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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why people don't use rapid transit

My Morgan is 44-years-old and still going strong.
Yesterday I took my Morgan, a 44 year old automobile, to the mechanic for its annual physical. Note my car's age: 44 years. Clearly, cars can last. Cars do not have to have to have such short lives, but that is a topic for another blog.

It took me about twenty minutes to drive from my home in suburban Byron to the mechanic's in East London, Ontario. Getting home by bus was another matter. I had to walk about three blocks to the Dundas Street bus stop, take two buses transferring downtown after a short wait, and finally I had to walk about three blocks home. The bus trip took three times the time of the car trip.

My VW Jetta TDI only burns 8.4-cents of diesel per km.
My Morgan is not cheap to drive. It burns premium gasoline. On the other hand, my Volkswagen Jetta TDI is a technically up-to-date car burning diesel fuel. It covers a km for 8.4-cents in fuel costs. A trip to the mechanic costs about a dollar. I can drive to the mechanic and return home for about a third of what it costs to take the bus, plus I'd save an hour and twenty minutes by driving.

Now, let's admit there are lots of hidden costs when it comes to driving. The biggest hidden cost is depreciation. Buy a new car and it immediately begin leaking value. Something in the neighbourhood of half the value of the car will be gone in the first four years.

Then there's the cost of the oil changes, tires, scheduled maintenance, repairs and insurance. I'm sure I could add more but you get the picture. Still, take out the depreciation and my Jetta has cost only 31-cents to drive per km up to this point --- ant that is despite being hit with some big costs since its purchase. For instance, I had to buy a set of four winter tires complete with wheel covers. I kissed more than a thousand dollars good-bye.

There were two riders on this bus: Two!
Cars may be expensive but once you've bought one, the daily costs can be quite reasonable. The big budget killer is depreciation and for car owners, the depreciation metre doesn't stop when they take the bus. This makes getting car owners our of their cars just that much harder.

With more than an hour spent traveling home by bus, I had lots of time to consider the question: "Why don't Londoners use the bus more?" I looked around the bus taking me to Byron. I checked my watch, it was not quite 9:00 a.m. At no point were there more than 14 passengers on the bus and at times there were as few as two.

What a mess. The dirt is so thick, I could write, "Clean me!"
The first bus I boarded had more passengers but it also had a lot more dirt. No, let's call it filth. The bus was stained with spilled drinks, chewing gum was stuck to the seats, and none of this seemed recent. I could write my name in the thick coating of dust.

This brought back a winter memory of boarding an LTC bus and finding some seats contained puddles of melting slush. Some passengers liked to sit with their wet boots propped up on an empty seat.

Boorish riders are bad for the bus business.

As a young boy, I recall going shopping downtown or heading off to the doctor's office and taking the bus with my mom. As I recall, buses carried more people in the early '50s. Car ownership had not yet ballooned. Without a car, people got around by bus. The buses from my youth were a lot cleaner than the buses I've encountered in London.

And what has happened to the advertising once found above the seats? Today buses often sport large ads on their exteriors but I gather interior advertising is dying. Did it get too expensive? Did it price itself out of the market?

Where are the ads?
The London Transit Commission has unveiled its Transportation Master Plan. It sounds good on paper. The art is attractive. But I wonder how it will all play out in reality. I recall their much ballyhooed natural gas powered buses. They came and went quite quickly it seemed.

I found a post entitled "Why people don't take rapid transit." It's worth reading and considering. I like public transportation but they've got to make some changes if they are going to coax me out of my car.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reviving the EOA commercial area

The Lilley's Corners building goes back more than a hundred years.

The area of London known as EOA (East of Adelaide) is a textbook example of a once bustling commercial area that has deteriorated over time. When I moved to London, the stretch of Dundas St. immediately to the east of Adelaide St. appeared to be a vibrant, thriving commercial area.

It had a number of important stores attracting shoppers from all parts of the city. There was a locally owned department store, Hudson's, an appliance outlet, a London Wineries retail store and much, much more --- including some unique businesses. For instance, there was a tinsmith shop. The London Free Press had custom, made-to-measure, galvanized steel, open-top boxes made there. These were used to file the hundreds of thousands of negatives the photographers at the paper shot every year.

Newspapers no longer shoot film. They no longer file negatives. And no one needs a tinsmith shop today. The tinsmith is gone.

More than a hundred years ago East London was the largest of the London suburbs. It was incorporated in 1874 as the Village of Lilley's Corners and the building at the corner of Dundas St. and Adelaide St. still carries the Lilley's Corners placename. In 1885 East London ceased to exist as a separate community and amalgamated with London.

Unfortunately, EOA has suffered greatly over the intervening years. The oil refineries were the first big employers to go, forced out when London, after amalgamation, banned oil refineries as too dirty and too dangerous to be located within the city limits. 

Fire was a constant threat in those days. In fact, the large East London Imperial Oil refinery was destroyed by fire in 1883 after a lightning strike. Imperial Oil relocated to Petrolia.

When it became clear the EOA commercial area along Dundas St. east of Adelaide St. was dying, the city tore up the main street and replaced it with a one block stretch of curving roadway. This would slow traffic and attract shoppers, it was said. It half worked. It slowed traffic.

It cost the better part of a million bucks to curve the street but there were still no shoppers. Businesses closed. It cost the better part of a million bucks to straighten the street and there are still no shoppers. This should come as no surprise as there are no crowd-attracting stores.

Now the city and the local paper are all puffed up over an apartment / store front development going up on the site of the former Hudson's department store. It is hoped this development will breathe new life into the old East London downtown.

Sadly, if it does breathe life into the area, it will be awfully stale breath. Walking down the street, the shops will have all the architectural warmth of a strip mall.

Across the street from the new apartment / commercial development, an heritage building restoration is nearing completion. Now this is something to be proud of.

This heritage structure, with its colourful slate front, is undergoing restoration.
Maybe if London used a form-based code approach to regulate development, as is done in Birmingham, MI., the horribly out of place apartment / commercial structure would not have been built.
A development guided by form-based code in Birmingham, MI.

Monday, May 28, 2012

ReThink London suggestions

ReThink London has put the spotlight on London's Prosperity Plan (LPP) and the upcoming June 9th meeting.

From May 9th until June 1st, Londoners are being invited to submit their ideas on ways we can work together to achieve the goal of strengthening our local economy and creating jobs. Click the LPP link, learn how the Investment & Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) is developing a 10-year plan to move London's economy forward faster and ensure long term prosperity for the community and make your comments soon. June 1st is fast approaching.

My suggestions, not in order of importance:

From the U.S. DOT Buy America webpage.
1. Work with the provincial and federal governments to create a better environment for employers in the province. We need an environment that will attract new businesses to our city while encouraging present employers to stay.

Take the recent exit of Electro-Motive Diesel from London. The "Buy American" movement teamed with the rising value of the Canadian dollar rang the death nell for this once solid London employer. The fact that EMD had recently been purchased by an anti-labour, multi-national, Caterpillar Inc., with a history of union-busting just further complicated an already badly snarled situation.

London's mayor was mainly bluster.
Take a look at the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration website. There were walls going up around the London facility, high walls composed of U.S. regulations which were making the plant difficult to operate profitably.

2. Stop the empty rhetoric. Again looking at EMD. It was a dire situation demanding fast action and great wisdom. Preventing the closure of the locomotive assembler and the loss of as many as 700 local jobs called for a response steeped in a full understanding of the complexities of the fast deteriorating situation. How did London's mayor, Joe Fontana, rally to the moment? He bellowed loudly, "Get your ass down here, Prime Minister Harper!"

The PM didn't appear. No surprise. EMD moved production to the States. Again, no surprise.

Locked out workers were never going to return to EMD.
3. If ever there was a situation calling for proactivity it was EMD. There were numerous, unmistakable signs the London plant was being considered for closure. These signs were brought into sharp focus when the contract talks went into overtime with a six month extension. Yet, city hall did not twig to the looming disastrous job loss. Months before the lockout, London's mayor should have been following the advice he shouted out to the PM.

It was a story of too little, too late.

A lot of  London's water pipeline was buried and forgotten.
4. The City of London has to get its financial house in order. The present zero tax increase approach is not the answer. Cities function because of a complex infrastructure developed over decades. This infrastructure must be maintained. Creating a budget that is kept artificially low by putting maintenance on hold is, as they say, penny wise and pound foolish.

As Gina Barber wrote after the second water pipeline break in as many years:
"It also brought home the importance of well-maintained infrastructure. This is the second time in the last couple of years that there has been a break in this almost half century old system. Just under half of the system has been “twinned”, to allow water distribution to carry on unimpeded in certain areas even when a disruption occurs. The remainder is yet to be twinned, but it’s expensive and the current council has balked at introducing the rate increases that are needed to pay for the infrastructure upgrades. When staff recently recommended introducing a larger flat rate component in the water bill to cover infrastructure costs, the Civic Works Committee was split on the issue. Some, like Councillor VanMeerbergen, insisted that there had to be a better model, one that didn’t cost so much."
Businesses must be able to put their trust in the city's infrastructure. A city that puts off necessary maintenance is a city with one black mark against it.

5. Cities need developers but developers need guidance from cities. It is very clear that developers in London are not given the guidance that they need. This is not good for the city and, in the end, it is not good for the developers.

Affordable housing being constructed on Dundas St., EOA.
Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote in The New York Times, "Even the most majestic cities are pockmarked with horrors." In a city as large as New York or Toronto, there are lots of good buildings to buffer the shock. This is not so in smaller places like London. In small cities, horrible architecture reverberates loudly.

Ouroussoff says the best solution for solving the problems of architectural horrors might be the wrecking ball. I might suggest a little forethought. A little planning. Don't allow the ugly stuff to be built in the first place.

We don't have to look farther than East London for an example of bad architecture.

An EOA century plus building has panache.
The London Free Press calls the construction of 12 one-bedroom apartments above six ground floor commercial units a "rebirth" for a section of Dundas Street that has been in declined for decades.

Sadly, one doesn't have to look farther than the end of the block to see more attractive, but equally dense, architecture. While other communities around the world are demanding more from their developers, demanding beauty along with function, London is failing the grade.

What is really interesting is that the local paper has long been a champion of the ideas of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. The local paper has also written approvingly of the actions being taken by the small town of Birmingham, Michigan, at keeping their well respected little burg at the forefront of modern thinking on successful urbanism. Birmingham has an urban plan prepared for the community by DPZ.

Maybe London should consider borrowing some of the ideas of this famous architectural firm. Do a little googling and see what other communities are doing. For instance, Birmingham is looking at form based code.

Form-based code in action in Birmingham, MI.
6. Form-based code

A form-based code is a method of regulating development to achieve a specific urban look. Form-based codes create a predictable public realm by focusing mostly on physical form. Land use controls are secondary. Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public space, the form and mass of buildings is controlled in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.

Click this link to form-based code. If FBC was being used in London, Ontario, it might have prevented the monstrosity going up in EOA.

Walkable. Sorta. Mostly designed for car travel.
7. As we ReThink London, let's not be too intent on belly-button gazing. Let's look outside of the city and see what stuff other folk are doing in other communities.

For instance, London has what is being touted as a new gateway to the city: Wonderland Road South.

The London Free Press writer Randy Richmond tells us: The plan is for this southwest corner of London to become a living and economic gateway to the city, a showcase of London's very best qualities.

Is Richmond really serious? I'm sure he has the plan wording correct, but is this really what is transpiring? I don't think so. This development could be much better. For all the local talk about walkability, the commercial development in the Wonderland and Southdale Road area sports few of the features one would expect if walkability was truly a goal.

Legacy Village, Columbus, Ohio
I advise the city planning folk to get in a car, share the expense, and take a drive to Columbus, Ohio to visit Legacy Village. This is one approach that might have been considered as an alternative to what is continuing to be expanded along Wonderland Road South.

Be aware, I am not suggesting London copy Legacy Village but be inspired by it. With all the residential development in the Wonderland/Southdale area, a walker-friendly shopping area that is also car and bus welcoming, would have been ideal.

Another spot that could have benefited from a little Legacy Village thinking is the shopping area on Southdale Road at Col. Talbot Rd. Sad to say, the original plan for the London intersection promised a new urbanist commercial area. It didn't happen and it leaves one wondering what plans today will not happen. Just being a good plan doesn't seem to be enough. Talk is cheap in London.

Well, that's it for today. May post more tomorrow. I've gotta be prepared for the upcoming ReThink London meeting.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Romney calls U.S. the most prosperous nation. It's not.

I heard Mitt Romney claim that the United States is the most prosperous nation on earth. I thought, "Huh?" I had a vague recollection of a report listing the States well down on the global prosperity ranking. No CNN newsperson questioned Romney's claim

Note the United States is in 10th position.
A quick google found The 2011 Legatum Prosperity Index. The U.S. was rated 10th. Not bad but not No. 1.

To tell the truth, the idea that the world's countries can be neatly ranked according to prosperity is open to question. Let's not get too hung up on the specific numbers but on the general placement.

Clearly there are thoughtful folk who would not rate the U.S. among the very top countries when it comes to prosperity. The index still has the States in the top ten, a drop from its past ranking, but still an excellent placement.

The finding that I found most interesting was how Americans rate their country when it comes meritocracy, the selecting of people to positions of power and influence in government and business, etc. according to merit, according to their ability.

Only 88.5 percent of Americans believe their society is meritocratic. I say only because 93.4 percent in Norway believe their society is meritocratic. Even the Chinese rate their country, China, higher on the meritocracy scale than Americans rate the U.S. On the meritocracy scale, Americans rate the U.S. closer to India than to Norway.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

BRT Primer

See the draft London, Ont. Transportation Master Plan at Smart Moves Open House.
Taking the bus in London, Ontario, can be a nasty experience --- or so I've been told. I usually walk, or ride my bike, or drive my car. Like the majority of Londoners, for longer trips I prefer my car to the bus.

One of the few experiences I've had with London Transit was when my car died while downtown and I tried walking home. Not quite halfway home a bus pulled up and stopped. I was taking a breather and just happened to be at a bus stop. I explained I didn't have any change and was just taking a break from a long hike home. The driver looked at the sweating, panting, old geezer standing at the open door to his bus. He ordered me to climb aboard.

I thanked him. My failing, old heart thanked him. I climbed the stairs onto the bus and slumped down in the first seat. The very next day, I dropped off my fare at the bus terminal on Highbury Ave. I may not take the bus regularly but I think London Transit is a fine operation thanks to that driver's kindness.

Now, the London Transit Commission (LTC) is going to try and win not just my respect but my business. The LTC is unveiling the new Transportation Master Plan (TMP) May 16 in the Carousel Room at Western Fair. The promise is to put BRT at the core of  the latest proposal for curing London's mass transit ills.

What is BRT?

BRT stands for Bus Rapid Transit: a bus service providing a level of service comparable to rail when it comes to frequency of service, capacity, quality and reliability. Ideally, BRT accomplishes all this with greater flexibility and lower capital investment costs.

Knowing very little about BRT, I googled the topic and discovered the Valley Transit Authority (VTA) of Santa Clara, California has posted an excellent primer on BRT design, complete with guidelines. If your are going to the May meeting at Western Fair, take a look at the VTA posted report detailing their take on BRT.

An articulated bus used by the VTA, Santa Clara, CA on their valley rapid BRT system.

The BRT idea sounds good but note that valley rapid is still in its infancy. It is still being evaluated. This is an ongoing story as far as Santa Clara, CA. is concerned. We will just have to "stay tuned" to learn the outcome.

There is a BRT system in Ottawa, ON. You may be interested in the post Myth vs. Reality: Has Ottawa "BRT" Provided Light-Rail Service at Much Lower Cost? This article supplies more links if you want to dig even deeper. Keep in mind this info comes from a source that is not wowed by the BRT approach as followed in Ottawa.

A BRT line in Cleveland, Ohio has gotten mixed reviews.
I find it interesting that Cleveland, Ohio has a working BRT route. I believe it was Randy Richmond of The London Free Press who made a derogatory comment about Cleveland in one of the articles in the ongoing LFP series on improving London. I thought his remark was not only unnecessary but unwise. When looking for inspirational ideas for improving one's community, one should never flippantly write off another community.

Of all people, I should think reporters should keep open minds.

Grand Rapids, Michigan is one my favorite Rust Belt cities. It has had a tough go of things over the past few decades but the city has kept its spirit. The Heritage Hill area is quite remarkable and well worth a visit. Check the Internet and find a bed and breakfast in one of the old mansions.

Grand Rapids is giving serious consideration to a BRT route. The above video was done by a chap from Grand Rapids who went to Cleveland to see BRT in use.