Friday, October 31, 2008

Comments and friends

Today I received by first comment to an entry from someone other than my wife. It comes from a fellow blogger from Cincinnati (formerly from Lexington)and a fellow urban enthusiast. He has even paid me a high honor of linking my blog to his webpage urbanup. I will try to live up to the expectations and keep things interesting.

Thanks Sherman see you on SSC.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Parking - A privilege or a right?

It has long been discussed that driving in the State of Kentucky is a privilege and not a right. The privilege of driving is granted after one has demonstrated ones ability in written tests and road driving skills tests. The same cannot be said for parking.

After taking the road skills portion of the driving tests and what passes for a parallel parking attempt, most people forget all they know or were ever taught about parking. I remember trying to parallel park the first time, boy was I scared, and from what I've seen lately a lot of current drivers still are. I have observed from my office window more than a few drivers make more than several attempts at hitting the three parallel spaces accross the street.

Parking lots are not even covered in the driving manual so most people don't know why the white lines are there. On private property apparently the lane markings and arrows do not mean the same thing as on the public streets. On my way home the other day I stopped at the grocery and while waiting for a space to clear,while the occupant was backing up, another vehicle entered the space from the far side, a perpendicular parking space to an angled one. The driver, I dare not call her a lady, then carefully retrieved her child while I found another space and followed them into the store. I could have made a deal of it, (it wasn't worth it) but I let it go, I just can't challenge all the stupid in Lexington. My complaint was , that she was so careful with her child yet drives like there are no rules.

Parking to most Americans, and especially those living outside large metropolitan areas, is thought of as a right. American drivers feel that they have the right to park their personal vehicle as close as possible to where they are at the moment. It is almost as if it were in the Bill of Rights somewhere, maybe even close to the top ten. As much as most know about the Constitution it may well be in there too. Its not, I did a word search. Parking our cars does not seem to have changed from since we rode horses or drove buggies to town back when we were an agrarian society, at least then we took better care of our transportation modes than we do now.

I know that someone has done a study about parking lot area vs. building area and found that we have more acreage in surface parking than under roof in our urban areas. It would not surprise me if we also had more area set aside for parking than we do for driving, although that may vary by region or state. I need to research this a little more.

I guess that where I'm going with this is, to own a car is a privilege you pay for, to drive a car is a privilege you pay for and where you store your car on your own property is something you pay for, and where you park your car anywhere else is a privilege that you should realize that you pay for. Your privilege is paid for by everyone whether the park or not, in the increased prices due to construction and maintenance of the parking be it by private owner or the government in the form of higher taxes.

More on this later

Monday, October 20, 2008

Europe's view of good transit

On the heels of my last post comes a first hand report from the publisher of Destination:Freedom the weekly newsletter of National Corridors Initiative, Inc., a national rail advocacy group. Jim RePass’s lead article details the discrepancies between the U.S. and European modes of inter-city travel, and how the gap in service is widening despite all our rhetoric of wanting something better.

The Europeans have retained, maintained and enhanced their systems despite having two world wars ruin great swaths of their continent, while we Americans have driven ourselves to excess in city size, auto size and waistline size, in our relative peace and isolation at home of the last 80 years.

Europeans have the ability to travel from city to city at high speed, from city to village or station to residence at moderate speed or,best of all, they can travel from house in city A to house in city B without walking much more than a quarter mile the entire trip. And Americans think that they have the best standard of living. We Americans can do better. We Americans must do better. We Americans may already be too late to the party.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reconnecting Lexington to the real world

I have, for the past week, been looking at where this country is heading with transit and by this I mean real mass transit, fixed-guideway, rails in the street mass transit. A recently released report from reconnecting America, called Jumpstarting the Transit Space Race has an excellent breakdown of the situation for the country as a whole and I want to consider how that relates to Lexington and the region.

Rising gas prices have prompted many around the country and in Lexington to use transit more and the ridership figures for Lextran reflect this very well. Auto use has actually declined 3% in the second quarter of 2008 while transit ridership increased 5.2% nationally.

One other statistic that has been rising is the number of transit projects authorized. In 1998 Congress passed TEA-21, the six-year funding bill for surface transportation projects and in that bill 221 were for transit. In 2004, Congress passed the SAFETEA-LU, and the transit projects in that bill rose to 331, a roughly 50% increase. Since then at least 64 new projects have been identified in the so called "transit space race" by many of the progressive metropolitan cities of the U.S. Lexington and Central Kentucky are quietly absent from this list. Lexington and its surrounding communities have not mentioned some sort of rail transit to connect them, even though there used to be a very popular interurban system in place.

There are now so many transit projects proposed that it is estimated that the total investment required would be equal to the entire SAFETEA-LU bill, highway and transit combined. A staggering $248 billion and that is just the new stuff. In order to modernize the existing systems to the new 21st century standards, billions more will be needed. Congressman DeFazio of Oregon has stated that "We're loving our transit systems to death". Well, I can say that in Lexington, on the leadership level, we are NOT. Lexington's Council and the "movers and shakers" don't take a hands off approach to transit, they seem to hold it well beyond arms length. Now I'm not talking about buses, what I mean is a real honest-to-goodness streetcar system.

Nobody in Lexington wants to say a word about one of those. Cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Indianapolis, Columbus and a good deal of the cities visited on CommerceLexington trips have talked about, mentioned, proposed and planned these kinds of systems. Many are funding their systems as we talk (or not talk) about ours. With all the complaining about high fuel prices(although they have fallen lately they will go back up) not one person in leadership position has called for a streetcar system to be reinstated. With all the talk of dependence on foreign oil no one speaks of an electric powered streetcar system. When the Planning Commission was told that their latest Comprehensive Plan lacked any mention of real solutions for traffic or transportation for the masses of the future, they ignored the comment and went on their merry way.

Nationally only a small portion of transits 20% of the $248 billion of SAFETEA-LU is spent on fixed-guideway systems, the majority is spent on buses and maintenance. At this current level of funding, all of the currently proposed projects would take 77 years to complete. Lexington, by not acknowledging that they have a need, have put themselves well beyond that time frame.

The report goes on to compare the U.S. to the rest of the world in terms of transit and how we trail India, England, China, Western Europe and even Canada. Denver and Houston have recently won support for entire transit systems from their voters. Actually, voters approved 70% of the transit measures on the ballots from 2000 to 2005. Lexington approved a Lextran taxing measure, but that just leaves us with diesel powered fuel guzzlers and not an efficient one at that. When first class U.S. cities are lacking in transit systems and the needed funding and Lexington is so far behind them, how can Lexington dream of being considered a "world class" city?

Lexington has invited the world to come visit in 2010 for the World Equestrian Games. A world where they understand transit systems and the need to get around the country without a personal vehicle and still be there on time. A world which realizes the distances from Louisville and Cincinnati are but a short train ride. A world who, given the current state of the global economy, may decide to stay home when they find out the transportation situation in Kentucky. We can only pray that this is not one of Lexington's very expensive decisions to become a global city.

Two recent polls, one by the National Association of Realtor and the AARP, have revealed that 23% of Americans believe that road building is a good way to combat congestion, 75% believe public transportation and better land use decisions would be better. The AARP found that many over 50 years of age want to drive less but don't have any alternative.

A lot of what happens in the transit in the next few years will depend on the election this fall. The next President and Congress will decide the fates of transportation and transit for the future generations of Americans. Congress recently passed and last week President Bush signed the Rail Safety bill which increases AMTRAK's funding to twice what they have been receiving. The next Congress could do even better for intercity rail. Reconnect America's CEO has called for a "transit building program not unlike the Interstate Highway building program". I would liken it more to a WPA type program, to build whats needed for America and create jobs for those who need them.

On the local level, we need to begin to identify the transit needs of the community for when, not if, fuel prices get out of reach for those who live too far from their work. Relying on that same fuel for transit will not solve the problem, only prolong the inevitable end. City leaders need to look to the future and other cities, and maybe, just a little bit into the past for the solutions for Lexington's transit problems.

And yes, the problems are there even if you don't see them yet.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Second Sunday and what it could be

I watched the Council work session on Tuesday and during the "Council Report" section heard several members comment about the successful Second Sunday event. Most were quite complimentary and exclaimed about how many people had participated. From the pictures in the local newspaper and the evening telecasts I could not see huge crowds, certainly nothing like a parade or the tailgating at the football games. Several went on to state that they would like to hold more in the future and why wait for next year. At least one councilman wanted to do them monthly (Seems like I suggested a while back,see here)

I think I saw many of the council members nodding their heads in agreement and the Mayor was quick to also say what a great time it was. But then he added that it was a very expensive event to put on, many hours of preparation, many man-hours of staff time by many different agencies. I can't help but feel that that was somewhat condescending and very much like "Don't hold your breath on the monthly thing".

There is nothing stopping any neighborhood group or any councilman from organizing one of these events in their areas and just closing of the streets and letting the people do what they want. It shouldn't take a month of mayoral staff time or even council aide time to let the people have their streets back. Let the people arrange for the activities. Let the people pick the street or group of streets and involve the local businesses.

Second Sunday is a fine idea that has been introduced to Lexington and we have Councilman Jay McChord to thank for that. I don't wish to see our city leaders control how the people can take this idea and run with it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Fayette Alliance and Agri-business

I really wanted to keep politics out of my blog but I just can't help it this time. Within the last week I received an informational mailing from the Fayette Alliance with the answers of the Council candidates to a survey of their positions. A copy of the flyer can be read here.

Now, I like a candidate who will tell me just what he/she will do. I know that they won't or can't follow through on it, but I like to hear it. I also know that groups like the Fayette Alliance can craft their surveys to elicit responses that are positive for their own agendas. Its the way that the questions are worded that you just can't say no to it.

I was particularly intrigued by Cheryl Feigel's response to question #4. Her claim that Lexington's farm receipts should equal the Napa valley's is quite a boast. According to a report titled ECONOMIC IMPACT OF WINE AND VINEYARDS IN NAPA COUNTY the Napa valley received from the wine industry alone $836 million in taxes. Lexington, in the same year had a total farm cash receipt figure of $354 million. Furthermore, there were horse sales in Fayette County totaling $650 million and $0 taxes paid to the State or the County. When we add in the tourism tax dollars ($14,650,000) it appears to me that we come up a little short.

Then there is the second part of her thought, the justification of a Commissioner position for agriculture. Lexington started the current fiscal year with a projected shortfall of $25 million. Since then we found about $12-13 million in a "rainy day fund", but now the whole economy thing has caught up with us. I don't see how we can propose to expand local government at this time, especially when the current administration is working to reduce the existing workforce. A new commissioner position would easily incur a six figure salary. But my major question is (even if we could afford it) which of the current divisions/offices would come under this new commissioner's authority? PDR office is the the first to come to mind. A three person office, at the most, and I believe only one of those is full time. Maybe the office of Urban Forester but I really doubt that. Anybody have any ideas on this one?

Her opponent, Edward Norton III, does not strike me as the one to vote for either. The few times that I have seen him campaigning I hear buzz words and slogans and witty quips of nostalgia about Ashland Park, but no real ideas for solving the current problems of the 5th district. I don't think that either candidate has a grasp of the underlying severe problems that plague or will plague this city.

Lastly, I find fault with the Fayette Alliance, a well funded organization striving to be paid to not do what the Comprehensive Plan says that they aren't allowed to do in the first place. Their survey questions are worded cleverly to make it hard to disagree with all that we are (so they say) indebted to as a city.

I find it hard to call a winner in this election and feel the the 5th district and Lexington, as a whole, will be the loser. OK, thats all for politics, until... maybe next year.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Downtown and Business Signs

Downtown Lexington has prohibited protruding signs since December of 1976. The exact wording is as follows:
Sec. 5-4.1. Overhanging signs in downtown Lexington.
(a) The provisions of other ordinances notwithstanding, no sign shall project perpendicularly from any building or other structures so as to overhang the sidewalk or public right-of-way within the area of downtown Lexington, said area being more particularly defined below. No horizontal or flush sign shall overhang said sidewalk or right-of-way more than one (1) foot. This section shall not affect theater or hotel marquees, nor existing marquees.
(b) Downtown Lexington is defined as follows

From here on there is a litany of street descriptions and address ranges, all of which define downtown as it was in 1976. That was 32 years ago and now I hear rumblings of a desire to amend the ordinance, but I just don't know in which way.

At first I said, "They want to do away with the prohibition of the signs." and that makes sense to me. Looking for a location while driving through downtown can be a frustrating task, even when you know the town like the back of your hand and can remember what store was there three stores ago. I can't imaging what it is like for someone from out of town.

My next thought was, "I'll bet this is in relation to CentrePointe and its hotel." But reading the ordinance I found that hotels are exempt from the rule. There is no need to change anything. Maybe they are thinking about the awnings that could be placed on the retail in the complex. When the overhanging signs were removed, the awnings were taken out also because you could have signs painted on them. Boy, I do miss those awnings. Try walking down the street in a light rain and you forgot your umbrella, now just try to stay dry.

OK, next thought, "The definition of downtown has changed in the minds of our city leaders in 32 years." Yeah, that's true. But which definition is to be used? I posted on something like this a few weeks ago, read it here.

There are a number of conflicting and competing concepts of downtown floating about in Lexington. So do we take DDA's boundary and go from Third St to Maxwell, and Newtown Pike to Midland and Winchester Rd? Should we take everything encompassed in the downtown zone categories?(B-2, B-2A and B-2B) Which ever one we pick it make a few or a lot of people unhappy. Not just the ones who have to remove their signs, but the historic preservation folks who screamed loudly about the buildings on the Main St. block "Our history is being relegated to the scrap heap or the museum," they will cry.

My conclusions on this? I'm not sure yet. I really like the old signs and I miss the awnings. I do not miss the overhead wires. I would like to see a design review for signs in the downtown area but that may be asking for too much.

However it plays out, I feel a change blowing in the winds of autumn.

Streetcars and Reopening of streets

The other day I posted about the St James Ct area in Louisville and the beauty as compared to Woodland Park. What I did not consider at the time was the idea of what their personal vehicles would have been.

The Woodland subdivision was created in 1887 from the 110 acre James Erwin farm and the park of 19 acres was preserved right in the middle. This development pre-dated the Aylesford area and straddled the existing city limit line, generally set by state law at 1 mile radius of the county court house. Woodland Park for years had served as a relaxing respite from the heat and noise of the downtown for all of Lexington’s social strata. The Agricultural and Mechanical College of the Kentucky University (Transylvania University) had been using the property before being given their own land and it is easy to understand why a large number of professors bought or had built new homes in Woodland. Other well heeled and educated professionals in Lexington quickly settled in the suburban area and made their way to town to work.

Now, in the late 19th century there was no such thing as an automobile so one either, walked, rode a horse or drove a carriage for personal transportation. The other option was the mass transit of the day, the streetcar or formerly mule cars. Then, as today, people desired a commute of about 25-30 minutes and the streetcar extended the distance from town that one could live and still commute. The streetcars were extended into the Woodland subdivision as an economic development stimulus tool in that they would allow residents to live further from their job and still hold down the commute time. Since the affluent were the ones who could afford mortgages and then automobiles, the streetcars evolved to be for the working, servile laborers who made their way to clean and cook and staff the houses of those who could employ others while they, the aristocracy, led society.

In the 1880s-90s even the most forward thinking of these intellectuals would not be dreaming of a self-powered vehicle to carry him and his family to town or for a trip into the country. I, as familiar as I am with the area, cannot fathom where or how these people sheltered or maintained a horse and carriage on the properties there. Then, in less than one generation, the horses are gone. And in less than two generations so are the streetcars. Fast forward a handful of generations and we still have the automobile. Fossil fueled autos that have passed through stylish, powerful, fast, compact, SUV and ostentatious, and yet there has been no paradigm shift like we saw at the turn of the previous century. At mid-century the visionaries predicted flying cars and vehicles powered by exotic fuels or power sources yet to be defined and we are still plodding along with the same old internal combustion engine of the original autos.

What is most striking about the preceding is that it, for the largest part, is an American scenario. The rest of the world continued with mass transit from residential areas to the town centers and intercity rail to move around the countryside. London and Paris dismantled their streetcars near the mid-century, most likely from the American influence, but large swaths of Eastern Europe have maintained and expanded their systems to this day. Everywhere that America has spread her influence and lifestyle the automobile has cast its ominous shadow.

It may be time for us as Lexingtonians to take back the streets, to use the streets as a social interaction venue. To that end I support the Second Sunday event scheduled for October 12.

Lexington will make a bold statement by shutting down a major roadway in downtown for 4 hours. Four hours, is that enough? Limestone St in downtown, is this not just for show? Won’t all the major cross streets remain open so that one can’t really walk, ride, run, skate or congregate from one end to the other. This is a big splash visual event that will probably aggravate more motorists than enthuse those who wish to actually make the streets a people place.

It did not happen overnight, the abandonment of the streets to the automobile. It was a gradual thing. And taking them back will also be gradual. Why not start a little smaller, with maybe a few streets in a cluster totaling 1 mile in length. A few residential blocks and just let the people use them as they wish. A block party, a street circus, a community-wide yard sale, no structured activities unless designed by the neighbors. Don’t do it once a year, do it every month on the second Sunday. Have 1 cluster in each council district just to spread it around a little. Have the neighborhood associations compete for the privilege of hosting a Second Sunday event.

To quote Rob Bregoff, a poster on, “My main issue, though, is labeling these events as street "closures" when they are really "openings" for people to use and enjoy the public space as it is meant to be used.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A little time off

So, I have taken a little time off. The Mrs. says that I don't do it often enough to suit her but this week we got some stuff done around the house and took a short trip. We made the short run up to Louisville to take in the St. James Ct. Art Fair. It is a lot like the Woodland Arts Fair and a whole lot different.

Both art fairs draw artisans from all over the country and are set in vintage areas. Louisville just has so many more old houses from the late 1800's and the streets of "Old Louisville" are absolutely beautiful. Oh how I wish that the houses around Woodland Park looked like they did. Don't get me wrong, the houses on Kentucky Av. are of the same period but they are not of the same style, size or beauty. The Woodland Arts Fair has spread itself through Woodland Park and continues to add to its size and variety of vendors. St. James is older and although it started on the Court it now takes up entire blocks of some surrounding streets. I imagine that it was a conscious decision not to use Central Park for St. James just as it has been for Lexington not to close the streets for Woodland, it keeps them separate in style.

Mrs. Sweeper and I have made this trip a yearly occurrence for some time now and we usually have a spot on the wall that needs filling, so we go with the idea of buying something. We always see such beautiful art objects and they have just the right color schemes to fit right in, but the prices, oh the prices. This year there was a metal mosaic piece depicting the "Tree of Life", gorgeous, but $4,000. Then there was a tile mosaic version, by another artist, only $850. Both of them left us almost drooling and saying "Why can't we do something like that?" Needless to say, both items were way out of our budget but we did pick up a couple of nice pieces of artwork and a lot of ideas.

One of the ideas that I have had is about the old auditorium that stood on the corner of Kentucky and High Sts. and how that could have been incorporated into the Arts Fair layout. I have been looking at the history of the building and hope to have a posting on it soon.