Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Walking with Jane?

8th Avenue in Marion: a candidate for a Jane's Walk?
There is an organization in Canada, Jane's Walks, that promotes group walking events as a way to build community and make places. Jane is, of course, Jane Jacobs, the godmother of urbanism, and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961) and Dark Age Ahead (Vintage, 2004), among other books. The organization began as a memorial shortly after her death in 2006. They hope each walk will serve as a "walking conversation" as people tour the chosen area. Their next international effort is planned for the weekend of May 6-8, 2016.

Jane's Walks describes their mission as
To develop urban literacy and a community-based approach to city building by encouraging citizen-led walking tours that make space for every person to observe, reflect, share, question and collectively reimagine the places in which they live, work and play. In this way, we honour the legacy of Jane Jacobs whose writings championed the voices of local residents in neighbourhood planning.
Some of the varied experiences over the years noted on the site include:
  • A walk in Colchester, England was led by two brothers, aged 6 and 4, who showed walkers around their favourite park and shared interesting historical facts about the local castle;
  • In Ljubljana, Slovenia, a city councillor came on a walk to discuss the history and potential future of the area around a stalled construction site;
  • In the heart of Toronto, Canada, a Queer Newcomer Youth walk was led by a group of young people who had all arrived in the city recently, but had found a welcoming community there; and
  • In Calcutta, India, a group set out to explore the wetlands at the city’s edge.
Their advice for organizing a walk begins this way:
  1. Think of a place you'd like to tour. It can be anywhere: the street you live on, a place you like to hang out, a secret garden that not many people know about.
  2. Go for a walk there and observe the people and things around you. Take a friend. Take notes. 
  3. As you walk, think about a few places along the route that would make good places to stop. What is interesting there and what could offer a good start point for discussion with your neighbours?
In 2015, there were over 1000 Jane's Walks in 189 cities on six continents, from Abbotsford, British Columbia, to Zurich. Antarctica was not represented, nor, it appears, was Iowa. So-o-o... where would we do a Jane's Walk in Cedar Rapids?

The first place that comes to mind when you think of walkable areas in Cedar Rapids is New Bohemia. So let's not do New Bohemia. This is a big city. Well, not a "big city," but the metropolitan area is far bigger than the few noteworthy blocks of New Bohemia.

This wide sidewalk in the Mound View neighborhood is a link on the CeMar Trail
Here are some other possible themes that occur to me:
  • a historic neighborhood. As an east-sider for 27 years, I don't know as much as I'd like to about west-side neighborhoods like Time-Check, the Taylor Area, or the area Ben Kaplan has named Hayes Park.
  • some other part of town that's under-rated when it comes to urbanism. Kenwood? 8th Avenue in Marion?
  • a great park like Ellis or Bever, which has a variety of areas from a municipal pool to a woods. Bever's woods is woodsier than Ellis's. The Sac and Fox Trail, which goes by Indian Creek Nature Center, is surprisingly undeveloped yet accessible from town.
  • great street trees. When my boys were little we were partial to a sycamore in the 100 block of 18th Street NE.
  • a cluster of some interesting type like churches or bars or coffeehouses or gardens.
  • a walk to school that's in a walkable neighborhood.
  • candidates for infill. Strong Towns is starting a #BuildHereNow theme.
The garden behind Southeast Church of Christ,
a hidden gem in the Oakhill-Jackson neighborhood
As usual I'm trying to start a conversation here. These ideas are meant to stimulate your imagination. Cedar Rapidians, where should we walk with Jane?

"Honor Jane Jacobs' Legacy in Your Town with This Activity," Strong Towns, 16 February 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/2/15/help-host-janes-walk
"Jane Jacobs Interviewed by Jim Kunstler," Metropolis (March 2001), http://www.kunstler.com/mags_jacobs.htm

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mass transit, here and there

What should be the future of public transit in the Cedar Rapids area? There's still time to add your comments at http://corridormpo.com
Ideas were rolling at two public open houses for the 2016 Corridor Metropolitan Transit Study, hosted by the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization yesterday at the Ground Transportation Center in downtown Cedar Rapids.

Passengers disembark at the Ground Transportation Center (photo by Ben Kaplan)
Multimodal transportation planner Brandon Whyte, who was on hand along with regional transportation planner Hilary L. Hershner, said the gatherings were for "looking at ways to improve transit in the metro." Attendance wasn't huge, but there was no shortage of people willing to fill out surveys. There will be a second open house in April.

The transit operation provided ridership data for the various lines.

The chart shows annual figures; about 4300-4400 people ride the bus on an average day. Assuming those are unique persons, that's about 4 percent of the population. Saturday ridership is lower, but is up since they eliminated fares.
Transit director Brad DeBrower said they couldn't tell if those were new riders or just regular riders riding more.

 Some lines (marked in red on the map) have considerably more ridership than the others...

...with numbers for the lines that serve the southeast side on which I live rather modest.

So they're aware of ridership data and can respond to them, although they are not tipping their hand as to how radical a change they're willing to undertake. The money isn't there, either from federal or local government, to expand service, either hours (service runs from before 6 a.m. to after 6 p.m.) or number of buses (most lines run one bus per hour).

There were displays of better bus stop infrastructure.

Whyte touted the electronic apps that make the service far more user-friendly. RideCRT allows the user to see all active buses in the entire system in close-to-real time, and get an expected time of arrival for the nearest stop. (And, I can confirm, it is compatible with older versions of iOS.)

Google Transit integrates the transit system with Google maps, enabling the user to plan travel routes including options for bus routes and departure and arrival times.
Multimodal transportation advisor Brandon Whyte explains the new functions

Since they asked, here is my vision for transit. I assume (a) public transit is an important alternative to the private car, particularly for the poor and handicapped, but also for environmental reasons; (b) funding for ongoing operations is not going to balloon any time soon, and in fact may become more constrained given fiscal realities at the national level; (c) the dispersal of residence and business locations that occurred during the age of sprawl is going to correct itself slowly, if at all; and (d) government agencies serve no one well if they spread themselves too thin. SO, I would:
  • Contract the system by about half in each direction from the center of the city. I'm sacrificing complete coverage for quality coverage of the more densely populated areas. Instead of covering the entire city with 1100 bus stops, it would cover about 1/4 of the land area. I'd make exceptions for places of high value outside of this area, like Kirkwood Community College and Uptown Marion.
  • Replace our loopy routes with more direct lines along major thoroughfares like 1st Avenue, Mt. Vernon Road, 16th Avenue West, and the like. Buses could then compete with cars for travel times. If we could arrange some dedicated lanes, so much the better.
  • For the same reason I'd thrown in some express routes to Kirkwood and Uptown Marion. Maybe some others?
  • Somehow we would have to accommodate those people with physical and mental handicaps who because of where they live would lose ease of access in a contracted system.
Transportation for America
For further imaginative fuel, the national group Transportation for America this afternoon released their new resource for integration transportation policy into place making, "The Scenic Route." Creative placemaking, said T4A director James Corless, means transportation projects not only "should be welcoming," but additionally provide "a sense of where you are." The rollout touted examples from Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis-St. Paul that combine ambitious transportation projects with social capital building in affected neighborhoods.
  • The Powell Division High Capacity Transit (HCT) project goes through Jade District and Division Midway, low-income areas in eastern Portland. Community organizations, with funding from the city, explored ways in which the project could advance community priorities. One specific goal was "Do not fuel gentrification and displacement." They funded two rounds of small projects celebrating the community, including a storytelling festival, installing a bee hotel in community gardens, and creating an Art Plan for Jade District that will interface with Powell Division BRT project.
  • The Green Line light rail project goes through areas of the Twin Cities with small businesses that worried about displacement, as had happened with a nearby interstate highway. The group Springboard for the Arts looked for ways that local artists could be involved, "focus on existing assets" and giving the people of the neighborhood "common cause." They funded numerous small projects that had small business partners (so relationships had greater potential to sustain). They found they were able to change media as well as personal narratives from inconvenience-of-change to more positive stories of engagement & small business visibility.
Cedar Rapids is much smaller than these areas, but I wonder if similar engagement with community organizations (where they exist) could raise visibility of affected neighborhoods, build social capital, and perhaps gain some buy-in for transit projects from bike lanes to (maybe, someday) BRT?

"Envision CR III: Improve Public Transportation," 6 April 2015
"Transportation: Which Side am I On?" 28 July 2015

Passengers wait for buses at the Ground Transportation Center in downtown Cedar Rapids

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....