Monday, June 30, 2008


One of the sessions at last Saturday's Summit for Neighborhood Leaders put on by the Coalition for Livable Communities (more on that later) was entitled "From Here to There: Getting to Work Using Public Transportation."

Not to beat a dead horse, but I've heard (I think directly from MATA pres Will Hudson's mouth) that MATA's system was designed to get poorer workers to their jobs. This was several years ago, and I was asking if a grid system could better serve the larger general population.

After hearing his explanation of the system, I thought, well, okay, they're trying to serve their current market. It's a market that relies and depends on public transportation, so if serving those people — and serving them well — is their mission, I can understand that.

But findings presented Saturday by the Memphis Area Women's Council put that in question.

Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women's Council, said that transportation was one of the main barriers to employment among the women they surveyed.

"One thing we heard over and over was that using public transportation to get where they need to go was difficult and often impossible," Clubb said.

For example, Clubb related the example of downtown hotel workers who, if they got caught up at work after their shift, would miss the last bus of the night and have to walk home.

Karla Davis of Urban Strategies Memphis HOPE helps the former residents of Lamar Terrace and Dixie Homes work toward self-sufficiency. But Urban Strategies has to hire private transportation to get those families to whatever program they are enrolled in.

"It would be so helpful if there was a public transportation system they could use," Davis said.

Which leaves me wondering, just who is MATA's system designed for?

Does it work well for anybody?

Maybe a full system redesign is in order?

We have one of the leading logistics companies in the world here; maybe they could help come up with something?

In the short term, the women's council is proposing a pilot project in Frayser that would use a mini-hub and community based routing.

They also have an interesting idea to use day care vans. Mothers and their children would both board the day care van. After the children are dropped off, mothers would be taken to a MATA hub. I don't know how feasible it is, but it makes a lot more sense than those alarms to remind drivers to make sure all the kids are off the bus.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Fair Bus Fares

Johnnie Mosley says he's been riding the bus for "a looong time."

Mosley founded Citizens for Better Service, a MATA watchdog group, in 1993.

"At the time, MATA had a proposal to increase bus fares and decrease routes," he says. "A group of us riders thought it would be best to form a group to speak for the concerns of bus riders."

Though they speak out any time MATA proposed to increase fares or cut routes, Mosley says the group also deals with complaints against bus drivers. Though MATA has a complaint line, riders don't always feel they have been heard when they use it.

"MATA has some good bus drivers, but occasionally drivers won't even answer a simple question," Mosley says. "Once my group becomes aware of their complaints, we'll take their concerns directly to [Will] Hudson."

With higher gas prices — MATA's next gas contract will charge them $4.52 a gallon versus the current $2.87 — Mosley is worried that the transit company will once again try to raise fares or cut services. He would like to see them increase services instead.

"There are some areas of town where, if you miss one bus, you may have to wait another hour, an hour and a half for the next one. That's terrible," he says. "The more people see buses running in their neighborhoods, the more likely they are to get on one."

"If push comes to shove and they have to cut routes and increase fares, we want to make sure that it's fair and equitable," Mosley says.

To reach Citizens for Better Service, call Mosley at 789.6463.

Neighborhood Watch

The Coalition for Livable Communities will host their Second Annual Summit for Neighborhood Leaders tomorrow at 9 a.m. at 600 Jefferson Ave.

The event is free (registration required) and will include presentations on the CLC Neighborhood Survey, the city/suburb connection, how to "green" your home, and how to get to work using public transportation. And it appears Mayor Wharton might be speaking about his Sustainable Shelby initiative.

Should be interesting ...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Made in/of the Mist

Maybe artist Olafur Eliasson never heard TLC's mid-90s hit "Waterfalls" and their advice not to go chasing them.

Or maybe he did.

Four "New York City Waterfalls" — a more than $15 million public art project — opened in the New York harbor this morning. The waterfalls will be turned on most mornings at 7 a.m. and 35,000 gallons of river water flow/gush/pour through them each minute until 10 p.m. At night they'll be lit by light-emitting diodes.

The city is billing the waterfalls as their largest public art commission project since 2005 "Gates" in Central Park and will remain until October 13th.

In a NYT story, Eliasson is quoted as saying that New York has generally considered the center city the "prime part of the city" but in the last few decades has been "turning its face around ... and trying to create different values and recreational ideas."

Photo from the NYT slide show.

Of course, the city is hoping that — like "Gates" — the project will drive tourism. They've even created a bike route around it.

I'm not hoping for anything this grand, but I think our riverfront could really use some interesting water features. Preferably ones that would let little hands actually touch water.

(I know, Mud Island and the Main Street Mall both have water features that kids love. But we're located on the banks of the Mississippi. Do we really need to limit ourselves? And it's just so frustrating to be at Tom Lee and looking at out an incredible vista of flowing water and just feel hot and dry and very removed from the water. But I digress ...)

When "The Gates" opened, I talked to former urbanArt Commission director Carissa Hussong about temporary public art installations in Memphis. Since then, the commission's done a number of cool projects as part of its 10th birthday, but if you're interested in a look back, you can find it here.

MATA Misses its Moment?

After this week's Flyer cover story about public transit in Memphis, we received an interesting email from Johnnie Mosley, founder and chairman of the public advocacy group Citizens for Better Service.

Citizens, which was founded in 1993, is a MATA watchdog and tries to make sure that bus riders are treated fairly. In 2000, the group opposed a MATA rate hike, saying that the transit authority should cut administrative expenses before raising fares.

Mosley had this, in part, to say in response to the story:

"I was warned by Mr. Hudson that this was a bad time for mass transit, expecially MATA some time ago. My response to Mr. Hudson was that this is the best time to implement creative ways to get new rider on the bus and things like an increase in fares and cutting service should be a last, not first resort."

"If MATA would take the time to look at the routes and find ways to increase routes, instead of cutting routes, it would send a strong message that MATA is serious about getting and keeping new passengers. If you talk to people who do not ride public transportation ... they will tell you that they would like to ride a bus but the buses do not fit in their schedule. In other words, if MATA finds a way to get the buses in their daily schedule so they could get to their destinations in 25 minutes instead of 2 hours, they would park their cars."

Mosley concluded by saying that Citizens for Better Service had been bringing up similar issues for the past 15 years and they would continue watching the transit authority as it deals with "what you called 'MATA's Moment of Truth.'"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Wheels up, flights down

In light of news that Delta and Northwest pilot unions have worked out a tentative deal with Delta management, USA Today has an interesting graphic on decreasing flight capacity.

Using airline schedule data for October 2008, the paper showed a 6.7 percent decrease in flight capacity for Tennessee.

Specifically, MEM is expected to be down 7.6 percent, BNA (Nashville) is expected to be down 5.7 percent, and surprisingly, TYS (Knoxville) fares the worst with a drop of 8.7 percent.

That doesn't necessarily mean fewer daily flights, however. Airlines can decrease capacity by cutting the number of daily flights or by using smaller planes for regular routes.

Only eight states — Washington, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Vermont, Maine and Louisiana — were expected to see an increase in flight capacity.

Light Recycling

Okay, here's my public service announcement for the month, maybe even the year, so listen up:

Home Depot — my dad's favorite — is the first national chain store to start a compact fluorescent light bulb recycling program.

Customers can bring in any expired, unbroken CFL bulbs and give them to the associate behind the returns desk. The company says the bulbs will then be "managed responsibly by an environmental management company who will coordinate CFL packaging, transportation, and recycling to maximize safety and ensure environmental compliance."

I don't know how much this is going to cost them, but to me, this seems to make good business sense. You have to think that people who buy CFL bulbs rather than traditional light bulbs are perhaps already trying to be more environmentally conscious or are trying to save money. Giving those people an easy way to recycle them seems like a good way to lure people into your store.

(Every time I go to Home Depot, I always end up buying more than I came for. Usually plants.)

What I don't understand is why Home Depot Canada has had a similar program since last November.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rent subsidies for students?

A few years ago, the Memphis City Schools realized they had a problem with student migration.

The district regularly — and rightly — argues that it is challenged with educating a majority of students who come from low income families. These students might have fewer educational resources at home; they might not get enough sleep at night or enough to eat for breakfast; and they also might change schools at least once or twice a year.

All of which can contribute to lower test scores and, more importantly, stop children from learning.

Student turnover can be a serious problem, as students changing schools suffer a break in instruction. Students who haven't moved are also affected by a high turnover rate, as teachers have to take extra time with new kids.

(And in a city like Memphis where people ask "Where do you stay?" instead of "Where do you live?" it seems to betray a very transitory culture.)

MCS realized it couldn't stop families from moving around inside the city limits, but it could make its curriculum uniform district-wide so that children who did move in the middle of the year wouldn't miss anything.

But a Flint, Michigan, program is trying a very different solution. This from the NYT:

"In some of Flint’s elementary schools, half or more of the students change in the course of a school year — in one school it reached 75 percent in 2003. The moves are usually linked to low, unstable incomes, inadequate housing and chaotic lives, and the recent rash of foreclosures on landlords is adding to the problem, forcing renters from their homes. The resulting classroom turmoil led the State Department of Human Services to start an unusual experiment, paying some parents $100 a month in rent subsidies to help them stay put — a rare effort to address the damaging turnover directly."

Not only do students live in the same place for two years under the program, they also remain with the same teacher and classmates for all of second and third grade. And results from a 2004 group showed that third graders scored significantly higher on standardized tests.

Put the Pedal to the Mettle

Like all the other alternatives, bicycling has been in the news recently.

NPR's Ari Shapiro recently rode with Portland congressman Earl Blumenaur on his morning commute to the Capitol.

Blumenaur, the head of the bipartisan Congressional Bike Caucus and the man behind a new global climate change bill, has been riding his bike to work for 12 years. In fact, he says, he didn't even bring a car to Washington at all.

"I've never had to look for a parking space in Washington, D.C. I've never been stuck in traffic ... ever," he tells Shapiro as they ride together.

When asked about the effect of high gas prices, Blumenaur almost audibly shrugs and says that's a choice people are making. Shapiro presses him, saying that there are communities where people can't ride a bike wherever they are going.

But Blumenaur disagrees, pointing out that 20 percent of all trips taken in this country are a mile or less.

And hey, if a politician can do it ... there has to be hope for the rest of us.

And be sure to look for the Flyer this weekend — we'll have a story on alternative forms of transportation, including bicycling, buses, and light rail.

Friday, June 20, 2008

odds and ends

— The committees of Mayor A C Wharton's Sustainable Shelby met in a digital congress yesterday to vote on the initiative's priorities. Using a "clicker" — it looked just like a little remote — members of the initiative ranked the various committee's recommendations from 1, strongly disagree, to 7, strongly agree.

No surprise, there were a lot of 7s in the house (and only four recommendations out of 52 got a majority of 5s).

To begin, Wharton called sustainability "plain good business" and reminded the assembly of the kickoff meeting in March. At that meeting, Joe Cortright said that if we could get citizens to shave 2 miles off their daily drive, it would save a combined $280 million. (That they could then spend on other things.)

"There is no doubt that sustainable communities do more than improve the environment," Wharton said. "They result in considerable savings that lead to economic growth."

The complete agenda will be presented at a Sustainable Shelby Call to Action public meeting Tuesday, July 8th, 2:30 p.m. at the Botanic Garden.

— Is mixed-use enough? Architect Keith Ray argues that omni-use is required to revitalize areas.

— Related to yesterday's post about infrastructure, Houston has just approved five light rail lines, to be completed by 2012. If I recall correctly, 2012 is the year that Memphis' light rail line, announced eight years ago and scheduled to run down Lamar to the airport, might be done.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

An infrastructured America ...

is a successful, strong America?

Former Indianapolis mayor Bill Hudnut spoke to the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute yesterday about ... of all things ... infrastructure.

"People think infrastructure is a dull subject, but it's not," said Hudnut. "We're facing a silent crisis that is really starting to make a lot of noise."

ULI's Infrastructure 2008: A Competitive Advantage report compared America's infrastructure with countries around the world and found that while some countries, such as India and China were growing and developing their infrastructure, the United States, along with Canada and Australia, are coasting.

And before you argue that China and India are building new infrastructure (so it's not a fair comparison), the UK, Germany, and Spain are retooling and revamping their current infrastructure.

Hudnut pointed to the fact that the country has NO high speed trains, countless levies and bridges that need to be improved, and only one of the world's largest ports.

"Revamping our infrastructure in the global economy will largely determine how successful America will be," he said.

In Memphis, our youngest rail bridge — and we have a lot of rail coming through — was built in 1916. Trains have to slow to 10 mph to cross the bridges, creating a national choke point for rail.

Our vehicle bridges are a little bit newer, built in 1949 and 1979.

There is a plan for a third bridge, but it will be 2012 at the earliest before construction can get started, IF there is funding.

"While we're looking for at the third bridge, we need to be planning for the fourth," said one of the local panelists, Metropolitan Planning Organization administrator Martha Lott.

The problem seems to be that we see these big dollar signs on projects that are needed but not at a critical point (yet) so we put them off. And then we they get critical — or worse, like last year's bridge collapse in Minneapolis — that's when we invest.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Out of the Pool

In response to the two drowning deaths that occurred the first day the city pools were open, City Council members heard about new pool regulations during today's parks committee meeting.

The new regulations include a way for lifeguards to easily identify which swimmers are allowed to be in the deep end and mandating that someone over 18 years old accompanies children 12 and under and shorter than 4 ft. tall to the pool.

"They aren't required to have a parent with them. It's an adult, 18 and older," said parks director Cindy Buchanan. "It doesn't have to be their parent or guardian, but it needs to be someone responsible."

Several council members worried that requiring children to be accompanied by an adult would effectively discourage people from using city pools.

Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware wanted to know if the adult had to accompany the child to the pool or in the water.

"You ask me to take my child, that's one thing. You ask me to take them to the pool, get undressed, and get in the water with them, that's another thing," Ware said.

She added, "I understand you're trying to avoid disaster, but some of this I think was done to discourage people from either going to or sending their children to the pool."

Buchanan said those with younger children should consider being in the water with their kids.

"If they're three-, four- or five-years-old, and they're in the pool and you're on the deck, you're not really supervising," she said. "Our lifeguards are trained in life saving; they're not trained in babysitting."

Under the new regulations, swimmers will also have to pass a test before they can go into the deep end.

"We believe the Memphis city pools are as safe as we can make them," Buchanan said.

But the fact is for people who don't know how to swim, a pool is never going to be completely safe.

Buchanan said about 200 to 300 children take swim lessons at the city pools each summer. There are certainly other places to take lessons, but that number sounds really low to me.

I've been a swimmer much of my life. I started swim team when I was probably 5. I spent several summers (and winters, indoor pool) lifeguarding. In high school, one of my nicknames was Splash.

So I'm a little surprised that, up until now, swimmers wouldn't have to pass a swim test before being allowed in the deep end.

When I was a kid in Atlanta, before you were able to go into the deep end, you had to be able to swim one length of the pool without stopping or holding onto the side. When you turned 10, you were able to go to the pool by ourselves, but not before showing the lifeguard that you could swim a lap, swim the width of the pool without taking a breath, and tread water for five minutes.

Let me tell you, even my friends who weren't on the swim team learned how to swim. Why? Because they wanted to go off the diving board; they wanted to play Sharks and Minnows in the deep end. And they wanted to be able to go to the pool even when their parents couldn't watch them.

Those were powerful incentives. And I wonder if pools have gotten so safe in recent years that they've actually become more dangerous.

I recently spoke with Danny Fadgen, aquatics director at the Memphis Jewish Community Center, about the multi-million dollar renovation to their facilities. (I'll add a link once the story is on the Flyer website. If I remember.)

They added several high-end features — two-story water slides, pool playgrounds — but it left them with less deep water. In fact, over half of the "pool" is water three feet deep or less.

Fadgen worries the change will mean that pool-goers will be weaker swimmers than they have been traditionally.

This seems to be the way aquatic facilities are moving. A few years ago, I wrote about the last diving board in Midtown. At the time, Ed Rice Aquatic Center had just opened with six lap lanes and a zero-depth entry, but no diving board. Of the city's 16 pools, five had diving boards.

"When we do renovations at the pools, we clean up the deck and redo the concrete," David Han, the city's aquatics manager, had said. "We do not put the diving board back in." He could name about 100 swim coaches in the area but not a single diving coach.

So here's my question: What's the incentive now to learn how to swim? And swim well?

I might not be teenager, but I can tell you, when faced with a shallow pool without a diving board or water slides or anything fun, I see a large, communal bathtub.

Sure there's fun to be had there, but it doesn't involve swimming. It involves lounging on floats and rough-housing.

Monday, June 16, 2008

green backlash

Before I read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (a book that I would highly recommend, btw), I didn't realize just how new plastic was. Or how it doesn't really degrade, just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces.

So I started asking for paper bags at the grocery store.

Then someone sent me a link to a Los Angeles Times thing, I think, which compared the eco-friendliness of both the paper and plastic grocery bags, (with a cute little chart, even) and found them both to be problematic. Sure, plastic doesn't degrade, but it's smaller than bulky chemical-coated paper bags.

Just this weekend, I found myself in a conversation about disposable plates and silverware versus washing: are you more interested in conserving the energy that goes into making disposable plates or the water that goes into washing non-disposable ones?

I think that last question is a no-brainer, but in general, there seems to be some confusion over what is best for the environment.

The NYT's style section had a story yesterday about "green noise" — overwhelming, and at times contradictory, information about the environment — and how environmentalists are worried it's creating green backlash:

"A study by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency and market research company based in Knoxville, Tenn., that focuses on environmental products, showed that consumers surveyed in 2007 were between 22 and 55 percent less likely to buy a wide range of green products than in 2006. The slipping economy had an effect, but message overload appeared to be a major factor as well, said Suzanne C. Shelton, the company’s president."

Which I guess means that now conservation groups are worried both about global warming and burn out.

scavenger hunt folo-up

Yep, it's the trolley station right near the downtown YMCA.

Apparently, the adhesive used on the tiles was defective and weathered faster than anticipated. MATA and the UrbanArt Commission are getting quotes to have it repaired.

Friday, June 13, 2008

city scavenger hunt

But as it's too hot to actually go outside, it's virtual. Anyone know where/what this is?

In style, second-hand

The NYT really loves resale.

Today, there's another story about resale stores — this time, high-end consignment shops — enjoying a boost:

"In recent months, high-end designer resale shops have been the beneficiaries of a subtle shift in consumer thinking, as fashion lovers, even those who can afford to splurge, reassess their priorities. Unsettled by continuing recession fears and the soaring prices of designer clothes, and assailed by queasy consciences as well, many find these shops a way to update their wardrobes without seriously denting their bank accounts — or their sense of social propriety."

The story leads with National Audubon Society staffer who has a closet full of designer labels and describes herself as a "major environmentalist." Not surprisingly, she feels a little guilty about being such a consumer.

I definitely relate (altho not with the designer part, sadly) but with the inner war between wanting to buy something pretty and wanting to curb my usage. Pretty usually wins most of the time. (It definitely has in recent weeks.)

My favorite consignment store locally, though I haven't been there in quite some time, is Celery on Brookhaven Circle. If you want to find cute clothes and shoes without feeling guilty about your carbon footprint, it's worth checking out.

One of my favorite shirts is from there, and I also got a cute goldeny skirt suit from there. (Of course, that was before I realized I look all sorts of awful in shades of yellow, creams, and gold, and that I mostly hate skirts. Hmm, it's just sitting in my closet — I wonder if I could reconsign it to them.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Farming in Foreclosures

Here's an idea that could take root in Memphis. So to speak.

A nonprofit group in Detroit — Memphis' unofficial sister city — is farming derelict land to grow food for the needy.

NPR's Morning Edition says Urban Farming has a 20-plot pilot program in which volunteers tend the gardens and the city of Detroit picks up the water bill. The plots aren't fenced off, so anyone can pick the produce for free and anything leftover is donated to a food bank.

If that weren't enough, the program fights blight in a city that last year, with more than 7,000 idle properties, topped the nation in foreclosures.

"Turns out that urban farms do attract people, says Gail Carr, one of Detroit's city managers. She has houses boarded up nearly every day and sees what a dramatic difference the gardens have on communities.

'People are coming out of their homes who wouldn't come out under other circumstances because they didn't think there was still a community or a neighbor or a friendly person nearby,' she says."

The last time I looked at vacant property here, Shelby County was the "proud" owner of about 3,000 parcels it couldn't get rid of. There was talk of creating a land bank with the city — part of the problem is that when property owners default on their taxes, they default to both the city and the county.

The other part of the problem is that those properties weren't earning taxes for anyone, but were actually a drain on the coffers because of maintenance, mowing, and in some cases, demolition. But the alternative, letting them deteriorate even worse, is even more expensive.

Condos & carcinogens

Here are two interesting approaches to very specific problems.

In Los Angeles, the Department of Water recently dropped 40,000 black plastic balls into the Ivanhoe Reservoir in an attempt to protect the drinking water.

The Los Angeles Times reported that naturally occurring bromide, with the addition of sun, forms bromate, which can cause cancer. After elevated levels of bromate were found in some of the area's unshaded reservoirs, the water department looked for a solution.

"A tarp would have been too expensive and a metal cover would take too long to install, especially in a year of drought. So one of the DWP's biologists, Brian White, suggested 'bird balls,' commonly used by airports to prevent birds from congregating in wet areas alongside runways."

Photo from the LA Times.

In Vancouver, the city is thinking about banning condos in an expanded downtown business district.

From the Vancouver Sun:

"That change is being welcomed by the business community, which has been raising the alarm for a couple of years about the way office development has been losing the battle to more profitable condo development.

'It's all good to walk and bike to work, but if you don't have offices for people to go to, that makes things rather difficult,' said Bernie Magnan, the chief economist for the Vancouver Board of Trade. 'You won't have the business and the jobs that you're asking people to move down here for.'"

Vancouver began promoting downtown living 20 years ago; since that time, the downtown population has doubled to 90,000 and condos have been converted from a number of former office buildings, leaving available office space at a record low.

Under the proposal, commercial developers would be encouraged to build as high as possible without blocking the city's designated view corridors.

"'When you look at the capacity for job space in the city, there's a problem, particularly in the downtown,' said planner Kevin McNaney, who is in charge of the city's massive metro-core jobs study that has been examining what kinds of occupations and locations the city will need in the future. 'And it really has nowhere to go but up.'"

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Instant Cities

A city like Memphis, which was first incorporated in 1826, has gradually grown its skyline. Its first skyscraper, the Porter Building, was 10 stories high and was built in 1895. And with the prospect of new buildings such as One Beale, Memphis is still growing its skyline. But slowly.

But other, newer cities in the world — the Dubais, the Shenzhens — have come into being rather rapidly. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a fishing village. Now it has a population of eight million and, instead of radiating out from one central core downtown, Shenzhen is linear, with multiple city centers.

The NYT magazine, as part of its Architecture Issue, has a story about instant cities, those that have sprung up in a blink, spurring construction and leaving architects wondering how to incorporate a city's identity or context when the city is essentially a blank slate.

Or, perhaps, a slate of cranes and construction sites.

From the story: "The notion of finding 'authenticity' in a sprawling metropolitan area that is barely 30 years old also seems absurd. How do you breathe life into a project at such a scale? How do you instill the fine-grained texture of a healthy community into one that rose overnight?"

Projects in these cities sound like they could be a dream for architects — no limitations! — that could easily turn into a nightmare — no limitations!

But what they lack in context, these cities seem to make up for in density. (As always, I'm a sucker for an audio slide show and there is one about Shenzhen.)

On the flip side of the topic, Business Week also has a related story about the battle for the best skyline, saying that New York and London don't have the construction dollars — or space, presumably — to keep up with cities in Asia, Russia, and the Persian Gulf.

From BW: "Economically booming megacities — such as Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai — where extravagant skyscrapers are shooting up all over, mean that cities like New York are beginning to look old and outdated, despite attempts to modernize. In Europe, the eastern part is beginning to look more modern than the western part. Cities like Istanbul and Moscow are more dynamic than London, Paris or Milan."

So I guess we're back to that age-old question ... Does size matter?

And do we give points for personality?

You say ....

Is it weird that all the news stories about the tomato salmonella outbreak just make me hungry?

Luckily, especially for the locavores, the FDA says red Roma and red round tomatoes grown in Tennessee are NOT associated with the outbreak.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Transit talk

Well, I have to take slight exception to a piece in Grist today. The website reported that ridership on public trans is up, but that no one is talking about how to make the system better.

Public transit ridership in 2007 was at its highest level in 50 years and, so far, usage is up more than 3 percent from last year.

From the story: "The ceaseless climb of oil prices, the growing financial toll of congestion, and the looming cataclysm of global climate change have not yet shaken the men and women entrusted with the care of our infrastructure to act -- or moved politicians, the press, and the public to demand action. Why can we not bring ourselves to speak of the need for better transit?

This failure to speak, to act, represents a huge missed opportunity. Overall, the transportation sector, including cars, is responsible for roughly a third of the nation's energy use and carbon emissions. Department of Energy statistics show that, per passenger-mile, rail transit is substantially greener and less energy-hungry than an automobile -- and as transit use increases, systems grow ever more efficient."

But I think more people are talking about public transit, for the exact same reason that more people are using it. They are looking for options to higher gas prices. Of course, those people may not be the same ones who are in a position to actually improve the system ... but people are talking. Maybe it just hasn't reached critical mass yet.

So here's a question (with a nod to "Dump the Pump" day on the 19th): What would make local public transportation more attractive?

Friday, June 6, 2008

waiting on big brown

You know what's wrong with Internet shopping?

First of all, you can't touch what you want to buy. Speaking of senses (below), tactility is important. How do you know if something is soft and cuddly or crunchy, itchy, and horrible?
You can't tell. The models are paid to smile, or more often not smile, no matter what they have on, so no clues there.

A corollary of that, specifically for clothes and shoes, is that you can't try it on. It always looks cute in the picture, with the lighting and the angles and the air brushing (if they do it to people's faces, would they stop at an awkward hem?) and you cross your fingers that it will somehow look as cute on you. And that the shoes won't cut and blister your feet the second you step into them.

But, most importantly, it totally ruins the whole instant gratification thing. Especially if you ordered your items seven days ago and have been anxiously tracking said items for the last three days — because really, how long does it take to ship something?!? My Netflix comes in 1.5 days — only to "see" them show up in Memphis yesterday and get all excited.

And then today to "see" that UPS tried to deliver, but a signature is required and no one was home, so they snatched them back. Gah.

Yes, I know that I, A) am very impatient and, B) should have sent them to the office.

smog and smells

Reuters reports that the people of Mexico City are losing their sense of smell because of the area's chronic air pollution.

Researchers added a rotten-cabbage-smelling contaminant to powered milk, allowing them to see how much they needed to add before test subjects rejected it. (I'm wondering if the subjects actually drank the contaminated milk or just smelled it.)

Then they compared the results from Mexico City residents with those from citizens of a nearby town.

The scientists theorized that taste could also be affected since the two senses are so closely linked.

And of course, there are all the other things associated with pollution: asthma, lung infections, cancer, etc. Another study has found that children in Mexico City have unusually small lungs.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Hole in One

In recent weeks, regular shoppers at the Memphis Farmers Market have found the market's parking lot blocked off and full of police cars.

"Some people are angry about it," says Sharon Leicham, farmers market board chair. "They're used to parking in that lot; it's one of the amenities of the market."

But the parking lot should be back to normal soon. An 8-foot-wide, 18-foot-deep sinkhole — and the associated repairs — have closed the nearby Central Station parking lot for more than a month but it is expected to be repaired early this month.

In late April, a rain culvert underneath Central Station began collapsing. MATA owns the building and the city of Memphis is spearheading the repairs.

In addition to several downtown residents, Central Station is home to the Memphis Police Department's South Main precinct. Police spokesperson Monique Martin says the sinkhole has not affected the precinct's crime-fighting ability.

"We have had to adapt to a different parking lot as repairs are underway," she says. "The adaptation is like a leak under the kitchen sink when you have to take all the cleaning products from the cabinet and move them somewhere else, so the plumber can have room to fix the problem."

With police vehicles parked in a lot off Front Street near G.E. Patterson, visitors to the Memphis Farmers Market has been diverted to a nearby grassy lot.

“During the market, we always have a volunteer on the street,” Leicham says. “The police do allow vehicles with handicap stickers [to park in the paved lot.]”

Central Station is also a stop for Amtrak’s City of New Orleans line. But the train tracks at the station have been removed for the repairs.

Marc Magliari, a Chicago-based spokesperson for Amtrak, says the repairs should be completed early this month.

Until then, Amtrak will continue bypassing Memphis proper. Local passengers are driven 10 miles to and from the train by bus.

“Once they replace the underground culvert and fill that back in, the railroad owner can put the track back into place, and we’ll resume service to Memphis,” Magliari says. “Direct service to Memphis, that is.”

I've got a call into the city, but haven't heard any additional information from them yet.

The photos (look how tiny the people are in comparison to the hole/culvert) are courtesy of the police department.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

(more) State of the Suburb

The Economist has a story about the status of the suburbs and how they've become more like the center city.

For instance, suburbs nationwide have gotten more diverse: The suburban Asian population grew 16 percent between 2000 and 2006, the suburban black population grew by 24 percent during the same period, and the suburban Hispanic population grew by 60 percent.

They also have more economic opportunities than they once did — "With some 60,000 jobs and 20,000 houses, Valencia [California] boasts a better ratio of employment to homes than the city of Los Angeles. And still its businesses grow."

But suburbs also have rising crime rates, their residents often have tiresome commutes, and a multitude of foreclosures are threatening the budgets of their governmental bodies.

From the Economist:

"James Kunstler, an American urbanist, says [suburbs] represent 'the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known'. Richard Florida, an influential writer, sees them as incidental, at best, to cities' highest purpose, which is to concentrate young, creative folk who will come up with brilliant innovations. Now that America worries about global warming, the acres of bungalows and freeway exit ramps seem not just pointless but harmful.

Although much of this is nonsense, it cannot be denied that a little sheen has come off America's suburbs in the past year."

I'm not sure what is nonsense about freeways contributing to waste and pollution, but here's where I've gotten stuck. The story examines suburban shopping districts meant to evoke old town centers — perhaps like the Avenue at Carriage Crossing — and comes to this conclusion:

"The popularity of such confections suggests that Americans want to spend time in places that look like cities but feel like suburbs. They hint at a broader pattern: cities and suburbs are converging. This is not entirely good news."

I don't completely understand. Americans like places that look like a city but feel like a suburb? Is this code for safe? Well-kept? Homogeneous? All the things the article says the suburbs aren't anymore?

Paid Protection, part two

It looks like Harold Collins' residency proposal for Memphis police officers is moving forward.

In executive committee today, the proposed resolution to allow police officers to live outside Memphis — but charge them $1,200 for the privilege of doing so — passed in a close 7-6 vote, meaning it will go before the full council at its June 17th meeting.

In what he called a compromise — for more, click here — Collins suggested charging officers who live outside the city the average property tax bill. But several veteran council members said they would not support any measure that allowed officers to live outside the city limits.

"The purpose of people living in the city goes beyond whether or not they pay property taxes," said Barbara Swearengen Ware. "I don't want you to work for the city and have the Mississippi attitude that you go home at night ... and don't have to worry about folk in Memphis except for the eight hours you're at work."

Ware, Janis Fullilove, Wanda Halbert, Edmund Ford Jr., Joe Brown, and Myron Lowery voted against the proposal.

Public safety committee chair Reid Hedgepeth has asked council members for ways to increase the number of police officers in Memphis for several months now.

"We've had 2,000 officers for three or four years. We've reduced the college requirement and we're still hovering around 2,000," he said. "Are we worried about people coming up here and protecting our citizens? ... They're willing to come up here and risk their lives and we're going to tell them we don't want them?"

Collins, Hedgepeth, Shea Flinn, Bill Boyd, Bill Morrison, Jim Strickland, and Scott McCormick voted for the proposal.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Old Growth

I went on a nice hike Saturday morning through the old-growth forest with the folks of Citizens to Preserve Overton Park.

They do hikes the second Saturday of each month and I would highly recommend going, especially if you feel a little out of your depth going on something called the "old forest trail" by yourself. I would also recommend wearing light-weight pants if you are anything like me (and by that I mean incredibly clumsy) and some sort of bug repellent.

Naomi Van Tol led our hike and was nice enough to point out poison ivy and stinging nettle, which I'm told feels like a wasp sting if it touches you.

Anyway, here are a few photos:

A grape vine. Who would have thought?

A tree that people like to take pictures of their children in. Naomi warned against this — something about wild raccoons or poisonous snakes — but I guess that depends on what outcome you're looking for when you tell your kid to stand inside. Either way, I'm sure it makes for unforgetable photos. (joking ...)

The area where the Zoo's Teton Trek will be:

And inside the fence at the Teton Trek: