February 18, 2009

Stimulus funds: How much for something besides roads?

Streetsblog has some good news for cycling, pedestrian and anti-sprawl advocates. Analysis by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign of the recently passed stimulus bill shows that the $27.5 billion included for "highways" allocates 3% of that for "transportation enhancements," usually bicycle and pedestrian projects. That's up from 1.7% in the 2005 federal transportation bill.

In addition, major metro areas (population over 200,000) will get roughly 16% of the total funding -- which apparently is good news considering how funding usually gets distributed. Although Ben Fried at Streetsblog points out, "As Brookings notes, the nation's 100 largest metro areas produce 75% of the nation's GDP." Three-quarters of the nation's economic activity, yet less than one-fifth of federal funding for transportation infrastructure.

Thanks to my colleague Mitch Betts for the link.

Last month, Transportation for America put together a chart showing various state transportation funding requests. Massachusetts apparently asked for $783 million in transportation funding, including $17.6 million (2.2%) for bike and pedestrian projects. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the second-highest percentage request on the chart - possibly highest, since Maine's 2.8% included ferries as well as bike and pedestrian work.

February 16, 2009

Hang up the phone and drive

Even if you've got a "hands-free" headset. Hang up the phone and pay attention to the roadway, so you don't kill someone, OK?

Latest data show that talking on a cell phone, even with both hands on the wheel, is a dangerous activity.

"Engaging in a phone conversation on a mobile device while driving distracts the brain and delays reaction times, experts said. Drivers are more likely to swerve between lanes, slow down and miss important signs," says this CNN story summarizing recent driving-while-talking studies. And no, it's not the same as chatting with the person next to you. From the same report:

" 'It doesn't matter what kind of cell phone device they are using, because the impairments are so large,' said University of Utah professor David Strayer, who used a high-tech driving simulator for his experiment.

"Strayer's study, published in December, concluded that conversations with a front-seat passenger can actually mitigate accidents, because the passenger can help observe road conditions and warn the driver of possible hazards."

Maybe you don't mean it, but if you talk on the phone while driving, you're showing contempt for the safety and well-being of those on the road around you. Studies are clear that reaction time is slower for a driver yakking on a phone. Not just for other people. Yes, even for you. And when you're piloting a 1,000+ lb vehicle at 55+ mph, just a slight delay in reaction time can be deadly.

"Phone driving is the drunken driving of the new millennium," wrote Dan Carney in the Washington Post piece, What Call is Worth a Life? "Seemingly everyone does it, and all of them seem to believe that they are skilled in a way that prevents their powers of perception from being clouded by the fog of isolation that envelops drivers who talk on the phone."

That was four years ago, and the problem has only gotten worse. "One study from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis estimated that 636,000 traffic accidents each year -- about 6 percent of all accidents -- are caused by drivers using their cell phones, resulting in an estimated 2,600 deaths," notes CNN.

It's time to ban drivers from talking on cell phones. Period.

Will the financial meltdown tame exurban sprawl? Is home ownership an economic problem?

Toward the end of a lengthy piece on how the financial crisis will reshape America, "Rise of the Creative Class" author Richard Florida argues that our society will finally start re-thinking suburbs -- particularly exurbs. He believes areas with a high concentration of well-educated knowledge workers will do best in a post-manufacturing economy:

"The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required.

"The housing bubble was the ultimate expression, and perhaps the last gasp, of an economic system some 80 years in the making, and now well past its 'sell-by' date. The bubble encouraged massive, unsustainable growth in places where land was cheap and the real-estate economy dominant. It encouraged low-density sprawl, which is ill-fitted to a creative, postindustrial economy. And not least, it created a workforce too often stuck in place, anchored by houses that cannot be profitably sold, at a time when flexibility and mobility are of great importance."

Just as the era after the Depression and World War II led to suburban growth, will our new post-crash era once again realign American living patterns? It's an interesting argument, especially if you believe that areas most rich in knowledge workers, such as Silicon Valley, New York and Boston, will thrive.

The most controversial part of his piece is his call for an end to government incentives to homebuyers, arguing they "distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would." However, I think Florida gives too short shrift to the community benefits of home ownership (which can include condos, not only stand-alone single-family houses) -- once you're heavily financially invested in a place, you have much more of a stake in the functioning success of that community than you do if you're a transient renter. He also underestimates the problem of disparity of housing prices: How many people in affordable areas of the country are put off by housing prices in Boston or New York -- even rental prices -- compared to what they can get elsewhere?

Instead, I think we should start with a look at changing other government actions that encourage exurban sprawl, such as: the investment and development/design tilt toward roads for private cars instead of mass transit and walkable neighborhoods; zoning regulations that favor sprawl over smart growth; and perhaps someday the effective forced subsidies by urban dwellers so those in the exurbs pay similar utility rates, even though it's more expensive to deliver services to sparsely populated outer-ring communities.

However, I think it may be worth a look at some point (clearly not right now) at *how* the government promotes home ownership, because it is certainly arguable that deductions for mortgage interest can disproportionately benefit upper-income taxpayers. As Atlantic senior editor Clive Crook notes in the article Housebound:

"The current deduction costs nearly $80 billion a year in forgone federal revenues. It is available only to the minority of households—typically affluent— that itemize their taxes. Households at the margin of choosing between renting and owning are not, for the most part, itemizers. The deduction has no effect on their choice, and thus does almost nothing to promote homeownership. What it does promote, studies show, is spending on housing—that is, people who would have been owners anyway pay more for their houses. Prices are higher than they would otherwise have been, and mortgages are bigger. As many owners have learned abruptly, this can worsen economic insecurity."

Not sure I completely agree. At the time we were buying our first home, the mortgage deduction was the difference that allowed us to afford a house at the median price point in the most affordable town in the area -- a 7-room slab ranch on a quiet street in a middle-class neighborhood -- instead of a house on a noisy street, a house that was smaller than our apartment, one that would need a lot of (expensive) work, or one that increased our commutes. So I sure appreciated the deduction. Although I suppose it's arguable that if there weren't such a deduction, price levels would had to have been lower as a result, just as prices allegedly drop when mortgage rates rise. However, that's not necessarily the case. But some other sort of tax credit that better targets middle-class homebuyers might indeed be more effective than the mortgage interest deduction we have now.

Florida suggests that instead of trying to stop foreclosures, we require banks that take ownership of homes from defaulting homeowners "to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.) A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive."

Both Florida and Crook point to work by economist Andrew Oswald that conscludes higher home ownership leads to higher unemployment rates, because workers are less mobile and thus less able to go where jobs are. Florida summarizes Oswald's work: "[I]n both the United States and Europe, those places with higher homeownership rates also suffer from higher unemployment. Homeownership, Oswald found, is a more important predictor of unemployment than rates of unionization or the generosity of welfare benefits. Too often, it ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work—if they can find it—that is a poor match for their interests and abilities."

Not mentioned here, though, is the human cost to forcing people to pick up and move in order to find work; and the cost to a community when large numbers of people view themselves as transient residents instead of fully vested citizens. What doesn't work so well in a financial meltdown works a lot better when the economy is not in dire straits, and people are employed and emotionally anchored to their communities. However, I will admit there's a cost as well to family finances (i.e. housing issues) forcing people to stay in an area where there are no unemployment prospects. In any case, food for thought. Your thoughts?

February 15, 2009

I know Natick isn't Manhattan, but...

...it's still a pity that when 300 people are pouring out of The Center for Arts in Natick after a sold-out evening show, they all walk back to their cars passing nothing but dark storefronts (as we did last night). On Valentine's Day, no less! How many of those patrons would have been happy to extend the evening by ducking into a cafe for an after-theater snack, dessert or coffee/tea!

I realize that in general, it probably doesn't make sense for many businesses in Natick Center to stay open until 11 or midnight; there's hardly the after-theater foot traffic you'd get in New York. But what a missed opportunity for the specific weekend evenings when TCAN has a full house! Wouldn't it be great if there were a cafe or dessert place right by the center, which could coordinate with TCAN, find out when they expect large crowds, and then advertise to the patrons that night to come in after the show?

February 11, 2009

In Pictures: Transforming an ugly parking lot into a walkable shopping area

Too many of the strip mall/big box parking lots along Rte. 9, Rte. 30 and elsewhere are not only visually unpleasant, but they make it all but impossible to walk from place to place -- even between retail destinations that are only a few hundred feet away. But those design patterns can change! Check out this development vision for a town in Illinois. This 5-picture slideshow starts out with an ugly ocean of asphalt in front of a chain restaurant, and ends with an attractive "walkable design [that] would allow residents to shop with their feet instead of their cars. The revamped shopping center would keep all the same amenities in place and add a sense of community character."

Another scenario from Memphis shows how a few design changes can transform a residential neighborhood with an unappealing pedestrian streetscape into one where pedestrians would love to stroll.

Which version would you rather live, work and shop in? These attractive neighborhoods become possible when developers and town officials keep walkable streetscapes in mind.

(Thanks to my colleague Mitch Betts for the links.)

February 8, 2009

Who says you can't draw people to downtown Framingham?

It was standing room only at Nevins Hall Saturday morning, when Greg Mortenson, author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea, took the stage to talk about his work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Parking woes? People parked several blocks away and walked, and that didn't seem to be much of a deterrence (after all, a number of people [including me] stood for more than an hour for the presentation). Kudos to the library's Framingham Reads Together program, for bringing such a great speaker to town.

After it was over, though, I couldn't help be a little sorry for a great opportunity lost by many of the surrounding people. As hundreds of attendees walked back to their cars, how many stopped to patronize local businesses? How many even knew what local businesses were around? Many of the attendees were from out of town. And because we don't yet have an obvious, uninterrupted retail/dining district surrounding town hall, a lot of people who might have patronized some of the many interesting locally owned business downtown just headed back to their cars.

It seems a pity there weren't menus and coupons for some local eateries. They could have advertised "Three Cups of Tea specials" for all those people! The Danforth Museum was handing out fliers for Framingham Reads Together future events; but it's too bad some of the area restaurants weren't doing the same.

Soon there's another big opportunity: Patriots Day, when a lot of people will head downtown again to watch the runners go by. I think this would be a great chance for local restaurants, grocers and ethnic food places of all sorts to promote themselves. I know we've had ethnic fairs on Patriots Day in the past, but I don't think we should just count on people making their way to a fair after the race. I think it's better to promote our local businesses to the crowd while they're standing around waiting!

Why not a "walking tour" map of various ethnic grocers, restaurants and bakeries that could be handed out to spectators along the Marathon route?? Why not a logo for all those participating, and brochures at each explaining some interesting things to buy at the Asian Grocery (with recipes) or Brazilian bakery (with an explainer of some of the more popular items) or Russian store or Italian market? Why not a "driving tour" map as well, adding points of interest for food lovers like B&R Artisan Bread and North End Treats?

I was happy to hear about the recent partnership between Brazilian-owned businesses and MIT to help all downtown businesses stay open. I believe Framingham's downtown ethnic mix can make it an appealing alternative to cookie-cutter mall chain stores. However, until we have a streetscape like Boston's North End or Waltham's Moody Street, which would encourage people to stroll from block to block and window shop until finding an unexpected destination, it would help if we could take more actions so people know about our local businesses. I hope some of the grant money for downtown businesses will go toward this kind of promotion.

As for Greg Mortenson's presentation, it was great. If you've read Three Cups of Tea, you know what incredible work he's done building schools to educate children - and especially girls - in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If you haven't, I heartily recommend it; and it's not too late for some other Framingham Reads Together events around the book.

I also did a brief (8 minutes or so) video report of his talk (apologies for the lack of tripod; it was a spur-of-the-moment idea to try to video with my little point-and-shoot camera from the sidelines).