Thursday, August 28, 2014

Harvesting 50 On-street Parking Places to Create Urban Core Four Block Cycle Track

Is Burlington, VT Really Committed to a Bikable Downtown Core?--A Current Parking Study May Hold an Answer

Below is a challenge to the staff and study membership looking at a target residential area of the Burlington, Vermont urban core where harvesting 50 on-street parking spaces would allow for easy installation of a two-way cycle track along one of the only two north-south corridors feasible--each corridor critical to the access of the the walk-only Church Street Marketplace and accessing all the primary institutions of the the City--from Fletcher Free Library, YMCA, Memorial Auditorium Complex and City Hall to the highest volume cooperative market in the United States--City Market.  Burlington touts itself as walk/bike friendly, seeks the highest level national designation and like practically all urban areas today faces the prospect of major street corridor re-configurations (in this case) or outright reconstruction to provide quality bicycle  and walk "infra."  The City gets a taste of the challenge in the following suggestion communicated this week at the start of a residential parking study from this member of the advisory committee----

Burlington Residential Component of Overall Parking Study 

      ...Including a study component--harvesting of 50 parking spaces on South Union from Pearl to Main Streets to enable installing two-way cycle track

An important element of a parking study needs to be how to harvest downtown on-street parking spaces on key blocks where cycle track naturally belongs—blocks where street reconstruction in order to install cycle track obviously is cost-prohibitive.   The task is to suggest option to remove parking and other impediments between Pearl Street and Main Street along South Union Street so that cycle track can be installed to serve the neighborhood and various business, institutional and other destinations.

In one neighborhood selected for analysis—including South Union between Pearl and Main Streets—such a needed downtown cycle track exists along with a cost prohibitive reconstruction—only “harvesting” roughly 50 on-street spaces enables installing cycle track on the west side and provides for 10-11 foot travel lane (now mostly nine feet, far too narrow to prevent constant incursion by vehicles into the bike lane—a context that extends from Pearl Street to the end of North Union at North Winooski Avenue). 

The three blocks of South Union constitute a natural connection to adjacent uphill residential areas and Buell Street as well as some of the residential areas just north of Pearl Street.  It is the only north-south main plateau street to service a residential area of similar size or scope in the downtown. 

The importance of this South Union Street connection to major attraction sites cannot be denied.  The Marketplace is one, but consider the immediately adjacent YMCA, churches, City Market, Fletcher Free Library, the Roxy Theater and Memorial Auditorium.

Look at the other five similar historic north south corridors on the main downtown plateau.  The Pine Street and St. Paul Street corridors no longer exist erased by Burlington Town Center—and even a St. Paul restoration though desirable at best would be limited to walk and some bike mode traffic which to the north faces the coming blockage from the new transit center.   The western corridor, Battery Street involves Battery Park to the west and a sharp downslope so that by College Street walk and bike mode movement to Church Street becomes somewhat problematic because of increasing grades as one approaches Main Street.  Note that Battery Street with stable to declining traffic numbers does remain a good candidate for on-street or sidewalk level (or hybrid) cycle track, possibly attained through a road diet.

The leaves two corridors—the Marketplace’s Church Street obviously does not allow bicycle or vehicle modes.  And South Winooski clearly becomes a critically important corridor for the blocks between Pearl and Main Streets to be reconstructed with quality cycle track and roundabouts. 

Obviously there one or more avenues can lead to harvesting the 50 spaces, including but not limited to demand management, regulation, re-allocation of nearby parking resources, and, yes, if economically reasonable purchase of space for surface parking expansion and/or parking garage facilities.   What this residential parking study can do is plot alternatives to attain the goal we seek:  a quality, usable by all, two-way cycle facility on South Union Street between Pearl and Main Streets.

It is also important to note that the City does designate the downtown area and the treatments and improvements in the downtown area do not have to conform or should they conform to areas outside the downtown.  There is the grand scheme if you will of long bike corridors isn the Burlington City Transportation Plan and all of North and South Union are designated a bike route in that 2011 (pre-cycle track era) plan.  But it is only fair and reasonable to focus on the economic and social center of our City in the downtown, and initiate quality infrastructure there first on a no-regrets basis and not get lost in “let’s wait and do the entire corridor” thinking that prevents any action whatsoever to start already decades long delay.

In sum, the South Union Street corridor—Pearl to Main Street—not only deserves and rates cycle tracking lacking only the removal of on street parking to achieve that objective with very little expense.   The street itself is uniformly about 25 feet in width curb-to-curb throughout its length (also extending from Pearl Street north to North Winooski).  The current basic configuration is an eight foot parking lane (the very minimum allowed), a travel lane of about nine feet, a two-foot marked bike lane lines and six foot bike lane.  The current configuration serves not users well and because of the minimum widths for each mode poses a constant safety concern.  Parked vehicles cannot open streetside doors without invading vehicle travel lanes, drivers aware of the narrow travel land routinely crowd into the bike lane and wise bicycles use the sidewalks during busy traffic times.

So what is the parking inventory—all on the west side of the corridor?  The block from Pearl to Buell Street is residential parking only totaling 24 spades and four driveway curb cuts:  six spaces/curbcut, six spaces/curbcut, six spaces/curbcut, two spaces/curbcut and four spaces to Buell Street.  From Buell to College Street several different uses exist as follows with abu 18 parking spaces: two spaces/curbcut, four spaces/curbcut, two spaces/curbcut, 5-6 spaces related to the funeral home, City Market entry, five metered spaces, parking lot entry, YMCA with unloading area, College Street.   From College to Main Street:  seven metered spaces, parking lot entrance, then loading and access spaces associated with the Memorial Auditorium. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Vermont Roundabout Celebrates 19th Birthday

Montpelier's Keck Circle celebrated its 19th birthday and my letter to Mayor Hollar and City Councilor takes note of the 20th anniversary coming up in 2015 and the kinds of changes in transportation since that first northeastern U.S. roundabout was built--there are now fourteen roundabouts in Vermont, about 4,000 in the nation and several states and provinces in Canada with "roundabouts first" policies in place. 

Dear Mayor Hollar and Councilors:

On this day, the 19th birthday of Keck Circle, am writing to look forward to Sunday, August 16, 2015 when the first modern roundabout in the northeast (east of Las Vegas and north of Maryland) ends the teenage years. 

Keck Circle, the 19th roundabout built in the United States, represents a modern technology dating from its inception in 1966 in the U.K. and composed of stone-age materials.  It is my hope to perhaps lunch with some of the City committee members and councilors from the 1993-1995 period of study, design and construction. 

It is noteworthy the $64,000 all-City funded project design costs were $2,300.  Pinkham Engineering of Burlington, later merged into Summit Engineering, handled the design with the involvement of Michael J. Wallwork of Florida, then with the Florida Department of Transportation and since the late 1990s a leader in roundabout design nationally.

At some point the City certainly will update this historic intersection.  The original plan featured a slightly narrower entry on the Main Street northbound and the large vehicle override of the eastbound entry on Spring merits attention.  Certainly as we renew our core urban streets with cycle track Keck Circle bicycle accommodation needs at least a minimum upgrade to on/off ramping where approach lanes narrow thereby allowing cyclist the choice of shifting onto shared space with the walk mode along with shared crosswalks—you will find more than one Middle School student traveling on the sidewalk north of Keck Circle and Main Street below while on their trip to and from school.   Wallwork led the national evolution of bicycle accommodation design to—at a minimum--on/off ramps on both single and multi-lane roundabouts in recent years. 

As you are well aware a roundabout at Barre Street and Main Street remains as the chosen treatment to connect Winooski East and West Bikepaths—easily possible as part of the re-use of the beverage outlet re-development.

Mayor Hollar and City Council          August 16, 2015                                       Page 2

Montpelier’s two roundabouts played a key role in my neighborhood’s North Avenue corridor study just now ending with two field trips including one where our resident group was given the positive emergency vehicle experience at your roundabouts by Fire Chief Robert Gowans.  The outcome of our study includes an unprecedented long term recommendation for cycle track from end to end of the 2.8 mile corridor and conversion of three of the current seven signalized intersections to roundabouts.

You may find the various video material of our November 1, 2013 field visit (particularly the 5:43 second segment) taken on that last summer-like Friday taken when school let out at the Middle School, then later at the peak 4-5 p.m. traffic, about 2,100 vehicles an hour, at the US 2/302 roundabout.  Note the Keck Circle “walking school bus” from Union, the ambulance run, the rookie driver operation of a chartered Greyhound bus, and the two people in the splitter island refuge viewing the wind-driven wheel atop the bicycle sculpture. 

As you all recognize a revolution in transportation begun in the 1990s with Montpelier roundabouts and transportation paths a reflection of the early period when the City and the State attained regional leadership.  Now on the immediate horizon for Montpelier are cycle track to bring bicycling to all regardless of age or skill.  Further we are near both intercity and commuter rail with more than a thousand workers accessing your worksites via 12-20 trains daily stopping at the new transit center (already 50 Link bus runs each workday service handling about 500 individual commuters from Burlington to Montpelier, Middlebury and St. Albans with the first Link bus dating from 2003).

Yours truly,  Tony Redington

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Highway Trust Myth, Vermont Commuter Rail, Champlain Parkway Funds Sufficient for Commuter Rail Start

The Myth of the “Highway Trust Fund,” Vermont not ready for commuter rail, if only we had the $40 million for the limited Champlain Parkway project commuter rail would be only a matter of months away…

My comment on Vermont Digger to “Highway Trust Fund” piece on August 1
The Highway Trust Fund really became a Transportation Fund in 1993 when a portion of the “gas tax” was dedicated to transit. Now rail and transit grow and car travel doesn’t, So we need general funds to support transportation. We did not tax horses when the car came along and it is time to stop expecting a declining source–car taxes–to support transit and rail here and Vermont in the nation. In Vermont we need–for the first time–to start government funded commuter and intercity rail as well as investing in walking and bicycling infrastructure (no more bikepaths!) on our town centers and urban busy streets. That is what Vermonters want today–they cannot bike and walk nor take commuter and intercity rail so too many are stuck with their cars.

Response to my comment by a reader:
How well did light/commuter rail work with the Champlain Flyer? Vermont doesn’t have the population density to make it work! Not to mention wouldn’t intercity rail compete with CCTA for ridership? The last CCTA bus I pulled beside and peeked into had a grand total of 2 people on board.
As for pouring tons of taxpayer’s money into a bicycling infrastructure, the climate doesn’t justify it. Hard to imagine many people who would be willing to bike in subzero temps, snow storms, and continuous rain. I do bike often, but only on bikepaths. I avoid like the plague, biking alongside motor vehicles for safety reasons.
It is pointless to even consider tossing taxpayer money into any proposal where the % of people willing to use it would be very small.

And my response to the Champlain Flyer and commuter rail:  …compared to 2000 and the Champlain Flyer there are now 50 buses each workday plying the three rail corridors from Burlington to Montpelier, St. Albans and Middlebury.  All these buses with over 500 commuters (1,000 trips a day) individually save about $8,000 yearly over taking a car on a 40-mile one way commute versus solo driving, after taxes.  Begun in 2003, the buses, now larger in some cases, still have standing room only once in a while--and still growing double digits each year.  About 3% of Vermonters shifted from cars to something else since 2000, about 9,000 overall.  Going from over 300 commuters to 1,000 on the Montpelier-Burlington corridor--very likely--makes three roundtrips am and pm plus a noontime run economic, similar in performance to all but one of the dozen new commuter rail lines in the U.S. since 1990.   A few less long-distance commuter buses actually would be a good thing as the money saved shifts to commuter rail. 

The Champlain Flyer was to be a start but suffered from too short a run (14 miles) to be effective as commuter rail market is 20-50 miles range, and the Middlebury/Burlington has the least potential of the three. 

If the Champlain Parkway money were shifted to commuter rail--$40 million--then all three commuter lines could start literally within in a year or two, with, yes, the Middlebury run first as it is being upgraded right now to passenger speeds for the Ethan Allen extension to Union Station. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Champlain Parkway and the Beatles


…or will the Champlain Parkway make Burlington the laughing stock of the Vermont walk and bike community (the driving community too!)?

Burlington’s Champlain Parkway highway project dates back a half-century and cleared a hurdle this week, the Vermont Environmental Court agreed with an opponent it creates a congested intersection at their property but still gave the $40 million roadway a go ahead.

Oh, if only one obsolete intersection existed in the Parkway design originally begun before Mayor Miro Weinberger and some City councilors were born!  The mid-60s featured the first Beatles U.S. gig on the Ed Sullivan Show and an American troop buildup in a place called Vietnam.  The Parkway idea continued I 189 as a four lane divided highway from Shelburne Road across the base of Pine Street then a swing northward just east of the railroad connecting with Battery Street at the Maple Street intersection—all part of a scheme to push through this corridor to the Beltline, and finally encircling the City in an interstate “quality” roadway along the now abandoned Circumferential roadway.

Car traffic even increased by over half in Vermont in the 1980s but by 1990 when traffic on most Burlington streets peaked and then began a now 25-year slow decline the car travel world completely changed.  New England car travel likely declines this decade and total U.S. car travel peaked in 2008.  Now for many reasons we all seek to reduce car trips, reduce car travel and encourage in our urban areas walking, bicycling, transit—and yes, provide incentives not to drive.

A hazardous waste site and changing times ended the grand Parkway design to eventually place the City inside a 25-mile traffic circle and the Parkway shrank to 0.7 mile of new two-lane roadway ending at Lakeside Avenue at Innovation Center, the former GE plant complex.  Now the balance of the Parkway runs east on Lakeside Avenue then north on Pine Street ending at the Kilburn Street intersection opposite the former Vermont Transit terminal.

Over the decades—particularly since 2000—public attention to the Parkway details and the evolution of roadway design, particularly for walk and bike modes, got completely lost in the shuffle.  A walk/bike advocate left in shock after recently viewing the current design of just Pine Street and Lakeside --neither Lakeside or Pine features a shred of quality walk or bike infrastructure!  No bike lanes on either Pine or Lakeside, a degradation of the west side Pine Street sidewalk to shared space with cyclists, and for the brave cyclist the prospect of sharing the vehicle lanes with hopes painted “sharrows” afford sufficient safety.  And not a single roundabout intersection like that at the upper end of Locust St. on Shelburne Street adjacent to Christ the King school grounds set for construction in 2017.  Properly designed single lane roundabouts provide the highest safety for all modes and least delay.  The City’s own analysis confirms signals instead of roundabouts increase the daily worker commute by 3.5 minutes and from peak delay alone wastes 6,000 gallons of gas annually at each signal. 

Ironically the continuous Parkway lack of quality walk/bike facilities compares to world class long term design found in the North Avenue corridor planning approved in July by the study Advisory Committee featuring protected bike lanes (cycle track) the length of the corridor and adoption of safe walk and bike mode roundabouts replacing three of the seven signalized intersections (also improving safety and service for cars too!).  One can look in vain for similar walk/bike facilities on the Parkway.

The 0.7 mile “new” Parkway roadway already questioned for safety for those who walk and bike includes new signals at Home, Pine and Lakeside (found by the Court to be congested) intersections.  The “new” Parkway section offers a shared walk/bike pathway on west side, again creating conflicts and inferior safety for walk and bike modes.  One sure way not to encourage urban bicycling is building shared walk and bike facilities aside busy streets.  And, of course, the Lakeside neighborhood faces increased driving time to get to downtown over and above a reduced quality walking and bicycling environment.   The Parkway going from four lanes to the two-lane current design offered ample room to fit separate walk and bike facilities on the new section.  

Changing to protected bike lanes—cycle track—and sidewalks presents the obvious best choice.  And replacing signals with single lane roundabouts, a choice recommended by an independent engineering panel and rejected by the City a decade ago, meets the for top quality safety and service.  In other words, follow the blueprint already as developed in the North Avenue plan. 

Worry about re-design and a possible Act 250 amendment cannot take second place to the needs of the South End neighborhoods and the safe all-modes movement of residents, workers and visitors.  Walker safety at roundabouts?  In spite of some claiming pedestrians vulnerable at roundabouts, the mix of single and two lane roundabouts in the U.S. numbering about four thousand have yet to result in a single fatality spanning a period of over 24 years.  (The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in a 2001 study U.S. roundabouts cut serious and fatal injuries by about 90%, and AARP advocates conversion of signals to roundabouts as seniors are particularly vulnerable to serious injuries at signal or sign control intersections.)
There remains the fact that the Parkway literally cuts off the end of Pine Street severing the current walk/bike connection of that neighborhood from the Kmart Plaza area.  There is that little question of cost—the Parkway cost estimate now reaches $40 million and continues to grow as time goes on.  Still, for the City, re-design for quality walk and bike (and cars too!) infrastructure with a cooperative Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAOT) can and must be done.  Fortunately the City share of project costs is 2% so from the financial standpoint the City has a lot to gain instead of losing on just about every count building the current design.  The question must be asked how can one spend $40 million in an urban neighborhood and not install at least a tiny bit of quality walk bike infrastructure?  Well, the Parkway now shows exactly how to accomplish that very feat!

A sea change in the direction of urban development occurred since the 1960s when the suburbs around Burlington grew, Burlington population treaded water, and households favored car transportation for all trips.  That trend reversed with less than ten percent of the population now desiring to live where access to services and shopping can only occur by car.  Yes, Vermonters of all ages now want to live in downtowns and urban areas where services and social life can take place without car dependence.  And, with the baby-boomers aging out, Vermont and Burlington anticipates modest overall population growth while during the 2000-2030 Census projection shows those aged 65 and above growing from 12 percent of the population to 24 percent statewide—for Burlington this means an increase of more than 200 persons a year added to our senior set.   Now the “Maple Street neighborhood” looks to improve their quality of life, reduce the impact of traffic and increasingly rely on meeting their transportation needs without resorting to car ownership.  As now designed the Parkway clearly dims that possibility.

It is not surprising then division in the neighborhood and City continues on whether or not to build the Parkway and if so, how to meet the new demands for the project being both walkable and bikable for affected residents.  Some want the project to die, others want it to go forward, and informal discussions at the Burlington Walk Bike Council point to insuring the best possible walk/bike infrastructure if the project does move ahead.  That infrastructure does not exist in the current design.  The Circumferential Highway—the City was first to oppose later phases of that project—cancelling resulted in a waste of $40 million of transportation dollars according to Vermont Digger (VAOT Secretary Searles this week put the number at $32 million).  Does the City really want to repeat that same level of waste by proceeding as designed on a roadway project within its own borders?

In the mid-1960s Jackie Gleason and Lawrence Welk shows held forth on Saturday night TV—and Burlington began the now half century planning for a Champlain Parkway.  Revised designs can make substantial improvements beneficial to all modes and the neighborhoods. Now Burlington faces a current design which if built likely assures the Queen City becoming the laughing stock of the Vermont walk and bike community while at the same time forcing unnecessarily long commute times for workers as well as added travel congestion for the Lakeside and Maple Street neighborhoods—quite an accomplishment for a $40 million dollar taxpayer investment!