Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New transit rules from the feds, part II

John Muth, chief development officer for the Charlotte Area Transit System confirms that yes, as I speculated in "New transit rules from the feds" yesterday, the rules changes being proposed by the Federal Transit Administration do "cover how fixed guideway projects such as commuter rail, light rail, and bus rapid transit are evaluated for possible federal funding."  He said in an email that he hadn't yet reviewed the notice of proposed rule-making but will do so.

"We will be using most of the time between now and the March 26th deadline to review the guidance, compare notes with others in the industry, and prepare our comments," Muth reports.

The latest news on the Red Line proposal is that the consultants are saying the letter from Norfolk Southern railway is not the final word on the project. Here's a report from DavidsonNews.net.

Interesting tidbit inside that last link: Note that on Feb. 8, Randall O'Toole from the conservative/libertarian Cato Institute is giving a presentation and analysis of the Red Line plan at 9 a.m. at Cornelius Town Hall. That's, er, interesting.

Monday, January 30, 2012

New transit rules from the feds

We've been waiting months for the Federal Transit Administration to pop out with some supposed new guidelines for how the FTA will evaluate its transit projects. Is this it? "FTA proposes New Starts streamline," from the U.S. Department of Transportation's official blog, Fast Lane, says proposed new rules "will speed up the New Starts process and focus more on transit options that fit local needs."

Here's the press release.

I'm checking with CATS folks to see if the proposed changes might, for instance, help the proposed Red Line commuter rail to north Mecklenburg (and maybe Iredell but that's iffy), compete for federal funds. Currently it does not. Commuter rail projects, in general, have not met the FTA's standards for cost-effectiveness. That's the big reason CATS and the N.C. Department of Transportation and the Red Line task force have created the idea of pairing commuter rail with freight rail-oriented development. 

And by the way, the fact that Norfolk Southern says freight and commuter rail are incompatible may not mean the railroad is not willing to partner. Or it may.  It's worth remembering that the railroads have a reputation for driving a very hard bargain. Or being great negotiators, if you want to put it another way.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Grid love: NYC's brutal 1811 plan survives, adapts

Drawing from New York's earliest years shows now-leveled hills
NEW YORK  It brutally assaulted the land's natural features. It rejected contemporary ideals of strong city planning in favor of helping business and real estate interests. Its disrespect for existing property lines and uses would be reviled today as government overreach.

In 1811, a three-man commission created and imposed a relentless street grid onto almost all of Manhattan's then-undeveloped land. The grid ignored hills, ponds, creeks and swamps. With only a few exceptions it mandated that all of the island generally north of Houston Street would hold rectangular blocks – no curving streets, quirky intersections or irregularities to ease the eye. It offered only a few spots for parks or squares, and those generally weren't built as planned anyway.

But viewed from 200 years later, the famous New York City street grid turns out to have been stunningly resilient, in contrast to the faddish and already failing cul-de-sacs and freeways of the past 60 years. It has accommodated dramatic changes in transportation habits. By creating short blocks and multiple street corners it boosted commerce. By making it easy for people to walk places, and to bump into each other at those same corners, it enhanced the proximity effect  the way random encounters among smart people in a city can spark partnerships, innovations, creativity and build new businesses. That, too, boosted New York's growing role as the country's top business hub.

With numbered avenues and streets logically marching northward and westward, the easy-to-navigate map also helped the city welcome and assimilate newcomers: foreign and domestic immigrants as well as millions of tourists. Its ease of use projected a subliminal welcome mat. Contrast that with the you're-not-wanted-here feeling that Charlotte's confusing maze of Myers Park streets projects to outsiders.

I spent a large chunk of Saturday afternoon at the new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan,1811-2011.” It might sound boring. It was anything but.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We love parks, but do we love parking more?

2005 aerial photo in west Charlotte (Photo: Nancy Pierce)
Two lengthy and thought-provoking articles about parking are making the rounds this month, sparking what I hope will be a lot more thinking about, and innovative approaches toward, that mundane but ugly creature, the parking lot.

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, in "Paved But Still Alive: It's Time To Take Parking Lots Seriously, As Public Spaces," lists some astounding numbers: Estimates of the number of U.S. parking spaces range from 105 million to 2 billion, a third of them in parking lots. Eight parking places for every car in this country. Houston has 30 parking places per resident. If you estimate the country has 500 million parking spaces (as author Eran Ben-Joseph of MIT does), they cover a combined 3,590 square miles, an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island put together.

Kimmelman writes about the so-called Pensacola Parking Syndrome (a term possibly coined by architect Andres Duany in Suburban Nation), in which a city tears down its old buildings to create parking spaces to entice more people downtown, until people no longer want to go there because it has become an empty lot. He suggests that more cities should set limits on the number of parking spaces and urges New York to abandon what he calls "outmoded zoning codes from the auto-boom days requiring specific ratios of parking spaces per housing unit, or per square foot of retail space." And he tells the interesting tale of the parking lot of the Dutchess County Mall in  Fishkill, N.Y., and the planning firm Interboro. Well, you can read that yourself.

Longer, quirkier and even more interesting, is Dave Gardetta's "Between the Lines," in Los Angeles magazine. He has his own set of amazing stats, such as this:

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why greenways matter

UNCC student Jamie Prince and her dog, Tolstoy
I took a brisk walk today on the Ruth G. Shaw Trail along the Toby Creek Greenway through the UNC Charlotte campus. It was part of my job. Really. I was taking photos of the greenway for an article we'll be publishing, with luck this week. (Update: It's now posted here.)

It was warm-ish for January, and as I walked to where the trail intersects with the Mallard Creek Greenway I saw runners, bicyclers, one skateboarder, and a woman with a child in a stroller. Except for roller skates and hand-powered wheelchairs, I think I saw just about every non-motorized mode of transportation. Which makes the point: Greenways are a transportation venue as well as a recreation venue.  If I had had the time and inclination, I could have used the greenway to head south instead of north and I'd have arrived at N.C. 49, aka University City Boulevard, at a light where I could have crossed to get to the strip shopping center at Harris Boulevard which has many useful businesses: grocery, drug store, bank, restaurants, etc.

Greenways are good for exercise and recreation, and most of the people I saw today were using it that way. But they're also a good way to get from one place to another without using gasoline or creating carbon emissions. In the University City area and other suburban-developed places that lack sidewalks and pedestrian crossings and lights, greenways can provide essential, off-road walkways and bikeways.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is sustainability for Commies?

Here's something I keep wondering: If you drew a Venn diagram with one circle being people who say they believe free markets need little intervention and that government has no business telling people what to do with their property, and another circle being people who think there's a liberal conspiracy to force apartment buildings and stores into suburban residential neighborhoods now restricted to single-family houses on large lots, how big would be the part of the Venn diagram where the two sets overlap?

My guess: Huge.

Somehow some people have gotten the idea that land in a city (and suburbs) would, if left to the natural laws of economics, shape itself into quarter-acre and half-acre lots with one house sitting in the middle. They don't seem to get it: Valuable land, without zoning restrictions, would attract higher income-producing uses. Apartment buildings. Stores. Office towers. It's government intervention that is keeping all those high-priced neighborhoods near Charlotte's SouthPark mall as single-family homes. Large-lot subdivisions are often built in times and places where that's considered the highest and best use (to use real estate speak) of the dirt. But as cities evolve, a lot of those neighborhoods hold land that becomes more valuable for other uses. Examples: Myers Park, Dilworth, Elizabeth, Barclay Downs. Keeping those valuable areas zoned for single-family residential may or may not be wise public policy that's a debate for another day but it's clearly not letting the free market have its way. So why have some parts of the tin-foil cap crowd decided that efforts to build more high-density neighborhoods, i.e. "sustainable development," is a global socialist plot using a U.N. policy called Agenda 21 to co-opt municipal governments all over America?

Think about it: Wouldn't big-government socialists be the ones wanting regulations to override private ownership, via single-family-housing zoning?

It's part of a larger mystery.

Locust beer and scuppernong petards

An article about locust beer on the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute's website Ruth Ann Grissom's Locust trees (and locust beer) from Nov. 10 brought this intriguing reminiscence from reader Richard Lasater of Raleigh, recalling other Tar Heel wine-making from years gone by. Lasater's emailed note:

I’m from Durham and most of my grandfather’s generation had been raised in the country and went to Durham to keep from being farmers. He was a great fan of making locust beer
and other folk beverages. According to my father, locust beer was only slightly alcoholic, but was fizzy from fermentation. Usually, men were the beer- and wine-makers. 

North Carolina voted for Prohibition by county before WWI. When temperatures dropped into the teens, people would set out locust beer (and scuppernong wine) in shallow pans on the porch overnight to freeze. The frozen slush was then put into cheesecloth and suspended over a pan. All of the alcohol would drip out first, producing a very potent brandy. This is called freeze separation.

Pod from honey locust, used for beer
Back then, nobody had home freezers. My father said that every house in the neighborhood would be freezing locust beer or wine on a very cold night. I have read that this is also done by French Canadians using red wine or fermented maple sap. Supposedly, freeze separation doesn’t separate out the unwanted “fusel oils” that can be removed during distillation (save only the middle part of the distillate) which will cause hangovers.

My other grandmother ran a boarding house and bought chickens, butter and eggs from a farm family behind what’s now Northern Hill School on Roxboro Road. Pearl and Sam Moore had the biggest scuppernong arbor that I’ve ever seen. When I was very small, I couldn’t reach around the main vine. My grandfather would make a batch of scuppernong wine every fall using a stoneware churn. He would put a weighted plate on top of the fermenting grapes to keep out air until fermentation had stopped.