Best and Worst of 2012

by Mariia Zimmerman


This past year I traveled to a number of communities and was inspired by the great work that is happening in places large and small to create thriving, healthy and economically strong places. I saw a number of transportation and urban planning inspirations, but also a few examples where folks had missed the mark or have significant work on improving in 2013.

Here are 4 categories (Political Action, Social Equity, Transportation Choice and Placemaking) where I saw  notable highs and lows over the past year. (There was no scientific process for selecting ... only that for me, they were memorable.) My apologies to any stand-outs that I may have missed.

1. POLITICAL ACTION

BEST: Creating Detroit Regional Transit Authority. It's been a long, winding and pot-hole filled road but the Michigan Legislature finally approved creation of a regional transit authority for the Detroit area. The regional transit authority will help coordinate the operation of buses for the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART, the bus system that serves the suburbs. It also clears the path, hopefully, for funding the M-1 light rail line to serve as a catalyst for redevelopment along Woodward Corridor.

WORST: Congressional Support for Livable Communities. Despite strong and continued demand for federal funding to support livability projects in communities through DOT's TIGER, Bus Livability, Transportation Enhancements, and New Starts programs; HUD's Sustainable Communities Initiative; and EPA's Brownfields and Building Blocks programs, Congress has not only shown its inability to work across Committee jurisdictions to support integrated, common-sense and cost savings measures but has failed to fund many of these programs in the appropriations process. Congressional leadership failed to pass a 6 year authorization bill and instead passed MAP-21, a two-year bill that under-funds bike and pedestrian investments and almost discontinued funding transit from the trust fund.

2. REGIONAL EQUITY

Corridors of Opportunity Policy Board members who this summer approved a second round of grants through the Community Engagement Team to identify, develop and support targeted strategies that engage underrepresented communities in planning, decision-making and implementation processes on and around transit-oriented corridors. This effort is being lead by Nexus, the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability and the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing - members of the Policy Board.

Corridors of Opportunity Policy Board members who this summer approved a second round of grants through the Community Engagement Team to identify, develop and support targeted strategies that engage underrepresented communities in planning, decision-making and implementation processes on and around transit-oriented corridors. This effort is being lead by Nexus, the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability and the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing - members of the Policy Board.

BEST: Twin Cities Community Engagement Team. For the past two years, the  Corridors of Opportunity Initiative has come together to foster a new era of collaboration, partnership and cross sector engagement on regional growth and investments. Central to this effort was the creation and funding of community based groups to work with minority and low-income residents in urban and suburban neighborhoods to engage in regional discussions about where and how to invest in transportation and development. A significant multi-year effort is underway to focus on ensuring low-income residents, small and minority-owned businesses along emerging transit corridors can continue to remain and thrive during and after construction.

WORST: Atlanta Regional Transportation Referendum. On July 31, 2012, residents across the 10-county Atlanta region had the opportunity to vote on a $8.5 billion funding referendum to support transportation improvements through a regional one percent sales tax. The measure won approval in Atlanta but failed to win support from  the surrounding suburban communities. I am sure this won't be the last we'll hear from the region, where combined housing and transportation costs comprise 63% of income, but for low-income households stuck in traffic and without reliable transit alternatives to reach suburban jobs it is a painful loss.

3. TRANSPORTATION CHOICE

Nice Ride in the Twin Cities, MN is one of several new and colorful bike sharing programs to launch this year. This location is near the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, a terrific bike trail that has spurred new housing and commercial development along a former rail line.

Nice Ride in the Twin Cities, MN is one of several new and colorful bike sharing programs to launch this year. This location is near the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis, a terrific bike trail that has spurred new housing and commercial development along a former rail line.

BEST: Bike Sharing. It felt like 2012 was the year of bike sharing. Several cities across the country launched new initiatives, and the DC region expanded its successful program into new neighborhoods including my own in Arlington, VA. For commuters and tourists, their colorful presence is a welcome indication that cities are once again being designed for people.

WORST: Demise of Transportation Enhancements. As mentioned, MAP-21 eliminated the widely popular transportation enhancements program and instead create a new Transportation Alternatives Program that merges together a number of related programs. On its surface, that may not be a bad thing but the TAP program appears to be more funding drip than stream. We should all watch closely in 2013 to see how the program is implemented by state DOTs and MPOs.

Westlake Station in downtown Seattle serves both the light rail line and bus lines creating a vibrant, and colorful transit hub.

Westlake Station in downtown Seattle serves both the light rail line and bus lines creating a vibrant, and colorful transit hub.

4. TRANSIT PLACE MAKING

BEST: There are many terrific projects that I visited this year which could win this title from emerging transit neighborhoods in LA, to re-dvelopment along former low-income, industrial Chicago neighborhoods, to Meridian's Union Station neighborhood but I was most wowed by the incredible artwork that makes Seattle's Sound Transit stops feel like colorful destinations reinforcing the unique identity of each neighborhood it passes through. It's rare to see this kind of full-on embrace of the arts, especially now that MAP-21 has discontinued funding for the Arts in Transit Program. I hope other communities will nonetheless remember the importance of this type of placemaking, which can often be funded by the private sector or philanthropy to make a transit stop a welcome mat that invites riders to a neighborhood and creates a sense of place.

WORST: My 10-year old son pointed this incredibly sad bus stop out to me a few weeks ago on our way back from running errands in Falls Church. Unfortunately, this stop could be anywhere in the United States since almost every community has at least one bus stop that is no more than a post with a sign. At least someone was thoughtful enough to tie a bag to the post for trash? Sigh. 

A sad bus stop along Leesburg Pike (Route 7) in Falls Church, VA. Not the only one of its kind in America unfortunately.

A sad bus stop along Leesburg Pike (Route 7) in Falls Church, VA. Not the only one of its kind in America unfortunately.