Monthly Archives: May 2011

High Speed Rail Still on Obama’s Agenda

Recently, Transportation Weekly acquired a draft of President Obama’s transportation bill. Streetsblog comments on the bill’s focus on high speed rail:

Although high-speed rail was completely de-funded in the last budget battle, the president’s bill still provides $53 billion over six years to the program, with $37.6 billion of it for network development and the rest for system preservation and renewal.

RenewLV is a partner in the Transportation for America coalition and supports investing in public transit, high-speed trains, places to bike and walk, and green innovation.

Making “Smart Growth” Mainstream

Unless this is the first Crossroads article that you have read (in which case, welcome!), I assume that you’ve noticed a trend throughout many of our posts on smart growth: studies show that average people want it, local mayors and town boards aim for it, small businesses benefit from it, and neighborhoods thrive on it. We’ve written about studies that demonstrate how various principles of smart growth benefit the economy, the environment, and public and private health. Lately, we’ve been able to blog about how the nation is seeing more and more of it.

But all too often, the overwhelming evidence of local and nonpartisan support for smart growth feels a bit…lacking. Sure, a survey of 2,071 people from the United States shows that 77% of them support smart design programs. Yeah, an analysis of how local transportation money has been spent proves that complete streets are spreading both in major cities like New York and San Francisco and in small towns in Idaho. But what does that mean for us? These are local efforts, and while they demonstrate a trend, we have yet to feel that “woah…Smart Growth is awesome” moment for ourselves in the Lehigh Valley.

But let’s say that this is your first visit to Crossroads. Have you ever heard of “smart growth” before?

Even if you do not know the term, chances are pretty good that you are familiar with the principles it represents. You wish it was easier to use mass transit, you’ve heard of “urban revitalization,” and you’ve noticed at some point in your life that it feels safer to walk on a sidewalk than on a poorly lit street on which cars routinely try to shatter the sound barrier. You want to feel safe letting your kids ride their bikes to friends’ houses, and you wish you could walk around the corner when you need one or two things for dinner, instead of having to jump in the car.

The guiding phrase itself is far less important than the practices it stands for. While the common word is a useful way to connect with like-minded groups and succinctly refer to a varying collection of thoughts, to the average person “smart growth” changes nothing — but the installation of sidewalks does.

Using and spreading the obscure phrase will not help us promote “smart growth” among the average people (all of us) who stand to benefit from it. Only two things that can do that. One, as I mentioned before, is the “woah” moment. Imagine, after having lived in Allentown for the past 10, 20, or 30 years, leaving. Imagine returning five years later. Imagine coming back to find a thriving downtown. Fantastic, affordable, safe places to live, just blocks from restaurants, bars, and your office. Drastically less traffic on the streets. Unobtrusive bike racks on curbs, for you, your neighbors, and your coworkers. A healthy, vibrant, safe, happy community.

If we continue to move forward, that’s coming. But it might take a bit of time, and it will definitely take a bit of work.

Until that moment, we rely on the second thing to promote the movement: the making mainstream of principles included in “smart growth.” While we try to work towards that through Crossroads, Facebook, and Twitter, we are clearly biased. What we need is institutional acknowledgment of Smart Growth.

Fortunately, we have lately begun to see this on the federal level. The EPA supports sustainable development. The President and the Department of Transportation and the continue to push for mass transit and alternative transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsors many programs consistent with Smart Growth.

There’s also the Centers for Disease Control.

While economic and environmental benefits are frequently touted by the smart growth community, public health benefits are sometimes mentioned as an afterthought. They’re just as important, just as easy to prove, but somehow, they tend to take a backseat. RenewLV has made an effort over the past year or so to bring public health to the forefront of our push for smart growth in the Valley, both through the inevitable health benefits that come from other policies (such as walkability and mass transit), and through the establishment of a Regional Health Department (see here for more information about this campaign).

The federal government appears to see the health benefits of smart growth, as well. The CDC has a page dedicated to “community design.” It echos the public health arguments that RenewLV has made:

Community design refers to all the elements of a community that are human-made and form the physical characteristics of that community. It includes:

  • buildings, such as schools, workplaces, and homes,
  • roads,
  • parks and recreation areas,
  • transportation systems, and
  • places to buy food.

Well-designed communities can improve public health. The design and maintenance of our communities may be related to:

  • chronic diseases,
  • obesity,
  • injury rates,
  • mental health, and
  • the effects of climate change.

Through design, communities can attempt to offer residents:

  • opportunities to incorporate routine physical activity into our everyday lives,
  • cleaner air,
  • lower risk of injury from vehicle accidents, and
  • decreased effects of climate change.

According to the page, the CDC actively tracks data on community design as it relates to public health concerns including “types of transportation to work, air quality (ozone and PM 2.5), childhood lead poisoning, and motor vehicle-related fatalities.”

The page is not promoting anything specific, nor does it represent the transformation of the CDC into a leading “smart growth” advocacy group. It simply represents an acknowledgment that Smart Growth has real effects: this is not some crazy scheme based on theory and fantasy. Smart Growth is real, it benefits everyone in many different ways, and it can be successful in any urban community.

Like what you see? Join the effort to make Smart Growth work for us! Sign up for e-mail updates and visit our homepage to learn how you can get involved!

Urban Design that Fights Obesity and Promotes Physical Activity

Sure, we all know that regular exercise and eating well are essential components of a healthy lifestyle and are important in fighting obesity. But rather than just telling people to go to the gym, how can we make physical activity a more realistic (and exciting!) option that will encourage people to abandon their sedentary lifestyles?  

The authors and collaborators of the NYC Active City Guidelines propose active urban design as the key to promoting more physical activity and fighting the obesity epidemic. The Guidelines are the product of a collaborative effort between NYC public health professionals, architects, urban designers, and urban planners.

 The Guidelines are grounded in the idea that the design of the built environment can have a crucial and positive influence on improving public health.

They propose interesting strategies as to how planners can transform the built environment to encourage more active lifestyles for its residents and visitors through stair climbing, walking, bicycling, transit use, active recreation, and healthy eating.

While they focus ostensibly on New York City, the Guidelines can also be applied to other cities and communities.

These are my ten favorite suggestions, and perhaps the ones most pertinent to communities in the LehighValley:

1. Consider shared-use paths in areas with viewing attractions.

  • Check out Allentown’s plans to encourage active transportation: This Morning Call article discusses the plan to connect local bicycle and walking trails.

2. Explore bicycle share programs to increase access to bicycles for both city residents and visitors. 

3. When designing sites that include parking, consider how the provision of parking can affect the use of more active modes of travel such as walking, bicycling, and public transit. In general, when parking is available, people use it. Research in California indicates that increased parking supply may result in reduced active transportation and public transit use. Design car parking so as to reduce unnecessary automobile travel, particularly when walking, bicycling, and public transit are convenient alternatives.

4. Locate new projects near existing public and private recreational facilities and encourage development of new facilities, including indoor activity spaces.

5. In the design of parks and playgrounds, create a variety of climate environments to facilitate activity in different seasons and weather conditions. For example, include sunny, wind-protected areas for use in the winter and shaded zones for use in the summer.

6. Design plazas that allow for diverse functions. Plazas can accommodate physical activities like dance and volleyball, passive activities like sitting and chess, and cultural events such as concerts, exhibits, and historical celebrations. Plazas can also provide space for café style seating and farmers’ markets. When programming plazas, consider the needs of users with varying mobility levels. Seek partnerships with community groups to maintain and program plazas.

7. Incorporate temporary and permanent public art installations into the streetscape to provide a more attractive and engaging environment. Seek collaborations with local arts organizations, philanthropic institutions, or other nongovernmental groups to create and help maintain the artwork.

8. Provide safe walking and bicycle paths between densely populated areas and grocery stores and farmers’ market sites.

9. Further develop Greenways—alternative routes that are integrated into the regional park system. Greenways feature relatively few intersections, many plantings, and a dedicated bicycle right of way. These routes can serve as commuter corridors during the week and recreational paths on the weekend. Connect Greenways to street bikeways.

10. Design stairs to be more visible, in order to encourage their everyday use.

Smart Growth is Growing: Now It’s Our Turn

In case the National Association of Realtors report from last month wasn’t enough, a new analysis by the National Complete Streets Coalition gives more evidence for the rising popularity of smart growth. Kaid Benfield of the NRDC writes: “While the prospects for transportation policy reform appear stagnated at the federal level, more and more state and local governments across the country are adopting strong ‘complete streets‘ measures.”

Benfield, citing a press release from the Coalition, points out that the number of complete streets policies has nearly doubled in each of the last three years. The Coalition’s Executive Director, Barbara McCann, claims that:

Recent polls show that voters’ top priority for infrastructure investments are safer streets for our communities and children. Our report shows that this commitment is not only wide, but deep: community leaders and transportation practitioners are rolling up their sleeves and working together in small towns and big cities, in almost every state in the nation, to pass policies that will ensure that future transportation investments create complete streets.”

Complimenting the NAR and NCSC reports is a study out of London, which, according to This Big City, found that “making a street more walkable can add up to £30,000 to the average property price in that street.” Walkability improvements include “widened pavements, extra trees, improved lighting, and new wayfinding signs.” Furthermore, shops located on walkable streets in commercial or mixed-use areas can expect to make a greater amount of money.

People want smart growth, complete streets policies are exploding in popularity on the local level, and walkability enhancements are proven to benefit property values and local business profits. This is all fantastic to see, but let us not grow complacent. While these studies and surveys certainly represent a victory for the larger smart growth community, there is still much work to be done — particularly here in the Lehigh Valley. To be truly effective, smart growth/smart design programs require a long-term investment of resources and effort, and a willingness to push for all, not just some, of the necessary projects.

As Jon Geeting of the Lehigh Valley Independent reminded us late last week, we still have a long way to go to bringing these improvements to the Valley. Accessible public transit is as important as walkability; unfortunately, transportation planners from Bucks and Montgomery Counties, who have been working to restore SEPTA rail service in those areas, have scaled back the proposed Lansdale-Quakertown rail corridor. While previous proposals set the rail line to reach very near the Lehigh County line, it now stops in the Pennridge area of Upper Bucks. Geeting writes:

Extending SEPTA to the Lehigh Valley is a no-brainer. If it cost $1 billion it would still be a no-brainer. Washington and Harrisburg need to get serious about transportation and raise the gas tax to get this done. This would put lots of people to work in the short term, and the long-run economic benefits would definitely outweight the short term costs.

I couldn’t agree more. I am happy to see the national trend toward smart growth. Now it’s our turn: Let’s make it work here.

Get involved! Sign up to receive e-mail updates from RenewLV, and visit our website to learn more about our efforts to revitalize the Lehigh Valley.

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