Sunday, July 19, 2015

Cycling and Safe Streets in Amsterdam: A Movement Sparked by Parents and Children

cycling in Amsterdam with children
Bicycle parking garage in Amsterdam
My family recently returned from a trip to Amsterdam, where we got to try out cycling in one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. When we exited the train station, we were greeted by a multi-story parking garage clogged with more than 3,000 bikes, a now famous landmark in Amsterdam, reflecting how predominant cycling is here. Approximately 38% of all trips in Amsterdam are by bike compared to 2-3% in Austin.

I have been reading up about how these infrastructure changes came about. This video chronicles Amsterdam's history as a cycling city, pointing out that Amsterdam has not always embraced cycling like it does today. In the 1970s, after a record number of children were killed on Dutch roads, Dutch parents and their children led mass protests and organized around the country, demanding a transportation policy that prioritized safe streets.

family-friendly cycling in Amsterdam
Cycling in Amsterdam
While much attention has been given to how this fierce activism helped launch the construction of the nation's world-famous cycling infrastructure, families across the Netherlands worked for much more than that.  A wonderful documentary from 1972 captures how Dutch families have taken to the streets for a whole range of measures to make streets safer for children in dense urban areas. The Dutch government responded by creating play streets, "street corner havens," car-free Sundays, and an array of other traffic calming measures.

One of Amsterdam's biggest infrastructure challenges today is, ironically, addressing the deluge of bikes that fill the streets. Before our trip, a Dutch friend had warned us to not cycle in Amsterdam with children in the busy urban core unless they were super experienced urban cyclists.  It is true that making the jump to cycling in Amsterdam for my family was, well, terrifying at times. Sort of like going from driving a car in a small town to an L.A. freeway. My preteen children had to learn on the fly that they could absolutely not stop, much less slow down, while we were cycling in rush hour cycling traffic. And this was while cycling without helmets (no one wears them in Amsterdam and they were unavailable at the bike rental shop). The worst part was avoiding the speeding mopeds that weaved in and out of cyclists in the cycle lanes—apparently a widespread problem in the city. Luckily, it sounds like the government recognizes this is an issue and is working to ban mopeds in cycle paths.

Speeding mopeds and rush hour traffic aside, overall we were extremely impressed with Amsterdam's cycling infrastructure—an incredible opportunity to try out in person what we can aspire to here in Austin. The dedicated cycle lanes, the cycle-centric street crossings, the traffic lights for bikes, the ubiquitous bike parking facilities, and more. All these things were a delight to see in person.

Today, the Netherlands' traffic fatality rate is 60% lower than it was when parents and others first set out to advocate for safer streets. Meanwhile, Austin's traffic fatalities are on track to be a record high this year.  It is good to keep in mind the experiences of the Netherlands in making its street safer: that changes are more than possible, but they will not come about until the public demands them.

Off-street cycling lanes in Amsterdam

Cyclists even have their own lights!

cycling in Amsterdam through the Rijksmuseum
A highlight: cycling through the famous Rijksmuseum

More dedicated cycling lanes with nice big buffers from the street

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Myth About the Inclusionary Zoning Ban in Texas

Another title for this post could be: "What you have been told about inclusionary zoning in Texas is wrong."

When it comes to generating affordable housing opportunities for families, inclusionary zoning has been an important and effective local tool, utilized in more than 400 local jurisdictions around the country. Inclusionary zoning requires the inclusion of a certain percentage of affordable housing units (typically 10-15%) in new market rate developments. Montgomery County, Maryland's inclusionary zoning program has been especially notable, generating more than 12,500 affordable housing units.

But whenever inclusionary zoning is brought up in Austin at the City Council or other policy forums, the discussion is shut down on the grounds that all inclusionary zoning is illegal in Texas. This is a misconception. In fact, the only type of inclusionary zoning that the Texas Legislature has banned is for homeownership units, and even this ban has several notable exceptions.

The Texas statute governing inclusionary zoning reads as follows:
(a) A municipality may not adopt a requirement in any form, including through an ordinance or regulation or as a condition for granting a building permit, that establishes a maximum sales price for a privately produced housing unit or residential building lot (emphasis added).  
What is clear under this statute is that a city in Texas cannot enact an inclusionary zoning ordinance impacting homeownership units, such as requiring that 10% of homes built in a new subdivision be sold below a certain sales price to low-income families—unless an exception in 214.905 is met. What is also clear from the language above is that the inclusionary zoning ban does not extend to rental housing.

Also, importantly, Section 214.905 goes on to provide several notable exceptions to the ban on inclusionary zoning for homeownership units, including land in a homestead preservation district and density bonus programs:
(b) This section does not affect any authority of a municipality to:
(1) create or implement an incentive, contract commitment, density bonus, or other voluntary program designed to increase the supply of moderate or lower-cost housing units; or
(2) adopt a requirement applicable to an area served under the provisions of Chapter 373A, Local Government Code, which authorizes homestead preservation districts, if such chapter is created by an act of the legislature.  
With Austin's growing affordable housing crisis, we need to be using all of the tools at our disposal to preserve and create affordable housing opportunities for low- and middle-income families. Inclusionary zoning is one of those tools we should be using now.
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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Austin's Proposed Cuts to Public Pools

It was disheartening to hear that the City of Austin's Parks and Recreation Department is once again considering closing our city swimming pools and cutting back pool hours. Public pools are one of the best public services that the City can provide for Austin children. On top of that, the pool closures are targeting East Austin, with its historic disparities in access to public services.

I blogged about the issue of public pool access back in June 2013. Northeast Austin (north of 290), with its very high concentrations of low-income households already has zero public pools. If the City moves forward with its plan to close the Mabel Davis pool, Southeast Austin (the whole area south of Riverside all the way past William Cannon—likewise fairly poor) will have only one public pool. Meanwhile wealthier areas of the city have year-round access to public pools.

Even though Austin has fared quite well in the annual Trust for Public Land survey for public pool access, we continue to fall in the rankings.  In 2011, we ranked #11 amongst U.S. cities in terms of public pools per capita. Now we are at #16.  The proposed cuts, if they go through, will push us farther down the list.

Our population is booming (Austin was the fastest growing city last year), our tax base is exploding, and the summers are still sweltering. Shouldn't the City be figuring out ways to expand access to public pools?  As the Council dives into the City budget this summer, let's hope the City paddles away from its public pool closure plans.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Gettings Kids to Bicycle to School

bike train to Hart Elementary school in Austin
New bike racks at Hart Elementary School in Austin
(photo courtesy of the City of Austin)
Back in 1969 (what my kids now refer to as the “olden days”), walking and bicycling to school was part of everyday life. Nearly half of all students traveled to school on foot or by bike. Today, that’s no longer the case, with only 13% of children walking or bicycling to school. Meanwhile, the percentage of children arriving at school by private automobile has increased from 12% to 44% (the rate of school bus ridership has stayed almost the same).

Austin is home to a number of innovative programs to encourage kids to bicycle to school. Last month, the City of Austin launched a major bicycle/walk-to-school initiative at Hart Elementary School, which serves a high proportion of low-income students with limited opportunities to be active. Along with the installation of a 1.3-mile cycle track connecting nearby apartment complexes to the school, the City secured 300 bikes to donate to children who commit to cycling to school. As of this week, more than 80 kids were cycling to school regularly!

bike train to Hart Elementary school in Austin
The Bike Train at Hart Elementary School in Austin
(photo courtesy of the City of Austin)
As part of the program, the City has set up bike trains and walking school buses with adult monitors to pick the students up from their apartment complexes and supervise their commute to school. (A bike train is an organized group of students who cycle together along a pre-arranged route to school under the close supervision of adults.  A walking school bus is the pedestrian version of a bike train.) When the students arrive on campus, they swipe a special card so their parents can know they arrived safely.

In addition to the City’s program at Hart Elementary, at least five other elementary schools in Austin low-income neighborhoods have recently started walking school bus programs. Meanwhile, parents and PTA organizations at a number of local schools have started their own bike trains. The City of Austin’s Child Safety program provides support to parents who want to set up their own bike trains, by providing maps for customized biking routes and reflective arm bands for participants.

Boltage program at Doss Elementary School
(photo courtesy of AISD)
Several area schools, including Doss Elementary and Martin Middle Schools, have adopted high-tech approaches to get kids on bikes. One of these programs, Boltage, uses a solar-powered reader that records each child’s bike trip to school. The records are then used to reward students who commute to school regularly by bike.

While Austin has made great progress recently in encouraging kids to cycle and bike to school, our community has a long ways to go if we want to reclaim the days when one out of every two kids bicycled or walked to school. By helping kids walk and bicycle to school, we can make a dent in child obesity rates here in Austin, where 38% of children in grades 3 to 8 are overweight or obese.  Increasing cycling and walk-to-school rates also reduces traffic congestion. In some communities, as much as 30% of vehicle traffic in the morning rush hour is from children being driven to school.
Safety remains the biggest barrier to getting more kids on bikes. We should all be advocating at City Hall for more local funding to create safer routes to schools, including sidewalks, cycle tracks, and neighborhood traffic calming. I love seeing what other cities are doing in this regards. Portland and Seattle, for example, are both building a network of neighborhood greenways that give priority to cyclists and pedestrians. By 2015, 80% of Portland residents will live within half a mile of a neighborhood greenway.

At a neighborhood and school level, setting up a bike train or walking school bus can go a long way in overcoming parents’ concerns about safety. In Portland, bike trains are now a predominant feature of kids’ commute to school, supported by a robust cycling culture and even a website with information on bike trains in operation around the city. In Seattle, the school district is working to set up a bike train or walking school bus at every elementary school in the district.

Austin is lucky to already have lots of success stories to build from to help our children bike and walk to school. Working together as a community to address the remaining barriers, I see no reason why we cannot reach the same goal that Seattle recently adopted—to get 50% of children walking and biking to school again.

(Look for a longer version of this blog post in the November issue of Austin Fit). 
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Monday, August 25, 2014

Sending Our Children Off to School

It's back to school time today in Austin. We just sent our oldest son off to middle school. Sigh. Here is a shout out to all the parents who are sending their children off to elementary school/middle school/high school/college for the first time. And, if you are looking to shed more tears, here is a link to one of my favorite poems about sending kids off into the world, by Sharon Olds, The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb.  If you can, listen to the version at the link read by Garrison Keillor (I am unable to get the audio link to work this morning).
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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Traveling to Boston: What Makes Boston a Great Place for Families with Children

My youngest son and I spent a week exploring Boston this summer.  We fell in love with Boston's open spaces, pedestrian orientation, and cultural amenities. This post is about some of our favorite places in Boston and why we found Boston to be such a great place for families with children. Next up, a post about why Boston is still losing families with children to the suburbs.

Our favorite family-friendly amenities in Boston:

1. Boston's extensive network of high quality parks. Boston has parks for everyone, big and small, with 97% of the population living within a ten-minute walk of a public park (compared to 43% in Austin), and 3.5 playgrounds per 10,000 residents (vs 1.3 in Austin). We visited a different park everyday. One of our favorite parks, or rather series of parks, was the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a mile-and-a-half ribbon of new parks that were built on top of a major highway after it was relocated underground. The parks were filled with family-friendly amenities, from water features to carousels and wide lawns.
Map of Boston's public parks
from the Trust for Public Land
ParkScore index website
The Canal Fountain in the North End Park of Boston
Part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway
The Armenian Heritage Park in Boston
Part of the Rose Kennedy Greenway

alley in Boston's North End
An alley in Boston's North End
2. Pedestrian-orientation. Boston is one of the most pedestrian-friendly U.S. cities we have visited as family, with its wide sidewalks, well-striped crosswalks, and walking access to a diverse array of urban amenities. Indeed, Boston ranks third on the Walk Score index of walkable cities. Whenever we arrived at a mid-street crosswalk, the cars would actually stop to allow us to cross! (This is a novelty in Austin, where you place your life at risk if you cross a mid-street crosswalk.). While my son would have protested, I could have easily spent the whole week just walking around the city.

3. Public squares and alleys. I was equally impressed with Boston's rich array of lively public open spaces beyond its parks, including the city's numerous public squares, pedestrian-friendly alleys, and historic walking trails. The city government is embarking on a new 2015-2021 Open Space Plan, which will identify opportunities for further enhancing the city's public space inventory.

public square in Boston's North End
Public square in Boston's North End

Park and public gathering space in Central Boston

public art in Boston, the Alchemist
Jaume Plensa's "The Alchemist"
MIT Campus
4. Cultural Amenities:

Boston is teeming with cultural amenities with its public art and historic architecture, outdoor concerts, and museums galore, all within walking distance or an easy ride on public transit. In a week, we could not come even close to visiting all of the museums on our wish list.  My son's favorites: Boston Children's Museum and Museum of Science (where, to my chagrin, one of the most popular interactive exhibits was a machine that you could make fart). My favorites: Old State House, Boston Freedom Trail, and the MIT Museum (in Cambridge across the river). We never made it to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Fire Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Isabella Gardner Museum, the USS Constitution Museum, and many of the other museums in Boston.
Boston Children's Museum
Boston Children's Museum

Boston Children's Museum indoor climbing sculpture
Indoor climbing sculpture
Boston Children's Museum
Boston Science Museum
The toot machine

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Plaza Saltillo: Lost Opportunity for Austin's Families with Children

After 20 years of on-and-off-again planning efforts, Cap Metro has finally selected a developer for the prime 11-acre tract of public land, the Saltillo Tract.  The closely watched 5-3 vote by the Cap Metro board was extremely disappointing, with the selection of a development plan by Endeavor that fails to include affordable housing for families with children and largely ignores the cultural and historical context of the tract. 

The 11-acre Saltillo Tract is bordered by Plaza Saltillo, which was intended to be the hub for a Hispanic cultural and commercial district called Ole Mexico. Those plans for the area now seem permanently out of reach, with the tract sitting in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying area, where low-income African-American and Hispanic families are quickly being replaced with higher income and primarily Anglo households, and local businesses face dramatically escalating property values. The demographic trends are contributing to large drops in enrollment at AISD schools in the area

Neighborhood leaders supported the Saltillo Tract development proposal by the other project finalist, Saltillo Collaborative, which would have generated 170 units of affordable housing developed by leading providers of affordable housing for children in Austin, Foundation Communities and Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC). The bulk of the affordable units would have been multi-bedroom apartments accessible for families with children, supported by other child-friendly amenities. GNDC, which has a long history of working in the community, maintains a long list of low-income families with children waiting to access affordable housing in the neighborhood. Many of the families on the waiting list  are Hispanic families who grew up the neighborhood but were priced out and now want to return. 

The City of Austin's Families with Children Task Force, and most recently the City of Austin/Travis County/AISD workgroup on Schools and Families (both of which I served on), identified the need for more affordable, family-friendly housing in our urban core and near transit as a critical need in our community. The communities surrounding the Saltillo development have also long identified affordable housing for families as a high priority. And a recent survey by the University of Texas's Community and Regional Planning Program found that the majority of low-income households with children who commute more than 10 miles to work in Austin want to live close to their jobs in the urban core. 

Cap Metro's selection of the Endeavor team to redevelop the Saltillo Tract follows the unfortunate lead set by the City for the recent redevelopment of other important tracts of public land, including the Green Water and Seaholm sites downtown, none of which will include affordable units for families with children. Today, the Austin City Council has an opportunity to chart a new course when it considers the redevelopment of a city-owned parcel at 411 Chicon, the one remaining sizable tract of publicly-owned land in Central East Austin that is ripe for redevelopment.

Back in 2003, Cap Metro literature stated: "The overriding goal for the Saltillo District Redevelopment Project is to construct an exemplary, compact community."  By no means should the selection of the Endeavor project--a project that leaves out affordable housing for children on such a large tract of publicly-owned land in Central East Austin--be considered exemplary. 

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