Sunday, November 22, 2009

Kentucky's Future Energy Usage

Lexington has been a Sister City to County Kildare in Ireland since 1984 mostly on the distinct similarities of the land, climate and cultural resources prevalent in both locations. Our first settlers originally came from Ireland and England so there should be some sort of connection between our two counties. Now I find that our "older" Sister City is also a wiser and more forward looking community than we are.

Mrs Sweeper pointed out this link to me after looking though the Energy Bulletin for some ideas pertaining to Peak Oil. This blogger is comparing Kentucky and Ireland and their plans for energy production and usage. Ireland is apparently looking to reduce their energy usage in the next decade or two while Kentucky, along with the rest of the US, will continue to use more and more energy, possibly due to our coal industry's influence within the states hierarchy.

There are many points in this report that I can agree with and many more in the Governors proposal for energy independence that I find questionable. So many of our projections about energy usage is based on trend lines going forward from our recent history and I doubt consider either a major shift in population and economic trends or a collapse of the existing economic system altogether. Should the price of our fossil fuels, especially oil and particularly foreign oil, rise to a level where transporting food products long distances becomes prohibitively expensive, will our land be better used for growing bio-mass for fuel or for feeding our local population?

Ireland is probably setting themselves up for a better future both energy wise and local sustainability wise.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How Some Others See Us

I was very much surprised to stumble upon this link. A blog site run by some young professionals with a mission to inform and discuss the issues facing their city, Metro Jacksonville. The reason that I found it, was that I was doing some research about Lexington's planning history and they had written a comparison of Jacksonville, Fl. to Lexington.

Although the text was written in June of '09 and posted in Aug., I found that it is a fair presentation of our city's current situation and where we stand vs. Jacksonville. I would hope that you all will read this site and see what you think. The comments are particularly revealing about some popular conceptions of Jacksonville. There is also a post on their comparison to Austin, from 2006 that I wish that they would update.

If you do go and take a look, please drop me a line and let me know if this is something that should be done here in Lexington.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Trolley Concepts

After reading a commentary in the weekly newsletter Destination: Freedom, I now have a fresher concept of proposing and laying out a viable trolley system for Lexington. What if we allow the users to determine the route "tweaks" that will make the system really work for the people.

We have long looked at places like New York and Boston or Chicago and asked, "Why can't we have something like theirs?". The simple answer is, we don't have the population to merit something as big as those. But we can begin to build a basis for a system to grow to that scale. The larger systems in America and those in Europe have been established for well over 100 years. We, in Lexington and many other cities, had systems that could have grown into what we sometimes envy in the rest of the world. Even those in our larger cities went through a stagnant period where they stopped growing or shrank to barely subsistence levels and are just now seeing a renewed expansion phase.

Lexington has talked about a new trolley circulator route or two( I can't really call it a "system") for nearly two years. They have assembled the equipment and done the public surveys to determine the routes and yet I now hear that they will wait until spring to begin service. They want everything to be "perfect" at the outset. That will assure the acceptance by the publicand make it a complete project.

Many of the light rail project that have been undertaken in the past decade have had their detractors and some have struggled for precisely the reasons put forth by those detractors (Randal O'Toole and others). Often, it seems, the chosen routes are from some perceived central location yet not easily reached by a majority of the people without some other motorized transportation method. Way too many of them rely on park-and-ride lots for their stations to succeed. A steetcar or trolley system(tracked or not) need not follow this same methodology to determine routes or destinations.

Campus planners on a small scale and urban planners on a larger scale have for years placed sidewalks and streets respectively and through observation and traffic studies rerouted those sidewalks or redesigned those streets which gained the most usage by using the "desire lines" of the users of the systems. Such a method could and should be used in the circulator trolley routes being pursued today.

First establish a general route direction and then let the riders assist in tweaking the routes under certain guidelines (no deviations more than x number of feet per y number of blocks traveled). This allows the rider to determine for himself whether the trolley ride is effort effective or not. Secondly, the frequency need to be such that one will see the trolley (or streetcar stop or tracks) and allow the impulse buying instinct to kick in. This may encourage travel to a more distant destination with the same effort. Thirdly, the routes should allow for adjustments and changes in climates of the seasons and business. The whole idea of a service is to be flexible and cater to the needs of those being served. The user's needs should come before the desires of the provider, otherwise the user will find an alternate solution.

As I have stated before, I am not greatly enamored with the idea of a rubber tired version of the trolley but I can see that using this to help in determining an optimum fixed route, "heritage style" streetcar is a benefit toward future planning efforts. This is then something that we can build upon in an effort to achieve that which we now envy in the Europeans and others around the world.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Examples Of Good And Bad Interstate Use Or Reuse

I am continually amazed at the seemingly thought out opinion pieces that with one sentence can eliminate all credibility built in the rest of the work. One recent op-ed in the New York Times was penned by such a writer, Karrie Jacobs.

Ms. Jacobs feels that the U.S. should take a look at re-purpose the Interstate Highway system, mainly to transport things other than fossil fueled vehicles. On its face this sound all well and good, until you look a little deeper. Placing America's electrical grid under the existing pavement of the Interstates would probably take as much federal dollars as building a new system from scratch. Not counting the logistical problems of heat build up or the regular maintenance requirements of the equipment, the excavation of the subsurface would be very expensive. Secondly, these Interstates do not always go to places that would require electrical service, such as facilities that cannot be placed near usual transportation routes.

What kills it for me is the assertion of her "most obvious" alternative.
The most obvious use for the Interstate’s corridors is rail transportation. If we are going to spend billions rehabbing the highways, shouldn’t we, at the same time, invest in adjacent rail lines like the 800-mile high-speed rail system voters approved last year in California
As I have written before, the current vision of High Speed Rail in America would be considered only medium speed in the rest of the world and the Interstate system was designed for automobile speeds of 90+ at best. Any reuse of the Interstate by rail, high speed or otherwise, would have to take this into consideration. The curves are designed much too tightly for high speed rail and the hills are at too steep a grade for just about any rail and the current interchanges are not suitable for transitioning from one line to another without sacrificing way too much time in doing so.

This is an idea that will not work without way too much effort for the good that it will do.

In contrast, the city of Providence R.I. is well along with their project to relocate Interstate 195 from downtown to the outskirts of the city. In doing so they will free up 39 acres of prime downtown land, 20 of which will be sold to developers and a reconnected street grid will aide the inner city neighborhoods.

Providence is just one of the many urban areas that have decided to remove their massive expressways, once thought of as necessary for the survival of downtowns and now considered hindrances to continued urban growth. Lexington's lack of a downtown freeway has usually been blamed for our traffic troubles. I, for one, am thankful that we will not be following other cities in this pattern.

Monday, November 9, 2009

15 Years After An Expensive Master Plan

Back in the mid'90s there was a movement to expand the Urban Service Area because the developers and builders were running out of land. There was a long and protracted battle before the Planning Commission and eventually it was decided--and expansion with a new way of looking at development.

The Expansion Area would be designed around two major concepts, the preservation of streams and drainage ways to eliminate flooding and promote greenway trails and linkages to civic amenities and the establishment of various community centers, each with a transition area into the surrounding residential development.

The greenways and the connecting walking/biking trail systems are largely taking place, in part due to the EPA suit and the consent decree(yet to be finalized). The community centers, well not so much.

The community centers were envisioned to be places for social gathering, associated somehow with structures of auditoriums or meeting halls(schools, churches or park style shelters), a small amount of retail and a residential component which ideally could be mixed with the retail(think Chevy Chase Shopping Center as it was, not as it is now). They were to be a central gathering place for the newly developing neighborhoods, accessible by foot or bike and would eliminate the need for an automobile to get to a neighborhood meeting. This was forward thinking, planning for peak oil without actually saying so.

There have been four CC/TA zones created in the expansion area so far. The first one developed is at the intersection of Polo Club Blvd and Todds Rd, or at least the proposed intersection with it not having been connected as yet. The end result here is a collection of townhouses and an anticipated gas station/food mart at the proposed corner. There are several large churches with property(10 acres or better) immediately adjacent and yet lacking any direct connectivity to the neighborhood.

The second is at the intersection of Polo Club and Man o' War Blvd. The plans here call for townhouses(again) some retail and presently several large lots and no specific proposals. What has been built is a gas station, pharmacy and bank. No townhouses or trails or anything else. I am starting to see a pattern here.

The third is located on Newtown Pike and Providence Parkway(north of Stanton Way and the Cracker Barrel). There is not much here right now but the approved plans say a gas station, several one story shops and a grouping of restored farm buildings centered around an antique dealer. The residential component is again several townhouses (not yet built).

Our latest to be developed is at Hays Blvd and Sperling Dr., near the elementary school. The mixed use shopping/residential was to encourage connectivity between the school , the shopping and other civic activities in an area nearly in the exact center of the development. The latest thoughts of the developer are some apartments behind the school, more single family lots and... get this... a pharmacy and a gas station on the corner. What a novel concept. Why did we not see this coming?

The residential zones of the expansion area (EAR 1, 2 & 3) were set up with a wide range of densities, anywhere from 3 units per acre up to 24 units per acre(with density transfer rights) or 18 without the transfer rights. As yet, the development density fifteen years into the plan is approximately between 3 and 4 units per acre, or just about what we were developing before the expansion plan was approved at great cost.

A new way of planning? Maybe not. I think it has been a zero sum game and maybe Pogo said it best, "We have met the enemy, and it is us."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gridlock And What To Do About It

Our favorite transportation planner, Randal O'Toole has a new book coming out soon called "Gridlock: Why We Are Stuck In Traffic and What To Do About It". This book is supposed to set the planning world on its ear.

The ideas put forth here are the same that we have heard from Mr. O'Toole for years. That American people cherish their mobility and that the personal auto is the ultimate in convenience. Not only is it inexpensive but it is available to nearly any family in the developed world. That mass transportation(buses, trains etc.) are not a replacement for the personal auto and limiting auto mobility would be detrimental to society. I wonder what the good people of New Orleans will say when they remember the post Katrina days of no transportation out, even when there were plenty of buses with no drivers.

O'Toole says that this book will oppose any government subsidies to any transportation mode as well as any government efforts to reduce individual driving. Any subsidies? Does that mean funds in addition to the Highway Trust Fund which cannot cover all that is expected of it now? Lexington and the state of Kentucky cannot currently maintain the road that they have sufficiently, much less any new or upgraded roads.
Users should be able to choose whatever transportation they like as long as they pay their way.

The Antiplanner, from The Ultimate Transportation Antiplanning Book

As a resident of Lexington and a driver in the state of Kentucky, I do not see my personal local money being used to repair any street or any parking lot. Those funds come from the hidden increase in the cost of goods and services that I buy, and not just the frivolous stuff, I am talking about the basics of life. Anything that moves over the roads is subject to the fees and the additional cost is passed on to the consumer. The cost of maintaining the parking lot at the local grocery is added to the price of food, the lot at the movies is added to the price of the tickets and the road in front of my house is added to the property tax bill(given the residential density of our suburban sprawl, most streets will not pay for themselves).

O'Toole also tries to get away from the old argument of rails vs. roads by pushing a new third position, using technology to provide mobility and congestion relief, by making the current roads more efficient. Using driverless vehicles. Driverless cars that will allow more vehicles to move closer to each other and at higher speeds and hopefully with no collisions.

This, of course, would require the rebuilding of all the roadways with the technology capable of controlling such vehicles AND the requiring the retrofitting of autos with these controls. I imagine that this would be paid for by the auto's owner and the owner of the roads. Currently the government owns the roads and since they(the government) are not allowed to subsidize the system, the government may not upgrade the roads, so I wonder who will. There is also, at this time, a strong opposition the the installation of GPS tracking devices for the recording of VMT on which to base a roadway fee(tax) in lieu of the gas tax, so will total control be allowed by the general driving public? Anyone with the OnStar system already has the GPS tracking so it may not be a problem.

I am curious to know which roads will be the first to be fitted for the driverless controls. Will it be the Interstates and the major US highways between our major cities( the one that flow fairly well as it is) or will it be the urban arterial and collector type streets where the commuter back-ups occur today? How far down the functional classification list will the control level go? Will it extend to the local and cul-de-sac level, if not how will you get your auto to the closest control point? Will manual control and driverless control be able to mix on the roadways? And what will become of the "complete streets" movement that seems to be sweeping the country these days.

Thinking about this brings to mind an online conversation I had with another commenter to a Herald-Leader article. A resident of Richmond, Ky. had expressed his opinion on spending money on some changes to Esplanade. His premise was to spend more money on widening the streets of Lexington, to allow his daily trip through town(from Richmond to Lawrenceburg) in a 4x4 truck to be made in a less obtrusive manner. He wants us to spend our funds to make his commute better and he does not live or pay taxes here.

I, of course, took offense to his callous abuse of Lexington's already horrendous carbon footprint and suggested that we(Lexington) did not need his type mucking up our county. It soon became evident that this Madison County redneckwas not the type to be told that he would(or could) give up control of his vehicle. Clearly his actions to get ahead were ones that have been taught and will, if followed, place one squarely behind the eight ball in the coming environmental and financial paradigm reset.

Randal O'Toole and this fellow from Richmond will both resist the government's intrusion to their lives, but I doubt that they will agree on Lexington's traffic problems.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lexington's Future Should Be On Track?

By now everyone has heard the news, the Oracle of Omaha has bought himself a railroad. Warren Buffet has bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. I am so jealous that he gets to play train--with real trains.

I have known several model railroaders over the years and many of them have had elaborate set-ups and layouts. Each one had a different goal in mind when they started their design phases. Some wanted be able to run their railroad in a manner best fitting their interests; operating a train using the historical methods and rules of bygone days, bringing their favorite prototype into the present using an alternate reality or using some specialized equipment related to a facility that they were familiar with. The common thread in all of these is a remembrance of days gone by and the thoughts of what might have been.

Mr Buffet is now going to tread where few railroaders have dreamed to go--he is going to march proudly into the future, with the idea of renewing the promise of what rail transportation can do and creating new possibilities of fond memories in younger generations. And he is not going alone, one of our local rail professionals is moving into the future right there with him, R.J. Corman.

Corman, with his recent acquisition of the Railpower Co. and their industry leading GenSet locomotives is working with other railroad companies to make rail transportation services once again the best in the world. Some of us have watched in wonderment as the Corman Railroad group has steadily built a reputation of excellence and said that he is just doing it to please his own ego. His purchase of a steam locomotive and rumors of excursions/dinner trains have fueled dreams of more tourist attractions, but I think that it is much more than that. I am just waiting for the next hint of the wonderful things to come.

With such railroad visionaries as that, why is it that the State of Kentucky and the City of Lexington don't see more possibilities for rail in the future? Why are we finding more ways to remove ourselves from any remote possibility of re-establishing rail service to our downtown. We still herald the removal of the downtown tracks and the redevelopment of rail related industries as though they will no longer be needed as our fossil fuels depletion drives up transportation costs.

Warren Buffet did not buy a railroad on a whim or as a way to play with trains. $34 Billion is a lot of money to play with but Buffet does not like to lose money and if he thinks it is a good bet, then maybe the city, state and the rest of the country should listen. Buffet thinks that this a bet on the country and I'm following him.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Economic Development With Sustainable Living

According to Neil Pearce "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s cautious if not hostile approach to climate control legislation isn’t just putting it at odds with the Obama administration.". I t may also be putting it at odds with its local organizations. It has certainly played a part in the decisions of national and international corporations like Pacific Gas and Electric and Apple to resign from the larger body.

The local Chamber, known locally as Commerce Lexington, is the entity usually chosen as the prime economic development arm of Lexington's leaders. What I'd like to know is, are they working with the Urban County Government to bring in the more environmentally conscious companies, or even is there an effort to work toward a climate controlled Lexington development scene. I don't necessarily believe that man is the cause of the recent climate changes or that the changes are irreversible. I don't even totally believe in the whole global warming scare theory, but the majority of the country's leading scientists do and yet I am not sure that I see our leadership working to do something about it. I do believe in the peak oil scenario(and the coming paradigm reset) and I certainly do not see any efforts to deal with what I see as arriving before any catastrophic effects of global warming. Our global economy may kill us all before global warming does.

A report from the Partners for Livable Communities details some of the local chambers around the country which have begun planning and doing projects in their hometowns all in the name of sustainability. Many of these chambers were in the southern and eastern US. Lexington was not on the list.

This is not just about global warming or peak oil or even reducing the outlandish per capita carbon footprint here in Lexington. It is about making and keeping Lexington a desirable place to raise a family. It will take dealing with each of the elements and making responsible choices when it comes to land use and transportation. How will we deal with our heat islands of parking lots and exhaust spewing autos? How will we reduce our use of fossil fuels, thereby leaving some for our children and grandchildren to use even more sparingly? How will we leave a more positive footprint on the Earth than our parents and grandparents did?

Where was our Commerce Lexington when we decided to expand the Urban Service Area in the mid-'90s. I think that they were right there helping to set the density targets for all the newly planned acreage. This was to be a new way of planning, a new way of looking at our fringe areas, more density in a more community center oriented setting. Now nearly fifteen years later, we look back and see that there are no community centers to which to orient and the density built that equals any development done prior to the expansion. We set the bar just above minimum and barely made it over the bar. Hooray for the status quo. And where is our Commerce Lexington these days? My bet is living right in the middle of that very expensive status quo, driving their luxury autos across town to work and leaving a larger carbon footprint than 75% of their employees.

So much for expecting a sustainable lifestyle in our economic development.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chamber Trips To A Black Hole

Much has been talked about the recent Commerce Lexington trip and its follow-up visit by Rebecca Ryan, a Madison consultant, but we are not the only ones to have controversy about these types of "Chamber trips". Mary Newsom, on her blog "The Naked City" had a review of Charlotte's visit by the Minneapolis/St Paul Chamber of last week. Apparently, one of the questions brought up by some of the participants was whether the visited city had audacity while the visitor was considered ambivalent.

How does this translate into the Lexington experience? Does Madison, Wisconsin take on the mantle of audacity while we here in Lexington sit back in our ambivalence and cruise through on our southern hospitality, college basketball and horse industry? Some of you will think Lexington needs to show a bit more audacity and promote itself more on its aspects that are far removed from those that I've already listed. Some will maintain that we should take on more of how other cities do things and yet not look like Anywhere, USA. I think that we should look at other cities, not for just what works but also how it works(and I don't mean the mechanics of it working) and why it works. What are all the pieces needed to allow it to work rather than forcing it to work in spite of lacking key elements? The true success to gathering ideas of others is that it is not a buffet, to pick and choose parts, but a jigsaw puzzle which need all the pieces to be give the complete picture.

Often the best part of these types of blogs are comments made by the readers and this one is no exception. One commenter went so far as to read the agenda, notice that the topics were things that normal readers heard little about and asked why this information, freely given to those from other cities, were kept from the average Charlotte resident.

Trips like this may be useful to those taking them(or so they say) but also may be becoming fewer and farther between with the demise of cheap oil. And some of these junkets are(or have been) simple excuses to visit other cities' night life(i.e. gentlemen's clubs etc...), have expensive meals or visit tourist sites at no charge. We have all read about these kinds of things lately haven't we?

The point is, that there is only so much of the economy that can be split between the various communities without stealing from others. We don't need to steal our portion of the economy, we need to grow our own. I have a feeling that in the coming economic reset that there will be the need to do more of everything for ourselves, even a lot more local food production and material fabrications. Our wresting of a larger portion of the economic pie from the larger cities would be like retrieving matter from a black hole after it has passed the event horizon.

What is the catalyst that will make Lexington an economic black hole and start to draw from other areas without copying them?