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Archive for the ‘The next city: mobility’ Category

Where do I walk?

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Why do I have to walk in the aisles with the cars?

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Why are there so few trees?

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What was here before?

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I can’t find my car.

Crowded parking lot

Why did this place flood?

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Seems like a long walk to the store.

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Do you think it’s safe at night?

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Doesn’t anyone park here anymore?

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Somebody’s in my space.

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Seems expensive.

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It looks empty – I think I can park here.

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My car won’t start.

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He doesn’t look handicapped.

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Why is she going so fast?

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“On the wall at the rear of the lot was a sign which read: MUNICIPAL EMPLOYEES AND MUNICIPAL BUSINESS ONLY PLEASE RESPECT THIS PARKING LOT.

Only in Nevada would someone ask you to respect a parking lot, Peter thought. In New York the sign would read UNATHORIZED VEHICLES WILL BE STOLEN AND THEIR OWNERS EATEN.”
― Stephen King, 

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Recently I have found myself considering an unusual and interesting housing type, one which must exist in other places but has a special character and presence here in Rochester. Here is an example:

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This is a double house, or duplex house. It looks like a large single-family home, but it is actually two units. We find them throughout our own city neighborhood, and they exist in many other places in our city as well.  Here are a few more:

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In addition, here in Rochester we have these:

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This is a special kind of row housing. Not townhouses – not as dense – and also often configured to appear as larger single-family houses. Almost never more than four to six in a single row, and almost always found in neighborhoods that are principally detached single family houses. The larger rows too have something of the appearance of a substantial single-family residence, but then have a host of secondary features – porches, dormers, gables, bays – to identify each unit. And most of them are on corners, allowing different addresses, entries on two streets, and enhancing the reading of the buildings as houses rather than apartments.

I have spent some time looking around in other cities, trying to find a similar expression; early 20th century origins; duplex or double houses or slightly larger rows; mostly wooden, though some limited use of brick or stone; massing and detailing akin to single family types. It is this last – the strong resemblance and architectural relationship between single family homes (often on the next-door lot) and these double houses that make them so unmistakably Rochesterian.

So what, I have found myself wondering, is going on here? Or what was going on here? I believe that these wonderful buildings – like all buildings, for better or worse – are telling us stories about our city, what life was like here before us, what we thought we were doing, who we thought we were. The stories that are an essential ingredient of these buildings are an essential ingredient of our city, and in the end, an essential ingredient in understanding our present, and our future. Onward.

Between 1910 and 1930, the population of our city doubled. None of these buildings appear in the plat maps of 1900, but by the mapping of 1935, they are all here. At least in our neighborhood, and in nearby neighborhoods. In that same time period automobility was emerging but had not yet taken control of our urban life, as it soon would.

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Our neighborhood, 1910.

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Our neighborhood in 1935.

No, in 1930, many of us still rode the streetcars as our principal means of transport. And in our neighborhood, the double and row houses I have featured are all within a block or two of the streetcar line, which ran east and west on Park Avenue. I have found some instances elsewhere in the city where these structures are less close to the streetcar lines, but very rarely more than ¼ mile. A short walk, even in a snowstorm.

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Rochester streetcars, in the late 1920s.

Maybe this kind of building arose because of a rapid increase in population, with solid but not abundant salaries for skilled workers in a variety of trades and professions, creating a market for a place to live that was similar to the already plentiful single-family homes throughout the city, but was a bit more affordable. Maybe neighbors wanted new construction to accommodate smaller living units but still feel right in single-family communities. Maybe one of the city’s developers hit on this new building type, built a few, sold them like hotcakes, and a movement began. And perhaps it was a combination of all these factors that gave birth to the uniquely Rochester duplex and row house.

I am now struggling to discover whether occupants were owners or renters. In those times, I think fee-simple ownership is most likely, but I have yet to verify this. If they were rentals, the rent would have been in the range of $20 to $25 or so a month, perhaps slightly less earlier, and slightly more later. If they were purchased, I think they would have cost somewhere in the $4,000 to $5,000 range per unit.

We live in a swarm of city stories. These stories are wheeling everywhere around us. Understanding them, translating and decoding them, always unlocks the rich narratives that are ours, and shows us what to do next.

Let’s see. I need a small, affordable house. I have a parking lot. Hmmm.

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We are all now well schooled in the notion that Portland, Oregon is the model of current 21st century urbanism in America.

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Portland, at sunrise.

It is a city known for its excellent transportation infrastructure, its many walkable neighborhoods, its tree lined streets, great parks, lovely historic resources, and the liberal and open culture that attracts young and older alike. And of course, Powell’s books.

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Portland is a benchmark by which to measure the state and progress of your city, or certainly mine. But a recent visit left us with some disquieting observations about Portland, and questions about that city that naturally lead to broader musings about contemporary city-making in general. Let me explain.

Portland, like almost all cities on every continent, is powerfully dominated by automobiles. Traffic, and not just on the busy freeways, is everywhere, and is pervasive.

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Sure, peds and bikers are everywhere too, but automobile mobility dominates, and is threatening on all the city’s streets, major or minor. The city is not home to prototypical complete streets. As we transit types say, mode bias heavily favors fast-moving cars.

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And as we see and experience wherever we walk or ride, the velocity of automobility is on the rise (pedestrian deaths are at their highest point in thirty years in the US). Admittedly recent incidents in which your author(s) have been struck by cars and trucks may be coloring our perceptions, but statistics show that speeds are up and most drivers have not improved in their abilities to allow for walkers as they turn left or right on city streets.

So while Portland may be the paradigm for city making in America, that city suffers from all of the same afflictions that plague all of our cities.

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And to be very clear, epidemiologically speaking, this plague is rooted in the virus called CAR. Auto dominated streets, with speeding cars and cringing everybody else, can be found throughout the city. While there are certainly many walkable and wonderful locations in Portland, and while it truly does stand as an urban model for the rest of us, it too suffers from car-itis.

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And of course, what is compounding Portland’s traffic problem is its popularity. The city’s population became a rocket starting in 1990, and is only now, in 2019, starting to slow. Since then, the city has gone from about 450,000 to what is now about 650,000. Not so surprisingly, when we asked our Portland family members what they thought might be their city’s biggest challenge, the reply from all (after some acknowledged a significant homeless problem) was TRAFFIC.

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We have since discovered that Portlanders are reflecting on at least two options: spending about $450,000,000 on highway expansion, or instituting congestion pricing. The wiser among the city’s citizens suggest that they should try the congestion pricing, with the confidence that they can always move on to a mammoth expansion in their highway system. Some American cities – like Louisville for instance – did the really, really expensive highway expansion first, then increased their highway tolls only to see highway traffic decline by over 50%. A billion dollars perhaps not so well spent.

An interesting time for our cities. As automated vehicles continue their slow march into our futures, with all of the very unclear implications that ride along with them, we all struggle to find some way to reclaim our streets. We definitely are not there yet.

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I have just finished reading Dan Albert’s wonderful history of the car, entitled “Are We There Yet: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless.” I recommend that you spend some time with this excellent work of social, technological and cultural history.

Are we there yet

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As I read, I was struck by two significant facts. First: car makers make no profit building cars and haven’t for decades – car makers make their profits from financing the acquisition of cars. If Ford and GM – and all the rest – had to rely on selling what they make alone, the automobile industry would long ago have vanished in a cloud of smoke (fumes).

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And second, we are at a pivotal moment in our national automobility as we move from owning cars – this is not happening at breakneck speed, but it is happening – to renting space and time with cars. Examples of this potentially critical shift in our national life can be witnessed in the rise of Uber and Lyft, and in the ongoing and now increasingly substantial investment in the R and D of driverless cars.

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We face a sea-change ahead, but there is a hitch. Developing driverless cars is fairly easy – much of the technology has been around for quite a while. But developing driverless cars that are truly safe is not easy, and Albert warns that we cannot leave this work to the current automobile industry. They have a lengthy and quite wicked history of ignoring the safety of their products: the examples are legion, and really quite appalling.

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Whoops.

To Albert’s credit, he does posit the right way to proceed with the development of driverless cars. And he leaves us with a substantial sense of skepticism about whether his plan will be implemented. Read the book to find out more – it is worth your time and effort.

I might add here that the ecological implications of continuing to point all of our resources at the manufacture of mobility, whatever its format, have to be carefully and thoroughly considered. The unintended consequences of our passion for the seeming freedom and license of cars has wrought a global catastrophe that we may or may not untangle. Driverless cars need to be weighed as a part of this unfolding dilemma.

As I was saying, all of this got me to thinking. For more than a century the automobile has been critical in defining the shape and form of our cities. Before cars, and also essential, streetcars shaped our cities. As I have said on these pages earlier, most American cities still retain vivid and clear evidence of streetcar urbanism – our Rochester certainly does. But the impact of cars on urban form has been far more powerful, and inescapable. In the 20th century, and now into the 21st, we have sacrificed almost everything about our urban environment, and our urban life, to cars. We have destroyed the older walkable and connected fabric of our metropolitan geography to loop roads and beltways, parking, expressways cutting across our neighborhoods, parking, a scattering of daily destinations in our lives whether work or school or leisure. We have sprawled across our landscapes in transformational fashion, and we are all still looking for a place to park.

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Downtown in our town – a place to park.

Some of us have investigated the damage here, and it’s staggering, as in many other cities. Way over half of the land in our downtown is given to parking. But wait….

Suddenly, we don’t own cars anymore. If we want to go somewhere beyond our feet, or our bikes, we push a button and a driverless pod pulls up, whisks us to our destination, and later whisks us home again. And then the driverless pod goes away, on to its next call. Shocking perhaps, but maybe the pod picks up a few neighbors headed in the same direction. Now what – conversation?

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Driverless pods?

No driveways. No garages. No on-street parking. No parking garages downtown, or surface lots. No parking lots at the mall. In fact, perhaps no mall. No strip centers – no strips of parking and stores.

Here it is – the public realm before we begin.

the public realm before

Here it is after we have worked on it for while:

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Now we can reimagine our entire public realm: all of the old constraints are altered.

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Major streets in Rochester, 1929.

Let’s assume for the moment that a driverless pod is 6.5 feet wide (length unimportant at the moment). And let’s assume that these pods can maneuver with laser-like precision. So I propose a lane width of 7.5 feet. With a lane in either direction, that means we need 15 feet of paving. Yikes!

My mostly quiet residential street, currently with one-sided parking, is about 30 feet wide. A nearby street with two driving lanes and two parking lanes (between these two we have covered most of the city) amounts to 40 feet. Think of it: that 40 foot wide street can now become just 15 feet wide.

And all of our garages can become “accessory dwelling units.”

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I am reeling at the possibilities. I may have to go lie down. But instead, I will stop here to catch my breath and listen to your thoughts before I go on reinventing the city….

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We’ve just enjoyed a screening of Stephen Low’s wonderful documentary entitled “The Trolley” here in our city. The theater was packed, and while Mr. Low’s film compellingly advocates in favor of streetcars, in fact defines them as critical to our urban future, I heard no voices expressing doubt about his point of view. Bring on the streetcars!

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But wait just a minute. Even among our town’s knowledgeable urbanites, overnight skepticism has emerged. Some of our progressive and thoughtful urbanist colleagues here have said that buses seem to be a much more economically realistic choice – streetcars are just too expensive.

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Others have pointed out that ridership for the newest streetcars in the US, such as in Cincinnati or Detroit, has fallen very far below projections – they are expensive, and they don’t carry enough passengers. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a better system, some claim: buses running long distances to key destinations with reduced numbers of stops to shorten travel time.

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The BRT in LA.

Others recognize our region’s unrelenting loyalty to the automobile and suggest that only a major calamity would induce our neighbors to use public transit – bus, BRT or otherwise.  (This particular observation seems entirely accurate).

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Yes, Rochester, NY.

And some have said that the dozen or so new US streetcar systems are nothing more than toy trains, having no real or practical impact on mobility in the cities where they have been constructed. Critics say they are busy on weekends and filled with tourists, but as weekday commuter options they are zeroes.

Okay then. Let’s step back and think about all this for a moment. Let’s note at the outset that 12 of the modern streetcar systems in the US carried a total of 20,000,000 people last year. And that 1/3 of those systems are linked to modern light rail systems that combined carry over 100,000,000 passengers annually. All of this seems to suggest that the streetcars, and especially when they are a part of a transit NETWORK, do in fact have a practical impact on urban mobility. The network part is important. We’ll come back to that.

trimetsystemBuses and trains and light rail – a network – in Portland.

It turns out that, as in most aspects of contemporary life, the truth is more equivocal and ambiguous than the claims of detractors. Or advocates.

Some of the new systems have been very badly managed from the outset and are suffering as a result. Some of the systems had their maps and routing fall victim to local political breezes, and as a result don’t go where they should, or need, to go. Some of the systems have had equipment failure (a streetcar needs to be able to run in cold weather….) that is only now seeing resolution. Some systems have had to fight an indifferent public who happily park their cars on the tracks, or crash with startling frequency into the streetcars. The reasons for the weakness of the poorly performing systems are various, complex, and almost never have to do with the streetcar as a tool, but rather who is control of the transit toolbox.

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Parenthetically, I note that even the weakest new streetcar systems have provided very substantial economic development returns in terms of new construction and added taxes, but I will leave that for a later conversation.

I do observe that some of the new systems are on the verge of further expansion, because the performance of these systems suggests that more streetcar is called for. In these cities, streetcars have proven themselves to be valuable, and while the automobile has not been banished in Portland or Kansas City or Seattle, the streetcar is increasingly providing an attractive and sustainable alternative.

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What certainly is true is that streetcar systems seem to work best when they are designed and operated as a part of a larger network of transit. Portland’s system, often cited as a US model for streetcar use, also includes a heavily used (40,000,000 per year) light rail system, MAX, and an excellent bus system as well. The North American model that best describes a successful transit network is in Toronto, where the subway, buses and streetcars carry about 500,000,000 every year.

Networks are also important in Seattle (population 725,0000), or Salt Lake City (population 200,000), or Kansas City (population 488,000), where streetcar use is doing well. Cities need transit of various kinds to best promote and assure non-automobile mobility. This should always be the most important measure of success: get cars off the road and get residents onto transit, in any form.

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MAX light rail and Streetcar in Portland, image by Steve Barry.

Because in the end, automobiles are our deadly companions. We now know that our unbridled attachment to our cars, which is increasing here and rapidly across the globe, has profound consequences, and is now and will continue to impose penalties we are only beginning to be able to assess. We need streetcars, and a whole range of known and as yet unknown transit modes to help us create a useable urban future.

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Every year most cities in the US will spend tens of millions of dollars improving highways. In our city the total runs to about $100,000,000 per year. We could buy a lot of trains for that amount, and save a lot of lives in the bargain.

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Tomorrow evening here in Rochester, our city’s very active and helpful transportation advocacy group, Reconnect Rochester, will screen Canadian Stephen Low’s brief  (46 minutes) documentary entitled “The Trolley.” We had the good fortune to see this film in an IMAX theater in Ottawa last year, and Low tells a powerful tale of trolleys as essential forces in shaping our cities, and once more critically necessary as a small step in taming cars and saving the world.

We transportation geeks have never shied away from hyperbole….

The screening of Low’s film will be accompanied by a panel discussion, and I am most flattered to be a member of that panel. So I have been snooping around my favorite world-wide transit sites to bone up on facts and figures, and much to my surprise, I found these:

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Columbus, Ohio (!).

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Not so surprisingly, New York.

But really?

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Chautauqua Lake? Wow. They SHOULD have them in Buffalo.

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At Lake Merritt, in Oakland.

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Connecting Minneapolis with Lake Minnetonka.

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And Pittsburgh. I guess I am not the only one inclined to hyperbole: I think Columbus has them beat for Largest in the World.

Now we are familiar with double-decker trams. We have ridden what I suspect is the most famous double-decker, in Hong Kong.

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Owned and operated by a private entity, yes it’s true, in China, this system carries something like 70,000,000 a year to its nearly 120 station stops. Each car can carry 115 people (it would be mighty uncomfortable if packed, believe me),  and the tram runs on 1.5 minute headways – the time between cars. The fare is under 50 cents, and the system is making money.

Maybe there is hope yet! We have our own North American models to pursue, and the lessons of Hong Kong to guide us. Onward, transiteers!

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Here in our city, we live on a street that is a prime conduit for zooming rush-hour traffic attempting to avoid congestion. The phenomenon is called rat running, and we have some pretty fast rats.

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We yell at the drivers, we write letters to the City, we try to organize our neighbors, but the street racing drags on (pun intended). We have even thought of sitting at the end of the driveway with Amy’s hairdryer, ala a very funny clip we saw not too long ago, hoping to put the fear of radar into our adversaries.

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As we sip our morning coffee, it is not uncommon to observe cut-through commandos with gas pedals mashed to the floor, roaring by us in a Muybridge-like blur (Muybridge was an early photo master in depicting motion). For us to try and combat this nonsense with what is euphemistically called traffic calming, we would need 70 percent of our neighbors to agree with us. This in a city where the kar is king – tough math, and especially with a handful of absentee landlords. So no speed bumps or speed tables for us. And our suggestion – to allow parking on both sides of our narrow (24’ wide curb to curb – I measured) residential street at all times instead of alternate evenings – will surely never fly in our city of convenience. Who knows – maybe even the Fire Chief (Fire Chiefs design most of our cities these days. We wouldn’t want to have to redesign their equipment, would we?) would get cranky….

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And it’s not just our street, in our neighborhood, where this is a problem. Residential streets and neighborhoods are bad, and even main drags are bad as we rush from work to home, from home to work. Every year hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists collide with these speeding dinosaurs, and often this causes injury, (and sometimes mortal wounds), to the less armored. I know whereof I speak – I got nailed not long ago by a giant pickup truck.

To make matters worse, our block is nearly 1,000 feet long. Many here are much longer – much more than a quarter mile (dragstrip). There is plenty of time to get up a full head of steam – we think 60 mph or more is often the case. As I was reflecting on this unpleasant conundrum I consulted our City Code. I was wondering what it said about street widths and parking arrangements for a street such as ours. And what did I discover? That the Code (Chapter 128, Article IV, section 128-7, Paragraph 9 – I am sure my nomenclature is wrong, but you can find it if you look) specifies “In general, block lengths shall not exceed 1,200 feet or be less than 500 feet.” WHAT??!?

As if speeding weren’t bad enough! All over the city we have these unendingly long blocks. Long blocks make for all kinds of problems in creating a lively, permeable, fine-grained urban fabric – there is quite a literature on this subject. The biggest urban blocks that get diagrammed frequently are in Salt Lake City – 600 feet square. We got ‘em beat.

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I have written here before about the problems with our city’s grid of streets, and our blocks without alleys. Even without hurtling cars, this poses all kinds of problems throughout our city. Add the speed demons and it’s good reason to stay on the sidewalk, or the front porch. Or the backyard.

Rat running and our city grid: a one-two combo of punches. We did get the city to post yellow “SLOW DOWN” strips signs on a few light posts, but that has had exactly no impact on the speeding. And hoping for fewer cars on city streets any time soon is truly a fantasy. Perhaps autonomous cars will make a difference….

In the meanwhile, speaking of backyards, one of our neighbors is cooking up what may be a terrific new approach.

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