustic guitar.

And of course, that’s the popular conception of planning versus engineering (at least for planners). Community-oriented planners supporting decisions that work best for residents, not just for maintaining a free-flow travel speed of 55 mph or better. The notion that planners go to bat for people without a voice, guiding them through public meetings and environmental reviews, all to combat – in the most Homeric sense – those heartless traffic engineers who care only about cold asphalt and steel.

What Keeps Engineers up at Night

I’m happy to report that even though such drama makes for excellent opera material (like A Marvelous Order, an opera slated to open soon about Moses and Jacobs), it’s far from reality. I’ve worked with countless engineers over the years, and none of them are nefarious technocrats sniffing around for the next opportunity to rip out a sidewalk or install a parking lot. Every engineer I’ve worked with has genuinely wanted to serve the community they are working in, and use all the tools at their disposal to do so.

But where planners and engineers diverge has to do with their greatest fears.

What is it that keeps you up at night? For a planner, it’s usually a derailed public process, or a cantankerous crowd at a public meeting, or maybe an elected official putting pressure on you to issue a permit or make a recommendation that you shouldn’t.

For an engineer, your greatest fear is something you designed failing and people dying as a result.

If a planner has a bad day, he goes home and has a glass of wine to meditate out the stress. If an engineer has a bad day, she could be sued for wrongful death.

Point in case is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, or Galloping Gertie for short. This was a bridge built in the Seattle area in the late 1930s that soon collapsed on an especially windy day. Thankfully no one was killed, but imagine if a similar mistake had been made on the Golden Gate Bridge. Literally thousands of people could die.

tacoma narrows bridge
The collapsing Tacoma Narrows Bridge

So engineers are risk-averse, and don’t like deviating from established design standards, and for good reason. And unfortunately we have decades’ worth of auto-centric engineering standards mandating minimum lane widths, minimal congestion, and maximum travel speed – but a blindspot when it comes to bicycle, pedestrian, and other person-scale street design. When us planners, or even other engineers, start making noise about designing places to slow traffic down, or design for pedestrians and bicyclists and buses, many engineers can’t find guidance in the official design documents. And engineers really don’t like that.

Building Bridges

Fortunately, I see this traditional conflict between planners and engineers resolving itself. This is for a few reasons:

  1. The design documents engineers rely on are getting better. AASHTO has released a bicycle design guide, for example, and NACTO is gaining credibility among engineers. If you’re not sure what those acronyms stand for, here’s a pretty good description.
  2. The two fields are starting to overlap. Planning is getting much more data intensive and evidence based, and engineers are having to become more politically savvy as transportation projects become ever more politicized.
  3. Education is getting more holistic. Engineering programs in particular are emphasizing Complete Streets, people-centered design, and the connection of roadways to livable places. Basically every engineer I know under 35 wants to retrofit multi-lane arterials into mixed use main streets, not the other way around.

We can help the process by recognizing everyone’s motivations and fears. Planners can work with engineers to identify existing design standards that achieve the community vision. And engineers can try to be flexible, if possible, when designing their facilities to best accommodate community needs.

Springfield Bike Lanes

A good example of bridging this divide was the effort to bring the first continuous set of bike lanes to Springfield. At the time I was working for the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, and we were working with Live Well Springfield to encourage active living in the city. Springfield only had a short stretch of bike lanes (maybe 100 feet), and we wanted to get some actual lanes painted before the grant funding ended. Plumtree Road seemed like the opportunity to do that.

bike lane
Section of Plumtree Road with bike lanes

Plumtree Road is a low-traffic street through a mostly residential area of the city. The city’s engineering staff wasn’t exactly reluctant to install bike lanes, but they were definitely cautious. Thank God for the AASHTO Bike Design Guide – it really helped make the case to install the bike lanes, demonstrating that the road width was sufficient to meet official design standards.

So, the city installed the bike lanes, held a press event, and celebrated! This was definitely a case where that old enmity could have reared its ugly head, but because of the progress of design standards, professional competencies, and education, we all just got along.

bike lanes
Inaugural bike ride on Plumtree Road. Source: MassLive

So in this time of discord, let’s honor those who taught us much. Jane Jacobs’ sage words written in that supreme urbanist bible The Death and Life of Great American Cities should and will live on as we work together to improve our communities; planners and engineers and community members and local electeds all working to make their communities more livable. Even Robert Moses, with his single-minded vision and uncompromising drive to achieve it, should inspire us. Nevermind nasty federal elections that infuriate and emasculate us. We’re better than that.

Happy birthday, Jane Jacobs – May the fourth be with you.