April 26, 2024

T.O.D. DONE RIGHT

It’s the buzzword du jour in Hartford these days:  TOD, or Transit Oriented Development.  What it implies and how it’s implemented aren’t always the same.

The idea is to put new, denser housing near train and bus stations, encouraging folks to drive less by being able to walk from their homes to mass transit, taking them to and from their jobs.  An admirable enough goal in a state that’s failing to get its war on global warming underway.

But just plopping housing, affordable or luxury, near a train station doesn’t mean people will want to live there if the only amenity is a short walk to transportation.  So how is TOD done right?  Look no further than Darien Commons, the 9-acre complex across from the Noroton Heights train station, opened in 2022.

Darien Commons @ Noroton Hts RR Station


Developed by Federal Realty, a REIT with more than 100 properties totaling 26 million sq ft, the mixed use development shows the evolution of such projects.  When it began in 1962, Federal specialized in outdoor shopping centers with grocery stores as the main (anchor) tenants.  But starting around 2000 the company pivoted, adding housing above the retail stores, still in an outdoor, walkable environment.

“It was fundamental to our planning to place new developments near train stations,” says Patrick McMahon, Sr VP of Federal who oversaw the Darien project.  “But TOD is more than just building apartments,” he adds.  “It’s about designing a community”.

So Darien Commons has 122 apartments and 75,000 sq ft of retail space.  Federal had a specific strategy of mixing stores answering daily needs (food, banking, exercise) with upscale incidentals (pet store, restaurants, nail salons).  It’s like its own village:  everything you need is in the complex and your trip to and from your job starts right across the street.

Tenants-only patio & BBQs


That’s resulted in greatly reduced car ownership for the tenants:  just 140 cars for 122 apartments in a town with 17,000 registered cars for a population of 22,000 (32% under age 18).

Mind you, the apartments are not cheap.  According to Trulia, the few available one bedrooms start at $3500 per month and two bedrooms at $4600.  But under the town’s inclusionary zoning policy, 14 of the units are “affordable” ($1600 per month). 

But with work-from-home and reduced daily commuting, does TOD still make sense?  McMahon says yes.

“Most of our tenants are still catching the train two or three days a week,” he says, even though they’ve added “Zoom Rooms” (small conference rooms) to their mix of tenant amenities.  Those also include a private patio with BBQ grills, a party room, gym and a bookable hotel room for visiting guests.

Maybe there’s a lesson here for the housing zealots eyeing TOD as the solution for the state’s housing, especially along Shore Line East line where CDOT still seems opposed to restoring train service.

Will developers really want to invest in new housing near train stations if they don’t offer adequate rail service?  And without TOD, will demand for trains ever come back? 

April 19, 2024

YOU ARE THE TRAFFIC

Stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic the other day on I-95 I grumbled to myself “Where is all this traffic coming from?”   And then I remembered:

If you’re stuck in traffic, you are the traffic!  Guilty. 

But what’s being done to reduce all that traffic?

In New York City they’re about to embark on a daring test:  Congestion Pricing.  Barring any last minute legal moves by opponents, it will soon cost $15 to drive your car into Manhattan below 60th street.

Though this will be a first for the US, congestion pricing has been tried in other big cities going back fifty years.  Singapore has been doing it since the 1970’s and is still fine-tuning the system.  In London, where a congestion zone fee (now almost $19 per day) was instituted in 2003, traffic dropped by 18% in the first year but has since returned.

The idea of congestion pricing is to discourage driving while raising billions of dollars to support mass transit.  Just like highway tolls, those who pay (to drive) should also see some benefit (less traffic) and better mass transit alternatives.

But now NYC wants to add another twist:  lowered speed limits.  As part of that state’s budget package, smaller streets in the city would see speed limits reduced from 25 to 20 mph in the name of pedestrian safety.  So… maybe less traffic (thanks to the tolling) but maybe slower trip times?

And what is Connecticut doing to battle our traffic congestion and improve highway safety?  Not enough.

The CDOT has been marking Work Zone Safety Week with an awareness campaign reminding all who drive to slow down where work is being done roadside.  Even when sober, we drive too fast.  Since the introduction of just three experimental speed cameras in work zones last year, 20,000 drivers were issued warning tickets.


Lawmakers have apparently again killed a bill that would lower the legal blood alcohol limit from .08 to .05.  This was tried last year and also failed despite the fact that Connecticut ranks #4 in the US in fatal accidents.

Also reportedly killed was a bill which would have allowed municipalities to limit the sales of “nips”, those small airline-style booze bottles found littering our highways.  A nickel-a-nip bottle deposit returned $11 million to towns and cities, giving you a sense of the popularity of the booze-to-go bottles:  just quaff and toss.

Just quaff and toss


According to NHTSA traffic data, from 2017 to 2021 there were almost 2000 Connecticut drivers involved in fatal crashes and 40% of them were legally drunk.  And of those who were the drunkest of the drunk (with a blood alcohol limit over 0.15), Connecticut ranked #1 in the nation. Congratulations.

This failure by lawmakers to keep our highways safe by keeping drivers sober just sends the wrong message, starting with their own members.  You’ll remember State Rep Robin Comey who was “reeking of alcohol” after rolling her car in front of the Capitol last year.  Her BAC reading was 0.1446.

While being processed by police, Comey was informed of the consequences if she refused a blood test.  Police body cam footage shows her joking “That doesn’t make sense.  I guess we’ll have to change the laws.

April 12, 2024

TRANSPORTATION UPDATES

Lots of transportation related stories to catch up with, so here goes:

WATCH NEW JERSEY:     Commuters in the Garden State are in for some  expensive travel as NJ Transit just approved a 15% fare hike, its first in nine years.  The reason?  Reduced ridership, just as we have seen on Connecticut trains.  The NJ transit agency said they could either raise fares or cut service (both of which have already happened here in Connecticut).

The NJ Transit fare increase begins July 1st, just after New York City’s new congestion pricing scheme takes effect, so Jerseyites heading to Manhattan will pay more whether by car or train.

NEW HAVEN STATION:    Over 1.7 million Metro-North and Amtrak passengers use New Haven’s Union station each year.  And while the 100-year-old station has been restored, it still sits in a comparative wasteland of parking lots and empty land.  Now the city is launching a major redevelopment plan to gentrify the station with shops, cafes and high rise mixed-use buildings nearby… true TOD (Transit Oriented Development).  But be patient:  they have neither the funding, the zoning revisions or specific plans at hand.

New Haven's Union Station


COLLAPSING BRIDGES:           How disappointing to see Connecticut media regurgitating the same old stories about the sorry state of our bridges following the ship collision in Baltimore that destroyed the Key Bridge.  It wasn’t old age or rusting steel that took out the Baltimore harbor bridge:  it was a 985-foot container ship weighing over 100,000 tons traveling about 9 mph.  Given its momentum, it’s doubtful that any protective barriers (had they been built around the base of the bridge) could have halted the vessel.  Nor do ships of that size come anywhere close to Connecticut ports.  So yes, some of our bridges are in need of work.  But no, in our state “the ship will not hit the span”.

MICROTRANSIT:    At the same time they’re cutting rail service, CDOT is funding nine new Microtransit pilot programs:  on-demand, door-to-door shared ride services akin to an Uber.  Commuters will find such rides useful for solving the first / last mile problem getting to / from train stations, while seniors and those with disabilities will now be able to travel in their local communities at lower cost.  The $19.5 million trial will run for two years in Ansonia, Derby, Shelton, East Windsor, Enfield, Groton, New London, Stonington, Middletown, Madison, Milford, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Trumbull. 

Isn’t it interesting that the Governor can find money for populist projects like these but he refuses to adequately fund existing services like Shore Line East?

EATING CROW:     My thanks to the many of you who alerted me to an error in last week’s column “Too Old to Drive?”.  I was wrong when I said that Connecticut limited the duration of driver’s license renewals to two years after age 65, as in California.  Not so!  Older drivers can request two-year license renewals or go for the standard 6 to 8 year renewals.  And they don’t have to renew in person or pass vision or dementia checks.  So, I got my facts wrong, for which I apologize.

 

 


April 04, 2024

TOO OLD TO DRIVE?

How old is “too old to drive”?  None of us are getting any younger, but when is it time to hang up our keys for our sake and that of others?

“Age is a number, not your capabilities,” says Nora Duncan of the AARP.  There are lots of young people out there who are worse drivers than their elders, she says, so age alone isn’t an indication of how well you can drive.


“It’s the wild west out there right now, but I doubt those driving 100+ mph on our interstates are our older drivers,” she added.

Still, some states are adding new safety checks to make sure older drivers still have the mental acuity and physical ability required for driving.  Take California for example.

In that state where driving is a necessity and heavily policed, once you hit age 70 your license is only renewed in person every five years.  You have to take an online course, a vision exam and maybe even a road test.

If a cop, doctor or even a loved one reports that you might have dementia, their DMV will also test you for that. 

There’s nothing that stringent here in Connecticut, but the folks at the DMV can quiz you to see if you’re in mental and physical shape to be trusted behind the wheel, especially if someone has filed a (non-confidential) report.  

Fail any of those and you might get a restricted license limiting your driving.

“Senior drivers self-regulate,” says Tracy Noble of AAA.  “They know to avoid rush hours, high-speed highways and nighttime driving.” 



Some of them also know when it’s time to stop driving.  A friend tells this story: 

“My son-in-law’s grandmother decided to stop driving at 99!  And it was a personal incident that made her realize it.  She was in the Stop n Shop parking lot after shopping, and she couldn’t get her left leg back into the car.  She had to wait until someone parked next to her and that driver helped put her leg back in the car.  When she arrived home she told everyone her driving days were over!”

But what happens if your parents don’t know it’s time to stop driving?  What can you do to persuade them?

AARP offers a great online seminar, “We Need To Talk” that may help you in that difficult conversation.


AAA’s Noble says “Take a drive with them and see how they do.  Look for dents and dings in their car and ask them what happened.  Everyone plans for retirement but they should also plan for driving retirement.”

AAA has an easy-to-take self-assessment quiz for seniors to better understand their risks. Both groups also offer online and in-person safe driving courses that, once passed, will even earn you a discount on your car insurance.

If you can’t drive, you’re not stranded.  Many towns’ Senior Centers offer rides programs and there’s always taxies, Uber and our state’s bus and train system to keep you mobile.

 

DROWSY DRIVING

In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...