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Friday, 23 May 2008
The Renaissance squares
Topic: urban issues

I made the mistake of going to the Renaissance Square dog-and-pony show this week. The organizers - the seemingly unbreakable coalition of downtown business interests, county government lickspittles, and engineering and construction firms - did a good job of hiding the event in the inner reaches of the Riverside Convention Center. No signs directed the few attendees to the room. But that turned out to be good for social intercourse: you had to ask directions from passersby in the hallway.

You didn't actually need to get into the room, though, to understand what the project - a perennial shapeshifter now hastily reconfigured to meet funding deadlines - is all about. You only needed to meditate on the convention center itself. Remember when the East Main-South Avenue area was packed with historic buildings and storefronts? And remember when so many of them came tumbling down to make way for a, well, conventional design?

That's exactly what the well-connected downtown crowd wants for East Main and Clinton. Go to the Democrat and Chronicle feature on the new RenSquare plan and see for yourself. The plan is pure Suburban Office Park: a series of off-the-shelf, boring facades, varied at the eastern extremity with a few big windows, and shown up big time by the magnificent Granite Building to the west. (The bus station is hidden in the back, with a platform design that will require buses to back up as they leave the bays. I can't wait to stand there and take in the music and fine aromas of the massed diesels.)

Nothing in any of the RenSquare literature or on the dog-and-pony-show placards refers to green features, intermodality (remember the case made long ago for putting the buses at the train station?), accessibility, or bike-and-pedestrian friendliness. Choose your favorite element from the pro-environmental list - and you won't find it at RenSquare.

When I said some of this to a honcho at the unveiling (and put that veil of shame back on, pronto!), I was asked if I wanted to see downtown continue to deteriorate. This is the rhetorical equivalent of what the RenSquare design team has done: deploying the crassest of clichés to weaken the opposition. They surely must understand that downtown's real friends want an entirely different pattern of redevelopment to unfold: compare the incremental growth and repopulation of the East End, accomplished organically and on a human scale - with, admittedly, some aesthetic clunkers thrown in.

But look for RenSquare honchos to stay on message. If you're not on board with their scheme, you're an enemy of downtown and an impediment to economic revitalization. And don't be so cheeky as to talk about transportation policy or green ideas. What do you think this is, a transit center? And where do you think you are, Copenhagen?

In their relentless campaign to saddle us with an example of old-fashioned, white bread Americana, the RenSquare pushers are leading with a rhetorical cousin of "if you're not with us, you're against us." And make no mistake, in regard to the fine points democratic engagement, they have taken more than a little from the playbook of Rove, Cheney, and Bush.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:47 EDT
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Tuesday, 8 January 2008
Travel mode
Topic: urban issues

I’ve just returned from Cyclotopia, formerly known as Ecotopia or the Pacific Northwest, and I’m brimming with thoughts about urban transportation.

In cities like Seattle, which I explored for five days, and Portland, the locals take transportation seriously. I understand their high-ranking public officials actually utter words like “bus,” “rail,” and “bicycle,” and not just as token references.

Take Seattle. Though this major trade, commercial and aerospace hub is notorious for sprawl and traffic jams, it’s remarkably friendly to bikers and pedestrians. There are marked bike lanes aplenty, and locking posts in all the logical spots. (The posts are actually steel pipes bent into a squarish “C” with the end-points bolted to the pavement; the horizontal section sits conveniently at the level of a traditional bike’s top tube. This design, elegant in its simplicity and probably cheap as dirt, allows for locking two bikes, one on each side. I suppose it would be simple to use two locks per bike for added security – and the two-lock method is certainly preferred in urban settings.)

The bike literature says Seattle has one of the most organized and largest biker populations in the country, and the infrastructure bears this out. Yet I was surprised at how relatively few bikers were on the streets. The weather was no obstacle. Seattle gets lots of slow, steady rain in the winter - Cyclotopian bikes are equipped with full fenders at a rate well above the national average - but the temperatures are moderate, even in January. And the trendy areas of town were packed with Gore-Tex’d and sumptuously fleeced yuppies, a naturally bike-inclined demographic. But still: I don’t think there were more bikers actually biking than you’d see in mid-winter in Rochester. Not even around the home store of REI Coop, the premier outfitter, which has surrounded itself with a quasi-wild microhabitat complete with MTB pseudo-trails - right next to thundering Interstate 5.

One reason might be the lay of the land. Seattle is mighty hilly. If your daily commute took you west from the Volunteer Park area, a delightful set of neighborhoods, to downtown and the waterfront, you’d start the day with a schuss. There are some great downhill runs, for sure. But as every experienced biker knows, what goes down must later grind upward. And for many Seattle downtown office workers, the trip home is a long pull - even adjusting for a possible boost from a tailwind off Puget Sound.

And this is where Rochester and other cities in our region have the upper hand. The terrain here is conducive to bike transportation. You may not be riding in a marked bike lane, and you may have to hunt for a signpost to lock up to, and you may have to slip-and-slide through slush in December and January and beyond (though, thanks to our fossil-fueled competitors, global warming may make slush a thing of the past, even deep in winter). But no matter where you go around these parts, you won’t need to power up a 10 percent grade for a half mile - and then after stopping for a red light, contemplate an immediate repeat performance.

Don’t get the wrong impression, however. I think the Pacific Northwest is great, and I plan to explore it by bike this coming year, possibly as the first leg of a cross-country trek. (I planned to do this last summer, but stuff happened, and I switched to a tour of Northern NY and New England.) But the truth is, the ideal place for biking is wherever you happen to be – you know, that old business about “being present” and “in the moment.”

Right now, I’m thinking about my commute to RIT tomorrow morning. It will be windy and a little cool (we hit 64F here today!), and the Lehigh Valley Trail will be open. Maybe I’ll see a red-tailed hawk along the way, as I did on Monday. It doesn’t get better than that.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:16 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008 23:49 EST
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Friday, 14 December 2007
Let it snow; let it be shoveled
Topic: urban issues

Here’s a challenge for all bicyclists.

Too often we’re figuratively tangled in our own spokes. We forget about the transportation matrix we depend on: the policies that determine motor traffic conditions, for example; or the state of mass transit. And we’ve got a special responsibility to grapple with issues that affect our transport cousins: pedestrians, in-line skaters, bus riders and rail passengers, wheelchair users, et al. So let me throw this at you:

With substantial snowfalls coming our way, many people will effectively be immobilized. We all know the reason. The sidewalks will not be shoveled, so pedestrians and people in wheelchairs (or those with other mobility challenges) will be forced to stay indoors or take their chances on the street.

As non-motorized folks we can appreciate the situation. We know everything is not okay just because the salt trucks and plows do the minimum so cars and trucks and Hummers can get where they’re going. We understand that basic rights – of free association and public participation – are at stake here. And that many people, sometimes including ourselves, are being denied these rights.

I was thinking about this as I waited for the bus this morning at the corner of Monroe and Meigs, ready to put my bike on the rack and take a leisurely, affordable ride out to Pittsford and the Nazareth campus. Well, the Monroe-Meigs eastbound stop is right in front of a Rent-A-Center, as good an example of predatory, parasitic capitalism as anything. And the RAC guys are living up to their seasonal tradition: they seem to have a hands-off policy regarding snow removal, and so their stretch of public sidewalk is often impassable – even though their customer base must be long on pedestrians.

But RAC is not alone. Up and down Monroe Avenue, and in most other commercial and residential areas, non-shoveling is the great leveler. Businesses large and small, prosperous and struggling, worthy and wretched, all – or many, at least – leave the sidewalk heaped with snow, which then turns to ice, which then turns to slop.

I’ve seen people go head over heels as they tried to negotiate these sidewalks. Now, I’m not one to pump the personal injury lawyers, but you’d think some enterprising client would at least try to take a shovelphobic merchant to the cleaners.

A myth has been circulating that the city sidewalk plows do the job, and no further attention is required. No way. The municipal code makes it clear that owners or first-floor tenants are responsible for removing ice and snow so sidewalks are not hazardous. But there’s no enforcement – not even an educational campaign, nor so much as a fleeting public service announcement. What gives?

This issue is a big one to disability-rights activists. Not long ago (last winter?) some activists took City Hall folks on a little reality tour of snowbound walks and bus stops. Nice photo-ops for the officials. But where’s the progress?

I’ve got this dream that bikers will become the vanguard on this issue. Groups like Critical Mass could swoop down on lazy merchants and institutions (including not-for-profits that should know better) and read them the mobility riot act. We could press for better bike-locking/storage facilities while we’re at it. Maybe we could bring our own shovels to clean the walks, and throw the stuff up on the offenders’ porches or whatever. A simple transfer of wealth. Surely no businessperson could object to that.

Another concern: I often see plowing contractors illegally pushing snow out from driveways and parking lots onto the public street. Any winter biker knows this can create a real hazard – dense snow and ice packed against the curb, to the point that the bicyclist’s travel lane is blocked. We should be addressing this problem, too.

I love snow, actually. I’m looking forward to a great x-c- skiing season. Might even get the snowshoes out soon. But I really hate it when human carelessness allows the snowfall to hurt the vulnerable.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:34 EST
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Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Ode to winter cycling, with caveats
Topic: urban issues

I’ve been having a grand old time with the snowy roadways and trails the last few days. Notice I said “snowy.” The slush is another matter; and the infamous, slip-and-slide “car snot” or brownish gunky pancake that coats the back streets, is another matter still. Notice I said “matter” twice. Both times I meant “crap.”

But back to the snow. Ah, what a pleasure to glide silently through a couple inches of powder on a trail glowing with reflected ambient light. The purity of it all. Well, of all but the embedded particulates and various toxics that come with every form of precipitation.

On Sunday afternoon I mounted my older set of Innova steel-studded 1.5” tires on the Kona. Just in time. Because on Monday I needed to commute out to the RIT campus for the first day of classes. Everything worked great – though for while I’ll have to use East River Road instead of the Lehigh Valley Trail (north section) and thus will exchange a great nature experience for a couple miles of looking over my shoulder. I keep dreaming that trail sponsors will start plowing the most popular lengths of trail to encourage year-round bike commuting. But that’s a long way off.

This morning I rode out Monroe Avenue to Pittsford and the Nazareth campus. Some people are amazed I take this route. Frankly, I do so only because it’s the quickest way from my house, and I have trouble mobilizing my body in time to do the longer, slower, but much more pleasant Canalway Trail. But Monroe isn’t too terrible for the “reverse commuter.” Very little motor traffic heads east from the city line early in the morning.

With some snow and slush at the fringes, Monroe Avenue doesn’t put its best face forward, no matter what time it is or which way the traffic is flowing. But don’t rule it out. Just be careful, especially at the I-590 juncture.

You can also go intermodal. The Monroe bus line (number 7) has frequent service from very early to pretty late, so you can toss your bike – I mean lovingly cradle it – on the carrying rack and climb aboard to comfort. Quite often I bike the whole way out to Nazareth from the Highland Park neighborhood then take the bus back to the city from the Pittsford four corners. Satisfying and cheap.

This afternoon, though, I saw some of the downside. It happened a minute after I’d got off the bus across from Monroe Square, near Union Street. As I was re-mounting my panniers, a young woman carrying a two- or three-year-old in her arms came up and asked me if the number 7 bus had just gone by. When I said it had, she seemed more distressed than impatient. She’d been struggling to navigate that Rochester early-winter special, the unshoveled commercial strip sidewalk. And carrying a little kid obviously added to the burden. I told her another bus had to be coming sometime soon, but she took up her precious cargo again and headed west on foot. She really could have waited – but there was no shelter at the bus stop, or anywhere close by, so walking into the wind made some kind of sense.

That’s the reality that those who warm up to things like Renaissance Square – a maxi-station gone astray - would rather not think about. They scheme to get their developers’ windfall built with (mostly) transportation money, while those who (literally or figuratively) miss the bus and pound the pavement get the cold shoulder.

Maybe we need a true intermodal task force, a real political coalition of mass-transit and human-powered-vehicle folks, to address the full range of problems. I’m going to think more about that after my next bike commute, i.e. early tomorrow morning. And there’s bound to some additional time for contemplation on Thursday or Friday, when I mount the new Nokian carbide-studded tires that I ordered through Freewheelers, my favorite “LBS.” The well-worn Innovas on my bike are approaching the end of their service life. The Nokians, with long-wearing studs and (reportedly) superior grip, will help ensure my personal service life as a winter cyclist won’t be unnaturally short.

(This and other bike-related posts of mine are viewable at RocBike.com, as well. Check out this fine new site, created by activist Jason Crane as a means of popularizing all aspects of cycle culture.) 


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:13 EST
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Wednesday, 21 November 2007
Grant us peace
Topic: urban issues

Three homicides in short order may have shown Mayor Duffy’s surge – I mean “zero tolerance” police sweep – for what it is: a socially as well as fiscally expensive exercise in futility. Or worse: a show of force that will pack the courts, and maybe the jails, largely with people of color, and will end up fueling the cycle of alienation and oppression.

As with the Bush “surge” in Iraq, the Rochester gambit can’t help but pacify this or that neighborhood temporarily. But what then? Does anyone, even Bob Duffy, believe that a nightly blitzkrieg will alter the conditions that produce urban crime? I suppose the aim is to keep a lid on things till the weather is cold enough to keep people off the sidewalks and corners. Then the boys in blue can declare victory, and the rest of us can watch the homicide rate seek its level.

Just tonight the city council gave Duffy the $2.5 million he requested to keep the sweep going a little longer. What worthwhile programs will therefore take a hit so the cops can keep pulling overtime?

I intend to cover this business in the next Justicia, the newsletter I edit for the Judicial Process Commission. (Go to rocjpc.org for past issues, etc.) In the meantime, please join me in frustration.

I remember Bob Duffy when he was the liaison to a police-community relations coalition that included my employer, the Peace and Justice Education Center, JPC, Montgomery Neighborhood Center, and other groups. He didn’t impress me as a dragnet type then; nor did the coalition ever suggest the kind of strategy he’s pursuing now.


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 00:37 EST
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