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Posts about North Carolina


Videos show bus love, bike hate

Triangle Transit, in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina, has a clever set of videos to publicize their bus service and its advantages:

The series of videos emulate the campy style of the classic soap operate, but to tell you that it's easy to pay the bus fare, they have real-time arrival information on smartphones (above), or that Triangle Transit buses can use the shoulder to bypass traffic on highways.

On a less smile-inducing video note, one Alabama man has gone around videotaping his drives, in which he shouts epithets at cyclists along the road (who are doing nothing wrong).

As Michael Keith Maddox passes a cyclist, he says he "ought to run him in a ditch," and he's "going to hurt one of them one of these days." In one of the clips in this mash-up he shouts, "Ride your bicycle, you piece of crap," and in another, he revs his engine as he passes while cackling, "That scare you, boys?"

Based on the videos, the county sheriff arrested Maddox, who also apologized on Facebook. But every day some people come across a bicyclist on the road who is doing nothing except trying to get from one place to another, yet have a similar, if more subtle, reaction.


Sunbelt cities, urbanizing suburbs can learn from each other

Urbanizing suburbs often suffer from an identity crisis, looking to the big city next door and wondering how to recreate the same vitality and sense of place. But they might find a better comparison with more distant Sunbelt cities, which like many suburbs are only now coming into their own.

Aerial of downtown Raleigh. Photo by FiddleFlix on Flickr.

Take Raleigh, where I spent 5 days last month with my boyfriend and his friend's family, who moved there from Bethesda last year. While it's best known as North Carolina's state capital, we found a lot of fun things to do there. We saw a drag show at a downtown bar. We ate at crunchy, farm-to-table restaurants and Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall.

We also spent a lot of time in our friend's car. She and her newly-retired parents live in a new townhouse development off a strip lined with shopping centers, megachurches and similar-looking townhouse developments. My boyfriend said it reminded him of Fairfax or Montgomery counties, except it's all within Raleigh city limits. And our friend's parents don't hesitate to say they live in a city, either.

Is there really much of a difference between a "city" like Raleigh and a "suburb" like Montgomery? Both grew up mostly after World War II. In 1940, the city had just 46,000 residents, but today, it has 423,000 people, while surrounding Wake County has nearly 1 million residents. During the same period, Montgomery County grew from from 83,000 to over 1 million.

Downtown Bethesda. Raleigh's built form isn't that different from many of our area's suburban downtowns. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

As a result, both places have a distinctly suburban, auto-oriented character, save for a few urban centers. Look at an aerial photo of downtown Raleigh and it could pass for Bethesda or Silver Spring: a clump of tall buildings, surrounded by miles of single-family homes. New town centers are sprouting along the Beltline, Raleigh's answer to the Beltway, while new planned communities sprawl beyond it.

But the difference is that Raleigh embraces its status as a city, while Montgomery County is more hesitant.

Downtown Raleigh bursts with new music venues and restaurants. Planning director Mitchell Silver talks about pushing transit and making Raleigh "one of the world's attractive cities." A student at NC State made signs encouraging people to walk more and posted them around the city, while a group of designers and artists started a T-shirt line inspired by the city's history and culture.

Raleigh doesn't resemble older, traditional cities like New York or Chicago, and despite its aspirations to become a more urban place, it will never become a New York or Chicago. But it attracts ambition and creativity and civic pride like a big city, even if many of its residents live a very suburban lifestyle.

That's the lesson for places like Montgomery County. Like Raleigh, people here live in and seek out different kinds of communities, ranging from urban to suburban to rural. While some folks continue to insist that it's an exclusively suburban, homogeneous place, we can easily hold our own against places that happen to call themselves cities.

Montgomery County already has better transit than Raleigh and a biotechnology hub that some compare to the Research Triangle. There are as many or more people working in downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring than in downtown Raleigh. and after 5pm, Bethesda is a much livelier place. And judging from the bland banh mi I had at that Vietnamese place, Wheaton has vastly better ethnic food.

But Montgomery County and Raleigh also face many of the same challenges. We both seek to welcome new immigrants and serve growing low-income populations. We both want to encourage investment in older, close-in neighborhoods and make it easier to get around without a car. And both places are known for pushing school equity, even if it's thwarted by de facto segregation or a Tea Party school board.

As both places grow and evolve, they have as much if not more to learn from each other than from historically urban places.

Montgomery County isn't a collection of small towns or bedroom suburbs anymore. It's functionally a city of 1 million people that grew from an older, more traditional city. And if we're going to continue to grow and prosper, a little city swagger wouldn't hurt.


Foxx has the makings of a great Transportation Secretary

President Obama yesterday nominated Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the next Secretary of Transportation. If Foxx's experience in Charlotte is any indication, he'll make a strong choice.

Charlotte streetcar construction. Photo by Reconnecting America.

During his nomination press conference, Foxx said "cities have had no better friend" than the US Department of Transportation under outgoing Secretary Ray LaHood, and that if confirmed he would hope to "uphold the standards" LaHood set. That's great news.

The fact that Foxx comes from a major central city is also a huge benefit. It means he understands urban needs, which aren't just highways.

Charlotte may not be New York, but it's made great strides in the right direction. The city's first rail line opened a few years ago, and a streetcar line is under construction now. Charlotte also gained bronze-level status as a bike friendly community in 2008, and launched bike sharing in 2012.

Foxx has been a strong advocate for urban rail, especially streetcars. He knows transportation and land use are tied at the hip, and has fought repeated attacks on Charlotte's streetcar by former Mayor and current North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

He's also worked as an attorney for bus manufacturer DesignLine.

Foxx also knows that state Departments of Transportation can sometimes be part of the problem. At the federal level, it's common for USDOT to delegate responsibilities and funding to state DOTs, under the assumption the states have a better understanding of local needs. But state DOTs aren't any more local than any huge centralized government. And since they usually focus on highways, the result is that federal dollars mostly go to highways as well.

Since Foxx fought with the state over Charlotte's streetcar, he knows that funneling everything through state DOTs means states hold the cards. He knows that can hurt cities.

Finally, Foxx hired Arlington, VA's former county manager, Ron Carlee, to run Charlotte's city government. Foxx would have heard about Arlington's reputation for progressive transportation planning during the hiring process, and presumably counted it in Carlee's favor.

Of course, no one can really predict what kind of Secretary Foxx will be. When progressive champion Ray LaHood was first tapped for the job, the blogosphere worried his history as a Republican from rural Illinois meant he'd be a status quo highway builder.

But we do know that Foxx has made a priority of building transit in his home city, and has had to fight to make it happen.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


This hotel might show the future of small apartments

When I went to Raleigh last weekend to visit a sick relative in the hospital, I wasn't expecting to find innovations in small apartment design. Then I spent three days in a Hyatt Place hotel by the airport. Though the hotel is geared towards weary business travelers, its cleverly-designed suites might make good permanent homes as well.

Hyatt Place logo. Photo by thezipper on Flickr.

Most of the hotel rooms I've stayed in work like this: you walk through a narrow vestibule with a closet on one side and a bathroom on the other. Then, you enter a room with a bed, a television atop a dresser, and a window with a view of the parking lot.

Meanwhile, my family's room at the Hyatt Place, designed by national architecture firm CI Design, felt more like a little apartment. You enter into a sort of "living room," with a large, L-shaped couch, a kitchenette, and a desk with a large lamp.

Beyond a small partition is the "bedroom," with one or two beds, a vanity, and a small bathroom. (The view of the parking lot remains, unfortunately.) Straddling the two spaces is a flat-screen television on a pivoting base, so you can watch it from the bed or the couch.

The partition is what makes this space work. It's just long enough to create two discrete spaces, allowing my mother and brother to watch TV on one side while my dad sleeps on the other. But it's also open enough to let natural light from the window into the entire space, preventing it from feeling claustrophobic. I may be exaggerating, but I feel like the partition and the mix of public and private activities it accommodates has really helped our family stay sane during this difficult time.

Hyatt Place Chicago/Itasca (DuPage County, IL)
Suite at a Hyatt Place hotel in Itasca, Illinois. Photo by DiscoverDuPage on Flickr.

Floorplan of a typical Hyatt Place suite. Image from Hyatt's website.

Of course, an American family of four can only last so long in 400 square feet, but one person might be pretty happy here. "I'm surprised they don't make apartments for single people like this," my dad mused.

In fact, they do. Apartments the size of our hotel room, dubbed "micro-lofts," are increasingly popular with single adults seeking relatively affordable accommodations in expensive, in-town neighborhoods. Like a traditional warehouse loft, these units consist of one open space, albeit a small one. To make the space more efficient or flexible, designers use a variety of solutions, like loft beds or Murphy beds that free up room for other activities during the day. Like our hotel room, some micro-lofts have some version of a partition that allows the space to work as one large room or several smaller ones.

Micro-lofts have been built or proposed in cities from Providence to Vancouver and Seattle (PDF). Locally, I've heard rumblings that a developer wants to build some in downtown Silver Spring as well.

"Loft" Apartment, MetroPointe at Wheaton
Top: Floorplan of a "one-bedroom" apartment at Mosaic at Metro from the complex's website. Below: a "bedroom" enclosed by partial walls at MetroPointe.

The designers of some newer apartment complexes in the DC area, like MetroPointe in Wheaton or Mosaic at Metro in Hyattsville, use partitions with their studio and one-bedroom units. Like our hotel room, the dividers define separate spaces, but they also allow some flexibility in how those spaces are used.

While the plan above denotes "living," "dining" and "sleeping" area, I might want to set my bed up by the big window in the "dining" area, place a dining table by the kitchen in the "living" area, and take advantage of the partition to place a TV in the "sleeping" area. That's far more difficult to do in most conventional one-bedroom layouts with walled-off rooms.

Apartments like this certainly aren't for everyone, but they're an interesting way to provide much-desired housing in areas where space is limited and housing costs are high. Small apartments force creative design solutions. But if done well, they can make a great place to stay, whether for a few nights in Raleigh or as a permanent home.


Charlotte agrees with DC on streetcar technology

Charlotte, NC has been conducting a thorough analysis of streetcar power technologies for their planned streetcar system. Their final report is out, and essentially agrees with the conclusions from the recent APTA technology seminar: overhead wires are best for now, but alternate technologies show promise for the future.

Image from City of Charlotte.

The report thoroughly identifies and evaluates each of the alternative power technologies on the market or under development. After discussing each, they conclude:

The market for railcar technology and technology development is in continuous change and improvement. ... Advancements in power distribution technologies are being made by virtually all major railcar builders, with some having developed technologies to the point of having systems in revenue operation, while others are only in early stages of development.

Generally the technology that is the furthest along in development, by the most manufacturers is the battery / capacitor. ... Embedded "third rail" system appear to be significantly far along in development however they are more capital intensive, have higher operation and maintenance costs and require more substantial safety certification. Additional concerns exist regarding the proprietary nature of the technology and the potential to become dependent on a single supplier.

Overall, the implementation of a technology to replace an overhead contact system in whole or in part will represent an increase in the cost of construction and operation of a streetcar system, albeit some technologies have promise to be nearly cost neutral; and may someday even prove more cost effective. ...

[I]t is recommended that the City further investigate the use of battery and/or capacitor type propulsion for any new streetcar vehicle procurements. ... [Th]e City should continue with the conventional OCS design, while monitoring the progress of the development of battery and capacitor systems for application in future phases. It is noted that the battery / capacitor systems can subsequently be utilized for limited distance application to address low clearance
obstructions, areas of high visual significance and capturing regenerative energy resulting in operation savings.

With the battery and capacitor type of system, portions of the line could utilize OCS while others do not. Initial segments of the system may be better candidates to use conventional OCS technology, while subsequent extensions may be better suited to implement wireless zones.


Trains and the election

For the liberals on this blog, check out this train-related election humor several people forwarded me.

Kdoug on Daily Kos.

However, I must point out that this isn't actually fair to Palin, nor was I in my snark last week. As commenter Mike Silverstein pointed out, Alaska relies heavily on trains. And tipster Daniel Goldstein forwarded me this statement by Palin extolling the importance of Alaska's railroads.

Meanwhile, in other elections, Matt Yglesias notices that Democratic Senate candidate Kay Hagan—who, in recent weeks, has jumped from way down in the polls to quite competitive—is a strong supporter of transit. From her energy plan:

To lower the amount of carbon emissions in transportation, Kay supports increasing fuel efficiency standards and increasing investments in public transportation. ... Since investments in public transportation have many indirect benefits on the economy, Kay also supports investments to increase public transportation systems.

Every $10 million in transit capital investments creates 314 jobs and $30 million in sales for businesses, while $10 million invested in transit operations creates more than 750 jobs in the short term, and $32 million in increased sales for businesses. Every $10 million invested saves more than $15 million in transportation costs to highway and transit users.

Hagan now leads by about 4-5 points in the polls.
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