Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Laudato si'

Pope Francis's second encyclical, Laudato si', is a tour de force of prophetic political thought, addressing a broad set of contemporary social ills and calling for radical change in how humans think about the world in which we live. Its 246 numbered paragraphs are eminently readable, often poetic, and draw on a variety of scriptural, religious and scientific sources. Francis's treatment of climate change has received a lot of attention--particularly his reference to "A very solid scientific consensus" on a "disturbing" level of global warming (para. #23)--but the subject is addressed in the encyclical within a more general context of human relationships to nature as well as to each other. Without rejecting established doctrine, the Pope continues his fruitful efforts to change the Church's focus from enforcing rules to engaging with people in their real lives.

An argument that runs through the piece is that human individualism has become unmoored from social or moral restraints, and as such has contributed to widespread natural destruction and human misery. The first section catalogs what is known about problems such as pollution, climate change, access to clean water, extinctions, habitat loss, human poverty, inequality and "the breakdown of society." Pope Francis blames "special interests," specifically in the technological and financial sectors, for blocking effective political responses to global problems, such that the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern (54). Human activity, "often in the service of business interests and consumerism" has negatively impacted the natural world (34). Powerful communications corporations too come in for criticism: "Media and the digital world" have abetted social pathologies (47). But the rest of us are quick to buy into, for example, a "throwaway culture" that contributes to waste and pollution (22). Overuse and commodification lead to depletion of natural resources like drinkable water (ch. I-section ii) and degrade the lives of the poor (I-vi). "Practical relativism" gives "absolute priority to [our] immediate convenience" (122). We comfort ourselves with "irrational confidence in progress and human abilities" (19)... a "modern anthropocentrism" that doesn't even bother to check to see if anyone or anything is being harmed (III-iii).

The "rapidification" of human activity (17) has brought benefits but has also had clear losers:
  • The poor and those in developing countries feel the biggest impacts of climate change (I-i). They are crowded into polluted cities, with restricted access to the beauty of nature (I-iv). Resource extraction and consumption by the North impact the global South (I-v). The poor lack access to housing (IV-iii), and technology threatens employment opportunity (III-iii). Feelings of instability and uncertainty driven by the economy lead the poor, too, to self-preoccupation (VI-i).
  • "Those who come after us" will also need to use the environment, and deserve a culture based on values and purpose instead of rampant individualism (IV-v). Future generations lose the ability to make use of animal and plant species made extinct by human activity (I-iii). Loss of resources raises the threat of wars (I-vi). 
  • The natural environment is degraded by human activity as in the loss of virgin forests and wetlands, marine life, coral reefs, and the Amazon and Congo river basins (I-iii).

The Pope's ultimate goal is ambitious. He aims to provoke major "development in human responsibility, values and conscience" (105) appropriate to the technological developments that seem to be running amok. The key is to embrace the benefits of, say, technology, but pay attention to their consequences, particularly their impacts on the more vulnerable parts of Creation. Integral ecology begins with recognizing the interconnection of everyone and everything (142), while the principle of the common good requires establishing "conditions of social life" that allow everyone, including the poor and families, ready access what they need for "their own fulfillment" (156, quoting a 1965 document issued by Vatican II). This right supersedes even the right to private property (II-vi).

Rather than embracing any existing policy platform, however, Pope Francis calls in Chapter V for dialogue about these problems that is inclusive, transparent and aimed at the common good as well as human fulfillment. The goals are extended to the natural world in Chapter VI, which calls for a "covenant between humanity and the environment" (VI-ii) and "an ecological spirituality grounded in the convictions of our faith" (216). The Pope actually rejects policy options that seem oriented to his concerns but fall short of wholesale change: carbon tax and cap-and-trade approaches to climate change, he argues, work to the disadvantage of the very poor by making energy less affordable and blocking efforts to develop poorer countries and regions (V-i). What he wants is not adoption of this or that mitigation, but a wholesale rethink of our ideas and institutions.

Pope Francis takes explicit pains to seat his argument in the Christian tradition. Here he anticipates the reactions of people like Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush--"I think that religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm"--which articulates a concept of religion as fluffily disengaged from the world. The introduction to the encyclical cites St. Francis of Assisi--an "example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically" (10)--speaking of the Earth as sister and mother (1), as well as statements on the environment by four of his five immediate predecessors in Rome (3-6; the exception is the unfortunate Pope John Paul I, who served a very short time in 1979). Part II of the encyclical is devoted entirely to arguing the need for Christians to be heard on this issue. He cites Biblical accounts of Creation to argue that God is not only the Creator but is present and revealed to us in Creation, with an ongoing "loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance" (76). As such humans owe a duty of care to each other and to the natural world that extends to "unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society" (91); no exclusion or mistreatment is permitted.

At the same time the Pope is attentive to non-Catholics and non-Christians. His list of authorities is wide. And he concludes with two prayers, one explicitly Christian and one "we can share with all who believe in a God who is an all-powerful Creator" (246).

With regard to urban life, the Pope seems ambivalent. Writing about cities, he often accentuates the negative:
Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighbourhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature. (44)
On the other hand, he advocates design that aims at "people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance. Here too, we see how important it is that urban planning always take into consideration the views of those who will live in these areas" (150). He calls for preservation of familiar landmarks as well as connections between different parts of the city (151). Public transportation needs to take priority over car-centered development: Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape (153). Urbanists would argue that if we heed #150-153 we can overcome the problems in #44.

Pope Francis's wished-for paradigm shift is hugely ambitious; his rejection of partial measures that remain within our current way of thinking means his project is all-or-nothing. It relies on others, in and out of the Catholic Church, to follow up with dialogue that he hopes will lead to new understandings, approaches and solutions. This is a conversation we absolutely need to have if we are going to live together in the future. And what alternative do we have?


Laudato si' (Praise be to you): Encyclical letter of Our Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home, 24 May 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

Ben Brown, "Pope Goes Global: Let's Talk Local," Place Makers, 22 June 2015, http://www.placemakers.com/2015/06/22/pope-goes-global-lets-talk-local/

William Shweiker, "How's the Weather in Rome?" Sightings, 2 July 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Film review: "Stonewall Uprising"

Friday's Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges ruling state marriage laws cannot discriminate against same-sex couples added a special poignancy to today's screening of "Stonewall Uprising" in the Whipple Auditorium of the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The film, first aired as part of the PBS series American Experience in 2011, portrays the pivotal events at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that began 46 years ago today.

The filmmakers do their best with a paucity of archival material. Stonewall was by all accounts unplanned, and its significance appeared only in retrospect. (In 2015 The events were downplayed in New York City media at the time, and hardly reached news elsewhere. I was a young news junkie in 1969, but never heard of Stonewall until years later. I also didn't know that I was, according to the film, living in the only state in the Union (Illinois) that did not criminalize gay sex.) It is now clear that the road to Obergefell, not to mention ending the exclusion of gays from military service, began at a dive in New York's Greenwich Village.

The first two-thirds of the 82-minute documentary is spent establishing the context. It is important to remember, in these heady days for gay rights, that not too long ago the environment was very, very different. A variety of first-person recollections, mostly from gays and lesbians but including one government official (Ed Koch) and one police officer, vividly paint this picture. Homosexuality was considered an acquired preference, a mental illness and a menace to society; the choices for gays were limited to learning to act "normal," being tortured by medical "remedies," or meeting furtively in dangerous places. Exclusion from society is not only psychically damaging, it can be physically dangerous.

The last half hour discusses the events themselves, and their aftermath. Police had stepped up raids and other enforcement mechanisms, because--well, because there was a mayoral election campaign, and the incumbent administration was looking to score political points. (The film does not neglect the awful and terrifying position in which the police found themselves, and really, I think someone could do a documentary on how police officers get stuck being the enforcers of bad public policy.) The main theme, though, is that after years of being pushed around and chased and beaten up, something snapped among the gays in the bar and eventually in the surrounding neighborhood, leading to several days of clashes and vandalism.

Finally, the film makes the case for the pivotal importance of Stonewall. Between the protests, and the city's first gay pride parade exactly one year later, there was a flurry of organization that built upon the shared outrage they had discovered in June 1969. They leave off at the parade in 1970, but the arc that led to wholesale change in American public opinion and law is clearly implied. Divisiveness can stoke political passions, and may continue to do so for a long time (see Hudak, cited below); this tide that turned in 1969 appears unlikely to recede.

By 2015 it seems obvious, or should, that wherever possible inclusion is better than exclusion: it makes communities stronger, it allows us to put our energies into building things other than walls, it is consistent with the American constitutional value of individual rights--and for what it's worth, the Christian gospel as well--and it allows gays and lesbians (or whoever we're talking about) to live within the constructs of society. We progress toward this goal, but sometimes we get sanguine and then we forget. Films like "Stonewall Uprising" help us remember where we've been, where we're going, and why we're going there.


Robert Barnes, "Supreme Court Rules Gay Couples Nationwide Have a Right to Marry," Washington Post, 26 June 2015

Harry Enten, "The GOP May Regret Its Lasting Battle Against Gay Marriage," FiveThirtyEight, 30 June 2015

John Hudak, "On Obamacare & Same Sex Marriage, the GOP Wins Big," FixGov, Brookings Institution, 26 June 2015

David Ignatius, "Resisting the Gay Marriage Ruling Would Be a Losing Battle for the GOP," Washington Post, 1 July 2015

Jacob Lupfer, "Tears of Joy, Tears of Sorrow, and Little Empathetic Listening," Century Blog, 30 June 2015

"Stonewall Uprising," American Experience, Public Broadcasting System (2011)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Envisioning CR V: Regional governance

Sprawl benefits edge city governments, but not the metropolitan region... or the environment
(Photo credit: Rich Reid, Fine Art America)
To cut to the chase: Is there anything about "regional governance" in Envisioning CR? No--probably not surprising, because Cedar Rapids can't make specific plans beyond its own boundaries. But it's important to the future of the city anyhow.

Regional governance is important because one of the major obstacles that gets in the way of addressing almost any American policy problem you care to name is that our political arrangements do not match the reality of people's lives.

Source: Wikipedia
This has not always been the case. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835-40), described an America of self-governing towns, with a few weighty matters handled at the state level and a very small number at the national level. That made sense in a world where economies were local, with town commerce linked to surrounding farms; and when most people performed all their lives' functions in a small geographic space generally within walking distance of their residence. [This isn't to say people didn't move--in the 18th and 19th centuries every generation of Nesmiths began life in a different state than the one before, and everyone's heard of the peripatetic Ingalls family of the Little House series of books--but these moves tended to be from one self-contained community to another.]

Political arrangements reflected this way of life. In self-governing towns with self-contained economies, neighbors could decide the kind of community they wanted, and could use their resources to build that community. They had to live both within the limitations of their resources and with the consequences of what they decided.

I don't want to idealize early America. Even de Tocqueville admitted his descriptions applied to a relatively small part of the country, and even that part (the Northeast) excluded blacks, Native Americans and non-conformists from full membership in the community. Slavery was legal in much of the country, gays and the mentally ill were pariahs everywhere, and women's lives were extremely and rigidly circumscribed. Today's technology and global economy provides abundant material comfort that would make most of us reluctant to return to those bygone days.

Technology and globalization bring their own sets of problems, though, and we have been slow to respond to them. My argument here is that one way in which we have been slow to respond is in our political arrangements. The national government wields power in more areas than it used to, and in a global economy that's appropriate. Still, many political decisions are made at the state and municipal level at a time when most people in their daily or economic lives encounter those boundaries as artificial.

Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton noted 14 years ago that most of us live our lives in a region, [which is] a large and multifaceted metropolitan area encompassing hundreds of places that we would traditionally think of as distinct and separate "communities" [ch. 1]. Individuals cross municipal boundaries to work and shop; investors think in terms of the whole area's reputation, work force, &c.; people across political boundary lines are economically interdependent; and they share a cultural identity as well as a natural environment. Calthorpe and Fulton argue for regional design--"conceiving the region and its elements as a unit not separately"--in order to integrate its ecology, economy, history, politics, regulations, culture and social structure [ch. 3]. Only at the regional level can effective policies be made to address efficiently issues of growth, land use, transportation, housing, poverty, education and taxation [ch. 4]. This can be facilitated by leadership at the state level--to start with, national and state transportation policy need to stop incentivizing sprawl--but requires vision in the region itself [see examples of successes and failures in ch. 8].

Sprawl not only facilitates the political atomization of metropolitan regions, it is facilitated by it. Todd Litman and his colleagues at the London School of Economics note that while sprawl benefits the individuals who can afford it, it carries substantial costs, including land use displacement, per capita infrastructure requirements, travel time and distance, traffic fatalities, and physical inactivity and obesity. They list a number of market-based policy reforms cities can pursue in the way of smart growth: cities can improve and encourage more compact housing options, reduce or eliminate minimum parking requirements, reduce development and utility fees for compact infill development, charge efficient prices for using roads and parking facilities, apply multimodal transport planning, and correct tax policies that unintentionally favor sprawl and automobile travel. But cities can't do these things if they're thwarted by state or national governments, or if other political units in the metro region have incentives to continue sprawling.

Of course, moving decision-making to the metropolitan level doesn't guarantee the decisions will be made well, as witness Dave Alden's report of the regional rail authority in Petaluma choosing to site a commuter rail station in a spot with few prospects for much residential population. But metropolitan government does mean the considerations decision-makers use will be based on the scale of the whole region, not the efforts of some political atoms to get the advantage over others.

Cedar Rapids shares a metropolitan region with several smaller communities as well as unincorporated Linn County. It has an advantage which many larger central cities--Chicago and St. Louis, for example--do not, in that it commands the vaster part of both metro population and economic resources. There are a couple of regional intergovernmental organizations: the Linn County Board of Supervisors are elected from five districts with varying mixes of urban, suburban and rural precincts. The Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization ("Corridor MPO") is a forum for discussing issues, particularly related to transportation, among appointed representatives of Cedar Rapids and five adjoining towns, the county, and key non-governmental organizations.

Neither really amounts to regional government, nor has either been notably successful at promoting regional-mindedness. Partly this is due to limited jurisdiction, but mostly it's due to revenue being handled at the municipality level. It may be in Cedar Rapids's interest to control sprawl--although if it were we wouldn't be all in on the Highway 100 extension, would we?--but controlling metropolitan growth clearly hurts the surrounding communities by robbing them of potential corporate and individual tax revenue. So Marion sprawls like the devil's on its tail, and Hiawatha and Cedar Rapids try to poach each other's businesses. A couple years ago, the MPO nearly broke up when Cedar Rapids fought with the smaller towns over funding for trails--the smaller towns wanted more money for roads--and then tried to spend trail funds to connect two sections of the downtown Skywalk.

Cedar Rapids can do a lot on its own, and its plans in Envision CR to move to complete streets and transect-based zoning will be hugely positive steps. But only a regional government could enact an urban growth boundary, no poaching, and revenue sharing such that Cedar Rapids's loss is not Hiawatha's gain. Until we get a handle on these issues as a metropolis, and stop playing games of beggar-thy-neighbor, critical issues will defy solution. As much as this true for Cedar Rapids, it's even more true for Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis, and other major metros.


Jeff Wood, "Metro Areas--True Laboratories of Democracy," Talking Headways Podcast 62, Streetsblog USA, 4 June 2015, http://usa.streetsblog.org/2015/06/04/talking-headways-podcast-metro-areas-the-true-laboratories-of-democracy/ ...interview with Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, co-author (with Jennifer Bradley) of The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Brookings Institution, 2014) on devolution of policy making in Britain from national to metropolitan government. Katz is mainly concerned about the national vs. local dimension of the level-of-government topic, and as such doesn't distinguish between cities and metropolitan areas.


Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001)
Envision CR [Cedar Rapids's master plan adopted 27 January 2015]

Todd Litman, "Urban Sprawl Costs the American Economy More Than $1 Trillion Annually," USAPP, London School of Economics and Political Science, 1 June 2015, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2015/06/01/urban-sprawl-costs-the-american-economy-more-than-1-trillion-annually-smart-growth-policies-may-be-the-answer/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Usapp+%28USAPP+-+American+Politics+and+Policy%29

"Envisioning CR I: A 24-Hour Downtown," 1 March 2015
"Envision CR II: Including the Poor," 15 March 2015
"Envision CR III: Improve Public Transportation," 6 April 2015
"Envision CR IV: Neighborhood Stores," 28 May 2015

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Citieees gone wild

Thinking about how a lot of seemingly unrelated political issues have a common origin began when Jane and I were driving on 4th Avenue SE last weekend, and stopped for a red light behind three other cars at 10th Street. After waiting a long time, and with no cars on the cross street, car #1 finally ran the light. A few cars came down 10th Street; then, after a significant pause, car #2 ran the light. A few more cars came down 10th Street, then another pause; finally, car #3 ran the light. Finally, as we came to our moment to decide, the light turned green. We'd been at the intersection at least two minutes. I don't know how long the earlier cars had been waiting. I said to Jane, "At least there wasn't one of those traffic cameras at the light." Jane pointed out that there was, in fact, a camera above the intersection:

I had the awful vision of drivers #1, 2 and 3 getting unpleasant surprises in their mailboxes soon. Thanks to informed citizen Phillip Platz, however, I know that the purpose of this particular camera is to monitor the intersection so that traffic lights changed in a timely fashion. Which, of course, they weren't doing on this particular afternoon.
What real traffic cameras look like; from wbir.com
Meanwhile, though, it got me thinking...

My town of Cedar Rapids is engaged in a court battle with the Iowa Department of Transportation over placement of traffic cameras on Interstate 380 near downtown. IDOT wants them down because they're too close to a change in speed limit, thus amounting to a speed trap; Cedar Rapids claims their presence has reduced the number of accidents on a dangerous curve. But the city also notes that they stand to lose more than $2 million in revenue if the cameras go away (Smith "Traffic Cameras," cited below).

I'm a big believer in safe driving, and applaud almost anything that will slow cars through town. But even so I have a tough time swallowing that the cameras' primary purpose is anything other than to fulfill a desperate need for revenue.

How did we come to such a desperate revenue pass? There are multiple factors, of course, some of which are out of our control, but it is undeniable that governments at every level in the U.S. are over-extended. (For an illustration with unusually clear numbers, see Charles Marohn's charts from Hays, Kansas.) We believed for a long time that we could expand our way to ever-greater prosperity, with happy lives in large-lot subdivisions for all, and that informed 70 years of development after World War II. Now citizens, particularly lower-income citizens, face limits on their economic opportunity based on increased distance from where the jobs are (Holmes and Berube); governments face the long-term obligations incurred by expansion that are coming due; and it's increasingly apparent we had bought into what Strong Towns calls a "Ponzi scheme," with up-front benefits of development eventually outweighed by debt payments and the deferred costs of keeping it going:
The issue we face with our current pattern of development is that it fosters short-term thinking and an illusion of wealth. The math simply does not work in its favor in the long run. When you lose money on every transaction, you don’t make it up in volume. ("Follow the Curbside Chat")
It's no wonder cities are in difficult situations, with few ways out. One approach is to reduce expenditures, which involves cutting services and deferring maintenance (see D. Weissman on Chicago). Schools suffer, veterans suffer, buildings go uninspected, potholes get bigger, and so forth. Governments lose support as they become less able to respond to citizen expectations. Political rhetoric ratchets up, and fingers get pointed, often at the wrong targets: the poor for budget deficits, teachers for educational outcomes, bicyclists for potholes (see Dutzick, Weissman and Baxandall on that last one), or the ever-mysterious-but-convenient catch-all category of "waste."

Or you could try budget gimmicks, which is really creating the illusion of fiscal health and kicking the problem down the road (Gregg, Haddon).

Another approach is to go for infusions of revenue--essentially, to keep the Ponzi approach going a little longer. This would explain why the City of Cedar Rapids keeps hoping to revive the casino project (Smith, "Casino Consolidation")--and why casinos in other cities killed it at the state level--and why cities like ours keep heeding the blandishments of developers who promise their projects will create jobs and enrich the whole town and not just themselves. It explains state lotteries, speed traps, the fascination with traffic cameras, and states putting crippling fees on people in the criminal justice system (Liptak)--each of which winds up alienating the citizens the government is supposed to be serving. And, perversely, it explains the ongoing lure of supply-side economics, which promises tax cuts will produce economic growth resulting in increased revenues--such as Kansas and Wisconsin are currently not experiencing. Experience can be a good teacher, but only when desperation isn't preventing us from heeding her lessons.

There is another option. Governments at local and higher levels could re-orient themselves, returning to time-tested fundamentals to build a fiscally-sound place that is resilient to economic shocks. It's a slow process, which won't make our current debts instantly disappear, and there aren't the photo opportunities that come with a ribbon cutting or the applause that comes with a tax cut. But it requires neither swinging wildly for the fiscal fences, nor creating bad feeling between government and citizens.


Tony Dutzick, Gideon Weissman and Phineas Baxendall, Who Pays for Roads?: How the "Users Pay" Myth Gets in the Way of Solving America's Transportation Problems (Frontier Group, 2015), http://frontiergroup.org/reports/fg/who-pays-roads

"Follow the Curbside Chat," Strong Towns, http://www.strongtowns.org/curbside-chat#about-1

Katherine Gregg, "House GOP Outlines Fix for Bridges," Providence Journal, 16 June 2015, A1

Heather Haddon, "Panel Singles Out New Jersey For Budget Maneuvers," Wall Street Journal, 8 June 2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2015/06/08/panel-singles-out-new-jersey-for-budget-maneuvers/

Natalie Holmes and Alan Berube, "Close to Home: Social Mobility and the Growing Distance between People and Jobs," Social Mobility Memos, Brookings Institution, 9 June 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/social-mobility-memos/posts/2015/06/09-social-mobility-jobs-berube?utm_campaign=Brookings+Brief&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=18264819&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9f009REn0ZPQS0oWzP6iaI_3jkGaKuiArOLAZ17QRJvG3zYrixi4YH8YM8aTQvfQ6WDCkheav2yXE_eKQJybO2Yux88w&_hsmi=18264819

Adam Liptak, "Debt to Society is Least of Costs for Ex-Convicts," New York Times, 23 February 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/23/national/23fees.html?_r=0

Rick Smith, "Traffic Cameras Still On; Cedar Rapids Will Decide Quickly on Next Step," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 13 May 2015, http://thegazette.com/subject/news/traffic-cameras-still-on-cedar-rapids-will-decide-quickly-on-next-step-20150513

Rick Smith, "Casino Consolidation Raises Cedar Rapids' Hopes," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 June 2015, http://thegazette.com/subject/news/three-kehl-casinos-consolidate-20150604

Dan Weissman, "How Bad Are Chicago's Debt Problems, Really?" Marketplace, 9 June 2015, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/economy/how-screwed-chicago-really

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Riding on infrastructure with the Corridor MPO

Many of the riders gathered in front of The Hotel at Kirkwood
Corridor MPO, the county-wide organization charged with coordinating transportation initiatives, touted a number of bicycle-related projects Saturday on the second annual MPO Bike Ride. Multi-modal transportation planner Brandon Whyte led the tour of sites including protected bike lanes in Cedar Rapids, a trail extension from Ely into rural Linn County, and a proposed trail bridge across the Cedar River.

Brandon Whyte pauses on 3rd St SE to discuss green paint
Besides the protected lanes to be installed on 3rd Avenue this summer, Whyte also demonstrated the green striping of bike lanes downtown. These are being added near intersections to show where the lanes start and to distinguish them from auto traffic lanes. The city has experimented with two types of paint, MMX (pictured above) and thermoplastic (below).
The thermoplastic costs about twice as much, but is brighter and considerably more durable, so would not only pay for itself but also be more serviceable. The paint is funded by a grant from Linn County Public Health.

Across the river, the MPO is working on a connection between the Cedar River Trail (which runs along a bluff at this point) and the park area being developed by the City of Cedar Rapids in Czech Village.
The connector would come down from the trail as pictured above at about 21st Avenue SW...

...and continue along streets to Bowling Street, ultimately connecting the Cedar River Trail with the cycle track that runs alongside Bowling beginning at Wilson Avenue. The cycle track itself is in hope of an upgrade, and most of the riders eventually retreated to the street. There are about 30 curb cuts on Bowling between Wilson and Miller Avenues--I lost count--and a potentially dangerous water main, but the real problem is the interfacing (or lack thereof) between track and the driveways, which makes for a bumpy ride. I didn't get a really good example when I finally stopped for a picture: the interfacing at this driveway is smooth enough, but the patches are rather treacherous anyhow.

Brandon suggested they might look into bike lanes on Bowling Street to supplement or replace the cycle track. The cycle track ends at Miller; we proceeded to Kirkwood Community College for a tour of the hotel and Kirkwood Center for Hospitality Arts...
Brian Schooley, Front Office Manager
...and then rejoined the Cedar River Trail on Wright Brothers Boulevard. Around Kirkwood and in rural Linn County the biking is rather iffy away from the trail: narrow highways and fast cars mean bicycles mix awkwardly. Fortunately, at least on Saturday morning, traffic was light and there were only one or two mildly awkward encounters.

The ride continued as far as Ely, 11 miles southeast of New Bohemia, where we stopped at the community center located in the re-purposed Ely School.

Ely School was built in 1923, held classes until 1969, and was converted to a community center in 1973.

Only the exterior is from the 1920s; the interior was entirely re-done in the 1970s.

In the council's conference room, Ely Mayor Jim Doyle announced the town's support for extending the trail from Ely City Park (where it currently terminates) through and out of Ely south to the county line (Seven Sisters Road). When the other counties complete their parts the Hoover Nature Trail will go all the way to Burlington! Ely is currently deciding among a number of possible routes through town:

An MPO representative from Marion described efforts in that city to complete its portion of the CEMAR trail, as well as repair or replace railroad bridges over Marion Boulevard and Indian Creek; and John Wauer talked up the Linn County Trails Association (of which your humble blogger is a member).

We had a refreshment stop at Odie's Bar and Grill on Dows Street (blocked off for a street dance scheduled that evening). Some of us interpreted this as lunchtime, and I'm glad I did: The tenderloin sandwich was timely and delicious, and the restrooms were nicer than the ones at my house. For the record, those familiar with Ely also commended the coffee at The Retreat. So trail riders are sure to be well-taken-care-of.

It was trail all the way back to Cedar Rapids, an easy glide but for the horizontal spitting rain that seems to appear whenever Brandon Whyte plans an event. (Ha ha--Just checking to see if he's reading this!) There was one more thing to see: Steve Sovern of the South Side Investment Board stopped at the site of a railroad bridge known as the "Sleeping Giant" that was destroyed in the 2008 flood, and which advocates are hoping to turn into a pedestrian-and-bike path for a different entrance to New Bohemia, or a loop for people coming from the north.

It would intersect the Cedar River trail as it goes by the landfill (which local officials prefer to call "Site A," but which Sovern prefers to call "Mt. Trashmore"). The cost of the bridge would run to $3-4 million, so Sovern and his associates are working with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation on grant writing.

Steve Sovern (center) answers a question about the Sleeping Giant project
The projects discussed along the way were a mix of recreational and commuter uses, which is a fair reflection of the future of biking in America. The MPO webpage offers the information, courtesy of the National Complete Streets Coalition, that 52 percent of Americans want to bicycle more, and that most of them cite the condition of the streets as at least one reason why they don't. Projects like protected bike lanes downtown, bike lanes on high-traffic routes, and trails help serve that portion of the public. (They serve the non-biking public, too, whether they're aware of it or not, but that's a subject for another day.)

SEE ALSO Linn County road map, for those of you following along at home

Opportunity Zones in CR

Construction on 12th Ave in New Bohemia; does this look under-invested? Three census tracts in the center of Cedar Rapids have been des...