Durable Growth, Transportation

A towering surf of common sense crashes against an adamantine cliff of codes and regulations

Track crossing location

Track crossing location

A few days ago, I wrote about an upcoming hearing on a proposed at-grade crossing in Santa Rosa.

The proposed crossing would confirm and reopen an existing pedestrian/bicycle connection between the two halves of Jennings Avenue, passing over railroad tracks that were recently returned to use.  It was a crossing that, although never official, had long served as a route between homes, businesses, and schools on both sides of the track.

During the many years that the tracks were unused, no one had taken notice of the crossing.  But with freight service and now SMART trains returning to the tracks, the crossing had become a concern for the California Public Utility Commission.  After considering options, including the possibility of an $8.2 million separated grade bridge, the City of Santa Rosa applied for approval of an at-grade crossing.

In the earlier post, I advocated for the at-grade crossing.  I also expressed concern that the rule-bound rigidity of the process was so time-consuming that many of the students who could have used the crossing to reach elementary school will have driver’s licenses before a decision is rendered.

I attended the hearing two evening ago.  Nothing in the process caused me to change either earlier assessment.  But I nonetheless came away feeling optimistic about people and about urbanism.

I felt energized because I watched a neighborhood of modest means and little influence rally together in large numbers and with enthusiasm to argue for an amenity that they found essential to the well-being of their lives.  And also because the amenity that the neighborhood wanted was walkable urbanism.  It was a naturally occurring, unselfconscious advocacy for a more walkable urban world.  And that makes me happy. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Supporting SMART by attacking the last mile with buses

Petaluma Transit bus in downtown Petaluma

Petaluma Transit bus in downtown Petaluma

In a few days, I’ll help introduce some clever and insightful ideas of others, proving one more time that it’s better to be associated with clever people than to be clever oneself.

My opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of others will come when I chair a meeting of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee.  At the meeting, the staff of Petaluma Transit will introduce ideas for adjusting bus routes.  The proposed realignments have the goal of better positioning Petaluma to embrace SMART, the upcoming regional commuter train.

(For those not in the North Bay, SMART stands for Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit.  The SMART train, which is scheduled to begin revenue service later this year, will initially run from San Rafael in the heart of Marin County to Santa Rosa in the heart of Sonoma County, with stops at cities in between.  Further extensions and more stations are being planned.)

Conducting the Transit Committee meeting will be my latest step in nearly four decades of awareness of a crucial transit challenge.

After those four decades, I don’t remember if it was by luck or design, but I often had convenient, walkable connections to transit during my commuting days.

I can cite two noteworthy examples.  I owned a home from which I had a half-mile walk along an asphalt shoulder to a BART station, with a two-block walk to my downtown San Francisco office after the ride.  I quickly fell in love with the commuting routine and often didn’t touch my car between weekends.

From there, I moved to a home from which I had a quarter-mile walk along a tree-lined path to a King County Metro bus stop, with a one-block walk to my downtown Seattle office after the ride.  For my first several months in that house, I didn’t own a car.

Those were good years.  But those situations are not typical.  Because our cities have been allowed to sprawl in all directions under the drivable suburban paradigm, many folks don’t have convenient access to the transit facilities by which they might otherwise conduct their daily lives. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Making good urbanist decisions with less kerfuffle

Typical pedestrian rail crossing

Typical pedestrian rail crossing

Coming up in days is a public hearing in Santa Rosa on a proposed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks.  The hearing is worth the attention of those who support walkable urbanism.  But urbanists should also be concerned about the extended process that led to the hearing, a process conducted under rules that result in tortuous advances and a too frequent reliance on the automobile as the default solution.

I’ll write first about the automobile dependence.

Among the many problems that the drivable suburban paradigm has bestowed upon us, such as climate change and municipal financial dysfunction, is a decision-making process in which proposed solutions are too often reliant on the automobile.

Concerned about the noise of a manufacturing plant interfering with the quiet of residential neighborhoods?  Put the industrial zoning at the urban fringe, buffered from homes, with the unavoidable result that employees will all drive there.

Unsure about making repairs to aging and overcrowded schools?  Combine several schools into a new supersized campus at the outskirts of town, with provision for the drop-off for the children who now must be delivered by car.

Unhappy with the occasional traffic jam in the downtown core?  Add traffic lanes even if the additional pavement saps the pedestrian vitality of the district.

Three perceived problems.  Three heavy-handed automobile-oriented solutions, none of which are urbanist and all of which promulgate the drivable suburban paradigm.

Even worse, these solutions, as ill-conceived as they are, are usually the result of an increasingly burdensome and lengthy process that is designed to spit out the least objectionable answer rather than the best solution.  I usually point to CEQA as the prime villain in the process, but the state and local approval processes that run parallel to the CEQA process are scarcely better. Continue reading

Site News, Transportation

You can’t have any more toys until you take care of the ones you already own

Alignment of the proposed Rainier Connector

Alignment of the proposed Rainier Connector

Consistent with their goal of promoting stronger, more financially resilient communities, StrongTowns has launched an initiative targeted toward transportation planning.   It’s a topic with which I have long familiarity.

A decade or more ago, my since-departed father noted to me that, for the first time in the better part of a century since highways and freeways were first conceived, Caltrans had no new freeway routes on their drawing boards.  There were improvements to existing routes in design, but any new routes remained in advance planning, years from design and construction, if they ever progressed that far.

Although he’d spent his career in freeway bridge design and construction, I don’t think my father was unhappy with the new status, but he was perplexed by it.  As a post-war hire at Caltrans, he’d been inculcated in the vision that there would always be new freeways to build, making Californian lives ever more convenient and freedom-filled.

His belief in that vision had perhaps begun to weaken, but it was still a change in perspective to realize that no new California freeways would likely open during the remaining years of his life.

I can appreciate his disorientation.  This past summer, I chatted with a high school classmate about our shared hometown, a car-oriented suburb of Sacramento.  We shared recollections of extensive freeway projects that were planned to slice and dice our community during our school years, although none of the projects ever came into being.  For those who aren’t of a certain age, and my high school days were 45 years ago, it’s hard to grasp the certainty we once had that freeway expansion was inevitable and would continue forever.

Given what we now know about the difficulties of funding the long-term maintenance of freeways, it’s a good that that the freeway romance cooled when it did.  But, like many ill-fated romances, it went on too long and left behind too many hard-to-break habits. Continue reading

Durable Growth

StrongTowns has gone home: On-going thoughts

View from plaza in downtown Healdsburg

View from plaza in downtown Healdsburg

After a productive series of North Bay meetings, the principals from StrongTowns and Urban3 have gone home, but not before seeding the North Bay with ideas about further steps toward an urbanist, financially sustainable, climate change moderating future.

Below, I offer a few thoughts about what happened and what can happen next.

Thought #1 – Who Was Missing from the Room: About 18 months ago, I attended a meeting of the Petaluma City Council.  My reason for attending that particular night was the discussion about an upcoming ballot measure for an infrastructure-funding sales tax bump.

Of course, that wasn’t the only agenda item of the evening.  To begin the meeting were several proclamations, including one for a youth sports team.

So I found myself in the Council Chambers before the meeting began, a few seats away from a group of parents eager for their children to be honored by the Mayor and Council.  One father seemed particularly energized by the recognition to be given to his child and her teammates.

One of the other parents asked the father if he intended to stay for the remainder of the meeting.  He asked what was on the agenda.  The sales tax discussion was noted.  He huffed, “I don’t need to listen to that crap.  We all know that the City has plenty of money to fix the streets and doesn’t do it only because the corrupt Council has their hands in the till.”

True to his words, he proudly took pictures of his child and teammates with the Mayor and Council and then departed. Continue reading

Site News

Unwinding by playing at art critic

Water Street

Water Street

Life has been full over the last few days.  Encouraging folks in the North Bay to attend the recent Urban Community Partnership/StrongTowns/Urban3 meetings in Santa Rosa, participating in the meetings myself, and beginning the foundation for next steps, all while feeling a bit under the weather.

There’s a need to begin talking about those next steps, but not today.

Instead, I’m going to give myself a break by undertaking a job for which my qualifications are remarkably limited.  The job of art critic.

Like a growing number of communities, Petaluma requires many types of development to include public art.  Some developers prefer not to enter the art procurement business, so instead make in lieu payments to the City.  Those funds are to be spent by the Petaluma Public Arts Committee in acquiring and installing public art in the community.

Water Street from the Balshaw Bridge

Water Street from the Balshaw Bridge

As the result of several developers making in lieu payments in recent years, the funds have grown and the committee has been working toward selecting an art project.

For a location, the committee picked Water Street, along the bank of the Petaluma River a short block from the heart of downtown.  The location is appropriate, with Water Street representing the long history of Petaluma from the days when most commerce was conducted by river, through the time when railroad tracks, still in place, carried freight trains to waterfront warehouses, to the present in which Water Street has been gussied up for public use but still needs more businesses fronting on it and more people walking about.

After winnowing more than a hundred submittals down to progressively more manageable numbers, the committee recently convened to see presentations from the final four artists. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Putting my money where my pen is

Buffalo, site of 2014 CNU Congress

Buffalo, site of 2014 CNU Congress

Local update: The first of three StrongTowns/Urban3 public meetings was held last evening in Santa Rosa.  The room was nearly filled for Chuck Marohn’s current version of the StrongTowns Curbside Chat.  Thanks go to all from the North Bay folks who made the effort to attend, especially those who responded to the urgings of this blog.

Seats are still available for the remaining two meetings, at which Urban3 will elucidate lessons from the Santa Rosa property tax data, followed by StrongTowns and Urban3 jointly talking about next steps.  RSVPs may still be made through the link provided on this page.

After this week this complete, we’ll have the task of putting to use the newly gained knowledge.

Today, I’ll return to a topic that I’d hoped to cover during the final week of 2015, before the upcoming StrongTowns/Urban3 meetings snatched my attention away.

As Chuck Marohn noted last evening, the best thing anyone can do to promote sustainable municipal finances through urbanism is to talk with friends and neighbors.  The second best thing is to participate financially, through memberships or donations, with the organizations doing advocacy.

I believe in doing both, especially when the organizations provide content that I regularly quote in this space.

So on New Year’s Eve, I began new memberships, renewed old memberships, or made donations to the following organizations. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Urbanism and density

Residential in downtown Napa, near river

Residential in downtown Napa, near river

With most of my recent posts, I’ve been attempting to convince people to attend upcoming free public meetings, hosted by the Urban Community Partnership, at which StrongTowns and Urban3 will talk about financially sustainable cities.  The meetings will start on Tuesday evening, January 19, in Santa Rosa.  With the meetings nearly upon us, I probably can’t do much more to convince folks to attend.

But for anyone still on the fence, I’ll note that the meeting details, a link to the RSVP site, and links to most of my posts about StrongTowns can be found here.

However, the expected content of the meetings remains very much in my head.

Today, I’ll write about a topic that may be useful to those attending the meetings, an aspect of urbanism that seems to puzzle many.

About a year ago, I offered the following dual definition for “urbanism”:

(1) The study, promotion, and implementation of development concepts for settings that are significantly denser in residential, working, and commercial opportunities than rural or suburban locations.

(2) The advocacy of concepts for (1) that meet beneficial goals such as improved walkability, reduced energy consumption, stronger social networks, more stable municipal finances, or other identified positive outcomes.

It’s not a perfect definition.  As I look at it today, I see several that I’d still make.  But it’s a reasonable starting point.  And not once does it mention density.  Which may seem puzzling because many people try to equate urbanism and density. Continue reading

Durable Growth

StrongTowns: Quibbling on the details

Downtown Petaluma

Downtown Petaluma

To recapitulate recent posts, I continue to encourage North Bay readers to attend one or more of upcoming public meetings with StrongTowns and Urban3.  The meetings, which will be hosted by the Urban Community Partnership, will be the evenings of January 19, 20, and 21 in Santa Rosa.  Signups seem to be going well.  I note many familiar names among the RSVPs.  But I also don’t see some names I’d hoped would be there.  Please don’t miss the chance to become part of a critical mass.

StrongTowns and Urban3 will tell a story that will be worth the time of anyone with an interest in the financial health of our cities.  Further information, including a link to the RSVP site, is here.

For the past few posts, I’ve been writing about the StrongTowns philosophy, giving a flavor of it and also tying it to the North Bay.  (Links to early posts are provided on the information page noted above.)

Today, I’ll take a different angle.  To prove that I’m not a shill for StrongTowns, I’ll write about the points on which I may disagree with them.  It’s possible that the disagreements aren’t substantial, that I’m thinking too much about the end game at a time when StrongTowns is still trying to build early momentum.  But the apparent points of disagreement still seem worth noting. Continue reading

Durable Growth

StrongTowns: As Aesop would have told the story

101007006 Historic Truss Bridge from BelowBackground: For the last handful of posts and continuing today, I’ve been writing about the StrongTowns philosophy of town building.  My goal has been to encourage readers in the North Bay to attend at least one of the three StrongTowns/Urban3 meetings to be held January 19 through 21 in Santa Rosa.

More information about the meetings and about StrongTowns is on this page.  Please note that there have been several changes since my last post.  First and most importantly, RSVPs are now required.  A link is provided on the page.  Also, the room will now open at 5:30pm for networking, with the meeting content beginning at 6:00pm.  Lastly, all three meetings will now be at Bike Monkey.

I don’t know how many attendees the Bike Monkey room can accommodate, so I encourage signing up soon.

Back to the task of motivating readers to partake of StrongTowns.

Several years ago, a reader took issue with the StrongTowns assertion, an assertion with which I concur, that ill-conceived infrastructure decisions had long-term municipal cost implications.  Her words were “All of the costs of building those road improvements are borne during the year they’re built.  All of them!”

I know the reader well.  Indeed, I spent much of Christmas Day with her.  But she was wrong.  Perhaps in the terminology of her field of economics what she wrote was correct, but from a lay perspective she was wrong.

But it was hard to formulate the proof of her wrongness.  I tried a couple of times, tied myself in knots, and surrendered in disappointment.  Plus, arguing about municipal infrastructure over the Christmas dinner table is considered bad form.

But then it occurred to me that the old Greek, Aesop, would have known how to tell the story.  And so today I offer the fable of the Town, the Bridge, the Past, and the Future. Continue reading