Blog Archives

The Future of Cars

Owning and driving a car, once deemed a core aspect of any American’s life, is now on the decline in this country.

A recent New York Times article titled, “The End of Car Culture” examines how Americans are “buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses.” The hypothesis is that the country has passed its peak driving period and that different modes of transportation are now edging their way into the transportation market that had previously been inundated with personal cars. Even the percentage of individuals that have a drivers license in their teens, 20s and 30s has declined significantly since 1983.

The data that the article used was adjusted for population and found that the quantity of miles driven by Americans peaked in 2005 and has declined since. While some have speculated that the decline in cars purchased and miles driven was a cause of the recession, those declines actually began two to three years prior. There are also other theories to the cause of this trend.

“Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift,” said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes telecommuting possible and allows people to feel more connected without driving to meet friends. The renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Likewise the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.

Reduced use of personal vehicles has positive results for the environment and carbon emissions. Transportation is the second leading source of carbon emissions (power plants are first). New York’s bike sharing program is growing in popularity as tolls increase and funding that promotes car ownership decreases.

To further support the idea that this trend is more than economic, the age group of those most likely to purchase a car and to have a license is increasingly the elderly. The youth are expressing less interest in cars and more interest in living in communities where a car is unnecessary and the public transit is satisfactory.

The article mentions Bay Area Rapid Transit, a transportation system in San Francisco that optimizes bus routes by looking at frequency of use and land use in the area. Our very own LANta is in the process of studying Bus Rapid Transit for the Lehigh Valley. Their report is part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project and will be released soon. The trend across the country points to the need for multimodal transportation options and this is an important step by LANta. As our population increases in city centers, there is less need for a personal car but short bus routes and safe biking paths are still important transit developments. All of these options are environmentally promising and are sustainable alternatives to individuals relying solely on their personal car.

What’s An Urban Grocery Store?

Answer: Not an urban legend.

In metropolitan areas across the country, residents have been faced with fresh food deserts, or areas where one third of the population is more than a mile from a grocery store and one fifth exists below the poverty line. City dwellers are faced with carrying their groceries on long public transit rides, buying a car or relying on convenience stores to purchase their groceries.

For some lucky metro-poles, there is yet another option: visiting their local urban grocery stores. Though not exactly super markets, these small grocery stores strive to provide their cities with fresh food, meat and cooking staples within reasonable walking distance. Corner stores like these became passe after super stores like Wal-Mart, Wegmans, Weis and Giant came to suburbia. However there’s been a new push toward walkability and sustainable growth within our cities and we again need accessible food in our urban areas.

However, the confines of urban design present some challenges. These grocery stores have to use a fraction of the space that super stores have, prioritize the goods they will provide and consider parking in an area unable to accommodate a super-parking-lot. Even with these challenges in mind, many cities and entrepreneurs have taken the risk and opened such grocery stores.

In the city of Dallas, Texas, there is one such grocery store that also encompasses a delivery component. Nestled in the heart of downtown Dallas, Urbanmarket is the only full service grocery store in its area. They provide produce, meat, deli, seafood, wine & beer, health and beauty products, flowers and prepared foods. Also, if you submit your grocery list online by noon on Tuesday or Friday, your groceries will  be delivered right to you.

Washington, D.C. is getting even more use out of urban space by utilizing mixed use development. On the same property as the Urban Lifestyle Safeway grocery store, there are 441 condos, 244 apartments and 75,000 square feet of retail space. The property is only 3.2 acres. Parking for these facilities is approximately 40 percent of a standard suburban grocery store but still has maintained a successful business model through foot and bike traffic.

There are four food deserts in the Lehigh Valley right now, which (according to the USDA) means that there are four regions in which one third of the population has to travel more than a mile to reach fresh food and at least one fifth of the population exists  below the poverty line. Is an urban grocery store a potential solution to this fresh food problem? Envision Lehigh Valley has been gathering public input on fresh food access and those findings will be included in a comprehensive plan to combat food deserts in the Valley. Community involvement and ideas will be critical in this planning process.

April Fool’s Day (aka- Automobile Independence Day)

In my master’s coursework, I was assigned to read Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.  The 10th anniversary edition is still as poignant as when it was originally printed.  I highly recommend reading it.

What caught my eye was a chapter called “The Victims of Sprawl.”  Children growing up in cul-de-sacs, mothers chauffeuring their children to numerous activities, bored teenagers unable to experience independence without access to a car, the elderly unable to drive anymore, commuters, the immobile poor– all were identified as “victims” of suburban sprawl.  I couldn’t help but nod as I read the chapter identifying how suburbia’s dependence on the automobile has created such victims and how much money is spent supporting this dependence.  I had to chuckle out loud when I discovered a new holiday– “Automobile Independence Day.”  The authors explain:

“Recognizing the tremendous cost of the auto-dependent lifestyle, the author Philip Langdon has proposed a new national holiday: “Automobile Independence Day.”  It would take place on that date each year by which we have earned one quarter of our salaries, the amount that it takes to support our cars.  How appropriate that it is April Fool’s Day.”

How much do you spend on supporting your car?  It brings a whole new meaning to April 1st, now doesn’t it?  Perhaps, in the end, the joke is on us.

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.

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.

Biking Towards Social Integration

The essential elements of livable cities can be boiled down into just three central characteristics, according to ThisBigCity:

1) Resilience is about the ability of a city to ‘invent’ or ‘re-invent’ itself through shocks and stresses, to harmoniously accommodate old a new values, and to adapt the functions and requirements of the city.
2) Inclusiveness is about creating social integration and cohesion.
3) Authenticity is the ability to maintain the local character of the city, the local heritage, culture and environment.

Want a visual for this? This creative infographic from Phillips Livable Cities illustrates these concepts well.

Enhancing Inclusiveness in Bogota, Colombia

If you haven’t seen it already, check out these three elements in action in this amazing Streetfilms video that focuses on innovative ciclovías (bike paths) that have been instrumental in making Bogota, Colombia a more livable — and integrated — city. One of the interviewers, Karla Quintero, sums up well the role of these bike lanes in improving social integration:

Every time we referred to it as a large scale street closure event, they would always correct me and say that, no, it’s totally more than that. It’s about social integration. It’s about giving people an opportunity to see their city, to know their city, and to connect with parts of their city that they would otherwise be isolated from because of the streets.

Connecting the Allentown Community Through Bike and Pedestrian Paths

Adopted by the Allentown City Council, the Connecting Our Community plan will connect Allentown’s parks and people through a network of bicycle and pedestrian trails, both on and off street. From allentownpa.gov:

The first phase of implementation will include improvements along Linden and Turner streets – a priority corridor linking Center City and Cedar Creek Parkway with the neighborhoods, schools, parks, businesses, and cultural institutions in between. All other on-street projects will stem from this important corridor.

Want to make Allentown a safer place to for pedestrians and bicyclists? Share your opinion at the Connecting Our Community meeting on April 27th. It will be held at Central Elementary School on 829 Turner St (in the Cafeteria) from 7pm-8:30pm.

Smart Growth Round-Up: Livable Cities and Transportation

Here’s a quick recap of what’s trending in regard to livable cities and transportation:

Livable cities:

Vancouver, Canada is the most livable city in the world (according to The Economist, at least). The Canadian city ranked highest on stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. In contrast, Harare in Zimbabwe ranked the worst city based on these same five indicators.

Tao Rugkhapan over at ThisBigCity, however, makes a valuable critique about the Economist’s assessment of the “most livable cities”:

“Rather than account for progress in policy change, the ranking considers instead some indicators that are of a nearly static, absolute nature. For developed countries, such indicators as ‘quality of road network’ or ‘quality of water provision’ although a necessary benchmark for a city’s infrastructure, are unlikely to significantly change from one year to the next. Like their temperate, thus ‘tolerable’ weather, the mature infrastructure makes Vancouver, Melbourne, and the other chart-toppers, natural winners who will continue to occupy this rank’s top spots for years to come. Cities with a long-established tradition of sound fiscal health and sizable capital are clearly at an advantage in providing development of corresponding proportions.”

Transportation:

As a nation, are we still too car-dependent? TransportationNation provides data from US DOT’s monthly “Traffic Volume Trends” report revealing that Americans drove three trillion miles in 2010, the most vehicle miles traveled since 2007 and the third-highest ever recorded.

Secretary LaHood says, “This new data further demonstrates why we need to repair the roads and bridges that are the lifeblood of our economy.”

The proposition to fix roads first goes hand-in-hand with this recent Brookings Institution report advocating for road repair and maintenance. Authors Kahn and Levinson explain the need to fix existing infrastructure first:

“Fix it first, expand it second, and reward it third. By focusing on fixing existing infrastructure before creating new, the report explains, states can boost their economy and maximize the number of jobs created…[This approach will allow] states to more with the money they already have and meet transportation challenges while catalyzing economic growth at the same time.”

But where is the funding for new transit projects that would both reduce car-dependence and create more jobs?

The House passed a spending bill last week indicating cuts to transit, smart growth and rail. In addition, the cuts will eliminate funds for High Speed Rail projects.

Angie Schmitt over at Streetblogs.net explains that these cuts are  detrimental to economic recovery:

“But one thing is clear: with global unrest sending gas prices skyrocketing and threatening the economic recovery, it’s exactly the wrong time to cut back on transit, rail, and active transportation.”

Valley Transportation Projects Receive Funding

A slew of transportation improvement projects were approved for funding on Monday. PennDOT officials and members of the Lehigh Valley Transportation Study chose 10 projects out of a proposed 24 to receive a share of $3.3 million in available money. These funds come from the Transportation Enhancement Program, which aims to fund projects that will improve transportation connections and provide much-needed improvements to our network. Dan Hartzell of the Morning Call reports:

TEP funds normally are awarded for improvements apart from direct road or bridge construction work, said Joseph Gurinko, chief transportation planner for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. These include sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks and related work, bicycle safety projects, street lighting, rail trails and other park improvements.

Better connectivity means more livable communities, so I’m thrilled to see that this important program is still around and still funding such crucial projects.

The Express Times posted the full list of projects:

^ $500,000 to Lehigh County to restore Manassas Guth covered bridge in South Whitehall Township

^ $499,100 to Allentown for pedestrian lighting along Seventh Street

^ $497,835 to Freemansburg for Main Street enhancements

^ $488,750 to the D& L National Heritage Corridor for trail construction from Hokendauqua to North Catasauqua

^ $449,500 to Whitehall Township to develop Jordan Creek greenway

^ $439,875 to Fountain Hill for pedestrian enhancements to Delaware Avenue

^ $434,654 to Hellertown for streetscape work at the government complex off Route 412

^ $243,600 to the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation for bicycle education for cyclists and law enforcement

^ $172,500 to Allentown for a safety/crosswalk project for Muhlenberg College students

^ $158,485 to Community Bike Works for bicycle safety and maintenance classes

Total: $3,884,299

Great to see that Hellertown received funding to continue it’s street enhancement project. Sure sign that this community will continue thriving (go visit if you haven’t yet — I recommend the restaurant at the Crossroads Hotel, and not just because our blog shares the name with it).

Use it or Lose it, Says Sec. LaHood

CNN reported a few days ago that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has a clear message to states who received high-speed rail funding from the stimulus — it must be used on HSR or returned. Steve Kastenbaum writes:

CNN obtained copies of letters LaHood sent to incoming Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin who have stated their opposition to rail projects already underway in their states. In the letters, LaHood said a rail link between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, and a high-speed rail connection between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are vital to economic growth in both regions.

Lahood wrote that he respects the power of governors to make decisions for their states, but, “There seems to be some confusion about how these high-speed rail dollars can be spent.”

Oooh, nice tone, Secretary. Confusion, indeed. This is the same type of confusion that supposedly went on in New Jersey over the ARC rail tunnel project, which received stimulus funding.

What should these states do???

NJ: Only Car Drivers Benefit?

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign makes a very interesting observation today in light of the cancellation of the ARC Tunnel project. Though Governor Christie killed the tunnel project because of high costs, for some reason, that same logic just doesn’t seem to apply to road widening. Kate Slevin writes:

But a quick look at the rising costs of the Parkway and Turnpike expansion projects suggests his interest in saving money only applies to transit projects. As MTR wrote earlier this year, these widening projects steadily increased in cost even before ground was broken on them during the Corzine administration.

A few weeks before canceling the ARC Tunnel, Christie administration officials borrowed an additional $2 billion to continue paying for the road widenings. Only time will tell what their eventual cost will be.

I hope some of you gasped a bit at reading that last part. Yes, borrowed $2 billion.

I guess spending is alright as long as it only benefits car drivers. Sorry to say this, Gov. Christie, but, as the popular phrase says, “widening roads to deal with congestion is like loosening one’s belt to cure obesity.”

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