Monday, February 19, 2018

What Should We Do With the Humble Dumpster?


1600 block of Moravian.

I've been thinking we should worry about making an alley neat and clean as a first step, and then we can dream about making it pretty. But the folks at Alma de Cuba seem to have had a different idea, and I confess they may be on to something.

Let's have some fun! We'll paint our back facade yellow, the same as the front on Walnut Street.

It's possible I've been spending too much time in these alleys, but I really like this presentation. All they did was slap on some yellow paint, but the pigment pulls the whole motley assemblage together and makes a coherent, and even attractive, statement.

Don't get me wrong. We're still looking at a mess. But it's an attractive mess. It's talking to me, pulling me in.

But let's look again. What's pulling me in? The yellow on the wall is carrying the whole picture. The street furniture is just along for the ride.

On the left you have a mildly abused dumpster, a two-yarder, and on the right you have a grease container. (It turns out there's a bunch of money in used cooking oil - see this story in the New Yorker - hence the sturdy construction.)

What could we do to get these two objects to step up and say a few lines, visually - you know, actually participate in the performance? Well, maybe we should decorate them.

Okay, you say, Bill has finally gone round the bend. He's talking about decorating a dumpster. Forget it, Bill. It's a dumpster.

But wait. Philadelphia, in its wisdom, and with some help from the Mural Arts Program, decorates trash trucks. Here's one strutting its stuff at the 2016 Philly Free Streets event.

South Street at Broad.

In addition, Mural Arts decorates the occasional Indego bike. The Barnes Foundation has also been working with the Indego bike share program, and frankly I'm not sure whose bicycle we're looking at here, but I like it. Note that the decorated bike is an accent point in a sea of blue.

1900 block of Walnut.

Trash cans? Sure, why not. Mural Arts again, mainly around South Street, east of Broad.

South Street at 7th.

And here's one of a bunch of utility boxes decorated mostly by University of the Arts students, again mainly east of Broad. I frankly have no idea what goes on in these boxes, but this one sure looks nicer than the usual drab hexahedron so beloved in the world of utilities. Even fits in with its surroundings. (For a story from UArts, click here. For a PlanPhilly story, click here.)

Lombard Street at 10th.

So let's do the same thing with all the two-yard dumpsters rambling around the byways of the city. They should be a part of the performance.

Taming the Wild West
City Council has over the years made a number of moves to improve management of the city's dumpsters. In 1989, according to the Streets Department website, City Council passed an ordinance requiring the licensing of dumpsters and regulating their use.

Then in 2016 Councilman Squilla got an ordinance passed that bans new dumpsters in Center City. (For a story, click here. For the legislative history, click here.)

This is fine as far as it goes, but of course it doesn't do anything about the dumpsters currently lining Moravian Street. The obvious thing is to get them off the street. I have a feeling that's going to take a while.

Camouflage
If you don't feel like decorating your dumpsters, and you're disinclined for now to take them inside, here's another option - hide them in plain sight. There are a number of ways to do this.

First, let's look at a minimalist approach. The screen below separates a bunch of dumpsters from the area to the left, which is used for outdoor seating by the neighboring restaurant during good weather. It's surprisingly effective for such a minimal intervention. Call it the bikini approach to coverage.

Moravian at 18th.

Next we have what I will call a corral. I can't call it a shed because it doesn't have a roof. Also it's corraling the dumpsters against the wall, keeping them from bumbling around in the middle of the street as they are wont to do. Kind of like cattle in Dodge City, in the old days.

Stock Exchange Place at 18th.

Finally we have an actual shed. This one almost disappears, it's so quiet. And yet it's in a good location and functions well. An organic part of a thoughtful design.

Lombard at 18th.

See also Alleys, City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress StreetThis Isn't Just Any Alley.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Outflanking City Council

Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.

Jane Jacobs had a lot of interesting ideas. Here's one of them.

"Thus, although in many cities councilmen are apt to be local 'mayors', this is unusual in New York, where city councilmen's constituencies (about 300,000 people) are too big for the purpose; instead, local 'mayors' are more frequently state assemblymen who, purely because of the circumstance that they have the smallest scale of constituencies in the city (about 115,000 people) are typically called upon to deal with the city government. Good state assemblymen in New York City deal much more with the city government on behalf of the citizens than they do with the state; they are sometimes vital in this way as city officials, although this is entirely aside from their theoretical responsibilities. It is an outcome of district political make-do."

This is from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961, p. 423 fn.

I started thinking about what such an arrangement might mean in Philadelphia today. Currently City Council is pretty much impervious to the pleas of constituents that it does not want to hear. Councilmanic prerogative - the ability of a district Council member to stop pretty much anything in his or her district - essentially gives the possessor of a district a position that is unassailable by frontal attack. Here in the city of brotherly love, the Quakerly influence means that such an attack would not generally entail brickbats or rotten tomatoes, but rather attempts to change the council member's mind - appeals to reason, appeals to emotion.

This means that proponents of change on a variety of issues - including my two favorites, parking and bicycling - are basically dead in our tracks. Our representatives are sitting on the parapets of their castles, looking down at us and laughing.

It would be nice to think that we could turn them out at the next election, and in a number of cases that may be possible in 2019, but many of the most problematic are in safe seats. Indeed, the Council seat in West Philadelphia looks like it has become a hereditary office. Perhaps we should start calling it the Duchy of West Philadelphia.

Jacobs, however, seems to be showing us another way - a flanking attack.

If state legislators started weighing in on neighborhood issues, what would that do? I don't think Councilmanic prerogative would evaporate overnight, but it might embolden our mayor to say, "Look, buddy, I know you're absolutely opposed to bike lanes, even though you claim to be in favor of them, but I have an Assemblyman who says he is speaking for the constituents you refuse to represent, and he says go ahead with the lanes. So I'm going ahead."

A dream, perhaps. But here's another way a state legislator could help. I got this idea from my brother. We were talking about Jacobs and her idea of the assemblyman mayor, and he mentioned that the City Club of New York had allied itself with a state senator on an interesting project. (John does a fair amount of volunteer work for the City Club.)

A long time ago, a new baseball team needed a new ballpark, and so the Mets got Shea Stadium. This took an act of the state legislature because Shea Stadium is built on city park land, and, without putting too fine a point on it, park land is supposed to be for parks.

Along with the stadium there came various ancillary uses, including parking lots.

A few years ago, the forces of Mammon decided to build a shopping mall on one of the lots. Quite a few people thought that the state legislation only authorized a stadium and related facilities, and using the law to build a shopping mall was a bit of a stretch. The City Club and a number of other groups decided to sue, and State Senator Tony Avella, who represents quite a bit of this part of Queens, agreed to be the lead plaintiff, or petitioner.

The case was called Avella v. City of New York. In June 2017 the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the petitioners. (For a story in the New York Times, click here. For a story in the New York Law Journal, click here.)

I'm thinking of the recent lawsuit in Philadelphia, which sought to end parking in the Broad Street median. The suit was dismissed. I wonder whether the case would have gone further if the lead plaintiff had been an elected official.

I'm also thinking of a number of other places around the city where a similar approach might work. Currently uppermost in my mind: Washington Avenue.

Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.

See also At Least It Makes People Laugh, My Life in Fairmount Park, Vision Zero in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Small Streets Are Like Diamonds

It Depends on How You Look at Them

1500 block of Moravian.

Temple alumni may be familiar with the Acres of Diamonds story, which the university's founder and first president, Russell Conwell, included in a speech that he delivered 6,152 times, by his own reckoning. (In the days before the Internet, you got the word out by traveling around and giving speeches.)

The story concerns a farmer in the middle east (Conwell was well-traveled). One day the farmer was giving his camel a drink at a small brook that ran through the farm, and he noticed an unusual black stone that reflected light in interesting ways. He picked the stone up and took it home and put it on his mantel and forgot about it. A while later a visitor noticed the rock on the mantel, looked at it closely, and announced it was a diamond.

The basic moral of the story is that you should look for riches close to home, and not be put off if the opportunity comes dressed in rags.

Enter Philadelphia's alleys, one of the city's greatest and most neglected resources. Some of them sparkle today, but others are diamonds in the rough, needing a bit of polishing.

2000 block of Panama. Acres of diamonds.

3 Key Functions
People will immediately object that the sparkling alleys tend to be residential, and the grimy ones are usually service alleys, where people stow cars and stash trash. What, these people will ask, is the point of trying to put Cinderella into a party dress?

In both residential and commercial areas, our alleys perform important functions, but often they don't perform them well. When this happens, the culprits are normally our old friends neglect and mismanagement.

Templates exist for better handling of trash and car parking. What seems to be lacking is any political will to address these issues. (For more on ways to improve trash management, click here. For a brief primer on improving our approach to parking, click here.)

There is a third issue where alleys could do a lot more. They are simply not pulling their weight when it comes to deliveries. Our larger streets suffer a lot of congestion from delivery trucks that stop and unload in traffic lanes. If we used our alleys better, they could significantly reduce the stress on our high-traffic streets. (For more on delivery management, click here.)

2000 block of Addison. The garage is going away.

Another Use - Walking
But let's face it. The people who like ugly cities are going to come back and say, well these alleys can perform all three of these functions without being neat and tidy. And we're a poor city, so really what's the problem with a coating of oily muck, strewn remnants of dinner from an expensive restaurant, perhaps a dead rat the size of a small dog, squished by something he didn't see coming.

Well, here's my answer. We're going to need the space. Perhaps we don't need it today, but we will need it very soon. As the population in Center City increases, and the number of people walking increases, our current supply of pleasant sidewalks is going to be swamped.

I don't see us widening the sidewalks on Walnut Street anytime soon, so maybe it's time to look at Moravian, the little alley between Sansom and Walnut. Why, for instance, is the 1700 block of Moravian such a no man's land? It's directly between two of the premier shopping blocks in Center City.

1700 block of Delancey. This wall no longer looks like this.

Form: Human Scale
And why do I think people will be willing to walk down these streets? Many people tend to avoid them today. After all, some are quite disgusting, and most of the others have very little traffic, so folks may not feel particularly safe.

But these streets are intrinsically attractive to humans because they are of a human scale. In a good one - say the 1800 block of Addison - people feel at home in a way that they will never feel at home in a traffic sewer like Market Street. It's their size.

Add people - the residents of 1800 Addison are frequently sitting on their stoops, watching their children play, and that attracts others who are simply passing through and don't mind walking on a street that has almost no cars and actually feels a lot like an outdoor room - and all of a sudden you have a street that is alive.

2200 block of Rittenhouse Square Street.

Nostalgia for Wide Streets
I detect, in various quarters, a certain nostalgia for the good old days - say the 1950's - when Interstates were new and perfectly good neighborhoods were destroyed to make room for ever-wider streets and ever-wider lanes on those streets to accommodate ever more and ever bigger cars. I hear it from transportation engineers who probably know better, and from politicians who probably don't.

Let's set aside the obvious failures like Roosevelt Boulevard and its carnival of death, and look instead at Philadelphia's nicest big street, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which runs from City Hall out to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Along the way, in the middle, is Logan Square. It's breathtaking at night. Go into the center, by the fountain, and look down to City Hall and up to the Art Museum, and around the square at the Free Library, the Barnes, the Franklin Institute. A bit of a challenge to get out into the middle of the square, by the fountain, but worth it. This is a beautiful street. All it lacks are people.

Well, most of the time. Occasionally, the people take the street over from the many, many cars, and instead of a carnival of death we have a festival of life. I've run several Philadelphia marathons, and the stretch down the Ben Franklin Parkway at the start never failed to thrill me as I and a few thousand fellow runners elbowed our way along toward City Hall.

The Parkway really comes into its own when the people own the space. Most of the time, though, this street has about as many pedestrians as North Dakota.

Sydenham just south of Walnut.

Maybe Streets Are for People
It comes back to this: If you want lively street life, build your streets for people. Everything should align to that goal. Then you will be headed toward a city of the future - not one mired in the mud of the past.

1900 block of Panama. A little alley between two houses.

See also Alleys, My New Favorite Alley, This Isn't Just Any Alley, A Tale of Three Alleys, Putting Some Park into Old Parking Lots, City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress StreetUnblocking the Bus Lane on Chestnut.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Unblocking the Bus Lane on Chestnut

1500 block of Ionic. I would not want to make a delivery on this block.
Once upon a time there was a bus lane, but it wasn't really a bus lane. At least nobody treated it like one. Cars drove in it. Delivery trucks stopped in it. The only thing that the buses didn't have to contend with very much were the bicyclists. That's because most of them were too terrified to ride on the street, even though the lane was explicitly for buses and bikes.

This stub of Ionic is perhaps 100 feet from the Union League.
The delivery trucks in particular created some truly gnarly snarls, and the buses were slowed in the completion of their daily rounds. The little old people, possibly headed to a political demonstration at Senator Toomey's office, didn't care as long as they had a seat. They would just sit and chat with themselves and other passengers, and occasionally even divert the time-bound from consultation with their wristwatches.

It was Chestnut Street in old Philadelphia, in the time of Trump, and the problems may now seem quaint, but at the time there were people who actually cared about traffic jams, and tried to do something about them.

And these people made a wonderful discovery. There were almost always solutions. You just needed to look carefully. And then getting the solutions adopted was a whole other story.

One researcher decided to take a close look at a particularly problematic stretch of Chestnut Street, running from Broad Street west to 19th. And he found something very interesting. The vast majority of buildings had rear access, and didn't need to have delivery trucks stop in the bus lane on Chestnut and make deliveries through their front doors. 

The rear access was through little alleys named Ranstead, and Ionic, and Stock Exchange Place. This last name was for a business that had once been located in the area, but had long since moved. Philadelphians, however, are noted for their attachment to the past.

On some blocks the little Ionic Street or Stock Exchange Place did not exist, but on these blocks the buildings tended to be very large and extend south all the way from Chestnut to Sansom, where they would have rear access.

And on the north side of Chestnut, Ranstead would also disappear from time to time, most notably for the Liberty Place complex in the 1600 block. But Liberty Place also came with its own huge underground loading zone off of 16th Street. Neither the shops nor the offices of Liberty Place had any need to stop and unload on Chestnut.

The researcher did note a number of buildings that appeared not to have rear access. He wondered a bit about what the fire department would say if there was actually no second means of egress, but he also knew that the number of these buildings was so small that, if they lacked rear access, they could get their deliveries on Chestnut Street without blocking the bus lane. All the City needed to do was take the existing truck loading zones on Chestnut and expand their hours past 10 a.m.

As the researcher put it in his report, "It would be nice, of course, if all the deliveries could take place before 10 a.m., but clearly that is not happening. We need to see people as they are, not as we would have them be. And then we need to design accordingly, remembering that the two top priorities for this street are deliveries and keeping the bus lane free of obstructions."

Since this is a fairy tale, the needed changes were quickly made, and all was well on Chestnut Street. The merchants got their goods, the bus riders rolled merrily across town without obstruction, and most of the shoppers arriving by car parked in a garage.

Morning on Chestnut, a few minutes after ten.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Focus on the Short Trips


Bus stop, Rittenhouse Square.

I'm hearing that the commute from Center City out to King of Prussia is becoming increasingly excruciating, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the drivers trapped in that traffic. I used to commute from Center City to Delaware, and most of the time it wasn't terrible, but when it was bad it could be very bad. I remember one day when my half-hour drive to the office took two and a half hours.

I think there's a growing understanding that the problems of congestion and crashes on the Schuylkill Expressway will not be solved by letting people drive on the shoulder, or building an elevated road on top of the existing one. I even think the search for solutions is now bringing at least some people to the conclusion that we need to rely more heavily on rail transit than we have for the last hundred years or so.

I heartily applaud this evolution in the communal consensus. The work will be hard and long and expensive, but in the end I think it will get us to a better place.

Let me now tell you what I'm really interested in. It's not the commute from Center City to King of Prussia. It's the short trips. I think there are big gains to be made here - quickly and inexpensively.

First some numbers. In the United States, half of all trips are shorter than three miles. For this number I rely on an article from the League of American Bicyclists, who in turn are relying on the National Household Travel Survey. (See National Household Travel Survey - Short Trips Analysis.)

The article notes that 72 percent of trips less than three miles are made by privately owned motor vehicles, as are 60 percent of trips less than a mile. (The poster above highlights the 60 percent figure. It was an ad for the Clean Air Council's 2017 Greenfest Philly.)

Increasing the number of these short trips that are made by walking, bicycling, or transit would, to my mind, tend to decrease the number of cars that are wandering around on our streets. This in turn should relieve traffic congestion and also decrease competition for parking spaces. Maybe even make the air outside your front door a little cleaner.

When I mention the short-trip numbers to people, they often express surprise. I think we tend to focus on the long commutes, neglecting the short commutes and the short intraday excursions for shopping, lunch, and so many other things that just pop up.

And it's true that there are a lot of long commutes, and that's where many of our vehicle miles traveled and much of the gasoline burned are to be found. The Bike League article notes that 37 percent of all trips are five miles or longer. When I was commuting to Delaware, my drive was 21 miles each way, and in America that is not a particularly long commute.

As I said above, I think it's very important to deal with these long trips, but I think a lot of our short-term gains could come from focusing on the short trips. I think the way to encourage people to get out of their cars is pretty straightforward - implement Complete Streets and Vision Zero. Improved sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, protected bike lanes, the usual agenda.

I also think that buses and rail transit will play a very important role, and I think the key issue here is how long you need to wait for the next bus.

For the last few months, a friend and I have been commuting from the Rittenhouse area down to 2nd and Chestnut for something called Tuesdays with Toomey. We take a bus down on Chestnut and back on Walnut. Routes 21, 42, and 9 all go down Chestnut and back up Walnut, and we rarely wait more than five minutes for a bus. It's quite lovely. Now if we just had a little electronic sign at the bus stop, telling us when the next bus is coming - the way they do in Paris.

See also Cars & Bikes: The Back Story, Getting Kids Back on Their Bikes, Transportation Should Not Trump Destination.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Getting Kids Back on Their Bikes



In 2012, Professor Peter G. Furth penned the following words: "It is this writer's opinion that the turning point will be when children begin again riding bikes to school in large numbers. When bicycle infrastructure and children's safety become intertwined, funding for bicycle infrastructure will be secure."

This is in an article he contributed to a book called City Cycling, which was edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler and published by MIT Press. The quote is on page 135.

I think Furth is right, but I also think there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. How do you get large numbers of kids riding to school without a network of protected bike lanes?

With decent bike lanes, you can get a lot of kids on bikes. We know this. The Europeans have been doing it for years, and even in this country there is the occasional bright spot. In Davis, California, 43.4 percent of high-school boys and 30 percent of high-school girls commute to school by bike. (For more on this, see Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?)

But what about a place like Philadelphia, where we do not have a network of protected bike lanes and where the anti-bike forces in and out of government are mounting a very effective campaign of resistance to bicycling.

It's interesting. Even in Philly kids are getting to school by bike. Parents are riding their small kids to school in cargo bikes, tagalongs, and child seats affixed to bicycles. And older kids are riding their own bikes, either accompanied by a parent or by themselves.

I don't have any numbers for this, but all you really have to do is use your eyes. The numbers are not huge, but despite the utter inadequacy of our cycling infrastructure, children are riding bikes to school.

We'll never see numbers like Davis without a significant upgrade to the built environment, and I think that means we may never cross Professor Furth's threshold.

So we'll plateau, the same way we have in adult bicycling in this town. And people on bikes will get hurt unnecessarily. And some of them will be children.

There's a way out of this impasse. Build the protected bike lanes. They're not terribly expensive.

Message to City Hall. The bicyclists are not going away. Make a space for them on our streets. Life will get better for everybody.


For an overview of the decline in walking and biking to school in the United States, click here.

For a story on how parents in Philadelphia are teaching their children to ride bikes, click here.

See also Intraday Biking, Is It a Curve or Is It a Turn? and Running of the Bulls on Lombard Street.

Monday, November 6, 2017

City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress Street


2017.

If the Center City Residents' Association were to give out a prize for most improved street, I would nominate the 2400 block of Cypress for the 2017 award. Last year I wrote a story about this block and the neighboring blocks of Delancey and Panama. The other two are in great shape; I think they're among the nicest blocks in Philadelphia. The trick is they're being treated as small streets while poor Cypress is being treated as a service alley. Which it is. This is the land of the garage doors.

But people do live here, and many of them would like Cypress to look nicer. So a group of neighbors on the south side decided to go for color, painting their respectably white facades a variety of very nice colors. Also adding a few shutters. And a potted plant or two.

2106. Note the houses on the left, before they were painted.

All of a sudden the street has come alive.


There are further opportunities for improvement.

Let's take the north side of the street first. It's a respectable row of garage doors (see the shot from 2016 above). The problem is that the doors aren't tall enough to provide a sense of enclosure, and the street space dribbles out over the parking pads and back yards, bleeds over the back facades of the buildings to the north and basically evaporates into the sky. Not what you want in a cozy little urban street.

I don't think we need to put false-front second floors on these garage doors, but we need to do something to arrest the eye. Perhaps the suggestion of a screen - you could string LED lights above the doors. That might work.

Or maybe you just need to fill the space with some trees. Here's what things look like on the 2100 block of Cypress. You'll notice the rear facades of the buildings almost vanish in the presence of these trees.

Trees take a while, of course. A good reason to get started soon.

2100 Cypress.

I don't have any other ideas, but I expect an architect could come up with a few. Maybe a class at an architecture school would like to take this block on as a project.

Finally, a tough nut - the street itself. The City should repave the street and restore the sidewalks, not because I think people will walk on them but because the sidewalks will provide visual definition to the street. If a city street and its flanking buildings are an outdoor room, the floor is a critical organizing element. (See Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor.)

I understand that this is a low-traffic street, and I also know that the City currently lacks the money, the equipment, and the trained workforce to mount an adequate repaving program for our streets. However, efforts are under way to change that situation.

And if some daylight does open up, I think this block should be on people's minds. It is certainly one of our more ramshackle streets, and it is right next to the Schuylkill River Park, which has seen large amounts of public and private investment in recent years.

This area is a gem, and the 2400 block of Cypress may be the only remaining flaw.

The residents of this street can paint, and string LED lights, and plant trees, but they can't repave the street. Only the City can do that.

Here's another thing that only the City can do (at least legally) - tow away this derelict car at the corner of 25th and Cypress. A resident of the street asked me to mention it. The car has apparently been there for months. Recently it sprouted a ticket from our friends at the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The ticket is dated October 16. There have been many contacts with various City departments, but so far no tow truck. I'd say the thing is inoperable and abandoned, but of course that is just my layman's opinion.


Let's not end this story on that note. It's too much of a downer.

Let's have a look at what's behind one of those garage doors on the north side.


As I said, people live here. They're doing what is within their power to do. The City, in my opinion, should do its bit.

(See also Alleys, A Tale of Three Alleys, This Isn't Just Any Alley.)