Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One way or two?

The City of Cedar Rapids is converting a number of its one-way streets in the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods to two-way... or more precisely, back to two-way, since all of these streets used to be two-way back in the day. The process is being implemented gradually; additional street conversions are planned over the next five years, including the 2nd-3rd Avenue pair, the 4th-5th Avenue pair and the 7th-8th Street pair (only from 4th Avenue out). 3rd Avenue in particular will feature pedestrian areas and protected bike lanes, and numerous intersections are switching from traffic signals to four-way stops.

3rd Avenue SE at the entrance of Redmond Park; by 2020 this will be one lane each way

The city states four goals for the effort:
  1. make the streets accessible and easier to navigate
  2. improve opportunities to walk or bike [BN: I know bikers who will dispute this]
  3. increase visibility of downtown businesses
  4. slow traffic

There seems to be consensus that one-way streets are efficient means of moving automobile traffic through an area--limited-access highways being the quintessential example. That was indeed the purpose of converting city streets to one-way, beginning in the 1950s. That goal is enough justification for some people, but experience has shown adverse effects on pedestrian safety, business viability, and residential neighborhood comfort. For instance, along several miles of one-way streets in Cedar Rapids there is not a single successful commercial area (possibly excepting the Oakland Road Hy-Vee) and the remaining residential areas (in Mound View, Wellington Heights and the Taylor Area) are struggling.

Planner and author Jeff Speck summarizes:
One-ways wreck downtown retail districts for reasons beyond [faster and more aggressive] driving, principally because they distribute vitality unevenly, and often in unexpected ways. They have been known to kill stores consigned to the morning path to work, since people do most of their shopping on the evening path home. They also increase a situation in which half the stores on cross-streets lose their retail visibility, being located over the shoulders of passing drivers. They intimidate out-of-towners, who are afraid of becoming lost, and they frustrate locals, who are annoyed by all the circular motions and additional traffic lights they must pass through to reach their destinations. (Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, pp. 179)
Speck cites the experience of Savannah, Georgia, which lost 2/3 of taxpaying addresses along East Broad Street after it was converted to one-way in 1969, but regained most of them after it was converted back to two-way (2012: 180). Can Cedar Rapids expect a similar transformation? Past experience is no guarantee of future results, but really, the conditions through which these one-ways run mean there's not much to lose by trying.

Criticisms of Cedar Rapids's one-way to two-way conversion fall along two lines. The first expects disastrous effects on auto traffic: more traffic jams, more accidents, and in general downtown becoming a frustrating tangle. In part this is informed by a viewpoint that privileges auto travel, as well as a view of downtown as a place to drive to, park ideally for free, do something and leave (which I do, too, but is economically unsustainable if that's all it is). But there's also this point: the places created by improving commercial and residential conditions are at the same time situated along paths to get to and from other locations. The conversions of 2nd and 3rd Avenues might divert more traffic to 1st and 8th Avenues, which can probably take more. But if 1st and 8th are road-dieted, then what happens? This bears watching.
4th Avenue SE before conversion to two-way: Will conversion help stimulate development?
4th Avenue today. Tomorrow?
The second objection anticipates mass confusion to be caused by the incremental way in which the project is being implemented. (See this local news story.) At this writing, for example, 3rd Avenue is one-way from 13th St to 6th St SW; two-way, with bike lanes protected by parallel parking, from 6th St SW to 3rd St SE; one-way from 3rd St to 8th St SE; two-way from 8th St to 13th St SE; and one-way from 13th St to 19th St SE (after which it becomes Linden Drive and two-way). Resulting confusion would be understandable, particularly as the layout changes over time. Possible mitigating factors are: (a) on none of these streets are we unable to travel in the direction we've been accustomed to; (b) a slow process spreads out cost and is reversible if problems arise; and (c) confusion can be functional if it forces drivers to focus on driving. I must also say that most of the wrong-way driving I've seen is on one-way streets of long-standing, particularly 13th Street/College Drive (same street... changes names when it crosses 1st Avenue).

Ultimately, though, the one-way to two-way conversion project needs to do more than not cause harm. This is a lot of effort to go to if we end up with the same downtown except for different, slower auto traffic patterns plus some bike lanes. The conversion project will be a success only if it contributes to the transformation of downtown.

David Sucher writes, in City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village (City Comforts Inc., rev. ed., 2003, p. 86), if one's goal is to move as many cars as possible through a neighborhood, the couplet [of one-way streets] works well. But if the goal is to create comfortable shopping districts, make streets two-way. The conversion will be a success if it facilitates transformation of the city center into a 24-hour downtown, with a successful commercial enterprises, permanent residents and cultural attractions all contributing to a vibrant place. This would be a lot different from what's there now, albeit there have been some important seeds planted. Conversion doesn't guarantee transformation--a lot depends on how surrounding areas (particularly the MedQuarter) develop, the emergence of entrepreneurs, and favorable overall economic and social conditions. (For more on what makes a neighborhood or downtown area walkable, see Susan Henderson, "Walkability: It's Not About the Buildings or Even the Streets, It's About the Experience," Place Shakers, 14 September 2015). But time and experience have shown that the couplet never gets this done.

Why get it done at all? Is it any more than the preferences of one set of people being imposed on others? To some degree, urban living and bicycling and such are more popular than they were a generation ago. We shouldn't build our cities to exclude those choices, but to enable the broadest set of choices possible. Even more critically, the environment, public health, and city finances simply cannot stand another generation of development like the last two. We have to do things differently, and we have to do them in city centers.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Now is the summer (and fall) of our discontent

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Cedar Rapids

As a political scientist based in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, I have a front row seat at the races for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. This should be exciting, particularly since both the putative front runners, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are notably under-performing, such that the eventual outcome is more in doubt than ever. Many people are excited, and expect me to be excited. In fact, I am finding the campaigns to be rather painful.

Ben Carson campaigns in Washington, Iowa

I want you to know that I feel guilty about this. For one thing, there are plenty of political scientists across this great land of ours who would love to be in Iowa during caucus season, and could take great advantage of it, although they would mostly be eating the dust of Iowa State's renowned Dr. Politics. I realize I am taking up valuable space, while my sensitive nature would be better off in a more electorally quiet place, such as Guam.
Note the bench in the shade. Swiped from guam-online.com

I am wary of seeming disrespectful of my friends and students who are working on campaigns. I also am wary of showing a "too cool for school" attitude about politics. I am not too cool for school. I understand the necessity of politics for our common life, and certainly campaigns and elections are essential parts of that. I will participate in the caucus and in the general election, and I will care deeply about the outcome.

Martin O'Malley campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Still, the process is far from edifying. There is, to start with, a numbing sameness to the candidates' appeals. They begin with a more-or-less accurate synopsis of current problems, including stagnant wages, the immigration issue, educational outcomes, various international threats and (depending on the party) structural budget deficits or the environment. Then there's the calling out of the enemy: unions for Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, the superrich for Bernie Sanders, or anyone else who doesn't understand "our" values. That makes us angry! and we have anecdotes that will make you angry, too! (Bobby Jindal's didn't even sound true.) Time out for some biography to establish solidarity between the candidate and us, for which a lot of candidates make jokes about raising children. Finally, what this country needs is a candidate who can overcome the nefarious efforts of the enemy and restore America to what it once was. Getting down to policy specifics, this means "the usual suspects" and talking points the parties have been respectively advocating for decades. I will give some credit to Rand Paul for articulating a libertarian ideology that differs in some respects from Republican orthodoxy, and to Bernie Sanders for putting unusual stress on labor issues (albeit that's a traditional Democratic constituency).

And everybody's angry. The candidates are angry, the audiences are angry. This is understandable. We do live in uncertain times, and real workable solutions to our problems are not readily available, particularly given the ideological stalemates in Congress. There's a story about the preacher's note to himself in the margin of his sermon: "Weak point--pound pulpit." And the partisan audiences at these events seem happiest when they're fed the soul-stirring reassurance of red meat. Lindsay Graham took a question at his event: "Defunding Planned Parenthood." That was not the subject of the question; that was the question. Here are my buttons--please push them. (Graham obliged by answering "yes," of course; the wise candidate notes that Planned Parenthood makes a lot of people angry.)
Lindsay Graham campaigns in Mt. Pleasant

Moreover, there's an unreality about the campaign rhetoric that I find off-putting. The candidates are not talking about the things that matter, or when they do their oversimplification verges on grotesque. Case in point: One of the best things about my year has been the emergence of a monthly chat in Cedar Rapids devoted to urban issues. We talk about transportation, housing developments, and locally-owned businesses. We don't talk about presidential politics, although not because we've intentionally forsworn it. My best answer to the question, "Based solely on the issues we discuss at the New Urbanism Working Group, who is the best candidate to support in 2016?" would be "Not applicable." Another highlight of 2015 were the presentations by Chuck Marohn in Iowa City and Ely. So let's ask: "Which candidate comes closest to the Strong Towns vision of 'an America where our cities, towns and neighborhoods are financially strong and resilient?'" My answer: "Not applicable."

Mike Huckabee campaigns in Iowa City

When a campaign's goals are merely to repeal the gains of the enemy and to restore what used to be back in the allegedly good old days, the candidates overlook ways in which the world has fundamentally changed: the nature of work and international trade, for instance, or our understandings of public health and the environment. Democrats are comfortable with government action but not with articulating trade-offs such as impacts on the budget or small businesses. Republicans are uncomfortable with government action on domestic problems, which requires them to deny the very existence of problems like climate change and unfair labor conditions. Four years ago The Economist observed:
As the Republican base has become ever more detached from the mainstream, its list of unconditional demands has become ever more stringent. Nowadays, a candidate must believe not just some but all of the following things: that abortion should be illegal in all cases; that gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it; that the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home; that the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame; that global warming is a conspiracy; that any form of gun control is unconstitutional; that any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk; that Israel can do no wrong and the “so-called Palestinians,” to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right; that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished. ("The Right Republican," Economist, 31 December 2011, p. 7)
It certainly doesn't help this year's batch of candidates to have to pretend we live in an alternative universe, exacerbated by Donald Trump serving as the role model for candidates saying outlandish things in hopes of media attention.The Republicans' friends-or-enemies approach to foreign policy is if anything even loopier.
Bobby Jindal campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Finally none of the candidates I've seen have articulated a plausible vision for our common life. Three decades on, the campaigns are stuck in Ronald Reagan's America. Republicans rehash Reagan's homely vision of a better life for all based on people who are different from us behaving more like us. Bobby Jindal's harangue against "hyphenated Americans" is an extreme example of addressing diversity by denying its existence. [I wondered how that played at the Swedish American Museum in Swedesburg, Iowa, but then realized there is no hyphen in its name.] Democrats as well as some Republicans follow Reagan's tactic of promising benefits for us paid for by someone else (if not the magic of supply-side tax cuts, then it's higher taxes on the rich and/or cuts in someone else's benefits). Non-discrimination and access to economic opportunity are undeniably prerequisites to common life, but if we stop there we're still talking about Mary Ann Glendon's "lone rights-bearer." Who is articulating the idea that the good life requires other people, that the benefits of common life also require that we contribute to it, and authentic common life accommodates rather than denies diversity because, if nothing else, we've learned it's healthier than monoculture?
Rand Paul campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day weekend

With little thanks to the weather, civic life was hopping this weekend in Cedar Rapids.

Friday night Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders brought his presidential campaign to the Coe College campus. Sanders is far from the only candidate in the race, but has been generating the largest crowds and the most excitement.

A week-long heat-and-humidity wave continued:
A substantial crowd gathered nonetheless.

Sanders spoke for nearly an hour, from notes. He didn't take questions.
The crowd reaction was enthusiastic anyhow.

The New Bo Arts Fest was Saturday and Sunday. Pictures are from Sunday afternoon, when crowds were down. (They were larger on Saturday evening.) Music was provided by the Fabulous Yahoo Drummers at the little amphitheater by the New Bo Market.
They inspired some dancing among the young and heat-impervious.

Artists sold their works from booths along 3rd Street.

Meanwhile in the wonderful old Cherry Building on 10th Avenue...

...which is ebulliently decorated...

...the shops had open houses (here, Black Earth Arts):

Monday, Labor Day, began with a light rain and a weather forecast calling for periodic thunderstorms throughout the day. Those undeterred by that were blessed with sunshine, cooler temperatures--a perfect day for the Mayors' Bike Ride. They gathered at Ellis Park...

I was stationed, for the third year in a row, at 3rd Avenue and 10th Street SE. One more year and I think they award me the corner. Either that or I'll have to start tithing to Immaculate Conception.

Speaking of which, Immaculate Conception added to the Labor Day weekend festivities with a special mass at 9:00 in honor Jimmie Coutentos, who died one year ago today at the age of 83.

A little past 10, the riders' approached...

No accidents, but a close call when the driver waiting to turn left onto 10th Street suddenly hurtled his SUV into the line of bikers (who were fortuitously skilled in evasion).

A holiday weekend is an opportunity to enjoy what the city has to offer, and the energy brought to the city by hundreds (thousands?) of our fellow residents, as well as a reminder that we also need to make room for each other.

"Mayors' Bike Ride," September 3, 2013
"Indulging in Urban Fantasy," September 6, 2014

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...