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The Idea That Families Don’t Belong in the City Is Antiquated and Harmful

The notion of cities as playgrounds for the young and unattached remains a pretty pervasive concept.

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

Why do so many people think city living has an expiration date? Photo: Wikipedia

The blogger at Family Friendly Cities has encountered it plenty. A young parent, he says that in his circles, the social stigma against raising children in the city remains irrationally strong:

As a young couple we lived in a garden style apartment in a car dominated city with two automobiles in what is one of the most sprawling cities in the country. We wanted more. So after we married we moved to a more urban city, one that still gets a rather unfortunate rap for sprawl but has a thriving urban core. We also dropped one of our cars. We primarily relied on transit except for our grocery store trips. Our home was more urban, and so was our neighborhood. That was fine, we were still young and childless, and we were constantly reminded of it. “Good thing you are doing it now before you have children” was a common sentiment, as if our urban lifestyle had an expiration date. It was set to die the moment we added a new family member. So we did, and it didn’t. Despite the auto-centric place we lived we walked to the hospital to give birth, and to the horrified look on the nurses’ faces we walked our newborn home. Even when we proclaimed that you could probably see our home from any of the windows in the maternity ward they thought we were crazy. Crazy to choose to walk her home the equivalent of three city blocks, rather than drive. And so came more of the comments once she was home; advice, and questions: “Have you looked for a house outside the city,” “Once she gets older you are going to need more space,” “You will need a yard,” “Living in the city is fine while she is so young, but not when she gets older” and the always important “The schools are better in X County.” So we followed their advice. We packed up a yellow truck and moved: to the second most dense census tract in the city smack dab in the heart of downtown, across the country.

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Speaking with Steven Cliff, Caltrans’ New Sustainability Director

Steven Cliff, Caltrans’ first Assistant Director of Sustainability. Photo: Caltrans

As part of its ongoing work to expand its focus beyond just highways, California’s Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans, recently created a new position — the Assistant Director of Sustainability. Steven Cliff, the new hire, will oversee the integration of one of the department’s newest goals: “Sustainability, Livability, and Economy.”

Cliff comes from the California Air Resources Board, where he helped develop ways to implement AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and helped develop the cap-and-trade program. He has a background in global climate science and air quality research at the University of California, Davis, where he held a research faculty position before taking on policy work at the ARB.

Changes at Caltrans

Caltrans’ sustainability goal is part of the department’s newly formulated mission and vision statements. Those statements resulted from months of intensive work in response to outside pressure on the department to face the fact that its car-focused, highway-loving, bureaucratic ways were not serving Californians.

The pressure came from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), the new-ish agency with oversight over Caltrans and several other agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol, that before 2013 answered only to the governor.

One of CalSTA’s first actions was to commission an outside study on the state of affairs at Caltrans.

The resulting report, from the State Smart Transportation Initiative [PDF], ripped into Caltrans, calling it rigid, out of step, and overly risk-averse. The report led to several legislative hearings last year, and led to Caltrans’ endorsement of the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide as an alternative to the department’s own hidebound guidelines, which squelched safer and innovative street designs — especially bicycle infrastructure.

Caltrans dumped its old mission statement, “Improve mobility across California,” for a new one: “Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability.”

In the process it also came up with a new vision statement and formulated ten new goals to help achieve that vision. The newest one, “Sustainability, Livability, and Economy,” Caltrans explains as: “[Making] long-lasting, smart mobility decisions that improve the environment, support a vibrant economy, and build communities, not sprawl” (emphasis added).

Cliff, the new Assistant Director for Sustainability, has the job of leading up the effort to develop the sustainability goal, create objectives for it, and formulate performance measures to evaluate how well those objectives are achieved. When the work is finished, it will help inform the department’s five-year strategic plan, due next spring.

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How Pittsburgh Builds Bike Lanes Fast Without Sacrificing Public Consultation

pfb logo 100x22 Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets.

Four months — that’s how long it took Pittsburgh to announce, plan, and build its first three protected bike lanes.

One of the country’s most beautiful (and probably still underrated) cities has proven this year that it’s possible for governments to move fast without neglecting public outreach. Instead of asking people to judge the unknown, the city’s leaders built something new and have proceded to let the public vet the idea once it’s already on the ground.

That’s part of the magic of the simplest protected bike lanes: unlike most road projects, they’re flexible. The construction phase can come at the middle or the beginning of the public process rather than the end of it.

For a city full of hills, narrow streets and short blocks, building a great bike network isn’t easy, a point acknowledged by Mayor Bill Peduto in the above video.

“We have all of the detriments to building a bike system that people could argue,” Mayor Bill Peduto says in the video above. “But we’re still doing it. And we’re going to beat every other city.”

You can follow The Green Lane Project on Twitter or Facebook or sign up for its weekly news digest about protected bike lanes.

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Today’s Headlines

Eyes on the Street: visualizing . See GIS Day Link first below.

Eyes on the Street: Anne Brown, Chelsea Richer, and Hyeran Lee visualize rent increases, temperature changes, and bicycle collisions, respectively. Click for higher resolution – via GIS Day link first below.

  • Celebrate GIS Day Data-Mapping Contest Winners (UCLA Lewis Ctr)
  • Editorial: So Cal Really Needs To Invest in Mass Transit (Glendale News Press)
  • You Can Live Car-Free In L.A. (Flying Pigeon)
  • Councilmember Bonin To Update In-Lieu Parking Fees for Venice (CD11)
  • More Toll Lanes Might Come to L.A. Freeways (LA Weekly)
    Express Lane Scofflaws Do Get Ticketed (LAT)
  • Retooling DTLA’s Car-Centric Music Center for Pedestrian Orientation (LAT)
  • Retooling LA’s Complicated Parking Signs (LA Weekly)
  • New Metro Bus Line To Connect NoHo, Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena (Burbank Leader)
  • Please Don’t Commit Suicide on Metro’s Rail Tracks (The Source)
  • Uber’s Damage Control Saga (LAT1, LAT2Yahoo)
  • New Grand Park Playground Opening #streetsr4families (DT News)
  • Plannerspeak: Will “Complete Community” Replace “Smart Growth”? (UT San Diego)
  • San Jose New Development Fee for Affordable Housing, Lawsuits Expected (SV Biz Journal)
  • SF To Extend Car-Free Stretches of Market Street (SB SF)

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Ten Reasons L.A.’s Mobility Plan Needs to End Road Widening

The Department of City Planning thinks that Beverly Boulevard needs to be 32 feet wider. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The Department of City Planning thinks that Beverly Boulevard needs to be 32 feet wider. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

The City of Los Angeles is updating its primary transportation plan, something it hasn’t done since 1999. The new Mobility Plan 2035, authored by the City Planning Department (DCP), will be before the city’s Planning Commission tomorrow.

There is some welcome stuff — especially in the vision statements — in the latest draft Mobility Plan. It is better than 1999′s plan. But what gets most stuck in my personal craw is road-widening.

This is 2014. Vehicle miles driven are declining. We’re building five rail lines. We spent a billion dollars widening the 405 Freeway only to experience slower commute times. Greenhouse gas reduction legislation is mandating sustainable communities. And Los Angeles is about to reaffirm its self-destructive policy of continuing to widen the crap out of the majority of our already built-out road network.

Briefly, how street-widening plans work in L.A.: Perhaps 100 years ago, someone (usually the city or developers) built a street. Let’s say said street was and is 50 feet wide. During the post-WWII car-centric planning era, following the latest car-centric traffic engineering standards, DCP decided that the 50-foot wide road should really be 60 feet wide. Someone buys a property on this street with the intention of tearing down the existing building and replacing it with a new one. DCP mandates that when that new building goes up, the developer must pay to widen the street to some or all of that now “missing” 10 feet, typically half of it, sometimes more. So, in this case, the developer loses a 5-foot strip of land which goes toward widening the street. Corner lots, perhaps the most desirable for visibility and foot traffic, often lose two strips of land, one for each street that they front. In theory, all of the properties on the street would be redeveloped and the whole length of the street would be up to the new standard, but that could take hundreds of years.

Civilized nations like Pasadena and even Downtown Los Angeles ended street widening practices a while ago.

Some folks already read this when I opined about it this past May, but one especially heinous example just three blocks from where I live, walk, and bike is Beverly Boulevard. In L.A.’s most population-dense neighborhood, alongside the Metro Red Line subway station, Beverly would be widened from 78 feet to 110 feet. Really. Beverly is just one of many streets that DCP wants to widen.

I urge the Planning Commission to reject the Mobility Plan unless it explicitly ends road widening.

Here are my top ten reasons to end road widening:

1. The City Can’t Afford to Maintain Wider Streets - Wider roads are more expensive for the city to maintain. With gas tax revenues at their lowest inflation-adjusted levels ever, transportation funding is scarce at the federal, state, and local level. The feds resorted to budget gimmicks, including “pension-smoothing,” to make up for huge transportation funding shortfalls. Los Angeles is looking to its own budget gimmicks, including closing parking tax loopholes, to fund street resurfacing, which L.A. already has trouble keeping up with. Though it is apparently on hold, L.A. was also looking to float a $3+ billion road repair bond.

The first thing we should be doing when we find ourselves in a hole like this is to stop digging. Stop the bleeding. Stop the road widening. Though roads seem cheap when the feds or developers pay to build or widen them, excessively unnecessarily wide roads come with excessive maintenance costs. They are ticking fiscal time-bombs for cities. (Thanks to Strong Towns for getting me thinking about this in this way.)

2. Widening Hurts the Local Economy – Street-widening requirements drive up the cost of new development. New housing, retail, etc., is not only required to pay to build a chunk of new street (up to 32 feet wide in the Beverly example above), but that development also loses that strip from what can be developed, meaning a smaller building footprint, so less housing, less retail… not to mention impacts on public projects: less park, less school, less library, less transit station, etc. 

3. Widening Hurts Affordable Housing – A noteworthy subset of item 2 above, shaving that road-widening dedication off of housing parcels drives up the cost of housing. This is especially true in core older neighborhoods where streets are at sane dimensions but not up to the latest car-centric standards. As Mayor Garcetti pushes Metro to step up joint development of affordable housing at transit stations, let’s not dedicate a bunch more of that land to streets when it should go to housing.

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How Macquarie Makes Money By Losing Money on Toll Roads

This is the second post in a three-part series about the Indiana Toll Road and privately financed highways. Read part one.

When you invest in Macquarie Atlas Roads, now-worthless shares in the Indiana Toll Road (and four “Other Toll Roads”) are an almost-free bonus with your purchase of shares in APRR, which runs profitable toll roads in France. Image: Macquarie Atlas’ September 2014 Investor Presentation

Macquarie Group, the gigantic Australian financial services firm with some $400 billion in assets under management, has made a lot of money in the infrastructure privatization game.

The publicly traded company owns the Brussels Airport, the Dulles Greenway, telecommunications towers in Mexico, a wind farm in Kenya, and much more. One of those assets was the Indiana Toll Road, which Macquarie purchased in 2006 with Spanish firm Ferrovial — whose most profitable assets include Heathrow Airport and the 407 toll road ringing Toronto. The Indiana Toll Road was housed in a spinoff company called ITR Concession Co. LLC., which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in September after a disastrous eight-year run.

Macquarie and Ferrovial paid the state of Indiana $3.8 billion for the Indiana Toll Road. At the time, it was the largest infrastructure privatization deal in U.S. history. Eight years later, the road was saddled with an astounding $5.8 billion in debt, far beyond the original, unexpectedly-high purchase price.

Traffic fell well short of the projections offered by the engineering firm Wilbur Smith (now CDM Smith), and the company blamed the bankruptcy on the fallout from the recession.

But some observers also pointed to the risky financing underlying the deal. Macquarie and Ferrovial each chipped in just $374 million of their own money to finance the deal. The other $3 billion was borrowed from seven European banks, six of whom have since been bailed out by their respective governments.

Granted, the deal happened in 2006, when debt was flowing freely. According to a 2007 profile by Fortune’s Bethany McLean, Macquarie borrowed its billions using loans resembling a balloon mortgage. It would purchase a type of derivative, called an “accreting swap,” to get a low teaser interest rate, all the while assuming that a refinance was just around the corner. But when credit markets froze entirely, Macquarie couldn’t extricate itself from punishing interest payments.

McLean cited the example of the Macquarie-owned Chicago Skyway: “In 2007 the Skyway will pay interest of just $129,000 on $961 million of debt. But the interest payment for 2018 is to be $480 million — that’s not a typo.”

That helps explain how Macquarie and Ferrovial ended up owing almost twice as much as they paid for the Indiana Toll Road, after collecting tolls for eight years.

Randy Salzman, associate editor of Thinking Highways North America, has reported extensively about P3s, saying that it’s common for privately financed roads to go bankrupt. He says that firms acquiring infrastructure typically provide very little of their own cash, and because of a complicated mix of fees and tax breaks, they may benefit financially even when the deals go sour.

“You’d think that they wouldn’t be investing in these things because so many of them go bankrupt,” he said. “You’d think that the money would be running away.”

But Salzman says he’s seen these kinds of bankruptcies happen over and over again. “The only question is when.”

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Will Arlington Streetcar Foes Support BRT Instead?

Arlington, Virginia's streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

Arlington’s streetcar plans are kaput. Photo: Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization

News broke yesterday that Arlington, Virginia, is abandoning plans for a 7-mile streetcar along Columbia Pike.

Proponents had advanced the streetcar for more than a decade and had secured some $65 million in state support for the $333 million project. But this month’s election delivered a crushing blow, writes David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington. Going forward, he says, one major question is whether streetcar opponents who said they supported Bus Rapid Transit instead will now follow through on those statements:

Following John Vihstadt’s strong win in last week’s [County Board] election, a race that revolved largely around the Columbia Pike streetcar, Arlington officials have voted to stop work on planning or contracts for the project.

It’s not immediately clear if the door is open for some version of the project to move forward in the future. It’s also not clear whether Arlington can shift to any other transit project the $65 million that Virginia had committed to the streetcar.

Michael Perkins and Chris Slatt point out that we “reported” this in April 2013 as an April Fool’s joke. In the joke post, we said that Arlingtonians for Sensible Transportation leader Peter Rousselot and county board member Libby Garvey, all of whom have insisted they support high-quality Bus Rapid Transit, suddenly start criticizing bus plans as also “too expensive.”

If the county board now proposes spending money on bus transit on Columbia Pike, we might have the chance to see whether this comes true; hopefully, these folks are being genuine and will support other transit investments. It’s important to understand, as always, that the state of Virginia will still not allow a dedicated lane on Columbia Pike.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Strong Towns comments on an editorial calling for an end to the interstate highway system, and explains why maybe it’s not as far fetched as it seems. Bike Walk Lee reports that Florida DOT’s Bill Hattaway, the man charged with making the Sunshine State safe for walking and biking, has been named an “outstanding government official” by Governing Magazine. And Streets.mn says opposing bike/ped projects might not be a winning strategy for Minnesota Republicans.

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Today’s Headlines

  • Santa Monica Wants To Know Where You Want Bike Share Stations (Santa Monica Next)
    SMDP Isn’t Quite Clear on the Whole Bike Share Concept
  • Councilmember Bernard Parks Celebrates 100 Sidewalk Repairs Complete (LAT)
  • OC’s San Clemente Becoming Bike-Friendly (OC Register)
  • NHTSA: Recall Car Airbags That Fire Metal Shrapnel (KPCC)
  • Uber Exec Retaliation Comments Reflect Troubling Corporate Culture (NYT)
  • Remaining Non-Traffic-Choked L.A. Neighborhoods Can’t Hack Waze (Gizmodo)
  • Very Clever Very Sad Visualization of Our Dangerous Streets (Vox)
  • Vision Zero Primer, In Case Your Friends, Family, or Planning Dept Don’t Understand the Term:
    Original Vision Zero Straight Out of Sweden – Watch Vid (Vision Zero Initiative)
    Editorial: L.A. Can Learn From Sweden’s Vision of Zero Traffic Fatalities (LAT)
    Zero Traffic Deaths Will Means No More Press Conferences Like This Tearjerker (SB NYC)
    Zero Traffic Deaths Will Require Targeted Infrastructure Changes (SB SF)
    Editorial: L.A. Needs To Change Way We Think About Safety (SBLA)

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Lightly Revised L.A. City Mobility Plan At Planning Commission Thursday

Cover of L.A.'s revised Mobility Plan 2035. Apparently lots of empty transit platforms in L.A.'s future. Image via DCP draft [PDF]

Cover of L.A.’s latest draft Mobility Plan 2035. Apparently Los Angeles’ future includes lots of mostly-empty gray transit platforms, with prominent restrictive signage and surveillance cameras. Image via DCP draft [PDF]

The Los Angeles Department of City Planning (DCP) recently released an updated version of its proposed Mobility Plan 2035, the transportation element of the city’s General Plan. The Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed plan at its meeting this Thursday at 8:30 a.m. [agenda PDF - see item 7]. The revised plan documents are available online via the LA/2B project document page; they include a staff report [PDF], the Mobility Plan, Map Atlas, Complete Streets Guidelines, and Environmental Impact Report.

Though the staff report summarizes a number of changes, the revised plan appears to be very similar to the earlier version, analyzed in earlier SBLA articles. See this March article for overall background.

One new inclusion in the plan is Vision Zero. Well, sort of.

Vision Zero, from Sweden to LA’s Department of Transportation (LADOT), has always meant eliminating all traffic fatalities. Zero dead drivers, passengers, pedestrians, or cyclists. DCP’s new draft Mobility Plan (p.38) re-defines the term as:

Vision Zero: Decrease pedestrian and bicycle fatality rate to zero by 2035.

DCP’s version is more like “Vision 108,” well below the current “Vision 219,” based on 2010 traffic fatalities enumerated in DCP’s Health Atlas (219 overall traffic fatalities, including 100 pedestrians and 11 cyclists.)

People who identify as cyclists and pedestrians certainly welcome the end of bicycling and walking fatalities. Keep that in the plan! 108 annual deaths are better than 219. Unfortunately DCP is re-defining an already widely-used term, taking an all-inclusive safety framework and carving it into a benefit for what is currently a minority slice of road users. This could confuse or mislead the public, and might erode public support for the truly universally-beneficial Vision Zero.

As SBLA noted for the earlier version, the revised documents remain full of mealy-mouthed non-committal language when it comes to describing safety and livability advances, for example:

The Plan builds upon the bike plan framework and goes a step further by proposing fully protected bicycle lanes. (Staff Report, p.19, italics added)

L.A.’s past car-centric road-widening, parking, funding plans don’t just “propose” or “consider” car-centric infrastructure, they very clearly plan it, designate it, and then it gets built. Perhaps some wiggle-room is needed in the volatile current period where travel modes are shifting, new technologies are emerging, and car miles traveled are declining. Unfortunately ambiguous non-committal road designations are likely to mean that car-centric streets will remain the city’s default. While road-widening and speed-limit increases continue, livability and safety projects could continue to face long-drawn-out community dialogue processes. Look no further than the city’s “Year Two” bike lane projects: eight months down the road with zero mileage completed or even finalized.

Other earlier critiques remain applicable. Read more…

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The Indiana Toll Road and the Dark Side of Privately Financed Highways

This is the first post in a three-part series on the Indiana Toll Road and the use of private finance to build and maintain highways. 

Who owns the Indiana Toll Road? Well, as of the bankruptcy filing in September, Macquarie Atlas Roads Limited (MQA Australia), which is joined at the hip to Macquarie Atlas Roads International Limited (MQA Bermuda) on the Australian stock exchange, has a 25 percent stake. Macquarie’s investment bank arm brokers the various transactions related to ownership of the road, collecting fees on each one. Welcome to the world of privately financed infrastructure. Graphic: Macquarie prospectus

In September, the operator of the Indiana Toll Road filed for bankruptcy, eight years after inking a $3.8 billion, 75-year concession for the road with the administration of Governor Mitch Daniels.

The implications of the bankruptcy for the financial industry were large enough that ratings agency Standard & Poor’s stepped in immediately to calm nerves. In a press release, the company attempted to distinguish the Indiana venture from similar projects, known as public-private partnerships, or P3s: “We do not believe this bankruptcy will slow the growth of current-generation transportation P3 projects, which have different risk characteristics.”

But the similarities between the Indiana Toll Road and other P3s involving private finance can’t be ignored. And as we’ll see, even the differences aren’t all good news for the American public. Once hailed as the model for a new age of U.S. infrastructure, today the Indiana deal looks more like a canary in a coal mine.

At a time when government and Wall Street are raring to team up on privately financed infrastructure, a look at the Indiana Toll Road reveals several of the red flags to beware in all such deals: an opaque agreement based on proprietary information the public cannot access; a profit-making strategy by the private financier that relies on securitization and fees, divorced from the actual infrastructure product or service; and faulty assumptions underpinning the initial investment, which can incur huge public expense down the line. Though made in the name of innovation and efficiency, private finance deals are often more expensive than conventional bonding, threatening to suck money from taxpayers while propping up infrastructure projects that should never get built.

For the parties who put these deals together, however, the marriage of private finance and public roads is incredibly convenient. Investors are increasingly impatient with record-low returns on conventional bonds, and are turning to infrastructure as an asset class that promises stable, inflation-protected returns over the long run.

Meanwhile, governments are eager to fix decaying infrastructure — but without raising taxes or increasing their capacity to borrow. On the occasion of yet another meeting intended to drum up investor interest, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx recently wrote on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s blog: “With public investments in our nation’s important transportation assets steadily declining, we need to find better ways to partner with private investors to help rebuild America.”

Those investors are lining up to get in the infrastructure game. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 40 percent of new urban highways in America were built using the private finance model between 1996 and 2006. Since 2008, that figure has jumped to almost 70 percent.

In an attempt to get even more deals done, the current federal transportation bill ramped up funding for the TIFIA program — which offers subsidized federal loans and other credit assistance, often to projects that also receive private backing — by a factor of eight.

Major private investors have stepped up their lobbying efforts to close more of these lucrative deals. Meridiam North America recently hired Ray LaHood, Foxx’s predecessor as Transportation Secretary, and Macquarie Group — which orchestrated the Indiana fiasco — hired away a White House deputy assistant to “continue strengthening our relationships with key elected officials… while also exploring new investment opportunities.”

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