South Jersey’s pedestrian hostility on full display

Michael Noda:

Sometimes I get asked why I care so much about urbanism and transportation choice. There are several reasons, but one of the most important to me is this simple axiom: cars kill. South Jerseyist ran this post on December 29th, but a similar post could be written on almost any day of the year, anywhere in America.

Originally posted on South Jerseyist:

When you think about what’s been going on in the world for the past week, you might be thinking more about Christmas than pedestrian fatalities, but the latter took no holiday this year. Over the course of the past week, South Jersey has seen an astonishing number of serious pedestrian injuries and deaths on its roadways.

Here’s what’s been happening.

On Sunday, December 28th, at 7pm in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, a police cruiser struck and killed a 10-year old boy “as he walked to a friend’s house for a sleepover.”

Also on Sunday the 28th, in Mount Laurel, Burlington Township, a man walking along South Church Street was struck and killed by a car at 5:25pm.

On Saturday, December 27th, another incident occurred in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, when a man in a pickup truck severely injured a man on a bicycle on Little Mill Road. Witnesses…

View original 385 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’m supporting The 5th Square. You should too.

Last Monday’s big local news was the announcement of The 5th Square, a new PAC aimed at bringing Philadelphia’s urban space politics into the 21st Century — dragging it kicking and screaming, if necessary. In a year where the exciting transportation news was virtually guaranteed to come out of 1234 Market Street, and the landscape of the municipal election cycle was bleak, the conventional wisdom may have been turned on its head.

5th Square’s public faces are Friends of the Blog Geoff Kees Thompson (blogmaster of this old city) and David Curtis (Fels Institute student and mastermind of the #SEPTAWILM campaign to increase rail service to Wilmington).

Their launch comes as a mayoral campaign field widely decried for its mediocrity is failing to capture the imaginations of city primary voters, and a comparatively interesting field of challengers is quietly lining up for City Council.

Running a successful municipal election campaign is not cheap, but it’s not prohibitively expensive either, and the resources of an urbanist PAC can make all the difference between victory and defeat. That sort of clout can grab and hold the attention of even our notoriously capricious City Councillors. StreetsPAC, the prototype urbanist PAC in New York, carried 13 of its 18 endorsed candidates to victory on a budget of $50,000 in its first municipal election. And New York is, as we all know, a more expensive environment for everything than Philadelphia, and that includes politics.

So will this convert all of the Bill Greenlees and Jannie Blackwells of our government away from their anti-urban Modernist instincts, and show them the light of better bike and transit access? We can hope, but realistically, no. But that’s all right. It will still get the attention of a lot of officeholders and candidates who are running on other issues, such as education, improving the landscape for small businesses, or de-escalating the war on drugs. They may not see the linkages between their issues and ours. But they shouldn’t see any of those issues as incompatible, or even as major competition for political or fiscal resources. And that can lead to progressive action from the 4th floor of City Hall. Right now, City Council is a place where good ideas go to die. That doesn’t have to be the way things are.

5th Square can build a coalition in City Hall to improve the streets of Philadelphia. And that is a worthwhile goal, and I am proud to be the #3 donor listed (chronologically) on 5th Square’s donation page.

Today, someone is matching donations to 5th Square up to $500. So today would be a very good day to get out your proverbial checkbook. 5th Square is already well on their way to reaching their January fundraising goal of $5,000 from small donors. Let’s get them over the top well ahead of schedule!

Donate today to The 5th Square.

Posted in Philadelphia City Council, Politics | 1 Comment

Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!

Posted in Amtrak, Bike sharing, DART First State, Fare policy, Housekeeping, New Jersey Transit, PATCO, Politics, SEPTA, Threats to Life and Safety | 2 Comments

December schedule change will carry first fruits of #SEPTAWILM campaign

Back in July, Wilmington-based grad student David Curtis launched an online petition asking Delaware for increased SEPTA Regional Rail service to Wilmington. This week, we are seeing the first results of that show of public support with two new trains to Delaware each weekday. It’s a very promising start.

Curtis and I both estimated the total costs to be on the order of one million dollars per year. Even for a small state like Delaware, that is the DOT budget equivalent of the money sitting in your wallet. Delaware Transit Corporation CEO John Sisson misunderstood the petition as demanding that all Marcus Hook short-turns be extended to Wilmington, which would require a hefty up-front capital investment to clear a physical bottleneck, and his staff came up with the more exorbitant operating cost of $3.3 million per year, which this blog castigated him for in harsh terms. After Sisson met with Curtis in person, things got straightened out as to the actual direction of the petition (off-peak service where the track capacity exists, not peak service where it doesn’t), and apparently the staff at DTC went to work searching for stray funds in the budgetary couch cushions. And it seems they found some.

I reached out to David Curtis for his thoughts on the new changes. “There are currently five major gaps in the weekday service at Wilmington,” Curtis wrote back. “This December 14 service upgrade closes the latest weekday service gap.” In addition to the five current weekday gaps of 90 minutes or longer, Curtis also pointed to the very early end of service on both weekdays and weekends as problematic.

In addition to the headline rail improvements, there will be two new daily roundtrips of the DART Route 59 rail shuttle between Wilmington and Newark. One partially plugs the 3-hour gap westbound/5-hour gap eastbound in the afternoon between the existing midday run of the Route 59 and the evening rush, while the other is an evening run that creates a new “last arrival” time in Newark of 22:15, departing Suburban Station at 20:40. So Philadelphians employed across northern Delaware, as well as Delawareans working in Philadelphia, are now able to stay after work for dinner out and early-evening activities, whereas before it was a very risky gamble to stay after — unless, of course, you had driven to work that day. That kind of uncertainty pushes many people towards driving every day, if they can. Street life in Downtown Wilmington today is anemic, as office workers evacuate the city at the end of the working day, rather than patronize local businesses or entertainment venues, and far too much land is given over to parking cars. This vicious economic cycle has dragged Wilmington down for decades, and the rehabilitation of the city’s heart has only barely begun. As Curtis points out, “These [service] upgrades are great for ridership increases, but they also have tremendous economic development implications. Wilmington’s downtown and riverfront districts have already changed dramatically in recent years. Today, hundreds of additional residential units are under construction and more small businesses are popping up on and around Market Street.” More strongly linking Wilmington’s economy and Southeast Pennsylvania’s can only reinforce that trend.

As for how we can build on this good first step, “Delaware is in the midst of budget preparation for the upcoming fiscal year. The immediate goal is to receive additional funding [from the Delaware General Assembly] for DTC to continue upgrading this service in the upcoming fiscal year, which takes effect July 1. If you’ve been following the Delaware budget hearings, you know that money will be spread pretty thin.” To keep up the pressure on the General Assembly, Governor Jack Markell, DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt, and DTC CEO Sisson, Curtis and I both urge you, if you haven’t yet, to “go to www.septanow.com, sign the petition, and get others to sign it.” Curtis has revised his estimate of the cost of extending every off-peak and weekend train to Wilmington to just shy of $2 million per year, which is higher than our back-of-the-envelope math from July, but reflects more detailed information about the cost structure of Wilmington service, and a more conservative estimate of the cost recovery of more trains. The new trains will grow ridership across the entire schedule, so the net cost to Delaware (after the rebates it receives for ticket sales) should decrease over time. If the full funding is not immediately available next fiscal year, Curtis suggests the extension of three specific evening train pairs as intermediate steps: 235/9236, to extend Saturday service by two hours; 277/9264, to extend weekday service by one hour; and 279/9266, to extend weekday service one additional hour after that. Together, those three trains will cost Delaware an additional $440,000 annually to run, but the implications for both nightlife and swing-shift workers alike should not be underestimated.

As though on cue, an op-ed in Friday’s Wilmington News Journal from a civil engineer shows us what the most likely alternative is to additional transit. According to J. Michael Riemann, Delaware needs to keep feeding the same roadbuilding addiction that’s gotten it into a massive fiscal hole and maintenance backlog. “DelDOT will need to come up with an additional $130 million each year for the next six years to cover the $780 million dollar shortfall (capital funds [i.e. road expansion] of $600 [million] + state of good repair [of $180 million]).” Compared to that, $2 million for hourly train service is an incredible bargain, and will save DelDOT much more than it costs, starting on Day 1. And that’s not just saving the state incredibly unnecessary new roads and road widening, but also allows it to put its roads on diets, and reduce the number of lane-miles it has to plow, salt, and repair, year in and year out. More rail service can pay for itself, only considering the expense side of the ledger. New roads don’t create value, but new rail service will anchor new investment and create new wealth in Downtown Wilmington. Curtis’s conclusion, which I wholeheartedly endorse: “Wilmington’s growth will always be limited if its transportation options are also limited. Delaware can’t afford for that to happen.”

Posted in DART First State, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Wilmington/Newark Line | 3 Comments

How do we stop Civil Engineers from killing people?

A young girl is in the hospital, not expected to survive. Her cousin has leg and head injuries, and her mother is also injured.

And mild-mannered Minnesotan Chuck Marohn is in a white-hot rage about it.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with his point that we’ve shielded civil engineers from our liability- and litigation-happy traditions, and that that exclusion needlessly costs thousands of lives a year. But I don’t know how to get from our current model, which incentivizes Following The Book above all else, to a model that favors actually designing streets to be safe, and I don’t know that anybody else does, either. I agree that a feature of a new model is going to be the ability to sue engineers (and/or DOTs) for the fatal consequences of roads that are unsafe as designed, but I don’t know what the intermediate state between here and there is. We’ve been following our old (broken) model for decades now. Basically every civil engineer practicing today who has ever touched a streetscape diagram (i.e. most of them) is culpable. What do we do about that? Do we fire them all? Strip them all of their licenses? I… am not there yet. The profession has a problem, yes. (Well, many problems.) But burning everything down doesn’t actually get us anywhere.

We need a way to absolve Civil Engineering of its massive backlog of past sins if we’re ever going to get it to stop committing more.

I don’t know what that looks like. Mandatory retraining? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking public confessions? Maybe. Those suggestions sound absurd, but it can’t be worse than the daily massacre we have now.

Posted in Legacy Infrastructure, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, Threats to Life and Safety | 2 Comments

Whose roads? Our roads! An introduction to American highway blockade

As the country recoiled Monday night from the injustice of the non-indictment in Ferguson, something genuinely new happened. At first, here in Philadelphia, it was like any other of the sickeningly familiar outpourings of grief and anger that have motivated people into the streets before, with a large mass of people starting at City Hall and parading through the major streets of Center City: Broad, Market, South, Arch.

But then, as the marchers reached Old City, the protestors advanced onto an on-ramp to I-95, forcing Philadelphia Police to throw up a barricade at the top of the ramp. There is a large tangle of ramps in that area connecting local streets to I-95, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, so there were plenty of access points, but the PPD successfully managed to keep the protestors off the highway mainlines. This in contrast to what happened simultaneously in St. Louis, where protesters shut down I-44; New York, where marchers shut down the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Triboro bridges; Seattle, where demonstrators shut down I-5; and Los Angeles, where I-10 and CA-110 were both shut down.

By the time dusk fell over America Tuesday night, the practice of invading or attempting to invade limited-access highways, had spread to protests in dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Durham, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Providence, Portland, and San Diego, to list the ones I could find news stories about in three minutes of Googling.

Blocking highways is a rarity in the arsenal of political protest in the United States, although it is more common in countries like France, and has played a critical part in the Occupy Central protests this year in Hong Kong. The experience from abroad shows that highway blockades are very effective at getting attention and achieving change. And now that it’s suddenly a nationwide phenomenon here, people are trying to wrap their heads around what it means.

The first thing to say is to reiterate a point Stephen J. Smith made on Twitter Tuesday night: “Reminder to urbanists watching highways being shut down: sometimes it’s not about you.” Nothing that follows should diminish the fact that the protests of the last two nights have been primarily about systemic racism, excessive force by police, and a judicial system rigged (with the consent of STL County voters) to make sure that Officer Darrell Wilson and those like him escape accountability for their actions. Those are important things, and it’s critical to not lose sight of them.

But sometimes, it’s about more than one thing, and there has to be a strong suspicion that this has become such a widespread tactic because of the resonances it holds with the particular case. Michael Brown was on foot, Officer Wilson was in a patrol car, and their initial encounter was a conflict over the extent to which the street is a public space. While walkable cities are certainly not immune to racism or high-handed policing, the particular sins of the Ferguson Police after the shooting seem alien to anyone whose mental model of bad, racist police comes from the NYPD, or even the LAPD. Charles Marohn’s article from August, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, points out that Ferguson is a town that is architected around the car, in a way that is guaranteed to immiserate its residents and turn its government against them. And in general, the message that things need to change seems to be more urgently directed at suburban drivers than urbanites, and the easiest way for urban residents to get that message in front of their faces is when they’re in their cars. The highway, unlike their homes in driving-only suburbs, is accessible.

The backlash has already started, at least if the comment section cesspools of local newspapers and TV stations are any indication, but backlash strongly implies that the strength of the protestors’ distress is coming through. In one incident, a driver in Minneapolis plowed through a crowd (on local streets), and there are already calls for that particular act of terrorism to be repeated. The thesis being presented, is that the ability of car traffic to flow freely is more important than any exercise of the freedoms of speech or assembly. (This is a related fallacy to the Ferguson PD’s assertion that, much as a shark must keep swimming to survive, the First Amendment stops working for anyone standing still.) I don’t know whether it’s my American identity or my humanity that recoils more at this sort of bullshit, but I do know that it should be strenuously fought, until a clear consensus has been established that this kind of thinking is immoral and vile. You’d think that this would go without saying, but apparently we aren’t there yet as a society.

So, going forward, what should aspiring blockaders keep in mind? A few things, starting with the fact that it is a hazardous action, even before considering those who would deliberately ram you. All of the successful incursions I’ve read about have also involved a handful of arrests. It’s more effective to set up a preliminary blockade with vehicles first, and then move pedestrians into the empty zone in front. A moving blockade, where a line of cars across all lanes slow down to 20 mph or so, might be more achievable at times like rush hour, but requires more in the way of pre-planning and co-ordination. And lastly, it’s not necessary to actually reach the road; if you simply force the police to close the road, or all of the ramps to local streets in the inner core, in order to contain your credible threat of incursion, that’s as good as blocking it yourself. I’m sure other tactical suggestions will surface in comments.

As I wrote on Twitter Monday night, this is a new reality in America, and I’m sure that, as a society, like with all new things, we will deal with its arrival very badly. But the genie is out of the bottle now, and even if we were inclined to put it back in, which we shouldn’t be, we couldn’t.

Posted in Politics, Service Disruptions, Threats to Life and Safety | 3 Comments

The TWU deal resolves nothing, and that’s fine

When in doubt, punt.

The two year contract signed by TWU Local 234 and SEPTA at 11:00 last night is a truce, not a peace treaty. It includes a 5% raise over the two years of the contract term, which is higher than what management was offering and lower than what the union was demanding, but does not resolve any of the pension or benefits issues that were at the heart of TWU’s rhetorical justification for strike threats.

It doesn’t matter. TWU got as much as it could, and got the ability to come back in 18 months (contracts like this are backdated to the expiration of the previous contract, so this one runs to April 2016), with a presumptively better political environment to try another time. That is a good ending.

TWU 234’s rank and file will be voting on ratification of the contract sometime next week, so it’s not over, but unless Willie Brown has an unexpected (and futile) rebellion from his members, the drama should be done with.

Posted in SEPTA, Service Disruptions | 1 Comment