urbanter

Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Auf Wiedersehen, Wien

My bags are not packed, I have not cleaned the flat, and I still have to try Sachertorte (the famous traditional Viennese cake). Nevertheless, in less than 48 hours I will say goodbye to Vienna.

Far from “winding down,” the past week has been one of the most exciting as we presented our research at our final public think tank and I continued to finalize the writing for the reports. Also exciting has been looking ahead to potential future opportunities to continue the project (submit the project to the World Bike Forum in Colombia in February? Drop out of Stanford and become a bike share equality consultant? ;) )

As fast as these two months have gone, I’m realizing just how much I’ve learned and been able to experience in that time, from designing, implementing, and writing up my first real-world research project, to hitchhiking across Austria.

But before I get too nostalgic, here is a highlight reel from my last week:

Final Think Tank Presentation

I’ve stopped thinking that quantity is quality, because the small audience at last Monday’s think tank generated a ton of great discussion. I presented the findings from the paper I’ve been working on, detailing the barriers that exist within bike share programs to low-income and other disadvantaged groups using them. Our case studies were Nice Ride in Minnesota, Capital Bikeshare in D.C., and Citibike in NYC, looked at in comparison with what we’ve found out here in Vienna.

Bike share- a mobility game-changer? foto

Our think tank at Paradocks. Bike share: a mobility game-changer?

Untitled

Recap: a lot of bike share programs face criticism, justifiably, for their lack of inclusion of low-income and minority communities

Barriers fall roughly into five categories: financial barriers (e.g. cost, the need for a bank account), geographic barriers (e.g. placement of stations, lack of cycling infrastructure), cultural barriers (e.g. social stigma surrounding cycling within certain communities), barriers of representation (e.g. bike share advertising only showing the typical young, white, male user), and usability barriers (e.g. lack of minority language options, need for internet access).

Presenting on the access barriers for low-income and minority communities benefiting from bike share

Presenting on the access barriers for low-income and minority communities benefiting from bike share

For me one of the most interesting parts of the discussion that followed was talking about how one would politically approach improving the bike share system here. In many ways, reducing access barriers within Citybike Vienna for low-income and immigrant communities is in keeping with the city’s tradition of social policies. As the bike share program here continues to develop, there are excellent opportunities for making the system more accessible for these disadvantaged communities, as a by-product also making it more accessible for other non-traditional riders, and give Vienna another source of civic pride. It’s a win all around.

Other fun things

A photo highlight of some last Vienna sights:

P1070526

The low-key imperial summer residence, Schönbrunn Palace

P1070489

Friendly zebras at the world’s oldest zoo on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace

P1070513

Auspicious weather signs

P1070531

Another low-key building

Summer rainstorm!

Summer rain!

I am very fortunate to have been able to spend these past two months working with amazing people in this unique city. A last thanks to the Urban Studies department, my fellow fellows of the Urban Studies Fellowship, and Smarter Than Car for making this possible, as well as to readers for sharing this experience with us. Chau, though just for now.

It’s Over?

This was my final week at Working Partnerships, and it was hectic.

I spent most of Monday and Tuesday preparing for our community hearing on earned sick leave. I created a set of materials for the hearing – an infographic version of the report we were releasing, graphics to share on Facebook and Twitter, and large signs with the key findings to put up on the walls. (This last product had an extra challenge – the first versions came back from the printer with some strange colors, and we had to get them reprinted ASAP). I also worked on a web version of the infographic, which should be online soon.

Wednesday brought the hearing itself. I was in charge of making all the technology run smoothly, which kept me on my toes. First, Powerpoint on the computer we were using kept crashing, so I had to convert our presentation into a PDF. Then we discovered that one of our key speakers – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has introduced legislation to guarantee all California workers at least 3 paid sick days each year – was stuck in Sacramento due to last minute negotiations over a water bill. That meant we had to Skype in two speakers (Assemblywoman Gonzalez and a researcher in DC who wrote the report)… and on a weak wifi connection.

My heart rate definitely jumped a couple times, but the hearing actually went surprisingly smoothly. We learned about the extent of the problem from policy experts, heard gut-wrenching stories from workers (one got fired after getting cancer and missing too much work, and now lives out of her car), and discussed efforts like Assemblymember Gonzalez’s AB 1522 and our Silicon Valley Living Wage (which will provide paid sick days among other job quality standards).

And that was just Wednesday morning. As soon as the hearing ended, I needed to write our follow-up email. This recapped the hearing for those who couldn’t make it, and asked them to help expand access to earned sick days by supporting our living wage proposal.

Thursday and Friday only heightened the pace. I needed to finish up all my projects, especially completing an expanded version of the living wage site I’ve been building. This meant a lot of mode switching – jumping from writing about who the living wage will cover, to designing an additional section on the homepage, to figuring out how to use AJAX to send emails via PHP then submit an invisible form via jquery (don’t worry, it’s as confusing as that sentence). It took some ten-hour days, but the site is now live!

It was a packed week, but I really enjoyed it. The adrenaline of racing the clock kept me going, and though it sometimes came down to the wire, projects got done. Most importantly, I was doing really meaningful work – driving public policy that improves people’s health and livelihoods.

I’m writing this from the terminal at LAX, where I’m about to fly to Australia for a couple weeks of sleep, sun, and swimming. It’s hard to believe that I’ve finished at Working Partnerships, especially since I keep thinking of ways to improve some of the hacked-together code I’ve written in the last couple of days. Working Partnerships has been one of the best internships I’ve held. I’ve had responsibility for important projects, a great team to work with, and feedback and training that’s been incredibly valuable. While I’m ready for a break, I’m going to miss WPUSA, and spending all day fighting to improve public policy, support working families, and build stronger communities.

A Cube Takes Shape

Back from Durban, I have embarked on my final week (already!) with GRIND in Johannesburg. The focus of my week has been physical work on the community cube. The cube has been built and designed; it now needs to be activated. The past week has been spent working on community cube logos and themes, painting the cube, and populating the cube with features including artwork, designs, and the “Faces of Community” interview exhibit. I will close my time with a public presentation about the cube.

The Cube’s Theme

Working collaboratively with community members, I found the best community cube logo would be much like the GRIND Studio’s multi-colored logo, showcasing the structure as an energizing, welcoming space. Therefore, the logo uses GRIND colors and includes a multi-colored, bright design theme. I worked with and sought out support from local graphic designers, community members, and artists to finalize the logo. Special thanks go to my friend Andile, local resident Chesta Al Gawdly, and a professional graphic designer named Jared who works with IHEARTIDEAS. I also received logo feedback from GRIND Director Alice Cabaret.  Ultimately, I came up with the following logo and theme for the Cube:

The cube's logo and theme.

The cube’s logo and theme.

CommunityCubeLogoBox

The cube’s logo and theme.

Painting the Cube

Given the cube’s unique logo and theme, I went to work painting it with help from GRIND residents and community members. Each side of the cube is a different solid color, matching the logo colors. The cube’s top is blue, and three of the sides are yellow, green, and red, just like the logo. The cube’s fourth side is a chalkboard, which allows residents and community members to write thoughts and ideas.

GRIND residents and community members paint the cube collaboratively.

GRIND residents and community members paint the cube collaboratively.

The cube’s bright colors activate the exterior and bring to life the theme.

The cube’s bright colors activate the exterior and bring to life the theme.

Activating the Cube

Now that the cube has been painted, I am working to activate the cube. The first step is the exterior “Faces of Community exhibit”: strings and burlap fabric serve as the background to feature colorful interview testimonials from community members. The burlap background is designed to be permanent while interview testimonials rotate frequently. It is important to note that all cube materials have been purchased within the Maboneng and Jeppestown neighborhood by independently-run businesses. Future projects for the cube include a hand-drawn local map, art exhibition space, and a space for posting community events and job opportunities.

Community members work on activating the cube.

Community members work on activating the cube.

The cube includes burlap material used as a background for interview testimonials and artwork.   All materials are sourced from the Jeppestown and Maboneng neighborhoods.

The cube includes burlap material used as a background for interview testimonials and artwork. All materials are sourced from the Jeppestown and Maboneng neighborhoods.

Presenting the Cube:

As I end my time with GRIND, I will use this Thursday evening as a time for a public activation and presentation about the cube. From 7:00 – 8:30 pm at the GRIND studio, I will present the cube and my iterative design process. The event is open to the public and I am hoping to attract a diverse audience to the event. The cube itself will not be at the GRIND studio but illuminated on the sidewalk below: the cube is meant to be on “street-level” in a sufficiently public space. More information about the event can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/857885194224741/.

If you find yourself in the Johannesburg area, please attend!

 

One last reflective blog piece about my experiences will follow next week.

 

Money madness & furniture “shopping”

Like basically any project anywhere, public space improvements depend on well-structured budgets.  Without the money to activate a space, any plan, no matter how savvy, will flounder.  After the fun of pop-up workshops, photo roundups, and user analyses is over, it’s time to hunker over a desk for some serious number crunching. 

Which is what I’ve been up to for the past few days.  With just one week left at Project for Public Spaces—unbelievable!—I’ve been busy compiling cost estimates for my main projects, namely the Stanford Public Spaces and Balboa Park in San Diego.  That way, I can send off the final recommendations before I depart in a weeks’ time!

The trial-and-error task of cost estimating takes patience, good communication skills, and a creative dose of exterior (as opposed to interior) design.  Or, as I’ve come to think of it, a willingness to play “dress-up” to some of the country’s most iconic public spaces, which is actually quite fun.   

An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.

An excerpt of the cost estimates for Herrin Lawn.

But first, a word about funding.  PPS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose funding comes from a variety of sources including private donations, grants and, recently, a first-ever corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines.  However, the majority of projects are directly commissioned by municipalities or private entities such as Harvard University’s Common Spaces Project who set an upper budget limit for the public space activation.  They also cover the cost of PPS’s site visits, workshops, and other incidentals.  As expected, this can either afford flexibility or parsimony in just how “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” our recommendations become. 

The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.

The Power of 10 bubble diagram I made for Herrin Lawn at Stanford demonstrates how successful spaces should have at least 10 different zones or activities to engage all visitors.

In the case of Herrin Lawn at Stanford, the initial activation plan is benchmarked at $20,000—which isn’t a whole lot considering the size of the space and the vast potential for improvement.  Before costs even came into play, however, I spent the past few weeks breaking the space into a Power of 10 diagram, which denotes major zones of energy/activity.  This will serve as a conceptual plan to guide the rest of the activation.  I also identified issues and opportunities for the site and then devised overall recommendations accordingly.  PPS has a massive database of benchmark images from great public spaces around the world which are used as inspiration for current projects.  It’s always entertaining to take a virtual trip to the streets of Paris or Perth. 

Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.

Benchmark images for improvements at Herrin Lawn include scenes from the Paris Plage and Bryant Park.

When selecting amenities, cost is an obvious factor, as are basic principles of color and style.  However, the job is much more intricate than simply admiring pretty pictures of furniture and contacting manufacturers’ representatives. 

Will these chairs bring a space to life?  Do these colors create synchronous harmony or do they distract from the historic buildings which frame them?  Are these tables designed for the comfort of people or the pursuit of image?

These are some of the many questions I’ve asked myself from my desk in New York while my mind is focused somewhere under the California sun.  Put together, it’s these little considerations that attract or deter people.  And a great public space should always attract, which means that no detail should be spared in a conscientious plan.  The hard part, then, lies in humanizing the cells of a spreadsheet or the accompanying numbers and envisioning a place of beauty, functionality and spirit.

Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.

Picking out a color scheme for the Fermob chairs which will appear in Balboa Park.

Of course, staying in budget is always beneficial, but sometimes an amenity (say, the colorful mini ottomans pictured below) are just too eccentrically cool to resist.  And that’s how the future of public space evolves!   

Don't you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!

Don’t you just want to hop around on these colorful seats all day?!

 Check back next week for my final reflections on my summer in New York City!    

A plaza grows in Brooklyn

The best way to observe a public space is to simply sit in it.  That’s what William “Holly” Whyte, the famed urban sociologist and analyst, did in New York City’s plazas back in the 1970s with a slew of research assistants.  They took time lapse films, countless photos, and interviewed passerby in an attempt to decipher user trends and preferences.  These days spent in parks and plazas informed Whyte’s many books, including The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (a key fixture in most modern-day Urban Studies curriculums), and inspired a movement towards public space revitalization.  It was Fred Kent, one of Whyte’s research assistants, that would go on to found Project for Public Spaces in 1975—and so here we are today.

While there are now “smart” parking meters that calculate fare based on peak-time demand and e-mail survey blasts to keep track of the changing cityscape, modern plaza analysis methods remain remarkably straightforward, old-fashioned even.  The so-called technology needed to observe a plaza include a camera, a clipboard, and a cheerful attitude with which to survey plaza users. 

The classic plaza audit, which I used.

The classic plaza audit, which I used.

This week, armed with these tools, I followed in the legacy begun by Whyte to analyze some plazas on my own.  The NYC Department of Transportation has commissioned 27 new plazas in the past year in an effort to create a more livable city, and PPS was brought on to evaluate the effectiveness of these additions.  My destination was Marcy Plaza, a bustling street-corner in Brooklyn smack between Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights.  The neighborhood is historically African-American, but social and economic demographics are changing here as in much the rest of the city. 

A rendering of Marcy Plaza in Brooklyn.

A rendering of Marcy Plaza in Brooklyn.

My task was to stay in the plaza for two blocks of two hours each, taking a behavior mapping audit every 15 minutes and interviewing as many people as I could.  The surveys proved more difficult than expected, mostly because of language barriers and because of the plaza’s transience due to its street-corner location.  Unlike a quiet neighborhood park, Marcy Plaza lacked a critical mass of “regulars” who shoot the breeze on protected benches all day, away from the street and its rushing traffic.  

Marcy Plaza, as seen from Fulton Street.

Marcy Plaza, as seen from Fulton Street.

Western view of Marcy Plaza.

Western view of Marcy Plaza.

Except, that is, for one extraordinary older gentleman.  I came across him early in the morning while he sipped coffee and calmly watched the plaza.  He seemed so natural there, it was as if he did this every day—which, as I found out, he did.  Our interview was full of skepticism at first—I could tell he didn’t quite trust me, and I did stick out like a sore thumb—but he slowly opened up about not only his well-informed opinions of the plaza but also his 50 years of experiences as “a Brooklyn man!” (his own proud declaration) after emigrating from Barbados. 

The man's favorite part of the plaza is this mosaic, which was a recent DOT addition.

The man’s favorite part of the plaza is this mosaic, which was a recent DOT addition.

The man wouldn’t tell me his name and declined to have his picture taken, but he was a most helpful companion through my whole analysis block, calling people over for interviews and explaining plaza dynamics to me.  As the day progressed, I started to feel the plaza’s pulse palpably, in the faces scuttling around and the well-worn benches.  It was so clear to me: no technology could record the energy, the peaks and lulls of that plaza better than my own eyes and pen.  Despite the specificity of the audits and the tedium they incurred, ultimately they painted an honest and accurate picture of life at Marcy Plaza (and yielded some valuable recommendations for how it could be improved).

From these steps, I  had a great vantage point of the whole plaza.

From these steps, I had a great vantage point of the whole plaza.

During a break between sessions, I walked about half an hour to Prospect Park, where I explored the beautiful Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (free on Tuesdays, no less!).  When I returned to the plaza for the afternoon session, there was my friend, ready to help out again.  Now that’s Placemaking in action: taking ownership of one’s favorite places to make them better for everyone. 

Exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens was such a treat.

Exploring the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens was such a treat.

The Japanese Zen Garden at the BBG.

The Japanese Zen Garden at the BBG.

At the end of the day, I shook my friend’s hand, thanked him for all his help, and was rewarded with a formal introduction—as well as his endearing offer to bring me some tomatoes from his garden if I ever came back.  And if I ever do return to Marcy Plaza, I’m sure he’ll be there in his favorite public space, sipping his coffee, under the shade of a new umbrella that he himself recommended.  

Language barriers and language bridges

On Tuesday, I put my intermediate German to use, supplemented by a little Spanish and English when I got desperate, in order to ask a classroom full of 18-21 year-olds their feelings about transportation. My research supervisor, Flo, and I visited Interface, an institute that helps newly arrived immigrants integrate through German language classes and other educational services. We’d met Darijo Parenta, the head of the school’s Youth Education department, at the Afghani youth football tournament the week before, and he graciously agreed to let us come do a workshop/interview with one of his classes.

The room was full of high school and college aged kids from everywhere from Cameroon to El Salvador to Montenegro. Our hour there included some initial awkward silences, thoughtful comments, supportive laughter when I had to ask the class the German word for “marker,” and a renewed appreciation on my part for the human ability to start learning all these words that sound like gibberish, and then end up knowing a whole new language. Our goal was to find out how the students got around, what their preferred means of transportation is, and what they know and think about bike share.

Findings? Vienna’s public transit is really good- a lot of people said they actually enjoy using it. How many people in a typical U.S. city would say the same? While bike share still has relevance in that context, it is less of an urgent need and more of something that can augment people’s mobility, if they knew about it. That leads to our other major finding: most people, although they were aware that Citybike Vienna existed, didn’t know how it worked and so had never tried it. Although this isn’t proven, my theory is that another barrier for immigrants and low-income people using bike share is a knowledge barrier of being less likely to find out about it. Intuitively it makes sense: if the vast majority of bike share users are not low-income or immigrants, then low-income and immigrant communities are less likely to hear about Citybike from their friends and family. And some user surveys suggest that the way most people start using bike share is through a friend who explains it to them or even helps them register. This also makes sense: bike share isn’t automatic to understand. There’s how you get the bike out, what the rules are, the time limits- there’s a lot to explain. So outreach and promotion is important so that communities who are unlikely to learn about bike share through a friend can still be aware of it and potentially benefit from it.

Workshop with Interface students:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A neat photo series in the hallway featuring some of the institute’s students:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I am Afghani, but not macho”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I’m from Romania but I don’t want a lot of kids”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I’m a foreigner but I’m not a criminal”

Get well, San Jose!

At one in three San Jose jobs, workers cannot take paid time off if they get sick. Instead, they face a dilemma – struggle through work while sick and possibly contagious, or stay home and lose much-needed pay.

The United States is the only highly developed nation that does not ensure workers can take paid time off to rest and recover if they get sick. That has serious consequences for families, public health, and our economy:

  • Without paid sick days, tight finances force parents to send ill children to school or leave them home alone. Earned sick leave enables parents to look after their kids, preventing illnesses from spreading in schools and day care centers.
  • Sick days avoid the problem of “presentee-ism” – when ill employees feel they have to show up to avoid losing pay or getting fired, but are far from being able to work at their peak performance. Presentee-ism increases the time workers take to recover, distracts other employees, and increases the risk of workplace injuries. It also spreads illness, since contagious employees are interacting with their colleagues. That all reduces productivity and hurts profits.
  • Earned sick leave allows workers to visit their doctor and get well, rather than putting off treatment or relying on after-hours emergency rooms. Sick days also help family members care for elderly or disabled relatives, minimizing the need for nursing homes or formal care. A lack of sick days instead increases the use of expensive medical services, costing money that could be used to grow our economy.

Nationwide, nearly 40% of the private sector workforce – close to 40 million people – are unable to take paid time off if they get sick. This costs us $1.1 billion each year in emergency room visits, and over $160 billion in lost productivity. Yet despite these huge costs, Congress has failed to act. Senator Tom Harkin has repeatedly introduced the Healthy Families Act, which would have ensured workers would accrue up to seven paid sick days each year. Each time, lobbying from the National Restaurant Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (a shadowy corporate policy group) lead to the Act’s defeat.

At Working Partnerships, we’re done waiting on Congressional inaction. Next Wednesday, we’re holding a community hearing with Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez. Assemblymember Gonzalez has introduced AB 1522, which would guarantee California workers at least 3 earned sick days each year. We’ll be discussing the bill, and releasing a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that documents how widespread the lack of paid sick days is in San Jose.

To prepare for this event, I’ve been developing materials to visualize the extent of the problem. Since the IWPR report is quite dense, I put together an infographic laying out some of the key findings. I also created individual graphics to share on social media, and am working on a webpage that lets you explore the data. Since we haven’t released the report, I can’t post these materials yet, but check back next week. And if you happen to be in San Jose on Wednesday, come to the hearing! Here are the details:

Join Working Partnerships for a community hearing on earned sick leave

DURBANISM

This past week, I travelled with GRIND staff to Durban, South Africa to help launch key elements of the Rivertown Neighborhood revitalization project. Durban is South Africa’s third largest city (after Johannesburg and Cape Town) and boasts long, pristine beaches and a high-density central business district (CBD). Situated just blocks from the beach and right next to the CBD, Rivertown currently houses mostly vacant low-density industrial buildings but possesses immense potential. The area includes short, interesting street blocks and wide sidewalks: an urban flaneur’s dream. GRIND is helping work on three principal projects in the area: (1) an artisan produce market at 8 Morrison Street called “The Morning Trade”; (2) a canal Daylighting project, which also creates a pedestrian street and green space; and (3) the revitalization of an abandoned former beer hall into a new music and community center selling craft beers. In addition to these major projects, GRIND is also commissioning and supporting public art and public space interventions in the neighborhood.

The Morning Trade under construction before the Sunday market grand opening

The Morning Trade under construction before the Sunday market grand opening

The Morning Trade under construction before the Sunday market grand opening

The Morning Trade under construction before the Sunday market grand opening

The Morning Trade under construction before the Sunday market grand opening.

The Morning Trade under construction before the Sunday market grand opening.

Personally, my work in Durban consisted of making the #GRINDLine, a fluorescent green line connecting different elements of Rivertown. The Morning Trade’s grand opening was Sunday, August 3, and the bulk of my work occurred just before the opening. I enjoyed seeing the construction and final work for the district’s various projects before the opening as I walked slowly on foot creating the line.

The #GRINDLine in its initial stages.

The #GRINDLine in its initial stages.

Visitors to Rivertown using the #GRINDLine.

Visitors to Rivertown using the #GRINDLine.

The #GRINDLine takes visitors and Durbanites to the market, canal zone, and beer hall, and also to murals like this one, commissioned by GRIND.

The #GRINDLine takes visitors and Durbanites to the market, canal zone, and beer hall, and also to murals like this one, commissioned by GRIND.

GRIND’s work extends beyond linking single buildings in the neighborhood and focuses on improving public spaces, like streets and sidewalks, in the neighborhood.  With the district’s close proximity to the beach and the city’s CBD, walkable and bitable streets, street art, and green space will make Rivertown a desirable place to be indeed.  GRIND also created a participatory urbanism exhibition, called Durbanism, at 8 Morrison Street for the market’s opening. The exhibition space includes interactive signs and panels giving local residents the opportunity to shape their community. We were all immensely impressed by the level of participation at the opening event, both with the exhibition and with people using the GRIND Line to walk from area to area.

Re-thinking street use and public space in Durban’s Rivertown neighborhood.

Re-thinking street use and public space in Durban’s Rivertown neighborhood.

Re-thinking street use and public space in Durban’s Rivertown neighborhood.

Re-thinking street use and public space in Durban’s Rivertown neighborhood.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

GRIND’s Durbanism exhibit includes participatory ways for locals to express desires for their neighborhood and region.

I am now back in Johannesburg and have resumed work on my Community Cube project, but very much enjoyed spending this last week in Durban. I was able to see another part of South Africa and learn about urban interventions in a new neighborhood. The first Sunday in Rivertown was a remarkable success; people from all around Durban and South Africa came to enjoy the new space. I was also able to enjoy a warmer climate and spend some time at the beach! Overall, I think the Rivertown revitalization efforts will be extremely successful and I cannot wait to see the changes these efforts bring to the community.

The market on opening day.  The neighborhood revitalization project’s opening day was an immense success!

The market on opening day. The neighborhood revitalization project’s opening day was an immense success!

The market on opening day.  The neighborhood revitalization project’s opening day was an immense success!

The market on opening day. The neighborhood revitalization project’s opening day was an immense success!

Transit & Choices

This week, let’s talk transit.

I’m from Southern California, the land of the car, so for me Bay Area public transportation was a step up. Caltrain, BART, Muni, VTA’s light-rail system, and Stanford’s Marguerite are far from perfect, but they do make it possible to get around without a car. That’s more than I can say about San Diego, where it can take hours to cross the city by bus.

But really, saying the Bay Area’s transit system is good because it beats SoCal is like claiming a Big Mac is healthy because it’s better than a deep fried Twinkie. San Francisco itself is doing well: 34% of residents commute via transit, placing it fourth in the nation behind New York, Jersey City, and Washington, DC.

Yet the rest of the Bay Area can’t say the same. Just 15% of residents in the San Francisco-Oakland-Freemont metropolitan area commute via transit, and that number is skewed by the inclusion of San Francisco. In the South Bay, only 3% of residents take transit – a tie with San Diego, and lower than LA’s 6%. That’s right, San Jose is actually doing worse than Los Angeles. Burn…

So why is transit ridership in the South Bay so low? Partly it’s because of geography – Silicon Valley and San Jose are sprawling regions without the density than makes transit work well. Partly it’s because of access – CalTrain is expensive (median rider income: $117,000) and like VTA light-rail only works well if your destination is near a stop. And partly it’s because highway development has undermined transit systems.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and all of these reasons come down to choices. NIMBYism among Peninsula residents has limited the construction of high-density housing near transit. CalTrain is expensive and VTA light-rail is slow because officials have prioritized highways over transit. The system is built for cars, and so most people drive.

At Working Partnerships, we’re trying to change that. The Valley Transit Authority is considering a Bus Rapid Transit project along the El Camino Real corridor, which could bring dedicated bus lanes that make trips much faster. It could also bring new buses with Wi-Fi, and modern waiting platform that provide status updates and ticket machines (which save time when boarding). This would be a significant improvement for current bus riders, and would encourage greater transit usage in the South Bay.

Once again, however, the success of this project depends on choices. Without strong community support, the project could get weakened in ways that undermine its efficacy. That’s why WPUSA is building a base of project supporters, starting with people who will benefit the most – current bus riders. We’re organizing students, workers, seniors, and other bus riders to fight for BRT and other improvements to our transit system.

That’s why I spent Monday morning riding the bus. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere, I was there to talk with riders. Along with one of our community organizers, I was surveying bus riders, asking about their experiences riding the bus, and how they’d like to help make the system work better. I heard a lot of stories, ranging from saddening (a man who spends two hours each way getting to and from work) to encouraging (a woman who said she’d been riding the bus for decades, and demanded that I follow up with how she can get involved).

Interviewing a rider at a bus stop

I do most of my work behind a computer screen (or two), so this was an interesting break from routine. It was also a chance to get back to my Urban Studies roots: I’ve spent plenty of time discussing public transit, so it was great to play at least a small part in making a BRT system a reality. Most importantly, it’s great to know that we have an opportunity to significantly improve transit in the South Bay, and – I can’t believe I have to say this – maybe catch up to LA.

Talk to people.

This week I got to return to my favorite part of research: interacting with people. On Saturday Florian Lorenz, my research supervisor at Smarter Than Car, and I spent the entire day at a soccer tournament organized by the New Start Cultural Association (Afghanische Jugendliche in Österreich – Neuer Start). New Start is an Afghani cultural organization that promotes a peaceful atmosphere among different ethnicities from Afghanistan, and also supports young Afghani refugees in integrating and adapting to Austria. On Saturday this consisted of hundreds of young guys from Afghanistan, Austria, as well as refugees and immigrants from other countries, decking it out on the soccer field. My favorite parts of the soccer were watching guys somersault around the field in agony after getting fouled (read: barely bumped), and the heckling of the people on the sidelines, which was not in any language I knew but which peoples’ reactions indicated was hilarious.

P1070391

The beautiful game

P1070398

Kite-flying break

 

Two things I learned from the day:

  1. Sometimes you just have to be patient and things will happen. Florian and I spent a good many hours kind of hanging around, figuring out how to talk to people, sort of talking to people, and waiting for an opportunity to talk to people. Shokat Ali, the head of New Start, kindly let us make an announcement over the loudspeakers about our project, and asking if anyone who is interested in giving their opinion on transportation and bike share to join us in the canteen for a discussion. No one came- unsurprisingly, but we had to try! This was after we’d already been at the tournament for 6 hours, we were tired, and almost gave up and called it quits then. But just after that Florian started talking to some guys, we met the head of their organization, a really nice Croatian guy who organizes German classes for immigrants, and all of a sudden we had a bunch of guys clustered around Florian’s computer checking out our questionnaire, as well as focus group interviews lined up for the next week.
  2. The questionnaire we designed has a language barrier. Basically, despite our numerous revisions of the questionnaire before it went live, we hadn’t realized that we were still reading it from the perspective of people with a high competency in our respective languages, German and English. Someone who just came to Austria from Afghanistan doesn’t have that level of German- when some of the guys who filled it out struggled to understand a lot of the questions, with good reason, we realized that many of the questions were way too complicated and academic. It was good to be shown that that’s the case, so in the future we can remember not to take things like language level for granted if we actually want our research to be inclusive.
P1070401

Who wouldn’t be thrilled to take a break from watching soccer in order to talk about public transportation?

After two weeks spent in the library of the Vienna University of Technology writing the final reports for the project, the day was especially enjoyable, as well as informative and thought-provoking. From what I’ve learned so far with this project, it seems that immigrants, especially refugees and asylum-seekers, are the ones for whom Vienna’s bike share program, Citybike Vienna, is least accessible. Many people just haven’t heard about the system, or can’t afford to live in the more expensive city center where Citybike is densest, or don’t have the language skills to use the system or to call the service line if there’s a problem with the bikes, or don’t have the bank account needed to register, or all of those things. I would love to see the city putting more emphasis on services that are accessible to all residents. As of now, for example, the languages the Citybike system is offered in are German, English, French, and Italian. Languages of the largest immigrant groups in Vienna? Not included.

Some cool urban spaces I’ve encountered during my time here:

Public art by the bike path

Public art by the bike path

One of my favorite parts of Vienna- along the Danube Canal, a graffiti-permissible zone lined with pop-up cafes, public art, and people

One of my favorite parts of Vienna- along the Danube Canal, a graffiti-permissible zone lined with pop-up cafes, public art, and people

Community soccer pitch in the mountains near Innsbruck

Community soccer pitch in the mountains near Innsbruck

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.