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Web www.startsandfits.com
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Activism Mini-Roundup
There is a lot of activism going on around town these days. Two upcoming events are noted on some of Starts & Fits' favorite websites:

  • Forward-looking Brooklynites are putting together a forum on Thursday that will focus on ways to reduce and calm traffic in transit-rich neighborhoods. I'm looking forward to attending that event, and perhaps drawing attention to the bollard. Expect real-time, gavel-to-gavel coverage right here OR a post about the meeting a day later.

  • PeakGuy, over at our local chapter of the Oil Drum, is putting together a meet-up group for people interested in helping on his huge recent efforts to promote cycling amenities and greenmarkets on the Upper East Side as remedies for foreign oil dependency. PeakGuy has been on a roll lately, and one expects more good things to come.

    - Traffic and Transportation in Brownstone Brooklyn [Naparstek]
    - Local Action for a Sustainable NYC [The Oil Drum: NYC]
    - Posted at 11:45 PM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

    Wednesday, February 22, 2006
    Where There's Smoke, There's …
    I went up to Central Park West on Monday to complete a long-delayed project to photograph every building on that avenue for my friend Bob's website. I got out of the subway at 70th Street and Central Park West and crossed over to the park side of the avenue. It was a beautiful day with a brilliant late morning sun hitting the faces of the distinguished buildings along the park. Perfect for the project.

    Before I had a chance to take out my camera, I glanced downtown and thought that there was a track fire in the subway underneath the street! There was a huge plume of smoke in the near distance. Backlit by the sun, it looked like the result of an enormous smoky blaze underneath the street. The lights changed and as I stood there, I watched a bus get nearer, and as it passed me, I saw the the cause of the smoke was actually the bus's tail pipe. All the other people enjoying a stroll on the sidewalk and I were engulfed in a choking, filthy cloud of smoke. I avoided inhaling for a good minute and a half but the playful children around me probably didn't do that. I wished that I had had my camera out to show you how prominent that bus smoke looked from that first vantage point.

    The cloud eventually dissipated and I photographed three buildings for the project. Then I got on the subway and took it up to 81st Street. Then the exact same thing happened! Just as I was getting out of the second station, the very same bus was pulling past, haunting me wherever I went. This time, I had my camera, and caught a couple of pictures of the bus as it idled in traffic on West 81st Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.

    We're looking at a bus owned and/or operated by SKYHAWK TOURS of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The bus's New York State license plate was 11043•BA. When I caught up to it at 81st Street, there weren't even any passengers on board. The bus was just driving around for no clear reason.

    How are buses like this deemed street legal?
    - Posted at 9:26 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |  

    Sunday, February 19, 2006
    It Doesn't Add Up

    Here is an ad posted in the window of Independence Community Bank at Gold Street and Maiden Lane in Downtown Manhattan. There are at least three interpretations to this ad, which is the product of a debt-ridden, automobile-dependent culture.

    First, on its face, this ad seems to be conveying a simple message: Use your credit card to buy gas and you can buy something fun and recreational … like a bike! Since you obviously have to buy gas anyway, you might as well get a consumer product out of it.

    The second interpretation is the ironic one. It seems that the bank wants you to think that by combining the two things that are causing our country great problems — overuse of credit card debt and a bottomless appetite for fossil fuels — you will somehow magically obtain the thing that could have helped you avoid the ills of the other two.

    Thirdly, and most ominously, is the cynical reading of the ad: If you use the first two too much, you'll be stuck with the third as your only form of affordable transportation.

    If the bank was aiming to convey only the first meaning, this ad would be better suited to a suburban location. Why would they post it at a corner where at least 90 percent of the people who see it will be on foot? Here in New York, where bicycling is actually a legitimate form of daily transportation (or even a livelihood), a good percentage of the people walking past will have no use for a gas pump.

    I was first alerted to this ad by Futurebird, a middle school math teacher, who had some thoughts of her own.
    This ad bothers me because they have misused the mathematical symbols. The text implies they are using the plus and equals signs as sequential causal symbols. The arrow used in a logical implication would make more sense. Or why not use some of the symbols from chemistry? I guess even adults think of equations as having a strict order, but in theory this means that bike = gas + debt, but that would make no sense in this context.

    Properly used, the equals sign is a balance. It means having gas and debit are the same thing as having a bike. The sides are interchangeable — they have the same utility (travel). In a way this is true, but the analogy breaks down when you consider the externalities and monetary costs of driving.
    For me, this ad reinforces the message I already believed: No need to go into debt over gas if you commute by bike.

    - America's Total Debt Report - Update 2005: $40 Trillion - and Soaring [Financial Sense]
    - Bush says U.S. Addicted to Oil [Reuters]
    - Credit-card delinquencies hit record: Pain at the pump is a major factor, according to the American Bankers Association. [CNNMoney]
    - Posted at 9:03 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |  

    Friday, February 17, 2006
    Progress, Yes, But With a Twinge of Nostalgia

    Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and a number of city officials broke ground on a three-building complex to rise on Urban Renewal Site 5B. This site takes up three quarters of the block bounded by West, Greenwich, Warren and Murray Streets, three blocks north of the World Trade Center site.

    This huge site, vacant save for two vast parking lots that often didn't even have any cars in them, has stood mostly empty since at least 1962. So it's great to see this new infill building going up, and it is a sure sign that the city is in great health economically. The new buildings, pictured above, will sit atop a two-story retail base, and will contain hundreds of apartments, including 77 for low- and middle-income tenants that were financed by my employer, the New York City Housing Development Corporation. Big stores and apartments will redensify a neighborhood and, as the Mayor's press release puts it, close a chapter on a big Urban Renewal zone.

    It's great to see this type of project rise, but there is a little piece of history that had to make way for these new buildings: A cobblestone-paved, cul-de-sac block of Washington Street, a little-used remnant of a once-great Lower West Side thoroughfare. I'm a bit wistful about its demise. As Kevin Walsh notes over at Forgotten NY:
    Washington Street used to stretch continuously from Battery Place all the way to West 14th Street. It now exists only in fits and starts as far north as Hubert Street, the north side of Independence Plaza, where it begins now.
    Now, even a little less of it exists. Lined on both sides by parking lots, as seen below, that old street was little more than a parking lot itself, with cars frequently parked perpendicular across both of its sidewalks.

    Given that a street is being decomissioned, I guess it is not surprising that this was an Urban Renewal site. When I think about all the old Lower East Side streets that were decomissioned during the period of high Modernism in the 1950s and '60s, I of course think about how bad most of the results were. The fine-grained, pedestrian-friendly network of streets was demolished to make way for superblocks surrounded by Interstate-width asphalt strips that encouraged drivers to speed and deadened the pedestrian's experience. Thankfully, the superblock-happy urban planning era ended in the years after Jane Jacob wrote about the benefits of having smaller blocks:
    Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent. … Long blocks also thwart the principle that is city mixtures of use are to be more than fictions on maps, they must result in different people, bent on different purposes, appearing at different times, but using the same streets. [Emphasis in original.]
    Given the benefit, I'd say that this time, it's probably worthwhile to decommission this little cul-de-sac. What's taking its place isn't a banal tower-in-the-parking-lot project emulating suburbia, but towers over retail, which is a big difference. But still, I get a little twinge of sadness and nervousness every time I see a situation like this one:

    Finally, for the sake of recording what was there, it's worth turning once again to Forgotten NY, which has a wonderful and highly detailed page that visually records lower TriBeCa at a time when it was a "bombed-out landscape." Head over to that page to see full-size versions of these two photos, which show the newly vanished block of Washington Street.
    - The lamps of Pre-beca [Forgotten NY]
    - Mayor Bloomberg Breaks Ground for Major Residential and Retail Development in Lower Manhattan: $560 Million Development Will Create More Than 1,865 Jobs, Support Neighborhood Park and Community Facilities [nyc.gov]
    - New York City Housing Development Corp.
    - Urban Renewal [Wikipedia]
    - Posted at 12:37 AM | Permalink | Comments: 0 | Post a Comment |  

    Tuesday, February 14, 2006
    Urban Density as an Environmentalist Mantra
    The central idea that motivates this blog is that increased density and human activity in cities is the best way to promote a good environment and a more engaged and interconnected society. This density takes the form, not of a lot of buildings, but of intense human activity, whether it is apartments, offices, stores, schools, tourist attractions, or anything else. Every so often it is worth returning to that theme directly, when various tangents get in the way. I have just finished reading a thoroughly enjoyable book about New York City as viewed through the lense of urban planning, "Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan," by Phillip Lopate (Random House, 2004). A joyous ode to walking and a thoughtful reflection on what makes the city a worthwhile place to live, the book explores the past, present and future of Manhattan's shoreline, from the Battery to Inwood Hill Park. I hope to write a full book review, but for the time being, I want to quote a passage, from pp. 403-403, that captures the feelings I had that led me to start this website.
    Most urbanists have an environmentalist side; it's part of the liberal package, and if you love your city enough, you don't want to see it destroyed or degraded by pollution. Many environmentalists, however, are not similarly predisposed toward the urban; their idea of heaven is not New York City but the wilderness. Now, it would seem to me that the hope of the world is for urbanists and environmentalists to join hands, realizing that their common enemy is suburban sprawl, which removes thousands of natural acres every week, and which drains the fiscal and civic energies of big cities. Given that the most energy-conserving environment in America is probably a Manhattan street, a truly progressive environmental activist might lobby for greater density in cities, as well as against office parks or shopping malls in the hinterlands.
    Hear hear! Well said, Mr. Lopate. Other writers have noted this seeming disjuncture between the environmentalist movement and the environment-preserving nature of cities. The most memorable, in my mind, is David Owen, who wrote an article entitled "Green Manhattan" that appeared in The New Yorker on October 18, 2004:
    Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility.
    I could go on, but this is just a simple blog post, not a manifesto on the ills of our current development patterns and priorities.
    - Posted at 11:56 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

    Wednesday, February 08, 2006

    You can't get very far off road in New York City — about a foot and a half or so. But Hummer drivers still like to try. It's baffling that G.M. is still trying to sell these ridiculously oversized cars while gasoline costs $2.50 a gallon. (People are probably buying them because of the tax benefit for doing so. Societies always get more of what they subsidize.) But partly because they're still focused on SUVs, GM is failing as an automaker. I suspect that one day in the not too distant future, the Hummer will be nothing but a pollution-spewing, road-hogging, pedestrian-intimidating memory. Aaron Naparstek has a great analysis of the Hummer's recent superbowl ad blitz. But before you go check it out, here's a look at GM's stock price for the past two years. It looks like you can buy that stock at a discount, but the analysts still say "sell!"

    - They Can't Be Serious [S&F]
    - Hummer H2: Tax Benefits [Wikipedia]
    - Winner: Most Sociopathic Superbowl Vehicle Ad [Naparstek.com]
    - GM Shares Drop on Deutsche Bank Ruling [Yahoo! News]
    - Posted at 11:30 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |  

    Sunday, February 05, 2006
    Quiz: Charging for On-Street Parking
    Adam Millard-Ball, a planner and parking expert with Nelson\Nyggard, a consulting company from San Francisco, is giving a lecture on Monday night entitled: "Can NYC Solve Its Parking Problem?" It is at the Center for Architecture, 536 La Guardia Place, from 6 to 8 p.m. All who are interested in innovative pricing mechanisms to increase parking space availability should come to this lecture.

    To get people thinking about the concepts he's going to be discussing, he sent out a mini-quiz, as follows:

    1) Define the term "parking demand". Provide a definition from the point of view of a typical economist, and the point of view of a typical American traffic engineer. Why are these definitions radically different from each other?

    2) Define the terms "parking cost" and "parking price". Are these terms interchangeable? Why or why not?

    3) According to the zoning ordinances of many American cities, what is the purpose of minimum parking requirements? Have they achieved this purpose?

    4) According to several transportation experts, cities can eliminate minimum parking requirements in transit-oriented developments and downtowns, but only if the area is very well served by transit. How much transit service does an area need before minimum parking requirements can be entirely eliminated?

    5) What is the right price for parking at a transit station? How would you go about determining the appropriate price? What are the key factors to be considered when setting a parking prices for a transit-oriented development? Sample problem: A transit-oriented development is proposed for the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. Parking at most BART stations used to be free, is now one dollar per day at many stations, and was recently raised to five dollars per day at the West Oakland station. Explain how you would determine a schedule of recommended parking rates for the MacArthur BART transit-oriented development, and do a quick estimate of the likely price.

    6) According to many transportation planners, economic development specialists and private sector developers, transit-oriented developments require major public subsidies. For example, Deborah Castles, vice president of development of Oakland-based Aegis Equity Partners, is currently working on the proposed development at the MacArthur BART Station. In a recent San Francisco Business Times story on the development, Castles is quoted as saying, "When you look at other transit villages, they are dependent on enormous public subsidies. Ours will need some, but what will make MacArthur work is for-sale market-rate housing." Do transit-oriented developments require public subsidies, and if so, why?
    - Posted at 10:03 PM | Permalink | Comments: 2 | Post a Comment |  

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