Out with LRT, in with AV

Perhaps not surprisingly, there has been some push-back from my last post on the Smart Cities grant which went to Columbus. I called it the Columbus, Ohio Grant Program and -Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won.

Not to incite “technology wars” between different transportation modes, but in a world of trade-offs, this is what is getting DOT grants in Columbus, Ohio; a stark contrast to most of Columbus’ peer cities, which get grants for light rail (LRT) or streetcar.

bus-on-street_2For the record, the grant is an incredible win. Columbus bested 6 other finalists including Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Denver, Portland, San Fran, and Austin. Not a bad city there. Furthermore, the grant will do good things like augment technologies on the Cleveland Avenue C-MAX. I admittedly didn’t realize Smart Cities had a component to that, but I also didn’t realize the original Small Starts grant didn’t actually include costs for signal prioritization, which is normally standard for even BRT-lite.

However, there is no denying that the autonomous vehicle (AV) pilot project is the calling card of Columbus’ winning application. It’s the meat and the potatoes, and everything else (the universal transit card) is the garnish.

And none of these are bad things. For one, I would never turn down $40 million in federal grants – then again, I would never want to do anything to jeopardize $200 million in Hardest Hit Funds, or turn down $400 million in FTA funding for 3C Rail. Leaving these kinds of opportunities on the table is painful for a state that desperately needs resources for everything – housing, transit, workforce development, you name it.

starter-routeSometimes, however, the decision has been made and you just have to walk away. Such is the case with rail in Columbus. It’s done, it’s over, and it will never happen. I myself am the eternal optimist to a fault, especially when it comes to cities, and I know how the well springs eternal for a strong vision around which to build a city. Columbus will continue to grow, but it probably won’t be growing around fixed-guideway transit, such as the previously proposed $100 million streetcar that city council defeated. Moving forward, I’m not actually sure what place-based opportunities there will be in Columbus, especially if this becomes ground zero for testing AV in an urbanized built environment.

Columbus Underground, another eternally optimistic news/commentary outlet, has also come to this realization. The site itself is home to many authors and bloggers who have kept alive the hope for rail transit. And then there is this choice quote in today’s CU article, from the CEO of the Columbus Partnership:

“I don’t think it’s about one mode versus another, it’s about what the options are going to look like in the future,” says Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership President and CEO. “Some decades ago, the community at any number of levels made its decision as it relates to rail,” he added.

So there we have it.

I’m also not alone in asserting that autonomous vehicle pilots do not make transit. Shortly after my post last Friday, CU also editorialized that “Driverless Cars Could Usher in a New Era of Suburban Sprawl.” Ya think?

As did Slate.

As did Fast Company.

As did Nature.org.

As did the Wall Street Journal.

And also Bloomberg.

The suburbs are going nowhere anytime soon, driverless cars to the rescue. And it will be okay, as we will find a way to adapt. This post is just to serve as realistic notice of the impact that autonomous vehicles will soon have on our cities, which will be an urban form not unlike this:

As for the glimmer of hope that remains for light rail enthusiasts and advocated in Central Ohio, the odds just grow all the more with this AV pilot. They need to find a way to make the community want rail, which they simply do not at this point in time.

Columbus is an ideal city to try something new with transit: It’s growing, it’s already walkable, it’s very linear, and it has legitimate transportation needs. There is also a culture that is enthusiastically excited about the local culture, or as the excellent former mayor Michael Coleman would say “our swagger,” which is one reason for the exuberant fanfare given to the Smart Cities victory.

William Murdock, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) Executive Director, may be among those keeping the glimmer of hope alive for rail. At least it appears that way in the Columbus Underground article on new technology’s impact for LRT:

“Rail is a time-tested transportation mode for moving lots of people and goods in an efficient way,” says William Murdock, MORPC Executive Director. “It’s possible that the new autonomous technology when combined with shared models (i.e. Uber, Lyft, Car2Go) might replace some of the service traditional light or commuter rail might have provided…but it might also open up new opportunities to focus on a few high-capacity corridors with bus rapid transit, light rail, or something new.”

Perhaps that “something new” could be an elevated transit vehicle that glides over traffic, either on tires or rails (gasp!) as depicted below:

While expensive, the above solves many of the issues that Columbus has with transit, specifically that the transit vehicles aren’t in the way of drivers and that it is undeniably cool.

I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of “cool.” Here in the first world, where we still have challenges, we can make available miraculous amounts of resources for solutions that we think are cool. We tend to ignore the problems and solutions that aren’t sexy (like infrastructure). Here in Columbus, I am friends with a great many of developers, just from hanging around planning and development functions – knowing these guys, I know they just aren’t interested in transit. They know that the young professionals occupying their cool Short North condos and lofts are just going to uber everywhere, like Madeintyo. AV is even better because it’s an uber that won’t try to make small talk.

duvallgraphTo the point about the infrastructure problems that we tend to ignore, that makes AV all the more easy to do now, and foolish to invest in for the long term. Given our infrastructure backlog, it’s hard to see the sense or the cents in investing in an AV model that will further deplete revenue in the Highway Trust Fund. The graph to the left assumes normal trends including: A) refusal to raise any taxes; B) vehicles that become more and more fuel-efficient; and C) driving habits of Americans continuing to wane. It does not take into account “AV subscriptions and/or memberships” becoming the next foreseeable transportation wave.

I used to think that autonomous vehicle technology was crazy. I still think it is (I am someone who loves observing my surroundings, which this will divorce people further from), but that is not keeping it from coming to fruition, whether we like it or not. So perhaps something like the above video isn’t crazy either, I don’t know – it probably requires a pilot city that cares about transit as much as Columbus cares about driving. Perhaps that city at that time will also be lauded as “Smart.”

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An Ode to the Blank Slate

The Federal DoT created a program for cities without real transit to further-develop vehicle-based mobility alternatives with which they will then call themselves “smart” for doing so. In other words, DoT created the Columbus, Ohio grant program, and – Surprise! – Columbus, Ohio won it.

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I’ve written about the Smart City Challenge before, including when I came across a CityLab article that discussed this proposal along with possible mobility-oriented interventions in the Linden neighborhood (one of those interventions was my “Bus Box” proposal). I was pleasantly surprised to see Linden, a neighborhood for which I’ve done a lot of work, getting CityLab recognition. Now that the surprise is over, I am sorry to say, I am a little underwhelmed.

Columbus’ Winning Proposal

It’s complicated. To be fair, this application is about getting people moving, and not necessarily providing old-school “transit.” This grant is deliberately intended to pilot future technologies that should rightfully deviate from how transit is usually provided. That said, it’s also an awful lot of hoopla for a proposal that scrapes the bare minimum. This Wired article offers an excellent and unbiased (well, glowing) account of the full application, which will execute the following projects:

  • Autonomous vehicle pilot project to link currently non-accessible (via transit) employment centers
  • Mobility kiosks in the low-income Linden neighborhood, specifically geared toward pregnant women
  • Development of a universal transit pass that syncs with COTA (the bus authority), rideshare apps, taxis, and bikeshare

The real strength of the application was the local partnerships brought forth by Columbus’ determination to win this grant. A classmate of mine with an excellent blog detailed the following “total packages” among the 7 finalist cities, in order of leverage:

  • San Francisco: $150 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Columbus: $90 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Austin: $50 million of in-kind services pledged (which could be worthwhile coming from a tech hotbed)
  • Denver: “Total value of $84 million” (so an additional $34 million of leverage?)
  • Kansas City: $15 million pledged by local partnerships
  • Pittsburgh: Additional $11 million pledged by Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
  • Portland: None

Edge, San Francisco.

However, Columbus’ real advantage may have been the blank slate of transit offerings it currently boasts. We have a bus authority. San Francisco has BART which is underfunded but still excellent. Austin has commuter rail. Denver has one of the top LRT networks in the world. Kansas City just opened their new streetcar. Pittsburgh has the T, augmented by really cool “busways.” Portland has it all. DoT may have been attracted by the fact that a Columbus pilot offers the opportunity to implement “smart” technologies in an isolated environment, without cross-over influence of actual transit. As Gizmodo puts it: “Columbus will be able to demonstrate how a city which doesn’t have the time or capital to build out a massive rail network can use the next wave of transportation tech—autonomous vehicles, smartphones, sensors—to get residents moving in an efficient way that will get more cars off roads and lower emissions.”

Smart Challenges For Wicked Problems

Who’s to say Columbus doesn’t “have the time or capital” to build out a rail network? We won’t make time. It’s been a non-starter my entire time in Columbus.

For those that live, work, and get around in Columbus – what does the “Smart City Challenge” victory actually mean? If you’re not pregnant in Linden, what does this victory actually mean? Is everybody in Linden pregnant? What does an autonomous vehicle pilot project really do for a struggling built environment that needs placed-based, not dis-placed, solutions? Having a cool car that can pick you up for your OB/GYN appointment does little for job access, education access, creating recreational opportunities, and fostering passive walkability.

Having written a study on infant mortality in South Linden, I can tell you that lack of car ownership is not an environmental cause. Lack of mobility options, yes, car ownership – not exactly. The full gamut of factors contributing to this neighborhood’s unacceptably high infant mortality rates are:

  • Poor access to affordable and fresh food
  • High obesity rates vis a vis unwalkable environment
  • High stress resulting from crime, speeding traffic noise, and economic insecurity
  • The neighborhood’s only OB/GYN is across the tracks, on a site that was available on the cheap, for lack of resources to build a true neighborhood health center
  • Housing that is often riddled with environmental contaminants
  • Poor maternal care education (prevention of tragic accidents)
  • Other

Linden even has an underfunded BRT-lite project, in need of additional funding and wraparounds to qualify as true BRT, that this grant ignores.

For myself, I deliberately forced myself to use Columbus’ transit for the entire two years that I was in grad school. My thesis was on TOD, and to develop a sense of empathy and deeper understanding, I wanted to experience what it is like to actually rely on transit – too few planners have done this, in my opinion. I can tell you that being reliant on transit in Columbus is not fun. It means waiting for buses that are irregular (my outer backpack pouch has schedules for the #7, #18, #2, #8, and #21 – which I’m pretty sure are just suggestions), unpleasant and stressful, occasionally unsafe (frequent reports of LGBT discrimination and abuse), frequently broken down (I have had three COTA buses break down on me), and so on. For half of the year, add the bitter cold. During the warm months, the buses are often re-routed or indefinitely delayed due to frequent marathons, festivals, or parades on High Street. So while I don’t mean to be a fly in the ointment, I am very passionate about Columbus developing the first-rate transit it so badly needs, and this is not that.

This reminds me of the time I asked the otherwise-excellent outgoing mayor, Michael Coleman (a true role model of civic leadership, I must say) if Columbus was interested in pursuing transit to capture more development demand in the form of sustainable TOD, and his response was “Columbus is so TOD, we now have Car2Go!”

The Case for Real Transit in Columbus

The background context is that Columbus is a community that harbors deeply anti-transit sentiments. It’s a car culture. As Columbus has re-urbanized and more or less “gentrified-in-place” (raising density while developing true mixed-income), it has found auto workarounds. The city routinely grants TIF deals to cover the costs of parking garages to facilitate neighborhood redevelopment. The frustrating thing, as a planner, is that Columbus is a really great city that has what it takes to be “the next Great American City” (sound trumpets) a la Austin or Portland. Transit is the one disconnect – the stubborn pitfall that Columbus can’t get out of.

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The essence of Columbus is neighborhoods, which is ironic for a city best-known for its iconic commercial spine. Above is the most important photo you will ever see (to-date) of Columbus. Of course I am biased, because it is my own, but this photo illustrates better than I could describe the relationship between downtown, the “neighborhoods,” Ohio State, and the High Street corridor. Despite being such a linear city (not to be fooled by the radiating hub-and-spoke of sprawl, density levels and economic activity literally follow High Street) many voting citizens in Columbus pretend to be pro-transit, but just unsure of where it could go or who would use it. This oft-repeated refrain requires the above aerial study. If any city were ripe for a transit corridor, it is Columbus. You don’t need a Nelson Nygaard study (though we have that, too) to tell you where a rail corridor should go, just go up high and say “Eureka, I have found it!”

cbus.JPG What gives Columbus so much potential is that it is a vastly underrated historic city. Overshadowed by the former fourth-largest (Cincinnati in the 1800s) and fifth-largest (Cleveland in the 30s, 40s, and 50s) cities – Columbus falls for the notion that it too is not historic. On the contrary, Columbus is one of the most historic state capital cities, and features some of the most impressive Victorian-era neighborhood fabric anywhere in the United States. These historic neighborhoods are also dense, walkable neighborhoods. However, it is also best summarized as a collection of independent fiefdoms (unique neighborhoods or “villages”) that have spurned planning and transit to stave off the threat of connectivity to their surroundings. A great example of this is Clintonville, a truly wonderful neighborhood whose infamously NIMBY residents are either known as Clintonvillains or the Independent Republic of Clintonville. I truly empathize for any developer feebly attempting to build very high-end apartments for “those people” (you know, renters, like myself).

These fiefdoms are wonderful places. They’re walkable, charming, and valuable. They could be very transit-supportive. Columbus has an almost-endless list of them, from German Village, to Beechwold, from Franklinton (an emerging fiefdom), to Olde Towne East (shout-out to those OTENA gentrifiers, Flag Wars!) and the rest of the “Villages,” be they Victorian, Italian, Merion, and so on. Their calling card is that they all occupy inner-city locations without inner-city connectivity. While I adore cobblestone and brick-paved streets for aesthetic and sense-of-place arguments, I suspect they have been preserved so well to inhibit drive-through traffic.

The divisions of Columbus bring us to realities about inequeality and the geography of opportunity. The Kirwan Institute, based at Ohio State, is an excellent think tank dedicated to the study of poverty and urban inequality, and best-known for “opportunity mapping.” Their Columbus Opportunity Map, essentially a blended metric of quality of life and economic opportunity across Columbus census tracts, is viewable on Arc online. You have to open the filter control and turn off the neighborhood layer, which is just meaningless color-blocking, and turn on the neighborhood opportunity index. You will then see the following map for all of Franklin County:

cbus.JPG

While economic opportunity follows High Street, those who enjoy that economic opportunity do not cross High Street. To the east lies a sea of neighborhoods cut off from the city’s spine, by railroads, freeways, etc. These neighborhoods’ problems are largely due to issues with access, whether it be to jobs, education, healthcare, etc. We need a transit network that connects these neighborhoods to the economic spine of Columbus. On top of that, truly linking the diverse and multifaceted (and almost entirely densely-populated) communities that line both sides of High Street would catalyze additional economic potential by bridging the gaps wherever they exist.

Toward the Right Solution

m-1_20map-0Columbus just won $150 million of funding through an incredible public-private partnership. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City are all building their modern streetcars (trams) for less than that. However, Columbus needs much more than a downtown circulator streetcar. Columbus needs something like the M-1 Rail, which I’ve covered extensively, which serves a true need by filling the gap and forging strategic connectivity. The 3.3-mile corridor, envisioned as the first phase, connects two currently-disconnected rail systems and makes the broader Detroit Transit Authority bus grid more efficient. Ran by the suburban RTA (SMART), the M-1 Rail will also link the two disparate transit authorities serving Southeast Michigan, and it will do so through a corridor that links all of the city’s major economic, cultural, and institutional assets.

The M-1 Rail is a slam dunk because it is the perfect place-based transit project. It was also made possible by significant private- and philanthropic-sector contributions, which covered most of the cost, in addition to about $45 million in FTA grants.

Sound familiar?

Columbus needs an M-1 Rail, whether that is “smart” or not – something that provides real, meaningful transit. Columbus does not need a ride here and there for expecting mothers – it needs a transit pipeline for everyone.

Nuanced Thoughts on RTA’s Fare Hikes + Service Cuts

Nobody ever stops the press when government works. Everyday, government works to get people to work, to ship goods to markets, to power our economy, and protect our national defense. Occasionally, we do stop the press for major stories when government does not work as we expect. When a bridge crumbles, it’s a headline. When a train derails, it’s a headline. When bus drivers strike, it’s a headline. In all of these cases, lives are disrupted. Also, in all of these cases, rarely is the fundamental issue ever addressed: We do not pay, and seemingly will not pay, for the infrastructure and services upon which we rely; we insist on something for nothing.

The problem with infrastructure and transit is that the entire nation, or even the entire State of Ohio, does not collectively rely on the same bridge or the same transit route. However, as we complain about the cost of individual projects and transit services, our own community’s infrastructure is crumbling because we refuse to also pay for that of our neighbors.

In Ohio, here is how we got into this situation:

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Nation-wide, here is how got into an even bigger situation, regardless of mode:

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Among modes, the decline has been particularly steep among federal transit and passenger rail spending, which was basically slashed in half during the 80s and never recovered.

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This all collectively means we find ourselves in a situation in which local government picks up more and more of the tab for transit.

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Lastly, for a most interesting chart, particularly for “equity planners” whom decry spending on anything other than bus routes to poor neighborhoods – there appears to be a correlation between overall transit services and poverty concentration. As transit funding declines along with the varieties of constituencies that it serves, the differential between urban and suburban poverty rises. To advocates for “transit equity” meaning transit as a social service: What are you really trying to do?

city-suburb-difference-in-poverty-rate-vs-transit-funding-rate

We now find ourselves with the transit service that we deserve, pretty much. The fragmentation is pretty much complete. Where a unified front could possible exist as an effective force to solve these issues collectively, we find drivers succeeding in shifting money for transit to roads, we find transit-dependent constituencies advocating to shut down transit that serves middle and upper income people, and we find developers and transit growing farther and farther apart. It is 2016 and things are getting worse.

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What gives? Flats Forward (and/or Backward)

The big debate in Cleveland right now is whether to continue service on the Waterfront Line. The Waterfront Line, completed in 1996, is a 2.2-mile light rail that bends around downtown, following the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie waterfronts, hence the name. Cleveland’s RTA spent $70 million to build it, and then not longer after opening it, decided to eliminate weekday service on it in 2010. Service levels were then revived in 2013, upon the accumulation of $500 million + in development spurred by the route, adding jobs at Ernst & Young, hundreds of dwelling units (soon to be thousands), and dozens of new entertainment venues.

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It so happens, that the Flats East Bank project was built with an over-supply of parking. So while ridership has risen on the Waterfront Line, the trains aren’t exactly packed. Transit “advocates” (can you call those who advocate against transit, “transit advocates”) have dubiously branded the Waterfront Line as the Ghost Train. Mark Naymik of the Plain Dealer, generally considered that newspaper’s foremost loudmouth, wants this route to “be the first service trimmed to help close budget shortfall” (sic). (Personally, and this is the only personal opinion I am writing in this piece, but I’m still not over Naymik’s nasty fight in favor of the Ohio City McDonald’s by labeling opponents including myself as the “$6 Beer Crowd.” Seriously, who advocates FOR a McDonald’s in a historic district??) Flats Forward, a non-profit development arm aimed at revitalizing the Flats as a beloved community gathering place, has led the charge to retain service.

What’s at stake, besides hopes of continued ridership growth on the Waterfront Line? Well, developers did make a $500 million investment along it. One of the historic advantages of rail over bus service is that tracks can’t be moved like a bus route often is – and that goes out the window in this political climate. By burning the developers who invest in sites along transit, we get further and further from an ultimate solution to this wicked problem. Let’s not lose sight of a potential solution, in that Americans overwhelmingly want TOD – 73% support changes in land use zoning to encourage TOD. 73% of Americans rarely support anything.

Where the Waterfront Line was just one example of the solution, combining forces between transit and development, that is now at-risk. The reality is that the Waterfront Line is a choice rider service. By spurning those choice riders, as is often the goal of supposed “transit equity,” it becomes harder to pass needed local tax increases to support transit for everyone.

Don’t forget that the only reason Cleveland RTA is able to provide Ohio’s only decent transit system isn’t fare revenue, but rather the 1% county-wide sales tax that supports RTA. While other Ohio cities would kill for that (COTA in Columbus for instance must operate on half that), will County voters renew Cleveland’s RTA tax next time it is up the renewal? Keep burning choice riders, and County voters are less likely to see how they could benefit.

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What we have here is ultimate dysfunction and fragmentation in which transit segments have turned against each other to throw each other under the bus. While we are all implicit, it is hard to blame anyone specifically; while each side seems to have missed the big picture, can you blame them considering what an ugly picture it has become?

Northern Kentucky River Route Streetcar Study

Full study located at this link: River Route.pdf

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Building off of my Community Design Studio work on designs for equitable “BRT-TOD” in Columbus’ Linden neighborhood, when tasked by my Graphic Communication for Planning practicum course to drum up a “plan” for the sake of graphic production exercises, I once-again wanted to showcase transit’s potential for community transformation. Working on the NKY Streetcar was an opportunity to contribute something that would further a rail-based transit proposal somewhere in this region.

In the way of housekeeping announcements, this is in no way intended to match an actual streetcar feasibility study, for which the NKY Streetcar Steering Committee is seeking a $300,000 federal grant. The feasibility study should ascertain ridership levels, engineering challenges (particularly with the Taylor Southgate Bridge), and so on. I also imagine the turning radii around 3rd-4th, Monmouth-York can also be problematic (one lesson learned from riding every modern streetcar on this side of the Rockies is that streetcars are amazingly smooth, except when negotiating turns, so the best routes are straight lines).

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Tourism map of greater region.

This is however intended to conjure the imagination of Northern Kentucky residents as to how their own community can be truly transformed within their lifetimes. The emphasis is on the graphics, which are intentionally bold and imaginative. I love NKY for a lot of reasons – for one, it truly is one of the few “European-styled” communities stateside, which would be a gag-worthy descriptor most places. I love the history and diversity of NKY. I really think a streetcar that hits all of the dense neighborhoods, including farther south (I make the case for looping around on MLK in the study), will benefit tremendously from the unparalleled economic diversity of these neighborhoods.

NKY is truly one of the few remaining corners of this country where the rich and the poor coexist happily side-by-side. You have incredibly wealthy pockets like Mansion Hill in Newport in walking distance to public housing on both sides of the Licking River. The historic building fabric of this region just naturally supports and lends itself to such depth of economic diversity. This will benefit a streetcar in terms of balancing ridership between transit-dependent residents and “gentrifiers” the likes of whom would only ride a streetcar. No one “constituency” is shut-out or served better than the other by a streetcar investment in this area.

1dataNorthern Kentucky and Southwest Ohio have a long history of working together toward planning for and building the region’s transportation network. This includes the I-275 outer loop, which serves all of NKY and even dips into the corner of Indiana to bring in a third state. The region’s airport is in NKY, and of course the Ohio River ports and bridges are the region’s historic transportation advantage. It should turn to this multi-state partnership once again toward building a comprehensive regional transit network.

2For one, it is the only way to eventually connect the airport to Cincinnati; and more strategically, I think that the $2 billion Brent Spence Bridge project could be a potential funding opportunity for a parallel streetcar bridge. “Transportation alternatives” have been package-funded with highway projects before, and while the entire 5.3-mile streetcar would only add another 10% to the bridge project cost, even a partial funding chunk could close a funding gap alongside a TIGER grant, TIF revenues, and city capital. Realistically, operational funding could be re-appropriated from the South Bank Shuttle, although there could also be advantages to retaining that for a counter-clockwise or otherwise supplemental transit crossing. By maximizing transfer stations, the streetcar could better sync with TANK routes and optimize the region’s entire transit network.

Lastly, Covington, Newport, and even Bellevue already feature incredibly beautiful, dense, and historic neighborhoods. However, there are underutilized sites in Covington’s north end, along the Licking River, and toward I-71/75. A streetcar that passes through these pockets while connecting the premier neighborhoods could spread revitalization where it has lagged. In doing so, I have highlighted the potential TOD nodes. Furthermore, I have rendered how a streetcar station might enliven the in-tact parts, as well.

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Toward the goal of TOD, it is worth noting that while I think TOD could be great for NKY, I would never recommend tearing down any extant building fabric. Historic rehabs work just fine, if not better in terms of scale-appropriateness, for TOD. Covington and Newport’s historic building stock has not been leveraged for economic development in the same way that OTR in Cincinnati has, due to Kentucky’s anemic historic tax credit program. A streetcar could be just what is needed to fully maximize the potential of these historic bones.

 

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So there you have it. Both my latest class project, and hopefully, also a meaningful conversation starter for something that makes a huge difference in Northern Kentucky. That’s what this is all really about, and of course what transit should always be – a means to an end.

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CityLab shout-out for Linden

Great article on CityLab today, reporting on the potential synergies from several things Columbus is doing in the transportation space, both low-tech and high-tech… The obvious omission being any rail-based transit system whatsoever, which has long evaded Columbus.

smartcitychallengefinalistsmap_0Despite this, Columbus is moving forward with smaller-scale transportation programs, including an exciting application for US DOT’s $50 million Smart City Challenge Grant – for which Columbus is competing against Austin, SF, KCMO, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Portland – all cities with rail-based transit (although Austin is iffy). Columbus’ proposal for the Smart City Challenge is a universal transit card that would interface with COTA buses, ride/car-sharing apps, taxis, etc., with vending kiosks dispersed throughout the city.

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In addition to a universal transit card pilot, Columbus is investing in a BRT-lite system to serve the Linden neighborhood on the city’s northeast side, which was also the focus of my 2015 Community Design Studio at Ohio State. Selfish plug – very excited that the CityLab article mentioned and linked to my personal studio project, and rather than focusing on the specifics (which was not the point) instead discussed the broader hope that the C-MAX BRT project could serve as a catalyst for healthy neighborhood change, concentrating riders at stations that can incubate neighborhood retail and farmer’s markets.

All of this is to show that not all hope is lost if a city can not (or does not want to) do full-blown rail-based transit. It is also great, not to mention highly-appreciated, when CityLab gets it right and uses their muse to highlight actual innovation and hard work. I also appreciated that CityLab opens the article discussing the lives that this is all intended to improve.

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.

Slide1

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.

Bus Rapid Promises

BRT advocacy, not unlike other aspects of equity planning, has developed this incredibly confrontational policy and advocacy brand. It is near impossible to find any good BRT articles out there that aren’t steeped with attacks on rail transit.

This of course is partly because, not unlike anything else in planning, the BRT names are all the same. Articles often come from the “Institute for Transportation and Development Policy” which is really a BRT-only think tank (all of their research includes cleverly-crafted attacks on rail projects). That said, it’s not fair for me to construe that as an attack on BRT, because that’s the way it is – if you have a concept, you need at least one really good think tank behind it. It’s a similar line of attack as the Boston Globe’s famous editorial that most convention centers have a Populous study behind it, which has never recommended against building a convention center.

This is called inherent or institutional bias, which is everywhere, including whatever side of any debate YOU find yourself. But just to be clear, don’t go looking to the ITDP for unbiased research on all modes of transportation. You won’t find it there, just like you won’t find it in many places. Jarrett Walker, a fore-front transit activist, calls this slippery slope the “technology wars.” So many of us agree on the importance and benefits of transit. The problem is that “transit” means vastly different things not just to people but communities as well.

However here are some choice bits…

NJ TOD Institute: Pittsburgh “A City of Buses”

(For the record, I have only ridden on the “T” light rail in Pittsburgh)

“The ITDP report documents $903 million in total investment along the line since construction, or roughly $3.59 million in development per dollar of transit investment as of 2012. “

one-million-dollars-639omkSo they built the busway for $251 dollars and 53 cents? First of all, this is fuzzy math. Second of all, it kind of undercuts whatever you’re advocating for when you resort to such fuzzy math. Third of all, if you work through this… $903 million in TOD, and they’ve created a proxy coefficient where they divide the TOD by the infrastructure cost.. They either forgot to carry a zero, or they just arbitrarily add the word million after every numerical figure.

The East Busway – which connects the East Liberty neighborhood to the downtown – cuts an hour drive down to a trip of 7 to 15 minutes by bus (see map).

Wow, a transit project cuts AN HOUR DRIVE down to a 7 min trip by bus? That’s a map that I’ve gotta see. See map:

eba

I’m curious which part of this is the 1 hour drive vs. 7 min bus ride. So I pulled up the schedule on the Port Authority website. I don’t see a 7 min interval, but Downtown to East Liberty is scheduled to take 10 minutes typically, which is close enough. I then used Google Directions to map the trip via car, which it says would take 14 minutes.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 2.22.50 PM

ITDP must not have realized they can just take Baum Blvd to Bigelow Blvd. They probably stopped at a convenience store on the wrong side of the tracks and got some crazy directions or something. Surely they wouldn’t resort to intellectual dishonesty…

Ok one more…

ITDP quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Facing funding shortages that rule out more expensive rail development, cities are clamoring to build BRT systems, which are up to 20 times less expensive,” Mr. Hook said.

Hook, line, and sinker. You heard it there first, but I’m morbidly curious to see what kind of BRT is being built for 1 / 20th the cost of a light rail corridor. Citylab did a great expose of America’s worst bus stops, perhaps ITDP is advocating for this one:

e569926d9I love this awesome picture of an IndyGO bus stop for so many reasons. For one, it’s their standard design (makes me wanna sign an angry petition whenever communities build special, artsy bus stops) so that’s good apparently.

That said, there is so much under realized technology utilized at this stop…

  1. Way finding (sign mounted to electric pole)
  2. Comfortable seating
  3. Vending (if you’re ok sharing w/ litter bugs)
  4. Landscaping (if you can call fencing that)
  5. Protective barrier from traffic (aka “curb”)

 

 

So let’s dig into this 1 / 20th claim a little more…

Early estimate of the cost of a Downtown-to-Oakland BRT is $200 million, or about one-tenth of what a Light Rail Transit extension to Oakland would cost, said Wendy Stern, Port Authority assistant general manager for planning and development.

So that implies that a light rail extension to Oakland would cost $4 billion.

Post-Gazette article explaining the cost differences:

Light rail would cost five to 10 times as much as the proposed $200 million BRT line, depending on how much tunneling or bridge construction would be needed to connect to the existing line. 

So now it’s 5-to-10 times as much, and mentions bridges and tunnels, which is interesting for connecting two districts that are on the same side of Pittsburgh’s rivers. This almost implies that they’d want to go down Carson and connect the booming Southside along the way, which actually could be a really good idea.

Bear in mind that the North Shore Connector cost nearly $550 million and extended the system just over a mile. The line to Oakland would need to be at least three times as long through a heavily built up and populated area.

And the argument shifts to bringing past projects into focus, which actually, is probably the best harbinger for projecting costs in any given city. I fully endorse this because it cuts through X-factors that separate different cities. For instance, Cleveland’s RTA refuses to allow single-track systems, because they don’t trust their rail operators to obey signals, which effectively doubles the cost of anything. Portland has used a lot of single track on extensions, where their goal is to make streetcar work as effectively as possible.

Here’s the obvious problem with using the North Shore Connector as a harbinger for what should be a land corridor:

north_shore_tunnelmap720

In learning about this, I also learned that there are two primary methods of tunneling: 1, “cut and cover,” which is not cheap but pales in comparison to “bored tunnels.” Bored tunnels are far from boring, but instead refers to the process of tunnel-boring which is not unlike digging your way out of Alcatraz.

Given the assets on the North Shore and the invaluable tunnel infrastructure Pittsburgh got out of the deal, $550 million isn’t bad. This should NOT be construed in any way as “$550 million just to go 1 mile.” They actually appear to be using $550 million per mile as a rail-transit cost figure. In this instance, transit activists (particularly those engaging in technology wars) should walk a mile through another transit technology’s route before rushing to judgment…or something like that. Here are some more appropriate cost proxies:

Charlotte LYNX light rail: $48.125 million / mile

OKC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

DC Streetcar: $90 million / mile

Portland Streetcar Phase 1 & 2: $12 million / mile

Portland RiverPlace Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Gibbs Extension: $13 million / mile

Portland Lowell Extension: $12 million / mile

Portland OMSI Extension: $22.1 million / mile

Tucson Streetcar: $28.2 million / mile

KC Streetcar: $25 million / mile

Cincinnati Streetcar: $36 million / mile

Cleveland Healthline BRT: $27.7 million / mile

LA Orange Line BRT: $21 million / mile

Boston Silver Line BRT: $12.5 million / mile

KC Star article: Source for Cincy, KC, Tucson costs

Portland MAX: Source for Portland costs

National BRT Institute: Source for BRT costs

* PS, the NBRTI report also included several factual issues, including the claim that the Cleveland Healthline operates 5 minute frequencies, which is insulting to everyone who has waited 30 minutes in the middle of the day for a bus that’s stuck at red lights.

Some cities have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as efficient as possible, and others have this mentality of striving to make their rail investments as inefficient as possible. Cincinnati’s RTA (SORTA) has even threatened to not operate their new streetcar. Most cities purposely operate abysmal transit frequencies as an effort to sabotage their own success. Time after time, when people outside the system force the city to build and operate rail transit infrastructure, you’re lucky to get them to grudgingly oblige. The two biggest X-factors I have come across is that some people lie, and others actually don’t want to succeed.

In the end, there are lies, damned lies, and then transit lies.

DC: WMATA TOD Tour

IMG_4554The Washington Metro is by far one of the most successful transit networks in North America, both in terms of ridership as well as economic development. As it relates to economic development, it isn’t just that WMATA makes TOD a priority, but also that the system performs well for practical commuting trips (with surge pricing to operate 2-minute rush hour frequencies), and revitalizing neighborhoods by concentrating 713,000 daily riders into walkable marketplaces.

Such was the case with Columbia Heights in particular, where I have spent a lot of time on the ground myself. One (delicious) word: pupusas. The area surrounding the Metro station at 14th and Linwood has been totally revitalized, but not without a high degree of public planning, investment, and long-term involvement.

Ravaged by riots in 1968, the neighborhood was subject to decades of failed revitalization efforts before transit reached the neighborhood. This included the creation of two redevelopment authorities (RLA, NCRC), and a string of failed development projects due to the neighborhood’s struggling economic base and subpar purchasing power. According to this MNCPPC presentation: Things changed in the 1990s as WMATA invested over $500 million into three new entrances, which surrounded 14th & Linwood with air rights development that the District of Columbia then provided $48 million of subsidy to support an anchor shopping center.

It looks great:

The $48 million District investment, following WMATA’s expansion into the neighborhood, catapulted the neighborhood to revitalization. That investment created a 20-to-1 ROI, with over $1 billion in resultant TOD, spread across 55 development projects.

• Since 2001, within a half‐mile of the Columbia Heights Metro Station, 55 development projects, valued at $912 million, under construction or completed

• 3,200 new residential units  Nearly 700,000 SF retail

• >36,000 residents live within a 10‐min walk of the Metro station, and nearly 40% of the population is between ages of 25‐44

• Projects include:

– 53,000 sq ft Giant Food grocery

– DC USA with retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Marshalls, Staples, and Bed Bath and Beyond.

– The 250‐seat GALA Theatre and the Dance Institute of Washington

– Highland Park and Kenyon Square mixed‐use developments: 412 residential units; 20% affordable; 20,000 SF retail– The redevelopment and reuse of the Tivoli Theater

Source: MNCPCC

While placemaking is one obvious ingredient in the success story of Columbia Heights, perhaps the most successful transit placemaking project in DC is the arch at the Chinatown/Gallery Place station – directly adjacent to the LED rotunda above the Metro escalators. This is one of the most-utilized and most-central Metro stations in the entire District, anchored by the Verizon Place arena.

 

Chinatown/Gallery Place is also one of a few of transfer stations, making it a natural fit as a TOD hub. Other less obvious TOD hubs have benefited from substantial WMATA and DC/VA/MD support, including 3 in Virginia, 6 in the District, and 13 in Maryland.

Farragut Square, near the heart of Downtown DC, is one of the most obvious examples of air rights development, with Class-A office space built above the Metro escalators. Of course, two of the Farragut Square stations have bikeshare stations, providing intermodal connectivity.

The station at U Street, one of the District’s most vibrant and active neighborhoods, models a different site plan prototype. In this development at 14th and U, an L-shaped development surrounds an open-air plaza with the Metro escalators, creating a dispersal point between pedestrians emerging from the escalators and queuing at the crosswalk. One of the city’s highest-traffic intersections, it makes sense within this context to shield the Metro station.

IMG_4569

There’s a Wal-Mart at the NOMA station.

IMG_4570

The DC Convention Center is also an interesting prototype, with the Metro station underneath the Convention Center, accessible by escalators inside the Convention Center itself. In this picture, notice that the street pavement is concrete, whereas most of DC’s streets are asphalt. This is because the exhibition hall is underneath the intersection, Convention Center, AND the affordable housing picture to the right (dwarfed but not displaced by the Convention Center).

 

Union Station, the city’s commuter rail and Amtrak hub, as well as a Metro station, is encapsulated by TOD inside and out. The interior of Union Station has been turned into a shopping galleria, with retailers such as H&M and Ann Taylor. Behind the station, to the east, is also infill housing separated by a cycle track.

On H Street in front of (but not connected to..) Union Station is the “beginning” of the DC Streetcar. That said, there are a lot of similarities to how Megabus often dumps you off under a bridge “adjacent” to a transit station, and how the DC Streetcar dumps you off on the H Street overpass above the tracks, but not at all connected to Union Station. This lack of direct connection to Union Station, and particularly the broader Metrorail system, is the only legitimate fault I can find with the DC Streetcar. The route, while short, manages to traverse three distinctly different neighborhoods.

phase3

First is the historic commercial corridor of H Street, which is heavily revitalized, and almost entirely infilled since the streetcar project began. Second is the area around H Street and Benning Road, where the streetcar bends in front of a large outdoor transit plaza (for buses and bikeshare), surrounding by transitional urban fabric with some suburban-style shopping strips. Last is the stretch of Benning Road approaching Oklahoma Avenue, which is primarily suburban-style public housing.

As I rode it in its first week of operation, riding was fare-free, not to mention a relatively festive environment with several other curious riders taking their first ride. Some of them were taking selfies, others brought friends to check it out. In talking to a few residents, I noticed two unique POVs I never would have considered: 1, mothers with strollers were the biggest fans, because it is so much easier for them to board than a bus; 2, the eventual connection to Georgetown has area residents scared that they won’t be able to afford the fare.

The fear is that surely they won’t actually be given equitable access to the same infrastructure that Georgetown residents enjoy. By starting first with a largely disenfranchised neighborhood that was passed-up by the Metrorail, this project has an opportunity to renew these residents’ faith in local government.

Meet the coolest transit project in America: M-1 Rail

Detroit, the city that refuses to die, and the city that got America moving, has gotten a little well-deserved help with their new streetcar. Detroit is long-known as one of those cities where transit projects go to die, with countless different iterations of this same project reappearing every few years. To this point, it’s worth mentioning that the People Mover system (photographed extensively in my 2016 trip) was always envisioned as a “last mile” circulator once people get downtown on a larger transit network that hasn’t materialized until now.

I don’t really know if this project is the coolest transit project in America. I’ll say it’s pretty unlikely. M-1 Rail is a mere $125-180 million endeavor, which puts it firmly in the New Starts realm, while more established transit cities like Seattle are doing crazy things like capping an entire urban freeway, LA is doing subway extensions, Atlanta is developing a copy + paste model for air rights construction over MARTA stations, Minneapolis wants 75,000 downtown residents, and Dallas fully intends to protect its claim to the most light rail of any city. These cities don’t blink at spending billions – yet Detroit’s little $125 million project has been such a topic of controversy. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called it “The worst transit project in America.” It’s hard not to wonder if this is a cogent anti-streetcar argument or just thinly veiled annoyance that this city refuses to conform to the negative outside press. (I feel guilty even offering this up as click bait, but I still feel compelled to offer totally contrasting viewpoints.) If he can make such an unfounded claim, then surely I can counter that by calling it the coolest transit project in America. M-1 Rail brings out the best in transit projects and has a tremendous array of benefits to offer Detroit. In many ways, this small transit project is the little engine that could.

dettransit_mapBoiling M-1 Rail down to its lowest common denominator, this project is a very small but vitally important link that ties together a regional rail network that is finally coming together. M-1 Rail, spanning the Cass Corridor between downtown (served by the very cool and very retro People Mover) and New Center (where Amtrak’s Wolverine and SEMCOG’s commuter system cut through Detroit City), is a 3.3-mile link (red) between these two existing (blue) transit systems that don’t currently intersect.

Now, given that there are some interesting corridors in the rift left by these two systems, doesn’t it make a lot of sense to connect the closest points of these two disparate transit networks? Even without knowing much about Detroit and specifically the neighborhoods that lie between the two transit systems, it would seem to make sense within the regional context: By making that connection, rather than having three disparate transit systems, you now have a single whole network that serves the Detroit region.

b99329484z-1_20151130190435_000_gvcmn04b-1-0It so happens that besides the obvious slam dunk within the regional context, that the localized context further propels the case for M-1 Rail. Woodward Avenue, Michigan Highway #1, is America’s only urban national scenic byway. There are only 30 national scenic byways. Step aside Euclid Avenue (CLE), High Street (Cbus), Wash Ave (STL), Fifth and Forbes (Pitt), Vine Street (Cincy). Woodward Avenue is the granddaddy of all of the great urban main streets.

I have a lot of “crazy theories” one might say, and one of them is that you can usually go up to a tall vantage point and look out over a major city and either point out specific transit corridors, or what should be specific transit corridors. Go to the CN Tower and you can literally see the veins of high-rises that fan out across the city, most notably along Yonge Street, where towers rise up for a dozen or so miles from the low-rise scale of Toronto’s surrounding neighborhoods. In a city without rail, the same experiment is basically a quick-and-dirty method of studying prospective corridors. In Columbus, go to the Rhodes Tower observation floor, and even if you know nothing about Columbus you still can’t help but notice how the entire city literally rises up at High Street. Similarly with Detroit, go up to a tall building on Wayne State’s campus and then look out over the city. You will see the above view. If you were struggling with where to do transit three years ago, the above view would be somewhat illuminating.

The financing of M-1 Rail is the most interesting urban experiment I have ever seen. Detroit City is in fact kind of an outsider to this entire project. This project has been planned, approved, and implemented by a complex partnership between Detroit’s non-profit sector and the federal government, which literally “required an Act of Congress” to allow public-private partnerships to count as the local match required by FTA. It also leverages New Markets Tax Credits, which is the first time NMTC’s have ever invested in public transit, thanks to LISC, Great Lakes Capital, and others. Four foundations, including the Ford and Kresge foundations, also contributed millions. Detroit’s corporate community stepped up to the plate to buy naming rights at each station, contributing far more than a name is really worth.

The financial pieces (totaling $180 million) of this project are as follows, mostly in little $3 million chunks here and there:

  • Kresge Foundation – $49.6 million
  • FTA TIGER I grant – $25 million
  • FTA TIGER VI grant – $12.2 million
  • Quicken Loans – $10 million
  • State of Michigan – $10 million
  • Detroit Downtown Development Authority – $9 million
  • NMTC (LISC, Great Lakes Capital, etc) – $8 million
  • Penske Corp. – $7 million
  • MEDC – $7 million
  • Illitch Holdings (Little Caesar’s Pizza) – $6 million
  • Ford Foundation – $4 million
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan – $3 million
  • Chrysler Foundation – $3 million
  • Detroit Medical Center – $3 million
  • General Motors Co. – $3 million
  • Henry Ford Health System – $3 million
  • Wayne State University – $3 million
  • Wayne County – $3 million
  • Ford Motor Co. – $3 million
  • DTE Energy – $2.9 million in-kind
  • Compuware Corp. – $1.5 million
  • J.P. Morgan Chase – $1.5 million
  • Hudson-Webber Foundation $1 million
  • Bank of America Foundation – $300,000
  • Ford Motor Co. Fund – $100,000

Notice you won’t see “City of Detroit” anywhere on said list. Nor will you see “taxpayers of Detroit” on the list, in any way (through some taxing district, etc). I just think that this is amazing. At a minimum, it’s a testament that the Rust Belt community ethos is alive and well in Michigan, even after a community has broken down and weathered such a storm. 

At this point I must confess that I started out intending to just whip up another quick photo tour and press “publish.” While that is still forthcoming, I just can’t stress enough that with this transit project the devil is in the details. If you bother to look at these details, it really is the coolest transit project in America.

And it is becoming reality.

Progress as of January 2015:

Progress as of February 2016:

Which eventually will resemble these renderings:

So, if you like what you see, mark your calendars for sometime in 2017 when M-1 Rail leaves the station, revolutionizing how visitors (tourists and suburbanites alike) will experience Detroit City. It will be an experience that keeps people coming back and hopefully creates enough concentrated activity to rub off on the less-revitalized remainder of the city.

Rather than insist that every project solve every problem (zero-sum), M-1 Rail is worthy of our support and admiration as a singular solution in a city that collectively needs a lot of singular solutions. M-1 Rail doesn’t fix everything overnight; however, it does fill in the missing link, build on Detroit’s existing assets, connect the city to the broader region where most jobs have moved, and give the city something captivating to build on for the future.

Linking Linden via Design

There are two types of cities that I have worked in, though I’m sure others abound. My experience however has been either economically-driven cities (Dallas, OKC) or equitably-driven cities (Cleveland, Columbus to some extent). For the economically-driven city, the bottom line is the bottom line. They will listen to city planners and urban designers who can offer economic development. For the equitably-driven city, it’s about quality of life for the disenfranchised.

412box7fsnpl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Cleveland after all is the birthplace of “equity planning,” which is a school of thought founded by Norm Krumholz that honed in on planning for the poor to the exclusion of others. Krumholz’s philosophy, which soon caught on in most major cities, was a response to the times, following race riots from which most major cities have yet to recover. Cleveland for certain was rocked by the Hough Riots of 1966 and the Glenville Riots of 1968. The groundbreaking literature on this matter was Krumholz’s 1975 Planning Policy Report, admirably discussed in this article by his fellow FAICP predecessor Bob Brown.

citywidemap20transparentRegardless of in which category a city may fall, no city is practicing planning for fun. Nobody in a major city, strapped for time and resources, has time on their hands to engage in academic exercises. Columbus is also an oddball hybrid community that is probably equally motivated by both the economy and equity. Just when you think economic development matters always win, the city’s disenfranchised communities get a big win. As far as putting our money where our mouth is: Nearly all place-based resources (CDBG, LIHTC, Urban Infrastructure Recovery Fund, grants, discretionary spending) are targeted to low-income neighborhoods, and nearly all TIF resources are targeted outside of the I-270 beltway, representing a strategy schism.

Cleveland Avenue in Columbus is the context for my most significant personal foray into equity planning – specifically the South Linden community located along Cleveland Avenue, between Hudson and 11th Avenue. This community was the focus of Ohio State’s Fall 2015 Community Design Studio with Dr. Jesus Lara, for which our client was the City of Columbus’ Celebrate One Initiative. Celebrate One is an initiative responding to Columbus’ worst-in-the-nation infant mortality statistics. After studying this matter in great detail, the city, county, Columbus Foundation, and other non-profit partners have concluded that infant mortality is spatially concentrated in areas that suffer from pollution, low walkability, high crime, economic distress, and substandard (unhealthy) housing stock.

There is a must-read study on this matter from Wash U in St. Louis. The takeaway: “Your ZIP code is a better determinant of your health than your genetic code.” When it comes to neighborhoods such as this, not only is equity planning a good approach, but it pays dividends to start making partnerships and inroads with public health officials. In equity-driven cities, the public health officials are going to hold a lot of sway, have more resources, and probably be sympathetic to planning goals. 

walkscore

In addition to astonishingly high infant mortality, the neighborhood also suffers from substandard and often lead-paint-covered housing, low walkability, high traffic noise, proximity to brownfields, poor air quality, and high crime. The high crime is in part due to broken street lights and un-maintained rear alleys that make the perfect spot for a shady drug deal gone bad. The rest are primarily due to poor transit access, adjacency to high-traffic I-71, and the speedway that is Cleveland Avenue (especially heavy commuter traffic that barrels through the neighborhood to bypass congested freeways).

By the way, Walk Score deduces that South Linden is the 42nd “most walkable” neighborhood in Columbus. This was determined not by visiting and documenting existing conditions, but rather through a computer algorithm that relies on “amenities” it picks up on Google Maps. Many of these “amenities” look nicer on Google Maps than they are in reality – many are no longer open at all – so the reality is actually much worse than Walk Score’s imputed result of “Somewhat Walkable,” but it is a good empirical starting point nonetheless.

Should one actually visit to document the existing conditions, I recommend just taking the #8 or #1 bus and just hopping on and off, talking to lots of neighborhood residents in between. Here are some photos from such an excursion:

The above photo with a bus is actually just the “typical bus stop,” which not unlike elsewhere in Columbus, is basically a pole with a sign. Despite its relatively low walkability, the community has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the area (4,800 daily riders on the #1 Bus), due in part to the transit-dependent population (no car). Transit in this case is seen as a last resort, and due to its undesirability, is not only relegated out of the way of the area’s motorists, but it’s also ditched by transit riders themselves as soon as they can afford a car.

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To ameliorate this problem the city is giving the Cleveland Avenue corridor our first BRT system, albeit a BRT-lite. The Cleveland Avenue C-MAX is a $47.7-million project BRT with enhanced stations and rolling stock, but without a lane or signal priority. The C-MAX is one of the most significant recent investments in the northeast side of Columbus.

The C-MAX project is my base line for improving the South Linden community, to the extent that our Community Design Studio was tasked with creating design interventions that enhanced quality of life for this neighborhood’s residents. It’s an urban neighborhood, and it’s a transit-propensity neighborhood, so it should also be a walking neighborhood. Reaching people while they’re waiting for the bus is the most-targeted way to touch lives. It’s also a way for these design interventions to really help the people who live here, and not the people who don’t.

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As the member of our studio that focused on transit placemaking, I proposed two design interventions: Bus Box and the “Heart of Linden.”

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Bus Box is a bus shelter made by cutting, combing, and painting shipping containers. Not only is it cheap and trendy, bringing an avante garde style to the neighborhood, but additional “boxes” can be used for community info kiosks, a farmer’s stand at the bus stop, or a “bodega box” that just sells essentials.

It’s tailor-fit to this neighborhood’s needs, which is a food desert for its lack of retail and specifically fresh food options; despite efforts to build suitable retail space, area residents still can’t afford the rent. A lot of the neighborhoods carry-outs get themselves in trouble by selling mostly booze, cigarettes, and junk food in order to pay their rent. Rent won’t be a problem at a Bus Box, and successfully incubated retailers will then be in better position to afford rent in the bricks and mortar behind it.

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Heart of Linden is basically just taking the worst block in this neighborhood (albeit beautifully fenced-off), also located at the heart of it, and re-activating it. “Heart of Linden” has two main components, a scaled-up Bus Box that can basically become an edgy low-cost retail incubator, and a “Food Hub” not unlike the one proposed previously for Weinland Park. There is currently an effort underway for a similar Food Hub in South Linden, and it makes sense that this needed project (and a potential neighborhood improvement catalyst) locate on a prime site. All of the other uses are just programming expansions and connections to surrounding assets, like potential bike trails or the new library.

Bus Box is certainly more practical. It is built off of ideas I have seen in other cities, such as LAND Studio’s Bike Box project in Cleveland (where they built 8-10 of these). Heart of Linden, certainly a tougher project to take on, seeks to solve a number of challenges through forging the right connections. A lot of Linden’s problems stem from disconnectedness. It just isn’t a pleasant neighborhood in which to walk, so nobody is going to belabor themselves worrying about the pedestrians of South Linden.

But they should.

Beyond offering needed amenities in a well-connected site and layout, Heart of Linden is an intriguing idea as a “BRT-OD.” I’ve obviously written a lot about transit-oriented-development or TOD, and it goes without saying that I’m a believer in the power of rails toward the goal of generating this coveted prize. That said, I concede that BRT can move the needle a little bit. It won’t be the sole driver behind billions of dollars in TOD, but it can contribute, and it doesn’t hurt. So just as BRT is a practical innovation, what if the TOD model could similarly be innovated to fit that practicality? As such, a “BRT-OD” could be more of a temporary re-activation of a site, not unlike a pop-up city, and could rely on technological innovations to give it a lighter footprint and lower up-front building cost.

What if “BRT-OD” is a way forward in terms of integrating these BRT systems with surrounding low-income neighborhoods? I leave you with that thought.