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Livability of Cities

* Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities: Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. President Obama will re-evaluate the transportation funding process to ensure that smart growth considerations are taken into account.

NYT: A Bicycle Evangelist With the Wind Now at His Back

For years, Earl Blumenauer has been on a mission, and now his work is paying off. He can tell by the way some things are deteriorating around here.
“People are flying through stop signs on bikes,” Mr. Blumenauer said. “We are seeing in Portland bike congestion. You’ll see people bikingacross the river on a pedestrian bridge. They are just chock-a-block.”

Mr. Blumenauer, a passionate advocate of cycling as a remedy for everything from climate change to obesity, represents most of Portland in Congress, where he is the founder and proprietor of the 180 (plus or minus)-member Congressional Bicycle Caucus. Long regarded in some quarters as quixotic, the caucus has come into its own as hard times, climate concerns, gyrating gas prices and worries about fitness turn people away from their cars and toward their bikes.

“We have been flogging this bicycle thing for 20 years,” said Mr. Blumenauer, a Democrat. “All of a sudden it’s hot.”

But Mr. Blumenauer’s goals are larger than putting Americans on two wheels. He seeks to create what he calls a more sustainable society, including wiser use of energy, farming that improves the land rather than degrades it, an end to taxpayer subsidies for unwise development — and a transportation infrastructure that looks beyond the car.

For him, the global financial collapse is “perhaps the best opportunity we will ever see” to build environmental sustainability into the nation’s infrastructure, with urban streetcar systems, bike and pedestrian paths, more efficient energy transmission and conversion of the federal government’s 600,000-vehicle fleet to use alternate fuels.

“These are things that three years ago were unimaginable,” he said. “And if they were imaginable, we could not afford them. Well, now when all the experts agree that we will be lucky if we stabilize the economy in a couple of years, when there is great concern about the consequences of the collapse of the domestic auto producers, gee, these are things that are actually reasonable and affordable.”

All this might still be pie-in-the-sky were it not for one of Mr. Blumenauer’s fellow biking enthusiasts, Representative James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, avid cyclist and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which has jurisdiction over surface transportation.

“He’s been wonderful,” Mr. Oberstar said of his Oregon colleague. And as support for cycling grows, he said, builders, the highway construction lobby and others have stopped regarding biking as a “nuisance” and started thinking about how they can do business.

With an eye on the potential stimulus package, cycling advocates “have compiled a list of $2 billion of projects that can be under construction in 90 days,” Mr. Oberstar said, adding that prospects are “bright.”

In addition, after many attempts, this fall Mr. Blumenauer saw Congress approve his proposal to extend the tax breaks offered for employee parking to employers who encourage biking. The measure, which Mr. Blumenauer called a matter of “bicycle parity,” was part of a bailout bill.

Mr. Blumenauer has spent a lot of time on another issue that ordinarily draws little attention: the federally subsidized flood insurance program. The program serves people who own property along coasts and rivers who otherwise would pay enormous premiums for private flood insurance, if they could obtain it at all.

The insurance “subsidized people to live in places where nature repeatedly showed they weren’t wanted,” he said. They might be better off if they did not live there, he said, but “it’s un-American to say, ‘Get out.’ ” Politicians who should confront the problem “are betting Nimto, not in my term of office,” he said. They hope that disasters will spare their districts or, if they strike, that the government will come to the rescue, Mr. Blumenauer said.

A Portland native, Mr. Blumenauer, 60, has spent his adult life in elective office. He graduated from Lewis and Clark College in 1970 (after organizing an unsuccessful 1969 campaign to lower the state’s voting age to 18) and worked until 1977 as assistant to the president of Portland State University. In 1972, he won a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives. He moved to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in 1978, and from there, in 1986, he won election to the Portland City Council. Though he lost a mayoral election in 1992, he easily won election to the United States House in 1996 and has not faced serious opposition since.

Mr. Blumenauer entered Congress just after Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker, killed a stopgap spending measure, shutting down much of the government, out of pique over his treatment on Air Force One. “Partisan tensions were very raw,” Mr. Blumenauer said. The bicycle caucus was “a way to bring people together.”

Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican and fellow bicyclist who represented upstate New York in Congress until 2007, agreed. When “partisanship was at an all-time high and tolerance of another point of view was at a longtime low,” he wore the bike caucus’s plastic bicycle lapel pin. “Bicycling unites people regardless of party affiliation,” he said.

In addition to bicycles, Mr. Blumenauer is particularly interested in public broadcasting and the plight of pollinators like honeybees. He is a founder of a “livable communities task force” whose goal, he said, is to educate members of Congress and their staffs on the benefits of transportation alternatives, open space, sustainability, vibrant downtowns, affordable housing and transparency in government.

Initially, he said, these interests marked him as “kind of left coast.” Not anymore. “They are becoming very mainstream,” said Adam B. Schiff, a Democrat who represents in Congress the area around Pasadena, Calif., and who, with Mr. Blumenauer’s bicycle advice, now regularly rides to work from his home in Maryland. “He has been way out in front of the Congress,” Mr. Schiff said. “Now the rest of us are trying to catch up.”

When Mr. Blumenauer is in his Portland district, he usually gets around by bike, cycling about 20 miles in a typical day. He has three bikes in Washington and five here, and he cycles in all weather, even in the unusual snow Portland has had recently. “In falling snow you can get some traction,” he said.

But the surge of bicycling in Portland has not been free of incident. The Oregonian newspaper and bloggers have reported on “bike rage,” drunken biking, hit-and-run bicycle accidents and other problems. Drivers complain about bikers who ignore traffic rules or hog narrow roads, phenomena some irritated motorists attribute to feelings of entitlement or moral superiority.

Mr. Blumenauer brushes off this criticism. “They are burning calories, not fossil fuel, they are taking up much less space, they are seeing the world at 10 miles per hour instead of 20 or 30,” he said. “And even though there are occasionally cranky or rude cyclists, they are no greater a percentage than cranky or rude motorists.”

Plus, he added, “they have really fought for their place on the asphalt.”


Daily Progress: A 2-wheeled variety of fun and celebration

By Bryan McKenzie

Published: January 10, 2009

They’re organized, militant and recruiting: Members of the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation are tossing down a bicycler party Friday evening on the backside of the Market Street parking garage and they’re inviting everyone who pedals.

“It’s designed for regular commuters, those who came out to ride with us in neighborhood rides, weekend bikers and those who are bicycle-curious,” said Shelly Stern of ACCT. “There’ll be a lot of information, a bit of entertainment and fun.”

Like motorcycle riders, bicyclists have their own subculture. They dress oddly. They dodge cars. They like to toss parties and talk of two wheels. For instance, Friday’s Bike Extravaganza! includes an “interactive, multi-media celebration of biking,” smoothies made in a bicycle-powered blender, mechanic’s advice, customizing and decorating bikes, raffles, snacks and more.

Bike to the other side

The idea is to not focus on cyclists’ wants like trails and lanes, but to invite others into the lifestyle.

“It’s a culture. There are a lot of fun people who love their bicycles and they are fun to be around,” Ms. Stern said. “There are different aspects of bicycling, different subgroups and, with the extravaganza, we’re sending out a long arm to try and circle everyone into the fold.”

Ms. Stern knows the culture well. Last year she sold her 1987 Subaru wagon for a ticket to Belize (about $500). Now she pedals a tandem bike with her 8-year-old son to get to school and work and shop for groceries.

“There are times I miss the car, but it really hasn’t been that hard to go without it. Sometimes lousy weather is a deterrent to riding, but you get used to it,” Ms. Stern said. “It does take a lot of advance scheduling and sometimes I have no choice but to borrow a friend’s car or ask for a ride.”

Naturally, there are advantages. She gets plenty of exercise. Her family eats less because she can carry less on the bicycle. She and her son get plenty of one-to-one time to and from school. Maintenance costs are cheap and much of it she can do herself.

“I learned a lot of the maintenance from the bike docs when I volunteered with Community Bikes,” Ms. Stern said, referring to a local organization that helps area residents keep their wheels in good condition.

Friday’s extravaganza also is designed for those who rode with ACCT members last summer as part of the alliance’s Discover Transportation Freedom project. The grant-funded effort put cyclists into neighborhoods promoting bikes as a better way to get there, wherever there is.

Pedaling fun

More than 220 people joined ACCT volunteers on the neighborhood rides.

“We wanted to show people how easy it can be to commute by bicycle and safe ways to get to where they wanted to go,” Stern recalled. “A lot of people came out, got to know their neighborhood and neighbors a little better and had a lot of fun.”

Fun, she said, is exactly why Bike Extravaganza! is being thrown.

“It’s not just about information, although there’ll be plenty of that,” she said. “It’s about fun and people.”

CTS now on Google Transit Maps!

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Google Transit is now available for all Charlottesville Transit Service (CTS) routes. Directions for the shortest distance between two points by bus are fully integrated into the popular Google Maps feature. The user enters the starting and destination addresses, and chooses between walking, mass transit, or driving. Google Maps will calculate the shortest distance for multiple options, show the schedules of pick-up and arrival, estimate a total time for the trips, and give the fare prices. It will even tally the cost difference between busing and driving.

Google Transit was unveiled in Portland, Oregon about a year and a half ago, and it has been steadily spreading to metropolitan areas around the county. Currently, 21 other transit agencies in Virginia have opted to join Google Transit. This is the highest level of participation for any state in the country, surpassing California by almost 30%. This may be attributed to a strong push by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to join Google Transit.

Ridership for CTS is already at all-time high levels. According to a press release, “Over 1.7 million passengers boarded CTS buses from June 1, 2007 through July 31, 2008, a 12.5% upswing in service use compared to the previous fiscal year. Ridership in the first four months of the 2009 fiscal year is up almost 14%, to 658,040 passengers.” There is some evidence to suggest that the enhanced usability Google Transit offers may boost ridership even further. A local transit authority in Duluth, Minnesota saw a 12% jump after joining a year ago.

There is no cost to CTS for providing its schedule and route data to Google. Google Transit does not make use of the real-time CTS satellite global positioning system (GPS) equipment, though GPS data on the expected stop time of each bus is available through the City’s website. University of Virginia’s transit service is not currently available through Google Transit.

via Daniel Nairn at C-ville Tomorrow

Wall Street Journal says: Your Car is a CASH GUZZLER

A Real Auto Bailout: Escape Your Car


Last week, the auto industry finally got its bailout.

But is it time for Americans to rescue their own finances from their cars?

Families are now bracing for the mother of all recessions. They're looking for every chance to save a dollar.

Forget lattes and store-brand cereal. If you really want to see where your money is going, take a closer look at your car. Foreign or domestic, it doesn't matter. It's a cash guzzler, and it is probably costing you more than anything else except your home.

How much? First there's the actual capital cost of buying the vehicle. Obviously people can spend as little as a few thousand dollars buying an old clunker. But most spend a lot more. And that initial cost is just the start. Now add everything from gas and maintenance to insurance, registration, taxes, tolls, parking, tickets and so on.

You'll be lucky if you're spending less than about $4,000 a year. Most people will pay a lot more. If you buy the vehicle with a loan, you'll have to pay interest. If you pay cash, you have to factor in the interest you would have made on that money if you had saved it instead. That's a real cost too, and a substantial one, though most people forget about it.

In 2007, the most recent year that numbers are available, the American Automobile Association figured its members paid about $7,800 a year on average to own and maintain their cars. That figure dropped to about $6,200 for small-car owners.

The AAA's numbers were tabulated before the surge, and recent collapse, of gasoline prices. It's hard to imagine gas prices will to remain at today's panic-level $1.60 per gallon for long. But even if they do, that will only cut the AAA's figures by about $400 annually.

These are not trifling costs. Drivers are hemhorraging money. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that in 2006 vehicles sucked down nearly 17 cents of every family dollar.

Maybe it's time for smart families to consider some really tough choices.

Life without a car may seem inconceivable. They are useful and can be fun. In most parts of America, you really can't survive without one. And they've been hammered into the culture and the national psyche.

But a lot of things are happening these days that nobody expected. Rules are changing. People need to make every dollar count.

Trading down to the cheapest car possible is one move. Dumping one vehicle from a two-car household is tougher to do, but offers real savings. Moving into a city with a downtown, and getting rid of your cars completely, can save you even more. When you factor in the savings, city real estate might actually work out in your favor.

Residents of inner-ring and upscale suburbs, as well as everyone in car-dependent cities like Dallas and Atlanta, are in the worst of all possible worlds on this. They're paying plenty for real estate – and then paying even more on top of that to run a car for each adult in the home.

Surely they'd be better off moving out to the country, where they would still need their cars but at least real estate is cheap, or into a downtown where they could lose the cars.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. We are going to see a lot of necessity. It may lead to some interesting developments.

Write to Brett Arends at