Sunday, September 29, 2013

Downtown vs. parking



 (The former Coventry Square Mall, across 1st Av from the convention center,
is being converted to condos)

Interesting story about downtown housing developments in today's Gazette. It was based largely on an interview with Fred Timko, who has taken the lead in a number of condo projects, as well as results of a survey of attendees at an Economic Alliance Forum in May 2013.

A few takeaway points:

1. According to the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, there are about 1000 housing units in the downtown area, and 93-95 percent of these are occupied. This is much better than I'd thought, and is encouraging further development.

 2. The survey found 46 percent liked downtown's "energy, activity and nightlife," while 36 percent liked its walkability. On the other hand, 40 percent said there wasn't enough parking. Folks, this is not a coincidence. You can't have one without the other. (See Donald Shoup's The Parking Dilemma, on which I commented in July.)

 3. Timko is hopeful that, as more people live downtown, we'll start to see grocery stores, drug stores, and such. In the survey, 47 percent cited this as a problem, and they're right. The key will be integrating it into a walkable arrangement, rather than the megastore-with-gigantic-parking-lot model dominant in the rest of the area.

I remain hopeful that this trend will continue, and that it will eventually include single family homes, as well as spreading into the MedQuarter and the Taylor Area.


SOURCE: Chelsea Keenan, "Downtown Housing Momentum Growing," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 29 September 2013, 1D, 4D and http://thegazette.com/2013/09/29/downtown-housing-momentum-growing-but-can-developers-make-it-work/

Friday, September 27, 2013

Poverty and economic growth


 (swiped from blogs.census.gov, cited below)

Hovering around this month's kerfluffles over the budget and raising the debt limit is the state of the economy which, five years after it melted down, is in a state of slow and unsteady recovery. Forbes magazine is calling it "meek growth," which sounds spot on to me. The U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 2.5 percent in the 2nd quarter of 2013, the 9th straight quarter of growth (albeit a couple of those, including the 4th quarter of 2012, were downright anemic). The stock averages have been way up, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing at a record high last week before renewed concerns about what Congress might do drove prices down. But other indicators are less favorable: national income grew a mere 0.1 percent in the 2nd quarter; overall real median household income has fallen roughly 10 percent since 2007, and is as low as it's been since the mid-1990s. Unemployment remained high at 7.3 percent, and would be higher with a less stringent definition of "actively seeking work;" most of the reduction in unemployment has been due to creation of low-wage jobs, as Richard Florida argues in The Atlantic [citation and link below]. Poverty remains at 15.0 percent, a statistically insignificant difference from 2010. "The poverty and income numbers are a metaphor for the entire economy," Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution told The New York Times. "Everything's on hold, but at a bad level." [Most data are from your one-stop shop for economic indicators, the St. Louis Federal Reserve site "FRED" at http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/; poverty rate is from census.gov.]

The overall economic picture is good for corporate profits, dividends, and the income of the very wealthy; for ordinary people it remains static to sucky. The complaint of those who were Occupying Wall Street and various other places a couple of years ago is still pertinent. National economic policy is stuck between the desire of the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve to provide stimulus, and congressional Republican concerns about government spending and the budget deficit. For about three years, Congress has put the brakes on fiscal policy, while the Fed has attempted to counteract that despite having few options to stimulate with since lending rates are at near zero. So the annual budget deficit has been cut from 1.4 trillion in fiscal 2009 to less than 1.1 trillion in fiscal 2012, and is projected to be about 750 billion in fiscal 2013 [http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/MSR]. This is some kind of achievement, but maybe not a good kind: Fed chair Ben Bernanke, among others, argue that fiscal contraction has notably slowed the recovery, even as congressional Republicans threaten to shut the government down if they don't get even more deficit reduction.

To be fair: It's not clear how long we can continue these deficits as we hope for a more robust recovery. And looming in the not-too-distant future--about 2016, to pick a year--is the actual train wreck of entitlement programs for the elderly. However, neither party is addressing that, as the Congressional Budget Office warned September 17; the mindless across-the-board sequestration has hit discretionary domestic and military programs which represent a diminishing share of the budget. All the sound and fury that have accompanied the sequester may create the impression that something is being done, but it isn't, really.

In this blog I address issues of our common life. Therein lies an assumption that we have a common life. Economically, we may not. "Trickle-down economics" has always been a pejorative term, but the concept surely had some validity when the well-off spent most of their money in local economies. In today's economy, the rich scatter some of their money across the globe while they save the rest, leaving their immediate neighbors stuck in the mud. The premise of the 2008-10 stimulus as well as the various bailouts was that cutting taxes on the rich, and cutting the cost of borrowing, would stimulate consumer spending and business investment. All it has seemed to do was improve incomes and profits at the top. Trickling down no more.

It shouldn't be controversial to argue that we cannot live together if the rich are flourishing while the middle class is running hard just to stay in the same place, and the poor are sinking ever more deeply into the soup. (The Thomas B. Edsall column cited below lists all the ways, from usurious payday lenders to the rising cost of basic necessities, that the poor pay dearly for being poor.) Unemployment and budget numbers are projected to improve marginally in coming years, but this is the economy we'll be living in unless we figure out economic opportunity. Sheldon H. Danziger of the Russell Sage Foundation has a couple suggestions, for starters: (1) an improved poverty measure that incorporates benefits from government anti-poverty policies like food stamps and the earned income tax credit, which would show the ongoing value of those programs; and (2) an increase in the minimum wage, which helped reduce poverty in the 1990s when "even low wages rose in step with productivity, and poverty fell more sharply than it had in a generation." That is one public policy, according to Danziger, "that can spread the gains generated by economic growth." He hopes for more such. So do I. A society such as we've got can't be sustained for much longer, and I'm unfit by nature for revolution.

P.S.--A prerequisite to economic opportunity in 2013 is access to health insurance, and the various disadvantages faced by the uninsured (shorter and unhealthier lives, more out-of-pocket costs for treatment) are big parts of the cost of being poor, though unmentioned in Edsall's post. For all its imperfections, the Affordable Care Act, much of which goes into effect October 1, is going to help. Is it time yet for conservatives to stop screaming about doom, making spurious claims, and trying to defund it, and to make a serious effort either to improve it or come up with a better solution?


OTHER READING

Abram Brown, "An Unrevised Q2 GDP Estimate Leaves Picture of Meek Growth Unchanged," Forbes.com, 26 September 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2013/09/26/an-unrevised-q2-gdp-estimate-leaves-picture-of-meek-growth-unchanged/

Jackie Calmes, "Budget Office Warns That Deficits Will Rise Again Because Cuts Are Misdirected," New York Times, 18 September 2013, A13.

Sheldon H. Danziger, "The Mismeasure of Poverty," New York Times, 18 September 2013, A21.

Thomas B. Edsall, "Making Money Off the Poor," nytimes.com, 17 September 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/making-money-off-the-poor/.

Richard Florida, "The Uneven Growth of High- and Low-Wage Jobs Across America," The Atlantic Cities, 27 September 2013, http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/09/uneven-growth-high-and-low-wage-jobs-across-america/6937/

Annie Lowrey, "Household Incomes Flat Despite Sunnier Economy," New York Times, 18 September  2013, A15.

Chuck Nelson, "Income and Poverty Rate Held Steady in 2012," blogs.census.gov, 17 September 2013,
http://blogs.census.gov/2013/09/17/income-and-poverty-rate-held-steady-in-2012/.

http://www.factcheck.org/2013/09/factchecking-pernicious-obamacare-claims/

http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/national/politifact-the-top-15-myths-about-obamacare/2144026

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Downtown Decorah



We were up in Decorah last weekend for Family Weekend at Luther College, where our son Robbie is a first-year student. I was interested to see that Decorah's downtown merchants had a spot on the program, and circulated a flyer to all students. That shows a degree, remarkable in my experience, of cooperation between downtown and the college.

We eschewed the program but spent a good bit of time in downtown Decorah, a thriving collection of shops mostly along Water Street. There were banks, a movie theater, and two coffeeshops, and the Oneota Community Food Cooperative, which (like the college) actively supports local producers...

...not to mention the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. The rest were restaurants (of which we patronized two) and specialty shops. But Fareway and Ace Hardware are two blocks south of Water. So a Decorah resident could get most of what they need within easy walking distance of their home. I couldn't ask more of a downtown than that.

It's easily connected to most of town...
(Mechanic Street, looking up from Water Street towards residential area)

...and while it's a hike from campus it's a do-able one. The buildings are old and attractive, and most will outlive their current occupants.

(Contrast that with the Wal-Mart at the edge of town, which is isolated and built to be temporary.) There is a lot of parking, both on-street and surface lots, but the lots are downhill from the shops and so don't mar the streetscape.


There are prominent bike racks...

...but the narrow streets with parking on either side make them hard to bike on. Robbie says that while you are not supposed to ride on the sidewalk, he does anyway.

Decorah's experience is not easily transferable to other towns. As host to a thriving college, it has a steady flow of income from outside that can sustain all these businesses. (In Iowa, Mt. Vernon and Grinnell are similarly blessed, and also have nice accessible downtowns.) So it has advantages that don't apply to, say, the nearby town of West Union, which has put considerable resources into its own downtown.

Still, as a thriving community resource and attractive central place, where business owners cooperate in outreach to the town and the college, Decorah can be a model for other towns to follow. It occurred to me to wonder why small Decorah can support a food co-op and other thriving downtown businesses, while ten-times-its-size Cedar Rapids cannot.

SOURCES

Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce site: http://decorahareachamber.com/decorah-downtown-betterment-association/

Picture essay on Decorah's historic architecture: http://mnprairieroots.com/2013/07/10/reason-number-one-to-visit-decorah-iowa-the-historic-architecture/

For a critique of Wal-Mart's building strategy, see Strong Towns podcast #152, "Rich Versus Wealthy," http://s3.media.squarespace.com/production/297651/3055836/podcasts/2013/092013_Minicozzi_mixdown.mp3?AWSAccessKeyId=0ENGV10E9K9QDNSJ5C82&Signature=P0TbtWy2pPn%2FT5dx6RvbuTXsrx8%3D&Expires=1380151048

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Figuring out a dangerous intersection


My Coe colleague Lynda Barrow called my attention to an intersection that she thinks (and I agree) is an accident waiting to happen. The intersection of 12th Street (a.k.a. Coe Road) and 1st Avenue is a product of 1970s traffic engineering aimed at moving cars through town. At that time streets on either side of campus were made one-way from 3rd Avenue SE to 32nd Street NE. (I won't identify them, not out of fastidiousness, but because the streets change names as they go along, besides which they have changed names over the years. At one time "Center Point Road" was part of both one-way streets. Directions are also hard to call in Cedar Rapids, but let's call them "northish" and "southish." 12th Street a.k.a. Coe Road is one-way southish.

12th Street funnels southish-bound traffic from the northeast side and eastish-bound traffic from I-380 and the St. Luke's Hospital Complex into 1st Avenue and around Coe's campus.
 (A Avenue feeding into Coe Rd NE, which becomes 12th St SE)

1st Avenue is, of course, the four-lane main drag of Cedar Rapids. At the intersection with 1st Avenue, Coe Road offers drivers three options: (1) a left turn lane that feeds into the NE-bound left lane of 1st Avenue, with the option of joining two left-turn lanes onto College Drive (a.k.a. 13th St); (2) a middle lane which allows either continuation straight through the intersection or a left-turn into the NE-bound right lane of 1st Avenue; and (3) a right turn lane onto 1st Avenue heading SE.
(Coe Road NE approaching 1st Avenue)

The set-up screams traffic flow, by which we mean car traffic flow, and in the auto-centric world we were building back in the 1970s it was a good attempt. This was before the interstate highway was built a few blocks away, and traffic through the intersection must have been intense. 

There still is a goodly amount now, mixed--as it must have been even then--with pedestrian and bicycle traffic the engineers didn't figure into their calculations. It's a challenge to navigate an intersection built strictly for cars when you're not driving a car. It's a challenge driving through a tricky intersection when there are bicycles and pedestrians in the mix. The light is green for Coe Road for 10 seconds with 75 seconds in between.




This bicyclist timed it just right, getting to 1st Avenue just as the light turned green, and no one was waiting to turn right. While I was taking pictures, I saw a woman exit a bus and then try to cross Coe Road on foot with the green; she was nearly struck by a car edging forward on Coe Road in hopes of making a right turn. A man riding a bike through the crosswalk was buzzed by a van turning left (and understandably trying to get through the intersection in the brief time before the light changed). As Lynda points out, one person in the crosswalk, or one driver on Coe Road who loses concentration during the 75-second light can entirely stop traffic.
(Car driver waiting for pedestrian crossing 1st Avenue, as the clock ticks)

A couple related issues: 

What does a Coe Road bicyclist do when they're not as lucky as our friend above, and arrive at a red light? This must be a common problem with intersections that feature a right-turn only lane. My solution if I must go through the intersection is to land on this safe box, past the crosswalk between the center and right lane. I get funny looks but no one's objected.

Better yet, I cross 1st Avenue mid-block between 12th and 13th, as I've found that the timing of the lights creates a reliable regular interval of no traffic. I wouldn't expect anyone who doesn't spend their time at Coe to know that, though.

Another problem is traffic exiting Casey's General Store, a popular convenience store at 1201 1st Avenue SE that has drives onto both 1st Avenue and 12th Street. 
 (Casey's, where it meets 12th Street, across from Zio Johno's Spaghetti House)

A lot of people who exit onto 12th Street don't realize that it's still one-way at that point, and every once in awhile the intersection gets an exciting surprise.

There's not an easy solution to this intersection. A well-placed one-way sign could address the Casey's parking lot issue, and a longer light for Coe Road would accommodate drivers and pedestrians. But that would create traffic back-ups on 1st Avenue, which uses every second of its 75-second green lights.

I'm coming to think making all these streets two-way probably needs to be part of the solution.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

9/11 Revisited

(Aftermath of destruction, New York City 2001, from en.wikipedia.org)

This past week saw the 12th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks. I thought about the anniversary more than I usually have done, because my college's Office of Service Learning was promoting a volunteer project to commemorate it. Such a project did seem particularly appropriate, because one of my strongest memories of that awful time was the strong, mutual need to do something in response to the attacks. Of course we could never bring back those killed, but maybe we could repair the breach in humanity? People went to worship services in droves that week, and went out of their way to be nice to each other, even in traffic. Those closer to the scene could help clear it, and those closer to the levers of power could invade Afghanistan. The rest of us, for a brief time, reached out to each other in whatever ways we could. (The surge of social feeling extended to politics as well. Public approval of President George W. Bush and even the perennial punching bag that is Congress went through the roof.)

I mentioned these memories to my students this year, as I passed around the volunteer cards and we reminisced about that day. They were in early grade school--this year's first-year college students, like my son Robbie, were in 1st grade in fall 2001. It won't be long until I have students who weren't alive when it happened. It will be for them like Pearl Harbor Day for me (or even the Kennedy assassination, which occurred in my lifetime but I was too young to remember).

For nearly two hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, I was in a blissfully ignorant world. I was in the habit, back then, of turning the NPR news off when my boys (ages 6 and 4) came down for breakfast. A year or so earlier, there had been a lurid recounting of the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, and I wasn't sure they needed to hear that. So I was out of news range for awhile. When I got to my office, I was pressed for time because I was going to observe another class at 9:30 but could get what I needed to done ahead of time if only nobody came by. While I was hoping nobody would come by, by came junior Zach Fromm--darn! "Didn't you hear what happened?" he asked. And that's how I found out. I still feel a bit guilty about all that.

That night I took the family out for ice cream. That may seem a bit weird to do when America's under attack, and truth be told it felt kind of weird at the time, but it was something we'd planned to do, and I couldn't think of a reason not to, and I like ice cream. The store was open anyway. Meanwhile, across 42nd Street, the line of cars at the gas pumps were backed up into the streets. It shows there was, besides all that need for togetherness, a lot of fear, too. I don't know what the cars' drivers thought was going to happen, but by gum they were going to have plenty of gas when it did. Meanwhile the station owners out of self-defense were hiking prices as high as--can you believe this?--over $2.50 a gallon.

A final vivid memory is of the next morning, when I was on my way up to WMT to do an interview with Tim Boyle. The weather was absolutely beautiful. I rode my bike past a soccer field where some team was having an early-morning practice. Such a homely scene on a gorgeous morning seemed so incongruous with what had happened, far across the country, the day before. I thought God might be reminding us that evil would not win, not this time either. I thought of the song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," especially the powerful penultimate verse.

It's interesting in 2013 to revisit those 2001 feelings, because to a great degree the legacy of our national response to 2001 is ambiguous. Of the songs I associate with that event--allowing that your playlist might well differ--only "The Bravest" by Tom Paxton is reverent. Paxton writes from the view of an office worker rescued from the towers, and praises the firefighters' bravery in the face of such danger. "Now I go to funerals of men I didn't know," he sings, because so many of those who lost their lives on 9/11 were first-responders. Yet we now know that first-responders were not told of the dangers they rushed into, particularly of the imminent collapse of the building. And those who worked at Ground Zero afterwards got debilitating or fatal illnesses they didn't bargain for, either.

"Sugarcoating" by Martin Sexton isn't just about 9/11, but it begins with the attacks. Sexton's targets are the news media; saturation coverage of the events and their aftermath were frequently emotionally manipulative and sometimes irresponsible. I was quickly struck by the fact that my parents, who were rather dramatic people to say the least, reacted to the terrorist attacks with more perspective than many people. My parents hardly ever watched television, though, and that made a lot of difference in their reaction. My wife remembers telling her students to stop watching the coverage.

I had a somewhat related problem in talking about the fall's events, which as you may remember eventually included a series of anthrax attacks, with my classes. Every day would bring more and more rumors, and the rumors dominated class discussion. I read later (I think it was in the journal Religion and Education) about people using the events as a teaching moment, but I was unable to cut through the constantly shifting misinformation to talk about anything significant.

"Talkin' Al Kida Blues" by Dan Bern is a brilliant talking blues song, although it should be listened to with caution; even today Bern's double-portion of edginess can be offensive. The same might be said of Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues," trying to get in the head of John Walker Lindh, "The American Taliban," who was present when a U.S. soldier was ambushed and killed in Afghanistan. Bern and Earle take on politicians who exploited the public's emotions for political advantage, and who quickly returned to divisive rhetoric. President Bush gave a brilliant and compassionate speech immediately after 9/11 in which he stressed we were not at war with Islam, but his administration's later push for war with Iraq ran roughshod over dissenting views and portrayed opponents as disloyal to the country.

Twelve years after 9/11, then, questions remain about how we live together in a world that contains terrorists and others who mean to do harm:

  1. How do we avoid divisions based on prejudice (political, religious, ethnic, e.g.) and driven by fear?
  2. How do we filter information? How do we deal with a news media that is often sloppy, emotional and uncritical? How do we deal with the array of information on the Internet, with its widely varying degrees of accuracy? 
  3. How do we protect fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel from unnecessary risk?
  4. What security measures allow the right balance of freedom and security? 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Their casino, our casino

(The casino at Cedar Crossing, from KWWL)

Steven Shultis, who thinks about urban issues on the Rational Urbanism blog, recently appeared on the "Strong Towns" podcast to talk about a casino proposal for his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Shultis, seemingly to his own surprise, supports the casino, and seemed at some pains to explain why an urbanist would do such a thing. His description of the Springfield proposal has some resonance for what's coming to Cedar Rapids. He points up some advantageous aspects which the two share, but also some ways in which Cedar Rapids--despite being in far better shape than Springfield--falls far short in vision.

Springfield is a city of about 150,000 in southwestern Massachusetts. Like many northeastern cities, it has suffered from the loss of industry, and in 2011 a tornado caused extensive damage. Shultis, who lives about a block from where the casino would be built, describes the downtown as a "walkable traditional neighborhood" but with a lot of poverty. The casino, proposed by MGM, was approved by local voters, and is now competing against two other proposals for the approval of the Massachusetts gaming commission. Shultis describes the other two proposals, one for suburban Springfield and one for a nearby small town, as "huge pods off the interstate... isolated from the city." So, some similarities in city size, community support, and recent natural disaster, and the fate of both currently rests in the hands of state commissions. Differences are Springfield is poorer and used to be bigger, and the state decision in Iowa is straight up-or-down without competing proposals.

Shultis makes some points in favor of the MGM proposal that apply also to the casino in Cedar Rapids. By building within the city, infrastructure will not need to be created from scratch (though it will of course need to be improved). The increase in auto traffic will be negligible over what's there already, and anyway we want more people coming downtown. The jobs created, while not appealing to professionals like me, could be a step up for people in poverty. ($20,000 a year, with benefits, says Shultis, is "about $6000 more than the median family income in my neighborhood.") Locating the casinos in their respective cities downtowns puts those jobs within easy reach of those who want them. And the land will surely more be productive (measured, for example, by tax revenue) than it is now.

So far, so good. Shultis goes on to make the following favorable points about the Springfield casino:
  1. The casino would be broken up into the existing street grid. Instead of one pod there would be several buildings, totaling 140,000 square feet of retail space including a bowling alley and a 12-plex movie theater (which downtown Springfield, like downtown Cedar Rapids, currently lacks). To get from one piece to another visitors will need to "step out of the stores into the public realm" and walk the streets of Springfield.
  2. MGM will also build 54 market-rate apartments as part of the project.
  3. MGM will not build a new entertainment venue or arena. Springfield already has an arena, symphony hall, and theater in the area. MGM will bring Cirque de Soleil and their other featured attractions to the city facilities, again enriching the urban area with pedestrians.
  4. MGM will pay a flat tax of $26 million a year on their property, regardless of income.
  5. The voters approved the host agreement between the city and MGM. If MGM is awarded the right to build the casino by the State of Massachusetts, it is obligated to honor all their promises. They can't, for example, decide not to build the bowling alley.
  6. Casino employees can take the bus to work. The hub for the bus system is two blocks away.
All these features gladden Shultis's urbanist heart. The casino could, he concludes, be the catalyst to make a struggling town successful, and he hopes the state takes that into account.

From an urbanist perspective, the Cedar Rapids casino is less alluring.
  1. The casino would be one pod, with a three-story parking garage across 1st Avenue connected by a skywalk. No movie theater, no bowling alley, and in fact, no need for a casino-goer to touch a street or even go outside.
  2. No apartments. This isn't a big issue for me, since there are several residential projects underway or planned for downtown, but it might have helped the Taylor Area.
  3. The casino will include restaurants and an event center, which downtown already has. This map, from the KWWL website, shows the proximity of the casino to the convention center which opened this summer. (Lady Antebellum was the opening act.) It's not a tough walk from the casino to the convention center or downtown restaurants, but no reason to expect casino voters will be making that walk, or any walk.
  4. The casino will pay a flat wagering tax of $1.2 million a year to the city and county, plus 1 percent of gross receipts. It's a smaller casino, but not that much smaller! It will also donate 3 percent of its gross receipts to a non-profit which will make grants to local charities.
  5. Nothing about Cedar Crossing appears to be written in stone. Last month, for example, the proposed size of the casino increased from 142,000 square feet to 171,000 square feet. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz enthused, "It's gotten even better and more beautiful than before." No telling how much more beautiful it will get before it's built. The city voters bought a pig in a poke, albeit with considerable enthusiasm judging from the 61-39 percent winning margin.
  6. Our bus system goes to bed by 7 p.m. on weekdays, and doesn't run at all on Sundays. Employees not within walking distance will need to get and drive a car to work at times when the casino is busiest. If you're busing, Route 1 goes right by the proposed site, but the rebuilt Ground Transportation Center downtown is a bit of a hike.
I expect the Linn County Casino is going to be built, and the results will not be all bad. However, despite its primo location the casino won't enhance the emerging urbanism of downtown Cedar Rapids, nor will it provide much needed connectedness between downtown and the near west side neighborhoods. How did Springfield, which is clearly in more desperate shape than Cedar Rapids, manage to swing such a favorable, far-sighted deal? How did Cedar Rapids manage to miss this opportunity?

SOURCES

Most of this essay was based on "Strong Towns" podcast #147, "The Springfield Casino," available at http://www.strongtowns.org/strong-towns-podcast/2013/8/1/show-147-the-springfield-casino.html; and ongoing coverage of the Linn County casino by The Cedar Rapids Gazette, at http://thegazette.com/linn-county-casino/. Rick Smith's article, "Investors, City Plan for Larger Casino," appeared in the Sunday, August 25, 2013 issue of the Gazette, and is online at http://thegazette.com/2013/08/25/investors-city-plan-for-larger-casino/.

Steven Shultis's blog, Rational Urbanism, is at http://rationalurbanism.com/blog/.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mayors' Bike Ride


Some Labor Day in the last decade or so, the Mayor's Bike Ride was born in Cedar Rapids, as a way for bicycling organizations to interact with elected officials. Soon the mayors of other towns were included, and the apostrophe migrated to the outside of the now plural possessive adjective. (Yes, I care about such things. I'm sorry if you don't.)

This year Labor Day was exceptionally beautiful, sunny and cool, which seemed extra-special after two weeks of unseasonable heat. That brought a record number of riders; according to the Linn County Trails Association, there were 456 participants, including the mayors of Cedar Rapids, Ely, Fairfax, Robins and Springville. We gathered in Ellis Park on the Cedar River...

...Cedar Rapids's largest park (47 acres) and one of its oldest (1901). There were no snack and drink vendors this year as there have been in the past, but there were volunteers checking in riders...

...a booth where the Linn County Trails Association had information about current and future bike trails...

...as well as one representing the Blue Zones group.

I left for my post about 9:45, apparently before any elected officials arrived, though the Cedar Rapids Gazette had a picture of Mayor Corbett in striking red bikewear so I know he was there. My post was the corner of 3rd Avenue and 10th Street, by the historic Immaculate Conception Church.



I killed the time by chatting up the talking traffic light. Though he was amazingly skilled at counting backwards, he didn't say much beyond that besides "Wait!" and "Crossing 10th Street." Well, as a friend once remarked, we can't all be Oscar Wilde. Meanwhile, other volunteers took their posts, including John Chaimov (in red), on his way to guide them around the turn at 13th St.

Eventually, the bikers arrived. I could see the first phalanx from several blocks off. They came by in clumps. I mainly contributed by pressing the "walk" button on the traffic light. Despite the holiday, there was a pretty steady flow of traffic up 10th Street, so red meant red. There were a few awkward minutes--well, three. One was a driver's fault (began to roll through a right-on-red before noticing that several dozen bicyclists were bearing down on him), one a bicyclist's (cut in front of a car), and one just bad luck (car caught trying to make a left onto 10th Street when the light changed).

According to the LCTA (of which I am a member), the goals of the ride are to promote trail development and a multi-modal transportation network, which I take to mean both off-road recreation and on-road commuting. (The route was mostly streets, but did head back downtown via the Cedar River Trail.) It is certainly impressive to see so many people out on bikes! and I hope that made an impression on everyone.

I have, as usual, a couple of reservations. First of all, a sunny holiday morning, while ideal for riding, is an artificial picture of what commuting by bike is like. There is little traffic, police get us through the tough intersections, and time is not of the essence. It's not to say we shouldn't do it, just that I don't know how many people make the leap from 'what a fun annual event' to 'I could do this every day on my way to work.'

Secondly, while riding with 455 other people certainly makes the presence of bikers visible to drivers, I wonder how many drivers see this as an unpleasant surprise and even an intrusion. One thing is the ride is not well-publicized outside the community of bikers; the Gazette published a small note in the "Things to Do" column Monday, and there was no route map. I think a map would at least prepare drivers for the presence of a squad of bikes. How to legitimize the presence of bicycles is a tougher nut to crack, but my inclination is to do it in as friendly a way as possible. Probably a lot of the solution is just getting used to "multi-modal transportation." Even so, confrontations are inevitable, even in friendly Iowa; I think more people would be encouraged to bike if those confrontations could be minimized.

Imagine Mound View

Imagine Mound View, the Cedar Rapids neighborhood festival organized by Corridor Urbanism, drew a steady and significant crowd to a norma...