Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Walk to School Day and Park(ing) Day as missed opportunities for community organizing

Right: the Smart Growth America Parking Day exhibit.

On Park(ing) Day, September 20th, I went around to a bunch of the events in DC: Washington Area Bicyclists Association, Landscape Architecture Foundation, Smart Growth America, Casey Trees, Occulus Architects, and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation, and BicycleSpace.

I wanted to go to Baltimore, where the AIA Baltimore chapter took over an entire block around their office, but I couldn't pull off going to both DC and Baltimore events.

Only Casey Trees and WABA collected names and contact information.  SGA had a pad wondering if you supported a parklets program for DC. That was the extent of the organizing opportunity presented by Parking Day at the booths I saw.

A bunch of the groups didn't even have information on their own organization, which was definitely a missed opportunity for them.

Some of the booths: Casey; DPR; and Occulus, had information from the Park(ing) Day group. None of the others did.

Right now DPR is going through a parks master planning effort. It wasn't even mentioned at their setup, although the guy hired to coordinate Community Gardening efforts was energetically discussing those activities.

Casey's booth, pictured at right, and located on K Street NW across from Farragut Square, definitely was the most together out of all of them. Occulus maybe the "coolest." I didn't see all of the ones in DC though.

Granted, Park(ing) Day is a ground up guerrilla effort initiated by Re:bar San Francisco.

Still, I had hopes that the various DC iterations could have come together beforehand and worked toward bringing attention to a common agenda, from having a parkets program to a more intricate planning effort for the public realm, mobility policy, parking and curb space management planning, etc.

After all, Park(ing) Day begat the parklet movement, first in San Francisco and then elsewhere--in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Vancouver--and I think it helped to spark a deeper and more rigorous "Living Streets" program by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (see "San Francisco Sustainable Mobility Agenda Presentation").

Although many of the people coming by to the various DC booths were not DC residents, so maybe such an effort would have been somewhat wasted.

DC did show some incremental improvement this year as DDOT came up with a standard permitting approach and didn't charge for the privilege of participating.

Mayor Garcetti's help desk, Parking Day Los AngelesMayor Eric Garcetti meets Armando Gonzalez, 39, and 20-year-old Leslie Baez of Soul Skating at Mayor's Help Desk temporarily set up along curbside on 1842 East First Street to answer constituent questions and complaints in Los Angeles. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On the other hand, I was impressed how in Los Angeles, Mayor Gil Garcetti held a Mayor's Help Desk at his Park(ing) Day.  See "On 'parking day,' Mayor Garcetti hits his spots" from the Los Angeles Times.

Or how in San Francisco, one of the participants was the sixth grade class from the San Francisco Friends School.

Walk to School Day and Montgomery County Maryland (and other suburban jurisdictions)

The lost opportunity of Parking Day as an opportunity to engage people in longer term change efforts comes to mind because today is Walk (and Bike) to School Day, and suburban participants ought to be pushing for changes in how their school districts support or do not support balanced transportation planning that includes walking and biking to school, not just school bus-based transportation.

In 2009, when working in Baltimore County, I figured out that was the most important change that advocates could push, rather than focusing on ad hoc and ground up efforts at a school by school basis.

When I submitted the draft for the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan ("Proposals for bicycle improvements at the state level in Maryland"), I included the following recommendation:
Balanced transportation planning for local school districts. The most successful walk and bicycle to school programs occur as part of system wide planning and programming at the level of an entire school district. For example, school districts in Minneapolis and Boulder (among others), provide support for walk and bicycle to school programs as part of comprehensive transportation services including but not limited to the provision of bus transportation. The State of Washington requires that safe walk maps be created for all elementary schools in each school district in the state, and recommends that districts create a Traffic Safety Committee to address walk to school issues. Similar requirements in Maryland would accelerate the development of systematic and structured programs for entire school districts, which would be preferred over the ad hoc practices currently in force.
This recommendation and five others that commented on State of Maryland policy and practices that affected sustainable transportation planning in negative ways were excised from the plan, because counties are hesitant to put into plans recommendations for "higher bodies" especially the State.

But that particular recommendation is probably the most important thing that Maryland could do to improve walk to school efforts.  Unsurprisingly, such a recommendation didn't make it into the MDOT "study" (Maryland Statewide Student Travel Policy Survey) on the issue around the same time.

If you can't get support from the State to make such a necessary structural change to school district transportation planning, advocates should work at the county level to get their school system to change.

That comes up because earlier today Action Committee for Transit did flyering in Bethesda calling for attention to their agenda for improvements in the walk to school environment in Montgomery County, Maryland.  I think that they have a great micro agenda (which they laid out last May):
• Amend Montgomery County’s criteria for school zones to include all roads under county jurisdiction within a half-mile radius of a school;
• Establish a maximum speed limit of 20 mph during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones (note that DC does this, the max speed is actually 15 mph);
• Double the fines for speeding violations on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones
• Put in leading pedestrian intervals for traffic signals at signalized intersections where at least one of the roads is an arterial, on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones;
• At intersections with traffic signals and pedestrian pushbuttons, have the walk signal displayed at every signal cycle during school hours (including arrival and dismissal), either by putting the signals in pedestrian “recall” during school hours or by removing the pedestrian pushbuttons, on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones;
• Retime the traffic signals during school hours (including arrival and dismissal) such that the wait for a walk signal on any leg of the intersection is never longer than 40 seconds, on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones;
• Use a walking speed of 2.5 feet per second to calculate the minimum pedestrian clearance interval at traffic signals, on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones;
• Prohibit right turns on red during school hours (including arrival and dismissal), on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones;
• Mark all crosswalks with a ladder or zebra crosswalk, using material embedded with retroreflective glass beads, on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones (personally, I think that the European checkerboard crosswalk marketing would be better, I don't know if it's legal to use in the US, but we could use the checkerboard to distinguish crosswalks in school zones, around parks, libraries, and other civic buildings, and commercial districts, as a way to indicate that the entire area is a walking priority zone);
• Narrow all travel lanes to 10 feet wide, on all roads under county jurisdiction in school zones.
But they missed the macro agenda point of calling for a structural change in the approach to walk and bike to school from the standpoint of County-wide policy.

Paris Busway - crossing intersectionRight:  Checkerboard crosswalk in Paris, Flickr photo by Brian Stokle.

The effort needs to focus on more serious structural and process changes in how the Montgomery County Public Schools, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Planning approach walking and biking to school programs, and relatedly how the Police Department does enforcement and traffic safety, how the State Highway Administration addresses these issues on state roads, and even how traffic "accidents" involving pedestrians and bicyclists are prosecuted by the State Prosecutor in the county.

The other changes are incremental and don't adequately address the opportunity presented by Walk to School Day as a way to draw attention to quantum change. And without a broader policy change, there is no pressure on the Montgomery County Department of Transportation to support sustainable transportation better than it does currently.

Note that the City of Takoma Park, Maryland pays for a walk/bike to school coordinator to work with schools in their municipality, to support walk and bike to school efforts, but because the City doesn't have authority over the school district, they are mostly in the position of trying to convince the  individual schools to focus on it.

If the school system were required to conduct balanced transportation planning and support walking and biking to school programs very actively, by modeling their efforts after Minneapolis (Safe Routes to School Plan), the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, and the State of Washington, then it would be much easier to do systematic urban design interventions around schools and neighborhoods to improve the walking and biking environment for schools.

P.S.  Arlington County, Virginia has similar problems.  Even though the County is known nationally for best practice transportation planning, Arlington Public Schools has not reached out to the County's Transportation division for help concerning walk and bike to school efforts, see "An International Walk to School Day irony" from last year.

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