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

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Go Play in Traffic

John Brooking, the founder of the Portland Bike Commuters' Meetup Group, will be leading a 3-part introductory course on how to cycle safely and confidently on busy roads.

Here's John's description of the first class, "Train Your Bike," coming up on Saturday June 11 from 9 am to 1 pm:

In this three hours of fun you will train your bike to perform at low speed, at high speed and in emergency situations.

You will teach your bike to behave:
  • As you start and stop correctly
  • Stop without putting a foot down
  • Maneuver with precision at low speeds
  • Communicate with the drivers behind you
  • Race sloooowly
You will teach your bike to be frisky at high speed:
  • Use your gears efficiently to accelerate
  • Avoid obstacles with the rock dodge
  • Dance through a slalom course
  • Corner with precision
You will teach your bike to get you out of trouble
  • Snap turn 90° in a 4ft radius
  • Stop on a dime ~ without going over the handlebars

The full course also includes these future classes:

The truth and techniques of traffic cycling (3 hrs):
Classroom session. Discover that bicycling is very safe and that with a few simple techniques, you can make your own cycling virtually conflict-free.

Tour of Portland (3.5 hrs):*
On-road tour. We will show you simple strategies to eliminate obstacles and ride with ease and confidence in places you might never have thought possible. *requires completion of previous 2 classes

A la carte session $30/each; full course package $75. Register online here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What about a Streetcar in this Portland?

As a citizens committee mulls over how to improve Forest Avenue, I've been mulling over whether it might be a good place to try to build Maine's first modern streetcar.

I've run some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I think that Portland could afford it - I'd actually go so far to say that Portland could easily afford it. It could well end up making the city fiscally better-off: smart-growth developers love streetcars, and a line along Forest could spur dozens of building projects to bring new thousands of new jobs and housing units into the corridor's empty and underutilized lots.

The stretch of Forest Avenue from Bayside to Woodfords Corner could be a really cool Main Street for Portland, similar to Congress Street downtown or Commercial Street in the Old Port. It's got a big university campus anchoring one end, and the down-on-its-heels-but-still-kicking Woodfords business district on the other, and a smattering of fine historic buildings and neighborhood attractions in between.

Unfortunately, a few businesses and landlords along the street are more interested in serving cars than in serving their own neighbors, and their drive-thrus and blighted parking lots are dragging the entire neighborhood down. Even the banks seem to be anti-development: two brand-new branches built within the past decade are killing the neighborhood's foot traffic (not to mention choke the neighborhood's vehicular traffic) with hideous drive-thru teller lines.

Still, a high-quality transit service might convince them that those parking lots and driveways might be more valuable as housing or workspace. By my rough count, there are over 20 acres of aging strip mall, parking lot, or empty land along the line from Woodfords Corner to downtown:

View Dowtown Streetcar feasibility in a larger map

If just a handful of those lots were redeveloped with 4-5 story buildings, the city could gain a few hundred thousand dollars annually in new tax revenue - enough to pay for the annual operations costs of a streetcar line. And many of these lots are owned by the government, from the Maine Dept. of Transportation's land-wasting Exit 6 interchange, to the extensive parking lots of the University of Maine Campus, to the City of Portland's public works lots in Bayside. The city and state could potentially sell 10-12 acres of downtown real estate, setting aside a few million dollars for a streetcar line and saving the rest for other programs.

The streetcar construction projects in the other Portland have averaged $12-$13 million per mile - a figure that includes road reconstruction work and the costs of the vehicles. The line I sketched out above would be 1.8 miles of track downtown, plus 2.4 miles of track out to Woodfords Corner and back (or 1.2 miles in each direction). Based on the ballpark $13 million per mile figure, Portland could buy this for around $55 million. And given that these streets will probably be reconstructed soon anyhow, the marginal additional cost would be substantially lower.

$55 million is a lot of money. But in terms of transportation investments, it's relatively cheap.The Jetport terminal expansion, for instance, is going to cost $60 million - funded by surcharges on our plane tickets. The old Turnpork Authority tollbooth proposal in York would have cost about $50 million. And widening Forest Avenue to accommodate more car traffic might easily run to over $100 million, in addition to the loss of dozens of taxpaying businesses and buildings.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the federal government matches up to 80% of our transportation infrastructure expenditures. If we could compete in effectiveness with other proposed streetcar projects in other cities, and earn the full 80% match, then City would only need to raise $11 million locally.

Still, even though a streetcar might be possible, it won't happen unless three very uncertain conditions are met:
  • key property owners along Forest Avenue and in Bayside get smart enough to replace their parking lots with new buildings, to help the line attract enough riders;
  • the surrounding neighborhoods remain open to having new neighbors, more businesses, and taller buildings along Forest Avenue, and
  • a leader in city government can champion the concept and secure funding from state and federal partners.
Right now, we have weak leaders, a lot of NIMBYism, and mostly unimaginative landowners. But maybe the idea of a high-quality streetcar line, and a fast connection to downtown Portland, could change things for the better.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Transforming Forest Avenue - Corridor Walk and 1st Public Meeting

The Great Lost Bear is the same distance from Monument Square as the Western Prom (about 1.3 miles) - but while a walk through the West End is pleasant, a walk along Forest Avenue through the freeway interchange and along the strip of drive-through banks and fast food franchises is almost unheard of.

A lot of the city's planners and leaders would like to change that, so they've commissioned a study that's now underway called "Transforming Forest Avenue."

"The goal of this study is to develop functional and safe pedestrian, bicycle, bus and motorist access both along and across Forest Avenue - a key gateway corridor. This study will also look at land use, leveraging public investments to stimulate private redevelopment and infill of underutilized properties."
The study should also look at options for Exit 6, the cloverleaf freeway interchange that blocks Forest Avenue from the rest of downtown Portland.

The study's steering committee met for the first time last week. Unfortunately, it sounds from their reports that people aren't bringing a lot of vision or ambition to this - there's a lot of "sure, Forest Ave. is bleak, but what can you do?"

Hopefully, members of the public can come and change that attitude tonight, at the study's first public meeting, by bringing some big ideas and letting the planners know that this can and should be a walkable main street for the city.

Transforming Forest Avenue - Corridor Walk and 1st Public Meeting
May 12, 2011

Corridor Walk: 4:30 pm-5:45 pm
We will meet in front of the University of Southern Maine Glickman Library on Forest Avenue.

Public Meeting: 6-8pm
At the University of Southern Maine Abromson Center (on Bedford Street), Room 109-110.

For details, call Molly Casto, Senior Planner at 207-874-8901.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Portland and South Portland bus schedules & routes now on Google Maps

View Larger Map

The schedule and route information for METRO and South Portland Bus Service buses have been added to Google Maps. Ask for directions in the Greater Portland area, and you'll now be able to get directions by public transit (in addition to walking, cycling, and driving directions).

This is a handy way to use the buses without a printed schedule. Now, instead of consulting a timetable, you can just get on a computer or your phone to see when the next bus is coming, and find different routes to get where you need to go on time.

Maybe you've arrived on a flight from the Jetport, and are interested in saving a cab fare downtown - follow this link to see when the next 3 buses depart.

Or maybe you got carjacked in Falmouth Foreside. No problem! Here's the schedule for the Falmouth Flyer.

Happy riding.

Monday, May 9, 2011

New Funding for Amtrak Downeaster

The federal government will fund $20.8 million towards track improvements on shared Downeaster and MBTA railroad tracks in northern Massachusetts in order to improve on-time reliability for the Portland-to-Boston Amtrak service and for Massachusetts commuter rail services.

Here's a map of where the upgrades will take place (in red) in the context of the rest of the Downeaster route (in blue):

View Downeaster Track improvements in a larger map

If you've ridden the Downeaster before, you may have noticed the train slow down or stop altogether on this section, which sees a lot of train traffic. These upgrades represent another step towards the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority's goal to reduce travel times between Portland and Boston to 2 hours - the time it takes to drive - and add enough track capacity to allow for six daily round trips (up from the current five).

Portland Bike/Ped Advisory Committee - May Meeting

Tonight, Portland's Bike/Ped Advisory Committee meets at 5:30 pm in City Hall's Room 209. Come by and learn about what's going on with -

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

You Can't Build Speed Bumps to Slow Down Thuggery

[note: excerpts of this post originally appeared on my other blog, The Vigorous North.]

This is a blog about creating better public spaces and safer streets in Portland, Maine. Typically, that's meant that I write about better architecture, or streets where cars and their sedentary lifestyle don't threaten our health and safety, or creating more affordable and egalitarian transportation options.

But yesterday I was reminded that we live in relative luxury if these kinds of issues are really the biggest ones our city faces. In many parts of the world, after all, people aren't merely threatened by car traffic and lack of economic opportunity. In many parts of the world, people are also threatened by institutionalized thuggery, rampant crime, corruption, and civil war.

I write about comparatively benign local issues I do here not because I think that those international problems are trivial, but because I believe that working locally is the most practical way for me to have a positive impact on the world at large. Creating a more sustainable community here seems to me to be the best way I can make an impact on the seemingly intractable problem of global climate change, for instance. And my activism for affordable transport and affordable housing also aims for Portland to sustain its egalitarianism while it also provides more economic prosperity for more people - including the refugee populations that are seeking new homes in Maine after experiencing terror firsthand.

Still, my focus creating better public spaces and a more sustainable, prosperous economy might lead readers to believe that Portland - or any American city, for that matter - doesn't have to worry about thugs in the streets and institutionalized racism. And that's not true, unfortunately. And the fact that it isn't true is a far bigger threat to all of us than car exhaust and distracted drivers - as deadly as those things can be.

On my bike ride to work this on Monday, the morning after the news broke about Osama bin Laden's assassination, I passed by our neighborhood mosque, just a few blocks from my house, and I saw this.

And, in addition to this, more graffiti that said "Long live the west" and "Go home."

Somewhere in this city I love there is at least one cowardly neo-Nazi who has the disgusting gall to believe that religious persecution is somehow an American value.

Seeing this provided a visceral demonstration of how rage can beget more rage. I found myself wishing I'd had the presence of mind to head outside and check on our neighbors last night when I'd heard the news. With a baseball bat.

But what good would that really have done? This is just graffiti, and it's already been painted over. American Muslims, unfortunately, have suffered much worse. The real damage is the toxic, self-consuming hatred that still persists, not only in the bitter minds of those who did this, but even in the dim intellects of presumably "upstanding" members of our community. Let's not forget our daily newspaper's publisher, Richard Connor, the dimwit who apologized for running a front-page story about local Ramadan celebrations last September 11, and then humiliated himself and his city by broadcasting his racist cowardice on national radio.

Make no mistake: the fact that Americans among us could behave this way is much more of a threat to our public safety, and to the American republic itself, than Osama bin Laden ever was.

If Osama Bin Laden's death spurs cowardly, Klan-like hate crimes like this one, then there is nothing to celebrate. The terrorists are still among us.