Monday, February 28, 2011

Now we really look like a third world country

The People have taken over the legislative building. 
Until today.

The events of the past two weeks in Madison [photos] have been amazing, inspiring, every-changing, and exhausting. To see people rising up, marching, yelling, putting their lives on hold to voice their outrage over Scott Walker's trumped up budget crisis, which is apparently going to be paid for - both figuratively and literally - by the people least able to afford cuts in government services, has been all-consuming for many of  us.

But as the events started, and as the protests progressed, from crowds rallying on the steps of the Capitol to full-scale occupation of the building by people willing to risk not just a bad sleeping environment, but also arrest, I have thought about how wonderful it is that we still live in a place where people can come into the seat of political power voice their opinions so loudly. At times it has been almost unbearable to stand in the center of the rotunda of the Capitol because of the crowds and noise. From 7 am to 1 am (I'm guessing) every day for almost two weeks, there has been drumming, chanting, singing, talking, yelling, and huge crowds inside the Capitol.

Signs were taped up (with carpenters' tape, so not to damage the walls) all over the Capitol: signs of protest, signs with directions on where to find help, humorous signs, emails from all over the state urging the Governor to reconsider his budget, and signs requesting supplies or compliance with rules. I marveled as this whole community developed inside this public building.

The People have taken over the legislative building. 

Where else would that be allowed? I have traveled in Latin America for 40 years, and I have never been inside the building where laws are made in any country. Maybe I could have gotten in on a tour, but I have never been able to just walk in to the building. In many cities, even entry to the local municipal building requires an appointment and an escort from a staff person.

In most of the world, a huge group of people protesting loudly outside a government building would risk beatings, tear gas, intimidation, or even death. But in Madison, WI, we have been able to bring tens of thousands of people to the steps of the statehouse every day, and thousands of people have set up protests indoors. Many of the people have even slept inside the Capitol. This is a true sign of democracy and the difference between a truly oppressive government - those in unstable third world countries - and the US. Despite the comparisons to Egypt that flew around, we are still allowed access to our seats of government and our representatives.

Until today.

The Capitol Police have announced that no further protesters will be allowed in the building. Why? "To prepare for the upcoming governor's budget address to the Legislature Tuesday."
First, does that mean that people not protesting are allowed in? How do they know whether someone is s protester or just wants to use the bathroom? Or maybe wants to see our beautiful Capitol, or wants to say hello to their representative. Are those people allowed in?

Sure, if you have an appointment, a staff person can come out and escort you in, but is that the way we want to restrict access to our elected officials? Even in Washington, DC, you can just pop in to the office of your Senator or Representative with no appointment. You may not get to see him/her, but you can come in to the office. You can actually stop in to any congressional office, even those not from your home state.

And this business of preparing for the Governor's address reeks of, "We don't want to see or hear from those that disagree with us, and we don't want the news media to be able to show them in the background as they come in for the address."

Very suspicious, in my view. Possibly illegal. Definitely a slap at democracy and free assembly. And I have seen real repression up close.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Current Wisconsin budget bill endangers $43 million in federal transit funding for Wisconsin communities

One of the little known aspects of the current budget repair bill - SB11 - is that medium-sized cities in Wisconsin could lose all federal transit aid. 

From a press release by Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber (D-Appleton):

According to the Federal Transit Act, continued receipt of federal transit aid “requires the continuation of any collective bargaining rights that were in place when the employer started receiving federal funds.” Special Session Assembly/Senate Bill 11 strips away these employee rights, which will result in a loss of $46.6 million for transit systems throughout Wisconsin, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
See this memo from the non-partisan Legilative Fiscal Bureau for ore detailed informaiton.

Grisby and Schaber have offered an amendment to the bill that would save transit aids. Some communities rely on federal transit aid for 50% of their funding.

Wednesday, Feb 23 is Wisconsin Transit Lobbying Day, and we are asking that people call, email, fax, or visit their legislators to tell them how important transit is to their families, friends, workers, and communities. For more information, you can visit the Transit Now page on this issue.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Snowshoe walk to Arboretum springs

One of my favorite places to go on a short walk in winter is down to the springs along Lake Wingra. Although you can ski to the springs, it is more direct to go by snowshoe, or just hike with sturdy boots. If you start in the parking lot on the north side of Arboretum Drive, just east of the Visitors Center, you can walk down the hill through the woods. If you want to ski, you have to go around the long way, because the Arb doesn't want people skiing down the slope. Besides, it's pretty steep and twisty for XC skis!

I am always amazed how well-worn the paths are in the middle of winter. Even though we got over 18 inches of snow just a few days ago, the path can easily be walked in boots. It is cut about 9 inches into the surrounding area, with the base well packed down.

The Big Spring is a large area of open water all winter that is filled with water birds in even the harshest conditions. If there are still berries on the trees, or during late fall and early spring migrations, you can also see and hear small birds flitting through the brush along the Big Spring.

Father down the path, you come to a stream flowing out of the hillside and towards the lake. Amid the white, black, grey, and spots of brown that are the winter palette, the springs show a bright green in the snow. Although it looks sort of like pond scum, this is actually watercress.

This is why I love this walk. The green in the middle of the winter reminds me that life continues, even in the deep snow.  There is copious water coming from these springs, and no matter how harsh the weather, the streams flow and support the plants. Here are some notes from a walk by an Arboretum naturalist that had some similar thoughts in December.

In the summer, the walk to this area is along a boardwalk through a wetland. As explained in this set of notes from another naturalist led walk back in 2007, this is a fen, a wetland that has a more basic water and soil than many of the bogs of northern Wisconsin.

Not being a morning person, my walks often start in the afternoon, and by the time I am ready to head back home, the light is often low. I always think that my photos are going to be too dark, and Saturday I even forgot my camera and had to use my cell phone. But the cameras on cell phones have gotten much better, and I was actually quite pleased with how some photos of the spring came out in the low light.

The image to the right is a bit farther into the wetland. I don't think you wouldn't be able to access this area during the summer, although the boardwalk may continue this far. After this, I tried to follow a small trail worn into the snow, but I think it might have been made by some of the UW researchers that work in the Arb, because it got very tangled up in the brush after a few hundred yards. I turned back, realizing that I'd probably end up out on Nakoma or Monroe St, if I kept going - if I got that far.

In the fresh snow, red blood stains where an animal ate a squirrel stood out. At first I thought it would have been an owl, but after seeing a couple locations, all deep in the underbrush, I decided it was more likely another mammal that finished off these squirrels. Maybe a fox? The pictures didn't really come out well, so I didn't include them.

As I climbed back up the hill, away from the lake and into the woods, the patterns created by the drifting snow caught my eye. There were circular depressions where the snow had drifted around the trees, and little mounds, like goosebumps, where bits of brush and twigs had accumulated more snow.

Even though the deeply worn trails multiple tracks show that many others have come before me, I always feel that this walk is a little secret of mine. While the prairie woods near the visitors center are popular place to ski or hike, you sort of have to know that the springs are down the steep hill. Most people don't go looking for open water and green plants in the depths of winter, especially after the amount of snow that came our way last week. But the Arboretum always shows its gems to those that are willing to explore.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scales in the Walleye Sandwich

In case anyone is wondering why I posted the following question to Facebook, the full story is below.

Question: "OK, midwesterners... are there usually SCALES on a "skin on" walleye snadwich? Our waitress thinks so. I am skeptical."

All the answers came back, "NO. There shouldn't be scales."

I think many people thought I was nuts, so here's what happened:

I was having happy hour, followed by dinner, at the Orpheum lobby. One of our group ordered a walleye sandwich. When he began to eat it, he started spitting out scales. He said there were quite a few, not just random scales. We urged him to say something to the waitress, which he eventually did.

When she came back, she seemed sort of irritated, and told us that the walleye was "skin on," so scales were normal. We were all doubtful, but decided to not argue the point, and my friend switched out his sandwich for a ruben.

After the waitress left, we debated this point for a bit, and I said, "I'll post it on Facebook, and see what the collective knowledge base thinks."

Indeed, no one thinks a walleye sandwich should have copious scales, skin on or not.

Word to the Orpheum: You need to clean the fish better, or get another supplier, if it is supposed to be ready to serve.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

B Cycle in Madison - Let's do it!

So, Madison is finally getting a bike sharing program. That is, as long as the deal with Trek (primary partner in B Cycle) and the City can actually get their deal through the Council tonight. It's a great deal for Madison, and also a great program in general. I'm not thrilled with how fast it is moving through the city process, in part because it makes people suspicious and doesn't leave enough time to properly get questions answered. But it really would be a shame if the program failed or didn't get approved.

Short car trips, like those that can easily replaced by using a bike sharing program, are very dirty, polluting trips. Cars don't really operate efficiently until they warmed up, and this can take around five minutes or five miles of driving. But most trips in the US are less than five miles. As a matter of fact, 40% of trips are two miles or less, a distance easily covered by bike. And our downtown and campus area are already crowded and not efficiently negotiated by car. Yet not everyone has a bike, or has it with them all the time. If it was easier to make some of these short trips without using a car, it would be good for our air and our roads would be less congested. And maybe you'd be able to find a parking spot closer to your destination.

So making bikes available to people that already have them at hand would help solve some of these urban issues.

Of course, I've been reading lots of news and blog posts on this subject, and many people have questions, misconceptions, or outright incorrect information. Below I'm going to try to get some of these answered, corrected, or debunked.

As to how this all came about, whether it should be rushed through, and whether proper city process was followed, I'm not going to comment. I really don't want to support the way this project is moving through the city process. It was poorly handled, and that's all I'm going to say as my feelings on that subject. I'm just hoping to provide some information as a person that thinks bike sharing is good in general, and has done more research on various bike sharing programs than the average person.

You can read two of my past posts on bike sharing in Madison – both what I felt were the barriers and a history of a different kind of bike sharing, at the links above.

First, there are a couple of places to go to get more information about the program in general and the specifics about the Madison proposal. The Pedestrian/Bicycle/Motor Vehicle Commission had a meeting last week where a representative from B Cycle, as well as a couple of city staff people came to present the program. You can watch the whole meeting at the link above. Most of the meeting was devoted to the B Cycle proposal, so you shouldn't have to search much to find that topic. Unfortunately, some incorrect or incomplete information came out via this meeting, and as chair, I was not able to answer the questions. (We also got kicked out of the room because the County had failed to put one of their meetings on the room schedule, and they own the room, so the discussion was cut short.)

You can also read the B Cycle FAQ sheet prepared for the Feb 1 Council meeting. It has answers from Trek/B Cycle. Some of the same questions are answered below, but I wanted to add more information or put the answers in my own words. If you want to see all the documents that the Council will see, you can access that item via Legistar, the city's legislative software. Just click the various links under “attachments.”

Why does the city provide space for a private business to use our public space? Why isn't Trek paying for use of the sidewalks, streets, parks, or other public space?

A bike sharing program is part of the transportation system of the city, just like private cars, delivery trucks, van pools, parking lots, buses, sidewalks, roads, paths, intercity buses, taxis, (in other cities) trains/light rail, and various other elements. Each of elements gets some subsidy from the city. Local roads are paid for almost entirely by local property taxes, and buses receive lots of property tax support as well, so those are obvious. But even the Parking Utility, which received all its revenues from user fees (parking fees), gets to use valuable land in our downtown without paying real value of that land. Can you imagine how much property taxes the city could generate if a 6-8 story condo or office building was built on any of the lots that now house our parking ramps?

Even taxi stands and intercity buses – both private, for-profit businesses – get special spots on the street for them to use. Bus loading zones and taxi stands could instead be revenue-generating parking spots, but we see it as in the interest of the city as a whole to provide spots for these businesses to operate on our public streets. Loading zones for delivery vehicles are the same model. These are private businesses, servicing other private businesses, and yet we reserve precious space on our streets to allow them to operate.

Why is the city giving any money to Trek/B Cycle to put this system in place? Why does it require a subsidy for a for-profit business?

The city provides many services that benefit private businesses. Besides the examples above, look at the subsidy that it provides to the Convention and Visitors' Bureau. We pay for them to market the city, because we figure the money will, come back to us in the form of more jobs, greater room tax, and increased property taxes. (Since the city doesn't collect income tax or sales tax, I've always wondered exactly how the hotel and restaurant jobs generated by business travel actually benefit the city financially, except that the city is generally a better place when more people are working.)

The city also has an economic development staff, again to help businesses in the city.

And let's not forget that providing parking via a city utility, even if it is supported by user fees, is a huge subsidy to the businesses – retail, residential developers, office developers, etc – that are located downtown. As noted above, the city could sell that land, allow the parking ramps to be torn down, and let the private market decide when and where parking would be available to different users. The private market could also set the price based on time of day, demand, or convenience. The city could get a one-time influx of money by selling the land, and then they could collect all those increased property taxes as well. But the decision has been made that providing a publicly run system of parking facilities is in the city's interest.

OK, but then why not allow a private company to run another type of transportation system using the public space? Like, maybe a bike sharing program.

How come there wasn't an RFP? Wouldn't other companies like to bud to offer the same product?

I admit, now we are getting into the process questions, but I can tell you what the official answer is, from the Mayor and City Attorney, based on the information Trek provided. B Cycle is the only company in the US (maybe the world, but I haven't checked) that not only provides the physical infrastructure – bikes, financial kiosks, parking/security for the bikes, etc – but also is offering to run the program, including maintaining the bikes, moving them around if too many get bunched up in one place – called “rebalancing,” taking care of the financial transactions, memberships, marketing, legal liability – in case someone sues because they fall off the bike, etc., data collection, and other parts of the operation of the system. In other cities, either the city, a non-profit, or a for-profit company actually operates the system, once it has been purchased from Trek.

I know something about bike sharing programs, and I believe it when city staff and Trek claim they are the only ones offering this whole package. There aren't many bike sharing providers in North America to begin with. Bixi operates in Montreal. Their home page doesn't seem to have anything about other locations, although according to this article, they also developed the systems in Minneapolis and Toronto. Smart Bikes operates in DC, as a partnership between the DC Department of Transportation and Clear Channel. Then there is B Cycle, which is the system in Denver, Des Moines, Louisville, San Antonio, and Ft. Lauderdale.

There are a few smaller programs being operated either on college campuses or private businesses with large corporate campuses. The bikes used are almost always heavy, specialized, utilitarian bikes, not your standard off the shelf model.

The truth is, except for Bixi and B Cycle, no one else is developing systems in multiple places. For an all-in-one, B Cycle is the only company, and Madison will be the first place they have run the system as well as developed it.

What about advertising?

The resolution states that all the bikes and kiosks must meet the current advertising regulations for the city. Several alder, most strenuously Alder Mike Verveer, have pointed out that Madison has been very strict about advertising in the downtown area. We don't have it in our bus shelters, and he has pledged to oppose it in this instance as well.

This will be interesting, because the model around the world has been that considerable revenue has been generated by the advertising on the bikes and the actual kiosks. Note above how the Washington, DC system is a partnership between the DC DOT and Clear Channel? Clear Channel is essentially underwriting the system in exchange for an exclusive advertising contract for not just the bike sharing system, but also the buses and bus shelters in DC.

Won't people that want to ride a bike just use their own?

Bike sharing programs are not aimed at people that bike to work/school anyway, they are aimed at people that don't have their bikes with them, but want to make a short trip. Examples of the potential market are:
  • State employee that take a van pool to work
  • People that take the bus to work
  • Carpoolers
  • Even drivers that want to make a short trip, but don't want to drive.
  • Regular bicyclists that for whatever reason don't have their bike with them.
  • Downtown dwellers that don't own a bike, but want to borrow one.

Where are these customers going, and why would they use a B Cycle?
  • To meet a friend or spouse at the Kohl Center for a basketball game. S/he may get to work with one mode, take the B Cycle to the Kohl Center, and then get a ride home.
  • Bike from the Capitol area to campus for a meeting. This is just a bit too far to walk, if you are pressed for time, but driving really isn't fast either, because of traffic and parking.
  • Run errands at lunch or after work, or get to lunch by bike.
  • Go to meetings within a couple of miles. Biking is often faster than driving, and definitely faster than the bus or walking.
  • Visitors that come to Madison without a car, or just want to bike somewhere. The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that 20% of visitors don't have a car while in Madison.
  • Get somewhere when the buses aren't running frequently. Weekends, holidays, evening it might be 30-60 minutes between buses, but the bike is there for that trip to Willy St.

Other information: It's a great deal!

These systems generally cost well over $1 million to get up and running, and then possibly over a million dollars each year in operations. As with any other business, it takes awhile to not only work out all the bugs, but to also get the program on firm financial ground. Trek is offering this system, fully installed, operational, and maintained, for a pretty small financial commitment. It's a huge gift that is requiring very little on the part of the city. Think of the $810 million train that got thrown away by our governor, and how stupid that looked. It's that sort of deal for the city.

Why would Trek do this? Well, part of it really is a belief in Madison and a desire to make their (sort of) hometown as great as it can be. Trek believes in biking, and they want Madison to be a showcase for how biking can benefit a city.

But there is something in this for Trek as well, besides good PR. Trek holds a bike show/convention in Madison every year – Trek World. All the other bike companies, associated businesses, suppliers, and dealers go to a different show in Las Vegas, but Trek has their own show at Monona Terrace. I'm assuming that Trek would like to show off this system to other cities, advocates, dealers, and others right on their home turf. This system is a rolling, operational advertisement for one of their divisions. Since they have never been the operator, as well as the developer of this program, Madison will be the test case.

That's cool, I have no problem with Trek using Madison to show off their best ideas. It's good for the city, and it's good for Trek. Doesn't everyone want a win-win?