Getting Connected: Online Services for City Organizations

An article of mine originally published in the March 2017 edition Kansas Government Journal.

Image from jtc600.co.uk

Image from jtc600.co.uk

In today’s digital age, residents expect city services and information to be instantly and always available online. As elected leaders and public managers, we need to keep up with today’s technology and offer these services to residents. There are many ways your organization can utilize online services to better inform residents and improve efficiencies within your organization.

Manage Citizen Engagement

Many cities are using digital services for residents to ask questions online, find department contact information and report problems using an app or website.  Using a centralized system for citizen engagement and reporting can also serve as a tool for cities to manage requests, delegate issues to the appropriate staff and monitor progress. Services like Comcate (www.comcate.com) or SeeClickFix (www.seeclickfix.com) are already being used by many cities in the state, including Kansas City, Shawnee, Olathe, Topeka, and Wichita. Services like these often utilize smartphone apps allowing citizens to take pictures or send GPS coordinates if necessary.   

Create a Conversation

Whether you want to know how your residents feel about construction or just gather constructive feedback, there are several options for cities to engage residents and get credible, data-driven answers to civic questions.  Citizen engagement apps can be used by city planners, administration, parks and recreation, transit, economic development and city leaders in a variety of ways. Many of these platforms can be integrated with e-mail and social media systems to promote your engagement efforts easily.

  • MySidewalk (www.app.mysidewalk.com) is an engagement platform which allows the community to respond to questions and can be customized based on the data and feedback desired.
  • Nextdoor (www.nextdoor.com/about_us) is a private social network to connect neighborhoods. A verification process is used for registered users and neighborhoods can be defined as you see fit. Nextdoor works to connect communities and share information which helps build stronger neighborhoods.
  • Bang the Table (www.bangthetable.com/) combines many features to help cities dive into questions and topics with mapping capabilities, a collective idea board, polls, surveys and online forums.
  • Peak Democracy (www.peakdemocracy.co/) is a cloud-based online citizen engagement platform built to increase citizen participation and build public trust in government. Their platform offers many of the tools you find in other online engagement systems as well as a mediation/monitoring component to keep conversations civil.
  • Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com/) is perhaps the most well-known online survey tool and is used by many cities to gather data to make decisions.

Make Your City Easy to Navigate

Is your city up to date on Google Maps? Google Maps is one of the main places people get information about your city. Making sure your city’s bike lanes, sidewalks, trails, streets, and bus routes are accurate on Google Maps is important for visitors and residents alike. Aside from transportation, it’s also important to make sure information like operating hours and phone numbers are accurate for your facilities including City Hall, the library and recreation centers. Getting up-to-date on Google Maps is simple, just head over to www.mapmaker.google.com.   

Create a City Newsletter or E-Mail List

Today, it is easier than ever to create an online newsletter or e-mail list for residents to receive information about city programs, services or events. There are many options available but MailChimp (www.mailchimp.com) and Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com) are perennial favorites which offer easy set up for even the smallest organizations.

Mass Notification Systems

Notification systems are critical communication tools during severe weather or emergency situations. However, these systems can also be used to engage the community and send out information on traffic alerts, road closures and general community information.  Check with your county emergency management office to see if a system is already in use or check out on of these options:   

  • Everbridge/Nixle (www.everbridge.com) offers government entities a way to notify people affected by an incident based on location. Notifications can be delivered to people who opt-in to the system via e-mail, SMS text and voice calling.
  • Civic Plus’ CivicReady (www.civicplus.com) system offers a mass notification system within their integrated technology platforms for local government with location-based communication tools delivered in text, e-mail and phone messages.

Improve Office Communication

Email isn’t the only way to communicate. Many organizations use online messaging services like Slack (www.slack.com) to handle internal communication. Trello (www.trello.com) is an online project management system that allows teams to upload files, photos and track progress of a project. If your organization has an Office 365 subscription, you may already have access to Microsoft’s messaging service, Teams (teams.microsoft.com), as part of your subscription. Instead of keeping track of email threads these services let you set up searchable group chats for different departments and projects. Staff can even upload files, share images and comment on posts. There’s even a ‘like’ button to cut down on ‘I acknowledge this’ type emails. Most of these services, like Slack, offer free versions to test out or for small organizations. Why not give it a go?

Better Utilize Social Media

Social media has great potential as a community engagement and customer service tool. We’ve all heard this before but few cities use social media to the fullest. Posting good content often and addressing concerns is key. Staff assigned to manage social media should be trained in customer service and your city should have a process in place for social media inquiries and requests to be handed off to the proper department or staff people.

Social media can be an important way to push out updates about city services but these messages aren’t always the best posts to build engagement. People love to read and share stories containing familiar information (i.e. their neighborhood or friends).  Look for stories to share which connect people to your city services. For example, sharing photos of your city’s police officers stopping at a kid’s lemonade stand or a librarian helping someone find a job are heartfelt ways to engage with your residents. A great model of this type of engagement is the Facebook page for Fort Collins Police Services in Colorado (www.facebook.com/fortcollinspoliceservices).  Fort Collins has seen posts go viral, mostly including adorable pictures of the K-9 unit. By driving ‘likes’ through fun, cute and heartwarming posts, Fort Collins has been able to build a robust audience for when they need to get the word out about emergencies or pressing issues, as well as build rapport with the community.

Illustrate Your Point

People respond to visual communication which is why infographics have become increasingly popular. Infographics are poster-like images that use charts, diagrams and illustrations to tell a story. Infographics can be used to communicate just about anything - from budget information to police call statistics. Wichita published a great example outlining their annual budget (goo.gl/52Ha2O). Online services have made it easy for anyone to make an effective infographic. Sites like Piktochart (www.piktochart.com) or Venngage (www.venngage.com) offer free and paid plans which allow you to easily make infographics to embed in your website or print out as publications or posters.

America Needs a Manager-in-chief

America could use a touch more of Chris Traeger. 

America could use a touch more of Chris Traeger. 

The American presidency is seen as solely political. This expectation makes sense. Presidents are elected over the course of grueling, scorched earth campaigns. They are the ones that work the most politically divisive problems. Heck, a big part of their job surrounds other politicians. Presidents are the epitome of political figures.

But that doesn’t mean that their entire job is to drive politics. The president is the chief executive. They are the ones meant to lead and manage the bureaucracy. You know, the “boring” parts of government.

However, this important aspect of the presidency seems to have been lost. We’re electing leaders exclusively based on political points and personality instead of their proven ability to lead one of the largest organizations in the world. The federal government directly employs nearly 3 million people, not including non-civilian military. The president is responsible for all of them, yet this fact is largely ignored during elections.

Personally, I’ve always been more passionate about local governance- leading me to peruse a career in city management. City Management is a specialized profession with people dedicating their whole careers to making their communities better through effective management and the slow churn of bureaucracy. I love it, and I think the president, both in current and future administrations, can learn a lot from those that have dedicated their whole careers to managing government better.

So what are some lessons Presidents can learn from city managers?

They Commit to Data-Driven Decision Making

Good managers care about data, without it you’re driving blind. Using data well doesn’t happen overnight. Collecting good data requires investment in time, resources, and staff. Data has the power to weed through politically potent issues and provide clarity through seeking facts. This doesn’t happen if data collection and research is seen as something to cut.

Further, good managers don’t dismiss data they don’t like. They don’t politicize the numbers. A successful manager-in-chief takes those figures and dives deeper. They make effort to fully understand problems and possibly change their opinions based on proof. Even more, if they still hold an opinion despite evidence against it they do not dismiss the evidence as false. Instead, they acknowledge the evidence head on and articulate that they still hold their opinions because of the core values they hold.

They Understand Things Can Be Complex

An effective manager-in-chief doesn’t insist there are easy solutions to all problems. Instead, they understand that anything that comes across their desk made it there because it is hard and complicated. In this they are able to articulate that easy solutions to these problems don’t exist.

An honest way for a manager-in-chief to earn the respect of their coworkers and the American people is to acknowledge the validity of multiple view points. In turn they are also able to articulate the pain points, demonstrating a deep understanding of a problem’s complexity and history. This effort can further add validity to their opinion as it proves they have taken all views and evidence into account.

They Care About Motivations

Building off an understanding of complexity is an appreciation for why people believe what they believe. A president that makes an effort to learn about people’s values and why they hold those values would make an excellent manager-in-chief. In general, we do a bad job digging into people’s values in an effort to understand them. Instead, we either A) make assumptions about people’s backgrounds and belief structure or B) don’t care.

A president that demonstrates an effort to learn and understand why people believe what they believe can make better decisions and create buy-in from their employees and citizens. Acknowledging the other sides’ beliefs matters, especially when making a decision that they wont be happy about. An effort like this would at least demonstrate that the manager-in-chief took serious consideration to their concerns instead of dismissing them instantly.

They Allow Dissent

Effective managers allow their employees to disagree and give them outlets to voice concerns. Attempting to muzzle bureaucrats in an effort to mask dissenting opinions leads to an ineffective workforce. Further, people that work in public service often don’t do it for the pay or the benefits, they do it out of a deep desire to serve their home and fellow Americans. This motive makes them more likely to leak information or go behind the backs of superiors when they have fundamental disagreements with the organization’s direction.

A successful manager-in-chief would give outlets for dissenting opinions to be expressed and would actually listen and take concerns to heart. Hearing and acting on concerns can create a stronger and more impassioned organization.

They Invest in People

A good manager-in-chief doesn’t see the bureaucracy exclusively through the lens of bloat and waste. Instead, they see great potential in a body of committed public servants. They unite all their coworkers under a shared vision and invest in their abilities. Instead of using government workers as a punching bag they instead dig to the true heart of problems and recognize what their government is doing right. Instead of just getting by the ideal manager-in-chief would focus on making government competitive with the private sector in order to hire the best talent our nation has to offer. They would create a culture of tradition, inclusion, fun, and fulfillment.

In the end, a successful manager-in-chief cares about people. They care about constant improvement and see potential and pride within their organization. They recognize the office of the presidency is bigger than them and make every effort to raise the bar for their predecessor to follow.

Taking A City’s Vitals

Often times we measure the livability of a city or neighborhood based on economic success or other data points, like crime rates or demographic information. It turns out, while these numbers are important, they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t describe how a city feels. Does it feel fun? Does it feel lively? Does it feel safe? Heck, cities that have low crime rates can still feel unsafe. This perception matters because it is what informs how people will choose to interact with and live within a place.

As it turns out, there are things you can look out for as you walk around a city that can tell you a lot about the place. These vitals do a lot to inform you about a community’s values and what it’s actually like to live there.

Pedestrians

One of the most important signs of life within a city is whether there are people walking from place to place. More people walking indicates that a city has life. It shows that there are things worth being there for. You can even look at this on a block-by-block biases to see what parts of the city people see as worth going to. Further, the presence of lots of other people on the street reinforces the idea of a place feeling safe. Especially at night.

The presence of pedestrians is largely impacted by:

Comfortable walking conditions. Think about the presence of wide sidewalks, separation from cars on the road, and place making things like street trees, wayfinding, planters, and art.

Active Land Uses. People would much rather walk next to restaurant patios, engaging storefronts, or unique homes than parking lots or blank walls. It’s more dynamic and makes the walk feel shorter.

Density. People need to be able to walk quickly to a diverse range of places. That means those places need to be closer together.

Lighting. At night, people need lighting to both feel safe and be able to navigate.

Who’s out and about?

It takes more than just young twenty-somethings to make a city livable. The presence of kids and seniors is a critical vital sign that shows that your city’s downtown isn’t just a bar or office district. It shows that it’s an actual neighborhood where families feel comfortable raising their kids and seniors can easily get around. Seeing kids at an urban park and seniors on the bus can demonstrate that your city is making strides to make your neighborhood inclusive to everyone.

The Essentials

Unfortunately for many American cities, people can’t live their daily lives just with access to dive bars and trendy restaurants. Successful cities have essential establishments that are needed to live full time in an urban neighborhood. This includes everything from grocery stores, to good schools, to the dentist office. If you see a city with these types of establishments in its core it shows that they are taking livability seriously.

Frequent Transit Service Outside of the 9-5 Work Day

Taking a quick glance at a city’s transit schedule can paint a fairly accurate picture of how livable a city is and where the places worth being are. If a city has frequent bus/rail service serving its urban center late into the night it shows that that part of the city isn’t just an office park. It shows that the city recognizes that people actually live there and that they need to be able to get around.

It Has to Have Character

Seeing prominent displays of art in and around the city show that there is value in creating an identity for the place. Further, street performers and public displays of creating art show that the city is actively inviting people to make their place worth living in. With that said this doesn’t end with art in the traditional sense. Enabling local entrepreneurs to start new businesses further allows locals to shape the unique character of the city. If you see a city demonstrating a strong level of support and investment in arts and entrepreneurs you know you’ve found a city that cares about livability.

Cities as Platforms for Protests

The National Mall has become a symbol for protest and pubic gatherings.

The National Mall has become a symbol for protest and pubic gatherings.

2017 may become known as the year of protests. Seemingly every week since the swearing in of the Trump administration there have been protest in our city streets, capital grounds, and even our airports. Putting aside current politics and sentiment, it’s intriguing to think about how cities act as platforms for people to raise their voice. But here’s the thing, rarely are these public spaces designed for spontaneous large gatherings of passionate people.

Most often the spaces where people protest are meant for casual use, with occasional large, well-coordinated events. Even the National Mall in DC wasn’t originally envisioned to be a space for mass protests by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, one of the original designers. Instead, it was meant for picnics and walks and other gatherings. The space has in fact been loved to death- if the designers knew that the space would be used so heavily by so many they probably wouldn’t have designed it with so much easily killable grass. However, despite this lack of intent, the Mall has become a symbol for protest, free speech, and expression.  In this way the Mall is an example of what every architect and urban designer dreams of. It’s an example of a space that people embraced whole heartedly and made their own. Yes, it was still designed in a way that is attractive to protests (large open space, prominent location) but the people really are what made that space the symbol it is today.

Most cities have spaces like the Mall that are prime for protest, from city hall to statehouses. Most of these civic spaces were designed with some amount of open space. When it comes to “generic” protests these are often the places people go. Again, maybe not intentionally designed for such activity, but it happens because ‘that’s just where you go’ to protest.

What’s interesting is looking at places that are not where people traditionally protest, yet due to particular circumstance they become seized public space. After Trump signed his recent immigration order, most people didn’t take to statehouses to voice their opposition. Instead they went to airports. One of the most prominent protest at JFK in New York drew thousands to a space that was designed for parking cars and dropping off passengers. Protesters filled the space. People hung signs along every level of the parking garage, filling it like stands in an arena. Leaders stood on bollards with megaphones to rile the crowd. This space didn’t have the wide open design characteristics of the Mall, but protesters still embraced it all the same.

Similarly, protesters often take to parking lots and sidewalks outside of Planned Parenthood locations to protest abortion practices. These spaces are often suburban, lacking in open space or comforts. However, they are adopted by the protesters to give them a voice. Planters become soapboxes as the crowed becomes a billboard for passing cars advocating their cause.

As we design our cities we rarely to never take into account designing around protests (of course, many would advocate for designing to detract protesters under arguments of safety). We might think about designing around festivals or large events (which translates a bit) but we don’t think about spontaneous take overs of space. Maybe that’s something to think about as we brainstorm ways to use cities as platforms for people to express their voices.

Cities As Platforms For Creativity

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Creativity is a powerful force. It’s what powers innovation, change, and culture. As cities strive to attract talent, boost economic resiliency, and create unique identities they must attract and develop creative people. In this way cities are a major platform where creativity happens. As such it’s important for cities to embrace this role in order to 1) solve problems and 2) make their place a place worth living.

When talking about creativity in cities it’s easy to assume I’m just talking about artists. In part, I am. Arts are vital to crafting a place’s identity. Again, they make places worth living in. But the arts are only one piece of the catalytic puzzle. Creativity is a wide spread need. Successful cities don’t just stop after encouraging creativity in the arts, they foster creativity in the inventors and the entrepreneurs to make the next big thing. They seek out creative partnerships to tackle the hardest problems. Further, successful cities don’t just encourage creativity within their community. They go further and make creativity a central cornerstone of their governmental organization. Creativity shouldn’t be viewed as an add-on. It shouldn’t be viewed as a luxury option. Fostering creativity both within city government and throughout the community they serve is vital. Nobody ever solved a challenge through stagnation. Our cities can’t afford to be stagnate.

Recently, cities have been put under a larger spotlight in solving problems. Polarization in the national conversation has stalled out progress on the national and even state level. Uncertainty and gridlock are the themes of the day… except in cities. Creative cities have acted as laboratories that other cities follow. Cities are at the forefront of addressing challenges in homelessness, climate change, and quality of life. Cities are the ones largely at the forefront of job creation and access to social services. If you want to solve problems, cities are the place to do it.

Now, I know it’s not that easy. Some cities have been graced with more resources and easier access to human capital. It’s not like a struggling city can simply flick on the creativity switch and overnight become a leader in innovation. What I will say is that in the long term creativity leads to resiliency. Putting in the hard work to create a culture of innovation today creates the platform necessary for actual innovation to happen tomorrow. Creativity is an investment. A necessary one.

What this culture of innovation looks like can differ greatly depending on the place, but there are two commonalities that act as a base in creating a creative culture. The first is access to space. Artists thrive when given studio space and platforms to show their art. They need places to perform. Inventors thrive when given a space to work, build and connect with others. Entrepreneurs thrive simply by having a space to set up shop and access to mentorship. Giving people accessible, affordable space to create is vital and is often missing from communities.

The second commonality is the ability to fail. Creativity is not easy, and the success rate on new ideas usually isn't very high. However, if you don’t wade through the failures you’ll never find the ideas that work. On an organizational level, it needs to be okay for employees to fail. In government it can be difficult, taking risks and failing. Some citizens view government risk taking as an irrresponsible overstep. Yes, governemnts should be irresponsible risk takers, but governments thrive when they are able to take calculated risks. That’s why local government is where problems are solved- they are more able to take risks. Again, calculated risks.

In the end, creativity is a risky business. Creativity means testing the untested. That’s what makes it so necessary in finding new, better ways to do things. And those things are what makes cities great.

I’m That Optimistic Asshole Telling You Unity & Progress Are Possible These Next Four Years

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Donald J. Trump is our president elect. This is not the result I wanted, and for 50% of you it’s not the result you wanted either. Many in my circle are worried, me included. There are many valid concerns; mass deportation forces, access to women’s health, access to general health care, cuts of impactful social programs, shifts in climate progress, perspective validation of hateful mindsets. These are all real possibilities to real people.

However, these concerns do not invalidate President-Elect Trump’s election. Anyone protesting against this validation or seeking comfort in electoral sabotage is directly advocating for an undermining of our democracy. Calls of #NotOurPresident call for a departure from our reality. Peacefully and productively speaking or protesting against Trump’s ideology and proposals is one thing, doing the same for his legitimacy is another.

Currently, there is a focus on fear and worry. This is something that is okay. This is something people should feel comfortable expressing. However, in the coming days, weeks, and months this fear and worry will need to morph into acceptance and action.

People need time to express emotion in whatever way they need to. I get that, and I encourage you to take that time. However, to be blunt, I’m writing this piece to talk many of you off the ledge. All is not lost, the sun will rise tomorrow. Progress and change are possible under Trump’s presidency. As much as some will be campaigning for Trump to fail, that is not what’s going to be productive. This does not mean that I am asking you to compromise on your values, it means that I am asking you to be open to finding common ground. It means that I am asking you to not be obstructionist,  but instead look for areas of opportunity. 4 years (or more) of Trump may not be ideal for many of our agendas, but I refuse to throw those years away because of my frank disagreements with the man and his methods (of which there are many). The presidency and our country is bigger than Trump. All of us should want to make America great. That’s something myself, Trump, his supporters, and hopefully you agree with.

That’s why I urge everyone, when you’re ready, to put the apocalyptic scenarios on the backburner. Note, THIS DOES NOT MEAN I AM ASKING YOU TO FORGET OR IGNORE YOUR CONCERNS. I am not telling you that your fears are invalid and their realities impossible. What I am telling you is that at the moment we need to stop assuming that they are guaranteed. We need to stop assuming that this is the end of the world.  Mass deportation forces, access to women’s health, access to general health care, cuts of impactful social programs, shifts in climate progress, continued validation of hateful mindsets. These are all still real possibilities to real people.

However, at the moment, I am asking you to not assume they are inevitable. Instead, we need to be focused on developing the ideal. What is the possible, ideal outcome of Trump’s presidency. I see the ideal outcome of Trump’s presidency as one where America is MORE inclusive, everyone is better off, innovation strengthens, and we are more resilient. Just like every new president we need to hope that Trump will be the best we’ve ever had. Call me idealistic, but we need to choose to believe that this is possible. At the very least, this is the mindset we need to operate under. Assuming doom and gloom guarantees doom and gloom. I’m not going to lie, assuming positive impacts under President Trump are possible doesn’t guarantee we avoid the doom and gloom scenario. However, it makes those positive impacts much more likely.

Trump’s presidency is an absolute, it’s what we have to work with. I admit, to many of us that sucks. However, starting this era off with a negative, apocalyptic mindset will not do us any good. Starting off negatively guarantees that the outcome of this era will be negative and unproductive.

Instead, I am choosing to believe in a positive outcome. I am choosing to believe that Trump’s presidency can be inclusive, productive and great if we unite as a people and make our voices heard in productive and reasonable ways. Does this mean I’ll agree with everything the man and his administration accomplish? Nope. Does this mean I’ll condone any racist, xenophobic, sexist mindsets intentionally or unintentionally provoked? Hell no. But I do believe that when push comes to shove compromise with his administration and supporters will be possible, and I am hopeful that President Trump will be malleable in his tone and advocacy in a way that is more inclusive and conscious of the impact of his influence.

This influence on mindset will not come from burning flags, destructive protest or denouncing of Trump’s legitimacy. This change of mindset will happen through relationship building and sharing stories. That is, it happens through hard and vulnerable conversations with the “other half” of America. It happens because of us. It’s hard, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible. Influencing President Trump happens when each of us broadens and shares stories within our sphere of influence. It happens when we protest with purpose, respect and meaning. It’s easier said than done. But it must be done.

I know, you’re thinking I’m just a privileged, optimistic asshole with no grasp on reality who needs to step back, shut up, and stand in solidarity with those who have everything to lose in the next 4 years. I hear you, and realize to many of you that optimism at this moment is annoying as hell. Some might think I need to get off my high horse and grieve. I’m here to tell you that President Trump is the hand we were dealt. If you want to concede or ignore the reality of the situation, fine. But I encourage you to make the best with what we have because it is all we have. I refuse to accept that progress simply stops. It may be slowed, but I refuse to see it stopped.

This does not come from isolating ourselves in safe spaces. I’m not telling you that your safe space is invalid. Whether people admit it or not, everyone, left and right, has safe spaces. They may be our friend groups, or our families, or the news sources we surround ourselves with. Fox News is a safe space, so is Vox. It’s okay for us to have these places to recharge and confide trust in. If we didn’t have these spaces to go to we’d all go insane. However, if we want to unite as a people and make the era of President Trump successful we must venture out of our safe spaces. We must expose ourselves to other stories and other points of view. This doesn’t happen when we pick news sources to avoid. It doesn’t happen when we delete friends on Facebook. It happens when we are intentional about challenging our current views. Seeing the other side either allows us to strengthen our existing views or become open to others’. Want the other side to be open minded about your values and ideas? Lead by example and become vulnerable. This does not mean I am telling you to throw yourself into toxic, bigoted environments. Avoid those. I’m telling you to seek out reasonable, civil people and news sources with opposing views. I promise, they do exist.

It stands to be said that none of this means we will stand for bigotry. None of this means the things President Trump has said is okay. None of this means the deplorable things President Trump might say or propose are to be excused or accepted. Because we should and will fight like hell to protect our most vulnerable. President-elect Trump has already suggested protections within the ACA will remain and that he values LGBT rights. Our job is to hold him accountable to these suggestions and push him further. Having a successful Trump era will not mean we fought personality, it will mean we fought policy and values.

Your views matter, your experiences are important. I have hope that a President Trump will be conscious of these. That’s why I am willing to give him the opportunity to lead. Assuming he and his supporters wont be receptive guarantees they will not be receptive. Assuming they will be open to reasonable and productive dialogue means there’s a chance. That chance is all we have, so please, stand with me and take the first step toward open mindedness and civility. There’s no guarantee the other 50% of America hears us out if we don’t take that first step. At this point, we stand to gain nothing if we assume we’ll gain nothing. Let’s assume there are things to gain.

Making City Hall Mobile

Boston's City Hall To Go (via boston.gov)

Boston's City Hall To Go (via boston.gov)

I recently listened to an episode of the Municipal Equation podcast (great show by the North Carolina League of Municipalities by the way, check it out!) titled ‘The Food Truck City Hall’. It looked at examples from Boston, Durham, and Houston where city services were put on wheels and taken around the community. The aim is that doing this will give access to city services more convenient, or reach out to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to physically get to city hall during normal business hours. I think it’s great, and it’s gotten me thinking about what city services would work best on wheels:

Permits, Licenses, Bills and Fines:

These are services the Durham and Boston vehicles offered. In Boston, residents can request anything from a dog license to a parking permit. Durham allows residents to pay utility bills. If a city offers these services online, there’s an opportunity to set up stations where city staff can teach folks how to take care of future needs there. These basic yet stress inducing city functions can be made much easier if people are able to take care of them near home or while out and about.

Voter Registration

In Houston, local taco trucks partnered up with get out the vote efforts to offer voter registration services. During election time, bringing voter registration to community events, or just to the side of a busy street, could get more people in on the process. This might be especially handy for local only elections, where turn out normally is just… not that great.

Planning Workshops

When updating comprehensive plans or drafting new initiatives, public engagement is one of the most critical components. Why not put those efforts on wheels and take them to the people? Bring out the boards, markers and staff to engage with people on the street. Making magnets of buildings, streets and parks could allow people to engage with ideas right on the vehicle. Maybe vans or buses can be employed to shuttle groups of residents around plan areas themselves where staff can engage them with ideas.

Recreation Sign Ups

Vehicles can be outfitted to sign up residents for recreation opportunities. Park outside of a school and allow parents to sign up their kids for summer sports at the end of the school day. Staff can be on hand to field questions and offer information on discounts for senior citizens or folks who might not be able to afford the programs. Maybe a local business wants to sign their entire staff up for the softball program. Bring over the van and let their employees sign up during their lunch break.

Efficiency Education

If your community is looking to reduce energy use, water use, or waste it might be helpful to outfit a vehicle to educate people about reducing their impact and saving money. If your city offers programs like solar grants, energy efficient appliance rebates, or home efficiency inspections this would be a great way to sign people up for those services.

Public Safety

Your community probably is already be using this method. Encourage your fire and police departments to use their vehicles as community engagement hubs at events. Nothing was more exciting as a kid than climbing into a fire truck at a community festival while my parents learned about Carbon Monoxide detectors. Lots of people would love to see fire trucks and patrol vehicles up close, and it provides a great opportunity for police officers and firefighters to engage with the community.

The Future of Transit in a World of Autonomous Vehicles

At this point, it's pretty clear that Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) are coming. If you know me you'll know that they're something I talk about a lot. I talk about them a lot because they're not being talked about enough. You'll see some articles every once in a while that exclaim 'They're Comming!' but there just isn't enough talk about their implications. One of those implications is the impact of AVs on transit. Our cities are going to have some tough choices to make about what role and impact these vehicles will have on our transit systems.

If we integrate AVs properly the payout could be huge for creating comfortable, equitable and efficient transport. On the other hand, we may get so excited that we rip out billions of dollars worth of transit infrastructure and come to regret it, similar to the way we ripped out hundreds of streetcar lines last century. While some people have already made attempts to start the conversation, it's something we need to do more of.

So what could a future of integrated AVs and transit look like? Here's my take:

Little to No Personal Vehicle Ownership

I'm assuming a future where the cost of owning and maintaining your own vehicle just doesn't make sense. Instead, people would utilize ride-sharing services by ordering rides from their phones or kiosks at the curb. These services would either be privately owned (a la Uber/Lyft) or municipally owned.

Emphasis on Fast, High Capacity Fixed-Route Corridors

Because of the ability for people to easily make direct trips between low demand areas the only place fixed route service would make sense would be in corridors moving to, from or through high density, high demand areas. For most cities, this might be in the form of rail connections to downtown or streetcar connections in the densest part of the city. Because of the sheer lack of capacity on roads, I'd imagine systems like San Fransico's BART or New York's Metro would have nothing to fear. Even rail corridors serving less-dense areas like those of Denver or San Diego will still be of great use. In fact, I could see a future where capacity for these routes starts to become a real problem because of the number of people transferring to them from ride-sharing services. 

Flex-Routes in Low Demand Areas

Low demand areas, like suburban or rural areas probably wont be able to justify fixed route service. These areas will probably be better served by flex-route services. These services, like UberPool or LyftLine, would pair people going in the same direction at the same time and allow them to share the cost of the trip. Two people from the same subdivison going to the same shopping center or five people going in the same direction after getting off a train are examples of places where people might want to share a ride. Smaller cities propbably wont be able to justify fixed-route bus servies in light of these types of services.

Stations as Transfer Hubs

The main way for people to get to the city center may be to take a ride-share from their residence to a transit station. This would put tremendous pressure not just on the fixed-route corridor but also on the station area itself. Work would need to be done to help get a train load of people at a time efficiently from the transit line to their ride-share vehicle. I imagine transit station areas with a series of numbered gates along the curb or as replacements for park & ride parking lots. A passenger on the train would get notification on their phone as to which gate they should proceed to make their connection. The car would already be waiting at the gate when they arrive as to make the connection as seamless as possible. The numbered gates are important as people that are sharing the vehicle with others heading in the same direction via a flex route would need to meet at the same gate. Otherwise, riders who have opted to pay more for their own private vehicle could jump into any empty car along a designated que. The car would automatically detect the desired destination from the passenger's phone once they enter the car.

Stations would also facilitate transfers to other forms of transportation, like bike share. Bike share rides could be priced less then that of a ride-share ride. If the person were to see the cost of renting a bike vs renting a ride-share side by side they may be inclinded to pick the cheaper, healthier option.

No More Schedules or Off Hours

Because transit vehicles and cars alike wont need human operators, they can run continuously and more frequently at less cost. Ride-share services would be on demand and transit services could pump more money into productive corridors to improve speed and capacity due to the elimination of less productive services in lieu of ride-share services. 

Ride Share/Transit Fare Integration 

Imagine riding in an Uber to the train to a bike share to your office. All on one integrated, convient, fare payment system. The fare of the train you're about to transfer to from your ride-share could be integrated into the initial price of the ride-share. Or maybe it could even include the transfer price to a bike share rental. Having a universal, integrated, transportation cost structure becomes possible. 

Frequent & Fast Intercity Fixed-Routes

If AVs develop a cost stucture similar to current ride-share services, where it's determined by time traveld and miles traveld, it's easy to see an increase in demand for intercity routes to the point of justifying fixed routes. These kinds of routes could flourish and reduce traffic traveling between diffrent cities. By incorperating millage based fares into ride-share services, people would be able to see the true cost of their long trips and could be more inclined to hop on a train or a BRT vehicle for these types of trips.  

Data-Driven Decision Making

One thing is for sure, self driving ride-share and transit services are going to generate a TON of data. While this can be a great thing in helping to create effiecent netwrorks, we need to be careful to utilize this data in a privacy-centered, productive way. With that said, detailed transportation data can be extreamly valuble in making decisons about where the limited number of fixed-route transit services should be or identifying changing travel patterns. Having this high resolution of data may help us see things we've never been able to see before in the world of transportation- especially in a time of such change.

We May Still Have a Traffic Problem

I don't subscribe to the idea that AVs will be a pencea to traffic problems. The fact is these cars may induce more demand to travel. Along with that, because these cars are drriving themselves, there's a good chance a lot of them will be driving around without passengers in between trips, taking up road space. There is potential for decreases, especially in terms of flex-route services where several strangers are sharing a trip.

At the end of the day, however, we have more work to do in determining the true impact this technology will have, not just on traffic, but on every aspect of our transportation system. We need to be having a nation-wide discussion about how we want to implament this technology so that we can adequetly plan and project the true impact this potentially massive change will have on our way of life.

 

A Primer on Tactical Urbanism

Cities are dynamic places. One thing that often doesn’t keep up with the fast pace of places is the infrastructure of the places themselves. It can take months, if not years, to conduct feasibility studies and raise funds for construction of a simple bike lane or pocket park. Further, finding funding for such improvements is becoming more and more burdensome. Important small spot improvements are often left in the dust as larger, more feasible projects suck up all of the air.

That’s where tactical urbanism comes in. Tactical urbanism focuses on street level improvements that make our places better, safer, and more enjoyable. This simple idea has developed into a low-cost strategy to make improvements to the built environment. These simple solutions can offer temporary place making while waiting for more permanent changes to be constructed.

Sometime these changes are done through an official public process by a city, and sometimes they’re done by rouge guerrilla urbanist. Either way, there’re a lot of tactical ways to improve the built environment.

Public Art Installations

The bread and butter of tactical urbanism, temporary or simple art installations can transform a concrete jungle into an inviting oasis. Street murals, sidewalk sculptures, artistic canopies- all are easy ways to brighten the public realm on a slim budget.

Park(ing) Day

Park(ing) day is a popular annual event started in 2005 encouraging people to transform parking spaces in urban areas into pocket parks. Artist, architects, and urbanists unite on the third Friday in September rolling out grass, setting up seating and reclaiming space for people to enjoy. While it’s only a one-day event, it helps to show people the impact reclaiming one parking space for people can have on a street.

Food Trucks

While you might not have considered it, food trucks, or any portable business, absolutely counts as tactical urbanism. Food trucks create a sense of place and generate urban activity, often on streets where it’s lacking.

Little Free Libraries  

You might have seen little libraries scattered around your town. The take-a-book leave-a-book set ups are an easy way to strengthen community and allow people to take ownership of their space.

Chair Bombing

Often done by guerrilla urbanists, chair bombing is the process of taking chairs and benches (often reclaimed) and putting them in public spaces where they’re needed. Often times they’re places in public plazas or bus stops where seating isn’t currently provided, making it an uninviting space for people.

 

Guerrilla Protected Bike Lanes

Some rouge urbanists have begun placing traffic cones or planters along existing bike lanes to upgrade them to protected lanes. This makes bikers safer and keeps vehicles from parking in the bike lane. Some urbanists have formed groups, like San Francisco Municipal Transformation Agency (SFMTrA, get it?!), that purchase plastic bollards and install them to create safe crosswalks and bike lanes throughout the city (much to the city’s chagrin). Regardless of their guerrilla status, people like the folks in San Francisco are proving that high quality protected bike lanes can be done efficiently and effectively on the cheap. They’re even crowd funding their endeavors.

These don’t have to be done just by guerrilla urbanist either! Many cities are using pop up protected bike lanes to demonstrate the feasibility of creating safe places for people to ride.

Open Streets Events

Open Streets are events that shut down long stretches of road to vehicles to allow people to play in the streets! Local businesses can come set up shop and kids can chalk the streets. There might be activities planned like free yoga classes or pickup basketball tournaments. The options really are endless.

Intersection Treatments

Expansive intersections create barriers for pedestrians and encourage unsafe behavior for people in vehicles. Using bollards and paint, pedestrian crossing areas can be expanded and protected by reclaiming dead space in the intersection.

Walk Signage

Cities need not wait to fund expensive custom signage giving people walking and biking directions to popular destinations. Cheap, temporary signage can be installed to direct people to destinations, and illustrate that the walk to nearby places doesn’t take as long as they might think.

Car to Bike Parking

Sacrificing just one auto parking space can allow space for 10 or more bikes to be parked instead.  Providing ample, visible bike parking is critical in allowing people to feel comfortable peddling to their destination. And, it can be done on the cheap!

There’s Literally So, So Much More

Tactical urbanism has taken on so many different forms. Whether officially done by a city, or by urbanists going rouge, our places can be made better in creative, innovative and inexpensive ways. Need some more inspiration? The Streets Plans Collaborative has published a series of free manuals and case studies to up your tactical urbanism game. There are so many ideas out there, all it takes is for someone like you to step up and do them.

A Rant About Road Rage

Disney's Autopia, teaching road rage at a young age ;)

Disney's Autopia, teaching road rage at a young age ;)

From the outside looking in, road rage is an odd concept. Give a pleasant person a license and a 2-ton machine and suddenly they transform into an angry, entitled and unforgiving embodiment of what they once were. Road rage is weird. Weirder still is how people seem to brag about it. For whatever reason, people love to talk about their road rage- because being an asshole behind the wheel has somehow become a great accomplishment. It’s not cool to be a ‘safe’ driver. Going the speed limit? Hello, ‘you drive like a grandma’ comments. Besides, why drive safely when they could reach their destination a minuet (or two) faster weaving in and out of traffic?

This can be a real problem for everyone on the streets. Almost a third of all crashes and about two-thirds of auto fatalities are caused by aggressive driving. Aggressive driving makes the road unsafe for all users. Even in the friendliest of cities, the presence of a bicyclist on the road can lead to honks, middle fingers, and some choice language. When a bike is riding in the middle of the travel lane, the safest place to be btw, the slight delay to many trailing motorist isn’t worth that safety.  Instead, it sparks anger. Same can be said for how road rage impacts pedestrians. Drivers at intersections can become frustrated or dismissive of pedestrians when attempting to make a turn- even when the pedestrian has the right of way. In the US, over 5,000 pedestrians and bicyclist die due to motor vehicle accidents. Yet, this isn’t treated as an epidemic. It’s simply seen as the cost of doing business. And people still have the gall to flip off the cyclist trying to get home from work, or the pedestrian crossing a busy intersection because they’re just “getting in the way.”

Not to mention, when a city does try to give exclusive space to bikes and pedestrians to keep them out of the road it is often met with more anger from a motorist. People feel because they are in an auto that they are entitled to the entire road. Want to take away one lane from a six lane road for bikes? “NOPE.” How about switching from diagonal to parallel on-street parking for better sidewalks? “NOPE.” Yet those same people will still complain that bikes are taking up space in “their lanes.” Want to add speed bumps or narrow the lanes to encourage slower, cautious driving? “NOPE.” Unless, of course, if it’s on the street they live on.

“But, Austin! The cyclist and pedestrians really are assholes!”

Yes, some bikes put themselves in stupid, unsafe situations. Pedestrians too. And drivers. Every group has individuals that break the law and act recklessly. This doesn’t give anyone license to also act like an asshole. Driving isn’t about getting even with those assholes, it’s about getting from point A to point B in as safe and efficient a manner as possible. Further, cyclist and pedestrians are not graded on a curve here. That one idiot jaywalker does not represent all pedestrians, just like that one idiot that weaves in and out of traffic doesn’t represent every other driver.

Love you, Canada.

Love you, Canada.

At the end of the day, we’ve created a culture of assholes. Assholes who feel they own the road, are entitled to its exclusivity, and wear their asshole-ness as a badge of honor. Road rage has become something you’re almost expected to have. The world doesn’t get better when people brag about their unsafe driving behavior. The world doesn’t get better when it’s cool to hate on people biking and walking. The world doesn’t get better, and frankly, drivers don’t benefit much. Maybe they get to work 45 seconds faster. That’s about it. This is a plea; please, let’s make driving safe cool.

Are Tiny Homes... A Fad?

Tiny houses are one of the latest urban trends. Enthusiasts claim they can provide communities with much needed affordable housing, help house growing homeless populations, and curb individuals’ environmental footprint. All noble goals, and all possibly achievable through allowing tiny houses in communities. But are these tiny houses… a fad? And are they really better than existing alternatives like RVs and mobile homes?

 

First thing: Tiny houses aren’t for everyone.

Before getting into the grit of the discussion, it’s important to point out that tiny homes are not for everyone. The sacrifices needed to make living in 200 square feet practical aren’t realistic for a lot of people. But for the rare breed of human that has the right motivation (i.e. environmentally conscious, fiscally minded) it is possible to live in and enjoy the experience of living tiny.

So are they a fad?

I have to admit, at first glance I thought they were. Who would want to live in something that tiny? Now I’m not so sure.

The tiny house movement has many how-to websites and blogs. It’s also garnered a series of TV shows educating viewers on how to live their best tiny life. With this sort of short term media attention, maybe tiny houses are destined to become a fad. Or maybe not. Search traffic for tiny houses began gaining traffic around the summer of 2014. While it appears interest may have leveled off recently there have been no signs of decreasing interest. This isn’t to say that we should be judging a movement exclusively by Google’s search traffic, but it does give insight into the hold of tiny houses on the public consciousness.

Another point. A friend who is working on incorporating tiny houses into upcoming changes to her localities zoning ordinances pointed out “If it's in city ordinance, is it really a fad?” The fact is that in many places, tiny houses are illegal. However, many cities are changing that. Cities across the country are updating their zoning codes to allow smaller square footages on residential lots, additional structures on existing lots, or exemptions from foundation/building requirements. The idea has triggered this reaction from municipalities indicates that tiny houses could be around to stay after all.

That’s not to ignore all of the people abandoning their tiny homes. There are some people that have ditched the idea of living tiny after discovering the true sacrifices they had to make. I don’t know if this is an indication that tiny houses are in fact a fad attracting idealists inspired by Pinterest, but at the very least it shows that tiny houses are currently trendy. Whether that trend fades is anyone’s guess.

But are they really necessary?

This is the point I struggle with most- why not invest in an RV or a mobile home instead? Mass produced mobile homes in particular can be built at a similar size and cost to tiny homes. Part of it comes down to customizability. Building your own tiny home allows you to choose custom fixtures, make it environmentally friendly, and give it personality.

Tiny house villages are so in! Mobile home parks? Not so much.

Tiny house villages are so in! Mobile home parks? Not so much.

Outside of customizability, I believe the biggest draw to tiny homes is that they provide a way to live small without the stigma attached to living in a mobile home or an RV. Mobile homes are trashy, cheap, and for ‘poor people’. Tiny homes on the other hand are trendy, unique, and cool.

While cities amp up discussions to accommodate tiny houses into their zoning codes they are also actively losing mobile home parks. Mobile home parks are hard to build today, and many cities have actively zoned to get rid of them. Once the epitome of small and affordable living, mobile homes have built up a stigma reinforced by their discouraged existence in urban areas.

I’m glad to see people that have a passion for living small and affordably. Tiny homes provide an outlet for that. I just wish that existing alternatives, like mobile homes, were less stigmatized and more viable.  

Why #ImWithHer

This post isn't about urbanism, transit, sustainability, or any of the other stuff I usually talk about. If politics isn't your jam (which, honestly, it should be), feel free to skip this post.

tl;dr: I voted for Gary Johnson in 2012 and Bernie in March. Now I’m enthusiastically voting for Hillary this November.

I’m a Bernie guy. I loved his challenges to dream big and to start competing with other countries where it counts; quality of life. I voted for Johnson in 2012. I loved his balanced view and wanted to help him reach 5% nationally because I believe that this country would be better served with more political parties. This general election I’m voting for Hillary. She is the only viable candidate that represents my views, has a proven track record, and, frankly, would set a tone for the country that I’d be proud to have my kids learn about in history class someday. I’m not here to tell you how to vote. That’s your decision. Instead, I want to tell you why I made my decision. 

Here’s why #ImWithHer.

She’s put up forward thinking, viable, reasonable policy.

From climate change, to higher education, to immigration reform, I agree with Hillary on more policy ideas than any other candidate. In this hyper-personality driven election cycle, I wish more Americans would weigh policy ideas higher in their decision making.

She’d set the tone I want for our country.

Her slogan “Stronger Together” is actually represented in the way she speaks and the policy ideas she promotes. She preaches inclusivity, equity, and progress. Has she made off comments that I don’t agree with? Yes. Do things like the deplorable comment disqualify her? I don’t think so. Do they discredit her? Not any more than comments made by her challenger.

She has the experience.

I’m sure you know. This woman has served as an extremely active First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. No matter who you’re voting for, it’s hard to deny (although, people still do) that she is an accomplished, well-traveled, and dedicated public servant.

Her approval ratings. Really.

Average approval rating while First Lady: Around 60%

Average approval rating as a US Senator: Around 55%

Average approval rating as Secretary of State: Around 62%

When you look at how people view her when she is actually doing the job instead of campaigning, taking largely unsubstantiated hits, people tend to like her.

She’s dedicated her life to public service.

From women’s rights, to health care, to children, Hillary has spent her entire adult life fighting for the public good. She’s been an advocate from her days as a respected lawyer to her time in the national spotlight. Her opponent can’t say the same.

Her Endorsements Extend Across Party Lines

Hillary has accrued a number of GOP endorsements. These endorsements include many members of the Regan, H.W. Bush, and W. Bush administrations. And while not a direct endorsement, 50 leading GOP officials have warned her opponent would put the nation's national security ‘at risk’. You don’t see many (if any?) democratic officials crossing party lines to endorse the Republican nominee.

Her voting record backs her up.

You can claim that she’s bought and paid for, or that she wants to take down America from the inside, but that’s not what her voting record says. Her voting record is strongly that of a center-leaning democrat

When she’s wrong, she admits it.

There’s something different about Hillary Clinton as a politician; she listens. She takes this trait a step further by listening to others in order to evaluate her choices and admitting when she’s wrong. Now you may claim she does this for her own political expediency, and I can’t blame you. However, compare that to her opponent, who literally said he couldn’t remember the last time he apologized for something, despite having plenty to apologize for. I think it’s fair to say Hillary has demonstrated a higher ability to take responsibility and learn from past actions.

“But, Austin, you’re ignoring all of the corruption and illegal activity she’s taken part in! Lock her up, lock her up!”

Honestly, out of all of the controversies surrounding Hillary, nothing has come up that leads me to a) believe that she doesn’t have the best interest of the American people at heart or b) believe she is incompetent and should not be trusted as POTUS when compared to her competitor. Despite the hundreds of thousands (maybe more?) of hours spent digging through emails, tax returns, and her personal life nothing has been found that substantiates into a direct, self-serving attack on the American people. Were there bad things I don’t condone revealed? Absolutely. But nothing found is disqualifying, especially when compared to her competitor.

Let’s go line-by-line.

But the Emails!

What you find when you go through one of the most publicly documented records of a public official in human history is a boring record of someone doing the monotonous, day-to-day work of a dedicated public servant. With that said, that doesn’t mean I condone what happened here. Setting up a private email server was irresponsible, sloppy, and was a mistake. However, this matter is settled. The FBI has conducted an intensive investigation and found no conspiratorial or malicious intents by Clinton in setting up the server. What I’ve gotten out of this drawn out saga is a) the federal government needs to get their shit together on IT issues and b) Hillary has been burned so bad by this there is no way she won’t employ even higher discretion when dealing with classified content if elected to office. I can’t say that about her opponent as the only experience he has had with classified materials started recently when he began receiving briefings. While not a good move, not by a long shot, this does not disqualify her.

But Benghazi!

The attack in Benghazi was awful and I have sincere sadness for the Americans that lost their lives that night. However, to claim that this was Hillary’s wrongdoing is outright incorrect. There are improvements in the system that should have been made to ensure that an attack like this couldn’t happen. With that said, there have been 7 investigations into Benghazi, mostly lead by Republicans. Not one of them found that Clinton had done anything wrong or that anything was done with malice. Frankly, this is a sick politicization of an unfortunate incident.

But her health!

Hillary is a 68-year-old woman and would be 77 at the end of her time as President if she were to serve 2 terms (her opponent would be 78) so it seems valid to want detailed health records released for all candidates. Both have released some degree of information but due to the nature of these kinds of records, it’s very easy for campaigns to paint them in a certain light. With that said, I have yet to see any valid evidence that she is unfit to serve or any less fit than her opponent. Conspiracies about her health are frankly bizarre. Given that, do I think the way her campaign handled her recent spat with pneumonia was off? They could have absolutely handled that better. But given the bizarre conspiracies that have oddly gained traction, I can at least understand why her campaign was hesitant to be forthcoming. 

But her foundation!

Aside from claims about the actual functionality and partiality about the Clinton Foundation there has recently also been talk about pay-to-play actions involving meetings set with Hillary with donors in her Secretary of State role. First, let’s talk functionality. There is a deep misunderstanding by the public about what the foundation actually does fueling misconceptions. The fact of the matter is that the foundation does good work. Questions about the effectiveness of the foundation are more subjective, but I have yet to see anything convincing speaking to ineffective use of funds. Now, about pay-to-play. Coverage of this has been a mess, starting with the AP’s expose, which was admittedly handled sloppily (especially on social media. With that said there does appear to be a preference for meetings with foundation donors, however, there hasn’t yet been proof that this has impacted policy, just that there were meetings. It’s also odd that the Clinton’s acknowledge the need to stop accepting foreign and corporate donations only if she wins in November when logic says she should have done that back when she was Secretary of State. With all of that said, none of this disqualifies her for me, especially when compared to her competitor's supposed foundation

But she’s going to take my guns!

Another bizarre instance where her views have been skewed and morphed into something unrecognizable. Stop saying that anyone, including Hilary, that is for gun control, wants to abolish all guns everywhere in a war against the second amendment. Do I agree with all of her policies on guns? No. However, there is no evidence anywhere that she would take away anyone’s guns.

But her constant lies!

Hillary, like most in the public eye, has made statements, either intentionally or not, that are just not true. But she doesn’t speak falsely any more than most other politicians, frankly. Let’s compare her PolitiFact scores to that of her competitor. PolitiFact rates 28% of her statements on the site as some degree of false. To compare, they rate 71% her competitor’s statements on the same metrics. Now these numbers aren’t an exact science, and you could claim that PolitiFact cherry picks their statements. But if you dive into the facts and severity of false statements made by both candidates, obvious trends emerge that lead me to put more trust into Hilary.

But she voted to go to war in Iraq!

A decision that she has admitted was a bad choice. Compare that to her opponent, who despite having a running mate that made the same vote in the house, still slams her decision.  If you’re going to bring Hillary down for this, you have to bring her opponent’s running mate down to.                                      

But her Wall Street speeches!

Did I think she should release them? Yes. Would the result make me not vote for her? Probably not. We have a pretty good idea about what she probably said. It’s not likely she walked in and scolded them, that wouldn’t be a wise investment of $250,000 on Goldman Sachs part. With all that said, while I think it was done in bad taste this isn’t disqualifying. Many former politicians take part in the speaker circuit. Singling Hillary out would be hypocritical.

But there are other options!

Yes! I know! I voted for one of those other options last election! I am 100% for a reformed voting system in order to allow third parties to gain traction and agree that in an ideal system you should be able to vote solely for the person who speaks to your beliefs and who you believe is best equipped for the job. But here’s the truth; that isn’t the system we have right now. I voted for Johnson back in 2012 because a) I wanted to help him reach 5% nationally to allow the libertarian party to claim public financing in future elections () and b) I lived life more dangerously and believed that Obama still had a great chance of winning.
That isn’t an option this in year’s presidential race, and frankly, I’ve come to discover that, while counter intuitive, the way to reform such a wonky election system isn’t through voting for third party candidates. It’s ineffective and can leave stinging consequences. The best route is through voting system reform.  It hurts my heart to say this. It really, truly does. But if I were to vote for a third party candidate this year I would effectively be voting for Donald John Trump to be the next president of the United States. It’s not fair, but it’s our reality.

But I’m not fearful about the outcome of this reality. In fact, I’m excited. I’m excited because Hillary has proven time and time again that she has the best interest of this country at heart and that she will do everything in her power to create a culture of inclusiveness, innovation, and prosperity for all. She cares about the issues that are important to me and has applicable, responsible, and feasible policy to address our countries greatest challenges. That’s why #ImWithHer

City Flags Suck

Roman Mars of 99% Invisible fame makes a great point. City Flags are pretty much awful. They aren't designed well, creating a missed opportunity for community pride and identity. If you haven't already seem it, Mars did a TED talk on the subject a while ago:

Roman Mars is obsessed with flags - and after you watch this talk, you might be, too. These ubiquitous symbols of civic pride are often designed, well, pretty terribly. But they don't have to be.

Mars points to the The Five Basic Principles of Flag Design as told by the North American Vexillological Association:

1) Keep It Simple

The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.

2) Use Meaningful Symbolism

The flag's images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes.

3) Use 2-3 Basic Colors

Limit the number of colors on the flag to three, which contrast well and come from the standard color set.

4 )No Lettering or Seals

Never use writing of any kind or an organization's seal.

5) Be Distinctive or Be Related

Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections.

Coming from Colorado where we essentially worship the state flag, I can see the power such a symbol can have and the pride it can create. City's should start utilizing this power too.

What Makes A Good Transit Map?

Transit maps are often worshiped by transit geeks and dismissed by everyone else. But they really are important! Transit maps need to be useful; they need to be easy to read, give a ton of information and be used as a symbol for the system.  But what differentiates a good map from a bad one? Also, before diving in, if you want more transit maps here's a random plug for transitmap.net. The guy/gal over there does great work.

Washington DC's Metro map is one of the world's most recognizable, partly because it realized that geographic accuracy really doesn't matter. 

Good maps shouldn't be reserved just for train systems

Bus systems matter too. Especially in small to midsize cities, it's possible to create a comprehensive, attractive and easy to read map of bus routes. Unfortunately, most cities leave their bus system maps as after thoughts, even though it is often a person's first impression of the system. It's time we think differently and design bus maps using some of the same principals that have created some great rail maps.

Screw Geographic Accuracy

Especially in rail systems. Geographically accurate maps often put more emphasis on the outskirts of town where transit density is less than the city center, causing information to become cramped and hard to read. Further, is the map being geographically accurate really giving important information? As long as a map is well labeled, lines extend in the proper relative distance to one another and major geographic points are delineated (rivers/water, landmarks) you should be a okay to throw geography in the trash to create a readable diagram. 

Houston recently re-prioritized their system to focus on high frequency bus routes, and they've got the map to prove it.

Houston recently re-prioritized their system to focus on high frequency bus routes, and they've got the map to prove it.

Service Frequency Matters

Notably on bus maps. Creating a way to differentiate low frequency from high frequency service can give people a tool to better navigate the system. It also puts an emphasis on transit agencies to create high frequency networks.  Buses can be intimidating in the first place, easily seeing several lines that run every 15 minuets or more can help people feel at ease about keeping their schedule in check when relying on public transportation. 
 

Use Easy Naming Conventions

Creating a system where there are consistent and easily recognizable naming conventions is so important when you're going to be illustrating it on a diagram. The most popular option for rail lines are colors, and the overall dominant option for buses is numbers. But these don't need to be hard and fast rules. If there's a network of notable high frequency bus routes in your city there is no reason you can't brand them as colored or specially named lines. 

 

Amsterdam's map, while being a big system, still manages to make connections to other transit services obvious and clear.

Amsterdam's map, while being a big system, still manages to make connections to other transit services obvious and clear.

Make Connections Obvious

This should go without saying, but showing connections to other buses, trains and services is so important. Does you city include a bike share network? Put it on the map! External services like Greyhound or Amtrak? Don't be afraid to include them. It's amazing how many agencies leave connections out.

 

It Should Be Designed By a Graphic Designer, Not an Engineer

Another obvious one agencies seem to miss.  This is what designers are here for. Hire one, let them loose and see what they can come up with. Doing this will also ensure that the basic formatting and labels of the map will be consistent, easy to read and beautiful. 

 

Is ThE Map Cool Enough To Hang On Your Wall? 

Aside from making it easy to get around, transit maps are symbols for cities. It's important to put the time and effort into creating a map that people are proud of. Something unique that people can glance at and know it's from your city. Once you see people creating posters, shirts and shower curtains (thanks Tyler) from your map you know you've struck a nerve. 

Are Cities Over Regulated?

Would your city allow this street to be built today?

Would your city allow this street to be built today?

Cities began creating zoning and building requirements in the early 20th century. Since then many cities zoning codes have grown into hyper-detailed, over regulated documents that stifle development making our city centers more expensive and less walkable. 40% of the buildings in Manhattan couldn’t be built today.  In fact, most historic cores of cities, the ones people treasure most, could not be built today.

Most regulations are well intentioned, but when added together they can create negative effects. Take Boulder, CO as an example. The city has largely made growth illegal, leading to million-dollar home prices and a working population that largely can’t afford to live in Boulder.

There are a few common regulations that can often cause more harm than good:

Parking Minimums

Parking minimums create a ton of extra costs and normally take up space that could instead be used for more apartment units or commercial/office space. Surface lot normally run $10,000 per space. In structured parking? $20,000. Underground parking? $30,000. This drives up the costs of the units they are able to construct, making those units more expensive for the consumer.

Even buildings constructed in city centers have been known to carry hefty parking minimums. If you can’t build apartments catered to a car free lifestyle in your city center, where can you build them? Allowing developers to build just the amount of parking the market demands can help drive rent down and make our urban centers more affordable.

Parking minimums also dissuade small projects, meaning the only ones that are able to be constructed are huge, block long megaprojects, which really isn't an ideal urban form. Think back to your favorite main street. A traditional American main street is made of up dozens of slim, unique buildings constructed close together on small lots. If built today, each one of those buildings probably would be required to provide at least 10 parking spaces a piece. On small lots that would be impossible.

Hold on! If they don’t build parking people are just going to park on our neighborhood streets!

This can easily be remedied by a neighborhood parking permit program. If these people are choosing to live here without the intention of owning a car they won’t be contributing to traffic on your neighborhoods roads.

Building Setbacks and Height Limits

Most cities now regulate building heights and mandate that buildings must be constructed a certain distance away from the street and upper floors must be setback in order to create the illusion that the building is shorter than it actually is. The benefits seem straight forward; it helps make the buildings better blend into the surroundings. With that said, excessive setbacks and height limits simply make projects more expensive. For every floor you knock off and every foot you setback you take away space that can be used for more apartment units of more storefronts. This drives up rent costs.

Unit Density Limits

Some cities set an upper limit to how many housing units you can construct per acre. This directly regulates how dense a project can be, effectively making the units in that project more expensive. Again, consider a historic part of your city. There are probably buildings with a shop on the ground floor and apartments or office space above. Some cities would now limit the number of units that can incorporated above the shop, driving up rents and limiting the function of smaller footprint buildings.

Regulation Isn’t All Bad

In the end, regulation isn’t all bad. It can help encourage infill development instead of sprawl, or help encourage density and mixed use buildings. In fact, in order to achieve good urbanism there needs to be a high level of regulation. Even things like building setbacks and height limits can be used in a way that can be beneficial to the neighborhood, protecting historic areas or preventing a 20 story building from casting a 7-acre shadow over single family homes. The trick is to find the right balance of regulation with allowing the market to build in a way that provides affordable apartments and storefronts and also allows for smaller, quirkier development that make living in urban areas so worth it.

The Impact Of The Olympics on Rio's Poorest

Christ_on_Corcovado_mountain.JPG

The 2016 Rio Olympics are almost upon us. The Olympics nearly always bring lots of changes to the host city’s built environment. Rio is no exception.  However, if Rio’s proved anything, it’s that it’s not all shiny new trains and stadiums. Instead, Rio’s poorest appear to be paying the greatest price for these new infrastructure improvements. And they’re not the ones who will be reaping the benefits.

So let’s break it down:

What’s New?

New transit lines have been constructed, including new rail and bus rapid transit lines. The three new BRT lines were designed to handle over 500,000 passengers a day, reducing commuting times by more than 40%. These lines will connect Olympic venues to tourist sites and the city center. Notably absent are stops in poorer areas, leaving some to wonder about the functionality of the system after the Olympics leave town.

The Porto Maravilha Project aims to revitalize the main ocean port into the city. It has undergone a transformation. 5 million square meters have been renovated in order to better connect the port to the city and provide for new, mixed use development.

New parks and public spaces are sprouting up around the city. Athletes’ Park, a centerpiece across from the Olympic Village, is a sprawling public space attracting residents and visitors. Free volleyball, tennis, basketball and weight training sessions are offered on weekday nights. Concerts and other events have already been hosted at the park. Athletes Park and other new public spaces will continue to be central gathering places in the city, even after the games leave.

The new Olympic Village

The new Olympic Village

Reforestation of the local hillsides has been said to be a priority for the city. Rio claims their reforestation program has planted over 2 million seeds in the west area of the city with the help of local residents.

Finally, as with any Olympics the construction of stadiums and new housing for athletes has been constructed. However, the $1 billion, 3,600-unit housing project may not be fully complete by the time the games are scheduled to start this week. Units already completed have been criticized for their shoty construction. Further, history has shown that stadiums constructed for the Olympics often never get used again.

What’re The Social Consequences?

All of this new construction activity has come at a cost, namely the cost to Rio's poorest. Rio has one of the largest gaps between the richest and poorest in the world, leaving many of Rio’s poorest questioning why money has been put toward the World Cup and the Olympics instead of investing in creating a better quality of life for its residents.

In fact, Rio has been actively attempting to hide these poorer residents from tourists. The city’s bus service has been retooled. Locals have pointed out that bus service once connecting poor areas and favelas (settlements that were built by working people unable to find affordable housing) to the south side of the city (where the tourist go and the wealthy live) have been rerouted or cut all together. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t an attempt to hide Rio’s poorest by making it near impossible for them to travel in their own city. Further, the new transit service in the city does not reach those in need, making it useless to those that need it most.

Favelas in Rio. The city doesn't want the tourist to see this.

Favelas in Rio. The city doesn't want the tourist to see this.

Rio has relocated much of the city’s poor through eminent domain. Rio has torn down many favelas in order to construct stadiums and condominiums for the World Cup and the Olympics, many in the area known as Bara. This pushed the poor further west, away from jobs, in an effort to “clean up” the area- essentially whitewashing it.

This further echoes the war against the poorest in Rio that will no doubt continue after the Olympics leaves town. In an effort to “revitalize” many areas of the city, over 22,000 families have been removed from their homes since 2009. This is all in an effort to put on a show for international visitors, increase land values for developers, and attract international investors.

The city has made efforts to clean up these favelas to provide better safety, housing, infrastructure and services through a program called Morar Carioca. This well meaning and seemingly progressive plan aimed to modernize and provide better services to all of Rio’s favelas by 2020. However, in reality this program has only reached favelas within public view near Olympic and tourist venues. Even in those instances, the Morar Carioca program to provide them with modernized housing was only implemented after resistance occurred after first attempting to relocate residents through eminent domain.  

In the end, while many officials in Rio claim to be leveraging the Olympics and World Cup to bring positive change to the city, little has been done to ensure these investments translate to benefits for its working poor. Instead, there has been an active effort to hide the poor in an effort to promote a different image of the city to international visitors. The investments in transportation, parks and other amenities will have little effect on the people who could benefit from those investments most. Instead, those investments might further widen the gap between the haves and the have nots in Rio.  

5 Reasons People Can’t Stop Talking About the High line

 

When it comes to urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture circles, there is one modern project talked about more than almost any other. That project is the High Line in Manhattan. Haven’t heard of it before? In short, it’s a 2-mile-long linear park built on an abandoned elevated railway. Instead of tearing it down the railway was turned into an elevated park. This 2-mile-long park attracts over 5,000,000 visitors a year. The phased project first opened in 2009 with the latest phase opening up in 2015. It’s really become an iconic project, with communities all over the world craving their own High Line.

This begs the question: what’s so special about the High Line? Why is this the project that has so much staying power with visitors and locals? As it turns out there is a recipe to its success that other projects can learn from:

This sight isn't something you see in every city.

This sight isn't something you see in every city.

1. It’s Unique

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. When people go to the High Line it’s something they haven’t experienced before. It becomes a special and memorable experience just to go there. When people on the street see trees growing up on a viaduct they want to see what’s going on. To designing meaningful public spaces, they must be different and they must create an experience not had in many other places.

 

 

2. It’s Iconic

The High Line has achieved iconic status, but this isn’t an accident. The unique pattern of the flooring and the plantings, the elevated experience, and the linear nature all contribute to the iconic sense of place. This unique design means people can post a picture of themselves there without a caption and others will know where they are. This iconic place exists because the experience is consistent, beautiful and unique; all things other projects can learn from.

An 'Urban Theater' overlooking the street below.

An 'Urban Theater' overlooking the street below.

3. It’s Dynamic

While the experience is consistent, it is also dynamic. The High Line offers a range of different experiences, yet these experiences feel very cohesive. Some areas include lounge style seating. One area was designed as an “urban theater” with stadium style seating overlooking the street below. Some areas appear to be overflowing with vegetation. The High Line is consistent in its design but it also provides different experiences allowing each person to make their visit their own. It also means that return visitors can experience something new in the same space.

People want to be where other people are.

People want to be where other people are.

4. It’s Beaming With Activity

The truth is that part of the reason the High Line is popular is simply because other people think it’s popular. The activity draws in more people. The challenge for a good designer is to create a space that creates activity, which then draws in more people to take part. In the case of the High Line, that activity is getting up out of the streets to experience a new world. For other projects It may mean there are fountains, vendors, food tucks or cafes incorporated into the project. This also means successful projects must exist in visible places capable of drawing in passersby.

5. It Gentrified the Neighborhood

Part of the reason the High Line has maintained success is because it contributed to the revitalized Chelsea, drawing in new construction, reducing crime, and becoming a centerpiece of that neighborhood. Other cities are looking to this project as an example to revitalize their own inter-city neighborhoods. However, not everything on this list is sunshine and rainbows. All of this has come at a price, longtime residents have been priced out of their homes and many local businesses have had to close because of increased rent. Gentrification has a different connotation depending on who you ask, but it’s fair to say the High Line did so well because of how effective it was in doing so.

Three Very Different Ways Self Driving Cars Could Shape Our Cities

Kinda cute, isn't she?

Kinda cute, isn't she?

Self-driving cars are coming. With the technology already being successfully tested and with a large group of heavyweights (a la Tesla, Google and others) backing the idea, self-driving cars are on the horizon. What hasn’t been talked about enough is the impact of self-driving cars on our cityscapes. 
Cities are just now beginning to look into what these cars will mean for our streets. While it’s important to plan, this really isn’t an easy task. The truth is, at this point, nobody has any idea how our cities will change. We can theorize, sure, but how our cities develop around these new cars depends a ton on external factors that really haven’t been figured out yet.
There are three very different paths the development of self-driving cars could take, each one leaving a very unique mark on our cityscapes:

Parking lanes could be converted to bike lanes.

Parking lanes could be converted to bike lanes.

World 1: Shared Ownership (i.e. the Uber model)


This is the future companies like Uber and Lyft want to happen. In this world few people own private cars. Instead, cars are owned by a private company or maybe even a municipality. These cars can be summoned on demand using a phone or a physical kiosk at the curb. Numbered ‘gates’ would be designated at the curb, allowing you to find your assigned car in the mass of others summoning and getting out of their rides. Payment would be handled on a per ride biases or a subscription service. A cheaper ride could be had if you share your car with someone going in the same direction. 

In city centers, Street parking, parking garages and parking lots become unnecessary as all cars will actively be on the road or docked at a remote electric charging station. This has the potential to open up real-estate in our city centers currently dedicated to the automobile. Imagine new apartments where parking garages once stood. There could be new street trees, seating, wider sidewalks and bike lanes where there were once parking lanes. 

In the suburbs, large parking lots outside of big box stores could lend to infill development or conversion into parks and open space. Neighborhood streets would no longer need to accommodate parking, allowing for sidewalks to be constructed or widened. 

The idea of shared ownership can be an urbanist’s utopia. Development would be encouraged in city centers because residents would no longer need to worry about the hurdle of parking. Plus, the farther out from the center you are the longer you risk having to wait for your car to get to out to you in the boonies and you'd have to pay more for the extra miles of your commute. 

Parking lots would be here to stay, but you wouldn't have to hunt for a spot!

Parking lots would be here to stay, but you wouldn't have to hunt for a spot!

World 2: Private Ownership (i.e. the Same Old Same Old model)


The reality most desired by automakers. In this world everyone owns their own automobile, the cars just happen to drive themselves. This means parking lots remain parking lots and paying for parking is still the norm. No new space is freed up in city centers. In fact, this could encourage people to seek out housing much further from city centers as they could get ready, catch up on news, or work during their longer commute. Once you’d get to your job downtown you wouldn’t have to search for parking as your car would park itself.

This world isn’t a bad one, but it doesn’t free up space for new parks and housing, if anything it pushes folks farther out. 

World 3: A Little Bit of Both (i.e. Private + Shared Ownership)


This is the world most likely to happen, and the one Tesla anticipates being a part of. In this world, you’re given the choice of using shared services or purchasing your own self driving auto. Some space would be freed up in city centers, and parking lots would not need to be as large as they currently are in the suburbs. However, there would still need to be space for some parking for those with their own cars. Tesla, in their recently released Master Plan Part Deux, envisions a world where you can own a private car, but when you’re not using it can drive around and make money for you by giving others rides. It’s an interesting idea.

But what about public transportation?!


Self-driving cars are a big topic! I’m going to be working on a post about self-driving cars and public transportation to go up in the near future. Check back soon!

Check Out The Evolution of Denver's Rail Network!

Denver has a special place in my heart. The city is doing a lot of things right. Notably it's FasTracks rail expansion project which aims to construct 120 miles of new rail service in the metro area. The expansion is connecting the suburbs to downtown and creating new, transit oriented, community centers.

This year RTD (Denver's Transit Operator) will be launching 4 new rail lines under the FasTracks project. In honor of the recent openings of the new B and A Lines, along with the soon-to-come openings of the R and G Lines, here's a history lesson in the growth of Denver's rail network using past RTD maps!

What do you think about Denver's new rails? What do you think about the style of their map? Let me know. I've got my own opinion- which I'll post soon..

Shameless plug: be sure to Like & Follow Urbanoceros to get updates on future posts! 

Click or tap on a map to blow that sucker up and view descriptions.

DESktop users: hover over images to view the DESCRIPTIONS. 

Mobile users: tap the small circle on the lower right of the screen.

So what's going on here?

Things will get a little more exciting 'round here soon, I promise.

Things will get a little more exciting 'round here soon, I promise.

Hey there and welcome to Urbanocerous, a blog where I'll be exploring and sharing my love of cities, sustainability, infrastructure and global development. I'm a true believer that they way we build our cities directly reflects our values in society. If we want to see change in the world we have to build it. If we want others to create change we have to build them a platform. I see that platform as our cities streets, our schools, our libraries, and our buses. The places people live out life day to day. By creating great places we can enable people to do good for themselves and for others. Our built environment has the power to create positive change.

Sure, these are some big thoughts for a blog that's going to talk about buses, bridges and streets, but it's important to know why we build and who we're building for.

So who am I? My name's Austin and I'm currently pursuing a Master's degree in Public Administration. What's my endgame? Not sure. I do know it will have something to do with cities. 

Anywho, as of now I'm thinking posts will fall under a slew of different themes:

  • Infrastructure: Focusing on specific projects or broad types of infrastructure. The goal is to explain what 'it' is and why you, assumingly an average Joe, should care.
  • People: Highlighting people that are making the world awesome.
  • Sustainability: Exploring what it means to be green, besides just using a buzz word.
  • Technology: Tech has the power to make our places better. With self-driving cars and connected cities on the horizon there's a lot to talk about.
  • Places: Showing off some great (or maybe not so great) places.

With that, I hope you follow along. Like and/or Follow the blog to get updates. I can't promise posts be consistent, but they'll happen every so often.

Cheers,

Austin