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The Livable Streets Leader You’ve Never Heard Of: Leicester, England

In Leicester, England, the city redesigned an intersection and DeMontfort University built a more pedestrian-friendly building, improving access to a Medieval fortress structure and bringing pedestrian crossings to the surface. Photos courtesy Andy Salkeld.

Leicester is a city of about 330,000 in England’s East Midlands region. Like many other cities, it developed big mid-century plans to drive highways through its city center and paved over much of its historic core. In some cases, it even paved over its history: the bones of King Richard III, killed in battle nearby, were recently discovered beneath a parking lot. In the past decade, however, Leicester has unearthed more than just a king; it’s also reclaimed space from the automobile and become a model for other cities looking to create more livable communities.

On Monday, Leicester’s bicycle coordinator, Andy Salekeld, spoke at a fundraiser for Recycle-A-Bicycle and discussed the changes underway in his city.

In order to start shaping a new future for cities, Salkeld said, we have to start thinking of automobile dominance as an era in history. “We need to start talking about it as the past,” he said, showing a slide of a mid-century gas station in Leicester that’s received historic designation. “I take people on bike rides to see this,” he said.

Beginning in 2008, Leicester pedestrianized some of its busiest downtown shopping streets. Salkeld said the city has seen a net increase in the number of people coming to the area, boosting the fortunes of merchants during an economic downturn. The city has had to work closely with advocates for the disabled, who are often worried that their needs will not be met in a “shared space” street, Salkeld said. The pedestrian streets program is expanding, using trials to test a concept before etching it in stone — a tactic that Salkeld says they’ve learned from New York.

Another intervention that Leicester is borrowing from other cities is protected bicycle lanes. The Connecting Leicester project includes £7 million for new protected lanes on three major roads leading to the city center, in a bid to help bridge the divide created by the inner ring road, a tangle of flyover ramps and traffic lanes. That road itself is being shrunk, piece by piece, to make the city safer and more attractive for bicycling and walking.

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Q&A with Elly Blue, Feminist Bike Activist and Independent Media Titan

Elly Blue’s latest publication, “Bikes in Space,” is a feminist sci-fi zine about her favorite mode of transportation. “I realized that because I work for myself, I can do anything I want,” she says by way of explanation. The amazing truth is that she makes a living writing whatever strikes her fancy about the intersection between bicycling and feminism.

Elly Blue is currently on tour, feeding people a delicious vegan meal and talking about how biking will save the economy. What could be better? Photo: Momentum

Elly is such a fixture of the Portland biking (and blogging) scene that I always figured that she moved there specifically to be part of it. Actually, she moved there for college and didn’t really start riding much until her senior year (at the age of 27 — she started late). In 2004, when President George W. Bush got re-elected, her friends all started threatening to move to Canada and she said, “Not me! I’m going to stay right here and be a bike activist.” She hadn’t really meant to say that, but then she realized it made sense. That drunken pledge has become her life’s work.

Aside from her quarterly zines, Blue published her first book, “Everyday Bicycling,” in December, 2012 and is eagerly awaiting the release of her second book, “Bikenomics: How Bicycling Will Save the Economy.” We caught up at her Dinner & Bikes event in DC this week, part of a month-long, 27-city tour through the Northeast and Midwest.

Tanya Snyder: This is the third year you’re doing this tour. What’s the mission of the tour; what are you hoping to accomplish aside from having an awesome trip?

Elly Blue: Aside from having an awesome trip, the goal of the Dinner & Bikes tour is to feed people a really inspiring meal and bring together people in the community who are passionate about bicycling, often in very different ways from each other, often who don’t know each other. I want to create an atmosphere where people can learn and talk and meet each other and feel inspired and feel like they have the power to make big changes and pursue whatever their vision is for bikes.

TS: You said this is the first time tour has come to the east coast. Have you sampled our bike infrastructure and bike culture?

There’s suddenly this culture rising up around women and cycling that’s bringing something new and fresh and not even engaging in old, stale debates like whether we should have bike lanes or not.

EB: We don’t get to sample bike culture as much as we’d like to, in part we don’t have bikes and in part we’re on the move all day, every day. But I’m from the east coast. I’m from New Haven. We were just back there a few days ago; we did an event there.

I started riding a bike in New Haven when I was 20, and for a couple of years I rode pretty much everywhere I went, and I rode on the sidewalk. I remember having really funny encounters with police where I’d say, “Am I doing something wrong?” and they were like, “We don’t care.”

Then, once, I rode with Critical Mass. They happened to be riding on my commute path. There were nine of us, and it was a completely transformative experience. Being able to ride in the street and feel safe meant so much to me, because it hadn’t even occurred to me to do that. And then it didn’t really occur to me to do that again until I moved to Portland.

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Taking the Guesswork Out of Rating BRT: An Interview With Walter Hook

Rio+20 - June 19

Transoeste BRT in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Michael Oko.

There’s a new global benchmark for rating bus rapid transit projects. Yesterday the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released the BRT Standard 2013, which lays out the requirements for bus routes to qualify as BRT and scores 50 systems in 35 cities around the world as basic, bronze, silver, or gold based on various criteria. The idea, which ITDP has been refining since a beta release in 2011, is to provide a concrete definition of what BRT is, and a reference for politicians, planners, and advocates who are interested in creating new BRT routes, as well as to rate the quality of existing systems.

People Creating Change: Walter Hook

ITDP CEO Walter Hook. Photo by Colin Hughes.

The standard rates more than 30 aspects of bus corridor design, awarding points for elements that improve system performance. Dedicated bus lanes, level boarding, pre-paid boarding and signal prioritization are considered basic requirements for BRT. Additional elements that score points include multiple bus routes running on the same corridor; passing lanes at stations; low-emission buses; attractive, weather-protected stations; real-time arrival info signs; integration with bike sharing and more.

Streetsblog recently caught up with ITDP CEO Walter Hook via telephone to get more info on the new guide.

John Greenfield: Congratulations on releasing the BRT Standard. So this is kind of like the LEED [green building rating system] for bus rapid transit, correct?

Walter Hook: Yeah, that’s basically the idea, with the additional caveat that the BRT Standard is also positing a minimum definition for what constitutes BRT at all, which is not really an element in LEED. I mean, LEED doesn’t say, “You’re not a green building if you don’t hit any of these things.” The BRT Standard now has a minimum definition. That’s new from last time.

When the U.S. promoted BRT they didn’t promote it with a very clear definition. So a lot of mediocre bus improvements were implemented that tarnished the brand.

JG: What is your minimum standard for something to be called BRT?

WH: It’s a fairly complicated formula but essentially it has to have a dedicated lane of at least four kilometers. If it’s on a two-way road, it has to run along the central median. If it’s a curb-running bus lane on a two-way street it’s pretty much ineligible. So there are a couple of baseline things, but there are a lot of details and nuances.

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Ray LaHood: “It’s Not Just About Emissions”

This is the third and final installment of our exit interview with departing U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. In the first, he talked about his proudest accomplishments, why he decided to leave, and why it’s important to fund bike/ped improvements with federal dollars – and he made it clear he’s still not giving us any answers about where to find more money for transportation. In the second, he talked about Republicans who get it, why TIGER was a game-changer – and he let slip some good news about the Chicago Riverwalk. Part three is more of a grab-bag — I hadn’t expected to get almost 40 minutes one-on-one with the secretary!

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will be leaving his post soon. Photo: Fast Lane

Tanya Snyder: You mentioned high-speed rail. In California, the line is going to cost upwards of $68 billion. The federal government has put in about three and the funding is still a big question mark there. Do you think that, in the future, going forward with the high-speed rail program, it would make sense to pick sites where the federal government could put in a more substantial proportion of the final funding?

Ray LaHood: High-speed rail is not going to be accomplished by the federal government putting an enormous amount of money in. The money is just not here. And so what we have done is we jump-started passenger rail in America and asked private businesses to come in and make a commitment, to make an investment.

I traveled to 16 or 18 countries in the first two years in this job, looking at high-speed rail. And every place that I went, I asked people come to America, make an investment, hire American workers, and build these trains in America. And now there are a lot of companies in California, in Illinois, along the Northeast Corridor, in Nevada, thinking about making investments.

We’re not going to accomplish our passenger rail, our high-speed rail dreams and aspirations with funding coming from Washington. Some of it can. But the lion’s share will have to be private investment and the states’ commitment to this.

In California, the assembly there passed last year the selling of bonds, between $6 billion and $10 billion worth of bonds. That’s a huge investment. In Illinois, the governor there has made huge investments in high-speed rail. We’ve made some, but he’s made some, and private companies have made some. This is going to have to be a true public-private partnership in order to get this accomplished, and frankly, that’s what happened in Europe and Asia, too.

TS: There was an Anderson Cooper segment a couple weeks ago that underlined for me the fact that maybe the message really hasn’t gotten out about higher-speed rail — that that was part of this package too. It’s not just about getting trains over 110 mph but it’s also about getting trains that have been going 30 mph up to 70 mph. Do you feel like that’s a message that hasn’t really come across? That people see “high-speed rail” and think it should be going 220?

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Ray LaHood: “Sitting on the Sidelines Doesn’t Accomplish Anything”

What follows is the second installment of an exit interview I conducted with departing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday. In the first installment, he talked about what he’s proudest of, why he decided to leave, and why it’s important to fund bike/ped improvements with federal dollars. I also gave him one last chance to duck a question about how to increase revenues. We’ll run the third part tomorrow.

Time is running out on LaHood's term as DOT secretary. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Tanya Snyder: Republicans believe that bicycle and pedestrian, and often transit, funding shouldn’t come out of the same protected fund as roads. Do you think that’s an ideological position or do you think that’s industry influence talking?

Ray LaHood: When it comes to transportation, we need to have people with a vision. People that understand that DOT is not just about roads and bridges anymore. It’s about a comprehensive view of transportation. It’s about many different alternatives. The people are way ahead of some of these politicians, and have been. It’ll be up to common, ordinary citizens to convince their leaders — whether it be mayors or governors or members of Congress — that a vision for transportation is not restricted to just roads and bridges. It has to be a wide, broad view of many alternatives.

Now, there are Republicans with a vision. [Gov.] Rick Snyder in Michigan accepted high-speed rail money to fix up the route between Detroit and Chicago. [California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger was one of the first governors to accept high-speed rail money. So there are some Republicans that do have a vision about this. We’re going to find out whether any of them are in Congress or not.

But it’ll be up to the people to hold these elected officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to having a vision about transportation that’s more than just about roads and bridges.

TS: When you look at Congress, specifically the Republicans but really Congress in general, how is it different than 10 years ago, or 20 years ago when you started in Congress?

RL: For example, when I served on the Transportation Committee, we passed two [surface transportation] bills in a very bipartisan way. We passed two bills with 75 people on the committee, and everybody voted for it. And this was with a Republican majority! This was with Bud Shuster as the chair of the committee. This was a group of people that did have a vision about transportation.

Now, the resources were there also. We funded almost all of it out of the highway trust fund. It’s different now, because there are limited resources and people have a different view. But there’s still quite a bit of leadership, I think. Certainly there are people with a vision in the group that put together the transportation bill, plussing up the TIFIA program to allow for communities to do big projects was a big step forward.

TS: I wanted to ask about the story behind the TIGER program. How did it come together?

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The Ray LaHood Exit Interview

I had the chance to sit down with Ray LaHood yesterday morning before he spoke to the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, looking back on his four years at the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. We’ll publish the interview in three installments over the next few days. Here’s the first part.

Ray LaHood reflects on the best job he's ever had. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Tanya Snyder: There was a long lead up to your announcement, a little bit beyond where a lot of other Cabinet members announced their intentions. What was going on then?

Ray LaHood: I had met with the president after his re-election and we talked about the future. He made it clear to me that he wanted me to stay and thought it was important for me to stay. And I was very conflicted because I think it’s really time for me to move on, and even though we have a lot of significant projects going on, and programs, I still felt it was time for somebody else to have this opportunity.

So the president asked me to think about my decision and I did think about it for a while, but eventually I just felt it was time for me to do something else.

And as I’ve said, this is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a great job. It’s a job where you can really get a lot of good things done, a lot of significant things.

We started out with the economic recovery, $48 billion. We did CAFE. We did a lot of stuff with our colleagues at the FAA. We traveled the country in collaboration with our colleagues from HUD and EPA talking about livable and sustainable communities. We implemented a whole new streetcar project around the country. We implemented the president’s vision for high-speed rail.

I think that for the first time in the history of DOT, people actually knew who the secretary was — and also knew that DOT was not just about building roads and bridges. It was about building communities. It was about engaging community leaders, and mayors, and stakeholders in the biking area, in the green community, and really giving people alternatives in transportation. So if they wanted to get out of their car, they could bike to work. If they wanted to develop a streetcar project, that the potential was there for it.

I think you’ll see a pretty bold vision from the president, bolder than in the first term.

We developed partnerships all over the country, and not only with the biking community, the high-speed rail community, mayors, governors, people who really wanted to get things done in transportation.

This was a very, very tough decision for me. I think the potential is there to continue to make a lot of progress — particularly with the president’s vision.

TS: You know better than anyone what makes for a good secretary of transportation. What should the president look for in picking a new secretary?

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How Mayor Mick Cornett Fought Oklahoma City’s Brain Drain and Weight Gain

Part One of this interview was posted yesterday.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (R) has made it his mission to make his city healthier and less obese, in part by improving its walkability. The city lost a million pounds during his weight-loss campaign — and then they took a freeway out of the middle of downtown and overhauled its built environment.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett is doing some revolutionary things in a conservative city. Photo: Flickr

I interviewed Mayor Cornett last week when he was in Washington, DC for the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors. In the first installment, posted yesterday, Cornett described the excitement among city officials when the rules changed and they were asked to think outside the car-centric box. He said they built sidewalks and parks and bike trails with locally-raised funds, even over the objections of the fire and police unions. And while he welcomes federal money for projects like these, he’s at peace with other Oklahomans who see things differently — though he worries that less federal funding will result in less equality among cities.

So now you’re all caught up. Here’s Part Two.

Tanya Snyder: It seems like there are more and less successful ways of talking about [livable cities] with different people. You have a pretty conservative constituency. Does it hurt the cause that Michelle Obama is out in front on obesity, and does it hurt the cause that walkability is associated with sustainable development, is associated with Agenda 21, is associated with climate change initiatives — what you’re doing is nonpartisan, you’re just trying to get people fit and healthy.

Mayor Mick Cornett: There is some pushback about — as you mentioned, Agenda 21 and anything that comes out of the White House. But at the end of the day, people elect mayors to get things done. You might elect a Congressman to go up and stop something. But you don’t elect a mayor to stop things form happening. You elect an executive branch person — a mayor, a governor, a president — to do things.

I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.” And they know it’s true.

So I’ve never let that slow me down. I will say that one secret to our success is that we’ve been able to convince the suburbanite that their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core. And so they have continually passed initiatives to support inner-city projects, sometimes at the expense of the suburbs.

TS: How did you do that?

MC: Here’s what I do. I try to win an intellectual argument. I stand toe-to-toe with a lot of retired suburbanites who don’t like downtown, don’t like me, are tired of funding taxation. I’m serious, they have more negativity than you could possibly imagine.

And when I’ve lost on every turn and every argument in this debate that takes place in neighborhood after neighborhood I close with this: “We’re creating a city where your kid and grandkid are going to choose to live.”

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Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett: We Have to Build This City For People

Pounds lost and population gained: Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett’s prescription for a healthy city begins with a pedestrian-friendly environment. Photo: Brett Deering, Governing

On the last day of 2007, Mick Cornett, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City — ranked as one of the fattest cities in the country – stood in front of the elephants at the zoo and announced he was going on a diet, and taking the rest of the city with him. Oklahoma City lost a million pounds, 37 of which were his.

Cornett’s zeal to make Oklahoma City a healthier city led him to take a hard look at the built environment. He realized that car-centric, pedestrian-unfriendly streets weren’t just costing residents their health, they were costing brainpower — too many of Oklahoma City’s talented young people were leaving. Businesses didn’t want to locate there because their employees didn’t want to live there.

So Mayor Cornett sought — and got — public support for a $777 million package of investments to construct a new downtown park and recreation areas by the riverfront, build out the streetcar system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised to redesign downtown streets. If Oklahoma City is a different place now than it was 10 years ago, residents have the mayor to thank.

I caught up with Cornett at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors last week in Washington, DC, right after he spoke at a luncheon panel — sponsored by Weight Watchers — about what mayors can do when they inherit a city “zoned as a series of drive-thru restaurants.”

Tanya Snyder: Oklahoma City isn’t New York City. It doesn’t have that kind of density. With pedestrian-friendliness, there are things like crosswalks and sidewalks that you can do but you also have to have places to walk and make sure the distances between destinations are reasonable distances. How do you address that in a city, like Oklahoma City, that is spread out?

Mayor Mick Cornett: The first thing you have to do is change the perspective. The way I describe it is: We have built this city for cars. We have to start building this city for people.

When that message percolates inside City Hall, inside your public works department and inside your planning department, they start to look at things differently. And what I noticed was, it wasn’t a lack of enlightenment. It was a lack of direction. They were doing what they felt like they were supposed to be doing. And when we exposed this new direction, I was amazed how much creativity was inside those departments that I hadn’t seen before, that hadn’t been tapped. It was as if they’d been unleashed — all these new ideas.

The downtown park funded as part of MAPS 3.

There was also an increase in green spaces. We didn’t have sidewalks in a lot of communities and so we’re going back in and building, literally, hundreds of miles of sidewalks throughout the city. It’s a lot better to do it on the front end and not go back in later and put those in. It’s more expensive to do it the way we’re doing it. But it is what it is.

We’re completing our bicycle trail master plan. We were using some federal money every year that came in to extend our bike trail plan. One day I asked the parks director in a public meeting, I said, “At the rate we’re going, when are we going to finish our master plan?” And he was speechless. And what I realized was, we were all going to be long gone by the time we finished our master plan.

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Don’t Call It a Merger: America’s Big Three Bike/Ped Advocates Join Forces

Last week, three leading organizations advocating for biking and walking issued a communiqué [PDF] about their intention to unify. According to the plan, hashed out two weeks ago at a top-level meeting in San Diego, the League of American Bicyclists, the Alliance for Biking & Walking, and Bikes Belong will become one organization, with one board of directors. 

Streetsblog spoke with Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, and Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, about what the merger will mean for the movement. To begin with, Clarke said it wasn’t a “merger” but a “unification.”

Andy Clarke is looking to maintain the 132-year history of the League of American Bicyclists while creating a new organization. Photo: Bike Portland

Andy Clarke: A “merger” suggests that one or two organizations are being subsumed by or merging into one of the others, and that’s really not what we’re doing here. We are unifying three organizations and creating a new organization together. All three organizations are in good shape and we’re realizing that we could do even more together.

This isn’t a case where one of us is faltering or one of us wants to take over the other one. This is not a hostile, commercial-style corporate takeover. We’re not at odds on any issue of policy or strategy or anything like that, but inevitably, because you’re different organizations, there are institutional things you have to work around. We’re three organizations that work together well, that are all thriving and doing well, realizing we could do even more if we remove some of the boundaries or barriers that exist naturally because you’re part of different organizations.

Jeff Miller, president of the Alliance for Biking & Walking, hopes the unification will transform the movement. Photo: Alliance for Biking & Walking

Tanya Snyder: How are they going to maintain their own identity?

Jeff Miller: They’re not.

TS: They’re not?

JM: We are all going to feed into and become this new organization. And each of our existing organizations will most likely fade away. There are a lot of details to be worked out, and of course ratification by our boards, but if all goes well, we’ll create this new organization which effectively will inherit the good programs of each of our organizations which all of us want to see move forward: the Bicycle Friendly America program, Bikes Belong’s Green Lane Project, the Safe Routes to School – the National Partnership is absolutely going to be continuing forward — the Alliance’s work around capacity-building, the trainings and retreats and the benchmarking report are all going to be continuing forward under the tent of this new organization.

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Larry Hanley: Part-Time Labor Won’t Save American Transit

Streetsblog sat down last week with Larry Hanley, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union and member of the AFL-CIO executive council. Yesterday, we published the first part of our interview, focusing on movement-building around transit. Here, we had a vigorous discussion about union rules and Buy America provisions that are the subject of some debate among transit advocates.

Tanya Snyder: There are some union rules that some transit advocates say are harmful, like the mandatory eight-hour workday and the restriction on part-time work, when transit especially has such peaks and valleys – you’ve got a rush hour in the morning and a rush hour in the evening, and all this dead time in between.

ATU President Larry Hanley says diminishing worker protections is not the way to a stronger transit network. Photo: Workday Minnesota

Larry Hanley: In most urban transit, you have a large number of bus drivers who work what are known as swing shifts, where they work in the morning rush hour, they work in the evening rush hour, they handle the question of peak service, and they essentially do the work of two people. It’s not their fault that demand for service falls off in the middle of the day; it’s just the reality of the business.

In Staten Island, in my local, the percentage of people in Staten Island transit who operate swing shifts, I think it’s 62 or 63 percent of all the work is swing shifts. And these are people working – driving – eight or more hours on almost every shift. They have time off in the middle, but they’re putting in a full day. Their day starts at 6 o’clock in the morning and ends at 6 or 7 o’clock at night. So, these are long days with hardworking people.

I think it’s really a cheap shot. I’d like to have people go down and hang out at a bank or a brokerage house and see how much time the executives really put in at their desk. But anyway, that’s my class war argument.

TS: Was “class war” off the record?

LH: No, class war is on the record! I agree with Warren Buffet. There’s a class war going on and his class is winning.

And as for what to do with these workers in the middle of the day, Congress, pandering to a small group of private bus companies – and this is an absolute obscenity – restricts public agencies from doing charter bus work. And this is nothing but pandering to private bus companies who have an inordinate amount of political influence. So, all over the United States, there are probably 100,000 buses that lay idle on weekends, lay idle in the middle of the day, when they could be used productively in the communities. They could be providing charter service to people all over our cities and providing better-rounded schedules, so that a bus driver who works the morning shift could actually do some charter work and have a full eight-hour day.

They are literally scraping bodies off highways because we have bus drivers falling asleep at the wheel, because proponents of bad labor policy were successful in the 1980s in deregulating that industry.

The charter restriction is on the level of the bridge to nowhere in terms of how much of a crazy rule it is, that is really responsive to the needs of a handful of people and harmful to the systems all over the country.

TS: What about just hiring workers part-time to handle either the morning or evening rush?

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