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Posts from the "Equity" Category

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Talking Headways Podcast: Helmet Hair

Did you wear your helmet when you biked to work this morning? Whether you did or you didn’t, it’s up to you. So why are there so many people shrieking about it? On one side, the 85-percenters, overstating the protection helmets offer against head injuries. On the other side, the 3-footers, claiming that it’s actually safer to go helmetless because drivers give you more space and a host of other reasons. Some recent hysteria around bike-share and head injuries fueled this fire. I’m not sure Jeff and I put that fire out with our discussion, but we at least tried to make some sense of it.

Speaking of fiery discussions, did you see the back-and-forth between Colin Dabkowski, a Buffalo News journalist, and walkability guru Jeff Speck after the most recent Congress for the New Urbanism? We clear up once and for all some misconceptions about how New Urbanism’s winners-and-losers strategy does and doesn’t address social equity.

And in between, we take a moment to celebrate a small victory in San Francisco, where a community pushed back against the fire department’s push to widen streets.

Subscribe to the Talking Headways Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or by signing up for our RSS feed.

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How Road Planners Fail Neighborhoods

Why do neighborhood groups — especially in low-income areas — have such a hard time influencing the design of major road projects? An interesting case study from the University of Colorado-Denver sheds some light.

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Image: Google Maps

In the planning of Verona Road in Madison, Wisconsin, neighborhood concerns took a back seat to moving traffic. Image: Google Maps

To examine the barriers to incorporating public health principles into transportation planning, researchers studied the Allied-Dunn’s Marsh neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, a disadvantaged but organized community.

Locals spent years preparing for the redesign of Verona Road, a wide street that carries 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles daily. Although Verona is a major, high-traffic road in the federal highway system, it functions not only as a thoroughfare for vehicles but also a community space, with residential development and neighborhood-serving businesses on both sides.

The study found that neighborhood residents had many concerns about the road, including difficulty and danger of crossing it, and that it was noisy and blighted. But they weren’t very successful at winning support for proposals that would address those concerns.

“Their main concerns were excluded,” authors Carolyn McAndrews and Justine Marcus wrote, “even if some of their ideas were adopted.”

The planning process itself — led by the state, which produced the official Environmental Impact Assessment — presented three major barriers for residents of the neighborhood:

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Milwaukee Transit Advocates Win $13.5 Million Settlement From State DOT

In a Wisconsin lawsuit that’s been closely watched by transportation reformers around the country, local advocates have extracted some resources for transit from a notoriously highway-obsessed state DOT.

After a court battle, the state of Wisconsin has agreed to provide $13.5 million for transit as part of the $1.7 billion "Zoo Interchange" project. Photo: Milwaukee Community Journal

After a court battle, the state of Wisconsin has agreed to provide $13.5 million for transit as part of the $1.7 billion “Zoo Interchange” project. Photo: Milwaukee Community Journal

Settling in federal court with Milwaukee civil rights groups, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation agreed to provide $13.5 million in transit funding as part of the enormous “Zoo Interchange” project.

The Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope had argued that the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange discriminates against people of color in the region, who disproportionately depend on transit.

A federal judge issued an interim ruling in favor of the plaintiffs last year, but allowed planning for the project to proceed. The negotiated settlement will provide $11.5 million over four years to expand bus service in the project area. It will also provide $2 million over four years to improve transit access more generally, through items like real-time arrival data.

“This is good news for a community that has the sad distinction of having a black male unemployment rate higher than 50 percent and the black/white employment gap being number one in the country,” said Patricia McManus of the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin in a press release. “It is hoped that through the course of the funded four years, the importance of the routes will be readily seen by the involved counties and the state and efforts will be made to secure other funding for the continuation of the bus routes.”

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Talking Headways Podcast: Escobar’s Escalator

Did you go to the World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia, last week? Neither did your hosts Jeff Wood and I, but we sure found a lot to say about it anyway on this week’s Talking Headways podcast. Medellín’s remarkable urban transformation — undertaken in the midst of war — has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention lately for making the city’s transportation infrastructure more equitable.

But first, we talked to our very own Angie Schmitt about the Parking Madness tournament. Did she know Rochester was a winner from the moment she laid eyes on that stunning parking crater? You’ll have to listen to find out.

And finally we turn to Dallas, where local activists are pressuring officials to tear down a 1.4-mile stretch of I-345 to make room for 245 acres of new development downtown. If it happens, it would be a tremendous win for smart urban development over Eisenhower-era car-centrism.

The other big news this week is that Talking Headways podcast is now available on Stitcher! So if you’re not an iTunes person, you’ve got a way to subscribe. But if you are an iTunes person, by all means! Or you can follow the RSS feed. And as always, the comments section is wide open for all the witty remarks we should have made but didn’t think to.

Oh, and despite the fact that we said, “See you next week” at the end out of habit, Jeff will be traveling so we actually won’t be taping a podcast next week. So take that opportunity to catch up on any episodes you’ve missed, and we’ll see you in two weeks.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Let Them Drive Cars

South Korea's Cheonggyecheon stream and park used to be a highway. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/25869929@N03/2468502996##Michael Sotnikov/flickr##

South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon stream and park used to be a highway. Photo: Michael Sotnikov/flickr

Quick quiz: What city is the world leader in highway teardowns? San Francisco? Portland? Madrid?

Wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s Seoul, South Korea, which has removed 15 urban highways — and is about to remove another. In this week’s Talking Headways episode, Jeff and I talk about what can take the place of a freeway in a city and why it’s worth it.

We also debunk the argument, made in Atlantic Cities and the Washington Post last week, that promoting car access will benefit people with low incomes. The whole concept is based on a study that basically said that in the 90s you needed a car to get around the suburbs. Not exactly a persuasive justification for automobile subsidies in today’s cities.

We wander down Saffron Avenue and Nutmeg Lane to investigate whether it’s true that cities are losing their smell — and whether that’s really such a bad thing. Then we accidentally trip into a conversation about pheromones and good-smelling men.

What’s your favorite smell in your city? Let us know in the comments.

We’re working on getting the podcast available on Stitcher, which apparently is a thing that exists, but for now you can subscribe on iTunes or follow the RSS feed.

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The Problem With Prescribing “Access to Cars” in the Fight Against Poverty

It goes without saying that the mass suburbanization of the past 60 years has been very bad news for people who can’t afford cars, and it’s getting worse as poverty levels rise in the suburbs.

Every additional car on the road means a slower trip for bus passengers. Photo: Mark Harrison/Seattle Times

In nearly every place America has built since the 1950s, owning a car is a prerequisite for participating in the economy. In The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler wrote that we had created a built environment which divides society into two classes of people: “those who can fully use their everyday environment, and those who cannot.”

Given all that, the findings from a recent Urban Institute study are utterly unsurprising. Researchers studied 12,000 low-income families in 10 cities around the United States. And they found that car ownership is linked to several indicators of well-being.

Housing voucher recipients with cars were able to secure places to live in stronger housing markets, with “higher social status” and lower health risks. They were also twice as likely to find employment and four times as likely to remain employed, the study found. (By the way, this isn’t a new finding — studies have shown this kind of effect dating back to at least the 1990s.)

These results demonstrate just what a deep disadvantage low-income, carless families face in the United States, and make a seemingly straightforward case for a better transportation safety net: more compact land use, abundant transit, and safer biking and walking connections.

But that’s not what author Rolf Pendall wanted to get across in a post on Atlantic Cities. Pendall made the case that “access to cars” should be a higher priority for policy makers in the fight against poverty. One of his suggestions is that specially tailored car sharing might be part of the solution for poor families. He also says it’s worth considering how welfare programs can facilitate car ownership. In a follow-up piece by Emily Badger in the Washington Post, Pendall acknowledges that cities need to be built differently, but he also says that “we need to add car access to the list of things to do.”

He’s not arguing that cars are a better long-term solution than better transit, just that, given how deeply car-dependent we have become, giving poor people cars produces a bigger immediate improvement in their life prospects than the hard, piecemeal work of building a more equitable transportation network. Basically, Pendall is saying that helping individuals is faster than fixing the broken system.

It sounds reasonable, but what about the families left behind? Part of the problem with subsidies for cars is that they reinforce the pattern of exclusion that results from building places around cars in the first place. Every additional car on the road adds to traffic congestion and slows down buses. Every additional parking space spreads destinations farther apart, making places tougher to traverse on foot. Giving a poor family a car might help that specific household, but it would harm others at the same time.

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Our Cities Can’t Afford So Many Rooftop Spas

Rooftop pool with a view of the Washington Monument? All this could be yours if you have insane amounts of disposable income. And I do mean "disposable." Photo: ##http://www.rentalsgonewild.com/propertydetail/183/i-street-nw-washington-dc-20037##Rentals Gone Wild##

Rooftop pool with a view of the Washington Monument? All this could be yours if you have insane amounts of disposable income. And I do mean “disposable.” Photo: Rentals Gone Wild

First, let me be clear: Tomorrow is April Fools, not today. This is real.

There are luxury apartment buildings in Washington, DC, trying to lure renters with communal puppies.

That sounds like the makings of a tiny tombstone engraved with “Tragedy of the Commons,” if you ask me. Who’s going to take responsibility for a dog that lives in the hallway?

In any case, the shared dog is just one of many tricks and teases DC developers are using to entice renters, according to Jonathan O’Connell of the Washington Post.

“When the boom started a few years ago, a nicely finished kitchen or a landscaped courtyard made a project stand out,” O’Connell writes. “Now those are considered baseline essentials if a building is going to compete.”

The new must-have amenities include rooftop pools, pet salons, soundproof music “practice jam-rooms,” 24-hour resident concierge services, dry-cleaning valet, a calendar full of activities for residents, customized cupcakes and a signature cocktail at a nearby bar. Oh yes, and “a six-month-old miniature English bulldog named Emmy will take up residence in the sleek new lobby of 2M, one of dozens of apartment buildings being completed in the region this year.”

This is in a city where the average rent for a two-bedroom is over $2,000.

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Sec. Foxx: Bicycle Infrastructure Can Be a “Ladder of Opportunity”

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won't stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the ##http://www.bikeleague.org/content/sec-foxx-shares-support-bikes##Bike League##

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won’t stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the Bike League

This morning, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s blog post is all about bicycling. He opens by touting the complete streets policy he helped implement in Charlotte (it passed before he was mayor) and the city’s bike-share system — the largest in the Southeast.

His post follows on his speech yesterday to the National Bike Summit, which began with this frank admission: “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, became the darling of the bike movement when he stood on a table at the 2010 Summit and affirmed his commitment to safe cycling, later declaring “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Foxx’s speech was less fiery but showed his commitment to the issue. He mentioned that he himself had been the victim of a crash while jogging in Charlotte, and while he wasn’t hurt, he’s aware how lucky he was that it didn’t turn out differently.

“All across our country, every day, there are accidents and injuries — and unfortunately sometimes even fatalities — that occur among the bicycle and pedestrian communities,” Foxx told the Summit audience. “I didn’t tolerate it as a mayor. And as U.S. secretary of transportation we certainly won’t stand still and allow this crisis to slowly build up over time.”

“Our roads should be safe,” he went on. “They should be easy places to travel no matter how we are traveling on them.”

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Study: Civil Rights Protections Lack Teeth When It Comes to Transportation

American transportation policy has a woeful history of civil rights abuses. For a good part of the 1950s and ’60s, using highways to level black neighborhoods was a matter of national policy. And the white flight and segregation that those highways engendered have left a legacy that continues to shape much of America in the present day.

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Wisconsin is sinking billions into highway expansion projects while city transit service languishes. Photo: Milwaukee Business Journal

Out of those chapters in American history came a few key protections. Laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act aim to safeguard people from discrimination by federally-funded agencies.

But are these protections shaping a fairer transportation system? Not according to a recent study by researchers at the University of California-Davis published in the Journal of Transport Geography [PDF]. Authors Alex Karner and Deb Niemeier say that most metropolitan planning agencies are simply going through the motions, not making equitable decisions.

Right now, “basically anything goes,” Karner told Streetsblog. “You can make anything look good from a civil rights perspective” under current law, using conventional metrics to demonstrate compliance.

As a last resort, civil rights activists can use federal laws to take action in court. Black and Hispanic community groups in Wisconsin, for instance, are suing the state Department of Transportation under the National Environmental Policy Act for shortchanging transit with the $1.7 billion Zoo Interchange project, outside Milwaukee. But Karner and Niemeier say the whole federally-required “equity analysis” process needs to be reformed if it is to have a meaningful effect on decision making.

Here’s what Karner and Niemeier recommend to give civil rights protections some real teeth when it comes to transportation investments:

1. Perform Equity Analyses Early in the Planning Process

Metropolitan planning organizations, or MPOs, are agencies that play a big role in distributing federal transportation dollars. They generally decide what they want to do first, then spend a lot of time developing plans, and then at the very end perform the required equity analysis.

“After all the major planning decisions have been made, it’s a pro forma thing,” says Karner. “They just kind of check a box.”

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Study: For Americans With Lower Incomes, Long Commutes Sap Will to Vote

For decades, researchers going back to Robert Putnam have drawn connections between total leisure time and individuals’ level of political and community involvement. New findings published in American Politics Research say the amount of time spent commuting is especially important in determining whether Americans vote, take part in political campaigns, and otherwise engage in politics.

Long commutes impact voting behavior, a new study finds. Image: ##http://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/transportation/commuting-distance-fitness-metabolic-risk## Journalist's Resource##

Long commutes impact voting behavior, a new study finds. Photo: Journalist’s Resource

Researchers Benjamin Newman, Joshua Johnson, and Patrick Lown examined survey data from 590 working adults. Overall leisure time, they found, was actually not a very good determinant of political involvement. For example, part-time workers were no more likely to vote or otherwise participate in politics than those who worked full time. In fact, those who worked the longest hours were among the most likely to be politically engaged.

Rather than focus on what activities take the most time, researchers explored which activities drain individuals of the most energy that might otherwise be devoted to political behavior. They found that long commutes were actually far more exhausting than working.

“Time spent commuting,” they wrote, “involves a higher degree of depletion of psychological resources and incurrence of negative emotions than time spent on the job.”

The results were not consistent across socioeconomic groups. Newman and his research team found that the effect was most pronounced in workers who make less money. Those who earned higher incomes actually skewed the opposite direction: They were more likely to vote and participate in politics the longer they commuted.

Researchers theorize that higher-earning workers were better able to shake off the stress of long commutes. They might have more comfortable cars. They can eat out if they get home late. And they’re more likely to listen to the news while commuting — a factor that might have something to do with their increased political involvement.

The researchers speculated that higher transit use among people with lower incomes might add stressors like overcrowding and noise — but, they noted, “higher-income commuters are no less dissatisfied or frustrated with their commuting than low-income commuters.”

Newman and his team say their findings should worry us as a society. Lower political and civic engagement among people who make less money and have long commutes translates to less political power for those who already have too little. It means that job sprawl and poor transportation options end up costing them a voice in their own communities. And their lower participation rates could very well have an impact on who ends up getting elected to public office.

Wrote the researchers: “The societal processes increasingly forcing commuting on individuals, and leading to longer commuting times, are working to further distance an already weakly active and often marginalized segment of the populace from the democratic process.”