New Year / New Mayor Resolutions for 2016

It’s a time of new beginnings, and hopes for a better future!  Or at least, trying to be better than we are now, in ways that will fade along with our newly-renewed gym memberships. In no particular order:

  1. No more “SEPTA Key is Late” complaints.   It’s very late.  We all know it’s very late.  We know, very approximately, why it’s late.  But we’re now being promised a rollout date by April, which is not actually far enough away to be the indefinite future anymore, even under the worst circumstances imaginable.  I’m not saying now is the time to get hype.  I’m not even saying we shouldn’t all still be pissed at the accumulated delays.  I’m just saying I’m tired of rehashing the “it’s late” narrative every week or so.  Unless you are actually doing a longform deep dive on the dysfunctional relationship between the public sector and software development (i.e., you are Jim Saksa last month, or trying to one-up him), you are engaged in weaksauce, populist, pseudojournalistic pablum, and you should be ashamed of yourself.
  2. One Loading Zone per Block.  Now.
    Both bike lanes blocked (and traffic lanes fouled) by trucks facing west, 1900 block of Fairmount Ave.
    Both bike lanes blocked (and traffic lanes fouled) by trucks facing west, 1900 block of Fairmount Ave.

    So much of the unsafe or even inconvenient conditions on our streets comes from delivery vehicles who, in fairness, have few better options.  And delivery vehicles are only going to proliferate as delivery services get cheaper and more widespread, and our neighborhood commercial corridors fill back in.  It’s all well and good to swap door-zone bike lanes with parking-protected bike lanes, (and we should get on that, pronto), but that’s not going to fix the root cause of these problems, and it’s not going to do anything at all on the vast majority of streets that lack bike lanes.

  3. Fix the CMX-2 and CMX-2.5 zoning categories.  Speaking of our neighborhood commercial corridors coming back, it would sure be nice if we had mixed use zoning categories for those corridors that were usable by-right.  If you have an example of by-right new construction in either of these zones since the new zoning code came into effect, leave it in the comments, because that will be the first I hear of it ever happening.
  4. Signatures on the dotted line for University SEPTA.  Bundling deeply discounted SEPTA (and Indego?) into tuition at colleges and universities is a win for everybody, we just need to finalize the details in time for the new SEPTA tariff scheduled to go into effect this July, and the next academic year starting in August.  Even if, gods forbid, we miss that deadline, placeholder language should go into the tariff so that the program can kick off next winter instead of waiting an entire year.  The time to move is now.
  5. An Open Streets PHL debut to do everyone proud.  Ever since the Pope’s car-free security perimeter (peri-miter?) got everyone interested, a lot of people have been working to bring Open Streets to Philadelphia on a more regular (and better-planned, less disruptive) basis, starting sometime when the weather warms up.  You might even recognize some of the names.  Mayor Kenney is very much on board.  So let’s do this.
  6. Street sweeping.  Can we take the most basic step necessary to shed our “Filthadelphia” image?  Even if it means people have to move their cars every once in a while?  If New York (more crowded) and Baltimore (poorer) can figure out how, we can.  Candidate Jim Kenney suggested an opt-out as political cover; I hope Mayor Jim Kenney doesn’t stick with that, but if he does, it should be the most restrictive opt-out possible, i.e. by-block, by supermajority petition, with an automatic sunset unless renewed by the same supermajority.
  7. Move the ball forward on badly-needed project planning.  SEPTA trolley replacement.  King of Prussia Rail.  Broad Street Line to the Navy Yard.  City Branch Transit.  The Rail Park (going north, not west, and yes I will fight you, FOTRP).  The 30th Street Station District.  Reconfiguring the Northeast Corridor through North Philadelphia.  None of them are getting done this year, but we can do more to make sure they get done as soon (and as inexpensively) as possible.
  8. Restripe Washington Ave already.  The amount of gridlock and lack of leadership on this one is appalling.  The PCPC-led design process resulted in a good plan for restriping.  Follow-through on that plan didn’t happen largely due to lack of political leadership.  So anarchy continues to reign on South Philadelphia’s emerging main street.  If anybody dies on this street in the new year, you’re going to read some very unkind words here.
  9. Exclusive bus lanes on Roosevelt Boulevard, Market Street, and JFK.  Super-wide streets with frequent bus service need bus lanes.  Full stop.
  10. Hourly SEPTA service to Wilmington, already.  The addition of one more train in each direction each weeknight serving Delaware’s largest city (and Philadelphia’s largest transit-accessible suburban job center) was a highlight of our December, but it was marred by the lack of a counterpart train on Saturdays that had been previously announced.  Delaware needs to cut it out with this piecemeal nonsense and actually approve funding for hourly (or better) SEPTA service to Wilmington en bloc, as it’s the most cost-efficient transit in the First State, and will only attract more riders if those riders can rely on there actually being a convenient train when they need it, in both directions.  I’m not terribly optimistic for anything more than incremental improvements, but I haven’t entirely run out of hope for more.
  11. Half-hourly service to Norristown and Chestnut Hill East.  Jeff Kneuppel floated this in September 2014, as SEPTA’s deputy GM.  He’s now in the big chair, and we’re still shivering with antici– (say it!)  –pation.  Or maybe just with the cold, waiting for trains that are still hourly.
  12. Light the Manayunk Bridge.  Yes, I’m fully on board that the highest and best use of this iconic viaduct is as a multi-use trail.  But multi-use involves being, er useful, and the Manayunk Bridge won’t be until we put lights on it (and the Cynwyd Heritage Trail) so that it can open early enough for commuters and stay open into the evening.  Half a bridge (i.e. what we have now) is better than no bridge, but let’s not lose sight this project with the finish line tantalizingly in sight.

Pricing parking is not regressive

People who object to putting a fair price on parking often claim that it would be a regressive tax falling primarily on the poor and working class.  That assertion is not supported by the arithmetic.

Based on an unscientific survey of Philadelphia’s poor and working class, conducted by watching Twitter keyword searches for the last 6-12 months, the poor and working class largely don’t drive. They *want* to drive, and largely do as soon as they have the money, but they have to get over that hurdle *first*.  And it’s a very, very large hurdle.

Total cost of ownership of a car (purchase, insurance, fuel, licensing and registration, maintenance) *starts* at $5,500/year for an ultra-economy city car like the Nissan Versa or the Chevy Spark, and rises to $6,000/year for the reliably cheap Toyota Corolla. The numbers go *way* higher than that.  For context: depending on your neighborhood, you can spend less than $5,500/year on rent in this city.  A year’s worth of Transpasses will set you back $1,092.

When Mayor Richardson Dilworth first proposed an annual parking permit in 1961, he priced it at $40/year, or $320/year in 2015 dollars. (He literally had rocks thrown at him for his trouble.) $320/year is a nudge for people who don’t really need a car but have one by inertia. If you NEED a car for your job, or to access your job, that car is bringing you more than $6,320 in value per year, never mind more than $320. And that $320 isn’t just a taking, it gets you something very valuable in return: a shit-tonne of *time* spent not circling blocks looking for parking. Again, far more valuable than $320/year for anyone who has the money to own a car in the first place.

So why do so many poor people want to drive in Philadelphia, if it’s so expensive? They want to drive because putting up with SEPTA being slow and unreliable is especially psychologically punishing if SEPTA is a choice you are compelled to make.

We have it in our power to make SEPTA fast and reliable, and in a very short amount of time, for a reasonable budget, through public policy. We know how, it’s a question of funding and will.  It will take building bus lanes and curb extensions. It will take running core route trains, buses, and trolleys often enough that people can always just walk up to a stop or station and be sure that they won’t be waiting long.  It will take all-door boarding on transit vehicles.  It will take further steps beyond those that I can list here.

Not all of that will be easy, and some of it won’t come cheap. But the budget required to permanently eradicate poverty in Philadelphia is several orders of magnitude higher than that, and that’s the alternative on offer.

Housekeeping notes: New WP theme. This one is allegedly easier to read and navigate on touchscreen devices.  This post originated as comments elsewhere and have been edited and expanded.

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.