Friday, April 24, 2015

Water Conservation Thinking Updated

When the possibility of a drought-driven Petaluma construction moratorium was first broached, I responded strongly, supporting more stringent water conservation standards, but opposing the concept of an extended moratorium.

Listening to and participating in subsequent discussions has led me to believe that the moratorium aspect of the issue has been misunderstood by many.  With the City Council hearing on a possible moratorium now approaching, I want to share a clarification of my thinking.

But first, I want to explain why this subject matters to me as an urbanist.  Well-configured urbanism requires less water than drivable suburbia.  Much of the savings comes from the reduced irrigation of a rowhouse or an apartment compared to a single-family home.  But other factors also come into play.  To offer just one, most forms of energy production require water and drivable suburban uses more energy than walkable urban.  At the bottom line, urbanism is a good water conservation strategy.

But urbanist projects are hard to bring to the finish line.  Market and regulatory forces are often contrived against urbanism.  Despite the most diligent efforts of committed developers and consultants, urbanist projects are often fragile and prone to succumbing to hazards such as delayed adoption of a general plan or an extended economic malaise, obstacles that drivable suburban projects can more often survive.

Too many times over the past fifteen years, I’ve watched as well-conceived urbanist projects, projects that among other benefits would have reduced per capita water use, have stumbled and fallen when another hurdle was inserted between them and the finish line.

The spectre of a water conservation moratorium becoming the latest tripwire for water-conserving urbanism is too painful and too perverse to tolerate.  So I firmly oppose an extended water moratorium.

With the background, let me clarify my three key point positions regarding new water conservation standards.

Stronger water conservation standards: Strongly in favor.  The drought, which many predicted with uncomfortable accuracy, is edging into historical territory.  To not respond would be a benighted public policy.

Even those who continue as climate change skeptics should now see the logic of more stringent water conservation standards.  Even if someone argues that the drought is 95 percent certain to be nothing more than a normal climate cycle, would the person get behind the wheel of a car with a 5 percent chance of brake failure?  Common sense requires being proactively responsive to even low probability events if the implications would be dire.  And personally I put the odds of the drought being the result of anthropogenic climate change at well above 5 percent.

Long-term moratorium: Absolutely not.  We can’t risk the absurdity of losing another generation of water-conserving urbanism to the hardship of a long moratorium.

Short-term moratorium: This is the point where I think the conversation has gotten off-track.  A two-year moratorium and a 45-day moratorium serve very different purposes, to the point where it’s shame that the word moratorium is applied to both.

A two-year moratorium is a “let’s wait until things to get better” moratorium.  (A strategy that I don’t think would serve any purpose for the ongoing drought.)  But a 45-day moratorium is usually a “fresh start” moratorium.

It’s well established that the adoption of new rules setting higher development standards often result in a flood of new applications in the days before the new rules go into effect.

This isn’t unethical behavior by developers, any more than it’s unethical for consumers to stock up on stuff in the days before a price increase.  Both are simply examples of rational financial decisions.

But that doesn’t mean that the public good is served by having a flood of applications under rules that are about to be supplanted for good reason.

A short moratorium is a way of ensuring that all new applications are made under new standards.  It puts a hold on all applications until the new rules are officially adopted and effective.

I don’t have an opinion about whether a 45-day moratorium would be appropriate in the current Petaluma circumstances.   Without knowing the extent of the new water conservation policies that may be adopted by the Council, I can’t judge the need for a short “fresh start” moratorium.

But I do fear that an apparent conflation of the two moratorium concepts may result in pressure against a reasonable and justified short-term moratorium, which would in turn allow too many projects to proceed under soon-to-be superseded water conservation rules.

I’m fine with the City Council making a rational decision about the need for a 45-day moratorium as long as a more extended moratorium stays far off the table.

I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to attend the April 27 meeting.  But I’ll be following the results eagerly, hoping for good things for both water conservation and urbanism.

In my next post, I’ll touch upon springtime, revisiting some venues and ideas that become more relevant as spring blossoms.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Missing Middle Housing: Where to Find It and Where to Encourage It

I’ve written about Opticos Design of Berkeley and one of its principals, Dan Parolek, on several earlier occasions.  First, I reported on Opticos’ role as the lead consultant for the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  More recently, I noted the national award given to Opticos by the Congress for the New Urbanism for their work with Cincinnati’s new form-based code.

And now, I can report that Opticos has begun staking out a key element of urbanism as their particular domain.  In Parolek’s term, it’s the “missing middle housing”.

I recommend reading Parolek’s entire article on missing middle housing.  It runs long, but Parolek uses his words well, explaining the urban gaps left behind by the missing middle housing and some possible configurations for reestablishing it.  But for those without the extra minutes, I’ll try to summarize.

Most use-based zoning codes divide residential uses into single-family and multi-family.  Within the two categories, there is usually a variation in allowable densities, but ultimately there is a clear physical delineation between single-family and multi-family homes.

If we look around neighborhoods that have been built since World War II, the line is obvious.  Multi-family housing is almost always a place apart, built by different developers, served by different parking, and separated from single-family homes by clearly evident fencing or landscape buffers.

But if we look at older city neighborhoods, the places that were developed before the use-based zoning codes assumed their dominance, we find a blurring of the line.  Stealthily scattered among the single-family homes are buildings that have a scale and character similar to single-family homes, but contain multiple residences.  Those buildings are important to city life because they provide the density necessary to support walkability without undermining the single-family feel that many find comfortable.

But with many recent zoning codes having outlawed these middle housing options, hence Parolek’s use of “missing”, the potential for walkability is undermined.  Parolek argues that reestablishing the missing middle is a key step toward reestablishing walkability.

Parolek goes on to present possible configurations for new neighborhoods with the missing middle restored.

With Parolek’s words fresh in my mind, I relooked at some older neighborhoods of Petaluma, visiting examples of the missing middle about which he wrote.  And then I considered the future of a neighborhood that will soon come under pressure to change, perhaps adding more of the missing middle.

Interestingly enough, my visit to examples of the missing middle began before I even left my driveway.  Directly across the street are three small buildings that may have begun life as a motel.  (In the days of slower transportation, Petaluma would have been a logical place to spend a night before continuing onward to the Sonoma County coast.)  Or it’s possible that the buildings originally housed workers in the egg industry that once dominated my part of town.

Today, the buildings contain six small apartments, tucked in a neighborhood that is otherwise solidly single-family.

And despite the concerns of some about bringing the missing middle into single-family neighborhoods (take a look at the third comment on the Parolek article), the folks who live in the apartments have blended well into our neighborhood.  We haven’t all become friends, but my wife and I have become sufficiently acquainted with several of the residents to invite them to our home for the annual neighborhood Christmas Eve party.  We’ve become even more familiar with their pets.

Moving further afield, I’ve always been charmed by tiny A Street.  Barely 300 feet in length, A Street is host to a collection of smaller single-family homes and larger, older homes that have been converted to apartments and a few offices.  Separated from downtown by only a parking lot, A Street provides a fine environment for those willing to leave their cars at the curb for the day.  It would be a different place if the larger homes hadn’t been subdivided to provide more density.

On the north edge of downtown, I’ve long been intrigued by a pair of Italianate apartment houses near the corner of Bodega Avenue and Howard Street.  The buildings appear to have been originally constructed as apartments, but scaled to fit within a neighborhood that is otherwise single-family, a cheek-to-jowl configuration that would rarely be permitted under contemporary zoning codes.

I finished my loop of Petaluma with the East D Street neighborhood.  Originally laid out as the far eastern extent of Petaluma, with large lots for extended produce gardens and poultry sheds, the neighborhood has long been encircled by the town.  Recognizing the potential income in additional dwelling units, much of the neighborhood has evolved to fill the oversized lots with Hollywood bungalows, granny flats, and an infill apartment house or two.

I’m pleased that East D Street has already begun an evolution toward filling the missing middle housing, but I suspect it will be under pressure to evolve even further.  The SMART station is slated to open in the next 18 months at the western edge of the neighborhood.  Hopefully not much later after that, development will start on the first elements of the Station Area Plan, with moderately dense residential extending outward from the station.  And perhaps a decade after that, the reuse of the current Fairgrounds may begin on the eastern flank of the neighborhood.

I applaud all of these changes, but I’ll also acknowledge that the changes will put pressure on the East D Street neighborhood to add further residents.  People will be attracted to the urban vitality and the easy transit access of the new developments, but some won’t be able to afford the cost to live in new construction.  Converting existing homes to apartments or adding granny flats within the East D Street neighborhood would be a solution toward which the market will push.

(As one example, two participants in the Urban Chat Fairgrounds process are looking for a site to try a creative approach to senior living.  I encourage their thinking, but have suggested that they look to acquire existing buildings in the East D Street neighborhood rather than a new Fairgrounds building.  Using existing buildings would control their capital costs.)

A well-written zoning code, preferably form-based, would help ensure that the East D Street neighborhood changes in a way that benefits both the existing and new residents.  I know that many residents of East D Street are happy with their neighborhood as it is, but the Station Area and the Fairgrounds will put pressure on the neighborhood to change.  And it’d be better to manage the change than to try to put a bell jar over the neighborhood.

In passing, I’ll also mention parking.  At present, it isn’t clear how much parking will be available at the station or how well Petaluma Transit can serve the station.  With those conditions, it’s likely that parking will spill into the East D Street neighborhood.  I suspect that parking management will quickly become a hot topic.  Although different than the missing middle housing challenge, the two may be susceptible to a coordinated solution.

There is irony in this discussion of East D Street.  As Opticos was beginning their work on the Station Area Plan, I suggested, in my role as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, that Opticos look at the East D Street neighborhood to help manage its transition.  They seemed amenable, but the look didn’t happen.  Perhaps there were funding or scoping issues of which I wasn’t aware.  But today, nearly five years later, Opticos is nationally recognized for their work on missing middle housing and the East D Street neighborhood is in need of a missing middle housing policy.  It was a missed opportunity.

The concept of missing middle housing is subtle, but real.  And it can be important to urban vitality.  If you’re motivated, take a look around your North Bay community and look for good examples of missing middle housing or places where missing middle housing could fill a need and then comment below, or email me, with your insights.  I’d like to see other North Bay communities through your eyes.

In my next post, I’ll return to the topic of more stringent water conservation standards.  The Petaluma City Council will be considering new rules at an upcoming meeting.  I won’t be able to attend, so will use this forum to add my final thoughts.  After listening to some of the community response at the earlier City Council meeting on the subject, I want to clarify my earlier comments.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Urbanism and Gatherings of Food Trucks

I attended my first annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism back in 2013.  CNU 21 was held at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, a massive and ornate hotel that tried to evoke an earlier and more elegant era of American hostelries.

Thus, I was surprised when the late morning session on first day of the conference ended with the announcement that lunch was available in a parking lot across the street from the hotel.  But all was soon clear.  Every midday for the duration of the conference, a collection of food trucks would assemble in the empty parking lot and we would lunch on a wide range of available cuisines while lounging on the grassy landscape islands.

The pizzas were good, but the star, at least to my taste buds, was the fried calamari.  I’ve never had better calamari than in a parking lot in the high desert near the foot of the Wasatch Range, hundreds of miles from any ocean.  I suspect the key was the paper thin slices of lemons that were fried and served with the calamari.

The convention center for CNU 22 in Buffalo didn’t have a location suitable for lunchtime food trucks, but the closing party was held at a privately-owned public space, Larkin Square, where the dining options were again food trucks.  I enjoyed a falafel while chatting about the finances of urban redevelopment with a Buffalo-area developer.

I don’t know the plans for the upcoming CNU 23 in Dallas, but expect that food trucks will again play a role.

I have that expectation because urbanism and food trucks make great companions.   Having progressed far from the time when they served sandwiches of processed meat on white bread and lukewarm coffee at construction sites, food trucks today are often near the cutting edge of culinary experiences.

And the mobility of food trucks allows them to serve neighborhoods that are evolving, but aren’t yet at the point where brick-and-mortar restaurateurs are willing to risk their savings on leasehold improvements.

Plus, food trucks can provide an ever-changing range of sometimes exotic culinary experiences, an important factor in neighborhoods that position themselves as trendy.

With the food truck culture taking root, the next step in its evolution has become semi-permanent locations where food trucks can rotate in and out, serving people who dine at communal tables and creating a community among the patrons.

In San Francisco, SoMa Streat Food Park was among the first to try to food truck park concept and found great success on 11th Street under the 101 freeway.

Emboldened by the success, the founder began to consider a second location in the Mission Bay area, between AT&T Park and the UCSF Mission Bay campus.  Mission Bay is a rapidly developing neighborhood, driven by the nearby tech industry, UCSF campus, and proximity to downtown.  The buildings may be fresh and new, but the street life is lagging.

The SoMa Streat owner broached his Mission Bay idea cautiously, expecting pushback from the newly-settled residents.  He was wrong.  The Mission Bay community was excited by the possibility, offering to give him their blessing before he was ready.  The residents saw the food park concept as a way to kick start the urban vitality of their new neighborhood.

After observing this trend from my vantage point in the North Bay, I’ve been trying to fold the idea into the Urban Chat plan for the possible reuse of the Fairgrounds in Petaluma.  The concept that resulted was a public plaza that could serve as a farmers’ market in the morning before transitioning to a food truck gathering place as the day wore on.

But the execution of that idea, even if it survives the many steps in the upcoming City/Fair Board negotiations, is at least a dozen years away.

But perhaps Petaluma needn’t wait that long for a food truck gathering spot.  Local resident Charles Hildreth has already met with Petaluma Planning about converting an unused area behind the AutoZone store on E. Washington Street into a food truck park.  His working name for the project is The Block.

I’m thrilled by the proposal.  I’ve long argued that the aging industrial area bounded by E. Washington, the Petaluma River, and the railroad tracks is a remarkable but underused Petaluma asset.  In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs writes of the need for older, low-rent buildings where start-up businesses can focus on their ideas without worrying about rosewood paneled walls.    The industrial area is Petaluma’s best stock of buildings that meet that description.  And it’s only a short walk from the soon-to-opened SMART train station.

I unsuccessfully suggested that updated thinking about the industrial area be folded into the Station Area Master Plan on the other side of E. Washington Street.  That suggestion may have failed, but the food truck park may become another way to give a boost to the underused industrial district.

As of this writing, I’ve been unsuccessful in reaching Hildreth, but am hopeful of having him participate in an upcoming Urban Chat meeting.

Look in this space for further details.  And go partake of a food truck meal today.  If you haven’t done so recently, you might be surprised.

Next time, I’ll offer some thoughts about the East D Street neighborhood of Petaluma, a fine little neighborhood that may soon be pushed to become even better.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, April 17, 2015

In Praise of Magic Gates

While shopping at the Whole Foods in Petaluma a few days ago, I noted a gate that had previously escaped my attention.  It was a simple little gate, chain-link, self-closing, keyed from both sides.  But it had a magical function.

The gate provided direct walking access from a low-income, senior housing community to the front door of Whole Foods.  Even from the furthest home, the walking distance to Whole Foods was barely more than 300 feet.

Many seniors, whether because of declining health, waning skills, or reduced finances, no longer have cars.  At the Edith Street Apartments, those seniors needn’t be dependent on others, or on local bus service, for grocery shopping.

Some may argue that Whole Foods is an expensive place for low-income seniors to shop.  My response is that spending an extra dollar a pound for organic asparagus is a cheap trade-off against the cost of owning and maintaining a car.

I was charmed by the gate.  And by the circumstances that made it possible, those circumstances being adjoining sites with different, but complementary uses.

Under a conventional use-based zoning code, such as the one that covers the area of the Whole Foods and the Edith Street Apartments, those kinds of adjacencies happen once in awhile.  But under a form-based code, a form of land-use regulation that is a central tenet of urbanism, those adjacencies happen far more often.  Indeed, one might argue that a well-administered walkability-focused form-based code allows the market to naturally seek out complementary adjacencies, which is far better than relying on the occasional fluke.

A most recent tabulation of city Walk Scores makes the same point, noting a quick rise in the urban walkability of Miami after the adoption of a form-based code.

Returning to the Whole Food gate, applause goes to whoever spotted the opportunity and helped make this gate possible, a list that likely includes Whole Foods, PEP Housing as the owner of the Edith Street Apartments, and the Petaluma Planning Department.  But an ovation goes to those who argue everyday for a land-use pattern in which opportunities like the magic gate become increasingly frequent.

Taking advantage of serendipity is a wonderful thing.  Creating a world in which serendipity is increasingly common is even better.

Next time, I’ll talk about convocations of food trucks, both as a concept with which Urban Chat has been tinkering for the Fairgrounds reuse plan and as a concept whose time has already arrived.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Not What the Rolling Stones Meant by “Paint It Black”

Until the final battle was lost in the last few months, the City of Petaluma had engaged in a long war against asphalt, or at least the production of asphalt.

At issue was a proposed asphalt plant near the south edge of town, along Petaluma Boulevard South near the first freeway exit into Petaluma.  With ready access to the freeway, the Petaluma River, and the nearby rail tracks, the site offered a great range of transportation options, included the possible use of barges and trains for lower energy use delivery of raw materials.  It was obvious why the applicant wished to locate an asphalt plant at the site.

But the City was concerned about the vista for travelers arriving in Petaluma, about the potential for damage to river, and about fumes drifting toward a wildlife area and favorite walking paths on the opposing riverbank.  So, they fought the application through the County entitlement process and then joined other litigants in appealing the approval in the court system.

Despite the vigor and resources which the City brought to the fight, the war was eventually lost.  There are rumors that the plant will be constructed this coming summer.

As the battle was first getting underway back in 2009, I wrote an opinion piece for the local newspaper.  Using a tale from my engineering past, I suggested that the battle was likely overblown.  I recounted the story of a neighbor who vehemently opposed an Oregon hydroelectric project back in the 1980s.  He was so convinced that the project would destroy the river that when he lost the fight, the power plant was built, and the river did just fine, he was sure that the plant hadn’t been built, even though his office window overlooked the roof of the powerhouse.

The piece is still on-line.  However, the first few paragraphs were inexplicably omitted, robbing the story of its coherence, so I won’t provide a link.

I suggested that the asphalt plant could follow a similar path.  If built, it might quickly recede into the visual background with the environmental controls working well enough that future generations would wonder what the furor had been about.

I still stand by my comments.  But I also stand by another opinion that I expressed back in 2009.  Then and now, I argue that Petaluma could and should reduce its use of asphalt to the extent that the applicant would choose to drop the project.  Like many of my fellow townspeople, I also didn’t want the asphalt plant, but I wanted the reason to be good business sense, not cherry-picked anti-entitlement arguments of uncertain veracity.

It was an argument that fell on deaf ears.  I still find it ironic that, at the same time the City Council was voting unanimously to appeal the asphalt plant approval, they were also putting a strong majority behind two shopping centers with expansive parking lots.

Nor did the inconsistency ever become evident to most.  Subsequent elections have been fought over which candidate was more steadfast in their opposition to the asphalt plant and in their support of the new shopping centers.  It’s too bad that we don’t instead elect public officials based on their ability to spot logical contradictions.

The call for less asphalt is common within the urbanist community.  A recent article in Better Cities and Towns lays out the arguments in favor of and the strategies to implement what the author calls “Little Asphalt” in contrast to the term Big Asphalt often applied to the consortium of general contractors, material suppliers, engineers, and lenders who have paved the way (pun intended) to a world of wide streets and enormous parking lots.

The article is worth a read, but the strategies for Little Asphalt will likely seem familiar.  That’s because they’re mostly the same strategies as for urbanism.  Whether one’s concern is climate change, water usage, municipal finance, or Big Asphalt, the toolkits are nearly identical, which I consider a strong indicator of a global truth.

Not surprisingly, the folks at StrongTowns are on the same side of the asphalt argument.  They point to one particular element of the battle, the zoning code specifications for minimum parking lot sizes, the rules that require parking lots be sized to accommodate the theoretical busiest days of the year, thereby undermining walkability, bicycle access, and transit use. 

Furthermore, StrongTowns finds that, even for the busiest day, the codes are conservative.  StrongTown volunteers spread out on the Friday after Thanksgiving to check on parking availability and have little difficulty in finding underfilled lots.

Personally, I didn’t do any shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, but found a half-empty lot when I did some Saturday shopping, which supports the StrongTowns argument.

Many years ago, I worked with a contractor who, upon confirmation that all of the underground utilities had been installed and tested, would describe his next task as “making it black”.  And “making it black” is essential.  No one wants to return to gravel and dirt streets.  But we can be more circumspect in our use of black.   And perhaps induce a few asphalt producers to drop plans for new plants.

Next time, I’ll write about a marvelous little private gate I recently came across.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Easing the Pressure on the Gas Pedal

In my last post, I began to write about an on-line neighborhood chat on the subject of teenager drivers traveling with excess haste on residential streets.  However, I was distracted by the participants in the chat, many of whom belong to my generation, calling for reduced freedoms for high school students.  The advocacy was sufficiently unexpected that it took me down a path of memories of student battles fought and student freedoms won when I was young.

Today, I’ll stay on topic.

The on-line chat, which happened during the run-up to a meeting between the administration of the nearby high school and concerned neighbors, was an attempt to list the topics that the neighbors wanted on the agenda.  The most significant concern, by far, was speeding and other aggressive driving behavior in the surrounding neighborhood.

Being a resident of the neighborhood, I can confirm that the issue is legitimate.  I don’t find the driving to be so obnoxious that it affects my everyday life, but there are a handful of drivers who consistently drive with unreasonable aggressiveness.  A neighbor recently told me of being passed on her street while she was driving near the speed limit, a driving decision that is clearly inappropriate in a residential neighborhood, especially a walkable residential neighborhood.

Having identified driving as the principal worry, solutions were offered by the parties.  Someone suggested a need for speed bumps.  Someone else correctly noted that most fire departments don’t allow speed bumps because they slow emergency vehicle response times.

The conversation then turned to increased policing, either through the use of local police or through the neighbors reporting license plate numbers to the school.

Before wandering off into questions of closed campuses and dress codes, someone stated that, student driving concerns aside, it nonetheless remained true that the streets had been built for cars.

Although I didn’t have the time to participate in the conversation, there many comments I wanted to interject.  This is my chance.

Vertical Traffic Calming: Speed bumps belong to a group of traffic management tools generally known as vertical traffic calming.  Related tools are speed humps, which are widened speed bumps that can be driven safely at speeds of 20 mph or more depending on the design, and speed tables, which are expanded areas of raised pavement, often at drop-off points for stores, and are intended to make drivers feel as if they are in the pedestrians’ realm, rather than the pedestrians being in their realm.

It’s true that fire departments generally oppose vertical traffic calming on the grounds that it slows emergency vehicles.  Personally, I find the opposition is a fine example of giving infinite weight to one decision element, emergency response time, over another decision element, slowing everyday traffic.

Of course, bringing more reason to fire department policies will be a long and difficult battle.  In the meantime, we can observe the irony of fire departments arguing for public safety by arguing against measures that would slow traffic.  I love a good bit of irony.

Horizontal Traffic Calming: Although still not a favorite of fire departments, horizontal traffic calming is more likely to gain approval and can often be more successful at reducing speeds.  It was a disappointing, but not unexpected, that the chat participants didn’t even mention horizontal traffic calming.  Although effective, horizontal traffic calming measures are not among the tools of which most people think.

Typical horizontal traffic calming measurements are reduced lane widths through paint or relocated curb lines, bulb-outs at intersections, reduced curb radii at intersections, and even parking that alternates between sides of the street, resulting in a chicane for drivers to traverse.

The SMART Codes that many cities, including Petaluma, now use to regulate their downtowns include a number of horizontal traffic calming measures.  One can visit the Theatre District of Petaluma to observe lesser lane widths and bulb-outs.  The recent Petaluma Boulevard road diet also includes horizontal calming.

Horizontal calming is important because it induces drivers to reduce speeds by making them feel uncomfortable at higher speeds.  As California speed limits are set by the actual measured speeds of drivers, horizontal calming can also lead to reduced speed limits.

And reducing average speed is important because it makes the street more safe while also limiting how fast much the occasional reckless driver may travel.  Horizontal calming, and the resulting reduced speed limits, are key elements of the European Twenty is Plenty movement, which argues that 20 mph is an appropriate speed for most neighborhoods, and the parallel Vision Zero movement, which targets zero pedestrian death through numerous measures including lower vehicle speeds.  Vision Zero has been implemented in New York City with a widespread speed limit of 25 mph.

The Twenty is Plenty and Vision Zero movements grew out of the fact that we’ve consistently built streets that can be comfortably driven at speeds in excess of the speeds for which we had hoped.  Perhaps it’s my sense of humor, but I find it funny that one of the biggest problems encountered during a recent cross-country driverless car experiment was the frustration of other drivers that the driverless car wouldn’t exceed the posted speed limit.

Also, slower speeds have multiple benefits, from reduced stopping distances to increased awareness of other street users, as described in this article from Minneapolis about the benefits of reducing travel speed by just ten mph.

If we want safer streets, we need slower travel speeds.  And slower travel speeds don’t need speed bumps when bulb-outs and striping will work just fine.

Policing: Policing can be a valid strategy to reduce traffic speeds, but it’s expensive and its effectiveness often has a limited duration.  The sight of a cruiser parked at the curb with an officer observing traffic or of a motorist awaiting a ticket will slow traffic that day and maybe for a couple of days afterward, but speeds will soon return to prior levels.

Most of us have probably observed this phenomenon on freeways where the sight of a police cruiser causes the average speed of the car pack to drop from 75 mph to 65, only to return to 75 within a few miles.

Policing is a bandage on streets that weren’t designed consistent with the intended travel speeds.

Street Uses: Lastly, I want to visit the comment that streets were made for cars.  It’s a particularly ironic, and incorrect, comment in my neighborhood.

I don’t know when the nearby streets were first paved.  But I know that my neighbor’s home was built in 1918, with my home following two years later.  And I don’t think either home was among the first in the neighborhood.

It seems likely that the streets were first laid out in 1910 or before.  And in 1910, the predominant street users would have been adults walking or bicycling to work or to errands, children playing, and horse-drawn carts delivering milk or hauling agricultural products to market.   If there were any cars, they were likely putt-putting along under a speed limit of 10 mph or less.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that automotive industry campaigned to dedicate streets primarily to cars, including inventing the word jaywalking.

I’m not arguing that cars should be excluded from streets.  They serve a legitimate purpose and make our lives more convenient.  But the balance between cars and other possible users of the street has been renegotiated in the past.  There would be nothing wrong with another renegotiation, including one that slows cars to make the street friendlier for all.

I understand that most neighborhood discussions about traffic speeds quickly turn to speed bumps and police.  But there is a wealth of other strategies that work better and create better communities.  We only need to become more knowledgeable.

Next time, I’ll write about the basic stuff of streets, asphalt.  Petaluma recently lost a sustained battle against a new asphalt plant in town.  Years ago, I weighed in on that controversy.  Now, I want to revisit my old words and to note that others are supporting a related position that I took at the time.

Schedule

In recent months, Petaluma Urban Chat has become consumed with the question of the Fairgrounds, resulting in extra meetings and changing locations.  But, our standard meeting time and place remained the second Tuesday of the month, 5:30pm, at the Aqus CafĂ©.  This month, that date will fall on April 14th. Let’s gather at Aqus, 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma for an update on the Fairgrounds effort and to discuss future Urban Chat topics.  All are welcome.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Arriving at the Revolution Forty-Five Years Late

My wife and I live two blocks from a high school.  The principal believes in being a good neighbor, so hosts occasional meetings where nearby residents can express concerns about the school, such as noisy bells, weekend construction, or student littering.

The most recent meeting was a few days ago.  I couldn’t attend but participated in an on-line discussion about the topics the neighbors wished addressed.

The exchange began with complaints about students speeding through the adjoining neighborhood.  Living on one of the primary streets serving the school, I understood the reasons for the unease.  A range of solutions from speed bumps to enforcement were offered.

It was a discussion that could have happened in thousands of American communities.  Some of the ideas put forth were fine, other were flawed.  I’ll provide my take on the discussion, but not until my next post.

Today, I want to explore the direction taken by the conversation after the traffic issue was mostly exhausted.  Several neighbors suggested that the campus be closed so students couldn’t leave at lunchtime.  Others pushed for a stricter dress code.  Still others encouraged a crackdown on public displays of affection.  The latter two were apparently offered in the hope that stricter boundaries in some aspects of school life would carry over into improved behavior in other aspects such as driving.

I don’t have strong opinions on closed campuses, dress codes, or public displays of affection.  I suspect they wouldn’t provide the benefits for which the neighbors are hoping, but am otherwise content to rely on the professional judgment of the school administrators.  But I was astonished that my neighbors, many of whom are my contemporaries, would express strong opinions in favor of reducing the freedoms of students.

My high school years spanned the transition from the 60s to the 70s.  It was the high school students of that generation who, taking their lead from the Vietnam War protests and a broad discontent with the status quo on college campuses, argued, often successfully, for open campuses, relaxed dress codes, and other softened rules.

At my high school, many of those battles were won during my junior and senior years.

My senior year was the first year of an open campus, with students allowed to drive to the nearby McDonalds for lunch rather than partaking of cafeteria fare.

During my junior year, the rule on skirt length was that the hem could be no more than two inches from the floor when the girl was kneeling on the floor.  I remember an aging Spanish teacher looming over a kneeling student, lecturing the class on the need for modest attire as she waved the yardstick with which she intended to check for the two inches.  By my senior year, that disturbing picture was in the past.

During my junior year, I remember the vice principal roaming the halls, looking for hand holding which he could break up.  By my senior year, hand holding was rampant, along with perhaps a bit more in the quiet corners away from the ebb and flow of school hallways.

It was a time of change, change that still affects our world.

None of this is intended to imply that I was a ringleader for social change.  Instead, I was more of a bewildered observer.  I was surprised when a girl who I considered quiet and generally unremarkable unexpectedly treated me with disdain for not agreeing that school be cancelled because of Janis Joplin’s death.

I assumed another student, who I found a meek wallflower and only knew because we had adjoining seats in a Health and Safety class, had disappeared from my life forever when her family moved away after our freshman year.  But she resurfaced a half-dozen years during my time at Cal.  She was the leader of the Young Spartacus League on campus, disrupting the classes of professors she found insufficiently supportive of communist doctrine.

My only use of the open campus rule was to drive to the nearby junior college to take an Introductory Calculus class.

Perhaps the only social change in which I had any role was the opening of the central lawn at the high school.  Throughout the history of the school, the grass had been Senior Lawn, with only seniors allowed to loll on the grass during lunch or to cut through on their way to class.

It was my class of seniors who voluntarily dropped the barrier, allowing all classes to use the lawn.  It was a change that I supported, although only from the back row.  And even then, my motives weren’t entirely altruistic.  I was a member of a social group with a number of attractive sophomore and junior girls.  It seemed appealing to spend my senior year hanging out on the grass with some of those young ladies.  (Acknowledgment: I’m now married to one of the sophomores.)

Even though I wasn’t much of a participant, I recognize the value of those times.  Not every effected social change was necessary or meaningful, but some were.  And we have greater freedoms today because of those times.

Having experienced that era of student activism, it was strange to see the calls for rolling back some of those freedoms coming from folks who are of my generation.  I would have expected that being young in the 60s and 70s would have imparted a lifelong bias in favor of hard-won freedoms.  But I seem have been wrong.  (A cousin, to whom I had described my wonderment, said that having children, which I don’t, changes perspectives in a hurry.  He’s probably right, but I still find the changes sad.)

Looking back, I can also see that my urbanism may be a distant reflection of the 60s and 70s.  With its tweaking of the nose of authority by challenging the shibboleths of suburbia, by pushing for an independent plan of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, by advocating for block parties, and by many more acts questioning the status quo, urbanism is my way of finally arriving at the barricades, forty-five years late.

I’m okay with my tardiness.  With all due respect to those who argued for open campuses or for honoring Janis Joplin forty-years ago, I think urbanism, with its focus on climate change, water conservation, and fiscal sustainability, is the more important issue.  I may have been late, but it was only because I was awaiting the right cause.

Although if someone knows of another Senior Lawn that should be opened to all, I could be coerced into taking part.

 Next time, I’ll tackle the traffic safety issues raised by my neighbors.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)