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Posts about Inauguration


The American Dream can be an urban dream, too

The classic image of the "American Dream" is, for many, a house with a big yard, 2 cars, and so on. Is that image still relevant, even as many people choose to live in walkable urban neighborhoods? Sarah Lewis argues that it's the ideals, not the trappings, that matter and remain strong.

Photo by Robert Gourley on Flickr.

During Inauguration Day, I found myself (an immigrant, a naturalized citizen) feeling reflective and full of national pride, regardless of what the President's next term may actually focus on, and regardless of partisan politics.

Has the "American Dream" really changed? Are Life, Liberty, and Happiness no longer noble pursuits? I say that the American Dream has simply gone from a set of ideals to an outdated consumer shopping list. I believe the ideals remain the same.

James Truslow Adams, in his book The Epic of America, which was written in 1931, stated that the American dream is

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
Notice "everyone" and "opportunity"—incredibly important words. According to Merriam-Webster, an opportunity is a favorable juncture of circumstances. So in its most basic form the American dream is a time or set of circumstances that makes it possible for all people to do something that gives them a good chance for advancement or progress. Possibilities, options, and choices for all.

This is where we, the urbanists, excel—economic possibilities, community options, and environmental choices. We are open-minded, fair, and adaptable. "We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework."

Economic possibilities

While it is often difficult for urbanists who are inclined to focus on the built environment to think about economics, given what we have all experienced professionally and personally in fiscal arenas over the past few years, this is changing. We have developer clients that cannot obtain loans due to the banking crisis and jurisdictions that have reduced funding due to local, state, and federal deficits. We need to concentrate is on creative thinking and problem solving more than ever—making available resources go further and be used more wisely.

We have had some real economic-based successes such as the Live/Work/Walk: Removing Obstacles to Investment initiative. In September 2012, the Federal Housing Administration revised rules that limited the cap of commercial space in mixed-use condo buildings to an updated 35% commercial use, with possible waivers up to 50%. While this is great for our walkable urban places, it does not yet address a jobs/housing balance that is required for full livability.

It is easy for us to encourage start-up entrepreneurs, telecommuting, and self-employment possibilities presented through digital technology. These occur in places and forms with which we are already familiar. Similarly, the physical manifestation of new forms of commerce (namely shopping) is taking shape in smaller footprint stores and increased online ordering with delivery. However, some of the reports say that this country is seeing a return to manufacturing and that alternative power is going to be a major employment sector in the coming years. What does this mean for our work to give equal employment opportunity across the transect?

Community options

Christopher B. Leinberger, in DC: The WalkUP Wake-Up Call, says "there is such pent-up demand for walkable urban development—as demonstrated by rental and sales price premiums per-square-foot and capitalization rates—that it could take a generation of new construction to satisfy." Combine these statistics with the population changes being brought about by the two largest generations in history—the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, more than 150 million people to dictating the housing market.

Both of these generations, for very different reasons, have similar housing needs. Yet "affordable housing" may as well be a four-letter word in many locations. It is often misinterpreted as strictly "projects" or subsidized apartment complexes instead of communities with options for elderly couples on a fixed income or recent college graduates in their first job can live.

Real affordability is a key factor—I'm sure even the infamous 1% are concerned with affordability as a concept or they likely wouldn't have reached that financial bracket! Today we hear terms such as "social equity" and "environmental justice," but is the underlying concept really any different than civic responsibility or citizenship?

We focus on transit-oriented development and smart growth in our conversations and work but infill construction only represents one-fifth of new housing construction according to the EPA's Office of Sustainable Communities Smart Growth Program. Greenfield construction is still over 50% of new homes in most of the country. This means that motor car ownership is still a requirement rather than an option making new housing inaccessible to a large segment of our population. How can we encourage more of our fellow citizens to realize that a suburban house does not represent the only dream?

Environmental choices

Transit-oriented development—it is unfortunate that it still exists as terminology or jargon rather than being standard practice for development throughout the nation. Compact, connected, and complete is the most environmentally sustainable form of development. We know that it is common sense. The closer all aspects of daily living are located to each other, the less energy used, the fewer emissions discharged, and the reduced damage to the climate.

The original allure of cars as part of the American Dream was freedom of movement. Do we truly have a freedom if it is not available to the many? Access to safe mobility should be a constant. We know our development patterns have hindered our choices but we all stood on our own two feet and walked when we were very very small and our parents and grandparents celebrated. Remember how excited we were when we got our first bicycles and were taught to ride? It's not trendy or old-fashioned, it's simply mobility.

At the same time automobiles have changed from Packard to Prius or Lincoln to Leaf so why isn't alternative fuel-powered transit becoming more even commonplace? While compressed natural gas buses are seen in cities fairly frequently, hydrogen fuel cells only emit water and even solar panels can provide power-assist. Invention is part of the American spirit but have we considered how our urban places might change to accommodate these fuel sources and technologies?

In short

Leinberger hits the nail on the head when he says, "...the creation of economically successful WalkUPs [walkable urban places] with high social equity is a huge challenge, possible the largest domestic challenge U.S. society currently faces. This research shows that economic success tends to lead to lower social equity performance. Many citizens would like to see high economic and social equity performance. This is the dual goal that urbanism must embrace."

It's the same dream, the concept endures, but it's not the one-size-fits-all that it had been interpreted to be. It's the option of numerous locally-owned shops versus a Walmart. Now is the time for us to be even more focused on our principles and remember that they, just as the ideals that founded this country, still apply—it's only the physical manifestation that has to constantly adapt.


Pedicabs gear up for inauguration weekend

Even with this weekend's inauguration festivities projecting to draw significantly smaller crowds than in 2009, the influx of tourists, along with road closures and unseasonal weather, has the local pedicab community gearing up for what will likely be its busiest weekend of the year.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The prospects of a crowd of 700,000 to 800,000 people projects to draw approximately 200 pedicabs to the National Mall and downtown areas to work the inaugural events—a nearly 100% increase over 2009, when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty declared pedicabs to be the "official vehicle" of the presidential inauguration.

"With the heavy influx of folks coming in, and all kinds of activities going on, it's a great opportunity for the pedicab business," says Ron Graham, owner of ShowPeds, LLC, a local pedicab company. "It's such a rare opportunity to have this type of crowd. I would imagine every pedicabber around will be out working."

As is typical of large Washington events, finding ways to provide efficient transportation of the large crowds this weekend poses daunting challenges. The closure of several metro stations, along with restricted vehicle access on the streets surrounding the National Mall and downtown, means that residents and visitors alike may experience more than a few transit headaches.

Pedicabs, however, which operate essentially as a large tricycle with a seat in the rear to carry passengers, are well calibrated to provide for the short to mid-range transportation services that will either be hard to find or difficult to manage on inauguration weekend.

"Transportation for visitors after they get off the metro will be the tricky part," says Alex Lesiak, a veteran pedicab operator who worked the 2008 Inauguration. "South of K Street, pedestrians will have three options for getting around: walk, ride a bike, or take a pedicab."

Indeed, the three-wheeled machines are uniquely positioned to assist families with children, persons with disabilities, tourists unwilling to navigate the Washington grid, and people who are simply exhausted from a long day of walking.

However, given the negative recent publicity surrounding an incident in which a New York City pedicab operator allegedly charged a family an exorbitant amount for a short ride, the pedicab community in Washington sees this weekend as a chance to boost its local profile and its reputation as an ethical industry.

"It's all about protecting the industry's integrity. We don't just see ourselves as giving Point A to Point B rides, we see ourselves as cultural ambassadors to the city," says Lesiak. "Good operators will provide the client with a full service experience at a fair price."

The industry has grown exponentially within the District since first being introduced more than five years ago, with pedicabs becoming increasingly more common around the National Mall, Nationals Stadium, and neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle and U Street. The city now boasts five licensed pedicab companies and more than 100 pedicabs available to operators and riders.


The worst mainstream local articles of 2009

Yesterday, I highlighted reporters from the mainstream media who did a particularly good job of educating the public on urban issues in 2009.

Photo by Mark Beck.

Most of the time, the mainstream press either provides good coverage of local issues, or fills the rest of the space with fairly bland stuff that repeats press releases or each other's articles.

But every so often there is a real doozy of an article. A reporter or editor starts with some wrongheaded, ignorant, or even prejudicial idea, then runs way too far with it and fits every quote into a preconceived slant.

Here are 10 articles that rose to the top of the trash heap:

  1. To Be or Not to Be Fairfax County? by Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner, The Washington Post, July 5 (article, GGW commentary). Cliche after cliche exalts the tennis clubs of Burke while casting walkable places like Merrifield as creepy and "blighted." It's an ode to sprawl that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual issue, whether Fairfax County should incorporate as a city to better control its roads and taxes.
  2. Virginians See Bridge Closings As Dose of Northern Hospitality by Eric Weiss, The Washington Post, January 9 (article). The Secret Service closing bridges to traffic for the Inauguration was like the Civil War all over again, or at least so says AAA's Lon Anderson in a colorful quote Weiss is happy to turn into an inflammatory article. Weiss doesn't bother to note that the bridges would remain open to pedestrians and cyclists or the projections that large numbers of people would walk and bike to the Mall.
  3. Ride At Your Own Risk by Mark Segraves and Adam Tuss, WTOP, October 20 (article, GGW commentary). Segraves and Tuss do some good investigative reporting to get years of Metrobus customer complaint data, then fit it into a preconceived slant about how bad buses are, when in fact complaints have declined in recent years. They also stake out a corner to catch a bus rolling through a stop sign while ignoring all the trucks that do it while they're waiting.
  1. Free parking spots could sprout meters by Lisa Rein and Yamiche Alcindor, The Washington Post, October 20 (article, GGW commentary). Rein calls a remote apartment tower with lots of free parking "every renter's dream," exposing bias right off the bat. Then she says how Arlington's proposed parking rule changes would force all that parking to stop being free. But that's totally false, and the Post had to print a correction to the fundamental premise of the article.
  2. Tysons will need $15 billion -- 'with a B' by Lisa Rein, The Washington Post, October 30 (article, GGW commentary). Rein sees a PowerPoint with $15 billion worth of projects over 40 years and writes about how unbelievably expensive Tysons will be. Too bad that list includes projects that will happen regardless, projects developers would pay for, and even projects not really related to Tysons. The headline writer makes it even worse with a really stupid headline. The article prompts a very long rebuttal from Fairfax Chairman Sharon Bulova.
  3. The media frenzy over the Fenty bicycle rides, by various reporters, November 9-10. WTOP's Mark Segraves kicks it off by following Fenty's bicycle ride in a van, noticing some possible misuse of police resources. That's a reasonable story, but WTOP's headline focuses on the ride "clog[ging] traffic" which doesn't appear to be true, and subsequent press stories pile on with an anti-bike slant that misses the real story. Mike DeBonis notes that Bill Myers had the same story in the Examiner the year before; potentially inappropriate police utilization just wasn't sensational enough, but bicyclists forcing cars to change lanes was.
  4. That Street Sweeper May Soon Give You a Ticket by Tom Tim Craig, The Washington Post, May 22 (article, GGW commentary). A Bethesda resident is annoyed that she gets tickets when she parks illegally. AAA's John Townsend says DC is "trying to make the District a car-free zone." Craig doesn't bother to find anyone who appreciates getting illegally parked cars out of rush hour travel lanes.
  5. Picking Your Pocket series by Adam Tuss, WTOP, April 20-23 (articles 1, 2, 3, 4, GGW commentary). Every enforcement of a law is "picking your pocket," public safety benefits be damned, from speed cameras to street sweeping.
  6. Vote to Forgo I-66 Expansion Imperils Federal Funds, Increases Ire by Eric Weiss, The Washington Post, February 20 (article, GGW commentary). Continuing his gift for using war metaphors in transportation debates, Weiss says that a COG vote to delay I-66 widening "inflamed tensions" between inner and outer jurisdictions, but Weiss seems to be the one most irate overall.
  7. New transportation fines, fees leave many feeling pinched by Alan Suderman, Washington Examiner, November 29 (article). Yet another one-sided piece about a few residents annoyed when caught breaking the law, with quotes from AAA about how unfair it is. At least it's a tiny bit less one-sided than some of the others.
Why so much picking on the Post? It's simple: They reach a lot of people, and a bad article in the Post can do a lot more damage than a bad article elsewhere. Being the big kid on the block means you get the cheers and the jeers; the Post had three of the top four slots in yesterday's top ten as well. The Post does a great job of watchdogging Metro, but doesn't apply a similar level of scrutiny or investigative resources to MDOT and VDOT.

You'll notice that yesterday I praised reporters as individuals, but highlighted articles rather than people today. That's because excepting major investigative reports, most of the important news is not really big news, but everyday comprehension of small developments. But the really bad articles stand out like giant sore thumbs.

Also, just because a reporter writes something really bad doesn't make them a terrible reporter or a bad person. Maybe their editor assigned it that way, and the headline writer oversensationalized it. Even if not, anyone can have an off day. While writing a piece on this list disqualified a reporter from making our list of the best, these folks could well make that list for 2010.


Lunch links: We're back

Our hosting provider experienced some problems with our server this morning. Sorry for depriving you of your regular dose of exciting livable and walkable communities news.

Cartoon by Tom Toles. Click for a larger version to read the text.

Darkness at the end of the tunnel: Tom Toles looks again at the irony of cutting Metro amid record ridership. Dr. Gridlock's readers debate budget cuts and float conspiracy theories that Metro's already cut service. Via Unsuck DC Metro.

Crowdsourcing in commuting: A Falls Church resident started MyCasualCarpool to help people create their own informal park-and-ride lots; Avego is trying to to create a market to fill empty seats in private cars on the daily commute.

Low parking enforcement? Deputize your citizens: Salt Lake City allows trained citizens to write parking tickets. The Salt Lake Tribune describes how a member of the "Mobile Neighborhood Watch" is allowed to take a photo and write a ticket for violations. The photo and ticket are sent to the local police for processing. By Michael Perkins.

Two wheels good, four wheels baaaaad? Bicycling to the Inauguration from Bethesda might have been the quickest way, though not the least sweaty; a rendering of a Wheaton apartment complex shows a Humvee driving around.

Huge parking garages worse: NYC's Mayor Bloomberg, who gets it on congestion pricing and complete streets but not at all on land use, wants to build a huge parking garage for the Bronx Botanic Garden. Streetsblog suggests making the pedestrian access and bus drop-off areas more inviting instead.

Not just strip malls anymore: The Triangle worries about City Vista's new corporate owners, who say they want to attract local retail like Busboys and Poets but otherwise only run "unambitious" strip malls in the suburbs.


Dinner links: cheap, plentiful parking spaces are like clean coal

I got a new way to park: WebUrbanist finds "15 Creative, Innovative & Hilarious Parking Solutions", from the giant VW factory cavern to falling into quicksand. Via Planetizen.

Photo via WebUrbanist.

Just say no: Bloomingdale's ANC will consider a curb cut request on First Street, for a row house without alley access. All of the houses in the row have regular stoops; a front garage will seriously defile the house. Yet another reason for some level of historic preservation? Or will the new "no curb cuts" policy nip this one in the bud? Update: the curb cut will connect to the back, not the front, to add only two private spaces while removing one shared public one.

A performance park? A letter writer asks, how about paying for the Mall's needed improvements by charging for parking on Mall roads? (tip: Michael); NPS wants a National Mall iPhone app; Arlington's CommuterPageBlog agrees with GGW on the message we should take away from the inauguration.

And: Another Georgetown corner store might go residential; NYC ponders cab sharing (which DC abolished with meters (tip: Bryan); Prince George's closes inside-the-Beltway schools while building new ones in sprawling greenfield areas.

This page is a mermaid: Bloomingdale, For Now notices clever ads on the Washington Post's "page not found" error pages. It's part of the same ad campaign as the mermaid, alien, and sasquatch posters in the Metro Center station.


Over four times the people and no traffic

On a typical weekday, 400,000 commuters enter downtown DC. On Tuesday, 1.8 million people did. Yet there's heavy traffic every rush hour in and out of DC, just to move a small fraction of the people we moved on Tuesday.

Photo by Joe Calhoun on Flickr.

The difference? On Tuesday, people didn't come in private vehicles, with just one person in a car. They came in public and private buses, Metro trains, commuter rail, carpooled, walked and bicycled. With almost all bridges closed to traffic, we actually accommodated four and a half times the typical traffic. On the typical weekday, 40% of commuters—160,000 people—drive alone.

Even AAA admits (in a way) that commuters in single-passenger cars are holding us back. A Washington Times article yesterday pointed out that roads returned to gridlock Wednesday. "There were few traffic problems Tuesday because there was one element eliminated—vehicles," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. Those are the vehicles whose exclusion another AAA spokesman stridently criticized last week.

If our region is to grow, we need to help more people reach their jobs. One approach is to add traffic lanes and parking garages at enormous cost, both financial and in lost urban vitality. The other solution is to move people as we did on Tuesday. More people rode the trains. Each vehicle coming into the downtown core carried far more people. Over 2,000 people used WABA's bike valet. And many more people started their days within walking distance of downtown. Those houseguests raised our population density enormously, enriching our neighborhood businesses besides.

WAMU played an editorial this morning from Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The inauguration showed us how we can grow our economy without growing traffic," she said. Yet our federal and local policies keep moving us in the wrong direction.

Many of [the 160,000 daily auto] commuters could be coaxed onto trains, buses and even bicycles if we make smooth, convenient, and safe trips a priority. But we don't. Instead, we are cutting transit service while letting bicycle improvements languish.

In the afterglow of accomplishment, Metro is cutting 900 positions to cope with a looming budget deficit. Public officials acknowledge the importance of transit, but our region's governments continue to find billions of local and federal dollars to expand or build new highways. Maryland is starting construction of the nearly $3 billion Intercounty Connector highway, shortchanging other state priorities. Virginia is bent on widening the Beltway from 8 to 12 lanes. At the federal level, public transit spending is being cut back in the stimulus bill while three times as much money is funneled to roads.

Our priorities are stuck in the 1950s. As President Obama ushers in a season of change, we must focus on what will work for our economy, environment, and communities in the 21st Century. Expanded Metro capacity, better walking and bicycling conditions, and rapid bus corridors should be immediate priorities for improving transportation choices and supporting an economic recovery for our region.

Listen to Cheryl's editorial on RealAudio or Windows Media.

Bloomberg's architecture critic says we need a better approach. "The six rail tracks that tunnel into New York's Penn Station haul as many people as 45 freeway lanes. ... Road projects do little more than rearrange the traffic jams, like the 23-lane extravaganza touted for Atlanta's suburbs."

What if our city saw even a third of Tuesday's activity every day, but with none of the security barricades? Imagine how many more fares Metro would collect, and how much more frequent bus and subway service we could support. Imagine how many more neighborhood hardware stores and restaurants our communities could support, and how much safer our streets would be with more eyes.

If we could get 1.8 million people in and out of downtown DC without any traffic, we can get 500, 600, or 700,000 people in and out every day smoothly with better transit, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. All that's holding us back is our elected leadership and our ability to envision a better region.

Public Spaces

This hall isn't your hall

Union Station, built as a grand gateway to Washington DC, is today more of a beautiful big hall with a bland train station stuck on the back. A mall operator runs the station with an eye more toward shopping than transit. And inauguration planners saw it first as a great place for a ball, with its transportation role an afterthought. That's why Union Station was possibly the inauguration's greatest fiasco.

Photo by selected pixels on Flickr.

A Huffington Post article analyzes the debacle. Reporter Matthew Harwood quotes a Greater Greater Friend's parents who were stuck outside the station for hours, missing their VRE train home, while the Secret Service closed the station and food court hours before the Eastern States Ball.

Why would the Secret Service, the lead agency securing the Inauguration, allow an inaugural ball in one of the District's most critical transportation hubs during an day anticipated to bring record crowds flooding into the District? ...

In the end, average rail travelers using Union Station got the same treatment they always do when their interests cross those of our nation's elite: They were told to be patient and calm and to wait in line.

"And for what," asked the New York businessman, "so someone could have champagne tonight?"

If you were lucky enough to get into the Eastern States Inaugural Ball, according to the Boston Herald, you could see a few Kennedys, Congressman Barney Frank, and the Senator John Kerry's brother and sister, before the Obamas made their entrance.

Enthusiasts and critics of Obama are right: maybe this is the new Camelot.

Union Station is our city's grand entrance hall. It's not a private ballroom for Congressional leaders that we use with their forbearance until they kick us out when they need the room.

Eleanor Holmes Norton has been a great advocate for Union Station. She should take a close look at how the decision was made to take away our space for this ball. The station's policies should allow rentals only when the public isn't likely to need the space. As for future inaugurations, they can pick someplace else.

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