Friday, July 12, 2019

Burlington, VT Mayor Weinberger -- Glitter in the Gutter

Glitter in the Gutter

A guest commentary by Dr. Charles Simpson, retired SUNY Professor and Burlington, VT resident

Young, energetic, attractive in a riverboat gambler sort of way, holding developer credentials, our mayor is a man in a hurry. He promised to get things done. So what's not to like about Miro Weinberger? The persona worked once, then again. His problem now is that he didn't deliver. Not much, at least. 
We got an absurdly expensive remake of the bike/walk path, including a toxic soil fiasco that had the City storing it at a public park. He couldn't pull off a Moran Plant remake, flawed in concept to begin with: an ice climbing wall? Please. In 2006, the School District, intent in off-loading the Taft School--a structure built in 1939 by private philanthropy and $111,000 from the Works Progress Administration whose post-educational future was required to be housing for indigent men according to the Taft will, was off-loaded to UVM. Weinberger took that as a cue and tried the same trick with Memorial Auditorium, imagining it as just a fiscal liability rather than a vibrant civic arena. But the university opened the bag and found a cat instead of a pig, the cat being the absence of adequate parking. Desperate to get something done, he promised to revive the '80s circumferential highway through the South End, pretending that the public purpose of moving interstate highway traffic to the downtown core was still a viable goal. Not to worry that the highway was to end at Lake Street and the downtown has evolved away from mass shopping. Thanks to alert citizen activists, that plan is in the courts. 

Then, there's his efforts to prime the development pump with political favors. There was spot zoning to raise the height limits on three blocks of downtown as if the elaborate public process leading to Plan BTV had never happened. Add to that $22 million in forgiven future property taxes on the project. Before the project ground to a halt, leaving the present hole in the ground, Macy’s was rendered inoperable and we lost our only department store. Desperate for some achievement, he fixated on a $6 million-plus redesign of a completely serviceable public park. This grandiose "improvement" was overtly proposed as a solution to soil management issues but seems more likely to be a way to “cleans” downtown of panhandlers. This too has been stalled by civic activists, unconvinced that lighted and pulsating water jets are the attraction that tourists seek in New England. 
Then there's sins of omission. In control of the airport, our mayor could have scotched the Air Force plan to station 18 nuclear-capable fighter/bombers in the most densely settled area of the state. He “let it happen”, as he did with a financial deal with a private investor that guaranteed that our municipal telecom would pass out of public ownership.

Had Weinberger listened to authentic public input, each of these projects would have been greatly improved to public benefit. Citizens developed a much better plan for the remnant of the circumferential highway that would enhance rather than damage travel connectivity and neighborhood life. Had he listed to critics of downtown development, a reasonably-sized project would now be in the last stages of construction. Had he heard park enthusiasts, there would be a public bathroom in the downtown, maybe a shaded toddler  play area rather than another festival venue. 

There’s some changes the mayor does own. He blocked his own Parks and Recreation department's proposal to expand public moorings at the lake, refusing an associated federal grant in order to allow private investors to lease the public waterfront. Oh, and subsidizing them with $800,000 in TIF support. Yes, more than 700 units of new housing at Cambrian Rise are on the way, but that project was greased with $2 million in public funds spent to secure its lake view and front lawn. Citizen activists wanted more open land and space for wildlife. 
To a great degree, politics is a matter of projection. Voters endow candidates with their own hopes and dreams, creating an aura that reflects back on voters to make them feel good. In Burlington, we like to think our town is dynamic and innovative while delivering quality social services with the costs justly apportioned. This conviction is like a pat on the back we give ourselves. Didn’t we chose to live here? It takes a lot of government failure to chip away at this cultural capital. And for a long time we may be distracted by razzle-dazzle: "cool" electric scooters on our bike path; fireworks on July 4th; bouncing colored water jets in City Hall Park. But now its the morning after Mardi Gras. The only razzle-dazzle we can see is some glitter in the gutter.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

A, B and C of Safe Modern Busy Street Design

Note: The U.S. dropped from first to 20th in highway safety since 1990 with today about 22,000 excess fatalities and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries each year compared to the numbers generated per mile of travel by the average of the top four nations--the UK (we were tied with them in 1990 for #1), Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.  AAA studies point to desperate need for U.S. to address its shoddy highway safety status.  AAA, AARP, Federal Highway Administration and Geico all support roundabouts for safety and converting signals to roundabouts for reducing serious and fatal injuries. 

The A, B and C of Modern Busy Urban Street Design:
the Burlington, VT Example
--yes, there are D, E, F, etc. to be covered in future analyses

Since 2000 a revolution occurred in United States modern busy urban streets design. Today there are three generic elements necessary when choosing to serve safely those who walk, bicycle, and, yes, those who travel by car on a busy urban street.

The three core busy urban street design elements are:
  1. sidewalk
  2. roundabout
  3. cycle track (protected bike lane)
The basic design principle? Safety first!

If your busy urban street lacks one or more of these three central components—or their equivalent--by definition one or more ways of travel is unsafe, undeserviced and/or less than the desired, complete transportation street.

In many cases geographic (sharp grades like San Francisco hills), physical constraints (older narrow streets), etc., prevent fully achieving all three elements. The three elements remain the desired objective for safety! The 1000 Friends of Portland study found, essentially, the formula to walkable busy streets are a sidewalk network free of sharp grades plus ease of crossing intersections only the roundabout enables safely.

Almost by default by a neighborhood driven planning process, the Burlington, VT adopted its North Avenue Corridor Plan in 2014 where these three elements were enshrined to provide the highest level of safety for all modes: an existing sidewalk system, cycle track from end to end of the 2.6 mile corridor, and conversion of three of seven busy intersection traffic signals to roundabouts. Note the report two-page Chapter 1 vision and goals:

The roundabout, birthed in the U.K. in 1966, arrived in the U.S. in 1990. By 2005 NY State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) made the roundabout which cuts serious and fatal injuries about 90% its standard based on better safety for all modes. At U.S. and Canadian roundabouts, about 10,000 today, only one pedestrian and two cyclist fatalities occurred to date. NYSDOT's 2005 action instantly fossilized the traffic signal in America. (Consider the Assam, NL design preferred by many in the U.S. with a separate walk and bike lane: )

Historically cycle track is the newest and most rapidly adopted generic street element—the first cycle track network in North America being installed in Montreal in 2007.
Cycle track adoption here includes its appearance statewide bike plans like the first Illinois state bicycle plan in 2014 and by 2017 in the form of a cycle track network in
Burlington, VT's planBTV Walk Bike: The “old” bicycle provisions of paint on street may have been help to the then prevalent young adult male cyclists. But paint on streets excluded most less skilled, old and young, and women concerned with personal safety. Simply, paint on asphalt is not a safety device and offers minimal safety benefit compared to cycle track while leaving most of the potential bicycle riding community unwilling to ride two wheelers.

Yes, there are some additional wrinkles. Led by Vermont bikepath pioneer, now Dr. Anne Lusk, Harvard School of Public Health, the cycle track alternative location on sidewalk level where there are business or other mixed use areas emerged. Dr. Lusk led the first safety studies showing the superior safety performance of cycle track in Montreal early this decade. Here is the 2010 Lusk study report:

Japan cities feature widespread use of sidewalk level cycle track (though only now adopting roundabout technology). Bicycling is a natural part of Japanese urban neighborhood travel activity (and connecting to subways in major cities) with pedestrians and cyclists of all ages mixing in a low speed cycling context on sidewalk spaces and street crossings. (Up to 10% of Japanese bicycles are E-bikes.)

Among other features, sidewalk level cycle track favors adjacent businesses with easier access and added flexible space between the business and vehicle travelways. Cycle track not on vehicle travelway may be at sidewalk level or at a separate level between the sidewalk level and vehicle travelway. Sidewalk cycle track examples:

There are a few other variations in street design of note, particularly “shared space” where all modes mix, coexist in a low speed and safe context One reason busy street urban Japan cycle track works so well is the presence of shared space neighborhood “local” side streets as described in the Wikipedia entry.

These major changes in safe busy urban street design took place since 1990 when the U.S. began its drop from 1st to 20th in highway fatality rates, now 22,000 yearly excess highway deaths compared to the average of the top four, the U.K. (co-leader with U.S. in 1990), Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Safety first!

Tony Redington  June 7, 2019 @TonyRVT60

Monday, May 6, 2019

Plattsburgh, NY Rents $4,000 to $8,000 Lower Per Year than Burlington, VT

Renter and Economy the Big Losers in Current High Plateau of Burlington Rents Compared to Plattsburgh Market 

A combination of historic market forces—all harming the renter and the economy—leaves Burlington renters paying thousands of dollars more each year for the same or even sometimes inferior apartment than renters across the lake in Plattsburgh. While the difference in rents—Burlington over Plattsburgh—is in hundreds of dollars monthly the annual cost of a median rent is $4,200 higher in Burlington for a 1-bedroom (1-BR) apartment, $8,100 for a 2-BR apartment. 

Certainly over decades a collusion involving real estate interests, banks, rental property owners, yes, even the large non-profit housing sector all have played—and continue to play—a role in reaching the high rent levels and unfortunately those same interests have a stake in maintaining those high rents regardless to how overall this is a self-inflicted wound to both to the renters (with particular pain to low and moderate income).

From the early 1990s through the early years of the recovery from the Great Recession in 2010-2012, the Burlington housing market featured notoriously low vacancy rates as both population and student numbers grew in the County a the City. Suddenly, thanks in part to mayoral leadership and growth moderation in the County, rental housing supply increased and so did vacancy rates reaching healthy 3-5% levels about 2016-2017. Today with about 1,000 new apartments coming on line and student populations, flat since 2010 at UVM, likely to slowly decline, pressures will likely build to lower rents. 

My first look at Plattsburgh versus Burlington rents occurred in 2011 when considering a move from Montreal back to the Burlington area. Took a look at both Plattsburgh and Burlington rents at that time and those in Plattsburgh were significantly less than Burlington. In 2011. Burlington and Chittenden County rental vacancy rates as measured by Allen and Brooks surveys each year generally were 1-2%. When I sought an apartment in late 2011 there were literally no apartments which were decent on the market. Needing a studio or 1-bedroom (1-BR), there was a 2 BR available here and there but about twice the 1-BR rent. Suffice to say did come across a 1-BR which had not yet been put on the market at a reasonable cost. Will leave further history on rent and landlord relations moot at this point.

Plattsburgh like Burlington does have a large number of 4-5 bedroom apartments termed “student housing” on Craigslist. Plattsburgh is about half the Burlington population of 42,000. As part of exploring rental housing in Burlington I have from time to time over almost three years undertaken “snapshot” rental vacancy tabulations by price and bedroom size in a two-three day period. This involves examining available vacant units primarily on craigslist, but also on various websites—Bissonnette Properties, Trulia, MyBurlingtonApartment, etc. The snapshot surveys began in mid-2016 just when significant numbers of new apartments began to come on line. Follow up snapshot inventory numbers show about a 3% annual increase in median 1-BR rents and 5.6% increase in 2-BR rents. 

Give credit to Mayor Miro Weinberger for opening up Burlington for private development of housing, a rising tide which now appears a flood with more than 1,000 housing units coming on the market (Cambrian Rise [Burlington College property site], Bayberry [SD Ireland site on Grove Street] and City Hall Place numbers alone top 1,000). Note rents surveyed generally did not include heat and electric so one might add, for example, about $100 to a 1-BR and $125 for a 2-BR to adjust a median rent as offered to a median rent with all utilities included. 

Here are the 1 and 2 br numbers BTV, Plattsburgh and 2019 HUD FMRs used for all housing assistance (HUD Fair Market Rents include all utilities):

                                     1 Bedroom        2 Bedroom

Burlington                            $1,140             $1,575
(March 2019 Snapshot Survey)

Plattsburgh                             790                 900
(May 2019 Craigslist survey)

Rent Difference: Monthly       350              675

                     Yearly             $4,200        $8,100

HUD FMR (2019) (Source: 

Burlington                              $1,044          $1,341
(Burlington-South Burlington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA)

Plattsburgh                             810              1,052
(Clinton County)

Rent Difference:                   $234                 $289

Note:U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) FMR (Fair Market Rent) tables by location are published each year and are approximately 80% of median rents. These are the maximum rent that HUD will subsidize for a Section 8 Voucher (affordable housing assistance). The FMRs are updated annually. 

Some preliminary thoughts. Apparently the past tight market for housing in BTV may have led to bidding wars for private apartment sales with the student housing pricing somewhat inelastic and essentially zero vacancy rates overall in the rental market (now 5-7% or more in the pure private sector) resulting in high capital cost and therefore very high rents in BTV (forcing many to live in outlying areas). The market now has about 1,000 units on tap (Ireland's Bayberry, Cambrian, and about 60 units behind COTS by Redstone--plus about 250 units in the currently stalled City Place).  

Both cities probably have comparable property tax rates and cheap natural gas via pipelines.  So, we have overcapitalized housing (nice depreciation!).  Until the price of private purchasing of rental housing comes down and/or CHT-Cathedral find HUD or other sources to reduce their acquisition costs, rents like Plattsburgh remain far off.  

Then there are the other "soft" actions--activist tenant unions, better communications on pricing/tougher negotiation by tenants, etc.  CDBG could be brought into play. 

Key is a housing plan (there is none) at the state level and Region/City levels which recognize these realities and work on bringing market rents in line with Plattsburgh--looking a little more into the market there (the loss of population/air base a factor in current low rents?).  

Note there are a number of good landlords and apartment owners who buck the "all the market will bear" approach to renting and whose rents for quality units are below the median numbers with quality housing. 

Just building more housing which is capital intensive because of the once tight market (which inflated the rents and squeezes the tenants) is one sure way not to solve the problem of the current high plateau of rents. Still the offering of a free month of rent with an initial lease at Bayberry, a one year reduction of about 8% in the rent is an encouraging sign of a rental retrenchment in Burlington. 

Be aware that as a former state housing director I did deal in New Hampshire in a number of new/rehab housing projects where I encountered honest and fair minded developers and do not assume these folks are anything but effective and efficient builders of needed housing.  That said, conditions and individual owners can vary across the spectrum!  I view the HUD Section 8 New/Rehab program (initiated by Nixon) with 20-25 year commitments of affordable housing assistance as perhaps the most successful housing development programs to date. 

Tony Redington TonyRVT99@gmail.comMay 6, 2019

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Internet Tour of Roundabouts at Event Venues, Airports, Tourist Attractions

Roundabout engineers recently put together a list of roundabouts now in place at event venues (like the Indianapolis 500), tourist destination (like Yosemite Park and Disneyland) and airports (Ann Arbor, MI--not listed the two new roundies at Manchester Airport).  An internet tour!

Major Venues with roundabouts nearby:
Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
Lambeau Field (NW of stadium):
Pepsi Center, Denver, CO:
Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, NE:

Tourist destinations also have seasonal influx issues:
Bird Rock, San Diego, CA:
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ:
Fort Frederica National Monument, GA:
Legoland, Carlsbad, CA:
Downtown Disney, Anaheim, CA:
Kings Beach, CA (Lake Tahoe):
Incline Village, NV (Lake Tahoe):
Kimball Junction, UT:
Steamboat Springs, CO:
Midway, UT (road to Brighton):
Canyons Village, Park City, UT:
Snoqualmie Falls, WA:
Northstar at Tahoe, CA:
Truckee, CA (Sugar Bowl):
Summerlin, Las Vegas, NV:
Swinomish Casino and Lodge, WA:

Airports are known to have peak travel periods:

Modern Roundabouts at Airports
Portland, OR, economy parking:
Kansas City, economy parking:
Grand Junction, CO:
Charlottesville, VA:

St Johns Int’l, NL, Canada:
Victoria, BC, Canada:
Hobart Int’l, Australia:
Dublin, Ireland (RAB and rotaries):
Munich, Germany (elevated):
Southampton, England:
Edinburgh, Scotland:
Manchester, England:
East Midlands, England:

Monday, April 22, 2019

Yes We Can: Winooski Avenues--Making Burlington's Greatest Street

Yes We Can: Winooski Avenue--Burlington's Greatest Street 

The current North and South Winooski Ave corridor study seemed at first a challenging triage of a congested, narrow roadway--now it appears the Winooskis really can reach through flexible and unique design its deserving historic role as Burlington's "Greatest Street." 

The Winooski Corridor Study may very well achieve a "yes, we can" outstanding urban pathway:
Yes we can--cut carefully some parking which takes away from green space and safe walking-bicycling accommodation.  Yes, we can--serve the neighborhoods first and through traffic second in providing safe walking and bicycling for all ho can (see photo of sidewalk level cycle track applicable from Riverside to the north to at least Main Street).  Yes we can--employ the core safe best practices on our streets--the "intersection safety belt" roundabout and the safe for all ages and skills cycle track (protected bike lanes).  Yes we can--eliminate parking on at least one side of the street except for the central area (Archibald-North Streets) shifting the space to green and bike space use.  And, yes we can: provide a green strip throughout the corridor.  And, finally, yes we can:  strengthen and rejuvenate both the businesses and residential neighborhoods into a more sustainable and livable context.

Sidewalk level "cycle track" shifts the purpose of bike lanes to serving the needs of the neighborhood cyclists to access nearby businesses services and friends--this leaves the through cyclist to a secondary position, still retaining the skilled rider to the vehicle travelways.    Suddenly, all who can--young, old, and in between regardless of skill can bicycle--now only about 10% of the Burlington population bikes much at all.  This photo from Kyoto taken in October.

The intersections?  Again as in the North Avenue Corridor Plan (2014) the all-modes intersections safety belt, is the obvious choice.  (Recent public opinion surveys show about 75% of Americans favor replacing dangerous intersections with roundabouts--plus this is a priority change for GEICO, AAA, AARP and federal highway officials.)

Here is a 2011AARP Pine Street workshop photo from the report recommending roundabouts from stop to bottom of Pine Street in the South End, this engineering base design at Pine and Maple Streets.

Roundabouts  (all one way) are feasible at all the key intersections--they are not only safe (reduced pedestrian/vehicle injuries by about 90% and reduce bicyclists injuries) but the roundabout also cuts delay for all, cuts green house gas emissions by thousands of gallons of gas at busy intersections each year.  In the case of the Winooskis all intersections adjacent to the Marketplace (Pearl, Cherry, Bank, College and Main) are among the "Dirty 17"  City intersections averaging one injury a year--and add North Street/N. Winooski to that list. 

So, the "Greatest Burlington Street"?  Yes, the sacred Winooskis with the historic library and Fire Station, the main access to the City's shopping street (the Marketplace), location of the highest grossing co-op market in America, and the home to the lowest income Old North End neighborhood, the main avenue for the original trolley line from the waterfront to the Winooski manufacturing complexes--yes, the City's Greatest Street!  YES WE CAN!!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Safety First Before You Build a Parkway, $3.28 Million added Parkway Soil Bill?, and Parkway Climate Change

Safety, City taxpayers and climate change--all related to Champlain Parkway are the subject of three tweets this morning. It goes without saying that lack of any safe and separate walk and bike facilities in the Champlain Parkway is a non-starter when it comes to climate change emissions as travel along the Parkway corridor is only practical by motor vehicle (bus service also problematic as well as GMT terminal access), and even more important signals are a cesspool of climate emissions compared to a roundabout.

Here are the tweets:

Hero pilot Sully Sullenberger Saturday on 737 Max 8 crashes: “quality and safety pay for themselves...always better & cheaper to get it right than repair the damage after..." Re-design Champlain Pkwy. group targets no safe walk/bike facilities, no safe intersections

Tweet March 17
BTV facing $3.28 million taxpayer bill for Parkway contaminated soils—figure City Engineer Baldwin revealed at CCRPC Board last month? He says construction start 2019--Pine Street Coalition safety re-design cuts $43 million cost ~$8 million, likely soils too.
The fight to re-design the Champlain Parkway here in BTV from the start included climate change—absence of separate and safe walk and bike facilities, half mile of unneeded street, 1,000s of gallons gas wasted yearly at intersections. Safety 1st of course.

BTV Winooski Corridor Bike/Ped Injury Rates Astronomical Compared to VT Downtown Roundabouts

Data from the Winooski Corridor Transportation Corridor reveals real carnage on Burlington streets in addition to the fatality recorded about every 5-6 years, the latest in December Jonathan Jerome, a pedestrian who died in a crash on North Avenue.

Based on five years of data through 2017, about 150 injuries occur each year on Burlington streets, three per week. About 50 injuries or one a week are bicyclists and pedestrians in roughly equal numbers and 100 card occupants or two a week. 

About 10% of all 150 annual injuries on BTV streets occur on North and South Winooski Avenues.  And 43% of all yearly crashes occurred at intersections.    On the 17 Winooski corridor  intersections 0.21 injuries occurred to bicyclists per year per intersection--no injuries in a half century have occurred at the six downtown VT roundabouts (Manchester Center, Middlebury and Montpelier).  A similar rate for Winooski intersections injuries per year--0.21 pedestrian injuries per year per intersection--occurred for the 2013-2017 survey period.  Comparison the Winooski 0.21 figure compares to 0.0032 injures per year per downtown VT roundabout.

For car occupants the Winooski Avenues figure is 0.13 injury per year per intersection (2.8 injuries yearly 17 intersections).   Car occupant injuries for the 6 downtown VT roundabouts:  0.013 per year (4 injuries recorded total for lifetime of the six roundabouts through about 2016). 

So on the Winooski Avenues, an injury occurs about once every two months--7.2 per year.  For comparison, the six downtown VT roundabouts record an injury about once a decade! 

In addition to crashes involving personal injury, the vast bulk of crashes are property damage only--about 1,200 average yearly, almost ten times the injuries, about 150, recorded.

These are metrics BTV Police Chief Del Pozo would likely love!