Flip: Google and Congestion

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This fourth installment of Flip, which tracks keen new convergences between urban affairs and new media technology, was suggested by Joe Mielke, an IT professional and a colleague at the Michigan Land Use Institute. It’s Google’s recently introduced tool to track  urban congestion in real time, and available now in New York. Click the traffic link on the top right of the page.

The applications for this tool are immeasurable. If you’re swinging up the New Jersey Thruway from D.C. it’s possible now to call this tool up on your Blackberry. Lincoln Tunnel looks tight? Try the Holland or the GW Bridge. Better yet, you’re in Philadelphia and need to get to New York. Traffic is tough. Take Amtrak out of 30th Street Station. 

I’m looking longer term. The same technology that enables Google to measure traffic flow over such a large region could also be applied to new construction permits, and new homes and businesses actually built. The GIS information systems already provide the software capacity. Data is available in many jurisdictions on a weekly and monthly basis. Google could tie the systems and data together to give residents an accurate picture of development patterns over time. Each new building could be represented by a tiny blue dot that appears with every permit approval. Over time the various constellations of dots would indicate the speed, location, and density of new development, a more graphic and urgent picture in most cases than residents can obtain by just looking around.

Wonder why traffic is heavy and getting worse? It’s not just the number of vehicles. It’s where they come from. Google’s creativity and technical capacity could add a new narrative that prompts greater public insight into the where, how, and why of development trends and of traffic.

Great Western Train Race, C’mon Michigan

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More on that train race out west that I wrote about earlier this month. Metro, the transit agency in Phoenix, is asking the state for $1.7 billion to accelerate construction on the 57-mile light rail system that is being built, and to add more than 20 new miles to the system by 2027. This according to the Arizona Republic.

That’s the very same strategy that Salt Lake City voters approved in November when they raised the sales tax to speed up construction and add new lines to a 45-mile light rail system, and an 88-mile commuter rail network. The $3.1 billion system is so popular that suburbs that fought its development are clamoring to organize constituents and build even more train lines (see pix.)

In both places, just as here in Michigan, there was plenty of skepticism about the value of light rail, whether people would make the mode shift from their cars to a train, and whether the investment would pay economic dividends. And in both western cities the answers are that trains are more popular than anticipated, and are encouraging $billions in new housing, retail, office, and recreational investments. As an icon of a region’s will to succeed as an energy efficient, environmentally-conscious, modern, and prosperous place, rail rapid transit has few equals.

Look at Utah: low unemployment, rising job numbers and incomes, well-educated workforce, mecca for young people, vibrant, and building the West’s second largest regional rail system next to Denver’s.

Look at Michigan: nation’s highest unemployment, rapidly diminishing job numbers and personal income, workforce not yet convinced that college degrees are worth the trouble, treats its brightest young people as a primary export, troubled spiritually, and still arguing about whether rail transit has a place.

In an interview on Michigan Radio earlier this month, Michigan’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm said that public transit, and especially trains, were a “necessary” investment for the state to make to be competitive in the global economy. A starter line that links Ann Arbor with Detroit, and the suburbs in between, is now teed up for regional and state approval. There is $100 million in federal funding to complete the engineering and design stages and start construction. The  familiar crticisms about cost, popularity, wise investment and the like surround the proposal. The typical critics — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, House Republican Leader Craig DeRoche among others — have aligned to derail the idea.       

But for the first time in years, there also is a political opening that makes sense. Gov. Granholm says she wants more transit. And state Representative Marie Donigan, a Democrat of Royal Oak, was appointed chair of the new House Public Transit Subcommittee. Marie is southeast Michigan’s most prominent elected transit advocate. Get in touch with her at mdonigan@wowway.com and tell her you want to help.

Flip: Artists And Sprawl

This third installment of Flip looks at how two artists view the geography of urban and suburban place in America. Both come from Flakphoto, another of the terrifically creative places to view digital photography.

Photographer Terry Evans looks at Chicago in this site, which deploys interactive motion graphics in an easily navigable format. 

The next example is how Jeff Brouws looks at sprawl. His is a sort of inspired cynicism. Very cool stuff.

If you find interesting ways to apply visual technology, the Internet, interactive multi-media, or anything else that makes you look twice and think, “Damn!” let me know. Contact information is at the bottom of the about page here. Take care. 

On the Bubble and A Little Bit Off

Tonight Al Gore could win an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Later this year he could also win the Nobel Prize for Peace. And if he lost 50 pounds and jumped into the 2008 presidential race, he could win that, too. Ever since he published “Earth in The Balance,” his 1992 best-seller, Gore’s two issues have been global climate change and himself.

The first, global climate change, is drawing the nation inexorably to logical choices about energy, metropolitan development patterns, population, conservation, and transportation. The catch phrase here is doing much more with much less. 

The second, Gore himself, is the problem of already having much more and working really hard to do less. It’s like dragging the best trumpet player in the marching band out to perform the Star Spangled Banner. Reluctance doesn’t begin to describe Al Gore’s nearly 20-year romance with true greatness. He abandoned almost any mention of the environment in 2000. Bush’s pledge to abide by the Kyoto Protocols, which he abandoned immediately upon crossing the White House threshold, attracted more attention. al-gore.jpg

Nevertheless here Gore is again ready to take a bow for superb leadership, while the rest of us who’ve been frustrated and inspired wonder what he intends to do with his favorite issue and global prominence. The momentum to change the rules of the development game, and to frame it around battling global climate change, is so intense that even George Bush stepped out on on the White House lawn for a moment last week to tout electric cars, a kind of presidential Punxsutawney Phil moment, to see if he could cast any shadow of influence over the issue. The president looks smaller these days, more pinched and stressed and embarrassed, almost like Michael Dukakis looked in 1988 when he put on that military helmet and rode in the tank.

No so Al Gore, who commands every stage he strides across. No one knows more about global climate change than he does, and no one inspires more confidence on the issue. A few weeks ago Gore was the guest of honor in New York at the World Resources Institute’s 25th anniversary celebration, helped raise $2 million, and showed yet again the star power that green issues have attained. Not since the first Earth Day in 1970 has the environment gained such stature and invited this much attention in economic, cultural, and political circles.

The question is whether Gore will complete the mission. As those of us who make the case and organize to shape new ideas know, it still takes government to draw the players and capital together to make big public interest ideas a reality. The federal government has the capacity to act. Its record on the environment is superb. What the United States has done to clear the air, scrub the waters, protect endangered species, encourage research and new findings, ensure natural areas, and all the while grow the economy, has few equals in the annals of public interest policy making. 

As Gore noted in 1992, and again over the last few years, the earth is in the balance. Will he take command of the Oval Office and really do something about it?   

Green Cities

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 The American Prospect, one of the important forums of progressive thought, published a special section last month on “Emerald Cities.” 

“The environmental movement and the movement for a new urbanism come together in a quest for cities that are both affordable and sustainable,” write the editors. “With more sensible land use and transportation strategies, and better use of scarce subsidy dollars, America could provide more livable cities with lower energy costs, as well as cities that are not just for the urban gentry. The federal government is not leading in this area, but state and local government and private foundations and businesses are.”

The point that none of the pieces makes strong enough is that the cities achieving the American Mode Shift also are the most prosperous. That’s true here in Michigan, where Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids are changing the rules of the development game and also are leaders in business development in a state anchored by the old tires and obsolete hierarchy of its auto industry. 

Ann Arbor established a green belt. Traverse City killed a needless beltway and bridge and replaced it with a $1.36 million regional land use and transportation project. Grand Rapids leveraged $2 billion in private and public funding to rebuild its downtown and use its water and sewer lines to lasso development at the edge.

It’s even more true in the metropolitan regions in other states that are pursuing new green strategies, and installing the civic equipment — trains, rapid buses, sidewalks, parks, safe neighborhoods, greenways, energy efficient buildings –that residents need to thrive and survive in this century.

Portland, Oregon halted a $1 billion freeway in the early 1990s and replaced it with two light rail lines and a downtown streetcar (see pix) that prompted $2 billion in housing and retail development. The city supports a multi-million dollar sustainable investment fund for green business start-ups and projects.

Seattle is weighing whether to tear down a shoreline freeway even as it prepares for new downtown businesses and 60,000 more jobs without expanding the number of parking spaces, which take up valuable room.

Denver is building a 172-mile regional rapid transit system financed in large part by the decision residents in seven counties made to increase their sales tax. When it’s finished it will be the largest rapid transit system in the West, and its transit stop and stations will serve as the new nodes of the metropolitan region’s business and housing development.

Salt Lake City reduced emissions of global warming gases by 36,000 tons annually, built a rapid transit that will grow substantially in the next decade, required public buildings and any publicly financed buildings to achieve the highest standards of energy efficiency and environmental design, and attracted thousands of new homes and residents. The city’s population has reached 182,000 and is closing in on the peak of 189,000 achieved in 1960. Salt Lake City and its suburbs, by the way, also registered an unemployment rate last month of less than 3 percent.   

Chicago’s green development strategy is based on improving parks, planting trees, conserving the Lake Michigan shoreline, and making public and private buildings more energy efficient. The city’s population is growing and thousands of new homes are under construction.  

You can read more on March 7 in a special Green Business section published by the New York Times and on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Web site.