Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street with low motorized traffic volumes and speeds, designated and designed to give bicycle travel priority" (NACTO 2012). Cycling magnets like Berkeley and Portland aspire to city-wide systems of bicycle-priority streets either as separate from or alterations to auto thoroughfares. I haven't been to either city, so I don't know how well these systems are working, but they seem to have measurable goals and to be using the term in a meaningful way.

My complaint, and I do have one. is that in other places the term bicycle boulevard is being slung around like "cool" or "love" to mean whatever the city wants it to mean, which sometimes isn't very much. Merely stenciling a sharrow sign on a street and adding the letters "BLVD" does not a bicycle boulevard make.

On Charles Street in St. Paul, there are also special street signs...

signs indicating distances...

and this roundabout...
(although I think this feature, found elsewhere in this section of the city, predates the bicycle boulevard designation).

The interface of Charles Street with Snelling Avenue (average daily traffic count=33,500) takes bicycle boulevarding to the next level.

The intersection is blocked for cars, but bicycles and pedestrians can cross.

Some effort has obviously gone into making Charles Street a bicycle boulevard. My question is: Why? It is a residential street that runs parallel to the University Avenue (ADTC=13,800) with its monster shopping plazas, so would certainly make for a quieter ride with less competition for the street. But so would any residential street, with or without special designation or decoration. Given the volume of traffic on Snelling, a car on Charles trying to cross or turn left would be in for a very long wait anyhow.Whatever money was spent on Charles would probably have been better spent making Thomas (ADTC=3100) a complete street, or even taming University.

If I were biking in St. Paul, the only reason for me to be on the bicycle boulevard that is Charles Street would be to visit someone on Charles Street. If my destination were the transit stop at Snelling and University, or one of the stores on University, I'd sooner or later be biking on University. If I needed to cross Snelling, I'd go by Thomas Avenue (ADTC=3100) for the traffic light, or else (gulp!) University again, instead of waiting and waiting for a break in traffic at Charles.

Not every city, to be Mr. Obvious here, is Berkeley or Portland. Or Amsterdam, or Copenhagen. Each city has its own culture, population density, and existing built infrastructure to deal with. Bicycle boulevards that fit the definition and contribute to a crosstown network of cycle-friendly streets may (or may not) be important contributors to overcoming the auto-centric design we all went in for back in the day. But calling something a bicycle boulevard for the sake of calling it a bicycle boulevard, or to be able to claim that you have them, seems silly.

SEE ALSO: Bill Lindeke, "Jefferson Crashes Rekindle Bicycle Boulevard Debate," Streets.mn, 24 November 2015. This blog post provides extended discussion of the Charles Street bicycle boulevard, providing quite a bit of local expertise and policy history my post lacks. He observes that in my experience the Charles medians are very safe to use for pedestrians and bicyclists. Car traffic slows down and, even on extremely busy Snelling Avenue, tends to stop for people crossing the street. On top of that, they provide a "refuge" halfway through the street that allows the vulnerable non-drivers to focus on one direction at a time. On the other hand, see the first several comments. "Scott" says I'm as likely to skip Charles and go over to Marshall if I'm eventually heading south because Charles just isn't worth the hassle.

Lindeke's lengthier discussion of Jefferson Avenue in the same post argues that empty designation can be not merely pointless but dangerous. A federal grant was apparently the motivation in both places.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

What is the future of Iowa's small towns?

Former Audubon County courthouse, Exira (Source: Wikimedia): county population has fallen from 8559 (1980) to 5578 (2017)
A recent column in the Cedar Rapids Gazette highlighted the angst small town residents have about their future. Bill Menner, executive director of the Iowa Rural Development Council, argued that statewide candidates of both parties should put forth "meaningful rural-specific policy initiatives" as they campaign in the state; by "meaningful" he means "targeted policies and investments" addressing "issues that limit [rural Iowa's] ability to grow."

Iowa developed as a predominantly agricultural economy. In 1890 it was the tenth-largest state in the Union, even without any large cities. (Des Moines' population that year was 50,093; Cedar Rapids had only 18,020.) Our two million residents were spread evenly across the state, with hundreds of small towns serving the surrounding farms with necessities, schools and gathering places. Changes in agriculture, transportation and commerce put that model away long ago: farms are now corporate or similarly huge operations, and use machinery rather than hired labor. (For more on contemporary farm life, see Fox 2018). Some small towns have reinvented themselves as bedroom communities, college towns or tourism/recreation centers, but the majority that lack that option have seen population and economic prospects decline. Both the industrial and post-industrial phases of American economic development took place elsewhere.

Downtown Decorah (pop. 7918, down 217 since 2010) is supported by Luther College
Iowa has grown slowly since the 2010 census, adding just under 100,000 residents by the Census Bureau's 2017 estimates. Ten urban and suburban counties added 127,943, which means the other 89 counties lost more than 25,000 residents. Growth is concentrated even within the Census Bureau's metropolitan statistical areas: in the Cedar Rapids MSA, Linn County has gained 13,000 residents so far this decade, while Benton and Jones Counties have seen marginal declines. The ten urban-suburban counties now account for 58.8 percent of the state's population, but have added 74.5 percent of the state's new jobs in this decade, attracted 228 percent of people moving into the state, and account for over half of people aged 25-44.

[NOTE: That "228" is not a misprint. The other 89 counties have a combined net out-migration, so the number of migrants into the core 10 more than doubles that of the whole state.] 

Some degree of resentment at these disparate outcomes is understandable, and has received attention as Iowa has shifted politically from purple to red in the 2010s. Donald Trump won easily here in 2016, and Republicans dominate both federal and state offices. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds refers to small towns as "the real Iowa," while lambasting "far-left liberals in Des Moines and Iowa City." (By the way, Governor, Johnson and Polk Counties, which contain Iowa City and Des Moines respectively, together comprise 20 percent of Iowa's population. They have added 70,000 residents since 2010, along with 35.3 percent of the state's job growth, 32.3 percent of the state's GDP, 147.1 percent of people moving into the state, 26.9 percent of college graduates, and 29.3 percent of those with graduate or professional degrees. Without them Iowa is truly in a world of hurt.)

Washington (pop. 7424, up 154 since 2010) has restored its historic downtown square
Menner's column plays to this resentment: Federal and state funding flows easily to urban areas, where elected officials and staff know how to maximize their success. Rural places don't have that same capacity and are often left behind. He calls for the state to [m]easure the disparities in project funding between rural and urban places and put in place remedies to address them. 

But data to confirm or refute federal/state unfairness to small town Iowa don't exist. According to the American Community Survey census of governments, transfers from the federal and state governments amount to 26 percent of county government revenue, 17 percent for cities, 21.6 percent for special districts, and 51.4 percent for school districts. But those numbers are not broken out by county, town, &c.  What we can say for sure: The biggest items in the federal budget are Social Security, Medicare and defense. The former goes to individuals, predominantly elderly people who predominate in small towns and rural areas, so it's not surprising that the 52.1 percent of the state's population that lives in the ten urban-suburban counties receives only 46.9 percent of federal benefits to individuals, and 46.9 percent of federal awards. The biggest item in the state budget is education, which is going to follow the population as well. The state has not undertaken county consolidation, which has been batted about since I've lived in Iowa, so we have counties with less than 10,000 population which nevertheless receive government spending that accrues to (and maybe props up) county seats. Still, it must be hard to see the state allocate a paltry $1.3 million to expand broadband access while a single interchange on I-380 north of Cedar Rapids is going to run upwards of $20 million.

Cities have succeeded in this century--well, they're not all succeeding, but those that are succeeding are building on three factors: the advantages to firms of clusters of knowledge workers, social and cultural amenities that come with dense population, and broad attitudes of tolerance and inclusion. To those we should add better access in cities to mobile broadband as well as venture capital, as firms in those fields see a greater likelihood of returns on their investments where population is denser. That's why urban areas are growing and small towns and rural areas mostly are not. It's nothing sinister, and there's no point in being resentful. The young and hip will always command an outsize share of media attention, but we shouldn't let that affect a cold-eyed assessment of what's working for successful places.
Em's Coffee Co., downtown Independence (pop. 6018, up 52 since 2010)
Small towns and rural areas have advantages, too--strong community identity, easy access to natural places, and often compact walkable business districts--though probably not enough entirely to ensure "the survival of Iowa's 900-plus small towns," as Menner advocates. One of my sons lives and works in Seattle; if he could find a similar job in Decorah, or Clear Lake, or Red Oak, he'd move in a minute. Menner's column suggests some state policies that could build on those advantages: expand the broadband grant program, create a state rural housing initiative, better funding for existing agencies.

But there's the rub, you see: all of that costs money. So do education, health care, and public institutions. The state of Iowa is not building fiscal capacity to make these sorts of public investments possible--quite the opposite, in fact, as the legislature annually delivers substantial tax cuts, and the governor dips into contingency funds to pay the bills. Menner would like to see someone at the state level designated as rural liaison-advocate, but in a state government run by Republicans elected on the strength of rural and small town votes, there already is that someone: the Governor, an acknowledged fan of "the real Iowa." Republicans at the state level, however, have decided to play culture war instead, producing bills to defund Planned Parenthood, bar "sanctuary cities" (of which the state has zero), and ban abortions after six weeks one year after banning abortions after twenty weeks (for laws taking effect this year, see Murphy 2018). None of that helps rural counties out of the doldrums; nor does it help the cities that are the state's economic engines compete for talent.

Rural and small town Iowans, stop voting for policies that help you feel good, and start voting for policies that help you live well.

Some ideas (see also Benfield and Epstein 2012, Brown 2018, Gilmartin and Hurley 2018):
  1. Support Menner's group's advocacy for more state investment in your community, while recognizing that investment is not going to happen without tax revenue. Don't wait for the 1 percent, or urban residents, or the magic of supply-side economics, to produce a windfall, but be willing to pay for the services your community needs. 
  2. While you're waiting for the state to act, improve your own capacity and attractiveness: Invest in human capital, specifically education and small business development, including the library and adult education opportunities. 
  3. Buy local, and avoid national big-box chains, whenever you possibly can; your money will stay in your community and help it grow. 
  4. Take advantage of your assets, be they natural, existing institutions or fortuitous location; as Aaron Brown notes, recreation is a bigger industry now than agriculture or mining. And...
  5. Do whatever it takes to earn a reputation for openness. The next great idea might come from a Lesbian, or a Mexican immigrant, or a Muslim. If rural Iowa continues to be perceived as the last bastion of grumpy old white people, it will be irrelevant to the 21st century. 
Even a well-funded state government can't afford to buy everyone a pony, but towns can position themselves to use whatever they can get to best advantage.

"Small Business and the Ideological Divide," 2 February 2018
"Condition of the State 2018," 10 January 2018
"Adam Smith and the Road to Correctionville," 8 March 2015 [by the way, I just found out the highway featured in this post was named to this list of top highway boondoggles of that year]

SOURCES: I owe particular thanks to 
  • Dr. Liesl Eathington at Iowa State University's Iowa Community Indicators Program. She advised and guided me through the thicket of numbers on this subject. She is, of course, not liable for what I've done with them.
  • Martin Smith, faithful reader and concerned citizen, who pointed out some errors in the original version of the statistical data.
 Kaid Benfield and Lee Epstein, "The Death--and Life--of Small Town America," City Lab, 7 September 2012
Paul Brennan, "Gov.Reynolds Signs So-Called 'Sanctuary Cities' Bill, Which She Says Was Aimed at 'Far-Left Liberals in Des Moines and Iowa City," Little Village, 10 April 2018
Aaron Brown, "Rise of the Rural Recreation Economy," Minnesota Brown, 25 May 2018
Russell Arben Fox, "What Do Farmers Want?" In Media Res, 6 July 2018
Dan Gilmartin and Daniel J. Hurley, "Column: Invest in Talent That Drives Economic Growth," Detroit Free Press, 25 January 2018
Phil McCausland, "Rural Communities See Big Returns with Broadband Access, But Roadblocks Persist," NBC News, 11 June 2018
Bill Menner, "Rural Matters: Small Town Voters are Looking for Big Ideas in 2018," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 24 June 2018
Erin Murphy, "New Laws Affect Drunken Driving, Opioid Abuse," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1 July 2018, 1A, 11A

SOME DATA (I have wads more if anyone would like to see it):

Population 2017 (1)
1,637,905 (52.1)
Pop Growth 10-17 (1)
   124,192 (125.6)
Jobs 2016 (2)
1,171,595 (56.4)
Job Growth 10-16 (2)
     92,644 (74.5)
Migration 10-17 (1)
     55,513 (228.1)
Age 25-44 2017 (3)
   761,908 (24.2)
   431,533 (56.6)
% Bachelor’s Degree or Higher 2016 (3)
% Grad/Prof Degree 2016 (3)
Federal Personal Benefits 2016 (4)
$11,813,000 (46.9)
Federal Awards (5)
$10,551,000 (46.9)

NOTE: The "ten counties " in the table include the eight that contain the central cities of Metropolitan Statistical Areas (Black Hawk, Dubuque, Johnson, Linn, Polk, Scott, Story, Woodbury), plus largely-suburban Dallas County. "Rest of State" is comprised of the remaining 91 counties.

(1) U.S. Bureau of the Census, “American Factfinder: Iowa,” https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/community_facts.xhtml
(2) U.S. Bureau of Economic Affairs, "Total Full-Time and Part-Time Employment by Industry (CA25, CA25N)," https://www.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?reqid=70&step=1&isuri=1&acrdn=3#
(3) Iowa Community Indicators Program, Iowa State University
·         “Educational Attainment of the Adult Population,” https://www.icip.iastate.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/tables/education/educational-attainment.xls
·         “Population in Selected Age Groups,” https://www.icip.iastate.edu/tables/population/age-groups
(4) “Personal Current Transfer Receipts (CA35),” https://www.bea.gov/iTable/iTable.cfm?reqid=70&step=1&isuri=1&acrdn=3#
(5) USASpending.gov, “Iowa,” https://www.usaspending.gov/#/state/19

Ely (pop. 2150, up 369 since 2010) works with its proximity to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Stuck on sidewalk survey

1st Ave and 13th St E.: What would make this feel safer?
Cedar Rapids is surveying its residents about walking, particularly about crossing streets. After a series of questions about walking habits, the survey presented eight types of intersection modifications (see below); for each they asked whether it would make crossing the street very comfortable, comfortable, uncomfortable, or very uncomfortable. The treatments ranged in intensity from minor (well-marked crosswalks) to major (median island). 

I spent way too much time over-thinking this section. I couldn't decide on the meaning of "comfortable," or whether it was absolute or relative, or even whether the comfort was intended to be physical or psychic. Was it time-bound? (Many's the time I've gotten across a busy street and thought, "Twenty years from now, I won't be able to do what I just did.") City staff will surely want to ignore my answers when they compile these results.

In the end, I decided, my pedestrian comfort, and the appropriate design response, depends on context. How wide and busy is the street I am crossing? How many people are likely to be crossing with me? Are the drivers likely to be aware of my presence, or will their views be obstructed by a physical barrier or confusing road design? And maybe most importantly, how much turning traffic is there going to be?

(1 & 2) Median islands, curb extensions

I live about 3/4 mile from my office, and often walk regardless of weather. The biggest challenge is crossing 1st Avenue, the east side's longstanding thoroughfare (pictured above). At 13th Street, across from the college, the street is six lanes wide (indicated by hashtags): two traffic lanes in each direction, and two left-turn lanes. Coe College students frequently cross here, so during the school year we can usually cross in a group. Thanks to curb extensions on each side--see my lovely highlighting on the photo--we're negotiating 60 feet of pavement instead of 80, but it's still fraught. The biggest problem is the number of cars that turn left from 13th onto 1st, which was increased by the closing of 2nd Avenue some years ago. 2013 traffic count on 13th Street was a mere 1840, but they make their presences felt. Some drivers are patient, some are not, and they demonstrate different levels of risk-taking. The dangers of this intersection would be somewhat mitigated by making a median island out of one of the left-turn lanes, which became redundant as soon as Interstate 380 was built in the 1970s.

I can't off hand think of any other intersections in our town where median islands are indicated. This one is unusual because of the width of the street, the amount of turning traffic, and the amount of pedestrian traffic. Maybe 1st Avenue and 12th Street East?

This is also by Coe, although I don't see students using it as much as locals going to and from the clinics. Traffic count on 12th is 3200, with most turning onto 1st across the crosswalks.

(3) Raised crosswalks

This feature not only removes the "step down, step up" feature of crossing, it makes the pedestrians more visible to drivers by raising them. David Sucher (2003: 80) notes, "The extra six inches of height makes the walker more visible to drivers, particularly if one uses a pavement of contrasting texture and color. The change of grade is also a long-wave speed hump, which forces the driver to slow down to avoid an unpleasant bump." This picture of Novak School on busy 29th Avenue was taken in Marion...

...but there are any number of Cedar Rapids schools near which we could do a better job of slowing the cars and facilitating the little pedestrians.

(4 & 5) Beacons (red and yellow hybrid, rectangular rapid flashing)

There are a couple rectangular rapid flashing beacons around town that I know of. This one is on the Cedar River Trail where it crosses Boyson Road...
...an arterial carrying 11,500 cars per day. I think I'm OK with this, because Boyson is only two lanes wide and pedestrians and cyclists are quite visible from the road.

On the other hand, this one terrifies me. It's downtown, where the Cedar River Trail crosses 1st Avenue. 
It's not just the 13,600-16,600 cars, it's the five lanes I'm crossing, and my relative invisibility when I cross. The crosswalk is well-marked but it isn't helping my comfort, either. Drivers are dealing with each other, the railroad track, and possibly unfamiliar downtown traffic patterns. This crossing needs, to be viable, a stop light. Is that what the red and yellow hybrid beacons amount to? Meanwhile I either go over to 3rd Street, or cower in the shadows and wait for a break in traffic.

(6) Brick intersection

This is more involved (read, more expensive) than painted crosswalks, but might be indicated where there is a lot of vehicular as well as pedestrian traffic, and/or where we want to exhibit some style. Sucher (2003: 84) says, "The change in texture is a visual and visceral signal to both driver and pedestrian of the appropriate boundaries for each at that particular location." A candidate for this treatment was 3rd Avenue and 10th Street SE, an intersection I've had plenty of opportunity to contemplate as it's been my station during three Mayors' Bike Rides. 
View of Immaculate Conception Church before sidewalk treatments
The "after" picture
10th Street gets 3000 cars a day, 3rd Avenue 6000, magnified by both streets being four lanes wide. MedQuarter development might increase auto traffic and maybe pedestrian traffic, too.

Crosswalks (well-marked along a busy street, long well-marked)

These are the lowest intensity treatments, and I don't understand the difference between them. They can be used where crossing treatments are indicated but traffic is moving slowly enough that you don't need any kind of special enhancement. I'd like one where I (and quite a few high school students) cross 19th Street near my home.
Asked for concluding comments, I reflected on my spring semester in Washington, D.C., a densely-populated urban area with a lot of pedestrians and autos and bikes.

Collins Road NE by Lindale Mall
  1. Triage: Don't try to fix every intersection. Concentrate our resources where they can do the most good i.e. not Collins Road or Wiley Boulevard.
  2.  Stops: Washington, D.C. has a lot of stop signs and stop lights in core areas. They certainly seem to keep auto speeds to a manageable level. I'm glad 3rd Avenue SE will soon be converted to two-way, but its long straightaway still encourages drivers to go faster than they neighborhood should have to tolerate.
  3. Parking: Surface parking lots are the enemy of walkability (cf. Sucher 2003: 49-55, or really any author who's thought seriously about cities). Areas adjacent to downtown, and you know who you are, are maximizing parking in ways that will impact both walking and the success of downtown.
Finally the survey asked for three words to describe my hopes for walking in 2040. I said I hoped walking will be (1) common, (2) interesting, and (3) safe.

Cedar Rapids residents can take the Pedestrian Master Plan Survey here through 7/22/2018. There will be a Community Workshop on Sidewalks Wednesday 6/27/2018 from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 5th Av SE.

David Sucher, City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village (City Comforts Inc., revised ed., 2003), ch. 4
Aarian Marshall, "Save Lives With Slower Streets--Not Self-Driving Cars," Wired, 11 May 2018

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rezone CR Open House

Early attendance was light on a stormy evening in Cedar Rapids, as city officials offered a sneak preview of the new zoning plan prior to its official release July 3. Form-based zoning will be applied in a small section of the city (see map above). I was on the Steering Committee for the rezoning, but have had no role in its content.

A few quick reactions:

1. This is the right part of the city on which to try this: older, already-urban areas that have seen considerable redevelopment since the flood. For the most part, the redevelopment has reinforced rather than challenged the traditional pre-Euclidean form of these areas. If form-based zoning works here, perhaps it can be extended to the adjoining core neighborhoods: Mound View (soon to be the object of the College District Action Plan), Wellington Heights, the Taylor Area and the Northwest. Beyond that the city's form is predominantly suburban, and it's hard to imagine much change from that is likely.

2. Outside of downtown (the red area on the map), there seems to be a good balance of mixed use (orange) and purely residential (baby blue). It looks like no one in this part of the city will live more than three blocks from a commercial establishment, albeit may be one that sells auto parts when you need a loaf of bread.

3. The area between 7th and 10th Streets East is designated "Urban Neighborhood General Flex"--essentially, mixed use with taller buildings--which seems appropriate for the area between downtown, the hospitals and the neighborhoods. Whether it actually develops that way depends on the acquiesence of the hospitals and Physicians Clinic of Iowa, which have so far been powerful forces behind anomalously suburban-style development. Another old house came down today, in fact:
Image may contain: house, sky, tree and outdoor
Photo by Cindy Hadish, from Save CR Heritage Facebook page
This could, of course, make way for new construction, but the clearances seem intended for another parking lot.

EARLIER POST: "Re-Zoning Cedar Rapids," 4 December 2017

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...