Monday, August 6, 2012

Battling the Bureaucracy to Create Better Streets

I'm a bureaucrat myself, so I'm allowed to say it: sometimes well-meaning regulations get in the way of really great stuff. Navigating the state and local rules that govern how we use our streets can be costly and intimidating for the professional, completely disheartening for the average "outsider" who wants to get creative with an otherwise boring streetscape. I'll share two very different approaches being taken in Denver and San Francisco, but first a couple tips from someone on the inside:
  1. Find an advocate. A savvy staff member or elected official can open doors that seem permanently sealed shut.
  2. Look for grey areas. There's more flexibility within the law than you might imagine, and it just might allow your wild street art scheme after all.
  3. Question authority. If a rule doesn't make sense to you, say so. Even better, offer a solution.

SF Better Streets
San Franciscans with bright ideas for streets can learn how to make their dreams reality by visiting a site put together by the City’s Planning Department, Department of Public Works, San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency:

The site includes dozens of pages on information on permits, maintenance, codes and guidelines for each type of streetscape project. It also includes a friendly, easy-to navigate interface and welcoming look, important elements that can easily be forgotten in the world of rote government websites. As the web increasingly becomes the "front counter" of city departments, sites like this one can help engage the public and encourage the creative use of street space that transforms the pedestrian environment.

My favorite part? The way the city calls them street openings on their website, instead of the outmoded street closings. It's a small thing, but it represents a big change in thinking about which users should have priority on local roadways.
Better Blocks
Not every city is quite as open to innovation as San Francisco. As this story describes, sometimes you have to break the rules to get things done on the street:
In order to make his neighborhood more livable, Jason Roberts had to break the law. In fact, he and 1,500 other people didn't stop at just one city ordinance; they violated dozens of them, more than once, without getting caught. But their idea definitely caught on: Since April 2010, when they revolutionized their Oak Cliff block in Dallas, Roberts' Better Block initiative has spread to more than twenty blocks across the country.
From DIY crosswalks to yarnbombing, sometimes it takes a little insubordination to make your street into something everyone really wants.

I think this is great a way to demonstrate a street's potential, and raise awareness of problem regulations that prevent good streets from happening--but of course, the real solution is the (long and often tedious) process of changing those rules.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Ray Bradbury: Author, Visionary, Pedestrian

Joseph Mugnaini — The Pedestrian

Last month the world lost one of its great authors, futurist and fellow Angeleno Ray Bradbury. Unique for many reasons, I just learned something about him that makes me love him even more: he never drove a car. (Though for the record his family owned one--his wife just did all the driving because, "In a really smart family, the woman does the driving. If a man is smart, he says to his wife, ‘You drive because I’m not a good driver.’")

Bradbury dreamed of a future where city-dwellers ditched their cars for high-speed monorails, but acknowledged that reality might look bleaker if we continue down our current path. He describes a much darker vision his 1951 story The Pedestrian, about a city where one brave man dares to walk the sidewalks--and the consequences of engaging in such devious behavior.

You can read more on Bradbury's thoughts on transportation here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Following the money

We all know that it creating great pedestrian environments take money, but understanding transportation funding is a little trickier. Last week Tri-State Transportation came out with this great tool that helps you understand how much your state is spending on bicycle and pedestrian projects (not to mention bridges, transit, and other transportation infrastructure).

And if the recent federal transportation debacle has you confused (not just depressed), here's a nice summary of the MAP-21 legislation.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Car Wars

One thing advocates of "alternative" transportation modes are constantly accused of is hating cars. This piece from NPR's Cities Project takes a closer look at the so-called "car wars" that planners are waging. One quote from a DC resident summed up for me the predominant--but uninformed--view on the situation:

"[Cars are] the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without...When you get a refrigerator delivered ... they don't bring it on a bicycle. ... They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive."

Setting aside for a moment the fact that many people do in fact live without cars, let's look at the second part of that statement. While he doesn't use the term, what the speaker is talking about is goods movement. And he's right: transporting goods around the city (and country) quickly and smoothly is essential to our economy, and a lot of that goods movement isn't going to happen on a bike.

But moving merchandise is an entirely different type of trip than, say, going to the hardware store, a nuance that often gets lost when we talk about the "war" on cars. You'd be hard-pressed to find a planner who really believes that cars have no place whatsoever in our society--heck, I heard this story while driving home from work in my car. But there are lots of trips where driving really doesn't--or at least shouldn't--make sense, and these are the trips we'd like to shift to other modes.

As I like to say, no one buys a Ferrari to drive to the grocery store. We should focus on using cars for the trips where they really make sense (and ensuring that drivers pay the full cost of driving, but that's another post), and ensuring that the pedestrian environment is safe enough for people to walk when they want to. As Washington DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning says in the piece, cars are nice but, "It's also great to get out of them every once in a while."

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Upcoming Events in San Diego

Lunchtime Panel Discussion
The Public Realm: The Re-emerging City Building Framework

Date: Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 12:00-1:00 P.M.
Location:  NewSchool of Architecture and Design, 1249 "F" Street, San Diego, CA  92101
Lunch Included: $5.00 in advance, $7.00 at door
RSVP: by email or call 619.544.9255

The public realm is once again being understood as a critical element in making cities work for the health and well-being of their citizens. Public health professionals have joined with design professionals in recognizing that quality urban design, and a well designed public realm, are key to the health and wellness of the community. Local author Richard Louv has given the lack of connection to nature and the public realm a name: "Nature Deficit Disorder.”At the same time we are renewing our understanding of the importance of nature in the public realm, we are experiencing the lack of resources for improving and maintaining public spaces. This panel discussion will address where San Diego is, where we might go, and lessons learned from other places.

Community Walk
Ocean Beach
Meet: Foot of Ocean Beach Pier (end of Niagara St)
Date: Saturday, July 21, 2012; 9:00am
Come learn the fascinating and varied history of this beach community, including the Wonderland Amusement Park, the old fishing bridge across the Mission Bay Channel, and Albert Spaulding’s Japanese Gardens at Sunset Cliffs.  A three-mile walk with some hills. (this is a repeat of a walk done in 2010)

Community Walk
Downtown Gaslamp
Meet: 5th and B St in front of the Wells Fargo Building fountain
Date: Saturday, August 15, 2012; 9:00am
Come explore the rich history, architecture, and people of the Gaslamp historic district and surrounding area. A three-mile walk on flat terrain.

Summer walks are open to everyone; reservations not required. Contact Dave Schumacher, with questions; Free for WalkSanDiego members, suggested $5.00 Non-Member donation