We are more than our trip generation: urbanism and the dignity of the human person

It is easy to begin to think of other people as burdens. Our society that so values individual freedoms does not like to be tied down. You hear it when people talk of children, or the elderly or disabled. 

Why would you want to have another child? Don’t you want to be free to pursue your career? Why would you want to take in an aging relative? Why would you want a child with special needs? Don’t you want to be able to do what you want?

Freedom is more than the ability to choose to do what we like. Freedom is the ability to choose the good.

Freedom is not about not having anybody to tie us down, but about loving fully. The most important thing we are called to do is love.

We are all connected. We all have parents. We all have (or had) friends and mentors. All people have dignity imparted to them at the moment of creation by the creator who loves them. This dignity does not depend on what someone can do for society, it is inherent in being human.

Our actions impact our society and the land where we live. None of us have the ability to do what we wish. We are all constrained. Yet we all can seek freedom. We can all choose the good.

Which brings me to the new burdens on society: newcomers and their trip generation.

As car-dependent regions grow, new people bring their cars, and traffic gets heavier. Parking gets scarcer. Eventually the residents cry “enough!” and start to oppose any new development. This is understandable, if unacceptable. More cars interfere with free-flowing driving and abundant parking, and if that is what one expects, then of course keeping people out is the obvious answer.

We’ve said before that in driving, those outside one’s car cease to be people. This is the end result: people aren’t people, but car trips.

Seeing people solely as car trips does not respect their inherent dignity as people. Housing is a basic human need and right, and it is better for everybody if that housing does not involve a lengthy driving trip from the hinterlands. It is better for the individual, as lengthy commutes have health impacts. It is better for the family, so that children can have more time with their parents and less time sitting in the car. It is better for the community, as less driving means less congestion. It is better for the planet, as less driving means less carbon output.

These trip generators are people: people with families, hobbies, interests, needs. Thy are not burdens to be eliminated.

Driving is the most inefficient means of transport we have, and as development gets denser, we run out of space for cars. The problem is not that there are too many people, but that there are too many cars.

How can we expect people to get around without a car, if the walkable neighborhoods have only single-family detached housing? Only a lucky few who happen to be very well employed or bought in early will get to live in the walkable neighborhood, and the rest will be driving in from the hinterlands.

We cannot call ourselves an inclusive community if we do not welcome all of those who want to live there. How can we welcome refugees, if there is no affordable housing?

Welcome new neighbors. Welcome density. We are more than our trip generation.

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Michelle’s 2017 Errandonnee part 1

My errands, last week, in all their great detail.

Day 1, Monday 3/20: we walked to the hardware store, drug store, and grocery store

Day 3, Tuesday 3/21: 9 miles. I rode my bike to ride my horse (personal care), then at lunchtime rode down to City Hall for a Greenways meeting (work). City hall has been under renovation for the past year or so, and the bike rack at the main entrance has been unavailable. This day it was there, but unattached, so I went to the rack in the back of the building (which turned out to be closer to my meeting anyway), which is located in the small gap between roofs. My cargo bike is long enough that the back end stays dry.


note the wet spot around the bike

In the evening, I rode to the neighborhood pub to meet some friends for a birthday celebration (social call), where my bike attracted lots of interest, even without kids.

Day 3, Wednesday 3/22: 3 miles. We walked to the grocery store and to pick up our CSA box.


somebody only falls asleep if we’re out with the stroller in the late afternoon

In the evening I biked with my daughter to the church for our American Heritage Girls meeting (social call). It’s nice to be able to do that ride in the daylight now.

Day 4, Thursday 3/23: 15 miles. We rode to the church, where I teach a preschool catechism class on Thursday mornings (work), first stopping to drop off an empty CSA box and a bag of smoke detectors (you carried what?).

The older two stay in the nursery, and the younger two are in the class. In the afternoon I took my older two to their catechism class (work), then rode down to the library with the younger two (non-store errand).

On the way home we stopped at the hardware store for electric fencing supplies (you carried what?).

In the evening I had a meeting in downtown Kirkland (work) at 6:30pm, a nice heavy-traffic time of day. I rode with traffic straight down to the water, which I am getting more comfortable doing. Even the cars go slowly on downtown Kirkland streets because there’s so much traffic. The last intersection before the water I waited at the light behind a few cars, but when it turned green, both the left-turning cars and the right-turning car were blocked by people walking, so I scooted between them to go straight. It’s nice to have a small vehicle.


waited long enough at the light in question to take pictures of it


only bike parked at the rack

Day 6, Saturday 3/25: 5 miles. When we got to the afternoon everybody was out-of-sorts, so for a change of pace, I took the older two to ride my horse (wild card). We rode my not-so-favorite 60th St, and did not have any issues. I’ve been riding the electric cargo bike there more often, and I think people driving get less mad when the bike is going 19mph than when it’s going 10mph.

Then it was home just long enough to finish dinner and take it to some friends with a new baby (social call).

Day 7, Sunday 3/26: 3 miles. Was a trip to Mass with two boys (personal care). It was raining, and with all the rain we’ve gotten in the last few months, I discovered that my rain pants had failed. They worked with wool and fleece underneath, but that’s not what I was wearing on this day. Somehow it occurred to me that in previous winters I’d had a baby seat in front that kept rain off of my lap and knees, so I put the baby seat back up and managed to get to Mass dry enough. Win.

That’s the first week! More later.

Reasons to ride that are not compelling

1. It’s fun! Yes, it is fun, and indeed we bike for the joy of it. You know what’s not fun? Getting yelled at to get off the street by a person driving a car (especially if that person is a police officer). A near-miss at an intersection and the “so sorry I almost killed you” wave. Calmly talking your seven-year-old through her quarter-mile of arterial bike lane between sections of quiet neighborhood streets.
2. It saves money! Yes, it does. But a bike is a consolation prize. As soon as finances improve, people will buy a car if driving is more convenient.
3. Climate change! Yes, we should all bike instead of drive so that we can save the planet. But virtue is hard, so we talk about electric vehicles and self-driving cars instead and continue to build huge houses out in the hinterlands.
4. It’s exercise! Yes, it’s more exercise than driving a car, that’s for sure. But while biking is active, if your goal is to get to your destination without sweating, it’s not much of a workout. Also, virtue is hard, and if you are tired, the last thing you want is more exercise.

While these may not be compelling reasons to bike for an individual, they are highly compelling on a population basis.
1. Biking makes people happy and connects them to their communities. Cars make people grumpy and lonely. It doesn’t take much exercise to improve mental health, and building exercise into our lifestyle is the best way to make sure it happens. Outside of a car people become people again, not just obstacles. There’s a whole lot more life that can happen at 10mph rather than 30mph. People on bikes can stop to talk, or stop at shops, or stop at the neighborhood Poem Post. Bikes build community, cars tear it apart.
2. Biking costs less than driving. This important both for households and for infrastructure-builders. Owning and operating a car costs on average $9000 per year. You can afford a whole lot more apartment with an extra $9000 per year. Then there’s the cost of the required parking for housing. On the streets, bike infrastructure costs peanuts compared the billions we spend on freeways because bikes are smaller than cars.
3. Biking has minimal impact on the climate. If we are to do something about climate change, having biking as only 1% of trips is not enough. We need the entire population to take up biking for transportation. Changing to LED light bulbs and electric cars is not going to do it.
4. Biking improves health. A large portion of the US population is overweight or obese because we don’t get enough exercise, because who actually wants to go to the gym? In order to get enough exercise, exercise needs to be a hobby or have another purpose, like biking to the store. The impacts of the obesity epidemic are far-reaching: the US is one of only a few countries with an increasing maternal mortality rate, largely due to poor maternal health.
5. Biking is significantly safer than driving. Cars killed 40,000 people per year in the US last year.

Biking in our region takes skill, bravery, and a whole lot of motivation. People like things that are easy, and driving is easier than biking. Driving takes less skill, bravery, and energy than biking. If we want people to drive instead of bike we need to make it easy and comfortable.

1. Biking must be safe. It should not take skill and bravery to ride a bike, any more than it does to drive a car or walk. We need all of the small streets to be quiet enough for families, and separated infrastructure on busy streets and intersections so that people feel comfortable riding them.
2. Biking must be possible. We need housing for families that is biking distance (or better yet, walking distance) to what they need: work, school, shopping, church, activities. My house should not be a house, it should be an apartment building or a row of townhouses so that more families can bike to where they need to go.
3. Biking must be convenient. It must be MORE convenient than driving, or people will choose to drive. Bike parking should be plentiful, right next to the doors, and in our climate, covered. Take over car parking spaces if necessary. The direct route should be given to people walking and biking, not cars and trucks. Going around the block is no big deal in a car, but a circuitous route can turn a biking-distance trip into a not-biking-distance trip.

Do you know what will happen if we do all of this? Driving will become more pleasant too! Granted, you might have to drive a little out of the way, and you might have to pay for parking, but if biking and walking are the most convenient way to get somewhere, people will actually choose to do it. This will free up space on the streets for those who must drive, or for freight or buses, all of which are currently stuck in traffic behind a line of mostly-empty metal boxes.

(find the citations for most claims in this post)

 

An outing on two bikes

Our older kids ride their own bikes in our neighborhood, but longer outings on their own bikes are usually saved for the weekend when there are two parents around. Our 8yo had an opportunity to ride her own bike for a recent outing.

First up: the swimming pool. 3.2 miles, 150 feet up, 250 feet down

One of the little boys had a makeup swimming lesson. I’ve always toted 8yo on my bike to the pool, because she usually needs to swim when she’s there. This time she was game to ride her own bike.

The route was mostly the Proposed Rose Hill greenway, which is quiet and pleasant. Then we climbed up to the 100th St bike/pedestrian/emergency vehicle bridge over I-405. The switchbacks to the bridge are difficult with a cargo bike or trailer (or both) but no problem for this girl on her little bike. She waited for me at the top, then chugged up the steep hill to the pool. So far so good.


switchback ramp is a real pain with a cargo bike

Next: downtown Kirkland. 1.9 miles, 320 ft down

First we had to get to the Cross Kirkland Corridor. There’s a super super steep downhill to meet the trail at 12th, or a less steep but busier downhill to meet the trail at 7th. I chose the less steep, because I don’t like riding down that steep hill. And we didn’t meet a single car, so it was definitely the right choice today. From the trail we had to get into Kirkland. Once we got to Kirkland Way, we rode side-by-side in the car lane because I don’t like the door zone bike lane. Then a short stretch of sidewalk to the bike shop where we dropped off the bikes and walked for the rest of our errands.

She also tried out this sweet little Giant city bike. She hasn’t completely outgrown her current bike, but she’s getting there, and this was a nice fit. I’m not sure I want to jump on it yet – she’s just gotten to where she can ride all of our hills, and this bike is heavier because it’s bigger. We’ll see.

Finally: home. 3.1 miles, 450 feet up, 50 feet down

The ride home is a serious climb. Part of it is known as the Kirkland Kicker on Strava. She did the climb from the CKC to home a few weeks ago, but this was the first time she rode the whole way from downtown Kirkland. The climb is mostly straight up Kirkland Ave, and at the end of that there’s a corkscrew ramp to climb to the 80th St bike/pedestrian bridge. After crossing I-405, most of the climbing is done, which is good because she was D-O-N-E.

8.2 miles. 600 feet up and down. I’m excited that she’s able to ride more and more on her own.

Halloween in our neighborhood

Halloween has come and gone, and I took my two big kids out around the neighborhood in search of candy and community. We walked the length of our street and visited every house, but rather than go down to the next street and do the same, as we did last year, we went back home and picked up the bike so that we could go a little farther.

 
All-black costumes

Over the last few weeks, as we’ve biked around the neighborhood, the kids had noticed some houses where the residents obviously get really into Halloween. Not unsurprisingly, they were interested in visiting those houses on Halloween night. They were too far for us to go to every house along the way, so we decided to take the bike, and visit a few spots in our neighborhood.

I was a little sad, picking and choosing to go only to the houses with the great Halloween decorations. What I love about Halloween is the community, the way every kid in the neighborhood is out and about, and most of the parents as well. It’s an excuse to knock on every door and exchange a few pleasantries. You don’t even need a costume or a pumpkin to participate – just a bowl of candy and a welcoming porch light. Perhaps those undecorated houses are the most important to visit. That might be the lonely person who would love to admire children in costume.

We get some trick-or-treaters at our house, but not many. We live at the end of the block, and around the corner is a slightly busier street that has very few street-facing houses. Perhaps the door density on our corner isn’t high enough to attract kids for efficient candy gathering. The street we went to visit, only a few blocks away, has a consistent, continuous density of doors, and there were lots of groups of kids out and about.

This street has no sidewalks, but the street is narrow, and mostly quiet, so we are comfortable walking and biking on in the street every day, not just Halloween. We saw only a couple of cars while we were out tonight.

The bike was a good solution to the problem of wanting to go a little farther and a little faster than we would walking. It would have been easier if we didn’t need to wear helmets: each stop meant gloves off, helmet off, hat on, so we ended up walking more. The bike itself didn’t interfere with the magic of the night the way a car would. We could still greet our neighbors and slip in and out of driveways as needed.

Then we rode back on the arterial because we needed to get back for dinner, and we saw lots of cars and no people. Not surprising; that street is toxic every day of the year.

Don’t widen 124th Ave: my remarks to Kirkland City Council

I spoke to the Kirkland City Council as part of the budget hearing tonight. Here are my remarks:

Good evening council, Mayor, staff. My name is Michelle Plesko. I’m here tonight to ask you for something a little bit unusual. I’m asking you to take something out of the budget. I live in Kirkland. We are a single-car family with four kids. To get around we mostly bike, walk, or take the bus. My priorities in the budget are safe, convenient, comfortable streets for people walking and biking, and efficient transit. I thank you for all of the bike and pedestrian safety projects that are in the budget. I would like other families to be able to live like we do, for all of its many benefits to the individual, family, and community. I would also like to ease the burden on those who cannot or do not drive.

In particular, I am concerned about the plan to widen 124th Ave from 3 lanes to 5, and the intersections in the area that are planned to be expanded. I would like to see these projects removed from the budget. This is not an effective use of money. Even if it were free, it would make the city worse.

When the city embarked on the Kirkland 2035 process, you got feedback that people wanted to city to be “green,” “sustainable,” and “walkable.” The Transportation Master Plan has a hierarchy of transportation modes: first people walking, then biking, then transit, freight, and last of all cars. It also embraces Vision Zero: a goal of zero deaths or serious injuries due to transportation in Kirkland. Widening 124th Ave is contrary to ALL of these goals. It will not make Totem Lake walkable. It will not make it safer, and by encouraging more car traffic and discouraging other modes, it will make Kirkland less green and sustainable. This neighborhood is right next to the CKC (Cross Kirkland Corridor). It has potential! This could be a very walk- and bike-friendly destination. Widening the street will ruin that.

Let’s think about characteristics of walkable neighborhoods. The streets are narrow. The crossings are short. Motor vehicles move slowly and carefully, and there aren’t too many of them. A five-lane street is the antithesis of this. When there are five lanes for cars, people get the message that “this street is for cars” and they don’t go there in any other mode. Worse, people driving get this message, and expect to have the highest priority on the street. Then they neglect to look for and yield to other users.

Five lane streets in cities mean that the transportation system has failed, and it’s time to find more efficient ways of moving people. Just look at Bellevue. A congested street needs improvements to walking, biking and transit, not more space for cars. The phenomenon of induced demand means that any extra car space will fill up, and then we’ll have a street that is not only congested, but also bigger, more dangerous, and less pleasant for everybody. When you design a street for cars, it fails for all users. When you design it for people, it works for all users. This is the paradox that needs to inform our budgeting.

On a five lane-street, it doesn’t matter how nice the sidewalks are, or even if the bike lanes are protected. The intersections are wide, and people walking and biking are exposed at intersections. Wider streets are more dangerous for all users. Side-impact crashes double when you go from one approaching lane to two.

Doing nothing to 124th Ave would be an improvement over the current plan. If you’d like to do something, start with a statement of the real problem: how do we move this number of people through this area in the most efficient way? By starting with a plan to widen the street, you are imposing a design that won’t solve any of the problems you are trying to solve, and is working contrary to the goals of the city and the community.

Here is the question: when you adopted Vision Zero, did you mean it? When you adopted the Transportation Master Plan with its hierarchy of modes, were you serious? If you widen these roads and intersections, it will be clear that this was all about a veneer of green.

A sad no vote on ST3 part 2: the region

In the previous post we addressed the Eastside projects. This post we’ll give a few reasons why the regional package is not worthwhile.

The main argument for building trains seems to be that we can’t do buses right. We need to do buses right. If we can’t, we’ve already failed, because the train is only walking distance for a few people. In the suburbs, the train is walking distance for even fewer people. Doing buses right doesn’t even mean Bus Rapid Transit vs. Light Rail – it also means getting the feeder buses right. Buses get caught in traffic accessing the South Kirkland Park & Ride. The 245 regularly gets stuck in a sea of cars on 148th Ave, and the B on 40th St. We need to find a way to get buses out of traffic so that they become a reasonable option. If we don’t solve local trips like going to the store, then using transit remains a special case for the commute or an event in Seattle and not the default (or even a considered) choice for arbitrary trips.

Commute times on I-5 from Everett to Seattle regularly get to two hours. Link from Everett to Seattle is planned to take 60 minutes. Great, right? Save an hour even when traffic is terrible? But by building the train to Everett, we are encouraging more building of housing in Everett, and more families to live in Everett, shackling them to a soul-sucking 90-minute commute (because you’d need to get to the train, and then from the train, either or both of which may require a bus transfer, a bike ride, or a lengthy walk), and an otherwise car-centric lifestyle. We need to build housing targeting 30-minute commutes, not 90. Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond: you all need to buck up and build the housing the region desperately needs. We don’t have space for more cars. Build housing where people don’t need cars. The suburbs want to grow because growth, but that’s stupid and unsustainable. Every unit of housing we decline to build in our close-in walkable neighborhoods is one more family stuck in the suburbs, driving thorough the close-in walkable neighborhood.

The stronger way of saying this is that high-capacity regional transit (ST’s charter) is the wrong problem to solve. Sure, there will still be people who choose to live in the hinterlands and commute to the city, but lets make that an actual choice, and not force people out there because there is no suitable housing in the city.

The new Angle Lake station actively makes the current system worse than before. It doesn’t serve anything but a park & ride garage, and now the system has less flexibility because it needs an additional train on the tracks. The reasons to take the train to Angle Lake are not compelling reasons to build a rail line there. ST3 is more of the same – many more miles of the same.

Here are more arguments in note form because I’m tired of writing:

Capacity of train vs capacity of parking lot. If there is no car-first future, don’t build more parking lots. Eastgate shows us what a “high-capacity” park & ride is, and it’s terrible.

“serving” Issaquah with one stop on the SW corner. “serving” Kirkland with one stop on the far south. “serving” West Seattle with one stop, granted in the densest part.

We traded a massive road package in order to now trade stupid lines to the north, south, east, and west in order to build the second best line to Ballard.

Renton is actively getting worse replacing their downtown transit center with a parking lot on the edge of town.

The spine is not an outcome.

 

Arguments for the pro side:

“transit!” – We oppose this exactly because it blocks good transit.

We can’t do buses. – We need to do buses or it doesn’t matter.

Politics – This isn’t an excuse for actively continuing down the car path and making the region worse.

 

Arguments for the con side:

“no transit!” – Sorry, geometry.

“cars!” – Sorry, geometry.

“taxes!” – Yes, stuff costs money, but overstating the costs isn’t helpful. And if you insist on low-density, car-centric development, this isn’t even close to covering the costs you’re putting on the region.

 

And that’s that. We’re sad for the lost opportunity to do something great.