Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A thumb in Newsweek's eye (and Scott Walker's too)

If you are more interested in urban wildlife and in a creative in-your-face video response to a newsmagazine insult than you are in transportation policy, you may skip directly to the end of this collection of links.

Rails No, Roads Yes Part: Remember Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker? He's the one who became the hero/villain for, among other things, turning away $800 million in federal funds for a high-speed passenger rail project because it would have required the state to spend up to $8 million in yearly operating subsidies. Just to make sure that voters get the point that he believes Rail Bad-Roads Good, he has since proposed four dubious new highway projects that could end up costing Wisconsin taxpayers over $2 billion. The Wisconsin PIRG (Public Interest Research Group, a member of the U.S. PIRG coalition) has issued a report, "Building Boondoggles" that says that despite a $3.4 billion state budget budget shortfall, the Wisconsin governor has proposed a 13 percent increase in road project funds, with four large projects of dubious necessity. Read it for yourself at the link above.

Dylan and Infrastructure.  Infrastructurist.com, in honor of  Bob Dylan's 70th birthday last Tuesday (Yeah I'm a week late. It was a busy week) put together its Top 10 Dylan infrastructure songs

Take that, you ignorant journos: Courtesy of colleague Tommy Tomlinson and his @tommytomlinson Twitter feed, here's a great video from Grand Rapids, Mich. –  the city's video response to being dubbed "a dying city" by Newsweek magazine. If you don't love it, you may have no heart.

Grin and bear it: There's been a boomlet of bear-sightings in the Carolinas in recent weeks, including a black bear that wandered onto the third hole at UNC's Finley Golf Course. Another was killed on a highway near Charlotte. Check out this video from the Greensboro News & Record, of what one resident found in his  back yard.  THIS JUST IN: A bear was shot and killed today at the Piedmont Triad International Airport. And the @GreensboroBear1 Twitter handle just switched to @GboroBearGhost.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pedestrians get better press

Pedestrians – and their safety – got national attention this week. And in the process, a redesigned Charlotte intersection got some national attention, too.

Tuesday, a national transportation advocacy group, Transportation for America (T4 America) released its report, "Dangerous by Design 2011," looking at what it called an epidemic of preventable pedestrian deaths. From 2000 to 2009, it said, 47,700 pedestrians were killed in this country – the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month. More than 688,000 were injured. Nearly 12 percent of total traffic deaths are pedestrians, but, the report says, state departments of transportation have pretty  much ignored pedestrian safety if you look at how budgets are allocated. Only 1.5 percent of available federal money goes to projects to retrofit dangerous roads and streets or create safer alternatives.

The report uses a pedestrian danger index based on a variety of factors and ranks the U.S. metro areas. The most dangerous, in order: Orlando, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Miami-Fort Lauderdale (all in Florida), Riverside-San Bernardino Calif., Las Vegas, Memphis, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas-Forth Worth. All are Sun Belt cities, and all but Memphis saw major growth booms in the last half of the 20th century, when suburban-style development catered almost exclusively to automobiles. 

Atlanta was No. 11. Raleigh-Cary was No. 13. Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord hit No. 17.

Fully a third of Americans can't or don't drive, and for most, being able to walk places is important. They are our children, our young teens, our elderly and our disabled. The City of Charlotte has pushed hard, and admirably, in the past 10 years to make the city better and safer for pedestrians, by ordering sidewalks to be built in new subdivisions, building sidewalks where they're lacking in earlier developments, and retro-fitting intersections to add crosswalks and pedestrian refuges.  Here's to an even lower spot on the next ranking.

One of those retrofitted Charlotte intersections (at top) got national display at npr.org, with a Tuesday piece on "Morning Edition"  – "As America Ages, A Push To Make Street Safer."   The piece talked about efforts to improve safety for the elderly, both pedestrians and drivers.   Although Charlotte isn't mentioned in the piece, see that photo at the top? That's Rozzelles Ferry Road, redesigned by the city to add bike lanes, crosswalks and extended sidewalks.

Photo credit: NPR and National Complete Streets Coalition.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Council member says planning IS included

City Council member David Howard just phoned to comment on my previous post, "Charlotte's disappearing focus on planning." Howard chaired the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission before he was elected to an at-large Charlotte City Council seat.  He wants to make this point: The council committee, which he chairs, is still named Transportation and Planning. I've corrected the previous post to make that change.

The council's committees essentially divvy up the workload, vetting issues before they reach the full council. So his committee hears and gives preliminary approval to many – but not all – area plans, land use policy changes, etc.  The so-called focus areas are the issues the council makes its top priorities. He said planning has never been a council focus area, "because it's infused in everything."

Since I was fortunate enough to have the chairman of the Transportation and Planning committee on the horn, I asked him about another tidbit I had spotted while burrowing through Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton's proposed budget for the next fiscal year. This is on page 70. Deep in the text accompanying the summary of the Planning Department's accomplishments and focus, etc., under "Service Delivery Challenges," is this:

"One of Planning's challenges is updating this [zoning and development] ordinance so that it reflects desired community characteristics and recently adopted land use and urban design public policy. A more comprehensive update is necessary. This will require a tremendous amount of resources and technical expertise that Planning does not have available in-house and funding is not available. The impact of which will be the inability to fully implement adopted area plans and [not] achieving the highest quality development Planning can in our community." 

In other words – and if you follow my writing this will sound familiar because I have been beating this drum for years – the city-county zoning ordinance needs a top-to-bottom rewrite. The types of development it allows and in some cases requires can all too often completely undercut the city's adopted plans and policies.

I asked Howard about that. He said he had had conversations with Planning Director Debra Campbell about that issue while he was on the planning commission. I asked if the idea of a comprehensive re-do of the city's zoning ordinance had come up at the City Council level. "It hasn't come up to that level," he said.

As a postscript I'll note, just because Charlotte and Raleigh NEVER compete, that Raleigh has in the past few years finished a massive re-do of its comprehensive plan, adopted in 20090, and is embarked on the huge task of rewriting its whole zoning code so that it upholds the plans.  That process is in the public comment period.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Charlotte's disappearing focus on planning

So I'm poring through Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton's proposed budget today – I know you wish you could do the same, but sometimes they just pay us here at the paper to have fun like that – and I notice that the City Council's committees and their "focus areas" seem to have dropped a word from previous years. That word is "planning."

The committee formerly known as Transportation and Planning is now simply Transportation. Council member David Howard, who chairs the committee, says that while the official council "focus areas"  don't mention the word "planning," the committee name remains Transportation and Planning.  Before Mayor Anthony Foxx took office in 2009, there was a committee known as Economic Development and Planning.  When Foxx took office, it became Economic Development, and "Planning" was added to the title of the Transportation Committee, and there it remains.

Of course you can make the case that "planning" is embedded in many focus areas, such as environment, transportation, housing, etc. For the record, the focus areas are: Community Safety, Economic Development, Environment, Housing and Neighborhood Development and Transportation. Other committees are Budget, Government Affairs [no silly, this does not include Schwarzenegger, Edwards, et al] and Restructuring Government.

Pardon my bias here, but I want to stand up for the idea that planning, in and of itself, is important for a growing city such as Charlotte.

The City Council should make clear, as part of its focus areas, that planning is important. Aren't the city's plans a valued resource for the council and the whole community? If they aren't, why not, and what needs to happen to make them so? A comprehensive city plan, drawn up with massive public involvement, builds buy-in from the community toward a vision for the city's future, lays out a road map for policy changes that help get there, and builds buy-in as well for making those changes.

Planning should again become a visible part of the City Council's focus.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

U.S. lags other nations on infrastructure

While I was taking a few days off, an interesting report came out from the national Urban Land Institute  and Ernst & Young. "Infrastructure 2011: A strategic priority" details how the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind other countries. [Sorry, but it looks as if blogger is refusing to embed links today. Visit uli.org; the report is on its homepage.] It also analyzes Charlotte's situation (on Page 51), saying, "But the grand plan hit the skids in late 2010 when the regional transit agency tabled two projects — a BRT [bus rapid transit] corridor and a $450 million airport streetcar line — while sending two others, a $1.2 billion extension of the existing light-rail route and a new $375 million commuter-rail corridor, into underfunded limbo."

Looking globally, the report says that “Canada and Australia have leapfrogged the United States in confronting aging and crumbling networks, as well as employing public/private partnerships."  Here's a quote from from the Executive Summary: "The United States notably continues to lag its global competition – laboring without a national infrastructure plan, lacking political consensus, and contending with severe federal, state, and local budget deficits that limit options. Some metropolitan areas appear better positioned when they can forge plans and pool resources for new transit lines and road systems across multiple jurisdictions."

The Washington Post report on the study includes this tidbit: "The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Business subsidy? NC-SC state line makes big difference

A reader's reaction to the Observer's Sunday editorial about Amazon.com's decision to scrap its planned S.C. distribution center, when the S.C. legislature nixed a five-year sales tax exemption, led me to discover this report that ranks states for their openness in publicly disclosing state subsidies for new businesses. (The chart you'll want to see is on p.7.)

The report from the nonprofit Good Jobs First grades North Carolina a C+ but ranks the Tar Heel state No. 3. South Carolina rates an F and is one of 14 states clumped at the bottom of the rankings. Is it something in that weird mustard-based barbecue sauce?

Monday, May 02, 2011

What's fastest-growing U.S. city? Hint: Southern, suburban

Bloomberg Businessweek crunched the numbers. It found a town that grew 838 percent between 1990 and 2010, going from 3,567 to 33,484 people. Since 2000 it grew 63.47 percent. 

If that sounds like Huntersville, or maybe Indian Trail, well it isn't. It's Olive Branch, Miss., about 20 miles south of Memphis. Here's the Memphis Commercial Appeal article. And here's the Businessweek article.

The analysis looked at year-over-year growth in households, 2000-10, and other factors, such as the 2010 average length of residence and the change in average household income from 2000 to 2010. But household growth was the dominant factor. The Businessweek article notes that it didn't go strictly by city or municipal boundary lines. By its measures, the fastest-growing city in North Carolina was Cary. The site notes that the Raleigh-Cary metro area was the fourth-fastest growing in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010.

And the fastest-growing city in South Carolina is Charlotte's just-over-the-line neighbor, Fort Mill.  

About cities, and New Orleans

David Simon, creator of "The Wire," has been giving a lot of interviews lately. In this one, with alternet.org, he talks about the role of cities in U.S. society and politics.  Because this is a blog for a family newspaper, I've had to delete some expletives. He's talking about his latest HBO show, "Treme," set in New Orleans:
"This show, if we do it right, is an argument for the city. For the idea of American urbanity, for the melting pot, for the idea that our future can’t be separated from the fact that we are all going to be increasingly compacted into urban areas, though we’re different in race and culture and religion. And what we make of that will determine the American future.
I listened during the last election cycle to the rhetoric about small town values and where the real Americans live. I thought to myself, “I’ve never heard such b-------t in my life.” Rural America’s not coming back. That idea was lost with the Industrial Revolution. And yet with more than 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, there are still demagogues who want to run down the idea of multiculturalism, of urbanity, being the only future we have. We either live or die based on how we live in cities, and our society is either going to be great or not based on how we perform as creatures of the city."
 And here, he talks about why New Orleans is unique among American cities:
 "... Corruption is endemic. Yet, people came home and they continue to come home. This city comes back because it's New Orleans.

The rest of America, with some small exceptions, has been bulldozed and rebuilt and then bulldozed and rebuilt again. Our places have become interchangeable. Here, everything from the architecture to the way in which people eat, the way in which they talk, the way in which they do business, the way in which they dance, the manner in which everything is set to a parade beat, they're all from here. There's no place like it.

What city has given the world more in terms of American culture than New Orleans? There is none. Not New York. Not L.A. Not Chicago. Not anywhere, in the sense that African American music has gone around the world twenty times over, and it's continuing to evolve. It is our greatest cultural export."