Dear New Yorkers

If Governor Andrew Cuomo’s continued blithering idiocy manages to stall Amtrak’s Gateway tunnels until after one or both of the Hudson River Tunnels fails,

and if Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton succeed in wiping out the Times Square pedestrian plazas, one of America’s most successful urban street interventions, over a handful (sorry) of boob-related incidents,

please, please, please, do not all move to Philadelphia at once.  There are eight million of you, and as we are in the midst of proving, we have problems when more than a half million people or so show up at any one time.  (We will totally take that first half million, though.)  Also, you seem to have a penchant for electing dumb fuckups who ruin everything, and that is about the last thing we need to do.

 

More in sympathy than in gloating,

-STP

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Visualizing parking is the first step to resolving parking politics

A new map shows exactly which block faces in Philadelphia require the pittance of $35/year to keep a car on them. The terms of parking politics in this city may never be the same.

Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount
Permit blocks in Spring Garden and Fairmount

Lauren Ancona’s previous magnum opus was a map showing the boundaries of the PPA parking permit districts, a work that landed her a job with the city’s Open Data Office. She’s now followed that up with the next level of detail, a block-by-block accounting of where permits are actually required. Permits aren’t the only tool of parking management in use, of course. Ancona’s map does not (yet?) show which blocks are metered or otherwise have limited parking, so that results in odd blank spaces where those are in use, including most of Center City and Old City.

But the main thing that jumps out at the viewer, as Friend of the Blog Jon Geeting writes pointedly in his analysis at PlanPhilly, is that many neighborhoods that are the most obsessed with parking supply are doing Jack Squat about managing parking demand. In many cases, only a small minority of blocks require permits; some neighborhoods can count their permit blocks on the fingers of one hand.

Basically: a lot of people, in a lot of neighborhoods, who have used parking as a rallying cry for NIMBYism of all stripes, have just been called on their bullshit. If you can’t be bothered to get the actual resident-parkers of your block to agree to pay the PPA $35/year to chase away the people who don’t live on your block, then you shouldn’t get to cry “Parking!” to prevent new residents from coming to your neighborhood.

Geeting specifically calls out Pennsport and its four blocks of permitted parking, which is entirely fair given that neighborhood’s reputation as being full of parking zombies. But Manayunk, and Fishtown north of Columbia, are no better.

Lower Northwest permit parking map
All of the permit blocks in the Lower Northwest. You’d think that keeping Main Street barcrawlers off the neighborhood side streets would be a popular rallying cry.
Fishtown permit parking map
A tale of two Fishtowns: for once, not lifers and newcomers, but split by Columbia Ave.

Given the high rate of car ownership and easy access to the El in Northern Liberties, one might expect more permitting there than not, but no.

Northern Liberties permit parking map
Two errors on this map: 1) “Olde Kensington” is labeled on the wrong side of Girard, and 2) Not enough permits

Now, there are neighborhoods that are doing a good job at requiring permits. They should be encouraged, even if that means, in the case of Graduate Hospital, splitting its parking district off from Center City West’s.

And there are other neighborhoods where a high concentration of people with cars registered out of state (i.e. students) makes the current process for establishing a permit block politically impossible. But for once, our system of Councilmanic Prerogative offers an opportunity for good progressive urbanism. A progressive District Councillor can short-circuit the process by creating permit blocks, by legislation, where they will do the most good: immediately adjacent to commercial streets with temporary parking only, and within a block of Subway and El stations to reduce the amount of parking arbitrage available in those areas. While I would like to see entire neighborhoods with some type or another of curb parking control, I am willing to take this one step at a time, and push the higher priority locations first.

Map of permit parking near Broad and Girard
This is an express stop on the subway. This is not OK. And thanks to Temple students and their landlords, it will never fix itself.

This is not just a one-way street, politically. With more permitting comes more data; if those who today we can easily dismiss as parking zombies who only have anecdotes backing them up, could instead show up to RCO zoning presentations and show data that more cars have permits than there are curb parking spots in the district, that is powerful evidence that new development should include off-street parking (unbundled and market-rate, of course), which can be used to convince parking supply skeptics like me. This actually just happened this week with the story about Graduate Hospital’s permits, which brought me around to support of structured parking at new development along Washington Avenue, where previously I was hardline against. Hopefully this can open up wider discussions of car ownership, land use, and parking arbitrage. (As a hypothetical, land-poor Manayunk may want to build its structured parking at Ivy Ridge, or in an auto-oriented location in Upper Roxborough. If MDC can acquire properly-zoned land for it, why shouldn’t that happen?) But the first step to resolving a deep political difference, is to establish a common reality that all parties agree exists.

Would anybody ever say no to a carshare car?

Spoiler alert: Betteridge’s Law applies.

Friends of the Blog Malcolm Burnley (of Citified) and Jon Geeting (of Plan Philly) have been taking very hard looks at the economics of putting more carsharing cars on the streets of Philadelphia, and it’s very good reading. But I’d like to unpack something that Jon mentioned in his piece:

The reason [we aren’t seeing Zipcar and Enterprise more aggressively going after cheap curb spaces] appears to be that the process the city has devised for renting out PPA-managed spaces adds too many soft costs to be worth it for rental companies to spend the time pursuing them.

If Zipcar or Enterprise wants to rent just one publicly-owned parking space, they need a letter from the adjacent property owner (if applicable), they have to make a presentation to the local Registered Community Organization (RCO) and get a letter of support from them, and they also need a letter of support from the District Councilperson.

Something about this is very broken. Even under the most venial interpretation of the support requirement, the RCO and District Councillor veto points are a waste of everybody’s time. District Councillors can pressure (or even shake down) the companies much more effectively, through means other than approving or disapproving individual pod spaces. And no RCO in the city is ever going to going to find a legitimate reason to say no to an amenity in their neighborhood that reduces the demand for on-street parking. Even RCOs with a BANANA ideology usually think that abundant parking is a good thing, or at least fret about every household having two cars. In neighborhoods where parking is tight, reducing parking demand will result in an immediate uptick on everyone’s quality of life. In neighborhoods where parking is abundant, who is going to even bother caring?

As Geeting points out, the current system has led to an absurd state of affairs where Enterprise has 74 on-street spaces, mostly inherited from local predecessor PhillyCarShare which accumulated them aggressively despite the soft costs, while national sector leader Zipcar has only 11 curb spaces, citywide.

We’ve run the carsharing experiment for over a decade now. Enterprise and Zipcar are good neighbors that provide a good service that helps not only their members, but the city overall. It’s time to update the law and let them put a shared car on any block where a property owner or owner wants to invite them, and the market will support it staying there. Let a thousand pods bloom.

Jobs, job access, and building a strong, solvent city

I went to Young Involved Philadelphia’s City Council Candidate Convention last night.  As I talked directly with many of the candidates, there was a common refrain among many of them: “The city needs to rebuild its tax base by bringing more jobs back into the city.”  (The policy conclusions each candidates drew from that premise varied, of course.)  And that’s true!  But I think it focuses attention and energy in the wrong place, in part because I think that accomplishing that task as a first-order goal is hard, while the task “rebuild the city’s tax base by attracting new residents” is much easier, in part because it’s building on an already existing, successful, trend.

The issue is that our extensively decentralized job market isn’t going anywhere in the short term, but that alone doesn’t actually draw people to live in the suburbs.  We live in an economy that is very, very short on job security, or any other form of loyalty between an employer and and employee.  This cultural shift seems like it’s permanent, and it’s arguably a good thing for an economy trying to create wealth.  A generation ago, a family might base a decision on where to live on minimizing commute time to the one or two specific jobs they already had.  Today, they must base their decision on minimizing commute time to the entire set of possible jobs throughout the region.  Even if most of those jobs are out in the suburbs, that pressure is going to bring a lot of educated, skilled workers into Greater Center City, and neighborhoods with fast and frequent transit access to Center City.  Center City’s importance is not only as a job center in its own right, but as a transportation hub with direct connections throughout the region.

If you’d like a visual representation of what places this kind of job-access pressure is going to bring new residents to, look no further than this map produced by the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory.  (The project landing page, with links to their full 2014 report, methodology, and maps for other cities, is here.)  Maps like this one, which measure the absolute number of jobs accessible by transit and walking in 30 minutes, can help policymakers understand where residential development pressure is likely to spread to, and which neighborhoods are likely to remain affordable indefinitely.  It can also help transportation planners understand which areas are being poorly served by the existing transit network.  That can boost the priority given to projects like City Branch BRT, which will give better, faster access to underserved Strawberry Mansion; or to projects that connect peripheral job centers to the regional network, like BSL-Navy Yard or NHSL-King of Prussia; or to initiatives that boost frequencies on Regional Rail lines and reduce waiting times for neighborhoods like Germantown and Manayunk, like the city did during the PSIC era in the 1960s and 1970s.

Overview Screenshot of UMN's transit accessibility map of Philadelphia
Overview Screenshot of UMN’s transit accessibility map of Philadelphia

Bringing residents back is obviously not a panacea for what ails the City of Philadelphia, but it’s a good, necessary start.  (Fixing the schools so that people don’t have to flee to the suburbs when their kids turn 5 is an obvious next step.)  But in addition to directly restoring the income and property tax bases of the city, more new residents will bring new jobs with them as a trailing indicator.  As I said, I don’t think the peripheral job centers are going anywhere anytime soon, but people generally eat, shop, and use services in the places that they live.  Residents are customers for city-based businesses, old and new.

Not only will a continuation of the residential renaissance create new retail-level businesses and jobs, but there’s another, slightly more cynical mechanism that will cause jobs to follow people into the city: our old friends, the 1%ers.  As Chester County native and proto-urbanist William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) noted in his 1989 book City, when corporate headquarters fled New York City to southwestern Connecticut in the mid-20th Century, there was no evidence to support the popular claim that businesses were fleeing onerous taxes in New York to lower taxes in Connecticut.  Even then, taxes in Connecticut were substantially similar to those in the City.  But there was a very strong relationship between the locations of the new suburban headquarters and where the CEOs of the companies lived; the average distance was eight miles.  The development of ultra-high-end housing (like the $17.6M penthouse that was the subject of false rumors involving Jay-Z and Beyoncé) in the Center City core might look a bit unseemly at times, but if those apartments get bought up by C-suite executives, we can expect more corporate office towers (and their associated jobs) to follow them into our most accessible location.  Maybe that process might involve a bit of promotion for our insanely competitive private schools, while we’re still working on the public ones.  It’s not an equitable solution in the short term, but the potential upside in the medium term is awfully hard to argue with.

All this matters because many of our longstanding civic problems, like funding our public schools, counteracting the effects of poverty and income inequality, reducing violent crime, improving our public transportation system, and even picking up trash and litter from the streets, are primarily issues of funding.  We simply can’t afford to do the basic tasks of city government with our current tax base in the long term.  We can keep trying to paper over the difference with state and federal aid, but that’s not a good strategy in the long term.  Making Philadelphia an attractive place to live makes all these problems tractable.  Attempting to lock out newcomers, which is as likely to displace longtime residents as it is to actually dissuade New Philadelphians, will keep real solutions out of reach, for all time.

God help us all.

DERP
DERP

Last night was the Better Mobility 2015 Mayoral Forum, hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.  All seven candidates for mayor (six Democrats, one Republican), save for State Sen. Anthony Williams, who was represented by his campaign’s policy director, spent the evening pledging fealty to Vision Zero in particular, and to the idea that Cars Don’t Rule Philadelphia in general.  Which is all very hopeful, and a good sign, since at least none of the candidates were brave or foolhardy enough to contradict the pro-bike, pro-transit crowd in attendance at the Friends Center to their faces.  In fact, it was eerie how much the candidates sounded alike, until you realized that a lot of the talking points were lifted straight from the election platforms of the Bicycle Coalition and The 5th Square.  How much those documents drove the candidates’ positions was made crystal clear on the last question of the night, when moderator Patrick Kerkstra asked, “What would you do to limit the impact of traffic congestion for SEPTA buses?

Despite my best efforts, bus lanes and Transit Signal Priority have yet to make it onto an election platform this year.  (No, I was not the source of the question last night; that was somebody else in the audience.)  This was the one question where the candidates hadn’t been spoon-fed the “right” answer.  Every single participant sat in befuddled silence.  Kerkstra tried prompting the candidates “this is about bus lanes.  And bus rapid transit.”  No dice.  Eventually former Councillor Jim Kenney improvised a weak but passable answer about Transit Signal Priority.

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can: Bus lanes are the one thing a Mayor of Philadelphia can do to unilaterally assist transit riders.  Everything else requires the approval of Council, or competing with other priorities at SEPTA.  If you are running for Mayor, and you don’t have an agenda that includes bus lanes, transit signal priority, and bus shelters, (which are all things the City does, and not SEPTA) then you have no plan for helping public transit riders in this city, and you should be fucking ashamed of yourself.

Now, to be perfectly clear, there were six very intelligent people up on that stage, and if Lynne Abraham hadn’t left early, there would have been seven.  Snarky pictures aside, I am not saying they had nothing because they were stupid.  I am saying that they are smart, and their failure hurts more because they are smart.  Our politicians, top to bottom, have to shape the hell up.  Or we’re in for a very, very long eight years.

η: As I knew he would, Jim Saksa has his own, better-written, more comprehensive writeup of the forum up at PlanPhilly. (It is only marred by my ugly, scowling mug in the photograph at the bottom.) He sounds almost as disappointed as I am.

Knowledge is power, especially on bad days

Quick thoughts on SEPTA’s response this morning to the fire in Kensington across from York-Dauphin Station that shut down the El:

Obviously, the root cause of the mess was an enormous fire on someone else’s property that SEPTA could not have prevented, but since “Large Fires in Kensington” seems to be the new normal, at least until someone makes L&I get its shit together, SEPTA might as well have some good plans in the can for dealing with it.

Basically, there’s no way that SEPTA can really have enough spare buses on hand to deal with a disruption this large, on this important a piece of its rail system, at rush hour.  That goes for the El, that goes for the Subway, and that goes for the core of the RRD system.  That being said, they did about as well as could be expected today, pulling buses from multiple depots and off of other busy routes to run the bus bridge between Huntington and Berks.  SEPTA probably could have improved by doing a better job of telling bus riders across the city that their bus service had just taken a minor cut on a cold day, but that’s a relatively minor strike to have as your worst sin.

One thing that I think would be worthwhile in future disruptions, but the technology is a few years away, is push notifications to riders that they should seek alternate routes.  Many El riders in Kensington and the Lower Northeast connect to the El from crosstown bus routes, and would have been best served if they could be instructed to head west to a Broad Street Subway station, which would crowd those buses in a more distributed way, and take some of the load off of the shuttle operation.  That wouldn’t even require pushing notifications to individual riders, although I’m sure that that is coming in the smartphone era, but for major disruptions like this one, having announcements on board buses and scrolling on information displays on buses and at bus shelters would be a major help.

That makes it all the more terrible that the City of Philadelphia didn’t specify any kind of realtime schedule information displays in the new bus shelters it just contracted for with Titan Outdoor — they’re a great improvement in quality-of-life on a daily basis, but in a major disruption like today’s, information is critical.  Why that bad contract isn’t an electoral issue in the upcoming Mayoral and Council contests, I have no idea.  Unlike schools and SEPTA Regional Rail, it’s something where the Mayor and Council have actual authority over, and doesn’t even require City money, but they still muffed it badly.

EDIT: Actually, there is one ongoing SEPTA screwup that exacerbates these problems: the $1 transfer charge.  Consider someone in walking distance of K&A, commuting back and forth to Center City near Market Street.  They use tokens because it doesn’t make financial sense to buy a Transpass unless you transfer or make extra trips on weekends.  Even if they are told what is happening, they are going to be charged $1 for the privilege of taking the 60 to Broad Street and going around the fire zone in reasonable comfort, instead of throwing themselves into the teeth of a chaotic bus bridge operation.  How many Kensingtonians are going to be doing that voluntarily?  A lot fewer than if a transfer was included in the base fare, that’s for certain.

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.