Friday, December 21, 2012

Thanks for clearing your sidewalk!

First, thanks to all who promptly cleared their sidewalks. I know how hard it can be, as my back will attest after going through 3 rounds of manual snow/ice removal in the last 24 hours, including removing the ice wall in front of my driveway this morning. (Not only do I not own a snow-blower, but without a garage, I'm not sure where I'd put one.)

One of the local business
that didn't clear their walk,

even though they managed
to fully clear their parking lot.
I am frankly stunned that some of the commercial properties - in front of apartment buildings and stores - are so poorly cleared. Since the stores are open for business and people are coming and going from the apartments, I know it's not a case of no one being able to physically get to the location.

City ordinance requires that sidewalks be cleared within 24 hours of the end of the storm. If you can't get all the ice off, the city expects that salt/sand be applied. 

I am very happy that we have this ordinance, because not everyone is physically capable of navigating snow banks, icy sidewalks, or narrow paths stamped down only by others' feet. A few years ago there was a news story about a student at the UW who was trying to get to classes but couldn't because he was in w wheelchair, and the sidewalk between his apartment and the corner had not been cleared. Not only that, he couldn't even get to a bus stop because the curb cuts at the corners had not been cleared. Even people with poor balance or less sure footing in general often can't navigate an uncleared sidewalk or blocked curb cut.

My neighbors shoveled.
Walking is not just an enjoyable activity, it is an integral part of our transportation system. Every trip begins and ends with walking, and walking is certainly safer than driving when the roads are still not completely cleared. And when the buses are up and running again, we will all need to walk to get to and from the bus. (And again, riding the bus is both safer for the individual, but also keeps lots of cars off the roads, thereby making icy roads safer for others as well.)

One of the other nice features of living in Madison is that there are locations around the city with sand piles (mixed with salt, which both keeps the salt from freezing into a solid mass and helps melt snow/ice.) This is free of the taking for use on your sidewalk, stairs, or driveway. I have used perhaps one bag of salt in 20 years of home ownership. I use the sand from the city instead. The darker color of the sand also helps the sun take care of the final melting.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Convention cities worried about traffic. Umm.. transit?

Here's an article about worried people are about the traffic snarls and delays getting to work that will be caused by the Democratic and Republican conventions in Charlotte, NC and Tampa, FL. They do mention working from home, but really, not one mention in three pages of transit?

I know there's a transit system in Tampa. At least there is a regional system And look, they even have information about the GOP convention. However, when I clicked on the link for the System Map (local) link I get a Page Not Found message. Not really helpful.

Charlotte has transit too. They even put out a press release about service during the DNC. I'm not overwhelmed by their website, but at least you know it exists.

Maybe they should tell the folks at the paper that this would be a great time for locals to try it out instead of focusing on how bad the traffic is.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Transportation articles roundup - not just bikes

More articles with a few comments, OK, sometimes quite a bit of commentary.

The Atlantic Cities ran an article titled, Why Cyclists Run Red Lights. I'm not entirely sure the research conclusions for Australia are valid here in the U.S., but at least someone is doing the research.

And the above article also refers to the NY Times article, If Kant Were a New York Cyclist. This article ponders the ethics - not the legality - of running red lights. A nice quote sums up the feelings of many bicyclists with regard to traffic laws:
Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable. There aren’t enough cops to coerce everyone into obeying every law all the time. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.

The Guardian (UK) suggests that demonstrating cycling proficiency be a requirement to get a driver's licence. In general, I think that getting a driver's licence in the U.S. us far too easy. In many countries it is hard and expensive to get a driver's licence and easy to lose it. People take it seriously. It's more like getting a professional certification. Unfortunately, many people in the U.S. consider driving a right instead of a privilege. We require a licence because operating a motor vehicle is dangerous to yourself and others. Maybe if we made it harder to drive we could cut down on the 33,000 people every year that die in motor vehicle crashes.

A New York Times transportation reporter writes about learning to ride a bike for the first time - as an adult. He talks about how he felt he needed to learn for professional reasons. Bicycling has become a controversial and popular topic over the last few years, and he thought he needed to know first-hand how it felt to ride through the streets.

From the other side, a couple years ago I taught an adult (OK an 18-year-old) how to ride a bike for the first time. I didn't write about it at the time because I didn't want to embarrass her, but it was thrilling for both of us when she started pedaling around the streets for the first time.

And make sure to read the comments on the NY Times article. Over 200 so far. Although some complain about rude bicyclists on city streets, a great many talk about the joys of learning to ride as an adult. To many of us who ride, a bicycle gives a certain type of freedom of movement and a feeling close to flying. Seeing someone experience this, or hearing them describe that joy and freedom almost brings tears to my eyes.

Frustrations of air travel push passengers to Amtrak. The NY Times article title says it all. And it makes me want to weep, or maybe throw something, that we also had the chance to have rail service to Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago, and is was all thrown away due to short-sighted thinking and allegiance to the road builders.

The article is about the NE Corridor, the most popular and only profitable service for Amtrak, but I've been seeing enough other articles about pending rail service - run as for-profit companies no less - to make me think rail travel is on the verge of a resurgence. After all, you can work on the train without being told to turn off your phone, computer, or music.

More articles about rail service coming back, and it's sometimes a bit surprising where people have redeveloped an interest in trains:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

To the guy in the white Lexus hybrid SUV

Scene: Today, Saturday, August 4, 2012, approx 11:15 am. Westside Farmers Market (DOT parking lot).

I had parked next to the above mentioned white Lexus hybrid SUV. When I parked, I noticed that the engine was running, and a woman was sitting in the passenger seat looking bored, maybe slightly irritated, and definitely not smiling. I sort of wondered why she had to run the engine, contributing to the air quality problems on a hot summer day. (Last night there was an air quality alert.)

But I didn't say anything and went off to to my shopping.

When I returned, I was just opening the door to get into the car when a man, apparently the driver of the SUV, called out, “Whoa! Careful there.” I looked down, and my door was nowhere near his car. I had opened the door slowly and carefully. I nodded to him, indicating that I saw his car and was being careful.

SUV guy: “Well, it's a $63,000 car. Don't want it to get scratched.”

Me, silently, in my head: [Well, aren't you special. If you really wanted to be sure no one would get near your car, you could have parked it on the other side of the lot where no one would park near you, but you couldn't be bothered to walk a few dozen extra feet.]

Me, out loud, but still calmly and politely: “Don't worry, I'm not going to ding your car. But since we are having a conversation, you should know that there is a 15 minute idling ordinance in the City of Madison.”

SUV guy, sarcastically: "Oh, well, thanks for letting me know."

SUV guy, under his breath, as he gets into the car: “Yeah, and you can stick that....”

Me, through the rolled up window: “Oh, thanks for that comment too.”

We both smile insincerely at each other and give each other a thumbs up as he drives off, obviously both thinking we'd both rather be using another finger.

[end scene]

Seriously, I didn't do anything except try to get in my car, and this self-important jerk starts blustering about his expensive car.

So if anyone knows someone that fits that description, tell him he's a real piece of work. And tell him his behavior and concern for his status symbol car is indicative of someone trying to compensate for, umm, shall we say “shortcomings.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bicycle news stories round-up - Late July 2012

I haven't been blogging much, but I've been writing a lot at work. Instead of something profound (as if my stuff is ever "profound"...), maybe I can just share a few things I run across. I'll also try to write more, but in the meantime...

I'm going to try to post a few interesting stories about bicycling each week or two. Few comments, but mostly links to the articles.

Madison PD expands bike-cop program. New bikes, more cops on bikes. The program as been very popular with both the officers and the public.

The Atlantic Cities examines how bicyclists can sometimes be the bad guys. Although some pedestrians are quick to complain about bicyclists being rude, generally pedestrians and bicyclists are allies.

Walking and Biking Pay Off. The final reports are in, and an article for Federal Highways looks at the four Non-Motorized Pilot Transportation projects - one in Sheboygan.

Have you ever been accused of hating cars? Or heard people say the city is waging a war on cars? NPR examines this claim. And unless you think that this is a new argument, they look at the history of the American relationship with the car, one that has not always been loving.

Bike sharing helps transit systems bridge the "last mile." A good article in Mass Transit magazine explains that bike sharing can enhance a transit system by allowing customers to get from the bus or rail stop to their final destination quickly and easily. Chicago received money to get a bike sharing program off the ground from TIGER III funding by pointing out that the program will complement and improve access to the transit system. But as the Mass Transit article points out, the Federal Transit Administration won't fund the infrastructure for bike sharing, although the Federal Highway Administration will. And both the physical and political environment in a city must be friendly for bike sharing to work.

New York's huge bike share program is still on hold, and people are wondering what is holding it up. Even elected officials say the silence about the delay is disconcerting.

From Boston comes this blog post about why we should pay people to bike to work. What the post really argues is that "parking cash-out" should be more common.

A study from Florida shows that using "sharrows" on roads without bike lanes, but which have on-street parking, decreases the percentage of bicyclists riding in the "door zone," that is the area where they could be hit by a car door if someone opens it into traffic. Unfortunately, the percentage decrease only went from 71 percent to 55 percent, meaning that more than half the bicyclists still are at risk. Maybe they need more bicycle education. Florida isn't known as the safest place to ride or walk, and bicyclists are probably not all that confident that they won't get hit anyway.

Madison installed a HAWK signal - otherwise known as a pedestrian beacon at Blair St on the E. Mifflin bike boulevard. This signal is supposed to help bicyclists and pedestrians cross Blair while not encouraging additional motor vehicle traffic on Mifflin. Some recent research shows that these types of signals are effective in reducing pedestrian crashes.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Keeping older people mobile shouldn't just involve wider roads and bigger signs

This is a theme in transportation policy: If people are driving off the road or otherwise having crashes, the obvious solution is to make the road more "forgiving," that is make it easier to drive faster and without paying attention. The solution isn't to make people drive slower or be more alert; it's an engineering problem, not a human problem.

Talk about enabling bad behavior. How would the tough-love people feel about fixing the problem of irresponsibility in other areas of our lives by making sure there aren't harsh consequences? I'd love to hear this in a debate among conservatives.

Here's another example, a report on "Keeping Baby Boomers Mobile: Preserving Mobility and Safety for Older Americans."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What do you mean you don't have guest bike parking?

Today I am at the Wisconsin Bike Summit, being held at Inn on the Park in Madison. Since the weather and outlook was a typically late-winter mix of precipitation - a bit of wet snow, and maybe rain and/or snow later - I thought it would be best to try to find sheltered bike parking, if possible. My bike has weathered many years of abuse, but I'd rather not have a wet ride when I get ready to leave.

The Inn on the Park has valet car parking, so as I rolled up, I thought I'd ask if they had indoor or covered bike parking as well. After all, the Concourse, just a couple blocks away, has bike racks in their garage, and they have provided a separate bike room for storage for some conferences.

Alas, they looked at me as if I had two heads when I asked about sheltered bike parking. So I parked at the side of the building and covered my seat with the plastic bag I keep stashed under my seat.

Now, being a local, I was pretty sure that there was no covered bike parking at Inn on the Park. I also know where to find covered bike parking within a couple of blocks, but I was late for my meeting, so was hoping that some accommodations were made for the Bike Summit and the anticipated large number of people arriving by bike today.

I also wanted to make a point as a customer, and this is really the lesson from this blog post. People who drive are quick to tell businesses if they find it difficult or inconvenient to park. Ask almost any business, and they will be glad to tell you how important [car] parking is to their customers. No conference hotel would dismiss the [car] parking concerns of their customers. Yet I was being sent out into wet weather to fend for myself with my vehicle.

Bicyclists need to be more vocal about their needs as well. Accommodating bicycle parking needs is relatively simple and inexpensive. Yet we as bicyclists meekly accept locking up to a sign post, overcrowded rack, or in the rain. We as customers need to ask for safe and convenient bicycle parking.

I'm not suggesting being mean or indignant, just asking, "Excuse me, could you tell me where I can park my bike?" And if you get a blank stare, or if the bicycle parking is not serving your needs, drop a note to the management suggesting how they can better provide for bicyclists. After all, you are a customer too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Are parking requirements holding up infill development?

No, not city zoning requirements. In Madison, there are no (car) parking requirements in the downtown area. If someone wants to build an apartment building or offices with no parking, they are free to do so.

But I heard a strange story last week, and this article echoes the same problem. A woman wanted to open a store on the Capital Square, but couldn't get a business loan. Why not? Because she had no parking. She wasn't worried about it. There are parking ramps quite close, and thousands of people would pass by her store by bus, foot, or bike every day. But the bank wouldn't give her a loan. No parking, no loan.

But as soon as the city turned the outer lane of the Square into a parking lane, viola! she got her loan. Doesn't matter how the majority of her customers got the the store. Doesn't matter that people get on and off the bus yards away. Doesn't matter if 10,000 people walk by during the Farmers' Market, or bike by as they come and go during the week. No parking in front, no loan.

What this means is that walkable, bikeable, transit friendly areas of the city are being penalized for being accessible and not car-oriented. If one small store couldn't get a loan, think what the restrictions would be for a larger building! [For more on how urban, mixed-use development is being screwed by federal loan rules, see this recent Forbes article.]

Now, most developers of larger buildings will build parking anyway, regardless of how expensive it is, because they think they can't rent out their space - residential, retail, or commercial - without parking on site. But if a brave soul decided that downtown Madison already had enough parking, and more office (or retail, or residential) space was a better thing to build than parking, they would be shut out of loans.

How crazy is that?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Yes, you can ride the bus, even if you live way outside the city.

Just because there isn't bus service to your home doesn't mean you can't arrive at work by bus.

This morning brought another conversation about driving, parking, costs, buses, and the possibility that transit and driving could be combined to save some money. It doesn't really matter what the details of the situation were today, because the conversation followed a familiar path. I've has variations on the same conversation dozens of times. This particular one occurred as a woman was trying to renew her parking permit on the UW campus.

Woman complaining about parking costs: It's so expensive. Parking should be free. Nobody else charges employees to park!

Me: [After pointing out that the UW Transportation Services gets no state funding, and has to somehow raise revenue to provide the parking she wishes were free. And that actually, many places charge for parking. Some employers in Madison don't provide any options other than parking in the public ramps, so that costs way more than the spots at UW.] Why don't you take the bus? Then you wouldn't have to pay for parking at all?

Woman: I live in [outlying community about 20 miles away], so I can't take the bus.

Me: Well, you could drive into an area in Madison with good bus service, and then take the bus from there. Just park on the street. Lot's of people do it. No cost for the parking, and then the UW provides the bus pass for you as well.

Woman: It takes too long.

Me: Actually, it's only about fifteen minutes from Hilldale. There are a bunch of buses that go from there right to the campus.

Woman: Well, what if my kids get sick? I have to have my car.

Me: The UW provides an emergency ride home. If your kids get sick, you can take get a ride to where you parked the car, and then drive from there.

Woman: I wish they told us that.

Me: They do. They send out an email every semester to all employees outlining the options other than driving alone and parking.

Woman: Well, I didn't see it.

Me: OK, well, now you know. It's just one option to save some money.

It doesn't matter what community this woman lives in, or whether she works at the UW or somewhere else, except that the UW has done an excellent job of providing information to all employees on how to get to and from work without driving. This woman gets all sorts of emails on this subject, and probably has seen posters at her office, received mailings, and even heard people talk about the bus pass program, but she rejected it for two reasons:
1. She knows there's no bus in her community, so she assumes that a bus is not an option for arriving at work, never considering the possibility that she could take the bus part way and avoid that pesky parking fee.
2. She's never taken a bus in her life, and it scares her to think about taking a bus.

OK, I'm speculating on that second point. But Madison is just small enough that there are a lot of people that still view buses as for poor people, brown people [oh, the horrors!], students, and crazy environmentalists. Buses are urban things, and she lives in a rural community. She wouldn't have the first idea how to find the correct bus, and she has no intention of finding out how to use the system.

So she'll continue to complain about the cost of parking. But maybe, just maybe, one day she will try riding the bus, just to prove that it won't work for her, and she'll find out it's actually pretty easy. Then she'll think about all the money she could save by giving up her parking spot, or getting flex parking, and maybe another multimodal commuter will be born.

And by the way, the City of Madison can also help you find ways to avoid driving (and parking) every day. So you don't have to be a UW employee to get that emergency ride home. But if you happen to be a UW employee, and don't already know about the services they provide, check out the Commuter Solutions page. It's great information for anyone in Madison.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lack of action on federal transportation bill actually benefits bike-ped projects

Not everywhere, of course, but Sheboygan County and Minneapolis, as well as Marin County, CA, and Columbia, MO, have gotten far more money than they could have every imagined. And the money just keeps coming.


Because those four communities: one rural county (Sheboygan), one suburban county (Marin), one small city (Columbia), and one large city (Minneapolis) each got $25 million in the last five-year transportation bill under the Non-Motorized Pilot Program. That's $5 million per year for the life of the SAFETEA-LU bill. The goal was to see if a massive influx of funding could change the mode share and significantly improve walking and biking.

But every time Congress fails to pass a new transportation bill, they pass a "continuing resolution", that keeps money flowing to the same programs, in the same amounts, for another chunk of time. We are now 835 days past due for a new transportation bill. Yes, over two years. That means that each of the communities listed above have had another $10 million handed to them to keep trying to change their local transportation system towards being more pedestrian and bicycle friendly!

To see how they have done, you can click around on the NMPP site, but much of the information is not up to date, and many of the changes in behavior and mode split may not be apparent for a few more years. After all, some of the trails, bridges, and other infrastructure aren't even finished yet. And educational and encouragement programs are just starting to have an effect.

For us here in Wisconsin, Sheboygan County was definitely starting the farthest back, as far as being pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. They had to start almost from zero on their planning efforts and educational programs. The other had already done some of the work, and just needed the money to make their bike-ped dreams a reality.

We often read about how great Minneapolis is for bicycling. It was rated # 1 by Bicycling Magazine, and is #2 among the top 50 largest cities in the percent of work trips by bike. [Note that Madison beats Minneapolis, and ties with Portland, OR, but is not among the top 50 largest cities.] They have worked really hard, and I don't want to take anything away from the advocates, planners, engineers, elected officials, and everyone else that is working on making Minneapolis bike-friendly. But having $35 million (and still coming) drop on you helps a lot as well!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The most dangerous consumer product in the US

This AZ press release makes some very good points about driving and road safety. As I am fond of saying, "If any other consumer product had this sort of safety record, it would be pulled from the market within a week."

When I say things like that, people point out that the majority of Americans either drive or ride in a car every day, so it's not surprising that we have a few deaths. OK, let's look at this another way. What if 30,000+ people were killed every year using a computer, or a credit card? Those are some pretty mundane task that tens of millions - maybe more than a hundred million - of people use every day. Would we accept someone using a computer dying every 15 minutes? Would we accept 30,000+ people dying from turning on the lights in their homes or making coffee?

Why is it acceptable to lose this many people every year by motor vehicle? Especially when the majority of those deaths could be easily prevented by making sure that people take driving seriously. No, you can't talk on the phone. No, you can't drink alcohol. No, you can't go over the speed limit. Not OK. A motor vehicle is a large, complex, dangerous machine, which is why we require people to have a license to operate one.

In many countries of the world, getting a driver's license is hard and expensive. And losing one is easy. In some European countries, you can lose your license for a year if you get your first DUI, and if you get three, ever, you will never be issued a license again, for the rest of your life.

Yes, we make it easy to get a driver's license, and hard to lose it, in this country because most people have no other way to get around, if they can't drive. Children can't get to school, unless their parents drive them. People wouldn't be able to work, shop, visit friends and relatives, see the doctor, or otherwise do normal activities. Of course, 30% of the US population doesn't drive, but they are considered some sort of freaks, those too young, too old, too cheap, too frail, or too environmentally conscious to drive or own a car.

But we need to rethink this whole transportation thing. People shouldn't be trapped in their cars to live, work, and move about. It's too expensive - for both individuals and taxpayers, too unsustainable - in so many ways, and yes, too dangerous to have everyone doing it.

My mantra: "Driving should be a choice, not a requirement."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Transit funding crisis: Maybe we should treat city services the same way

Transit services across the country are facing painful questions regarding service cuts vs. fare hikes, as shown by this interactive feature at Transportation for America. Which is worse?

Fare hikes often hit the poor and transit-dependent* very hard. A fare hike from $1.50 to $2.00 might as well be a change in gas prices from $3.00 to $4.00, plus a hike in registration, insurance, and parking. Each represents a 33% hike in transportation costs.

But service cuts also hit these groups as well. They may need to ride the bus at odd hours or access locations that are not on core routes+. Transit dependent people may not be able to get to work, the doctor, shopping, or to visit family and friends unless there is service when and where they need to go. If the bus isn't running, they often have no alternative.

So when faced with limited funds, do you put them into service that benefits the greatest number of riders? That would likely be the core routes during commuter hours: Buses that run into downtown in the morning and out of downtown in the evening. Or do you continue to provide what is known in the industry as "lifeline service?" That would be buses that run to areas of the city with no other transit service, but also may have low-income populations, jobs, and services that people need. If you cut that off, those areas are then off limits to anyone without a car, or a sturdy set of legs to bike or walk.

An article today outlined that debate going on in Boston, but the article could have been written about almost any city in the country.

So I started thinking about how we decide who gets transit service. In Madison, there are plenty of areas of the city that do not have transit service, usually on the edge of town where there aren't many people (yet.) Metro doesn't have the money to extend transit service to these areas, so everyone that lives, works, or shops there generally has to travel in and out of the neighborhood by car.

I believe that transit is a core city service, and maybe we shouldn't be building in areas where we can't provide transit service. We pick up trash and leaves, even though there are very few people there. I can assure you that people would scream bloody murder if their streets weren't plowed. It's expensive to provide services in areas where there isn't much density. you have to drive all those city vehicles up and down the street for only a handful of people, instead of serving hundreds of people that live along the same length of street in my neighborhood.

And then I head people complaining that they see buses with almost no one on them. Yeah? Well, I see lots of streets with almost no one on them as well. Those streets get plowed, fixed, serviced by the city.

Maybe we can save some money by just not providing services to those areas of the city with a population density of less than X units per acre. Pick a number. Or a traffic volume. "We don't really need to plow that street, there aren't that many people living there anyway, and money is tight." Or maybe, "I'm sorry folks, you will have to carry your trash, recycling, brush and leaves to a main street, because it's just not efficient to have the truck come down your street for so few people." After all, they all have cars anyway, they can put all that stuff in the back of the car for a few blocks to save all the taxpayers of the city some money.

Transit dependent is a term for those without any other way to get around - the elderly, children, people with disabilities, and those who simply can't afford a car. The opposite group would be "choice riders," who can chose to use transit or some other option, such as driving.

+ Core routes are those that serve the downtown, major destinations, major corridors, etc. They often run evenings, weekends, holidays, and have frequent service.