Sunday, March 1, 2015

Podcast: Ann Cheng Discusses GreenTrip

This week on the Talking Headways podcast, Ann Cheng from Transform joins me to talk about how developers can lower their parking obligations through Green Trip, a certification program for development in the Bay Area.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Problematic Rapid Development of China

China has become one of the world’s largest economies in only a couple short decades. While the country’s average growth has slowed--its GDP grew by only 7.4% last year--it has established its place as a global economic superpower and will most likely maintain its ranking with a formidable economy estimated to be at $11.3 trillion in 2015.

However, this rapid growth has not come without its issues. China’s growth may have been rapid, but it has also been immensely sprawled. China became the world’s largest auto market, surpassing the United States’ 17 million car sales with 20 million car sales last year. While the country has taken measures to promote greener, more sustainable development, this auto-centricity has encouraged urban sprawl and devoured agricultural land. The destruction of agricultural land for development has in turn sparked worries over food production in China. With many farms being overtaken by airports and roads, food safety and food security are becoming increasing concerns.

This sprawl has also come with environmental costs. Many Chinese cities have become notorious for their smog levels, a consequence of its rapid urbanization which embraced cars, wide streets, and grandiose buildings. As the country developed, it welcomed foreign models of urban development, not accounting for the environmental effects that such development would have in an industrializing country with over a billion residents.

Not only that, as the country’s wealth has grown, its obesity rates have risen as well. Like other developed areas, China has seen a large influx of processed food and convenience stores. While malnutrition is no longer a big concern in urban China, obesity rates have risen quickly and dramatically. In 2012, an estimated 300 million out of 1.2 billion people were obese, making health care policy a growing priority.

China’s rapid development has been remarkable, but also challenging. It’s an opportunity for creative urban planning solutions and the development of growth policies that are more comprehensive, deliberate, and sustainable.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Changing the Dialogue Around Biking

Bike culture has seen a huge resurgence in the US over the last decade, and this has led to a growth in bike infrastructure as well as increasing concern surrounding bike safety. Bike safety has become a growing issue not only in discussions amongst bike advocates, but also in all levels of urban policy. Last week, Senator Carol Liu proposed a mandatory bike helmet law for the state of California. Liu has been a long-time supporter of active transportation, and feels that this law would promote safer biking.

However, no mandatory legislation can increase bike safety as much as promoting a bike culture that is informed, aware, and cautious. A new book, titled The Urban Cycling Survival Guide, gives a rundown on how to navigate urban streets on a bike, as well as how to bike defensively. A bike advocacy group in Seattle found that merely changing the language with which we speak about biking has a huge effect on its public perception and makes it much easier to promote bike culture. By using phrases that are people-centric, such as “people on bikes” rather than “cyclists,” bike advocates were able to rebrand the bike argument into one that is centered around safety and personal responsibility.

Of course, some areas of the US are more bike-friendly than others. Recently, San Luis Obispo established a powerful bike funding policy that will allot 20% of transportation spending from the general fund to biking. This is an extraordinary amount of bike funding for an American city, and the figure is derived from the city’s larger transportation goals to increase biking and walking levels. San Francisco, which is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US, will be completing 3 blocks of protected bike lanes and pedestrian upgrades this coming April, albeit after numerous delays. These are encouraging signs which bode well for bike safety in the US, and a sure sign of progress for bike culture overall.

They Know Where the Bodies Are Buried

The local advocates that is.  Mariia Zimmerman of MZ Strategies joins me on the podcast this week to talk about her new report on local transportation advocacy called Transportation Transformation.

Mariia, former Chief of Staff to Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and former Deputy Director of the Office of Sustainable Communities at HUD, brings case studies and extensive research to the discussion about how advocates can move forward with a winning transportation advocacy strategy at the local level.

Check out the report and listen in below.

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Regulating the Sharing Economy

Services like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have revolutionized private taxis and temporary housing rentals. At the same time, these large-scale sharing economy services are in their infancy, and legislators often disagree about whether or not to regulate them, and if they do, how to regulate them.

Many cities, like New York, are concerned about the effects that Airbnb may have on affordable housing, while others have been far more accepting. Following the footsteps of San Francisco, London recently announced that they will be legalizing Airbnb, which is prohibited under the current legislation. The new legislation will allow homeowners to rent out their properties for up to 3 months of the year. While some support the move, stating that the current legislation is outdated and inconsistently reinforced, others fear that legalizing Airbnb will disrupt neighborhoods and reduce the amount of long-term housing for locals, therefore driving up the cost of rent.

Services like Uber are also troubling to local governments, because they operate outside the scope of traditionally established laws for private taxis. As a result, they’ve forced traditional taxis to reform their operations and improve the quality of their service. However, because they aren’t governed by traditional taxi laws, there are concerns over whether or not their insurance is adequate and if their drivers have been vetted enough. Not only that, there are currently no laws requiring Uber to provide services to people with disabilities, or to people who don’t have Internet access or credit cards.

Despite all the headaches that these sharing economy services give to legislators, one thing is certain: they are innovative and challenge the status quo. It’ll be interesting to see how cities will regulate these services, but hopefully they’ll able to do it in a way that won’t stifle innovation.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Technology Transforms Planning

Tech is transforming everything, and urban planning hasn’t been overlooked.

Uber recently offered to share its private trip data starting with the city of Boston, and this, as well as other private data, has some big implications for traffic planning. Private car data can be lifted from phones, taxis, sensors, and cameras. It can elucidate real-time traffic patterns and has the potential to help planners drastically improve street networks and remedy traffic congestion. It does have some downsides however with the data coming from certain demographics and geography limitations. 

Tech has also introduced some really useful tools that have the potential to make planning far more efficient, simple, and transparent. Transitmix was created as a fantasy bus route tool, where users could create bus routes, see their costs, plan their stops, and even overlay Census data such as income. It soon became apparent that a tool like this could be invaluable to professionals--it’s almost difficult to imagine that transit planners went so long without a specialized tool to quickly map out transit possibilities.

Social media opens up a channel of communication between transit agencies and their constituencies. In December, New Jersey Transit decided to take a much more proactive stance to their Facebook and Twitter pages, and it’s allowed them gauge rider opinions as well as provide updates to users. Social media is also being used as a means of promoting California’s extensive but struggling state park system. A new app, called CaliParks, pulls images from Instagram and Flickr to allow users to get a dynamic and appealing view of over 12,000 green spaces in California.

Technology has proved to be a disruptive force in planning, and many of the innovations it brings forth forces us to upgrade some of our archaic and inefficient practices, as well as rethink some of the incorrect perceptions we based our planning decisions on.

Talking Headways Podcast: Discussing Atlanta, Denver and Seoul

This week on Talking Headways, UrbanCincy's Randy Simes joins me to talk about his current home in South Korea and his previous home in Atlanta.

We chat about transit, infrastructure including wood pipes, and feeder roads in Texas.  What a strange concept.

We also celebrate the Denver Fastracks vote 10th Anniversary.

Check it out below.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Only Thing That Will Fix a Housing Shortage Is More Housing

A shortage of affordable housing has been a huge problem for urban areas, and a recent pair of charts from Trulia’s chief economist really highlights a big issue with housing development in the US. For the past few years, housing development has grown the most in suburbs and less in urban areas, but the price of housing in urban areas is rising the fastest. Basically, the housing supply in urban areas is not growing quickly enough to meet demand.

This problem has been illustrated perfectly in San Francisco. The city’s population has grown rapidly, but the growth in its housing stock has lagged behind. Since 2010, the population of San Francisco has increased by 45,000 people, but the housing stock has only increased by 7,500 units. With that kind of population growth and the relatively meager amount of housing development, it’s really no surprise that housing prices in the city have skyrocketed.

A similar phenomenon is happening in San Diego, which was recently named America’s least affordable city by San Diego is slated to have 590,000 more people by 2050, and the only way to accommodate all these new residents is to increase the city’s density and develop more housing.

Developing more housing is what Austin did in response to its growing population, and it’s had some promising results so far. Though the cost of housing in Austin rose for the past several years, the addition of 10,000 new units to the area last year seems to have somewhat stabilized rents. The occupancy rate in the Austin area dropped by 4% down to 94% last year, the lowest it has been since 2012. While we have to see how the housing stock will hold up over the years, it’s no question that some cities, like San Francisco, would probably benefit from an increase in housing development.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Many Reasons for the Decline In Car Culture

Car culture seems to be declining worldwide, and urbanization and technology may play a big part in that. Millennials are more willing to live in cities and stay there rather than move to suburbs, unlike the previous generation. This means that they’re less likely to own cars and more likely to take public transit, walk, or use private taxis like Uber. Not only that, social media allows people to stay in touch without ever leaving their home, and e-commerce makes it possible for people to purchase things online, decreasing the overall number of trips that people need to make. The number of cars per driver in the US has fallen from 1.2 in 2007 to 1.15 this year.

This trend is global. For instance, in London, cycling levels have risen rapidly over the last couple years, to the point where cycling now makes up one-sixth of all traffic in central London. This is a record-breaking level of cycling in the city, and part of it is due to the increased availability of bike share docks and bicycles. In San Francisco, the majority of trips are made without private cars, and it’s been that way for several years. In addition, the prevalence of shared-use structures like pedestrian and bike bridges has grown all over, and we’re only going to see an increase in infrastructure dedicated to car-free transit in the coming years.

Another major reason for the decline in car culture is that automobiles are simply not sustainable. Global leaders, such as Al Gore and former Mexican president Felipe Calderon, have proposed a radical idea: why don’t we spend the $90 Trillion that will be invested in infrastructure over the next 15 years toward developing cities that aren’t car-centric?

Some will argue we'll never get there, but the times, they are changing.

Right now is a crucial time in shaping the future of urban transportation. 75% of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 hasn’t been built yet, so the decisions that we make about the direction of our cities’ transportation systems over the next few years will be critical. Let's not take them for granted

When You Can Put a Face to Hardship

I always marvel at the generosity of people when it comes to strangers.  But especially to strangers who are shown to have a hardship on television or in the news.  So it came as no surprise this week that a Detroit man, James Robertson, who travels almost a marathon every day gets the attention of folks who really want to help.

I would however love to see the demographics and opinions of those generous people.  Perhaps the biggest thing I would ask is...

"Do you support paying more in taxes for a better transit network?"

The reason I would ask this questions is because while in urbanist circles we understand the connection between housing and transportation costs and supply and demand for affordable housing (apparently though in SF we still don't get it) I wonder how much people actually do understand. 

There's always so much push back to giving "those people" access but when there is a face put to the masses, they are more charitable with their money and time.

And people put up over $260K for a car for James, but that money would probably fund a few bus routes for more than just one person. 

I think Ben Adler at Grist puts it best when he says:
Only in America would we assume that Robertson’s 46-mile commute is the natural order of things and the problem is that some people don’t have cars. Robertson’s situation demonstrates that low-income residents of Detroit and other cities around the U.S. need two things: mass transit and affordable housing near jobs.
So what do we need to do to educate people about this? How do we explain the concept of economic competitiveness and access?

There was a great City Metric piece recently on this issue.  They explain how much transit means to EU economies.  It's pretty huge.

In fact, the sector accounts for €130-150bn of the EU’s GDP each year, as well as providing 1.2m jobs and indirectly creating the conditions for an estimated 2-2.5m more.

But not just that, it's about access, just like in James' case.

That’s why, in London, one of the major advocates for the soon-to-be completed Crossrail project was the business sector: it realised that investment in public transport is key to matching employers with appropriately skilled employees, and retailers with customers. 

Check out the piece, it makes a compelling case for other co-benefits as well. And if you want a US case, just check out New York.
The more jobs you can reasonably commute to within an hour, the more job opportunities you'll have, and the higher your wage will be.

In New York, mass transit is the path to economic mobility, not education, It’s far more important to have a MetroCard than a college degree.

And sure, we can connect people with cars.  But there's a tax on that.  There's roads to build, parking to provide and upkeep to the car for each individual.  And if you're sitting in traffic, your time is a tax.

James couldn't keep his car running because it cost too much.  But he and others wouldn't have to worry about that if they are paying into a larger system.  One where everyone benefits, not just those who happen to have a car.

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