Archive | May, 2014

Did the great crime decline cause modern urbanism?

One of my big and untested (but unrebutted) hunches about the urbanism revolution, the drop in vehicle-miles traveled per person and so forth, is that it all flows from the rapid and mostly unexplained decline in crime rates that began in 1994.

As cities became safer, the first to notice were the young, poor, mobile and liberal. It seemed strange to our parents — but then, our parents’ bizarre fears of the central city seemed strange to us.

Just as, I’m sure, the rise of those fears (also known as the 1960s) seemed strange and unfair to my vaguely Germanic grandparents.

I’ve been watching the sixth season of Mad Men, the one that happens in 1968. Scenes on the main character’s once-quiet Manhattan balcony are being interrupted by screaming sirens; the middle-class couple who buy into the Upper West Side find themselves besieged by crooks. It was a rapid change in atmosphere that’s backed up by the statistics:

50 years later, local crime trends have reversed, perceptions of local crime have followed, and so have the tides of urbanism. As Mayor Hales put it in a speech last month, the flight to the suburbs was a round trip. The Don Drapers of the world are again buying Pearl District lofts, the Peggy Olsens are again renting two-bedrooms on Division or Thurman, and they’re both biking in to Wieden on Monday morning.

Was the crime decline that’s driving it all caused by pollution from leaded gasoline? Abortion rates? Data-driven policing? It’s not at all clear, though those seem to be the current favorites.

Whatever the cause, Americans do seem to be more or less aware that crime has gotten better, as long as you’re asking us about crime in our own personal lives. If you ask whether crime is a problem in the United States in general, most people, fed on Nancy Grace and Fox 12, will tell you it’s bad and getting worse. But when it comes to our own trains, parks and streets, we tend to be in closer touch with reality.

On the other hand — and if my hunch is wrong, I actually think this is why it is — there’s a chance the causality flows the other way. Maybe cities aren’t getting safer, and therefore more desirable and expensive, because urban crime has slowed. Maybe urban crime has slowed because poor criminals were, as early as 1994, being joined in the central city by gentrifiers and, ultimately, priced out of central cities — driven into neighborhoods where even a decent crook has to own a car to make a living.

Whatever the reason, I’ll be watching the various theories closely as they develop. Here’s why: what fortune giveth unto urbanism, fortune is just as likely to take away.

As someone who’s staked a lot on the continued desirability of living in the central parts of U.S. cities, I’m worried about the final two data points on this chart. And if I were you, you’d be worried too.

A Portland Plan Take on the Twenties Bikeway

There’s a great deal of controversy around the question of whether or not parking removal on NE/SE 28th Ave should be part of the solution for the 20s bikeway. At the moment PBOT is leaning toward not removing parking, which means no dedicated bikeway in this section of the project (roughly between Oregon and Stark Streets). The main bikeway would be on the much-lower-auto-traffic 30th Ave., complemented by sharrows and speed bumps on 28th.

There are two separate questions here:

1) How do we move people riding bikes through this corridor in a safe and comfortable way?

2) How do we provide access to people on bikes to the business district on 28th?

I would add that both those questions should be considered for the “interested but concerned” demographic, not just more confident riders. Generally I think the belief would be that sharing a lane with cars on 28th will not appeal to the “interested but concerned” folks.

To the first question, while out-of-direction travel is always something we’d prefer to avoid, I don’t think detouring to 30th is going to be considered a huge problem for through traffic (I realize not everyone will agree).

The question I think is interesting – and critical – is how we provide good access to our neighborhood business districts to people using bikes. And I’d like to look at what the Portland Plan – the strategic plan for our city – has to say about that.

I think the message is actually pretty clear. This is from the Vibrant Neighborhood Centers section of the Healthy Connected City strategy:

Policy H-18: Link neighborhood centers to each other, employment areas, the Central City and the broader region through a multi-modal transit system. Prioritize safe and attractive frequent transit service, bikeways and accessible pedestrian connections, including sidewalks.

Action 107: Transit and active transportation: Identify barriers to pedestrian and bicycle access to and within neighborhood centers, develop priorities for investment, and implement policy changes and funding to ensure hubs have safe and convenient pedestrian and bicycle connections.

Now I would hasten to insert that 28th Ave is not a designated neighborhood center, although I suspect that before the Comp Plan is done, it will be somewhere on a hierarchy of smaller centers. But I think the spirit of the Portland Plan is clear – districts like 28th Ave should have good multi-modal access, including by bike. And I think any definition of good bicycle access must include the interested but concerned.

So my view is that against this Portland Plan yardstick, PBOT’s current proposal for 28th is not adequate, as it leaves 28th Ave businesses inaccessible to a large portion of the potential number of folks who could bike.

Can a facility that will appeal to the interested but concerned be created by taking out parking on one side of 28th? That’s going to be hotly debated!

But if the answer is no, or if the politics fail us, how could we meet the Portland Plan objectives? I’d suggest that at a minimum PBOT should have a plan for access from 30th to the businesses on 28th. Maybe this could look like designated (and improved) east-west bike streets every few blocks connecting 28th and 30th, perhaps with bike corrals at the 28th Ave end of the connections?

In fact, if we’re prioritizing access, the bikeway should probably be on 29th, not 30th, at least from Oregon to Couch or Burnside (unfortunately, 29th is not continuous south of Burnside).

I’d be interested in other ideas to provide indirect access.

Regardless of the bikeway design, PBOT must be held accountable to provide the access that the Portland Plan envisions. This tweet from Jonathan Maus sums it up nicely:

So far none of our vibrant little n’hood commercial districts has pleasant cycling access that appeals to 8-80 and all rider levels.

That is not the future that the Portland Plan paints!

Western Conference Semifinals Open Thread

The Portland Trail Blazers have won a playoff series for the first time since the Clinton Administration, so it’s time for another open thread.  (Plus, the calender says its May…)

  • A draft revision of the Oregon Rail Plan is now available for public review.  This plan covers all varieties of freight rail, Amtrak and inter-city passenger rail (Amtrak, commuter rail, HSR).  It doesn’t cover light rail, streetcars, or other non-FRA urban transit, however.
  • The long-delayed, way over budget, Pioneer Mountain/Eddyville project on Highway 20 between Newport and Corvallis, is set to resume.
  • Speaking of project management disasters, the latest on Seattle’s Deep Bore Tunnel project.
  • Oregon’s primary election is Tuesday, May 20; registered voters should now have received ballots in the mail.
  • TriMet is going full bore with its Service Enhancement Plans, and is seeking input now for four regions (Southwest, Southeast, Eastside, and North/Central).  The Westside region (mainly Beaverton and Hillsboro) is mostly complete.
  • C-TRAN looking at a fare increase.  (Even with the proposed increase, C-TRAN fares will be cheaper than TriMet).