Thursday, November 1, 2018

Trails opened, trails in the works, and other Corridor biking news

Cycling in the Corridor is being celebrated as summer turns into fall, with more infrastructure and increased levels of participation, in spite of enduring more than our share of foul weather.

On August 26 the last leg of the Cedar Valley Trail was opened, from downtown Ely to the Johnson County line.
Trail displays and guides were provided by the Linn County Trails Association

Not quite finished: intersection of  Ely and Seven Sisters Roads

Posh new bridge

Where it ends, for now
Eventually, the trail will connect to the Hoover Nature Trail in Johnson County, which extends all the way to the Quad Cities

Access to Lake MacBride State Park and the town of Solon will be via this roundabout:

There was some rain on the ride, inevitably, but not enough to throw it off.

The same cannot be said for the annual Mayors' Bike Ride on Labor Day.

The forecast called for heavy rains with thunder, forcing its cancellation. There was a lot of rain that weekend:

So we had to be content with recalling Labor Days of yore.
A dry and sunny Mayors' Bike Ride in 2015

More rain later in the month both delayed completion and forced postponement of the scheduled September 30 opening of a new stretch of the Grant Wood Trail near Marion. The Cedar River got above flood stage three separate times...
3rd Avenue bridge, 25 September 2018
...forcing closure of some other trails, but unlike 2008 there was no major damage. Phillip Platz, astute urbanist in charge of communications for the Linn County Trails Association, promises a ribbon cutting ceremony and opening ride soon.

There's no questioning public interest in trails, particularly after the extraordinary turnout at a late October forum on how a ped-bike trail included in the Tower Terrace Road project will interface with Interstate 380, where there will be a new exit constructed in the next few years.

Tower Terrace Road will be gradually improved, to accommodate current congestion and anticipated future growth, from Edgewood Road to Route 13.

Given current rates of funding, that will take approximately 30 years to complete! However, the exit off the Interstate is of highest priority and is expected to happen soon.

Current plans call for at-grade crossings across exit ramps.

An alternative proposal is to route the path through a tunnel to avoid cross-traffic.
The alternative is somewhat more expensive--maybe $500,000 on top of an $18 million project--but the attendees appeared strongly supportive. I agree... the additional cost is marginal, and would ensure the path got used. It will be a cool way to get from Marion and the northern parts of Cedar Rapids to Wickiup Hill Park, but only if people feel they can safely ford the highway.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Will we ever stop being angry?

(Source: Wikimedia commons)

Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) has a new book out, subtitled "Why We Hate Each Other--and How to Heal." Three weeks before the midterm elections, Sasse seems to be speaking to a weariness in at least some corners of America with the fraught, angry, tribal nature of our national politics. Perhaps, reader, you are one of the weary ones? I certainly am, being the sensitive sort who readily relates to the Framers' concern with the "tumults and disorders" that surround elections. Or perhaps you enjoy being angry? A few years ago, a Cedar Rapids activist allowed, "I have low blood pressure. When I get mad, I feel good." The problem for me is, these days election campaigns are always going on, especially though not only because President Trump is a bottomless well of offensive inflammatory remarks. He is a symptom, not a cause, of our present discontents.

A colleague walked into my office yesterday, observing that people on the left and the right are contributing to the public anger. At that time I rose to the shiny lure of "false equivalence," but I think if we're going to be productive here we need to jump quickly past the assignment of blame. Besides, to some degree anyway, he's right (Frenkel 2008).

Maybe I'm besotted with economics, but I think a good way to start understanding people's actions is to look for the incentives that drive them. Politicians, whose career success depends on winning elections, will take the stances and pursue the measures that will get them comfortably reelected; if they don't they are likely to be replaced by somebody who does that better. In the 1970s and 1980s, we used to think that mostly meant competing with the other party for the majority of the public in the center of the political spectrum. But as voters have sorted themselves ideologically--they're typically all left or all right on a wide range of seemingly-unrelated issues--there's less of a middle to compete for. (Voters have also sorted themselves geographically, so individual representatives often come from more politically homogeneous districts, and so their main danger is not from the center but from within their own party... so their electoral incentives are against compromise.) In a bipolar political universe, you try to rally your base, and you fear the other side's base. Besides, strong emotional appeals are more likely to encourage donations and volunteering, which are the vital forces of any competitive campaign. (See R. Kenneth Godwin, One Billion Dollars of Influence [Chatham House, 1988], ch. 3).

Whichever came first, the polarized public or polarizing politicians, they have a reinforcing effect on each other. The red meat that Party A rationally throws to its base is going to anger followers of Party B, and provide them greater amounts of their own red meat. Those who remain in the center, those who once provided a moderating influence in politics and government, are either leaving in disgust, or choosing the "lesser of two evils" and contributing to the success of the extremists of either Party A or Party B. News media and websites, following the examples of the interest groups Godwin studied, find market niches by appealing to strong partisans with more partisan appeals. This too contributes to the roaring bonfire of public anger.

What I'm describing, with my dime-store game theory, is a political world where anger pays and moderation does not, with the byproduct being increasing levels of anger on both sides. Think of an alternative where a player can choose an uncooperative strategy with a 50% chance of complete success and a 50% chance of complete failure, or a cooperative strategy with a higher chance of partial success--say, 75% chance of 75% success. (Obviously, I'm making these numbers up.) Based on expected value, you'd choose the cooperative success unless you estimated the chance of partial success with the cooperative strategy even slightly lower--say, 70% chance of 70% success. Or if we added another rule whereby the uncooperative had unlimited chances to play and the cooperative had to quit after one turn.

See the source image
If, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich advises, we think of people with different politics than ours as "sick" and "traitors," we would also get some utility in preventing them from attaining any of their "destructive" and "corrupt" goals. There's no such thing as joint gains in a world where I view anything you gain as inherently a loss for me (not to mention America). That needs to be factored into our game as well.

Is anyone, in this sort of world, likely to be constrained in their statements and actions? Could there possibly be incentives to counteract those which are provoking ever-higher levels of anger?

The country has, occasionally, come together in recent years, most memorably after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bipartisan coalitions in Congress have formed around certain necessary actions, like economic stimulus during the 2008 recession, or avoiding government shutdowns. But these were momentary emergencies, and the impulses to cooperation proved short-lived. My sense is the default state of political affairs, even in these times of great uncertainty, is going to be laden with anger, stoked by partisan rivalry.

Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University, whose book The Disappearing Center (Yale University Press, 2010) is as good an account of political polarization as any, concluded that partisan-ideological polarization is not going away any time soon.... Even if efforts at bipartisanship are sincere and not mere window dressing, the differences between the two parties on almost every major domestic and foreign policy issue are so great and the numbers of moderates in both parties are so small that reaching any agreement will be almost impossible (p. 169). Given that, the more direct route for either party to achieving its policy goals is to win unified control of the Presidency and Congress. Given how nationally competitive the parties are nationally, this prospect is always within reach for both Democrats and Republicans. Case in point: Republicans control the Presidency and Congress today, but Democrats have designs on capturing the House next month, and think about how little would have had to change in 2016 for Democrats already to have control of the rest. This alone motivates both sides to gin up their respective bases, which raises everyone's blood pressure.

Once in control of the levers of government, the prospect of losing control is always just around the corner, too. So the incentive is to act quickly around issues that unify the base, rather than working to achieve common solutions.

If there is hope from either side to lead us out of this vortex of anger, it would probably have to come from the Democrats. (Bear with me here--I'm not just being partisan!!) Republicans are heavily invested in President Trump, vicious rhetoric and reckless disregard for the truth notwithstanding. Moreover, Democrats are the "party of government," in domestic policy at least, so have more to lose when government doesn't work.

It is pleasant to imagine a Democratic President in 2021, using their position to lead the country back together. They could seek policies on issues of common concern; offer policy concessions to Republicans; and include members of the opposition in key appointments. But President Obama did all these things, and look where it got him--and the body politic. It's easy to imagine additional items Obama might have pursued--malpractice reform in the Affordable Care Act, for example--but it's hard to think of successful approaches to national leadership that haven't already been tried.

I think we're stuck with this situation for a long time. Eventually something may come along that really shakes things up. That will bring its own trauma, of course. In the meantime, individuals are best advised to do what they can to avoid the crazy, and to avoid adding to it.

Elizabeth Bruenig, "The Left and Right Cry Out for Civility, But Maybe That's Asking for Too Much," Washington Post, 16 October 2018: similar topic and worth a read, though it addresses public expression rather than public attitudes
"What's the Matter with Congress?" Holy Mountain, 30 May 2013: review essay of recent works on political polarization.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bret Kavanagh and the art of protest

Judge Bret Kavanagh's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court was confirmed by the Senate this weekend by nearly the narrowest of margins, 51-49. While any appointment by President Donald Trump would have been cheered by conservatives and damned by liberals, Kavanagh's selection was especially problematic because of [a] time spent as a partisan hatchet man, about which he has been less than candid; [b] recent conversion to a broad view of presidential immunity, which might have been what attracted him to Trump; and then, at the eleventh hour, [c] several accusations of sexual assault or harassment.

Those last were the occasion for a spectacular hearing September 27, featuring separate interviews with Kavanagh and his first accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Then followed a brief follow-up investigation by the FBI, a clumsy and clueless interjection by the President, and some senatorial speeches, before Saturday's vote. Much, or not much, was revealed in this cauldron of a week; what was revealed depends on your frame of reference.

For many women, the situation described by Dr. Ford rang all too familiarly, as did the dismissive-to-angry responses of Kavanagh and his backers, including the Senate leadership and the President. It reopened personal experiences, or the experiences of close friends, because a year on the "#Metoo" movement has shown that an astonishing (to this naive male, anyway) pervasiveness of sexual aggression by powerful men. Even if it didn't happen to Ford and the other accusers, similar behavior has happened so frequently that the confirmation saga rubbed a lot of raw wounds. For these women and their friends, the political became painfully personal.

So it was so surprise, when I returned to Washington this weekend for a professional meeting, to find a lot of people gathered in protest of the Senate's handling and eventual confirmation of Kavanagh's nomination. When I went out Saturday morning, I found a sizable contingent preparing for some "civil disobedience"--not sure how that turned out. Across the street was a man with a very loud microphone addressing a small audience, on the same topic. Then there was this group, gathered in front of the Capitol.
The rally was organized by students from area law schools. Speeches were short but well-articulated and passionate. They called out Kavanagh and some of the offending senators, but mostly they demanded a country in which women are safe from sexual predation--a vision we should all be able to celebrate. I find it personally energizing to be around so much energy and passion, and I hope they're able to sustain that energy, not just for the midterm elections but into their careers and their lives as citizens.

On the other side of the ledger, there's this.
This is bad. Don't do this. I shouldn't have to explain why, but my whole professional identity is based on explanation, so I will. Expression of political views can be as strong and as pointed and as public as you wish, but don't follow people. Or attack them when they're eating dinner. (Senator McConnell is in the top three of people responsible for the general fix we're now in, but I'd still treat him like a human being, and allow him the same zone of privacy I value.) And don't do this, for goodness' sake.
Because then we've made it about the person, and just about winning by whatever means, instead of about a positive vision for living together in the 21st century.

When we protest, we call out what is wrong and demand/promise it be made right, "as God gives us to see the right," to quote Abraham Lincoln. Parker Palmer writes about the power of "hearts broken open" (as opposed to "broken apart") to work with others to heal the world's wounds. As the student speakers outside the Capitol repeatedly articulated, this isn't just about one judge, or one President, or on election--it's about building a common life where everyone is heard, and valued, and safe, and has the opportunity to live their best lives. President Trump has shown he does not share this vision, and the Republican leaders who have enabled his toxic rhetoric clearly don't value it, either. We who care about communities should no more emulate his toxicity than we do his hostility. As some of us (like me) become aware of the indignities many of us have known all too well, let our broken hearts help us see what needs changing, and to build the world we need.

SEE ALSO:"The Scary Side of Urbanism," 18 October 2017

Letter from Washington (IX): A rather dramatic nonevent

Sniper atop the White House
Washington, D.C. is a rather dramatic place, even if--or maybe especially when--nothing of much significance is happening. Last Saturday I was back in town for a professional meeting, after which I wandered over to Lafayette Park by the White House.
The Marquis de Lafayette

Thanks to my having a guidebook along [cite] I knew that this house... where President William McKinley and Senator Marc Hanna met to decide policy. Blair House... where a police officer was killed protecting President Harry S. Truman from an assassination attempt, and this courtyard... at the location where Secretary of State William Seward survived an assassination attempt the night Abraham Lincoln was shot.

Pennsylvania Avenue did feature any special protests related to the confirmation of Judge Bret Kavanagh to the U.S. Supreme Court. There'd been some updates, since I'd been here in the spring, to this long-standing all-purpose protest...
...which was joined by a pro-life display...
...a flat-toned but well-amplified preacher...
...and a goofball with a Trump mask who would occasionally pop out from under this umbrella.
Crowds of people moved up and down the street, which is closed to non-government motor vehicles.

Suddenly the Secret Service herded everyone off the street. Most people moved onto the sidewalk on the park side of the street, and kept going, but I was curious and stuck around. Very soon the street was clear...
...and remained clear for what turned out to be nearly an hour.
A woman asked an officer if he knew why the street was cleared. He said yes, but he couldn't tell her. Any newcomers who happened to walk or bike into the street were quickly shooed off by the Secret Service.

About then a little girl walking with her mom excitedly pointed out a fire hydrant. This clearly was not the most interesting thing in the area, but I felt equally silly as I seemed to be finding portents everywhere. (Look! A van!! People in a doorway! Is that the sound of a helicopter?) I noticed snipers on the White House roof.
Are they always there, or just for this?

In time a helicopter lifted off and headed south, away from where I was keeping watch. I didn't even get a good view. Another chopper appeared, to escort it. Presumably someone, possibly President Trump, was headed somewhere, possibly his Florida resort. Directly the caution tape was removed, the streets were opened, and we gawkers got on with our lives.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Here Comes the Express!

The 380 Express at Court Street Transit Center, Iowa City
Intercity bus service began this week between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, in advance of construction on I-380 which is expected to cause significant delays (i.e. more than just neither lane of traffic is moving as fast as you want to go). The rollout of the 380 Express has been modest, but the governments involved seem committed at least for the time being to giving the service time to establish itself. This is the first area transit service in decades that is oriented to people who prefer not to drive, as opposed to those who are unable to drive.
Interior shot of the blue bus
The service runs half-hourly during morning and evening rush hours, and hourly betweentimes, for a total of 22 round trips per day. The first bus leaves Cedar Rapids at 5:20 a.m., the last at 6:50 p.m. They start showing up at the Court Street Transportation at 6:17 a.m. with the last departure at 7:42 p.m. with 8:40 p.m. ETA in Cedar Rapids. Other stops are Kirkwood Community College (both ways), Coralville's bus station, and the University of Iowa Hospital. In case it occurs to you that the UIHC is across from Kinnick Stadium, home of the Hawkeyes, it is my sad duty to inform you the buses are only running on weekdays, although weekend service is under discussion.
Temporary UIHC stop during stadium construction
Fares are $3.50 one-way, with discounts for 10-ride tickets as well as monthly passes available.  Payment can be by cash (exact change only) or by the Token Transit phone app. I used the app; once I'd set it up, it took me about 30 seconds tops to buy a second ticket. Most people who traveled with me also used the app, though one used cash. Another woman who boarded at Kirkwood had had trouble with the app and lacked the right change, but scrounged up $3.25 and I provided the other quarter. As the prophet Red Green says, "We're all in this together!"
Passengers boarding at the Kirkwood Community College stop
Parking is $1 an hour near the transit centers, but free at Kirkwood. That may be a wash if you are used to paying for parking near your workplace, but it makes the cost of a full day's travel $17 (before discounts)... less than the $40+ at the IRS's business driving reimbursement rate, but maybe enough to give people pause?
View of construction zone in its early stages,
where I-380 will be widened near North Liberty
I gave the express a trial run on Tuesday, October 2, the second day of service. I was one of five passengers to Iowa City; when I returned I was the only one aboard until the woman boarded at Kirkwood. The driver on the way down said that on Monday, the most passengers he carried was five.

Riding with me was Brock Grenis, transit administrator/planner for the East Central Iowa Council of Governments. He told me that, in addition to free onboard WiFi, the buses also have luggage areas capable of transporting bicycles, albeit not securely latched; that could be helpful for people who have a ways to go after they get to the transit center.
Before returning to Cedar Rapids, I enjoyed blue corn pancakes and coffee
at Fair Grounds Coffeehouse near the Court Street Transportation Center
The 380 Express illustrates the tension between coverage and usefulness. The more stops, the more people that have access to the bus, but the trip becomes unattractively slow. My rides took about an hour each way, longer on the way down because of the stops at Coralville and UIHC. Because the Kirkwood stop is well off the highway, getting there added ten minutes to the trip, but given that's where most of the passengers boarded it's probably an important stop. No one got on or off at Coralville, which makes me wonder about its future on the route.
Coralville Intermodal Facility, where one can transfer to a local bus
I am unabashedly hopeful about the 380 Express, albeit realistic about the prospects for effective intercity transit in an area where both residences and job centers are widely spread out, and overall population is not large... a prime example of why American public transit lags so far behind other parts of the world, particularly Asia (Florida 2018). The bus may become more attractive to commuters when construction really starts to affect traffic, but Brock Grenis suggested that wouldn't occur until 2020, which is a year and a half away. Even then, the bus will be fighting the same messes commuters would be trying to avoid driving in.

Why do I have hopes for the success of this service anyway? Public transit is scaleable and adaptable in a way that highways are not; you can only widen highways so much with the returns on that investment dubious anyhow, and you can't unwiden them when circumstances change. It's much easier on the environment, assuming large enough ridership, and less anti-social than solo commuting in a private car.

And I have more than hope to offer the 380 Express. I have a theme song to suggest!

SEE ALSO: Mitchell Schmidt, "Cedar Rapids to Iowa City Bus Route Begins Oct. 1," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 18 September 2018

Friday, September 21, 2018

Legally parked?

This car is parked in the 1200 block of 2nd Avenue SE, comfortably on the right side of the "no parking here to corner" sign. But... is also parked across the bike lane, which for some reason shifts to the curb just above 13th Street. So are these other cars:

In the drivers' defense, if they're parking at night, the bike lane markings are not easily seen, and these are well inside the "no parking here to corner" sign.

This has never been for me, either on a bike or in a car, because most auto traffic on 2nd Avenue turns either left or right onto 13th Street. But--note the moving vehicle down the street, whose driver didn't turn--it could be an issue.

An easy solution would be to move the "no parking here to corner" sign beyond the driveway you see in the picture above. (After the driveway, the bike lane shifts back out into the street, away from where the cars are parked.) You could preserve the parking spaces if you restriped all the lanes to make them straight through the intersection of 2nd and 13th.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Inequality, neighborhood and our common life

Shounak Bagchi, "The Psychology of Poverty," Medium, 28 August 2018

The terrible effects of poverty on individuals are vividly described by Shounak Bagchi in an online essay published last week. Bagchi follows the daily struggles of two women as they juggle low-wage work, bills and children. The stress level is so high that one of his interviewees reports locking herself in a closet and crying at work. The damage wrought by toxic stress is well-documented, but Bagchi's article brings to life the breadth of his subjects' task loads, their power and determination as they plow through it, but also how they are inexorably worn down by it all. Only a monster could fail to feel compassion for their struggle.

Taking a wider view may induce even more despair. The winner-take-all economy that has characterized the last 40-plus years of U.S. history has been documented both statistically (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century [Belknap/Harvard, 2014]) and anecdotally. Greater economic inequality and lower mobility means poverty is typically perpetuated across generations. This also perpetuates historic inequities across racial, gender and geographic divisions.

In a white middle-class enclave it is easy to regard the stress-packed lives of the poor in the abstract. Their struggles do not impact our lives unless we choose to engage in acts of charity or advocate for ameliorative public policies. We also have the luxury of choosing, like the priest and the Levite in St. Luke's story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), not to engage.

In an early essay on this blog, I asked about the consequences to the person who defines neighborhood--the obligation to care--too narrowly. I was particularly interested in observable, tangible consequences. "Are there practical consequences," I asked then (emphasis in the original), "for drawing the circle too small? If some part of a city or metropolitan area isn't flourishing, does that materially impact the rest of it? If Detroit is dying does that affect Grosse Pointe? Does it matter to the rest of Cedar Rapids if people in Wellington Heights or the Taylor Area aren't thriving?"

Reflecting on Bagchi's essay, I find it easier to see that the lives of the most vulnerable do affect the rest of us. Because here's the thing about toxic stress: it isn't contained within the suffering individual, consuming them but then dying along with its host. Like a fire, it spreads unless it's put out.

People suffering toxic levels of stress drive cars, hold jobs (remember the woman crying in the work closet), and live near other people. Any of these can occasionally be frustrating, even to the most placid of us. They can buy guns, which will soon outnumber people in this country, if they don't already--and ammunition is easier to buy than cold medicine. As we in the city find ourselves negotiating our way through our days in any number of ways, pre-existing stress is priming some of the people who cross our paths to over-react to the most mundane of routine annoyances. This can have, it should be obvious, tragic outcomes.
Source: US CDC, via Wikipedia

People suffering toxic levels of stress are often raising children. (That's the case with both of Bagchi's case studies.) That stress gets passed on to the next generation, in all manner of unappetizing ways. As Jonathan F.P. Rose discusses in chapter 10 of his brilliant The Well-Tempered City (HarperWave, 2016), adverse childhood experiences (ACE) can be as toxic as environmental toxins like lead. He cites studies connecting children's toxic stress to weaker immune systems, decreased cognitive capacity, and lower social trust. Over time the body's response to stress gets locked "on," altering a person's very genes. The financial costs alone to society are staggering: $124-$585 billion from one year's confirmed cases of abuse, according to a study by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [NOTE: The link to the study, both in the book and on the CDC web page, is currently broken.] The human costs exceed the purely financial, of course.

The community can mitigate the effects of toxic stress. Rose (2016:332-335) suggests starting with improving access to housing, building walkable cities with good parks so there opportunities for routine exercise, teaching meditation for mindfulness, and--last but not least--building social networks. (How is it that I, a 30-year resident of my town, can walk about a mile to work and know so few of the (few) people I encounter on the way?) These don't come free, but neither does drawing lines and building walls. Expanding drawing the circle of care makes for a stronger, safer, more prosperous community.

Trails opened, trails in the works, and other Corridor biking news

Cycling in the Corridor is being celebrated as summer turns into fall, with more infrastructure and increased levels of participation, in sp...