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The Expectation of Speed

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

Hop off the New York State Thruway at Syracuse, head South on the I-81 expressway and you will understand. Cruising above the city’s downtown, you see the urban streetscape as if you’re flying over it, past it, like it’s something you want to avoid on your way to another more rural destination. Lost on most who travel this vehicular express route is the truth that bypassing cities with above or below-grade highways was a principle element in the demise of American cities. Indeed, the worst thing that happened to our urban culture was creating the expectation that you, the driver, can speed through it, past it and around it.

From expressways to 4-lane one way streets, we have fostered a belief that any urban corridor should be traversable by car quickly and easily, even if the result is an erosion of walkable streets and small business interests. Fast cars mean less street level activity, simply because we as humans are averse to environments that are loud and dangerous… even if we aren’t always aware of it.

Today, I was almost hit by a car while legally riding my electric scooter on a city street. The driver accelerated around a slower car into the bike lane, and missed me by a foot as he sped away in his 2-ton pickup truck. The street in question has multiple lanes of traffic in either direction, giving the driver the sense that he is in control, and that this environment is built for speed. Anyone who stands in the way of this construct should be dismissed, even if it means the potential injury or loss of human life. This kind of street design doesn’t just empower drivers like this one to drive fast, it justifies it. The design of urban right-of-ways sends a clear message to everyone about what’s important, who is prioritized, and more importantly, who isn’t. Speed limit signs mean little when we create environments where the potential for speed is high and the risk of speeding FOR THE DRIVER is extremely low.

Our insanely overbuilt American roadways have created an expectation of automobile speed, while the byproduct is far too often severe injury or loss of life for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Nearly as costly is the effect that the expectation of automobile speed and convenience has on cities, communities and the way we prioritize space. When forty-four foot wide roads create a loud and uncomfortable pedestrian experience, the shops, storefronts, parks and street level amenities that rely on pedestrian prioritization fail as well.

The impact of speed on pedestrian loss of life is clearly highlighted by the fact that while vehicle miles driven was significantly reduced in 2020, the rate at which pedestrians were killed by cars actually went up. In fact, pedestrian deaths are at their highest rate in 30 years. And as always, we are quick to protect our children from any and all potential threats to their safety, and yet car crashes are the leading cause of death in children and teens.

The expectation of automobile speed, convenience and prioritization must be challenged as we begin to realize the nauseating metrics of car-centered communities. The importance of seeing cars as dangerous, exclusive and community-killing vehicles has never been so important.

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Big Houses and Long Commutes, Not Smart Phones, Eroded Community

Written by Arian Horbovetz and originally published on The Urban Phoenix blog

Not a day goes by that I don’t see someone 35+ on social media feeds gripe about how the smartphone has ruined the fabric of communication and togetherness in our country. The irony, of course, is that 95% of these posts are from someone using a smartphone app. And while mobile technology has certainly changed the way we engage with information, as well as one another, the catalyst of disconnection and isolationism in this country began long before cell phones were a twinkle in someone’s creative eye.

As we move farther away from jobs and resources, and as the amount of time we spend in our cars increases, the opportunities to spontaneously connect with strangers is significantly lessened. In a country where individualistic transportation is subsidized and prioritized above all else, Americans are incentivized to take up residence farther away from jobs and resources than ever before. By default, more people must rely on single-occupancy car travel as a means of daily mobility.

In his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg states that in 1950, U.S. houses averaged 985 square feet of space, while in 2000 that number exploded to 2,200 square feet. This astonishing shift toward more square footage, combined with the fact that the American family is shrinking in size while the number of bedrooms per household is increasing, sets the tone for a disconnected, individualistic narrative where personal space is king and a sense of community within the home is negated.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an old friend in which she told me that, when she was a teenager, her family moved from a small house in the city to a large, cookie-cutter suburban house. Her parents thought that more space for everyone to sprawl would mean a happier and more comfortable future. But, she recalled, the opposite became true. Where the family was forced to share space in their former small home, the new and larger home allowed everyone in the family to come home from work and school and go their separate ways. Walks became car trips, and family nights on the couch became a thing of the past. While individual family members had a far greater opportunity to pacify their desire for personal space, the family cohesion created by the constant need to share ones own space with others quickly eroded. The family drifted, conflicts arose, and the parents eventually filed for divorce. To this day, my friend largely blames this disillusionment of her family on the move to a bigger house.

Image Credit: Jen Doyle

While this is just one anecdotal example, it speaks to the notion that increased square footage rarely equates to the greater sense of happiness and stability that we think it does. Far more often, true contentment and a feeling of togetherness is created when we are forced to share and manage space with others.

One of the most interesting determinants of personal contentment is closely related to commute times. Research clearly shows that longer commutes have a decidedly negative affect on mental and physical health. One study in England found that adding 20 minutes to ones commute equated to a 19% pay cut with regard to job satisfaction. Clearly, the time we must travel to reach our place of employment is a huge determinant of our overall health and happiness.

While this might surprise hoards of suburban-dwellers who champion the fact that their hour-plus round trip car commute means they can live a happier life apart from urban environments, market-rate housing prices in major employment sectors tell the real story of the value of commute times. In major metros like New York City, Washington DC, Boston, LA, Seattle and San Francisco, it is nearly impossible for the average worker to find affordable housing within a 2-hour round-trip commute radius. If you’re a fan of “market rate” pricing as a means of economic and societal value, look no further than the metric of housing cost in relation to employment accessibility in major metros to tell you that commute times are a capitalistic variable.

Image Credit: Alekjes Bergmanis

The smartphone certainly has its place in the sea of human disconnection. But it is a symptom, rather than the cause, of community erosion that we, as Americans, have been fostering for decades. The blatant desire to isolate the variables of human interaction by creating our own spaces and realities that negate the outside world is nothing new.

Through racially driven land use, and suburban sprawl, the prioritization of car culture, the glorification of big box stores and eventually online retail, and a million other movements away from street-level community involvement, America (specifically white America) has gone all-in on individualism and exclusivity. The smart phone is but a symptom of a social shift that has been gaining momentum for over a century. Before we go blaming the smartphone for the end of real human interaction, perhaps we need to look at the history of the American desire to separate, isolate and divide.

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Can Public Transit Survive COVID-19?

Authored by Arian Horbovetz, Reconnect Rochester Board Member

In these suddenly uncertain times, the urbanist virtues of density and public transit are negated by the public responsibility of social distancing.  The idea that our cities are cooperative centers of shared innovation, inspiration and collective efficiency has suddenly given way to the real and justifiable fears of physical proximity and viral transmission.  Suddenly, many of the qualities that make cities amazing places are the very things that can also promote the spread of the Coronavirus.

Estimates for transit are grim.  Transit agencies across the country are likely seeing an estimated 50%- 90% decrease in ridership.  And this is after a 20-year increase in transit utilization suddenly took a dive around 2015, largely due to the popularity of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.  This viral gut-punch will likely be another blow to the vital community resource that is public transportation.

Last week, however, the Federal Government passed a $2-trillion COVID-19 economic stabilization plan, including $25-billion in assistance for public transit.  The initial draft of this bill did not include any funding for transit, but staunch and persistent outcry from agencies and advocates across the country led to this tremendous victory in the final version.  While not alleviating the economic impact completely, this stimulus will likely keep public transit in most cities from running aground.

Why Is This Important?

Experts estimate that transit agencies will lose $26-$38 billion in revenue as a result of the necessary steps of social distancing, remote work and the closing of non-essential businesses.  While this is a monumental blow to the already-strained budgets of nearly every transit system in the nation, it would likely be one that many small-to-midsized cities simply could not overcome.  Without the aforementioned assistance from the Federal Government, transit agencies across the nation would have to discontinue important routes and services.

An estimated 36% of transit riders are workers in essential industries such as health care.  In a time when our hospital capacities are being pushed to their limits and the presence of essential staff is critical, the importance of reliable public transportation cannot be overstated.

What About Long Term?

The seamless functionality of public transit during this period of uncertainty is tremendously important for public health.  But when we finally mitigate the spread of this virus and begin the return to societal normalcy, we will need public transit to help facilitate the economic recovery of our communities.  Getting people back to work, back to more frequent trips to stores and fun nights out with friends will all be partially dependent on public transit to help sew the fabric of cities like Rochester back together.  A high-functioning RTS bus network here in our community will be a critical safety net, softening the horrific economic impact the coronavirus has already inflicted on our city. Transit can help families do what they need to do now, so that when this time passes, those same families are more likely to fully recover and regenerate our local economy.  

Speaking Of RTS

RTS was expected to roll out their long-awaited Reimagine RTS system re-design plan on June 29th of this year, with revised routes, increased frequency on popular routes and “mobility zones” in outlying areas.  In a statement last week, RTS CEO Bill Carpenter announced that the rollout of this new plan would be delayed indefinitely.

RTS has, however, remained dedicated to providing riders with regular service while adding more frequent and thorough cleanings of buses and facilities while temporarily waiving fares on all routes.

Pace Bike Share

On March 26, Pace Bike Share announced it would be suspending all rental services for the foreseeable future, and further news reports delivered worse news that Pace will be pulling out of the Rochester market altogether. This development removes another piece of active transportation and connectivity in our city for the time being.  

Public Transit’s Recovery

Just when cities like Rochester were beginning to have meaningful conversations about the tremendous social and economic benefits of public transportation, the pandemic we now face will likely have a lasting impact on how we view and interact with public spaces.  Since the nature of public transit is physically shared mobility, with close seats, handrails and pull-cords, the understandable long-term stigma generated by the pandemic may mean that riders who can afford to choose more individualized transportation will do so, at least in the short term.  In the future, public transit agencies may have to feature newer, cleaner buses, trains and facilities to mitigate what is likely to be a lasting psychological aversion to touching and interacting with public surfaces. And while this aversion will lessen with time, how we, the rider, approach the choice to take public transit from the perspective of our personal health, may never be the same.

We Need Public Transportation

The $25 billion emergency public transit infusion from the federal government that will help to lessen the blow during this difficult period was made possible only by staunch advocacy from organizations and individuals who know the importance of transit in our communities.  Those of us who understand transit’s inherent ability to promote equity and mobility options for Rochester and beyond must continue to advocate politically, socially and personally for a robust commitment to public transportation.

Finally, in this time, it is important to remember that many of the folks who are on the front lines, keeping us safe, healthy, and well fed, are the people who rely on public transportation for their everyday commute.  And when this difficult time passes, public transit will, as it always has, play in an integral role in Rochester’s economic recovery, connecting people to jobs and resources.

Our city will always be stronger and more adaptable when we have an abundance of mobility options.  When our diverse community of citizens are empowered with transportation choices, our Rochester will always be more successful, more equitable and more resilient. We will get through this… and when we do, we will need public transit to do what it has always done, and more.

The Connection Between Transportation in Rochester, NY.
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Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

Benjamin Ross event flyer.
On Monday, September 29, Reconnect Rochester will host a discussion with author and transit advocate Benjamin Ross. Mr. Ross will be at the Public Library on Monroe Ave. at 6:30 p.m. to talk about his new book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism external link. Afterwards, follow us across the street to Aladdin’s for more conversation with Ross, and enjoy some free munchies courtesy of Reconnect Rochester. Please join this free event on Facebook external link and bring a friend or two. We hope to see you there!

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