Montgomery’s Bus Boycott

January 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat in 1955 launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the Civil Rights Movement. Although the color barrier on buses eventually fell and black ridership returned, the state of Alabama had already boycotted and continues to boycott the funding of buses and other forms of mass transit.

The state legislature passed a constitutional amendment in 1952 that forbid the use of gasoline tax revenue on anything other “than for the construction, improvement, maintenance, and supervision of highways, bridges, and streets,” as stated in the updated version of the law.

As a result, Alabama joins three others — Arizona, Hawaii and Utah — in the small group of states that do not provide funding for mass transit. The Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority’s funding sources are subsequently limited to bus fares, federal grants and local ad valorem taxes according to its 2009 budget.

The consequences of this decision are certainly measurable. The Birmingham metro ranked 94th out of the 100 largest metros for job accessibility and transit coverage in a 2011 Brookings study. Rankings for the other Alabama metros are assumed to be just as disappointing but most reports only examine larger metropolitan regions.

The state’s dismissal of mass transit restricts its residents’ transportation choices and congests its economy.

Why It Matters

If you can’t reach jobs, you can’t reach a higher income level. The state’s poor transit and job accessibility definitely correlates with Alabama’s low economic mobility, defined as an individual’s ability to improve his or her economic status. Pretty much the entire country has higher levels of economic mobility, except for the traffic jam that is the Atlanta region.

If employees can’t reach jobs, employers have a limited base to hire from. Gov. Robert Bentley is hellbent on attracting out-of-state jobs to Alabama but has yet to free a penny of the gas tax to help residents commute to those new jobs. The young professionals that cities and states crave are ditching cars and hopping on buses to reach their jobs. Unfortunately, Alabama has stalled itself out in the car culture of the 20th Century.

Required car ownership drives up the cost of living. Even though Alabama’s metros and the state rank as affordable places to live, the state’s sprawled-out nature necessitates car ownership and the estimated $5,000+ annual price tag.

The state is packing on pounds behind the wheel. Communities built for vehicles miss out on the health benefits created by transit-oriented development. Concentrating residential and commercial uses within walking distance — considered to be 1/4 to 1/2 a mile — supports walking and thereby creates healthier lifestyles. Alabama is routinely named one of the unhealthiest states, so any ways to improve residents’ health should be sought after.

Road construction doesn’t cure congestion and has high upkeep costs. Widening roads and building new ones actually encourages more driving. At some point, transportation alternatives such as mass transit needs to be supported to stop the endless cycle of road building that the current gasoline tax law requires.

Those who ride the bus are left to wait at the bus stop. The initial funds set aside for mass transit would serve current riders the most. Local transit authorities could increase the frequency of buses to arrive at stops every 15 minutes (a transit standard), down from the current hour-long headways. According to a 2010 BJCTA survey (p. 20), 86% of its riders identify as black/African American. Pretending that the state’s fight against mass transit isn’t racial or anti-urban would be naive.

Alabama Gas Tax Revenues Diagram

What Should Be Done

The state gas tax is a common way for states to fund mass transit projects and operation, and it should be no different in Alabama. As the chart above shows (calculated from the migraine-inducing distribution law), cities and counties already receive 43.7% of the gasoline tax revenue but are barred from using it for mass transit. This infringement on local rule is one of many countless examples of Alabama’s immense state power.

All that would be needed is a constitutional amendment to allow local governments to spend their shares of the gasoline tax revenue on any type of transportation projects. This amendment would not increase the gas tax, reduce the Alabama Department of Transportation’s budget or require local governments to spend on mass transit. It would simply free counties and municipalities to spend their gas tax shares as they and their constituents see fit.

In Alabama The State Rules & Counties Drool (shorter version)

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

First published on Sweet Home Politics

Cities, not states, are all the rage. Whether it’s young people moving downtown, the predicted end to suburban living, or the importance of financially stable municipalities, cities have dominated headlines for the first time since we first started leaving them.

Even thought-to-be-rural Alabama is not immune. About half the state lives within the metropolitan spheres-of-influence of just the four largest cities – Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, and Mobile. More than 70% of the state lives within the state’s 11 total metropolitan areas. These metro areas grew in population by 1.4% between 2010 and 2012, on pace with the US national average and the average for all metro areas.

This growth –any growth or decline, for that matter – requires growth management. Local and state governments minimize the strains of growth and maximize its benefits by using growth management tools and policies such as zoning and land preservation.

How a state’s population and growth is distributed impacts the environment, transportation infrastructure, community health, local economies, and other important components.

So what’s Alabama doing for growth management? Well, nothing actually. Cities and metropolitan areas have their own comprehensive and regional plans that focus inwardly, but Alabama has no statewide growth management plan.

Many states lack a growth management plan, though.

The difference is that the state of Alabama has deliberately weakened the power of city and county governments and centralized power within the state legislature. You would think that a powerful state government would take the opportunity to implement a statewide growth management plan, but Alabama has not.

Alabama’s power structure combined with its lack of leadership limits its municipalities’ ability to grow and ability to determine how they grow. This gets us to home rule. Read more…

Land Banks As Green Infrastructure Facilitators

December 4, 2013 Leave a comment

The decline of “Rust Belt” cities followed the emergence of the post-industrial economy in the mid-20th Century in the United States. This region is loosely defined as the states that border the Great Lakes and adjacent states and had economies based in heavy manufacturing. As their economies declined, the communities experienced drastic losses in population. These population losses have led to large-scale foreclosure, abandonment, and vacancy, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for the cities. The communities within the Rust Belt also have a history of water pollution as a result of the same industrial sites that created countless jobs and local revenue streams.[1] This paper analyzes the opportunity for communities to utilize their vacant land surplus as a green infrastructure network through land banking policy and initiatives.

The availability of foreclosed properties and vacant land has given many cities a chance to reshape their development patterns through various acquisition means. Local land use decisions for this newly acquired property ties directly to a city’s stormwater management, even though cities have yet to make a clear link between the two. Demolishing buildings and returning them to natural uses or redeveloping previously vacant land affects water runoff. Cities with a strong land bank can use its function of land and property acquisition and disposition to supplement the construction of green infrastructure.

Recently, Rust Belt cities have experienced an influx of redevelopment particularly in their downtown areas. This resurgence has still not been enough to revive entire cities, though. Cities such as Detroit have enjoyed national attention for urban successes caused by the attraction of young people and interested businesses, but the city’s Greater Downtown area constitutes only 7.2 square miles of the city’s 143 total square miles.[2] As these cities experience a resurgence, they should take the opportunity to build a network of green infrastructure by approaching vacant land and stormwater management on the urban edges and in the urban core with a unified plan. Read more…

Biking Can Help Support Birmingham Transit

August 4, 2013 4 comments

Originally published on AL.com

“In Birmingham, there are no pedestrians, just people who can’t drive.” A University of Alabama transportation engineering professor shared this quip from a man at a local traffic meeting with his class.

Bikers in Birmingham are viewed as similar absurdities, if ever seen on roads in the first place.

I remember biking on my neighborhood streets when I was younger. But I could never bike to other neighborhoods to see my friends because the roads were designed for vehicles, not bikers or especially the young kids that the suburbs were intended to protect.

Birmingham's bike infrastructure via Google Maps

Birmingham’s bike network via Google Maps

It took until college for me to see how bikes could be used as personal transportation, but by then, I had my own car and did not see the need for a bike. It was still a novelty.

Now urban areas across the country have identified bikes as a fat-burning, congesting-decreasing, transit-supporting alternative to automobiles. And Birmingham – despite a need for all the benefits that bikes bring – has lagged tremendously behind. Even our natural southeastern rival Atlanta has a vast biking network.

Atlanta's bike network via Google Maps

Atlanta’s bike network via Google Maps

The endless calls for increased mass transit funding have blinded the city to other means of increasing connectivity. Even if Birmingham had the sufficient resources to fund a working transit system, the city still lacks the necessary commercial and residential density to make the investment worthwhile.

Bike infrastructure and culture can roll in as a placemaking tool that also serves as a stepping stone to mass transit.

“But Bikes Won’t Work Here Because ______”

  • It’s too hot? No. Austin, Texas, and Philadelphia boast dry and humid heat but both rank in the top-20 bike cities.
  • It’s too cold? Not even close. Minneapolis is one of the top-5 bike cities.
  • It’s too rainy? Nope. The stereotypically wet Portland is unanimously chosen as top bike city.
  • It’s too hilly? Wrong again. San Francisco‘s famous inclines still attract bikers.
  • It’s too flat? Nuh-uh. Albuquerque, N.M., and other southwestern cities sustain top bike cultures.
  • It’s too car-oriented? Incorrect. If Atlanta can start accepting bikes, then so can we.

As for safety, any time more pedestrians and bikers use an area, more incidents do occur. However these incidents occur at slower speeds – thereby reducing the rate of fatal crashes – because, as Tom Vanderbilt explains, drivers slow down around human activity. Requiring bikers to wear helmets is still an ongoing and complicated debate that doesn’t need addressing in Birmingham yet.

Placemaking

Biking enlivens a city in many different ways.

Simply creating the opportunity to bike to neighborhood grocery stores and markets supports fresh-food buying habits. Bikeable areas also reduce the need for excess parking spots, thereby eliminating unattractive surface lots that devalue surroundings. Locals benefit with human-centric areas, and businesses benefit financially by needing to provide fewer costly parking spaces.

As a city’s bike culture grows, bike lanes increase neighborhood values by acting as important links to the rest of the city. Local bike shops, such as the recently opened Redemptive Cycles, will also be supported, and bike events will provide willing patrons to local businesses.

Well-delineated bike lanes save bikers from their current purgatory of deciding between the pedestrian’s sidewalk and the driver’s road. As a city’s bike culture develops, drivers and pedestrians will adapt as humans always have to new interactions. The personal speed of drivers may slow, but the overall flow of humans (pedestrians, bikers, and drivers) will increase over time. And isn’t that the point?

Stepping Stone to Mass Transit

A bike lane in Amsterdam (Personal photo)

A painted bike lane in Amsterdam (Personal photo)

Birmingham has excess automobile infrastructure that could be transferred to mass transit, but until we get there, let’s convert it into bike infrastructure. The city’s needlessly wide one-way streets beg for bike-only lanes that could be turned into bus-rapid-transit lanes later on, and the Bessemer Super Highway project could certainly take a page from this playbook.

Bikers are typically mass transit users, too, meaning that once the city has a serviceable transit system, they will be its major supporters. Those who cannot afford a car and those who do not want to own a car alternate between bike and transit use depending on their daily needs.

Basic Action Steps for Now

The city and residents must identify residential areas that would likely or already use bicycles. Then, find routes that connect those areas with job centers, retail, and entertainment venues. The city or local advocates can install temporary bike lanes to test these routes. It would only take some cones, signs and a temporary paint job.

The long-term strategy should involve engaging with the University of Alabama at Birmingham and local businesses that should immediately understand the benefits of encouraging biking. Again, surface parking lots and decks are expensive, so reducing the need for spaces saves money for both. Businesses could incentivize employees to commute via bike by installing showers, which other employees could use for mid-day workouts as well.

Let’s not forget the need for mass transit funding, but for mass transit to work in Birmingham, the city must build a foundation of density and livability. A bike infrastructure and culture will help us get there.

Pretty soon, people may say, “In Birmingham, there are no pedestrians or bikers, just people who don’t need to drive.”

Who Are We, Birmingham?

Originally published on AL.com

“Birmingham, remember who you are.”

This charge from Mayor William Bell followed a recent violent crime spree that dampened the national recognition that the city had garnered over the past few weeks. The mayor intended to evoke a civic pride that would combat the violence.

But, who are we?

Birmingham became the “Magic City” during the Reconstruction Era. We forged the nation’s iron and steel but never slowed down enough to forge an identity. The city was then rocked by the Great Depression, and briefly resuscitated by the industrial demands of World War II.

The post-WWII era (1945-1970) in Birmingham was headlined by its role in the Civil Rights Movement, a role that has defined Birmingham nationally and has anchored perceptions internally.

While nearby Atlanta – then the same size in population as Birmingham – branded itself as “The City too Busy to Hate,” Birmingham seemingly always made time to hate. This ugly period in the city’s history bred distrust of local officials and fellow community members and further fueled the ongoing pattern of suburban flight.

But there is an inspiring inverse of Birmingham’s prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of remembering Birmingham as a 1960s battleground, we should celebrate and build on Birmingham as a birthplace of human equality. The city has already proved it can leverage its past with its present success by being named an “All America City” in June.

Now, how do we translate our past and our civic desires into a vision? Some say it will take political leadership, as the Birmingham News called for in its yearlong “Birmingham at a Crossroads” series in 2007. With local elections coming up soon, many may opt to wait for public officials to carve out a path forward.

I contend that a vision takes no more than local understanding, creativity, and support. It does not take a long-winded document, an inspiring speech, or a historic campaign. It takes a public that is willing to sit down, discuss their ideas and feelings together, and craft a vision that can be handed over to leaders to follow.

Birmingham’s Problems Are Not Unique

The issue with relying on political candidates for a vision is that they typically focus on Birmingham’s problems, which are shared with every other major urban city.

“Fighting crime, bringing economic development, supporting public transportation, improving public education” – anyone with a voice and a microphone can call for these in any city. I would hope that every Birmingham public official seeks them already.

The issue with concentrating on urban ills is that completely curing them is impossible. A city can never be too safe, too prosperous, too accessible, or too smart. A utopia is not a constructive vision.

The standard operating procedure for Birmingham voters is unhealthy skepticism, due in part to a history of corrupt and ineffective leaders. The standard quo of following political leaders has obviously not worked.

So, instead of reenacting the disappointment of watching overwhelmed public officials fall short, the city must set its own destiny.

Assets Should Define, Drive Birmingham

The vision of Birmingham cannot resemble a generic business plan, because then other cities with greater resources could carry it out themselves. It must draw from what Birmingham offers that no other city can claim.

I will begin the conversation with what I think Birmingham can capitalize on, spanning from its physical to cultural characteristics:

  • Products

Specifically, food. The city has a celebrated food culture from honest to high-end meals. Birmingham does not offer a great array of international dining, and it honestly cannot compete with other cities in that regard. But, the city should lockdown the authentic Southern cuisine scene.

Birmingham can also build off the state’s rural traditions by charging ahead with urban agriculture. The city already has the Jones Valley Teaching Farm and should look into similarly transforming vacant land into food-producing property that combats its food deserts.

  • People

Although other Southern cities such as Charlotte and Nashville can also tout Southern hospitality, Birmingham perhaps has a greater claim to do so.

The Birmingham metro donates its money to charities and time to civic organizations much more than the national average. The immense social capital created by the region’s religious institutions also contributes, though more attention should be paid to bridging social circles instead of strengthening existing bonds.

  • Places

Railroad Park, Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve and Red Mountain Park all lie within the Birmingham city limits. The city lacks a riverfront, so maximizing these natural resources is paramount and can differentiate the city from others. The city has already landed a $10 million federal grant for the construction of greenways that will connect some of the city’s parks and districts.

From Vision to Action

From a vision, a city can form supportive yet realistic goals. Effective strategies assure the accomplishment of these goals. Finally, tactics are the action steps that fall under strategies.

This type of framework provides a mindset for city employees and residents to work towards, instead of working against Birmingham’s myriad of problems. (I am certainly not advocating for city hall to ignore problems.)

By following a vision, the city could attribute each success to creating a greater Birmingham instead of creating a less-bad Birmingham. It also would provide a proactive guiding system for political decisions instead of a reactionary system of addressing problems and opportunities as they arise.

Figuring out who we are as a city will push Birmingham into the future while building on the past, rather than continuing to dwell on it. The end product will be a city with the confidence and coordination to market itself externally and motivate itself internally.

It’s a step-by-step approach, instead of a typically unsuccessful silver-bullet approach. One block at a time. One neighborhood at a time. One district at a time. The city will benefit each and every time.

How Birmingham should communicate I-20/59 feelings to ALDOT

Originally published on AL.com

The City of Birmingham has stayed quiet regarding the Alabama Department of Transportation’s I-20/59 bridge replacement project. Despite the importance of this project, a local government withholding comment from a generally unsupportive state government does make some sense. (The Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex hasn’t been afraid to speak out, though.)

So, instead of delivering its own opinion to ALDOT, Birmingham should deliver the opinion of its residents to ALDOT.

Part of the reason for the absence of a unified public response has been ALDOT’s handling of public engagement. The state engineers have held several public meetings, but only to explain and defend their plan. At no point has ALDOT given much thought to alternative suggestions, even though the organization agreed in 2010 that submerging the downtown interstate segment would work.

City hall should respond by gathering and consolidating its residents’ opinions of the I-20/59 project. Nothing too complex, but something simple enough that it could be done in a few weeks yet represent local sentiments.

There are three plausible scenarios with three separate visions:

  1. Business as Usual — replace the bridges as planned
  2. Downtown-Oriented“cut and cap” the interstate segment
  3. Compromisesubmerge the interstate segment and keep it uncapped

Mayor William Bell and the city council could pose these scenarios and visions to the public to ask for feedback in the form of surveys. These surveys could be turned in at public meetings and online.

These initial surveys should ask respondents to identify the pros and cons of each scenario. (For instance, the Business as Usual scenario may cost the least but it would not support downtown Birmingham’s aesthetic.) The city would then compile the most frequent pros and cons for each scenario, preferably three to five.

Lastly, the city would conduct another survey for residents to vote on their preferred scenario. This time, however, the publicly identified pros and cons would accompany the three choices.

The end product would be an unscientific yet fairly comprehensive synopsis of the city’s sentiments.

Equipped with this public engagement report, city officials would have a starting point for a dialogue with ALDOT. Only then can ALDOT and Birmingham find shared interests and achieve both of their goals.

But, for that to happen, city hall must step up to serve its role as the city’s representative.

Perpetual Promise? We’ll take it.

Originally published by LIV Birmingham

We’ve been thinking a lot lately of the seemingly overused, commonly misunderstood slogan, “City of Perpetual Promise” – a nickname given to Birmingham in 1937 by Harper’s Magazine. Today, the epithet still encapsulates so much of the city …

At the time the piece was written, the magazine’s editor, George Leighton, intended to recognize Birmingham’s infinite natural resources that would assumingly drive growth for decades. However, Birmingham’s population actually peaked in 1960 at 341,000 before its steady decline over decades following both the Civil Rights Movement and as Birmingham families followed the national trend of moving to suburban communities.

Certainly there was a time when that spirit of imminent potential seemed to have faded.

Yet now, that nickname – “City of Perpetual Promise” – can return as Birmingham’s motto as it wholly expresses the vibe that emanates from the city’s built environment, as well as its increasing development and active residents. Every community, every building, everything in between – it all possesses that recognized potential that’s putting the magic back in the Magic City.

And, really – it’s the perfect phrase to describe exactly how we feel. Birmingham is definitely on the verge… and it needs your help.

Paul Graham writes that cities send off unique messages. For example, he believes Boston’s strong academic community drives you to think “you should be smarter”, and New York’s message is simply that “you should be richer.”

Graham explains, “A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off.”

We’ll venture to say that Birmingham’s message is you should help. And while our own Birmingham metro area consistently ranks as one of the most charitable in the United States, this message goes beyond donating to a local charity. The Magic City streets are teeming with engaged residents who are pulling their sleeves up and pushing their hands into the infamous red clay Birmingham is built on.

You don’t have to look far to find the work of these residents – these Proud Placemakers –  investing time and money to address the community’s challenges. Here are just a few recent examples:

And there’s more motive behind our locals’ urge to lend support the Magic City:  they’re actively making place in their city and in their neighborhoods. Birmingham’s current population of around 200,000 is producing a LIVable urban environment, and they’re proud to call this place home.

Aaron Renn, an urban affairs analyst who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, has examined how residents in small cities such as Birmingham and Providence advocate for their cities.

Renn notes that such communities exhibit the “a producer, not a consumer” effect: “People aren’t just there to soak in what the city has to offer, but they are part of building the product in a very real and tangible way.”

Residents can become producers by opening up their own stores, cleaning up vacant lots, building relationship with neighbors, or simply frequenting and promoting local businesses. Every action in Birmingham produces a noticeable impact. The fear of only “drop in the bucket” just doesn’t exist here.

Birmingham’s “perpetual promise” provides the stimulus of “you should help” to its residents. It can be exhausting yet it’s also exhilarating, and it’s our favorite aspect of Birmingham.

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