Monday, August 30, 2010

Reminder: School Zone speed limit is 20 mph in Madison

In the last couple of day, there have been a couple of articles reminding us that school is starting and motorists should drive carefully around schools. The Madison Police Dept. put out a press release, so I assume the articles were generated from that. Some also mention that the MPD will be enforcing speed limits and other traffic laws in school zones.

This is good, because everyone using the roads should be aware of kids going to and from school. And the article mention that we should "slow down." They are even starting to mention that motorists (and bicyclists, too) need to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

But something is missing, and it is bugging me that this little fact is left out. Neither the MPD press release nor any of the articles mention that the speed limit in school zones in Madison is 20 mph. It doesn't matter if that yellow sign is on Midvale Blvd, Milwaukee St, E Washington, or Regent St. No matter what the speed limit is at other times, or how fast the rest of the cars are going, when there are children present, the speed limit is 20 mph.

There are two schools on Midvale Blvd, also two schools on Regent St in a one mile stretch. Milwaukee St has several school zones strung together. And East High School, where two students were killed crossing the street, sits right on East Washington. And I have driven at 20 mph through each of these area, with kids present, and had people tailgate me, pass me unsafely on a 2-lane road, and generally been subjected to the treated as if I was trying to be a public menace.

You think you get dirty looks as a bicyclist riding in the middle of traffic? Try driving the speed limit past a school!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Updates and tidbits on Madison-Milwaukee rail

Last Thursday was the monthly Long Range Transportation Planning Committee meeting. The Wisconsin DOT had promised an update and opportunity to discuss the project at each of our meetings, but they didn't show in July.

Fortunately, the August meeting was much more productive on this front. Paul Trombino, Divisions Operations Director at WisDOT and the point person on the decision to cancel the station in Oconomowoc, came to the meeting a little after 6 PM. He had been delayed by some follow-up work on the Oconomowoc decision. (Was he perhaps being held hostage in his Hill Farms office?) He gave us far more details than we had had in the past, and was very forthcoming in answering questions. This was a great improvement over our disappointment at the no-show in July.

Here's what we learned:

The DOT will own the Madison station. They will also operate the station. This means that the City does not have to budget for the maintenance and operations of the station. This had been a very big question at the July meeting, and neither the DOT nor new mayoral aide Chris Klein - formerly executive assistant to DOT Frank Busalacchi - knew whether the City would be responsible for paying these costs.

Passenger rail runs will not be delayed by freight trains. This is a problem for many Amtrak routes, as freight lines have priority in use of the tracks, and passenger trains often have to wait for freight trains to slowly pass through or maneuver onto sidings before the passenger trains can pass. This will not be the case for the Chicago-Madison trains, and there will be on-time targets that will hold freight lines responsible for making sure the passenger service can get through. This is very important, because freight trains will indeed be using the same tracks as the passenger service.

Corridor construction will start this fall. This won't be happening within the City quite yet, but the work in the more rural segments of the line can be done during the winter. Quite a it of track upgrade and some "land bridges" - crossing of wetlands and other difficult soils - is actually better done in cold weather.

Roll-on/roll-off service will be provided for bicycles. Across the country, this service is being requested on Amtrak and other passenger rail routes. This allows bicycles to be brought onto the train without needing to disassemble the bike or put it in a box. Roll-on/roll-off service allows bicyclists to bike to and from the train easily, which in turn supports the rail service and extends the "passenger shed" - that area of a city where passengers can easily access the train. Generally, there is either an area of the baggage car or an area of each passenger car that has bike racks or hanging hooks where bikes can be secured.

In cities like Madison and Milwaukee, where bicycling is a common and encouraged form of transportation, having a bicycle when you exit the train allows users to get to their final destination or home without needing a car or waiting for the bus. But other communities along the way have been requesting this service so that visitors can access the trails and other recreational destinations directly from the train. This is really great news.

Some amount of "convenient," "reasonably-priced" parking is required for rail passengers in Madison. The reason I put these terms in quotes is because people may have different ideas about what is convenient and what is reasonably priced. I did a little on-line research, and there are lots of Amtrak locations, even on commuter lines, that do not have any overnight parking available. Many others have overnight parking in more remote locations, and the parking closest to the station are fairly pricey hourly spots.

This is a big question still up in the air. Madison's Parking Utility pays all of its costs via user fees - that is, the cost of meters, ramps, staffing of ramps, repair of ramps, and even the capital cost of building new ramps or surface lots is paid for by those that park there. Want more parking? That means the parking rates will likely go up.

The closest ramp to the Madison Station is the Government East ramp, and it is in very bad shape. Regardless of happens with the train, that ramp needs to be rebuilt. Because land in downtown is valuable, and a parking rap is generally not considered a good above-ground use for urban land, the Transit and Parking Commission has stated that it wants to build any new ramp underground, thereby reserving the street front and air rights for retail, residential, hotel, or office uses.

Smart move, but expensive. Going underground is always expensive. Just replacing the existing number of spots - just over 500 - will probably cost well over $50,000 PER SPACE. Yup, the cost of one parking spot is measured in tens of thousands of dollars. I have even heard estimates as high as $75,000 per space. All of that has to be paid for by those parking at meters or in the ramps.

Now the DOT wants cheap, "convenient" parking for train passengers as well. If they expect the City to subsidize parking for train passengers, this undercuts the entire concept of the Parking Utility - that users pay the full cost. So will the DOT chip in some money for those extra spots next door to the station? Or perhaps they will decide that, in order to get less expensive parking, they are willing to have people parking in one of the other, cheaper, less crowded city ramps. That's what other cities do.

A stakeholders group is being set up by the DOT and Mayor to deal with corridor issues within the City. Representatives of neighborhoods along the route, business interests, alders, and other interested parties will be appointed to advise DOT on corridor issues: crossings, safety, noise, aesthetics, lighting, etc. The DOT is not required to follow their recommendations, but they will be very important in providing input and expertise on these issues.

The City and DOT are still considering whether it will be possible to move the railroad tracks that run through Central Park. That would both allow a better use of the land for the park and cut down on the need to cross the tracks between Baldwin and Ingersoll.

The City is applying for a TIGER grant from the federal government in order to build a true multi-modal station, with not just car parking, but also a bike station, transit hub, and public market. TIGER stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery and is part of the Recovery Act. TIGER grants are designed, in the word of the US DOT " spur a national competition for innovative, multi-modal and multi-jurisdictional transportation projects that promise significant economic and environmental benefits to an entire metropolitan area, a region or the nation."

Finally, there will be another Public Information Meeting at the new station, AKA the Dept of Administration Bldg, on Tuesday, August 31, 4:30-7:30 PM.

And I must say, the DOT has gotten a lot better about getting information up on their web site. I've worked with, or at least tried to influence DOT projects and  policy for over a decade, and they are generally not known for being the most transparent organization. But they are now putting up news releases, posters from public meetings, maps, and much more. I think this will both help the public get information and give feedback, as well as help the DOT answer critics that claim everything is happening behind closed doors.

I'll try to continue to update information as it becomes available. It's no secret that I think this project is important to the transportation future of Madison and the entire region. I want the DOT to hear the opinions and concerns of the public, but I also want this project to go forward without delay. I think both can easily be achieved.

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's the most dangerous time of the year....

As I ride around town every August, I have that holiday song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" going through my head, but with new words, as noted in the title of this post.

The highest crash rate for bicyclists in Madison is late August and the month of September. This is due in part to all the new bicyclists showing up each year. Many undergraduates have heard that the best way to get around town is by bike. "Don't bring your car!" is written in very large letter - three times - in the materials on transportation given to all new students coming to the UW.

The problem is that many 18 year-olds, and even older bicyclists that are riding around Madison for the first time, haven't learned to do it right. American teenagers often give up riding a bike when they are about 13 - about the age when they can really start to understand how to negotiate traffic safely. It's not cool to ride a bike around town when you are in high school, and you start to have friends with a drivers license. So the Freshmen coming to Madison haven't been on a bike, except maybe on a trail or in a group, since they were truly kids.

And there are also many people moving to Madison that aren't used to a real city. Although Madison is still considered only a mid-sized city in population, our downtown and campus area operates much more like a bigger city because of density, urban design, and traffic congestion. So even if the new bicyclists are used to riding in the street, they may not know how to ride in urban traffic.

These two factors - no adult experience on a bike and no experience in urban riding - cause new Madison bicyclists to make all sorts of mistakes: riding the wrong way, riding without lights, riding on the sidewalk, riding unpredictably, turning without looking for cars or signaling, etc. After awhile, they either learn to ride correctly (more or less) or they give up on biking in Madison. The crash rate goes down either way.

But there is another factor that may contribute to the crash rate. And it certainly makes biking harder and more stressful for those of us used to Madison's patterns: There are a whole bunch of new drivers in town.

Parents are dropping off the kids at the dorms, trying to find a parking spot or just generally lost. Late summer tourists looking for the Farmers Market or Monona Terrace are confused by the one-way streets and inner and outer loops of the Capitol. New faculty, graduate students, or staff trying to find their way around their new home. And then those new students: young, excited to be on their own, impulsive, and completely clueless that driving is sort of a pain in the ass in Madison. None of these groups are used to the many bicyclists, pedestrians, moped drivers, buses, and general confusion and congestion of our downtown and campus.

We veterans of the Isthmus know that W. Dayton ends at both Camp Randall and the Overture Center, that you can't drive a private car on State St, that there is both a King St and Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd, that the diagonal streets to the Square are one way, that bicyclists are likely to be sneaking up on the right side where there is a bike lane and riding on the sidewalk everywhere, and when traveling west on E Johnson from First St, the name of the street changes to Gorham -> University Ave -> Campus Dr -> University Ave.

We also know that there is construction everywhere, and the Isthmus makes both driving and parking a dicey and slow process.

But many of the newbies and visitors don't know any of these things, and they are lost, confused, stressed out and distracted by all the activity. That makes for lots of mistakes on their part, and a dangerous situation for those of us using less protected modes of travel.

To the veteran bicyclists and walkers, I urge patience and caution. You can tell when a driver is not a local. There's car "body language" as surely as there is human body language. Be especially careful when someone is going slow, drifting about in their lane, or the car is filled with furniture and luggage. These people are about to make a sudden turn without signaling or turn the wrong way on a one-way street. Try to wave with all your fingers and smile instead of yelling.

The visitors are probably not going to see this post, but in case it gets passed along to new residents, my advice is to park the car as soon as you can and walk. Really, it's faster than looking for a parking spot. Please remember that you must yield to pedestrian in the crosswalk, and bicyclists both have a right to the road and also are likely going as fast as you are in traffic. No matter where you lived before, Madison has a different traffic rhythm, and a different mix of road users. It's slow going in the car, and it's sort of confusing as well. Did I mention that walking might be easier?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Madison families out on bikes - at night!

Last night, as I rode home from a city meeting on a beautiful, warm summer night, I noticed how many families were out on bikes in downtown. It was already dark, and yet here were kids and parents biking around in the middle of the city.  (Most of the kids were in the 9-13 year old range I'm guessing: old enough to ride their own bikes, but still willing to be seen with mom or dad.)

What a great scene, on so many levels.

Families feel comfortable in downtown and want to be there. That is not true of all American cities, but Madison has a thriving nightlife, not just for college students, young professionals, or the Overture crowd, but also for parents with kids.

Madison is a safe place for kids to ride a bike, and parents are riding too. Sure, I'm not going to send a six-year old out alone, and the downtown can have some pretty confusing traffic situations, so older kids need to be supervised, but biking is a normal and safe way to get around as a family.

That's due to not just engineering - paths, bike lanes, painted markings, etc - but also the entire culture of biking in Madison. In many parts of the city bikes are a normal part of the street scene. That means that a bicyclist sees others out there and doesn't feel like a freak. Drivers are used to seeing bicyclists and understand how to share the road. New bicyclists or the timid know that there are others that bike and can ask advice.

Biking at night is even considered normal and safe. Lots of people bike during the day and in warm weather. But a large number of people won't venture out after dark or in less than ideal weather. But last night the downtown was buzzing with people getting around by bike at night. The families are likely to have lights, because parents that take their kids to downtown by bike tend to be experienced bicyclists. That means they know how important lights are. We wouldn't drive at night without lights. Why would we bike at night without lights?

Now, if we could only convince the 18-30 year old crowd to use lights as well. But that's another blog post.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Good question: Where's the outrage over the proposed I-39 expansion cost?

From today's Cap Times comes a question I've asked quite a bit: "Where are the fiscal conservatives - the ones screaming about the cost of the Madison-Milwaukee rail project - when it comes to road costs?"

Chris Murphy did the research on numbers that I've been meaning to do.
But I am always struck by the opposition to rail based on its price tag when we spend far, far more on roads each year. According to state Department of Transportation figures (see table TR1 on page Roman numeral x), Wisconsin spent more than $1.1 billion last year just on highway rehabilitation and maintenance. Then there was another $323 million on new highway construction and major upgrades and more than $293 million on debt service, much of it likely for roads. All of those figures are separate, by the way, from aids given to municipalities to help pay for their roads and bridges; that's another $557 million and that doesn't count what counties, cities, villages and towns spend themselves on those projects.
 So... let's start a real conversation about the cost of different types of transportation. And don't give me the, "Most people drive, so we should be spending money on roads." B.S. When people have no other choices but to drive, of course they are going to chose that option. If you want to compare how many people use a certain mode, you have to compare driving vs. train in places where their time, cost, and convenience are similar. Perhaps looking at Metra in the Chicago area vs. how many people drive the same route. Or the NE corridor on Amtrak.

When the Madison-Milwaukee line gets up and running - and it will - I think many people will be amazed how many people chose that option over the I-94 drive.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Myths about Madison-Milwaukee rail service - station and train ridership

I've been meaning to write this for some time. It just drives me nuts to see the same myths and misleading information perpetuated in articles and letters to the editor. So this is the first in what will likely be a series of posts about rail, transit, the RTA, and transportation in general.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

TIF Review Board: Edgewater, James Madison Park, blight, etc.

OK, I'm going to pull a Brenda and talk about a public meeting. The following may be a bit disjointed, but I don't have time and patience to straighten it out.

First a question: How is TIF going to make landlords maintain their property?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Traveling: Fancy hotels? Eh, but yes, I'm a food snob

When I travel, for adventure, business, or just to get out of town for the weekend, I'm not particular about the sleeping accommodations. I don't spend a great deal of time in my room, so what do I care how pretty the room is, or who designed the lobby? I'm just going to go to sleep, take a shower, and leave the next day. If there is a TV I might watch the news or some drama. Wifi is a bonus, so I can check email and get info for the trip the next day, but not really necessary. Other than that, I just don't care.

I'm much pickier about my food and beverages, however.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Zoning to discourage fast food

As part of the Wisconsin State Health Plan, among a long list of actions to encourage better nutrition and more physical activity is a little suggestion that communities consider not allowing fast food outlets in low-income neighborhoods.

Of course, as soon as the story hit the papers, the comments section exploded with outrage. I just happened to be at a meeting at the Department of Health Service - a meeting for the Wisconsin Partnership on Activity and Nutrition - and heard some of the folks involved with the state report bemoaning the fact that this little provision was singled out.

My first thought was that zoning to prohibit certain types of food is pretty tough. But then I came up with a bit of an end-run to the issue. Below is an email I sent out to the statewide coalition working on overweight and obesity issues.

Of course, in true urban areas like Madison and Milwaukee, and the older downtowns of other municipalities, this might not work, and our largest cities are often also locations of large low-income populations, but it's a start.

Not sure about other areas of the state, but the suggestion in the state health plan to consider zoning to restrict fast food outlets in low income areas certainly created a stir on our local media outlets' forums.
Zoning against a certain type of menu is pretty tough, but I know something that will almost guarantee to keep away the big chains. As a bonus, it will improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, improve air quality, and might even encourage physical activity. What is this magic action?
Prohibit drive-through windows and aisles.
Almost no major fast food chain will build without one (except in heavily urbanized area), so you might be able to nip them in the bud with that alone. Drive-through windows and aisles also add "car space" to your landscape, making the remaining sidewalk and roadway more dangerous for walkers and bicyclists. They also contribute to car idling, which leads to bad air quality in the immediate area. And allowing people to stay in their cars, instead of asking them to walk a few dozen feet discourages physical activity.
Prohibiting drive-through windows and aisles is much easier to zone than the type of food they serve.
Just a hint for those looking for a tool.