A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rocketing into 1990s: Portland's "High Technology" Park

My colleague Erik from the Bike/Ped Committee recently FAXed me about the City's proposed development of a city-owned TECHNOLOGY PARK (or "Tech Park," as it's known in the business) out by the Maine Turnpike.

The site is mapped below - it's the forested land between Rand Road and Westbrook Street on the western edge of the Fore River Sanctuary:

View Larger Map

Here's the proposed site plan, courtesy of the City of Portland "Economic Development Division":

Now this is just the kind of work environment that our best and brightest "technology" workers and businesses are looking for: a series of 1- and 2-story cubicle containers surrounded by large parking lots along a winding cul de sac right next to an interstate offramp.

Could Microvax NA-2010 Task Automators with 36-Character Cathode Ray Tube Output Screens be coming to Portland?
Erik points out that "this site is not currently served by public transportation, and is not within easy walking distance of the kind of services that technology professionals might be looking for - lunch, coffee shops, etc."

The location gets a Walk Score of 22 - which makes it one of the most isolated neighborhoods in the entire City of Portland. The closest lunch spots and retail services are fast food joints located about a mile away, in the decidedly low-tech Pine Tree Shopping Center.

That means that potential employees will be productively imprisoned at their cubicles, completely freed from the creativity and social interactions that plague other tech hubs like Cambridge, Massachusetts and Mountain View.

In the spirit of technology, let me just recircuit my instrument panel here so that I can hotlink Erik's entire "electronic mail" transmission. Please make some bleeping and blooping noises with your mouth so that this will work properly...

via; Mon, 22 Nov 2010 05:30:59 -0800

"While the goal of the technology park is a good one: encouraging high-tech businesses to move to Portland, I feel that the implemention is wrong. They are proposing a 1980s style cul-du-sac business park on a greenfield (forested) site. I feel that the project could be a greater benefit to our City, and also stand a better chance of being able to attract creative technology professionals if it were designed in a more modern, more efficient, and less impactful style with better connectivity to alternative transportation, services, and downtown.

It seems crazy to tear down forest... when there are many vacant buildings and brownfield sites in town. Even if they did build here, they it seems they could do it in a much more compact way that would preserve more land, facilitate colaboration by making it easier to walk between buildings, and cost less.

This site is not currently served by public transportation, and is not within easy walking distance of the kind of services that technology professionals might be looking for - lunch, coffee shops, etc. It is therefore destined to increase auto traffic on 95 and Brighton, which in turn reduces the economic efficiency of the project.

I also wonder if technology professionals would want to be stuck in a cul-de-sac by the freeway. I feel this project would be better able to recuit a variety of creative professionals if it were conceptualized and sited differently."
It's not as though the kind of office park being proposed doesn't already exist in great abundance throughout the Greater Portland region, in purgatorial strip centers like Scarborough, Falmouth, and the Maine Mall area. In practice, those cubicle farms are populated by insurance processors, telemarketers, paperwork filers, and other white-collar drones (and hey, I work in a suburban cubicle myself, to my consternation, so don't take offence - I write this from personal experience).

The proposed "technology park" could manage to lure tenants with cheap office space and free parking. But the businesses whom those suburban amenities entice are rarely innovative businesses, and they definitely aren't the kind of businesses that will revolutionize Portland's economy.

Unfortunately, this represents years' worth of work by Portland's economic development staff. The result - a dime-a-dozen suburban office park - is something that dozens of private-sector developers could have done in their sleep.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods like Bayside and the Gorham's Corner area, which are both adjacent to downtown, have also been trying to attract new real estate investment without much luck. Real private-sector innovators have been incubating new software and media businesses in these neighborhoods under the EDC's radar. A single new office building in one of these neighborhoods would have access to thousands of creative, educated workers within easy walking distance - and those workers would provide a huge boost to hundreds of other downtown businesses nearby.

But the suburban cubicle farm is what City Hall has already decided to buy. So do YOU run a business that's interested in locating your employees in the hinterlands of Portland among acres of scenic parking lots? Does your Human Resources department enjoy paying for your employees' car payments IN ADDITION TO the increased costs of in-town housing? Don't forget the long-term health care costs associated with a workforce that has few choices beyond eating fast food takeout meals on a daily basis!

If you're interested, wire a telegraph to Portland, Maine's Economic Development Division. The high-tech among you are are also invited to visit the EDD's World Wide Web page

(ACTUAL REAL NON-SATIRICAL QUOTE from the previously-mentioned WWW page: "Best viewed at 800x600, with Internet Explorer.")

Monday, November 29, 2010

Portland 101 - the housing authority

Last month, I joined a handful of Portland 101 workshops under the auspices of the League of Young Voters, to learn more about how Portland's various government agencies work (read my introductory post here). I learned that relatively little of our "local government" is controlled at City Hall: much of it, from our garbage disposal to our city buses to our drinking water supply, is operated by independent public agencies that operate largely outside of the City Council's control.

In an ongoing series, here's my take on how one of those agencies works, and how those operations impact Portland's built environment.

The Portland Housing Authority is one of the city's largest property owners. It manages over 1000 units of public housing scattered across 62 acres, but its large, monolithic housing complexes dominate several neighborhoods, including parts of the West End, East Deering, and my own neighborhood of East Bayside. It also runs low-income homeownership programs, distributes rent subsidies for renters living in privately-owned apartments, and coordinates some social services in its housing complexes.

The Authority is governed by a seven-person Board of Commissioners who are appointed by members of the City Council for longish 5-year terms. However, the PHA seems to receive most of its funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (to confirm this, I've put in several unanswered requests for the Authority's financial statements, which - red flag - aren't available on its website). As a result, the City Council seems content to let the PHA run more or less on auto-pilot.

For the most part, I'd say that the PHA seems pretty well-run. But I also see some glaring opportunities for improvement, starting with trying to integrate the PHA's public housing complexes more elegantly into their surrounding neighborhoods, to try and remove the isolation and stigma that everyone (including the PHA's own residents) associates with public housing.

The PHA's properties were generally built during the urban renewal period of the 1960s and 1970s - and they look that way. They also give over way too much real estate to little-used parking lots, which could be sold and put to better use as development sites for new housing, while also contributing to the city's tax revenue.

One PHA parking lot located one block away from my house, on the corner of Oxford and Boyd in East Bayside, typically has five or six cars scattered about its spacious quarter-acre lot - and most of those seem to be owned by renters in the privately-owned apartment building next door. Thus, the PHA is maintaining a mostly-empty parking lot, primarily for the benefit of the private landlord next door, on a plot of land that could easily support walkable, in-town housing for a dozen or more families:

View Larger Map

This is more than a lost opportunity for a city that needs housing more than it needs parking. These parking lots also blight the neighborhood. It's the kind of no-man's land that makes most outsiders afraid to venture into Kennedy Park. If you replaced this empty pavement with families and front porches, then the neighborhood would feel considerably safer, more welcoming, and vibrant.

Regrettably, this is only one example of many - the PHA owns and maintains seven comparably large parking lots in the East Bayside alone, in addition to many, many more elsewhere in the city. Selling just a few of these lots could provide the agency with enough funds to revitalize some of its most problematic properties, give developers the chance to provide more family housing on the free market, lend more dignity to public housing in Portland, and add thousands of dollars in new revenue to the City's tax base.

But as long as PHA is on the federal funding gravy train, with little oversight from City Hall, they'll have little incentive to put their vacant land holdings to their highest and best uses. Obviously, that's something that should change.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

True Confessions of a Recovering Traffic Engineer

Via Portland Bike/Ped Committee member and Bike Commuting Meetup founder John Brooking, here's an excerpt from an essay written by a recovering traffic engineer:

After graduating from college with a civil engineering degree, I found myself working in my home town for a local engineering firm doing mostly municipal engineering (roads, sewer pipe, water pipe, stormwater). A fair percentage of my time was spent convincing people that, when it came to their road, I knew more than they did.

When people would tell me that they did not want a wider street, I would tell them that they had to have it for safety reasons.

When they answered that a wider street would make people drive faster and that would be seem to be less safe, especially in front of their house where their kids were playing, I would confidently tell them that the wider road was more safe, especially when combined with the other safety enhancements the standards called for.

When people objected to those other "enhancements", like removing all of the trees near the road, I told them that for safety reasons we needed to improve the sight distances and ensure that the recovery zone was free of obstacles.

When they pointed out that the "recovery zone" was also their "yard" and that their kids played kickball and hopscotch there, I recommended that they put up a fence, so long as the fence was outside of the right-of-way.

When they objected to the cost of the wider, faster, treeless road that would turn their peaceful, front yard into the viewing area for a drag strip unless they built a concrete barricade along their front property line, I informed them that progress was sometimes expensive, but these standards have been shown to work across the state, the country and the world and I could not compromise with their safety.

In retrospect I understand that this was utter insanity. Wider, faster, treeless roads not only ruin our public places, they kill people. Taking highway standards and applying them to urban and suburban streets, and even county roads, costs us thousands of lives every year. There is no earthly reason why an engineer would ever design a fourteen foot lane for a city block, yet we do it continuously. Why?

The answer is utterly shameful: Because that is the standard.

These "standards," it turns out, not only lack a rigorous theoretical underpinning - they're also based on flawed values. The author also writes:
An engineer designing a street or road prioritizes the world in this way, no matter how they are instructed:
  1. Traffic speed
  2. Traffic volume
  3. Safety
  4. Cost
The rest of the world generally would prioritize things differently, as follows:
  1. Safety
  2. Cost
  3. Traffic volume
  4. Traffic speed
In other words, the engineer first assumes that all traffic must travel at speed. Given that speed, all roads and streets are then designed to handle a projected volume. Once those parameters are set, only then does an engineer look at mitigating for safety and, finally, how to reduce the overall cost (which at that point is nearly always ridiculously expensive).
This sums up why Augusta just spent several million on a highway widening in downtown Portland that's making traffic worse while it puts pedestrians in danger.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


You've probably seen it - this was the cover story on the Portland Press Herald yesterday:

How Maine missed the bus for a federal transit grant

Maine communities lost a chance to land $20 million from the federal transit system this year, apparently because the state's grant application was incomplete.

State transportation officials said Tuesday that they are trying to figure out how the application for a State of Good Repair grant arrived in Washington by e-mail with a cover letter only.

None of the required supporting documents was received, and a Maine Department of Transportation official said she was unsure if the application was e-mailed without the documents attached or if the attachments were somehow stripped off during transmission.

Kat Beaudoin, who heads the MDOT's Bureau of Transportation Systems Planning, said the state hasn't come to any conclusions.

"We believe that we attached (the supporting documents), but we believe that somewhere in the transmission they got unattached or got lost," she said. "I'm not sure we'll ever know what happened."

It's pretty clear to everyone who reads this what happened. After all, documents don't get "unattached" from emails. This excuse only works if you believe that the Internet is literally a series of tubes, and the document got stuck in the bend of a pipe on its way to Washington. If Beaudoin really wanted to get to the bottom of this, she'd check her "sent mail" folder, and there, she would probably find that the grant application never got attached.

A stupid mistake, and it's one that everyone makes. Unfortunately, in this case, the mistake cost Maine's transit agencies and riders - a group that doesn't exactly have lots of money to spare - $20 million.

I wonder why didn't nobody called Washington to follow up and make sure the application had arrived? I've done this when sending a $100 invoice - surely somebody could have done the same when $20 million was on the line?

But Kat Beaudoin didn't follow up. Neither did her bosses, Commissioner David Cole and Deputy Commissioner Bruce Van Note, who have repeatedly made the claim that Maine should raise gas taxes because their agency is so strapped for cash. So it's easier to raise taxes than to call Washington about your $20 million grant application?

Another person who failed to double-check with Washington was David Redlefsen, the local manager of METRO, which lost $5 million that it could have used to replace Portland's most decrepit bus vehicles.

I'll go out on a limb here and tell you one reason why no one bothered to call and follow up: Kat Beaudoin, and her employees, and even the local managers of local transit agencies, don't themselves rely on public transit to get around in their day-to-day lives. If one of Maine's antique buses breaks down, they won't miss any appointments, they won't be late for work, they won't get home late. What difference do your customers make, when your job is protected by a union, your mistreated customers are working too hard to be politically engaged, and nobody's holding you accountable?

In Augusta, it's way easier to make excuses than to demonstrate competency.

Kat Beaudoin's entire department is at a high risk of being eliminated in Paul Lepage's administration, and this stunt won't do them any favors. That's largely fine with me - Augusta's highway middlemen have not proved themselves of any value in recent years. They're building projects we don't need and meddling with positive local initiatives that would do some good. Unfortunately they're likely to take local transit agencies down with them.

There are all too many places where Beaudoin could go collect a paycheck as an excuse-making professional. Maybe manage the archives at the Nixon Library? Or go defend altar boy-loving priests for the Catholic Church? Or work as Lebron James's new agent? The world of dumb mistakes is your oyster, Kat.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why We Need Open Transit Data

I have a bus route - Route 7, the "Falmouth Flyer" - that can pick me up just two short blocks from my house and drop me off right at the end of the driveway at my workplace. The bus route is a straight shot to Falmouth, without any meandering detours. Better still, I can watch for the bus's approach in the morning through the windows of a coffee shop, and once I'm on board it's a scenic ride with ample views of Casco Bay.

Here are the drawbacks, though - it only runs once an hour, so if I miss it in the morning, I have to take the car, and if I miss it in the evening, I usually have to walk (for an hour) back home. Both of these scenarios have happened several times to me in the past year, even though I only ride the bus 2-3 times a month.

And the bus stop where I have to wait for the return ride leaves a lot to be desired - it's basically a narrow, overgrown strip squeezed between Route 1 traffic and a ditch. I'm working on getting my employer to build a shelter there, but it's going to take a while.

These drawbacks are substantial, and make me opt to ride my bike - so I don't have to worry about the bus schedule - instead on most days. I know that similar concerns and frustrations over missing a bus also keep a lot of other people from riding the bus - except the vast majority of those people drive a car instead of riding a bike.

But here's the thing - Portland's bus system actually has technology installed right now that could let me know exactly when the bus is coming, and how far away it is. For the past year or so, all of Portland and South Portland's METRO buses have had mobile GPS units running and communicating with their central dispatch offices.

So theoretically, instead of waiting in the ditch for ten minutes in the rain, and wondering the whole time if I might have already missed it because it was running unusually ahead of schedule, I could just get a text message on my phone when my bus is coming, and meet it right on time at the stop - even if the bus is running later, or earlier, than scheduled.

Or alternatively, my employer could buy a $100 internet-enabled screen, and use it to display estimated arrival and departure times for Route 7 at our bus stop. Here's a demo of how that could work:

Imagine if we had these gadgets running in the lobbies of downtown office buildings, grocery stores, the ferry terminal and train station. Landlords would jump at the opportunity to install them - if each one just attracted one new transit rider per building, then the savings in parking costs would offset the investment in just a few weeks.

It's also important to note that this hardware and software was developed open-source by volunteers - it didn't cost a cent to the local transit agency.

Unfortunately, we can't do any of this right now because METRO is not sharing its data - there's no way for the public to tap in to their buses' GPS coordinates, and there's no convenient XML format for their bus schedules (the METRO website actually posts its bus schedules as JPG images).

The South Portland and Bangor bus services are a bit ahead of the game - you can actually track where they're running at any given moment on this website - but there, too, it's not clear how an independent software developer could acquire and use the data. I'm not a professional programmer, and I'm sure someone more skilled could hack something by scraping data from this site, but by the same token, the transit agencies and the programmers who put this site together could do a lot of good by making the data more accessible.

Monday, November 8, 2010

History Repeating

NPR's Morning Edition reported today that gasoline and oil prices are on a steady rise once again. Though the US remains mired in a recession, many other large countries (like Brazil and China) are demanding more energy, while the supply for oil is flat or shrinking. The cost of crude oil is creeping towards $100 a barrel again.

When this happened in March 2008, forecasters correctly predicated that gasoline would soon be $4 a gallon. Over the summer, more and more suburban homeowners could no longer afford both to fill up their tanks and to pay their mortgages. And we all know what happened then.

But when all this transpired two years ago, people still had jobs and credit. That's not the case anymore - Americans have less purchasing power, which means that $4/gallon gas is going to hurt a lot more this time around.

One financial analyst quoted in the story brought up an interesting statistic: "A $10 increase in the price of oil is like a $200 million tax on the economy a day," said Gary Taylor, a principal with The Brattle Group. That's $1 billion every workweek.

Luckily, we have new government leaders coming in who are gung-ho to cut our taxes. I look forward to seeing how they'll set us free from the $1 billion/week oil dependency tax.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Life in a Red State (It's Not All That Bad)

As you've probably heard, Maine's state government has been taken over by a new Republican majority in a major shift of power (here's the Bangor Daily News report on the statewide election results). So technically, we live in a red state now.

Some of you may be ready to apply for Canadian citizenship. Please don't. The truth is, compared to our local and federal governments, and the support networks of our friends, families, and neighbors, Maine's state government isn't all that important or powerful in most of our day-to-day lives - and a lot of Republicans are interested in making it even less powerful.

Now, this is not to say that state government programs aren't very important to a lot of people - to students, the elderly, the destitute, and the mentally ill, to name a few - but by most measures, the Democrats' government wasn't serving those people all that brilliantly these past few years.

I happen to have lived in a red state before - in Houston, Texas. Some Mainers are inclined to be snobs about Texas, and that's something I'm a bit ashamed of because there's a lot to admire about Houston. It's true there wasn't a good social safety net there. Instead, there were jobs (lots of them), a low cost of living, and abundant opportunities for poor people to earn their way into the middle class - three important, egalitarian quality-of-life measures Maine could definitely improve on. And as a result, Houston is an extremely vibrant, successful city where thousands of new immigrants choose to move, and succeed, every year.

Again, don't mistake me for saying that this is a perfect substitution - I'd like to have both a social safety net for the people who can't make their own living, and good economic opportunities for the rest. And I think that we can have both - but Maine's Democrats were failing to deliver.

In fact, the Democrats have neglected a lot of problems in Augusta for too long, and maybe now we have a chance to fix some of them. To start with, Maine's government agencies are quantifiably too bureaucratic and administratively top-heavy. There are too many clerks and lawyers and not enough teachers and mental health professionals. Democrats haven't been much interested in tackling these problems, but now that Republicans have an upper hand, they'd be wise to work proactively on them instead of digging down to play permanent defense.

And since I write a lot about transportation issues on this blog, I also think that we do have some good opportunities to advance a better transportation agenda in the context of fiscal austerity here at the state level.

Let's start with the Maine Turnpork Authority - now's a great time to paint a bright red bulls-eye on their proposed $35 million tollbooth in York, and save the money for something more productive. Like new ZOOM buses.

This will also be a good time to implement a "fix it first" policy - that is, instead of planning and studying new roads, which are engines for sprawl and increasing property taxes, force Maine's DOT to make a priority of fixing the roads and bridges we already have. Just imagine if every new highway that MDOT proposed had to come with a fiscal note for maintenance and cumulative energy costs...

We should also think about mailing lots of pink slips to the Maine DOT, where there are still way too many pork-barrel highway planners designing fantasy roadways. In Portland, where neighborhood groups are trying to narrow down and reconnect Franklin Street, the cost of a Phase II engineering study has more than doubled, and actual progress has ground to a halt, ever since MDOT took control of the planning process. It looks as though Augusta's planners are trying to secure their own employment for a few more years while other projects dry up around them, but unfortunately their bureaucratic top-heaviness threatens the swamp the enterprise altogether. Portland legislators should be part of a bipartisan agreement that it's better to spend our money on filling potholes than on filing unnecessary paperwork.

We also saw a lot of interest in the past election over energy issues - and while that was mainly focused on the price of electricity, the cost of transportation (particularly fuel costs) is just as, if not more burdensome for most businesses and households here.

So while a lot of hoped-for "green" policies do seem a lot less likely this morning, I do see still see lots of realistic opportunities to make improvements at the state level. Remember - truly sustainable government needs to be financially and economically sustainable as well. Some new people and new ideas in Augusta might just do some good.

The Downeaster on Google Transit

Schedules and itineraries for many of Amtrak's services are now available on Google Maps. This means that it's finally possible to get transit directions from Portland, Maine - as long as your destination is a major town or city to our south:

For all of our starlet readers, here are Google's directions for getting from Maine to Hollywood. It will take you 3 days and 4 hours, riding on 5 different trains and one bus. Bon voyage.