Transit that is useful to people requires more than just lines on a map. Many of the changes needed to create more effective transit are shaped at the most local level: at the community boards, neighborhood community planning groups and local commissions that many cities established in the 1960s and 70s.
These bodies were created in reaction to top-down planning dislocations in the 1950s and 60s (think Robert Moses and urban interstates destroying city neighborhoods). Part of the idea was that residents have valuable local knowledge that was being overlooked by the era’s approach to planning.
Most community planning bodies are advisory. They have also recently developed a reputation as NIMBY institutions that primarily function as obstacles to change, from street design to zoning for greater density. Some advocacy groups are changing that, by developing programs that help prepare people who support sustainable transportation and pro-urban reforms to join these institutions. In other cases, individuals are taking this step themselves. These are two of their stories.
Southeastern San Diego Community Planning Group
Chelsea’s community includes some of the oldest neighborhoods in San Diego: Sherman Heights, Grant Hill and Logan Heights. It’s an ethnically diverse, lower-income district on the Orange Line trolley a half-dozen stops from downtown and just south of the famed Balboa Park. Its residential areas have experienced significant growth, especially in commercial corridors. “The community has a rich cultural history and wonderful architecture. The people are beautiful and have a vibrancy I was attracted to immediately,” Chelsea explained.
Several years ago, Chelsea planted roots in the neighborhood by purchasing her first home there. Shortly after moving in, she sought and won election to the city’s Southeastern San Diego Community Planning Group, one of fifty-two San Diego Planning Department neighborhood advisory bodies. Its focus at the time was updating the local Community Plan, which, while not legally binding, provides local guidance for growth in the neighborhood.
Given the community’s proximity to downtown and to San Diego’s trolley network, residents’ access to transit ought to be excellent. However, the Orange Line runs along Commercial Avenue, a low-density industrial zone home to activities like metal scrapping, recycling and auto-wrecking. Car crashes are common, and sidewalks poor or non-existent — not the type of environment that encourages people to walk to transit.
The neighborhood’s latest Community Plan update, a process that began in 2013, originally recommended leaving industrial zoning adjacent to the 32nd Street/Commercial Ave trolley station. Local industrial property owners, many on the local planning group, supported this status quo approach.
Chelsea and her neighbors had a different vision. “We have a trolley stop six stops from the heart of downtown and the neighborhood has all the ingredients for transit-friendly urban development. I thought, ‘Why aren’t we taking advantage of that?’” Chelsea imagined Commercial Avenue as a street where kids could safely walk to and from the trolley, filled with neighbors, small businesses, and homes. “My best-case scenario was being able to walk out the front door, stop at a corner store, pick up groceries, and hop on the trolley to meet a friend.”
Achieving this vision required amending the Community Plan with mixed-use commercial and residential zoning. The change would allow medium-scale retail, housing, office space, civic or cultural uses, entertainment, and stores next to the trolley stop. More generally, it would help attract greater investment.
Despite pushback from the property owners, Chelsea was able to convince the planning group this was the right move for the neighborhood. But that was only the first hurdle. With help from Circulate San Diego, a local transportation and land use reform organization, Chelsea spent months testifying at planning commission meetings and city council hearings in support of the amended plan. The process went on for two years, until the Planning Commission and the San Diego City Council finally approved the plan in 2015, complete with recommendations for a higher density 32nd Street and Commercial Avenue.
Though development has been slow to take hold, Chelsea’s persistence means residents of her southeastern San Diego community have a roadmap for a more livable neighborhood and walkable access to the Orange Line trolley.
DuPont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission
Kishan (@kishanputta) is a long-time bus and neighborhood activist, the kind of guy who knows his neighbors by name. No one was surprised when he ran for election to the DuPont Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), one of forty neighborhood advisory commissions in Washington, DC with authority to weigh in on local infrastructure, development and regulatory issues.
Kishan lives on 16th Street in Northwest Washington. 16th St. was originally intended as a gateway to downtown, and at mid-20th century hosted dedicated bus lanes. The lanes disappeared in the 1970s, but 16th Street NW remained a major transit corridor. The S1, S2, S4 and S9 lines, the busiest in the city, collectively carry 20,000 people along 16th on a typical weekday.
For years, 16th Street bus riders have complained about overcrowding, delays, and unreliability. Acknowledging the problem, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) and the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) studied the corridor in 2009 and developed recommendations to improve service. These included a new limited-stop route. Metro also hired supervisors to monitor traffic and help manage the flow of buses, and began using a limited number of larger buses.
These improvements still weren’t enough. Demand continually outstripped the number of seats available. Kishan could see the dysfunction firsthand from the view of his 16th and R Street apartment onto the bus stops below. Rush hour buses were packed beyond capacity, with four, five, or even six full buses often bypassing throngs of stranded commuters.
A rider himself, Kishan decided to run for the Dupont ANC. He couldn’t think of a better place to campaign for votes than the bus stops swarming with frustrated locals. When asked what improvements would make the neighborhood a better place to live, people naturally complained about poor local bus service. “They said, ‘You want to fix the neighborhood? Start by fixing the buses!’” he explained. “People were starting to give up on public transportation and finding other ways to get around like taxis and Uber. I saw this as a tragedy, something that would make traffic congestion on 16th Street even worse.”
It turns out campaigning at bus stops on a platform of bus improvements is a winning electoral strategy; Kishan won handily in a three-person race. As commissioner, he teamed up with Coalition for Smarter Growth to plaster dozens of signs at bus stops inviting residents to attend meetings with Metro representatives. Kishan convinced adjacent ANCs to pass identical resolutions urging Metro to add more articulated buses to the S-Line routes and for DDOT to implement pedestrian safety enhancements at busy intersections. The resolutions also demanded what he felt was the ultimate solution to bus congestion: a rush hour dedicated transit lane.
Kishan spent months pushing Metro and DDOT to turn these plans into real-world improvements. He continued organizing riders to speak out, documented his fight on blogs and in the local press, and persuaded neighbors to apply social media pressure on Metro and the city. Kishan even dogged DC mayoral candidates at primary events, asking each their positions on the 16th Street bus lane. “Advocates should always take advantage of a mayoral or council race by putting transportation issues to the candidates and making them an issue in the campaign.”
Due in large part to Kishan’s persistence, riders began to see meaningful improvements. Months after Kishan began his crusade, Metro agreed to add extra buses for short loops on the busiest section of the route between Harvard Street and Downtown, easing crowding on the corridor’s southern portion. Starting in 2014, Metro began to add more 60-foot buses and street-level service managers.
Finally, early in 2016, after Kishan left his ANC, DDOT announced it would begin implementation of a 16th Street rush hour bus lane. The plan also calls for an off-board payment system and an all-door entry system on the S-Line buses to reduce time at stops. Metro and DDOT will work together to consolidate bus stops and expand rush-hour parking restrictions. And though it is still at least 18 months away, the lane will be DC’s first in decades.
Did Kishan’s neighbors ever give up hope? “People didn’t think winning improvements was possible, but we kept up the pressure on the city and finally, after several years, won improvements. People got more and more hope that we could get bigger changes accomplished too,” said Kishan. And though Kishan found city and agency staff who were ultimately willing to experiment with solutions, it was his community organizing that gave voice to thousands of frustrated riders and made the city aware of the problem.
As Kishan and Chelsea’s stories illustrate, serving on a neighborhood board is often hard and thankless work. It entails contending with skeptical neighbors and implacable business owners, and requires sustained endurance, almost always without pay. However, real change often requires such local involvement and advocacy. If you want to make a difference in your community, consider joining your local planning body!
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