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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