Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Evening with Jackie Grimshaw

The final originally scheduled lecture in the 4th annual Reshaping Rochester lecture series commenced on West Main Street last Wednesday night at the Coptic Monastery of St. Shenouda, formerly Sts. Peter and Paul Church. Jackie Grimshaw, the Vice President for Policy, Tranportation, and Community of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago was the keynote speaker on the topic of Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Ms. Grimshaw's other qualifications include stints as Chicago's Deputy City Treasurer for Economic Development, Director of the Mayor's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and former board vice chair for the Congress for the New Urbanism. Her background also includes the power of community organization as seen in either her creation of chairing of groups such as the Citizen's Leadership Commission, Community Mobility Task Force, Transportation Research Board Committee on Environmental Justice in Transportation, and the Citizen's Commission for Clean Air in the Lake Michigan Basin.

Saving the procedural advice for improving transit systems in Rochester for the question and answer period, Grimshaw spoke mostly about the changing demographic and economic factors that will compel society to get on board with more efficient transportation and TOD patterns sooner rather than later.

The meat and potatos of the presentation consisted of indicator trends such as housing and transportation affordability indices which say something about the location efficiency of a place. Transit Oriented Development was billed as a value capture/value creation device insofar as its placemaking benefits go. To understand the idea behind this statement requires a look at household spending patterns or proportions during the personal automotive expansion period and what the consequences have become.

To make a relevant statement pertaining to the long-term view, food was once the largest expense of the American household. In 1920, the average household spend 41% of its expense budget on food. Today transportation is far and away number one at as much as 35%. Another graph was shown to highlight the inverse relationship between Car Loans and the size of savings accounts, a rapidly diverging graph since the end of the Great Depression. Some more recent developments that may have a more quanitifiable impact of the families of today would be the comparison of general inflation from 1999-2007 (24.5%) with the increase in the median household income in Greater Rochester (I apologize for not writing down the figure, but I am certain it was less). Compunding this is the fact that the price of gasoline increased 108% during the same period to say nothing of what we saw in 2008.

Demographic trends are also doing their part to promote Urbanism and Transit Oriented Development. American household size has been on the decline not just since the baby boom, but actually since 1790. More seniors wish to age in place. The proportion of American households that can be classified as 'married with children' is down to 23%. These things coupled with the limited municipal funds to continue the subsidization of sprawl point to a migratory correction driven more sensibly by undistorted market forces and energy concerns.

Grimshaw's comments on preferred modes of transit were somewhat surprising though rooted in reason. Despite mentioning that Calgary's Light Rail System is 100% wind powered, she seemed to lean toward the simpler streetcar system for a variety of reasons. It is relatively inexpensive compared to exclusive right-of-way type light rail ($6M in Kenosha to $55M in Portland, OR). It is also more easily integrated into an existing bus transit system. Seemingly the most important thing is the streetcar's flexible nature that allows it to expand easily to link multiple districts.

A cheaper alternative was mentioned as a last resort, Electric Trolley Buses with overhead wires. The positives with such a system are certainly the capital cost, the ability to run independently of the lines, and the fuel efficiency realized compared with hybrid diesel buses. Systems of this type are operating in Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Vancouver.

That would wrap up the RRCDC's lecture series for 2008-2009 except that an added lecture in conjunction with the Association for Community Design's annual conference being held in Rochester is scheduled for Friday, June 5th at the Gleason Works Auditorium on University Avenue from 8-9PM. I don't have admission details on this event but I will try to find that out and update this post.

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