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Waiting on the signal

May 5, 2012 at 10:40 am

I’ve noticed relatively recently that many of the intersections of my neighborhood have received pedestrian crosswalk countdown timers. Normally, I think these are great features for pedestrians, and on the rare occasion that I drive, they can help make a “stale green” light a little less uncertain. Recently, though, I’ve begun to think that these signals are a bit patronizing after being pointed out that they seem to rush pedestrians across the street – especially when the cross time after blinking is only around 7 seconds or so.


Intersection at Bradford and Oakland, Milwaukee
The intersection near my house, an intersection that I cross daily, has failed me since I moved here. The intersection is composed of a major street and a smaller, secondary street. It is controlled by sensors under the concrete on the secondary street. There are “push to walk” buttons at all corners of the intersection, but I’ve found that they really don’t work. While waiting on numerous occasions for the MCTS’ normally-tardy service, I’ve had the chance to observe the behavior of the intersection.

Pushing the button to cross doesn’t really speed up this signal-change process. However, even if the button has not been activated, the moment an automobile on the secondary street rolls up, the “don’t walk” signal begins flashing and the automobile has waited no longer than 10 seconds to cross. Numerous times I’ve pushed the button and waited over a minute for the signal to change. Oakland Avenue, the major street, has other signalled intersections two or three blocks in both directions, but they aren’t timed – cars come and go constantly.

It’s come to the point where I have to be “saved” by a car waiting to cross the same street just to get the signal to change. Why do we prioritize automobile traffic over pedestrian traffic, especially in such a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood like Milwaukee’s East Side? I can’t recall another intersection in my neighborhood (and I’ve seen them all) that relies on sensors in the road and is not just timed.

Don’t get me started on the effect it has on bicyclists, who don’t weigh in heavily enough to trip the sensor. Again, riding a bike at this intersection almost requires that you be “saved” by an automobile – something I never want to admit.

On Automobile Gas Mileage

December 5, 2011 at 4:48 pm

EPA Fuel Economy sticker for electric vehicles. Photo courtesy ecoautoninja.com

An Op-Ed article by Thomas Friedman in this Sunday’s New York times praises the President for his recent “victory,” increasing the gas mileage standards on vehicles. By 2025, U.S. automakers will have to “reach a total fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon.”

A (presumably) large majority of people, including environmentalists, may laud these new standards as environmentally friendly and a way to reduce gasoline emissions. However, the positive effects of higher gas mileage standards are negated by the effect they have on air quality (pollution by emissions) and the built environment.

First, increasing the distance people can travel on the same amount of gasoline will only make people drive more. They may be using the same amount of gasoline as previously, but the car culture remains. This perpetuates the built environment that I consider the most environmentally damaging development in history: the American suburb. The commuter who now lives in a suburb 50 miles outside of the city in which their job is located has no incentive to move closer to their job, or find a job closer to their home, if their gas mileage on their next automobile purchase has improved.

Even with the recent and forthcoming movement of populations from the suburban fringe to more walkable neighborhoods in cities, gas mileage improvements could be damaging. Many have grown accustomed to automobiles as the only way to move outside of their home, and those with this attitude may move to the city and find their automobile usage is accommodated, even when other transportation options are available. Urban zoning codes, much like suburban zoning codes, also often comply residential and commercial developments to include off-street parking. On-street parking concerns are also paramount in urban areas. Milwaukee’s new streetcar will not interfere with the majority of existing street parking along its proposed path, a decision that pleases both residents and business owners in the area. Cities that prioritize parking in order to assuage residents and businesses are only exacerbating their own problems. A responsible urban zoning code would eliminate off-street parking requirements and instead compel developers to construct bus shelters, bicycle facilities, or repair nearby sidewalks.

A responsible environmental policy, although immensely unpopular, is to raise the gas tax. The nationally-applied 18.4 cents per gallon (this may rise depending on the state, county, or municipality) has not risen in decades, and has been outpaced by inflation. Compared to other nations, our gasoline tax is incredibly low. The federal government should raise the gasoline tax by a substantial amount over a period of time, gradually increasing the price of gasoline. This, in tandem with higher fuel-efficiency standards, is the only way to reduce the incentive to drive everywhere (or so often). Further allowing the tax to fund more ambitious public transportation infrastructure projects would decrease the incentive to drive and increase the incentive to use public transportation (with the additional funding, America’s crumbling and widely inadequate–save New York City–public transportation infrastructure would improve).

If it helps, drivers could consider an increase in their tax a “congestion reduction fee,” considering that when all is said and done, decreasing the amount of driving and increasing the use of public transportation does reduce roadway congestion.

Bicycle Parking

December 4, 2011 at 5:42 pm

I just completed a development proposal for a bicycle parking structure in Milwaukee as a part of a land use planning course I took this semester. While I don’t imagine that the demand exists currently for such a structure, I believe in the future such a structure will be useful.

Bicycle Racks on Brady Street, Milwaukee, WI

Group of bicycle racks off of Brady Street in Milwaukee

Plenty of times I’ve tried to park my bicycle on the street and have had a hard time finding an open rack. Aside from the momentary frustration, seeing this makes me happy – at least people are using the racks provided! This is a stark contrast from the city I grew up in, where a bicycle rack was rarely used (or full). Group of bicycle racks off of Brady Street in MilwaukeeIn busier areas of Milwaukee, particularly Downer Avenue, Farwell Avenue (near North Avenue), and Brady Street, I’ve seen a grouping of bicycle racks that occupies about one or two parking spaces. I think these bicycle racks are a great idea, and given the smaller size of a bicycle, many more bicycles can fit in the same space that one car occupies.

I believe that as cycling becomes a more ubiquitous method of transportation, especially with the introduction of bicycle sharing networks, bicycle parking “garages” will become important. Indoor facilities will reduce the likelihood of bicycles or their parts being stolen and may make cyclists feel better about leaving their bicycle. Those currently finding it difficult to store their bicycle (if living in a high-rise building, for example) may find a bicycle storage facility helpful for longer-term, safer storage.

Their use as a hub of a bicycle-sharing network also has great potential. Bicycle storage facilities can also serve as a bicycle-sharing node, perhaps with staffing that can assist its users or serve as a repair facility. A bicycle storage facility could serve as the “transfer station” of a successful bicycle-sharing network.

Thoughts on Brady Street

November 30, 2011 at 5:05 pm

The Brady Street Business Improvement District, located on Milwaukee’s East Side neighborhood, is a good example of a corridor that has been designed with a careful eye on the design process. I enjoy going to Brady Street when I have the time. There are some excellent restaurants and bars along the street, and the district has done a good job of attracting businesses and patrons alike. However, I think a few things could be improved to make the area a bit more pedestrian-friendly:

  • A road diet: Vehicles on Brady Street travel a little too fast sometimes, which is probably the result of a low number of stop lights/stop signs. Even though there are some good urban design tenets at use, such as curb bumpouts, the lanes for automobiles should be reduced in width.
  • Bicycle lanes: Its shocking to me that there is not a bicycle lane running the length of Brady Street. There is some bicycle infrastructure, such as bicycle racks (although there aren’t enough), but no supporting bicycle lanes. For a relatively dense, already pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, this comes as a surprise. In tandem with a road diet, a bicycle lane in each direction could be added.
  • Brady St. Trees

    Trees on Brady Street

    Trees: There is only a cluster of trees along a two-block stretch of sidewalk on the south side of Brady Street. Adding trees could improve the visual attractiveness of the area, and it could also slow down vehicles. Tall trees make the perceived width of the street less, making drivers feel as if the street is narrower. This could slow drivers down.Trees also provide shade in the summer and a canopy of sorts that may make pedestrians feel more a part of the street.

  • Slow Zone: Brady Street could implement a “slow zone” that reduces the speed limit to 20mph, as is being done in some New York Neighborhoods. This would further make pedestrians feel less at war with automobiles that sometimes drive very quickly down the street.

Brady Street is a great example of a neighborhood that will provide for the needs of its businesses, residents, and visitors for years to come, and is far ahead of many other neighborhoods just now joining the “New Urbanist” bandwagon. Some improvements should be made, however, to ensure that it stays ahead of the game.

Suburban Parking

November 25, 2011 at 8:21 pm

This weekend I went back to my hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to visit my family for Thanksgiving. The town I’m from is of about 8,000 people near the southeastern border of Wisconsin and Illinois. Its by some means a typical suburb, but in between Lake Geneva and neighboring towns is mainly farmland and rural landscape. It lacks the ambiguity of most suburban borders and has a sort of identity of its own.

For the first time, I went shopping when stores opened on Black Friday. Something I’ve always been amazed by is the amount of parking large stores such as Target, Wal Mart, and the Home Depot consume. The only time I’ve actually seen these parking lots full was yesterday.

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For the longest time I believed that it was these large chain stores that requested and built such large parking lots. I find it incredible that it is actually suburban communities that require such large parking lots of the stores. The Zoning Regulations of Lake Geneva require one parking space per 300 square feet of retail space. The average parking space (including the circulation area and landscaping that compose parking lots) is about 250-300 square feet, meaning the store practically doubles its size to accomodate these parking regulations.

Would stores normally provide less parking if they weren’t required to provide a minimum? Paving an entire parking lot can be an enormous cost, especially if it is only filled to capacity for a few days per year (most likely Black Friday and the weekend before Christmas). The cost is most likely not recuperated in sales for many years, at which time the store may have to repair the parking lot again.

I can’t offer a better suggestion to large suburban parking lots, which are effectively wastelands for most of the year. The only effective way to get to these stores is to drive, and these cars need somewhere to park. These parking lots are unattractive and a hindrance to anyone that actually dares walk to the store on the provided sidewalks or bike path (which I have never seen in use). Building them smaller or underground/above the store would be a better (albeit more expensive) option, but the best solution would be for the local planning commission to relinquish these parking minimums and instead set maximums.

Suburban communities should think before they make their citizens happy by providing parking for the two biggest retail shopping days of the year. These parking lots are not sustainable, and most likely pose a stormwater runoff risk if not properly drained. They also require massive snow-removal efforts in the winter, powered by large gas-consuming trucks. In the future I hope to see these concrete wastelands turned in to sustainable community development, as described in “Sprawl Repair Manual,” seen below.

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