Sunday, May 14, 2017

Road Diet by Love Park - a Natural Experiment

16th Street, by Love Park.

Do you remember, way back in the design phase for Philadelphia's new Love Park, suggestions were made to expand the park's footprint to the west by eliminating the mandatory right-turn lane on 16th Street, which did not appear to be justified by existing traffic volumes? And we were told that all the existing lanes were necessary and removal of any lanes would cause the sky to fall? Or words to that effect.

Well, here's an interesting natural experiment: During construction, the right-turn lane has been closed and replaced by a pedestrian walkway. (The parking lane has been closed too, but the proposal was always to eliminate the traffic lane, not the parking lane.)

And, lo and behold, the sky has not fallen.

The same thing is going on to the south and east of the park, on 15th Street and JFK Boulevard.

15th Street.

JFK Boulevard.

Arch Street, north of the park, is unaffected.

I do need to comment a bit more about parking. There is an 810-space garage under Love Park. And there's plenty more parking just to the north. Let's look at the area between Broad and 17th - that's three blocks - and run up from Arch to the Vine Street Expressway - also three blocks. In those nine blocks there are additional off-street facilities with a combined capacity of more than 2,500.

Continued on-street parking in the immediate vicinity of Love Park doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The total on-street parking capacity is trivial compared to the off-street resources, but these curbside spots take up a lot of space in an area where space is at a premium. After all, Love Park is basically across the street from City Hall. This is a densely developed area.

Some of these on-street spots could be converted to loading zones, but I think the primary use of this real estate should be to make the area safer and friendlier for people who are not in cars. Expanding the footprint of Love Park would be at the top of my list. As currently configured, the park is still surrounded by oceans of asphalt teeming with cars. Crossing the street in this neighborhood can be a heart-stopping experience.

The garage below Love Park remains open during construction.

But some people are above parking in a garage.
See also Love Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th Street? In addition, Love Park Garage: Close the 15th Street Exit and Crossing 15th Street.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Do We Secretly Want Ugly Cities and Dangerous Streets?

Fountain, Three Logan Square.
Roger Starr was a man of many opinions and several careers. Born in Manhattan, educated at Yale, Starr served in the OSS in World War II, then spent quite a few years running the family's barge business, developed an interest in housing, served New York City's Wagner, Lindsay, and Beame administrations in various housing roles, and eventually wound up writing editorials for the New York Times.

I hadn't thought about Starr for years. But then I was reading an old book by Bernard Rudofsky called Streets for People: A Primer for Americans (it was published in 1969), and I was almost at the end (page 340, to be exact), and there Roger was talking about a pedestrian street in Rotterdam called the Lijnbaan.

Starr finds that the Lijnbaan "is attractive, colorful, cheerful; I had looked forward to shopping there, but discovered that for me, something was missing; after a while, I concluded that I missed the tempo of traffic, the variety of shapes and colors of automobiles, trucks, taxicabs, motor cycles; instead of relief of having escaped from them, I found myself thinking that I was not in a city, but at a summer resort, a place in which, for all its charms I would not want to transact serious matters." (P. 340.)

I was sufficiently appalled by this quote that I decided to check the original source, just to be sure there was no mistake. I asked the Free Library to get its copy of The Living End (1966) out of storage - the process only took a couple of days - and when I got the book in hand I went straight to page 194. And there was the quote. No mistake.

(By the way, it appears that the paperback edition of this book travels under the title Urban Choices. The two titles share the subtitle The City and Its Critics.)

An Influential Gadfly
Starr was something of a gadfly in New York City planning circles. An occasional sparring partner for Jane Jacobs, his most famous comment was a 1976 proposal - at a time the city was confronting monumental problems - in which he suggested "planned shrinkage" for troubled areas like the South Bronx.

I see him as basically a defender of the status quo circa 1956. This status quo involved clearcutting of densely populated poor city neighborhoods for new housing and highways, something similar to what was going on in suburban areas, but there most of the population being displaced was cows.

This was a status quo which had only recently evolved, and for which the various downsides were only beginning to emerge. Key drivers were the federal housing acts of 1949 and 1954 and the interstate highway act of 1956.

Of course, if you want to knock a lot of stuff down, it helps to claim that what you're knocking down has no value. Pennsylvania Station in New York had been designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1910. The above-ground portions of the station were demolished starting in October 1963.

So here goes Roger: "Whether or not one admired its style (I did not), it was one of the city's most impressive structures. But what does one do with an impressive railroad station which has ceased to be of value as a railroad station? In a dying city one boards it up, and watches it become ruins; ultimately shepherds sit on its eroded columns and goats graze between the tracks. In a living city one first prostitutes it into a more efficient machine selling commuter and race track tickets, and then into an architectural billboard, hanging signs, kiosks, and booths from its Roman vaults. Finally, the day is reached when someone decides it is worth more as land than as structure, and down it comes to be replaced by an office building or a sports arena, or both." (P. 142.)

Why would you hang a kiosk or a booth from a ceiling? Sorry. Maybe they did. The real issue here is looking at an important public structure simply as a real-estate investment. And I think that's a significant subtext in Roger's story. He's a businessman, after all. And so he thinks, as so many businessmen do, that his method is the only method. And the only real question is, Does it pencil? How much money can we make on this deal?

And so an admittedly very tired structure got pulled down, and with it went not only a grand entrance to the city, but a space that allowed people to feel like people, instead of rats scurrying in a maze, which is what the current station feels like.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your Wharton MBA.

And it is widely accepted that the historical preservation movement began at Penn Station. Paris lost Les Halles in 1971, but by then people had started taking the past seriously; the Gare D'Orsay, slated for demolition in 1970, became instead the Musee d'Orsay, and Grand Central Terminal in New York was protected by a 1965 landmarks law. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of New York's landmark law in 1978. And in general, historic preservation in New York City has been aided by progressive expansion of the concept of air rights transfer.

Wrong side of history, Roger. Also a bit too much in love with your own prose.

Meanwhile, on the Street
As things go with buildings, so things go on the street. Starr just loves the way things are right now (that is 1956). He thinks a monomodal transportation system focused on the private automobile is just dandy (and I think that is probably one of the reasons why he had no interest in preserving a monument to the railroad age).

There are three primary flaws in car culture. They can be ameliorated, but they cannot be fixed. They are congestion, crashes, and air pollution.

Starr is actually pretty good on air pollution: "We do know, of course, that the automobiles may ultimately kill us all, unless a way is found to control the poisonous gases that come from their exhaust pipes." (P. 203.)

As for crashes, and the attendant death and injury, he simply doesn't mention them. It's not like traffic safety wasn't in the news. In 1966, the year The Living End was published, the U.S. Department of Transportation was created, and 50,000 people died in crashes. In 2015 the death toll was 35,000, and people didn't think that was very good.

And here's what he has to say about traffic jams. "I am not primarily troubled about the time wasted by drivers and passengers in private automobiles during rush hours; the decision to use their cars at rush hours, rather than public transit, is their own." (P. 200.)

There's more. He suggests that the car is America's last refuge for the rugged individualist. "The satisfaction is that each man at the wheel is master of his own destiny, captain of his own soul. On an objective scale it may be ridiculous that anyone should be reduced to inflating his amour propre by sitting at the wheel of an automobile wedged into a mass of other stalled machines. At the wheel of each sits another man feeling equally self-determined. But the absurdity makes the feeling no less real; on the contrary, the absurdity merely emphasizes how few are the occasions in modern life when one has the opportunity to exercise that individual control and individual choice which the philosophers of democracy and the sellers of soap agree are the most import attributes of free men." (Pp. 189-190.) (See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama.)

But that's not my favorite quote. Here he is making a rather odd comparison between modern architecture and automobiles: "From a distance, the modern commercial office structural machine, its glass sparkling in the sunlight, provides something of the artistic splendor of a new automobile. Yet the automobile, poised to conquer and control the world, is more magnetic." (P. 155.)

In case you were wondering, yes, Roger Starr is a car groupie.

How Do You Begin to Fight This?
Roger Starr's defense of the status quo is so broad that it puts me in mind of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, who thought that everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds. To which Bernard Rudofsky replies, Well, there are other possible worlds, and it's just possible that they're better.

Rudofsky's Streets for People: A Primer for Americans, is a lovely palette cleanser. It starts with the two ideas that streets should be clean and well made, then takes us on a bracing tour of Italian hills towns, North African souks, Greek islands, Rome for its fountains, Milan for its Galleria, bridges in London and Paris that aren't there anymore. Porticoes, canopies - imagine walking outside and being protected from the rain.

Perhaps this book is not as important as Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) or Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker (1974). But still it's a valuable addition to the bookshelf, and it came at an opportune time, in the late sixties, when people were beginning to be more open to new approaches in many aspects of American life.

Yes, our streets don't have to look the way they do. What is here is neither inevitable nor irremediable. There are options - good options.

Rudofsky's book is obviously very different from Starr's. They do, however, have one thing in common. I read them both pretty carefully, and as far as I can tell, neither one ever uses the word bicycle. I think it's a sign of how far we've come.

Fountains and Pools
Rudofsky is a great fan of the fountains of Rome, and speaks lovingly of the Piazza Navona, regaling us with tales of how, in the days before air conditioning, the whole piazza would be flooded to a depth of several feet, and the gentry would ride around splashily in their carriages to combat the summer heat (p. 296).

He basically accuses Americans of not doing water features, and this may have been a valid criticism of New York City, where he lived after emigrating from Europe. But I wish he had come to Philadelphia, where in certain sections of town I think we do water very well.

There's the Ben Franklin Parkway of course, with the statue of George Washington at Eakins Oval standing in a pool of water; the Swann Memorial Fountain at Logan Circle by Alexander Stirling Calder; and the new water feature in Love Park, which will replace the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Fountain. In the parkway's neighborhood you have the water feature at Dilworth Park, the fountain and the children's water park at Sister Cities Park; reflecting pools at the Rodin Museum and the Barnes Foundation. There are also water features at One Logan and Three Logan Square. Then there are the water features in Rittenhouse Square and Washington Square, the fountain in Fitler Square. Even in South Philly there is the Singing Fountain on the triangle formed by East Passyunk and 11th, just north of Tasker. I'll stop here.

No I won't. There's another triangle further up East Passyunk, where it crosses 6th and also Christian. It's currently vacant; I've heard there are plans to build on it. I can envision, because of the shape of the site, that a creative architect might have fun designing a pizza shop for the space, but I really think it should be a neighborhood fountain.

The Schuylkill Banks
I think the very best of our recently created water features is the Schuylkill Banks. Getting it built was a long process, and, having read Starr, I think I have a better understanding of why. It has to do with what President George H.W. Bush referred to as "the vision thing." It's just possible that important people couldn't wrap their minds around the idea that you actually could build a park in a disused industrial area cut off from the inland by a working railway line. The best they could imagine was replacing an urban wasteland with a traffic sewer, which of course is what happened across the river with the Schuylkill Expressway.

I have to go back to Roger Starr on this: "I can hardly think of a large city whose cargo-handling waterfront is laid out so that its pedestrians can visit it with impunity. If automobile highways do not cut them off, then railways do, carrying freight to and from the piers. If, unfortunately, there are no railways, heavy trucking performs the same office." (P. 187.)

Having a little trouble envisioning a post-industrial city. And yet it got done, here in Philadelphia.

Fifty Years On
It's roughly fifty years since the Starr and Rudofsky books were published. So how are we doing? Cars still dominate the streets, and landmarks still get the wrecking ball. But there is no longer unanimous consent, and the objectors are often quite vocal, if not always effective, and it seems that the constituency for reimagining the streets, at least, is growing.

Some developers are starting to see that you can make good money by reworking old buildings instead of knocking them down. And it appears that the highway lobby is weakening, at least partially because all those people who were lured to the suburbs report that the daily drive into work, and back home again, is easily the least pleasant part of their day.

There are still plenty of developers whose reflex is to create a brickyard and move on from there. And there are still plenty of powerful streets engineers who insist on having a lane or two beyond what current or foreseen traffic requires, "just in case."

But I think the real problem lies not with the lobbyists or the bureaucrats, but with our political leadership. And that leads me to my final question. What do the members of the Philadelphia City Council actually think about the future of cars and moldy old buildings? Are they still mired back in 1956, with Roger Starr, or has their thinking evolved?

I have no idea how to extract candid answers to this question. But I think it's an important question.

And here's the plaza at Three Logan.
See also Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor, Richardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the Ages, This Isn't Just Any Alley.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Intermittently Terrifying

Slate has a nice story about this picture.
I find bicycling in Philadelphia to be intermittently terrifying. I know that our streets are not actually a war zone. I've read the statistics, and I understand that the chance of my dying on a bike is smaller than when I walk to the grocery store.

But it doesn't feel that way. I've had my eye out for some actual data on this topic, and on April 4 help arrived from England.

Peter Walker has a simply nifty new book entitled How Cycling Can Save the World. He's a writer for a very good English newspaper called the Guardian, and he regularly covers biking issues. (He also worked as a bicycle messenger shortly after getting out of college, in both London and Sydney, Australia.) I suspect that this book will become one of the standard texts for people interested in reimagining our public spaces, along with Jeff Speck's Walkable City. It's aimed at the general reader, but it's also crammed with the latest research results.

The Near Miss Project
Those research results include a 2015 British study called The Near Miss Project that neatly fills the gap between crash data and our perceptions of danger.

The study was led by Dr. Rachel Aldred, who teaches at Westminster University, which is located in London. She and her colleagues recruited 1,532 participants from across the UK. The participants kept a diary of their cycling on a preselected day and rated any incidents on a scale of 0-3, starting with annoying and ending up with very scary.

According to the researchers, the data from the Near Miss Project "can represent a missing link between 'perceived risk' (how risky people think cycling is) and 'objective risk' (how risky it actually is, in terms of injuries and/or deaths). This is because they may tell us about 'experienced risk' - how risky cycling feels. Studying experienced risk could help us understand why perceived risk seems much greater than objective risk." (From the report entitled Cycling Near Misses, page 6.)

And indeed experienced risk does deepen our understanding. The researchers calculated that a cyclist was likely to encounter one "very scary" incident every week.

Drivers do thuggish things to bicyclists on a regular basis. And we now have the data to prove it.

So my personal perceptions were not overblown. It really is scary out there. If, once a week, you find yourself inches away from turning into road kill, then I think you have a legitimate beef. (For examples of life on the road in the UK, see this article in the Guardian.)

Control Bias, Familiarity Bias
As the Near Miss researchers suggested above, there is a suspicion that bicyclists have been overreacting. If you look at fatality rates rather than absolute numbers of fatalities, you will probably be less inclined to see overreaction. But I concede that it's a subtle argument. And standard psychology suggests that it's reasonable to at least look for overreaction.

In 2012 John Pucher and Ralph Buehler pulled articles together from 21 scholars on four continents and put them out as a book called City Cycling. There's a very interesting chapter on women and bicycling.

I was quite taken with how normal psychological processes may increase the perception of danger. "In particular," the authors note, "familiarity bias and control bias may reduce the perceived risks associated with car travel and increase the perceived risks for cycling." People tend to like things that are familiar and over which they feel a sense of control.

When you're riding a bike in traffic with cars, you are not in control. Of course a network of protected bike lanes would increase bicyclists' sense of control and decrease the perception of danger.

The familiarity argument is, to me, less straightforward. The basic idea is that if you do something more often, you become more familiar with it, and with familiarity comes a rising comfort level.

I think Dr. Aldred's data can lead us to a different view - one where regular exposure to very scary incidents can lead to a major increase in the fear factor.

Once again, however, a network of protected bike lanes would significantly decrease the ability of motorists to create "very scary" incidents with bicyclists, and bicyclists would tend to become more comfortable as they used the lanes more.

(See Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill, "Women and Cycling," in John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, MIT Press, 2012, pp. 211-234, at 225.)

Choosing Our Future
As I've said before, I personally think that a network of protected bike lanes could quintuple the number of people bicycling in Philadelphia.

But do we, as a city, really want to do that? I'm not at all sure.

Such an increase in bicycling would change the city dramatically - and I would argue that the changes would be good. But others, I fear, are clinging to the failed dream of the car. Detached house, a car or two in the driveway, picket fence. But no traffic jams, no deadly crashes, no smog. They're not part of the dream. Of course they are part of our reality today.

If you're still clinging to the dream of the car, you need to make the connection between your car's tailpipe and the asthma inhaler in your child's pocket. You need to stop dreaming, or at least recognize the nightmarish aspects of your dream.

And I think that's going to be a stretch for a number of people, some of them quite powerful.

See also A Sense of Perspective, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Vision Zero in PhiladelphiaWe Should Not Overestimate the Driving Skills of the Typical Philadelphia Motorist, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Citizens of the Planet

University of Pennsylvania, 1984.
Long before the current wave of globalization, there was something called the British Empire. Britannia ruled the waves and also quite a lot of the land - from Australia to India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) and something called Mesopotamia (the Brits called it Messpot; we call it Iraq), through huge swaths of Africa and on to Canada in the western hemisphere (next to the thirteen colonies that got away).

Inside this rather capacious grab-bag of an empire, people got used to moving around. And it wasn't just upper-class Englishmen who had this global mobility. Mohandas Gandhi, born and raised in western India, studied law at the Inner Temple in London and worked as a lawyer in South Africa for 21 years before he went home and became known the world over as Mahatma.

Fast-forward to Groundhog Day 2017, Dilworth Park, Philadelphia. There I was, standing with a couple of thousand mostly young people, mostly Comcast tech employees. And they were from all over the planet. They were a cheerful bunch, actually, but they weren't very happy about the first Muslim ban, which had hit a few days before. And I said to myself, I think Donald has just organized a whole new political constituency, and it's not on his side.

It wasn't just the recent arrivals who blew me away. There was a young man who said he was Irish-American; his family had come here generations ago, and his grandfather had fought in Normandy in World War II, to protect our freedoms. And he suggested that it was now time for all of us here today to fight to protect those same freedoms.

Closing the country down is an interesting proposition when just about everybody in the country came from somewhere else.

The people I was standing with weren't the typical immigrants that Americans are used to. The classic view of migration is the movement of poor people to a new area of greater opportunity - the huddled masses and wretched refuse trope, as encapsulated in the Emma Lazarus inscription at the Statue of Liberty. The people I was standing with are well educated, affluent, connected, and not accustomed to being treated like dirt.

This is what Steve Bannon ran into at the nation's airports when he started treating people with valid papers like dirt. And he didn't know it was coming. Shame on him for being ignorant. It seems he's like his boss in that regard.

But let's get back to what I occasionally call the globally mobile business class. I admire them, but I'm not like them. The biggest move I ever made was from New York City to Philadelphia. The idea of moving to another country is, I confess, something I have never considered seriously.

The globally mobile are just that - globally mobile. Migration for them is not a one-way trip to a fixed destination. An Indian computer programmer may go to the United States to work. She may wind up settling permanently in the United States. Or she may return to India, where her experience could make her a good candidate for a management job and increasing levels of responsibility. Or she might decide to relocate to Hong Kong. Or, during the course of her career, she may do all three.

Their mental map spans the globe. Mine, frankly, does not.

My father was actually better at this moving-around stuff than I am. He was born in southern Alabama before World War I and moved to New York City to go to medical school. And there he stayed, put down roots, and had a family, including, in due course, me.

Dad wasn't exactly globally mobile. But he did go home quite often. Sometimes all of us would go. Sometimes he would go by himself. He maintained those connections.

Here's a word of advice to Donald and his aspiring thugs. If you want to be a popular president, don't tell a young man he can't go visit his mother.

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
I'm reliably informed that the Greek inscription on the 1878 Ivy Day stone above may be translated as "Not to live, but to live well." Thanks to Ashley Opalka and Emily Marston.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

$50 for 31 Minutes? Surreal Parking on Schuylkill Avenue

I stumbled onto the opening day of the new CHOP building next to the South Street bridge - March 20 - and then I hadn't been back until today. Progress, of a sort, had been made. There's an open-air parking lot on Schuylkill Avenue that is apparently open to the public. The first 30 minutes are free. Then 30 minutes to 24 hours cost $50.


Who are these people?

Stop, Bill. Just report.

Here's a picture of the main building. I rather like it.

And here's the entrance to the garage that opens onto the South Street bridge.

It was open on March 20, but when I went by today, April 2, it was closed.

Not sure what's up with that. Here's what I think is the Schuylkill Avenue entrance.

If it's open, I think you get to it by going through the same entrance that gets you to the open-air lot.

Just to round out the story, here's some of the retail up on the bridge.

Here are the switch-back ramps on CHOP's version of the Spanish Steps. I think it will look nice when it's done. Have no idea how people will use it.

And here's the bridge across the railroad tracks to the Schuylkill Banks.

Here's a shot of the interior of the bridge.

And here's a view of the Schuylkill Banks extension under construction.

And that's what I have so far.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Legacy Street Signs

Have a look at this street sign at Waverly and 19th. I know. It's seen better days. But still it gives me the thought that we lost something when we handed the signage over to the car guys.

The big green signs we see everywhere come from the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or MUTCD. I think I have a problem with MUTCD, or at least with the way it's applied in Philadelphia.

I don't mean to be unkind, really. The green signs are supposed to be visible, and dear God they are that. And I gather they're reasonably inexpensive.

But they're also an invasive species. In much of Philadelphia, they have nothing to do with their surroundings. Don't get me wrong. I think these signs do great out on the Interstates, which is their native habitat. But in the older parts of Philly, let's just say they aren't great respecters of context.

Up in New York City, in the historical districts, they at least make the street name signs a pleasant rust brown, which goes well with all the brownstone buildings they have up there.

My thought for Philly is that maybe we don't need so many of these big green signs.

An option
There are other ways of doing street signs. There's that slender little pole on Waverly, with its equally non-aggressive sign. Philly still does street signs like this. Here's one just off of Rittenhouse Square.

The skinny signs have the merit of not getting in the way of the view, the way the big ones do. This is nice when you're admiring architecture, and it's also nice when you're looking for a restaurant.

I still think I would prefer rust brown to the green.

And it's also true that the skinny little street signs are not going to solve all our problems. Here we are at Waverly and 17th.

The utility wires are a definite buzz kill. You'll notice they're buried up around Rittenhouse Square. But I digress. There are a fair number of these skinny signs in the Rittenhouse area, but in my opinion there could be more.

A Second Idea
Here's a second idea. Say you've had the thought that a lot of sidewalks seem overly cluttered with street furniture - traffic signs, parking signs, parking meters, utility poles and wires, fire hydrants. Hold on. Let's keep the fire hydrants. And the bus shelters. But it does seem true that stuff keeps getting added, and hardly anything seems to go away.

Well, you could put the sign with the street name on a nearby building. Here's a nice one on Ringgold Place, which replaces Waverly at 19th. The building you're looking at was built around 1862. Note the period after the word place.

Below is a much less ambitious sign. It says S. 19th St. This is at Waverly, quite close to the pole sign at the beginning of this story. I really like the blue with the white lettering. Gets the point across without being annoying. Works well with red brick.

And here is some rather elegant signage at 17th and Addison. An old Bell Telephone building.

Here we are at the Curtis Institute, back up on Rittenhouse Square.

People are still doing this. Below is a corner of the new Schwartz-Siegel building at The Philadelphia School, Naudain and 25th.

My thought is, if there's existing signage, maybe we don't need to put up the green signs.

Think about it. The motorists who turn down these streets generally know where they're going, and frankly these are very low traffic streets. I often enjoy walking up the middle of them for blocks at a time, without encountering a single moving car.

So maybe we should treat them as the byways that they are - and should be. More discreet signage, on a more human scale and more respectful of context, would still be able to to guide pedestrians and confused motorists, who as an added benefit would probably have to slow down to read these signs.

Think for a minute about the visitor from Kansas or New Jersey as he's tromping up 18th Street somewhat in excess of the speed limit, late for a meeting and looking for Pine Street. Better to discourage him from turning on Addison or Waverly by not marking these streets as if they were part of the Interstate Highway System.

And then our streets could be just a little bit more about art, and finesse, and a little bit less about the roar of 18-wheelers.

Imagine. A hierarchy of signs for a hierarchy of streets.

Just a thought.

See also Alleys, A Tale of Three Alleys, My New Favorite Alley, This Isn't Just Any Alley.

Monday, March 6, 2017

I Just Love My Little Blue Rain Barrel!

The new arrival in my back yard.
There was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there were two nice young men and my new rain barrel. They also had a bag with some tools and a few accessory parts. Fifteen minutes later the installation crew was done with its work; we smiled and shook hands, and they left.

And I had a 55-gallon plastic rain barrel hooked up to the downspout that drains my roof. Free rain barrel, free installation. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

So what do you do with the water in the rain barrel? Well, you can use it to water your flowers. Probably not a good idea to drink it - hard to know how many birds have been pooping on your roof.

The main thing, however, is you're helping the planet. Yes, who knew. The PHS is into green stuff.

If you've noticed that we seem to be getting more intense rain storms in Philadelphia, and that there's more local flooding - where the storm drains back up into the street and create pretty little lakes at intersections - well, you're not crazy.

And one of the answers is the rain barrel. Every 55 gallons in a rain barrel is 55 gallons that aren't gushing up through the storm grate down at the corner. By the way. I call it a little blue rain barrel, and it is. But it's not a toy. When it's full it weighs about as much as a sumo wrestler. Don't ask me how I learned this.

The rain barrels are part of a larger program for stormwater management that emphasizes what is called green infrastructure, as opposed to gray infrastructure. Gray infrastructure means building new sewers and holding tanks and stuff, and pouring huge gobs of concrete. Using concrete to deal with all the rain that's on the way would cost a couple of bazillion dollars. Green infrastructure costs a lot less. Green infrastructure means blue rain barrels.

All set to get your free rain barrel? Well, hold up. You've got to get yourself educated first. Go to the website and sign up for one of their information sessions. Don't worry. You'll actually learn stuff. I know I did. And at the end you can fill out some papers and schedule your installation.

Two more things. First, the information sessions also have a road show. If you're in a community group that would like the Horticulture Society to visit you with a Powerpoint presentation and a bunch of sign-up sheets, contact Rosemary Howard, assistant program manager:, 215-988-8767.

Also, the program does a bunch of stuff beyond rain barrels like rain gardens and permeable pavers. These will cost you money, but the prices are very attractive.

They only come in blue, but you're free to decorate. 2000 block of Moravian.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Life on the Farm

Grandma Moses Country, 1978.
I must have been about nine or ten years old when this happened. I was standing with my grandfather, who was chatting with one of his farmer friends. Grandpa asked his friend about another friend, and the farmer replied something like, "I think he went on the county." Nobody said anything for a brief moment, and then the conversation resumed on another topic.

I believe that was my first exposure to the concept of welfare. I didn't know what it was, but children are sponges for subtext as well as text, and I knew that being "on the county" was shameful.

Another day my grandfather and I were standing by the dirt road that ran in front of our house. He was talking with a man who had stopped his truck for a chat. It turned out that our new arrival was selling homemade applejack out of the back of his truck. I couldn't figure out whether my grandfather knew this guy or not. At one point he just said, "I like it, but it doesn't like me." An old guy dodge, tossed in with back-and-forth on such things as the weather, how the crops were doing, the price of milk.

And, after a while, the truck and its driver moved on to their next stop down the road. I didn't realize it at the time but that was probably my first experience with the concept of tax evasion. A direct line back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

And again, one fine summer day - actually these were all probably fine summer days - my older brother and I went to a Grange meeting with my uncle and aunt and their children, our cousins. The meeting was in the Grange hall not terribly far from where my uncle and aunt and cousins lived. I recall a pleasant lunch at trestle tables, where we sat on benches. I'm afraid I wasn't following the subsequent business meeting very carefully - my cousins could be quite amusing - until my aunt told me that the meeting was going into a segment where people who did not belong to the Grange were not welcome. And so, she said, my brother and I should go outside and play in the parking lot.

Which is what we did. I don't recall being upset. I believe we may have played the radio in my uncle's car, and eventually we were readmitted to the meeting.

And that, I believe, was the first time I experienced a closed social group from the outside.

Some readers may not know about the Grange. The formal name (I looked this up) is The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.  It is an organization of farmers dedicated to mutual self-help - an "agricultural fraternity," as the Grange puts it. The Grange was founded in 1867 by a group of people that included several Masons. If I had known this years ago, I wouldn't have been puzzled by the Grange's inclusion of secret proceedings.

Survival of an Old Culture
So, self-reliance, mutual assistance, evasion of authority, and secrecy. These are all salient features of a small community organized specifically for survival in a dangerous world.

What we're looking at here are remnants of a very old culture. This is the village culture of Europe, which dates back at least to the year 1000 and was shaped by the needs of poor farmers - the vast majority of the population - dealing with everything from the uncertainties of the weather to the exactions of the local lord of the manor.

"Daily face-to-face encounters among neighbors in these small rural communities were the principal social environment for most Europeans from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century." (Richard C. Hoffman, "Villages: Community," in Joseph R. Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, v. 12, c. 1989, pp. 437-441, at 437. See also Fredric L. Cheyette, "Villages: Settlement," op. cit., pp. 442-447.)

The internal dynamic of the village was to seek unilateral control over its own affairs and to dictate the terms of its relations with the outside world. Countering this dynamic were church and state - the parish priest and the local lord, who had an interest in law and order and also in taxes.

With the arrival of the industrial revolution, many of the villagers moved to the city. And guess what? They may have left the physical village behind, but they brought the mental village with them - a millennium of experience in how to deal with the world. This deeply engrained structure of custom and, yes, prejudice is alive and well today.

In the United States, because our history of slavery and racism is essential to understanding the American experiment, I think we may at times overlook or minimize the role of village parochialism.

So what does an urban village look like? In The Other Paris (2015), Luc Sante describes the typical quartiers, or neighborhoods, of Paris in the nineteenth or early twentieth century:

"The neighborhoods were self-contained and independent, each with its church, graveyard, main street, central square, range of shops and ateliers, as well as its own culture and ambiance, its folkways and politics. They were like the country villages of their time not just in their particular mix of atmosphere and occupation but also in that most people remained within their borders from birth until death, and many seldom ventured outside for any reason less momentous than a fair or an execution." (Pp. 35-36.)

Urban villages persist to this day and go a long way toward explaining the balkanization of politics in places like Philadelphia.

I would also argue that Donald Trump intuitively understands the villager worldview and panders to it shamelessly, and that this meeting of the minds goes a long way toward explaining why he is in the White House. Let's take just a few examples.

Taxes. Perhaps the most basic tension in the medieval village was over taxes. The villagers didn't want to pay them, possibly because they didn't see them having any positive effect in the life of the village. On the other hand, the local lord and the parish priest thought taxes were a lovely idea. The hatred of taxes is visceral, and appeals to rationality will not work.

America First. Isolationism is just the villager's insularity writ large enough to fit a nation. People intuitively know that the right solution is to shut out the outsiders. Again, appeals to rationality will not work. They're sure they're right.

You can't trump Trump by fighting him on issues like these. But I do think there are some things we can do to be more effective. Democratic leaders clearly find the villagers - whether rural or urban - to be puzzling. Just look at Candidate Obama's comment about clinging "to guns or religion" or Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables."  We do need to get past our lack of comprehension.

And as a first step, stop patronizing them. They think you think you're better than they are. And maybe you do. And maybe you are. But you need to stop acting like you think you're better than they are. It's good politics, and a little humility never hurt anyone.

Stop expecting them to change. These people are not going to wake up one morning and discover that they have become liberal cosmopolitans. So stop trying to win them over with arguments that appeal to liberal cosmopolitans.

Get them some money. The middle class in this country has been hollowed out. We need to refill the shell, or at least show them how we would do it if they voted for us. Our ace in the hole is that Trump is never going to help these people in their pocketbooks. He'll put on a very entertaining show persecuting Mexicans and Muslims. But he's never going to deliver the bacon. That's something to work with.

One Last Story
In this last story I'm not a child anymore, and it's winter. One day my brother and I stopped by to visit someone we had known since childhood. He had grown up on a neighboring dairy farm, worked on that farm and, for a variety of reasons, decided to go out on his own. He had a small place not far away, and was exploring various niches, like serving as a nursery for baby cows until they were ready to go into the milking business. It wasn't going very well. If you know about dairy farming, you know that things in general are not going very well unless you have an extremely large factory operation in a place like the central valley of California.

With a characteristic smile and twist of humor, my farmer friend said the banker who gave him his start-up loan had told him that making a go of it would be hard, "but he didn't tell me it would be impossible."

See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama and There: Now You've Got Something You Can Eat!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Who Are the Undeserving Poor? Who Are the Deserving Rich?

The struggle we are presently engaged in will, I think, go on for some time; personally, I look at it as simply the latest acute phase of a very old struggle. Fatigue will set in, as it does in the later stages of a marathon. Indeed speakers have been calling it a marathon, but the marathon is, despite the crowds, a solitary struggle, and a little while ago a speaker at Tuesdays with Toomey happily pointed out that our present struggle is also a relay. A relay marathon, if you will. We carry the burden together. No one person can attend every rally; yet each of us needs to do whatever he or she can. 

With that in mind, here is a story that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on January 15, 2014. I am no longer able to locate it online, so I post it here.

Philadelphia, January 2014.  It's 13 degrees.  It's 6:12 a.m.  It's very dark.  I'm sitting at the breakfast table with my wife.

"This is insane,"  I say.  She doesn't say anything.

I say, "The only thing more insane is that Congress left last year and didn't renew the extended unemployment."

Lois sips her coffee.

"So I'm going," I say.  To D.C., I don't say.  On a bus; she knows.

She says, "Isn't it your fifth anniversary this month?'

Five years ago my life changed.  My employer of 16 years decided I was excess baggage in a business downturn, and streeted me at the age of 61.  Thanks for that.

No, seriously, thanks for that.  Then I got to do what I really wanted to do, which was fight for healthcare reform.  A whole alphabet soup:  PUP (Philadelphia Unemployment Project), HCAN (Health Care for America Now), PHAN (Pennsylvania Health Access Network).  Not something I could have done while working for a health insurer.

I think I helped.  That's the downside to casting off people like me.

I also collected unemployment.  And I looked for work.  And I religiously attended the classes at the outplacement agency.

Here's a simple fact of life.  When you've been working for 16 years for a company with a reputation for mindless bureaucracy, and you get streeted at 61, your career is over.

The outplacement agency pretended that wasn't true, and for a while I believed them.  But in the end I came to accept the facts, even as others continued to deny them.

I collected unemployment for a year and a half, and it was important for me -- not just the money, but the validation that I was still a person.  Eventually, with help from PUP, I got a part-time job.  It doesn't pay much, but the people are nice, I enjoy the work, and again it's a validation.

And I've spent a lot time over the last five years sitting on buses, sitting in waiting rooms and cafeterias in D.C. and Harrisburg, spending time with people who are actually poor.  And I'm here to tell you, you can learn things in your 60's.

Our Puritan forefathers bequeathed us this dichotomy between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.  It's false.  There are just the poor.  They do what they need to do to survive.  And it's not middle class, and it's not pretty.  But I find myself loving every one of them, not just the lovable ones, not just the deserving.

The rich, on the other hand, have been getting away with murder in this country.  We can get distracted by their demonization of the poor, but what would happen if we carried the Puritan battle to them?

How many of the rich deserve to be rich?  There's a whole school of theologians who say that wealth is a signal that God likes you, but what would Jesus say to that? Or St. Francis?  Or the pope?

Dear me, I'm turning into an aging radical.  I got on the bus and got to sit in a room in Washington with a bunch of senators and representatives and poor people and lots and lots of cameras.  And maybe it made a difference.

See also For Athena.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Here's What to Watch Out For

Terezin, 2013.
I cut this copy from a previous article on the Steve Bannon gang, but after Stephen Miller's performance on Sunday I no longer think it is premature. Bannon and Co. made a huge mistake arresting and deporting upper-middle class immigrants in places like JFK airport, a short ride from the media capital of the world. My real concern is what they do in out-of-the way places, where the authorities may be friendly, and where the media can be held at arm's length. 

I had actually expected Bannon and Co. to do roundups of Mexicans in Arizona or Texas - someplace where the local officials and the cops would be friendly and the network TV cameras would be far away. It's true that even poor, undocumented Mexican immigrants have smart phones and can post video online, but they don't have the connections of a Cleveland Clinic doctor and her lawyer. We're talking about a largely powerless, vulnerable group of people.

So pick a small town somewhere down by the Rio Grande. At dusk you close the roads in and out; then you encircle the town. By now you've disabled the cellphone towers, the landlines, the electricity. I suppose you could turn off the water if you really wanted to, assuming the town was rich enough to have a centralized water distribution system.

Then you go through the town, house by house, with warrants issued by a friendly judge, and you ask people for their papers. Those without papers get on the bus. If you're feeling energetic, those with papers miraculously lose them and get on the bus too. Best, really, if everybody goes.

By dawn you're gone, leaving behind a ghost town.

You'll have ways of letting your supporters know about this exploit. They'll be thrilled. But the general population won't hear much, and that will allow most of us to pretend that it didn't happen, or it wasn't as bad as people say. If history is any guide, many people will be happy to turn a blind eye.

In writing this, I was thinking constantly about certain events during World War II - the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv in Paris and the obliteration of the Czech village of Lidice. Make no mistake. The people in the White House may be illiterate and incompetent, but they are very dangerous. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Senator Toomey Called My Son a Burnt-Down House

Zipperhead, South Street, Philadelphia, 1985.

A few days ago, U.S. Senator Patrick Toomey (R, Pa.) compared my son to a burnt-down house. Mr. Toomey doesn't know my son and didn't refer to him by name. He was talking - in that abstract way characteristic of aspiring political philosophers - about people with pre-existing medical conditions. My son has a pre-existing condition. Forgive me if I am so bold as to connect the dots.

Comparing a human being to a burnt-down house is of course offensive, but it is also, I would argue, a misleading analogy that takes us places we don't want to go.

Lesson number one, Senator. People are not inanimate objects. They are not blocks of wood. They are not many blocks of wood - 2x4s, floorboards, siding, shingles - all nailed together with those snazzy new nail guns. People are people. They breathe, they bleed.

Really, if you want to float an analogy of writing fire insurance on a burnt-down house, you should probably tie it to selling life insurance to a dead man. Personally I wouldn't go there, but it does make more sense than comparing a dead house to a living person.

As for writing health insurance for people with pre-existing conditions, a better analogy would probably be flood insurance. Again, not perfect, but at its base flood insurance is about restoring and maintaining communities. It is about life.

Nowadays, flood insurance largely comes from the federal government through something called the National Flood Insurance Program. Why is this? Well, here is a little fact that people tend to overlook: Insurance companies are in business to make money. And here is a corollary: If they can't make money in a particular market, they exit the market.

But that doesn't mean that the need goes away. People are still going to want to rebuild. It's easy enough to argue against rebuilding in a flood plain - I still do it occasionally - but a strong consensus has evolved over the years, and so the government has stepped into the void left by the insurance companies.

The same thing has also happened in a number of areas of health insurance. Just look at Medicare and Medicaid. The government stepped in to fill a void.

So let's look at those pesky pre-existing conditions again. Insurance companies really, really don't want to cover them. So what are we going to do, let these people die? This would be the burnt-down house path. There seems to be a consensus against it. Even Senator Toomey appears to be concerned about the optics of just letting people die.

The only way to resolve this tension is for the government to enter the void. This would be the flood insurance path.

There's an interesting lesson in rhetoric here. Compare health insurance to fire insurance, and the logic of your argument is that we should let certain people die. Compare it to flood insurance, and the logic is to support life.

Pick the wrong analogy, and you can easily go down the wrong road.

Philadelphia, 1989.
See also Senator Skedaddle.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bannon and Co. Aren't Very Good at Being Evil

Philadelphia, Saturday, February 4, 2017
Last Thursday I attended a wonderful rally in Philadelphia. It was composed largely of Comcast employees. It formed up in the Comcast building plaza on John F. Kennedy Boulevard and marched, with a police escort, over to Dilworth Park, next to City Hall.

I believe there were between 1,000 and 2,000 participants, mainly young, from just about everywhere around the globe. One speaker said he was Irish-American and his family came here a long time ago; his grandfather spent a week living in a tree in Normandy, fighting to protect our freedoms; and he suggested we should now fight to protect those same freedoms.

I need to say that this was a happy, funny rally. Lots of jokes and lots of laughter. I left feeling good about the future. It'll be a tough fight, for sure, but we have the happy warriors.

In less than two weeks, Donald has unified and energized his opposition. How did he do that? Let me suggest sheer incompetence.

For your debut act of persecution, you decide to turn certain immigrants away from our borders. Well, let's just look at this for a minute as a military operation. Geography is very important to soldiers. The first thing you need to do when planning an operation is define the battlefield.

So our battlefield is every port of entry - airport, seaport, border crossing - in the country. Actually it's a whole series of disconnected battlefields in a war zone that, on a map, would look like a bad case of chicken pox.  How are you even going to keep track of all that, let alone exercise effective command?

The second thing you need to do is control the battlefield. Let's just look at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the New York City borough of Queens. How are Donald and Steve Bannon going to control that particular battlefield?

You might as well try to control the Mississippi River. You've got some immigration guys, that's true. But you don't have the local officials or the police, and you have a vast number of travelers who are about to become very annoyed by the obstructions that occur when protesters and immigration lawyers appear in large numbers - something you can't prevent.

You don't control the ground. And your enemy receives continuous reinforcements. To switch to Dulles and Philadelphia International for a minute, you may even have a U.S. Senator show up to oppose the ban.

Terrible optics.

Okay, you're essentially screwed. Basic doctrine calls for you to unify your own forces and divide the enemy. Instead, you do the opposite.

The theory of persecution also calls for you to select victims who can be demonized. Instead, according to the New York Times, you grab a young woman who is a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic. She has been home visiting family, and she is returning to her job, her fiance, her apartment, her car. Sounds like a pretty relatable person to me.

And you fail to objectify her. Instead, you hold her for six hours and then march her under guard to a plane headed back out of the country, all while her attorney is telling you that a judge is about to hand down an order. It appears the doctor may actually have been deported after the order was issued.

Another old military adage is Know your enemy. It appears that Bannon and Co. never bothered to look at who the people were that they were planning to persecute.

Yes, you're really screwed.

I suppose that, on one level, we're very lucky that Bannon and Co. are incompetent. But unfortunately their incompetence is unlikely to be limited to the persecution of minorities. They are, in fact, supposed to be running the country. They're in the driver's seat, but they don't know how to drive. And that means we're all going in the ditch. Brace for impact.

See also Lidice and the Power of Nothing, Fascism, Even Worse Than I Thought.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Bike Lane in the Sky

Pulaski Bridge. Photo: Ben West.

A two-way cycle track, actually. My son, Ben, and I were driving around Queens last Saturday, and we decided to have a look at the bike lane the City installed on the Pulaski Bridge, which he tells me is the main bicycle route between Brooklyn and Queens.

The lane went in early last year, and shortly after it opened a car was filmed driving in the bike lane. If you pave it, they will drive a car on it. This issue has been solved by putting a flex post in the middle of the cycle track (between the two bicycle lanes) at the beginning of the bridge.

We got incredibly lucky, and as we were driving across the bridge, which is a drawbridge, it decided to open to let a tug-and-barge pass through. Ben grabbed the shot above with his phone.

Building this cycle track was obviously a bit more complicated than, say, striping a bike lane on 22nd Street in Fairmount, in Philadelphia. Shows you what can happen when a city government actually gets behind the idea that its streets should be safe and convenient for all users, not just cars.

See also Parking Protected Bike Lanes in Baltimore, The Bottleneck on MLK Is Still There.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Reopening

The Schuylkill Trail at Race Street.
The stretch of the Schuylkill trail by the skateboard park reopened around lunchtime today, January 20, which is the scheduled completion date the City announced last month. In other words, on time!

Here is the repair that was done to the riverbank.

I spoke with the guys who were actually doing the work, and one of them cautioned me to expect occasional, brief closures over the next few days as final touches are applied. There's still quite a bit of fencing that needs to come down.

Here's what things looked like when I passed by in the late morning.

They promised to open about 1, so I ran an errand at the library, and when I came back the trail was open.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Parking on a Rainy Day

Yet another kerfuffle over bike lanes. A recent story focused on the 800 block of Pine - specifically the south side of the street. The north side is occupied by Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751, and the nation's first hospital. My daughter, Alicia, was born there. As far as I know, it is not a participant in this controversy.

In the story, a resident of the south side expresses concerns about the protected bike lanes proposed for Pine and Spruce. My initial reaction was a trifle acerbic, undermining a promise I've made to Alicia to try to stay positive. So I decided to do something useful yesterday morning. I walked down to 8th and Pine and took pictures.

The proposed upgrade to the existing bike lanes on Pine and Spruce has already provoked a good bit of argument, including discussions at two meetings of the Washington Square West Civic Association. And it seems there will be yet more meetings.

Opponents complain of the hardship of not being able to park at the curb directly in front of their houses. If you listen to this argument in isolation, you may find yourself feeling some sympathy. After all, people need access to their houses. But when you look at the context, I submit that the picture changes.

One of the big things that people tend to overlook is rear access. I've already discussed access issues on Pine and Spruce west of Broad (see Flex Posts on Pine and Spruce and More on the Pine and Spruce Bike Lanes).  Let's have a look at rear access on the 800 block of Pine.

This is a view into the interior of the block from 8th Street. You can see that the buildings facing Pine (on the right) and Addison (on the left) are well provided with off-street parking. The access to this rather rather handsome lot is by a large curb cut on Pine, shown below. Vive la France.

While we're on Pine, here is a look at the existing bike lane.

A basic purpose of protected bike lanes is to keep trucks and cars from parking in the bike lane and blocking it, which of course renders it useless to bicyclists. Some would argue worse than useless, because the bicyclist then needs to leave the bike lane and merge with the moving cars and trucks in the motor-vehicle lane.

Okay, let's go to Addison and look at the kind of rear access available up near 9th Street.

The buildings at this end of the block are bigger, and some of the parking lots aren't as pretty. But some are quite lovely.

Here's another one that's not terrible.

Finally, in the mid-block, actual garages predominate.

There's basically enough off-street parking on this block to sink a battleship. I fail to see the hardship of asking residents to park in their off-street spots, instead of parking at the curb on Pine, where their presence does create a substantial hardship for bicyclists.

Well, you say, the people don't want to park at the curb very long, maybe 15 minutes. Surely not that many bicyclists would be inconvenienced.

The bike traffic numbers indicate otherwise. Even in the middle of the day, there are a lot of bikes whizzing around the streets of Center City. Last June 20, between 2:30 and 3:30 in the afternoon, I counted bikes at 16th and Spruce. On average there was one every 30 seconds. (See Intraday Biking.)

So if you parked in the bike lane there for 15 minutes, you'd have 30 bicyclists scrambling around you. An inconvenience ratio of 30 to 1. And in rush hour the number of bicyclists would be much higher.

To come back to the 800 block of Pine, here's what I think. If we can't put a protected bike lane on this block, we're not going to be able to put one anywhere in Center City. And I greatly fear that is going to be the outcome of the process we are currently enduring.

Mayor Kenney may indeed deliver his promised 30 miles of protected bike lanes. But will they be where the bicyclists need them, and where current and potential bike traffic demand them?

See also Vision Zero in Philadelphia.