Sunday, October 24, 2010

'A citadel of bigotry and Babbitry'

My furlough week (no work, no pay) begins in a few hours, during which I'm not allowed to do anything that smacks of Observer work, so no Naked City postings (or comments moderated) until Monday Nov. 1. In other words, don't think I'm ignoring you because I don't like you. I'm ignoring you because federal law says I must.

Until then, have fun with this item from former Observer Forum editor Lew Powell, who's staying busy in retirement posting interesting tidbits from N.C. history at North Carolina Miscellany, a blog offered by the North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill's Wilson Library. Here's a great bit, "The Making of 'The Mind of the South,' " which includes a paragraph describing Charlotte that may sound familiar to many of you, even today. It was delivered by former Observer editorial page editor Ed Williams, and it refers to the writings of W.J. Cash, in H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine:

“Other articles in the Mercury would follow, including an indignant portrayal of Charlotte as a citadel of bigotry and Babbitry, besotted by Presbyterianism and in love with Duke Power Co., a city where life for many consisted of ‘a dreary ritual of the office, golf and the church’ that is ‘unbearably dull even for Presbyterians.’

If you explore the site you'll find a fabulous photo of Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in their bathrobes, waving to a crowd from a train car in Salisbury in 1952.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

This time, Atlanta gets streetcar bucks

The news emerged last week, and official word came today. Atlanta won a $47 million U.S. DOT grant to help it build a proposed $72 million streetcar line. Here's a link to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article with details. Salt Lake City also won a streetcar grant, for $26 million, and Los Angeles won $20 million for its Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic offers an analysis here. He notes that of the $600 million total in these so-called TIGER II grants most went to small-scale projects in small and mid-size cities for street improvements, building transit centers, and rehabilitating freight lines. Here's a link to the USDOT site where you can find the list of capital project grants and the list of planning grants.

Asheville won an $850,000 planning grant for its East Riverside Sustainable Multimodal Neighborhood plan. The project will "integrate existing master plans and revise codes and regulations (emphasis mine) to create sustainable development." For a bit more information, see Page 22 of the link for planning grants.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Lewis Mumford

John Clark (the longtime WDAV general manager and local arts leader who decamped in 2007 to Asheville but recently returned to Charlotte) sends along this reminder that Oct. 19 is the birthdate of Lewis Mumford, the New York-based writer on cities, born 1895, died in 1990.

Here are some of Mumford's observations:

• A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.

• Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.

• It has not been for nothing that the word has remained man's principal toy and tool: without the meanings and values it sustains, all man's other tools would be worthless.

• The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind.

• Without fullness of experience, length of days is nothing. When fullness of life has been achieved, shortness of days is nothing. That is perhaps why the young have usually so little fear of death; they live by intensities that the elderly have forgotten.

• A man of courage never needs weapons, but he may need bail.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

CATS wants input; more of us recycle; read about a great NC street

(I'm cleaning out the old email inbox today)

CATS wants your ideas. The Charlotte Area Transit System is holding a series of forums this week and next to help it formulate ways to improve its bus service in Mecklenburg County and the region. Two meetings are tonight, 6-7:30 p.m., one at North Regional Library and one at Independence Regional Library. (Maybe if you live near there you can zip on down there tonight.) Thursday one will be at Arbor Glen Outreach Center (1520 Clanton Road). The last will be at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Oct. 21 (next Thursday).

Recycling Rises: The City of Charlotte today sent word that recycling has risen since the debut of the green roll out bins. On any given day, approximately 53 percent of all households are setting recyclables out for collection. That compares to only 42 percent during a study in October 2009.

Also, the city reports collecting 37 percent pounds more recycling in August compared to August 2009, and 22 percent more in July compared to July 2009 (3,177 and 2,599 respectively); however, there was a 37% increase in tonnage collected in August 2010 when compared to August 2009 (3,338 and 2,426 respectively).

Still can't remember which week is your recycling week, now that it's collected only every other week? If so, you are not alone. Visit this web site for all kinds of useful information on recycling. Go to the GeoPortal where there's a bunch of interesting information, plug in your address and check on "services." You'll either be a "green" or "orange." Then visit here to see the calendar in color, or here for a black and white, printer-friendly version. We have a copy posted on the fridge. Or you can call 311. If you have the time to sit on hold ...

Great Street: We all know North Carolina has some of the world's great places, but the American Planning Association this year has dubbed New Bern's Middle Street one of its Great Places for 2010. Here's what the APA writes: "From a scenic waterfront to historic architecture, Middle Street encapsulates everything that makes New Bern special. The town's rich history — including colonial, Civil War, and early 20th century — is embodied in the street's beautifully restored homes, five churches, the early 20th century Blades Mansion, and vibrant commercial district. Access to the Trent River is just steps away. At the same time, the street is a cornerstone for the city as it works to reinvigorate its economy by capitalizing on its two greatest assets: its history and waterfront."

In 2009 Main Street in Greenville, S.C., won a similar honor.

Big Sweep Swept Up Big Trash: During Charlotte-Mecklenburg's annual creek- and lake-cleanup on Oct. 2, more than 500 people helped dredge up more than 8 tons of trash, mostly bottles, cans, food wrappers and other litter. They removed 707 bags of garbage and 27 tires. Also found:

• A dog house,
• A baby training
• A giant candy cane yard decoration.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

NY writer likes us! He really likes us!

Krista Terrell of the Arts & Science Council just sent along a note revealing that the New York Times' Frugal Traveler, Seth Kugel, spent a few days in Charlotte and blogs about it, "Making Pit Stops in Charlotte."

While he wrote a lot about the NASCAR Hall of Fame and that he enjoyed his visit there despite not being a NASCAR fan, he also praises the ASC's new public art tour and podcast, which is why Terrell was interested in sharing.

Here's Kugel's remark about NASCAR: "I know that Nascar is awesome in the same way I know that cricket and Tolstoy novels and contemporary dance are awesome. I personally can’t see the appeal, but enough reasonable people disagree with me that I believe in their awesomeness."

He's not exactly kind to the city's image elsewhere, though (the bold-facing here is mine): "The city — which has experienced rapid growth (with a population of over 700,000, double what it was in the mid-1980s) and at the same time maintained a relative lack of identity (banking center and airline hub, total snoozer) — intrigued me. Something had to be going on there, and I would find out what it was."

Here's Kugel's take on the public art tour:
"Uptown is one of those clean areas that people from grittier cities may at first perceive as sanitized and devoid of character, but the podcast will go a long way to dispel that, pointing out many works of public art, including the four statues that stand at the four corners of Trade and Tryon Streets. (Don’t miss the very odd bust of Alan Greenspan in the statue representing “Commerce”.)"

I wrote about the public art tour in a September op-ed, "The art of a city: more than mosaics."

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Transit, taxes and Tampa

This one is for transit and tax-policy wonks. It's a piece from Yonah Freemark, in The Transport Politic, about the problems many transit systems are facing with sinking revenues. "When the recession strikes, little maneuvering room for transit" He points out that one reason for the problem is over-reliance on a very volatile revenue stream: sales taxes.

Most cities have been especially affected by the recession because of their reliance on the sales tax to provide revenue. Of the recent referendums on transit expansion programs, almost all have involved a 1/2 cent or one cent increase in that tax; few cities have looked to other forms of revenue, like an income tax or a payroll tax. The consequences of this decision, however, have been devastating because sales tax revenues have fallen considerably as a result of the recession and the reduced standard of living experienced by the majority of Americans over the past few years. A more stable financing program for transit, using other forms of taxation, would ensure that planned projects actually get built.

If you want to get deep in the weeds of transit finance, follow the link on "financing program for transit," above. I haven't read it all the way through yet, but it looks at the New York and Paris transit systems and how they get and spend their money.

In other transit-related news, here's a piece about Charlotte that ran Sunday in Tampa, Fla., where voters next month will decide on – you guessed it, a sales tax – to pay for transit as well as roads and other transportation needs.

And here's a fun contrarian piece from the Market Urbanism blog, "The Great American Streetcar Myth," by Stephen Smith, who contends it wasn't General Motors and Standard Oil who killed off streetcars as much as the Progressive Era and New Deal planners and politicians. Fare-increase restrictions, labor union requirements, publicly paid street-paving and road-building all combined to finish off streetcars, he writes. It's an interesting perspective. Smith also points out:

"While the status quo’s more libertarian-minded backers will point to the gas tax as a user fee, the highway funds are hardly adequate to cover the true costs. Though state and federal governments do now cover most of the capital and operating costs of the highways, local roads are still paid for almost entirely out of general revenues. And when you consider the forgone taxes and opportunity costs, roads start to look severely underpriced – to say nothing of the last hundred years of subsidized road building (the mainstay of FDR’s WPA), eminent domain, anti-urban federal home tax breaks and lending programs, positive feedback loops, and density-limiting zoning and parking policies."

Monday, October 04, 2010

Looking at congestion a different way

A new report on urban traffic skewers methods used by the widely quoted Texas Transportation Institute. In traffic circles, this is huge. The TTI's Urban Mobility Report is frequently used by cities to justify huge expenditures for wider streets and intersections. But it is deeply flawed, says a new report, "Driven Apart," from the nonprofit group CEOs for Cities. It doesn't consider that in some cities you don't have to drive as far as in other cities. The more compact cities, where you don't have to spend as much time in traffic, actually can end up looking more congested, because of the TTI's formulas.
Follow the links above to read the report.

Also, Streetsblog New York City has a good, readable analysis of it here. It opens this way:

Imagine two drivers leaving downtown to head home. Each of them sits in traffic for the first ten miles of the commute but at that point, their paths diverge. The first one has reached home. The second has another twenty miles to drive, though luckily for her, the roads are clear and congestion doesn’t slow her down. Who’s got a better commute?
Shockingly, the standard method for measuring traffic congestion implies that the second driver has it better. The Texas Transportation Institute’s
Urban Mobility Report (UMR) only studies how congestion slows down drivers from hypothetical maximum speeds, completely ignoring how long it takes to actually get where you’re going. The result is an incessant call for more highway lanes from newspapers across the country.

"Driven Apart" shows how the key tool contained in the Urban Mobility Report – the Travel Time Index – penalizes cities with shorter travel distances and conceals the additional burden caused by longer trips in sprawling metropolitan areas. It also looks at the reliability and usefulness of the methodology used in the UMR and finds it doesn't accurately estimate travel speeds, exaggerates travel delays and overestimates the fuel consumption associated with urban travel.

The report essentially makes the point that longer commutes are the main cause of time in traffic, not congestion per se.

"In the best performing cities – those that have achieved the shortest peak hour travel distances – such as Chicago, Portland and Sacramento, the typical traveler spends 40 fewer hours per year in peak hour travel than the average American. In contrast, in the most sprawling metropolitan areas, such as Nashville, Indianapolis and Raleigh, the average resident spends as much as 240 hours per year in peak period travel because travel distances are so much greater. These data suggest that reducing average trip lengths is a key to reducing the burden of peak period travel. Over the past two decades, for example, Portland, Oregon, which has smart land use planning and has invested in alternative transportation, has seen its average trip lengths decline by 20 percent."

If you want to see the chart showing all the metro areas studied, see page 7 of this link.

On page 10 of that link is a section showing why the report's authors say the Texas Transportation Institute's Travel Time Index (the TTI's TTI?) is flawed. The index is the ratio of average peak hour travel times to average free flow travel times. Here's what it says, using Charlotte and Chicago as examples:

"Chicago has a TTI of 1.43 (the second highest overall, behind only Los Angeles), while Charlotte has a TTI of 1.25 (just about equal to the average for all large metropolitan areas). This would appear to indicate that urban travel conditions are far worse in Chicago. But the traffic delays in the two regions are almost identical (40 and 41 hours per year, or about 10 minutes per day). Chicago has average travel distances (for peak hour trips) of 13.5 miles, while Charlotte has average travel distances of 19 miles. Because they travel nearly 50 percent farther then their counterparts in Chicago, Charlotte travelers end up spending a lot more time in traffic, about 48 minutes per day, rather than 33 minutes per day."

But the TTI makes it look as if drivers in Chicago have it worse. But if you look at hours spent in traffic they have it much better. The gives a flawed view of reality, the report says.

In sum, says the report:
"The Urban Mobility Report’s key measure – the Travel Time Index – is a poor guide to policy, and its speed and fuel economy estimates are flawed. In the aggregate, the analysis appears to overstate the costs of traffic congestion three-fold and ignores the larger transportation costs associated with sprawl."

It points out, for example, "There are strong reasons to doubt the UMR claim that slower speeds associated with congestion wastes billions of gallons of fuel. The UMR estimates of fuel consumption are based on a 29-year-old study of low-speed driving using 1970s era General Motors cars, which is of questionable applicability to today’s vehicles and to highway speeds."

Photo caption: Raleigh-Cary traffic, from photographer Shawn Rocco, [Raleigh] News & Observer