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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Portland's Proposed New Bike and Pedestrian Plan: Public Hearing on March 1, 6:30 pm

Grade "A": Bedford Street in the USM campus is comfortable to walk and bike along, or to cross as a pedestrian, and would therefore be considered a street with a high "quality of service" for bikes and pedestrians...

Grade "D": Forest Avenue in the vicinity of Morrill's Corner, with its high volumes of speeding traffic and lack of safe crosswalks, would receive much lower grades.

Failure: Franklin Street, with its complete lack of crosswalks or sidewalks, would receive an "F."
Portland's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (which I chair) has lately been working with city staff on a new chapter of the city's Comprehensive Plan that would be focused on improving the city's conditions for bikes and pedestrians.

The plan goes under the public's scrutiny for the first time at a public hearing on Thursday, March 1, at 6:30 pm in the Merrill Auditorium Rehearsal Hall (behind City Hall; entrance on Myrtle Street).

Pending its approval from the City Council, this plan would have a certain legal force under state laws like the Sensible Transportation Policy Act and the Comprehensive Planning and Land Use Act.

On a practical basis, that means that future real estate developments and road projects would have to abide by the plan's recommendations. One of its more exciting elements (to me) is how it would implement new "quality of service" measures for walking and cycling in various neighborhoods across the city.

Streets would be graded according to the quality of their crosswalks, the speed of traffic, and other factors that affect how useable and safe they are for pedestrians and cyclists, with particular focus on vulnerable users like kids and the elderly (see the examples at right).

The city would also set targets for various districts to achieve certain ratings: a neighborhood center like Woodfords Corner or North Deering would be held to a higher standard than an industrial area like Warren Avenue. And as new development occurs, builders and road projects would be held to those aspirational standards.

So, even though the area around the Northgate shopping plaza in North Deering might currently rate a "C" or "D" in terms of pedestrian quality of service, new road and building projects in the neighborhood would be expected to add wider sidewalks, better crosswalks, trail connections, and other amenities to aim for an "A" rating.

One drawback of the Comprehensive Plan is that it will take a long time to implement, because by default, change will only happen incrementally, as new road projects and developments come along.

To get things going a bit faster, one idea kicking around is adding in a recommendation for a dedicated source of funding for new bike routes and pedestrian improvements, perhaps through a 25 cent surcharge on hourly rates at public parking meters and garages, so that the city wouldn't necessarily have to wait for development projects to come along in order to make improvements.

It's unlikely that city staff will make a recommendation like that on their own, but if enough members of the public speak out, it could be more realistic. And if it were included in the plan, then City Councilors would have a chance to vote on a new source of funding, along with the plan's other good ideas.

You can download a draft outline of the plan, plus a map of proposed official city bike routes, on the City's Transportation, Sustainability & Energy Committee webpage.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bike Repair Rack

This new bike rack apparently has just been installed in the city of Asheville, North Carolina (a place that reminds me a lot of Portland Maine, by the way).

Looks like it includes a pump and a string of tools. It sure would be awesome to see a couple of these around Portland, ideally in places where a local business could take care of it. Come to think of it, the current bike racks outside of Gorham Bike and Ski are pretty pathetic... maybe they could use an upgrade?

Seen via Asheville on Bikes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The House transportation bill could kill Amtrak's Downeaster and most other transit services

The U.S. House of Representatives is today voting on H.R. 7, a 5-year transportation budget that would effectively kill public transportation in the United States in order to fund a Nero-like orgy of freeway construction and oil drilling.

Among the bill's features:

  • Elimination of the Mass Transit Account, which Ronald Reagan created in the 1980s to fund transit capital projects and maintenance;

  • Elimination of bike and pedestrian safety programs like Safe Routes to School. These programs comprise a miniscule fraction of federal transportation funding, but they make big impacts with safer crosswalks and more vibrant main streets. These projects use very modest funds to deliver big results to neighborhood safety and economic development. A political party that's fond of frugal government ought to embrace these programs — but a political party that's ruled by Big Oil paymasters might see them as an existential threat.

  • Elimination of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) rules that would allow state Departments of Transportation to divert funds from transit operations and bike/ped projects to highway expansion.

    It's worth noting that the workers at Maine's DOT have a revolving door arrangement with several highway engineering and construction firms, and that the Amtrak Downeaster service relies substantially on CMAQ funding for its day-to-day operations. This change would leave the door wide open for Governor LePage to yank Downeaster funding in order to build a new freeway to Gorham.

  • And a massive expansion in domestic oil and gas drilling for good measure — as though sabotaging our public transit systems wasn't enough to make sure we stay addicted to the oil lobbyists who bought this bill from their Republican Party puppets.

Call your representatives and tell them to VOTE NO on H.R. 7, the House Transportation Bill:

Chellie Pingree: 1-888-862-6500 or email.

Mike Michaud: (202) 225-6306 or email.

New Hampshire 1st district (eastern/southern NH, including the coastal area):

Frank Guinta: (202) 225-5456 or email.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

All Is Not Lost: the Baxter Memorial Block

I've been meaning for a while to start an occasional series here of small-scale, tactical improvements to specific places that could have big ripple effects on their surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

I recently had occasion to browse the old photos of Portland that are available on the Maine Memory Network for a post I was writing for the Live/Work Portland blog. While doing so, a certain building on old postcard views of Congress Street kept on catching my eye: the Baxter Memorial Block, which appeared to be located somewhere on the south side of Congress in the vicinity of Oak Street (image at right courtesy of the Maine Historical Society's Maine Memory Network database).

The Baxter Memorial Block was an extremely handsome and striking Queen Anne office building. This view (at right) shows it up close, but its distinctive turret on the northern corner, and its prominent location on a convex bend of the street, helped it stand out in most any photo of Portland's main street, including shots of Monument and Congress Squares.

My morning's research had forced me to come to terms with a lot of Portland's lost buildings and neighborhoods, but this one was particularly striking. How could our city have lost a structure as beautiful — and as huge — as this one, in the middle of our downtown?

I later found out, while doing some subsequent browsing at the Greater Portland Landmarks site. The Baxter Memorial Block technically didn't ever get torn down: a husk of it is still standing on the corner of Congress and Oak. But a renovation in the 1950s demolished the turret and covered up in stucco all of the building's architectural details: demolished the soul of the building, in other words, and rendered it anonymous and forgotten. A before and after view from the GPL site (this is looking west towards Congress Square):

The Baxter Memorial Block, as was in the late nineteenth century (left) and today (right).

I'm reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut short story "Harrison Bergeron," about a dystopian society in which all citizens are forced to conform to a lowest-common-denominator standard by a "Handicapper General" who burdens the intelligent with screeching implants that interrupt their thoughts, the strong with sandbags, and the beautiful with masks. In the mid-1950s, the owners of one of our city's proudest buildings defaced it so that it would conform to the bland ugliness of the new shopping plazas and gas stations. What a miserable legacy to leave!

A detail of the ground-floor facade and the J.R. Libby Department Store, at the corner of Oak and Congress. Today, it's a Dunkin Donuts. Source.

Still — beneath the stucco, the Baxter Memorial Block is still there. I wonder how much of the brickwork and wrought-iron casings are still there, hiding after half a century in the dark.

Today, it's a low-rent building that few people want to work in — not much different from the half-abandoned shopping plazas and service stations they wanted it to look like. But imagine what it might become if someone invested the effort to restore even a hint of what its true nature.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


In anticipation of the upcoming Maine caucuses, it appears that a certain millionaire who's stingy on his taxpaying has started buying anti-Obama fundraising ads on my blog.

Now, none of my readers are actually stupid enough to donate their money to a jackass millionaire.

But here's the thing: if you were to click his ads, you'll be withdrawing $1 or $2 at a time out of his campaign account, giving it to Google, with a substantial commission for me (disclosure: I also own some Google stock in my retirement savings account, so, I have a double self-interest in this scheme).

You can think of it as an anti-donation from corporate Washington lobbyists, or you can think of it as a pro-donation to blogging for better streets and sidewalks in Portland, Maine. Either way, please support our generous advertisers — click their campaign ads as frequently as possible!

LeBron James Bikes to Work

Recently spotted in downtown Miami, a couple of hours before the Heat hosted Chicago:

In the postgame interview, the chubby, balding press pool started hassling James for not conforming to their derogatory expectations of how professional athletes should get around the city ("c'mon, Lebron, you gotta help us bail out our failed SUV-manufacturing advertisers!").

James's response: "You guys drove here? You guys are crazy."

(via the Wall Street Journal)