HSR would have made World Series even sweeter

World Series 2016 aftermath: Cub fans crying in the streets of Chicago, rejoicing around the country, and Indian fans themselves not feeling cursed but just glad to be a part of a World Series for the ages. ESPN declared Game 7 as the greatest game of all time.

I had the pleasure of being in Chicago, as a Cleveland fan, during Games 3 and 4. I was in Chicago anyway for work and a concert that weekend. I love Chicago and make the trip frequently, as do many others in Ohio. Chicago is the Paris of the Plains, and for those of us within a 5-hour drive shed (OH, MI, IN, IL, WI) of the Windy City, it is the best weekend getaway around.

However getting there can be unpleasant. You have to drive through flat, ugly Indiana.

Considering the role that Chicago plays as the Midwest’s hub city, it stands to reason that if the Midwest had a functional transportation network, Chicago would also be the hub of that. Right now advocacy on regional rail development is stymied by entrenched political interests that don’t want that. Case in point: Ohio and Wisconsin giving back $1.2 billion of high-speed rail funding.

Michigan however has not been shy about its intent to benefit from its proximity to Chicago and other states that don’t want to similarly profit. So for that reason, the idea of a Midwest hub-and-spoke rail network is primarily being advanced by Michigan at this point. So much so that they’ve even put together this awesome video of a White Sox fan hopping on a train to Detroit for a White Sox – Tigers game.

There is no reason that this video couldn’t be real life in the future, and not just limited to White Sox and Tigers fans, but also Cubs and Indians fans. This World Series benefited from the proximity of both cities, as well as the similarities of both long-suffering fan bases.

However it could also apply to anyone aspiring to a weekend getaway, for fun or family or business. As the Midwest grows closer together, we should all benefit from our proximity relative to the rest of the country. Embarking on a regional plan for transit is one of the top means the Midwest has at its disposal for remaining competitive, and even edging out the rest of the country in the future. The question is if our politics will allow it.

Not-Smart Grants?

This has been a big week for bike and pedestrian mobility in Northeast Ohio, as the region’s dual urban cores both received small TIGER grants that will cement the place of bikes and pedestrians in the built environment. Cleveland’s winning TIGER proposal is more significant, with a number of new bikeways connecting the Near West Side including the long-awaited Red Line Greenway. Akron also now has the opportunity to complete its pedestrian promenade along the historic canal frontage that gave rise to the Rubber City.

Of course, these grants pale in comparison to the FTA SmartCity Challenge, for which Columbus (the only “growing city” in the state, pulling from the larger Cleveland/Akron area) will see a windfall of $150 million for displaced transit (driverless cars instead of transit). Even with awards of $5 and $8 million, Cleveland and Akron are still implementing “old school” transportation projects – the kind you can actually see and use.

ar-160729793This view of Akron’s Main Street, taken from a “loft” project I once worked on, shows the existing condition of Main Street, which is really fine. I think the back-in angled parking generally works. In Akron, you have a lot of blue collar folks who won’t be “fooled” by such newfangled parking contraptions, so it’s common to see a pick-up truck rebel and park front-facing on either the wrong side of the street, or across several spaces on the right side. The back-in angled parking is designed to reduce accidents from people backing out into traffic, and instead shifting the reversing to when people first park. It is smart, it works, and it improves safety. I hope they retain this feature, especially as people are just now getting used to it. The Akron proposal, which will ultimately cost $14 million including state and local funds, will also add a roundabout at Mill Street, which is needed. The roundabout will keep traffic moving through congested, one-lane downtown streets that legitimately do bottle-up.

11094642_gCleveland is getting a little more for its $8 million TIGER grant, sponsored by the Cleveland Metroparks, which has recently gotten much more involved in urban parks, waterfronts, and recreational connectors. The thrust of the grant is two bikeways, the Red Line Greenway (which has been in planning for almost 5 years) that will run adjacent to the Rapid, and the Whiskey Island Connector that connects downtown to the lake. The overall project totals $16.5 million, including funding from the state and foundations like the Gund Foundation, Cleveland Foundation, and Wendy Park Foundation. This project is a prime example of the type of catalytic community improvements made possible by bringing the non-profit sector into the TIGER effort, which wasn’t possible until recently.

The Red Line Greenway will serve as a legitimate form of transportation. It will nicely augment bikeways that are also underway (the dotted green lines) including completing the Towpath, on-street bikeway that will be added to W. 65th, and the “new” Shoreway. These latter additions will be served by two major connections also funded by this applications, including the Lakefront Bikeway Connector and Canal Basin Connector. The City of Cleveland is also still moving forward, albeit slowly, on the Lorain Avenue cycle track. All of this will turn the relatively-flat west side, which sits in the lakefront coastal plain, into a bikeable oasis (during warm months). This is one $8 million grant that will make a major, lasting difference in how Clevelanders get around and experience their community.

I fail to understand how we can spend $150 million on smart car technology that so few people will ever see, let alone use (due to the incredibly narrow scope). I am at least reassured that some places in Ohio are still doing old-school mobility projects that stretch funding into as much impact as possible. When I typically reviewed grants in the past, I too often prioritized impact over novelty.

Now if we can just get the Lorain Avenue cycle track off the planning boards!

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Statewide Urban Agenda

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Mayor Coleman calling for a statewide urban agenda at Greater Ohio’s 2015 Policy Summit

There has been a lot of discussion, almost entirely figurative, about a statewide urban agenda. This would be the reason for Greater Ohio Policy Center‘s existence, though they have chosen to not flex this muscle. At the 2015 GOPC Policy Summit in Columbus, both Senator Sherrod Brown and Columbus ex-mayor Michael B. Coleman, suggested the urgency of creating such an agenda at the grassroots level. It is imperative for the grassroots to rally around an agenda before embedded institutions can safely push the envelope on needed change.

Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper also recently tweeted about the need for a statewide urban agenda. Fellow bloggers, such as Angie Schmitt’s post on Rustwire, have echoed and contributed to these calls. So let’s strike while the fire is hot.
welcome-to-weinland-park-signThe change we need is all around us, plainly visible to anyone. We have a system that is collapsing in a state that is treading water, with a wealth of case studies in our own backyard. For instance, Weinland Park in Columbus is one of the nation’s best case studies in holistic urban revitalization. The transformation in Weinland Park was made possible by local and state policy tools that have become exhausted – inhibiting our ability to further this successful model. We also have a streetcar case study in Cincinnati and the nation’s best BRT case study in Cleveland. Ohio is indeed in the most unique position, where visible problems and visible solutions coexist side-by-side. We just can’t connect the dots because our hands are tied.

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Anyone who functions on a daily basis in Ohio’s cities must be keenly aware that we’re getting our lunch money stolen by rural areas and exurbs. In a state that is overwhelmingly urban, somehow the deck just seems stacked in favor of rural interests. ODOT is the primary vehicle of this redistribution of wealth. What ODOT actually does is set funding priorities for federal transportation dollars that we are apportioned – these are Ohio dollars paid in federal taxes, that come back to Ohio. The current transportation bill (we are now in the era of the FAST Act) sets the parameters in which state DOTs are supposed to allocate funding to projects, but only in theory; in practice, FDOT has a long-standing practice of allowing state DOTs to do anything that they want. This is even one area in which Kasich has offered an opening for common ground.

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The above graph is from a Nelson Nygaard study on ODOT Dedicated Transit Funding Needs. By the way, a classic means of deflecting accountability is to hire the best consultants that money can buy, let them do their work, and then polish off a spot on the shelf for the plan to sit in perpetuity.

You might ask yourself, based on the above graph, if something happened between 2001 and 2004 that made Ohio precipitously less urban? The answer is no. Still urban!

The problem with this has been diverging venn diagrams. Whether we admit it or not, an “urban” agenda as opposed to the suburban/rural alliance that currently prevails, is likely going to be one party. Complicating matters, the democratic party in Ohio (and in most states) is slightly above moribund on a good day, and down-right moribund on most days. Something is happening at the grassroots level that is causing the extinction of state-level Democrats, even in solidly blue states.

An urban agenda must find a way to pull a few Republican and suburban leaders, without whose support, urban interests will remain sidelined. The argument must be made that suburban interests are urban interests, and not rural interests. Wherever possible, alliances must be made with rural interests as well – in the name of preservation (of farm land, of green space, of historic assets).

The agenda must be positively branded and diagrammed. There is virtually zero chance to get a politician, the likes of whom often scare easily (I would too if people were barking at me all the time!), to reverse course on a really technical, wonky policy. The problem with this is that I am a policy wonk and a planning practitioner, so I naturally go to technical details that people around me usually expect. Rather than do that, the urban agenda should stick to banner statements, with specific bullets reserved for metrics of accountability.

An Ohio Urban Agenda should cover three broad policy areas: Housing, Mobility, and Jobs. The selection of this wording is deliberate. Rather than narrow issues of urban housing, “Housing” is a policy area with which legislators are already familiar and likely involved. “Transportation” is often reworded in policy circles to “Highways,” which is intentionally anathema to urban planners – Rather than accept “Highways” or reverting back to middle ground, urbanists should use “Mobility” to specify their intended transportation goals. Lastly, “Jobs” speaks to everyone, particularly moderates apparently.

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Four specific action items that accomplish three broad banner goals.

250px-gcrtaredlinetrainMobility: We have to get back to actual state funding for urban public transit. Yes, our roads are a disaster – no, building more of them doesn’t fix the roads we have – “Fix it First” is how we all win, regardless of our personal transportation needs. Bringing the 3C Rail project back will get Ohio back on the path to linking its cities to the future, and having a dedicated program for matching funds for FTA/Tiger/Small Starts and any other federal grants actually brings a lot more funding back to Ohio. These solutions all increase the pot for mobility programs, enhance Ohio’s array of mobility options, and fosters parameters for multimodal connectivity both in policy and in practice.

10142565-largeJobs: We can do more here, not because we have to, but because Ohio has a tremendous opportunity to leverage its existing assets. Anchor districts specifically have been huge in Ohio, leading the economic transition from industry to innovation. In addition to the state staying out of the way of this, the state can help by requiring that “job ready” sites be within our existing infrastructure footprints. Preservation of brownfield funds is paramount (which Ohio has now exhausted!), as these dollars have been vital toward revitalizing urban, contaminated sites. These sites are strategic despite their contamination because these historic industrial sites are already embedded within communities originally built for their workers. Similarly, we MUST clean up the Lake and the River – which can also lend increased tourism potential, a space where Ohio lags behind neighbors (Pure Michigan). Lastly, the historic tax credit is both a Jobs and Housing issue.

barrett_croppedHousing: In addition to the federal low-income housing tax credit, the state has a housing trust fund that can be and must be expanded. The OHTF leverages fee revenue, invests it, and puts returns toward housing projects that help families in need and transform communities. Similarly, we must get better at homeless services. If you don’t like being “bothered” by the homeless, then let’s house them! In addition to housing the homeless, a similar group in need of housing is young professionals. The historic tax credit has been our most effective tool for retaining young professionals and housing them, and anyone else interested in urban living, within our cities. There simply aren’t any consumers lined up for Cleveland’s excess Cape Cod-style homes – there are however consumers demanding more urban apartments. Growth boundaries are the obvious tool for retention of stable suburban housing, and stopping the cycle of perpetual sprawl and decline (embrace this, stop calling it radical). Toward this last goal, a minor policy wreaking havoc on our cities is the state law requiring school districts to offer excess property to charter schools. School districts such as CMSD prefer demolishing these properties before offering them to charter schools, which not only inhibits school choice, but costs us dozens and dozens of structures perfectly positioned for adaptive reuse into affordable and/or market-rate housing. This law has come with a tremendous opportunity cost as our urban neighborhoods have hemorrhaged many of their best opportunities.

Certainly, in the end, reviving the 3C Rail and enacting growth boundaries will likely never happen. That said, close your eyes and imagine that it could – these two proposals, more than anything, ensure a prosperous future for Ohio’s cities. More importantly, in the housing realm, this is a future of stability – a growth boundary is one of the few policy tools (particularly within the low-cost, high-supply context of Ohio’s housing market) that actually resets the market to resolve its own problems. This is a virtuous solution, and given its potential to fix so much dysfunction, I think is worth fighting for. It’s not radical at all.

Common ground can likely be found on streamlining preservation of school buildings (recognizing the need to repurpose into desirable housing), the “Fix it First” policy that ODOT is already pursuing, restoring brownfields funding, and establishing dedicated funding for matches to bring more federal dollars back to Ohio. At a minimum, we can make this happen.

DC: Trains the Old News, Bikes the New News

The Washington Metro, for all its problems including fires and crashes and more fires (just this morning), is the gold standard for transit in this nation. It is a showpiece metro system; a gleaming architectural accomplishment that makes other systems look like functional sewers (ahem, New York). Also count me as a big fan of its iconic waffle-grid station patterns, possible in part because it is one of North America’s deepest subways (due to the swampy terrain along the Potomac).

I will go into great detail on the station TOD programming, but needless to say that TOD is still one of the few things WMATA does flawlessly. Nearly all of their station-area TODs are air-rights construction, which is an amazing level of physical integration between the subway escalators and surrounding development. You often get the sense of emerging in the middle of an open-air shopping mall.

bike-lanes-1bike-lanes-2-e1401476005192All of this said, DC is the nation’s bicycle capital. It has truly become the District of Cycling – little could be more emblematic of this than the protected bike express lanes in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. Beyond Downtown DC, the District has an incredibly extensive network of bona fide cycle tracks (marked in purple). Biking is actually the fastest means of getting around the District, plain and simple.

Washington is also perfectly set-up for biking. It’s extremely compact. Markedly flat, except up north. It may be one of the most pleasant climates on this side of the Mississippi – rarely too hot or too cold. Not to mention, the demographics are young, diverse, and fit. All of this makes a perfect storm for a city that can (and has) embraced biking as a legitimate mode of transport

As a city, the District will realistically never achieve the statehood it so badly wants. However, its real function is as a national role model for planning. Other cities big and small should look to DC for innovations in planning; as our nation’s capital, it has always done a fine job of implementing new ideas. As the 117-mile Washington Metro first opened in 1976, DC has since modeled how to do TOD, air rights construction, and intermodal connectivity. The new frontier DC is pioneering is bike infrastructure. Not just with some pilot infrastructure, but with comprehensive infrastructure: 72 miles of cycle tracks. In fact, no other city has seen as large an increase in bike community as DC.

Grabbing lunch with several different friends while I was in town, they all asked me, “So what do you think of our new bike lanes?” They are top of mind. And unlike nearly all change, people already don’t mind them one bit. Drivers even are surprisingly courteous toward bicyclists. Not to mention, the day that I hit the Hill to lobby for historic preservation, the bike lobby was in full force – passing out bike lapel pins. Many Congressman and even the Architect of Congress proudly display their bike lapel pins during the spring. Bikes aren’t just tolerated, an achievement for most cities, but they are cherished, for which DC stands nearly alone (perhaps amongst Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland).

Better yet, the bike lanes are flawlessly-executed. Curb cuts minimized. Left turn lanes are negotiated with bikes having right of way. Almost all lanes are protected. Bikeshare stations abound – in fact, one of the real strengths of the kiosk-based bikeshare model (as opposed to the cheaper displaced, decentralized Zagster model) is that all station kiosks have bike maps. Even if you aren’t bikesharing, the wayfinding signage at over 350 stations is still invaluable.

With the entire DC Metro system off line tomorrow, an unprecedented move in response to yesterday morning’s “arcing fire” that erupted in the tunnels, there will be more bicyclists than ever before in the District. More may decide to switch permanently. Many already have.

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Biking is making the District more pleasant, equitable, active, green, and attractive. Biking is the new news in town.