"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, July 1, 2016

Should Fayette Street Go On A Diet?

The reviving river mill town of Conshohocken, Pa. is seeing the problems that come from a rapid influx of new residents.  Among these, traffic congestion brings by far the most complaints.  To speed up traffic flow, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is proposing a fundamental change in the layout of the Borough’s prime thoroughfare, Fayette Street.  Borough Council, however, wants to increase pedestrian safety.  PennDOT calls its proposal a “Road Diet,” and says putting Fayette Street on it will help to alleviate both concerns.  Is it possible to both speed up traffic flow and increase pedestrian safety?  Conshy residents should pay close attention to this one.

For those readers unfamiliar with Conshohocken, Pa., the following two paragraphs sum up the basics about the town and its backbone, Fayette Street.  Those of you familiar with the area may safely skip them.

Conshohocken, Pa., is a municipality (a “borough”) of approximately one square mile, virtually all of which sits on a hillside, terminating at a particularly scenic curve of the Schuylkill River.  Fayette Street proceeds down the hillside that is Conshohocken to the floodplain below, effectively bisecting the town (its name derives from the fact that it is a considerably straightened version of the route General Lafayette’s troops took in the retreat from Philadelphia that culminated at Valley Forge).  The street is the left bank’s only direct means to cross the river and access the intersection of two Interstate highways in the adjoining but much smaller Borough of West Conshohocken.  This intersection, completed in the 1980s, has transformed both the formerly downtrodden mill towns.  The floodplains of both are seeing condominiums, apartments and hotels replace the long-defunct mills, while the value of older homes up the hill continues to rise.  The two boroughs are connected by the Matsonford Bridge, which indicates the reason both Conshohockens came into existence in the first place.

The lowest section of Fayette Street has been transformed as part of the effort to accommodate the steadily increasing volume of traffic over the bridge.  It is the upper stretch—most of the street, actually—that is now the subject of discussion.  This stretch of Fayette Street is four lanes wide, plus a parking lane on each side.  There are stoplights, but only at a minority of the intersections.  Left turns onto Fayette from Borough streets thus require crossing two lanes of incoming traffic before turning and merging into one of the two lanes in the other direction (legally, only the near lane, but you know how traffic behaves).  During high traffic periods this can be an intimidating task.  Equally intimidating is the effort a pedestrian much exert to walk across four lanes of traffic in the absence of a traffic light.

Fayette Street carries Borough residents on their way to the Interstates across the river, but also carries traffic into and out of the Borough from the neighboring townships of Whitemarsh and Plymouth, some of which is headed to/from these highways.  It is thus, by definition, an “arterial road.”  Wikipedia defines this as “a high-capacity urban road,” and identifies its primary function as “to deliver traffic from collector roads to freeways or expressways and between urban centers at the highest level of service possible."  The engineering terminology derives from large urban centers, but in a municipality of only one square mile, the usual distinction between “collector roads” and urban streets is irrelevant.  Many of Conshohocken’s urban streets debouch directly onto Fayette Street.

To get traffic moving more quickly, PennDOT wants to put Fayette Street on a “Road Diet.”  It proposes to convert the current four-lane structure to three lanes, consisting of one through lane in each direction and a center two-way left-turn lane.  The parking lanes on each side would not be altered.

Just how can fewer lanes improve the flow of traffic?  The major reason is that by changing the four lanes to three you make the center lane a mutual left-turn lane, for both directions.  Such an arrangement can do wonders for that bugaboo of urban driving, getting stuck behind a car making a left turn.  Absent a designated left-turn lane, the left lane, so-called “fast” lane, is periodically blocked by cars stopped to make a turn and waiting for oncoming traffic to clear.  In even light traffic, those annoying delays can frustrate drivers, particularly those who wish to pass through the town as quickly as possible.  “Studies show that…” as the experts say, going on a road diet actually speeds up traffic flow.

But the June 2nd article in MoreThanTheCurve.Com about the proposal pointed out a potential conflict:  while PennDOT’s goal is “to create conditions to move vehicles as quickly and effectively as possible…the municipality wants to slow traffic and create a safer environment.”

So what about Conshohocken’s stated goal of increasing pedestrian safety?  There will be fewer lanes to cross, but more traffic at a higher speed travelling along them.

This is where things get interesting, at least for us non-traffic engineers.  It appears that while PennDOT sees a road diet as increasing both the speed and the density of traffic, Borough Council sees it doing the exact opposite.  As the article in MoreThanTheCurve.Com put it, “Members of Borough Council seemed interested in this concept as a way to calm traffic and discourage pass through traffic in the Borough.  For example, if a commuter is coming from Whitemarsh, this new configuration might encourage him or her to access [Interstate] 76 off Chemical Road instead of driving down Fayette Street to the bridge.”

The Wikipedia articles on arterial roads and road diets offer a fascinating juxtaposition.  An arterial road should deliver traffic at “the highest level of service,” (in both speed and density), but “Proponents of road diets generally believe key benefits include LOWER VEHICULAR SPEEDS [emphasis mine], reduced crash rates, and improved pedestrian safety.”  That’s probably why the Borough Council and Administration see merit in the proposal.  Borough Mayor Bob Frost even suggested that if the project goes forward, the lane configuration change be extended one block closer to the bridge.

The Federal Highway Administration would appear to agree.  MoreThanTheCurve.Com quoted it as saying, “A roadway configuration known as a Road Diet offers several high-value improvements at a low cost when applied to traditional four-lane undivided highways.  In addition to low cost, the primary benefits of a Road Diet include enhanced safety, mobility and access for all road users and a “complete streets” environment to accommodate a variety of transportation modes.”

For Fayette Street, that means a dedicated bicycle lane on each side of the street.  Expediting bicyclists on Fayette Street can have a very beneficial effect.  The nation’s finest river valley trail system—The Schuylkill River Trail—traverses Conshohocken’s floodplain.  I have written previously about my concern that the “old” Conshy up the hill will be isolated from the “new” Conshy down below.  Bicycle lanes will certainly help, but the proposal does not provide a dedicated connection to the Trail.  What are bicyclists going to do on those last two blocks before the floodplain, on those streets most choked by traffic?  Connecting to that fantastic Schuylkill Valley Trail could be difficult, if not dangerous.

Bicycle lanes are but a small component of the plan.  The proposal was only an introductory one, and many details need to be filled in.  And that’s just in Conshohocken itself.  As Fayette Street beyond 12th Street becomes Butler Pike, separating the two townships of Plymouth and Whitemarsh, PennDOT’s proposal would involve—and require the approval of—both these municipalities.

All too often, planning decisions come down to which gets priority, the community or the drivers, and community rarely wins.  What will happen in this case?  Can Fayette Street after a Road Diet increase both traffic flow and pedestrian safety?  The initial confusion over just what a “Road Diet” is going to accomplish in Conshohocken, Pa. is likely the result of relying on Wikipedia to analyze a specific situation, which is why I am sharing this post with groups of people who actually understand the subject.  I want to understand better, but the residents of Conshohocken, Pa. are the ones who need the guidance more.

Thus I close with an appeal to those of you who read this and who actually do understand how roads, traffic and “road diets” work, to help inform the residents of Conshohocken more fully than I can.  You can communicate to me on this blog site and I will share your thoughts, or do so directly to residents on the following Facebook pages:


Friday, June 3, 2016

Why Phoenixville? A Guest Post About “Community”

I’m taking a break from posts about the future of Norristown, Pa. to pick up on my other current blog series that examines its upriver neighbor, Phoenixville.  I have been asking the question “Why Phoenixville?” for some time now.  Why is Phoenixville the only town on the lower Schuylkill River that is experiencing a locally generated revival? (remember, I differentiate it from what is happening downriver in the Conshohockens).  The question was a major focus of my recent East Coast trip, culminating in my talk to a gratifyingly large audience at the Phoenixville Public Library.

Thus it came to pass that a speaker about the recent history of Phoenixville came armed with more questions than answers.  I outlined the Borough’s history of emulating the other river towns, not just in its structure but also in the reason it came into existence, and the arc of its history, both in the good and then the bad times.  But then I focused on the period since about 1980.  I had good, well-researched explanations for pretty much all the basics of Phoenixville history up to that time, but not after.  No one else does, either, I admitted, and asked for their help.

At the end of my talk, several in the audience offered spontaneous thoughts.  I also asked them to email me their thoughts on the subject, and have since received several excellent responses.  They vary greatly in length, from short lists to extensive essays.  I continue to study them, but one theme dominates by its presence, in both the spoken comments that followed my talk and the written ones that have since been submitted.  A few mentioned it specifically, others referenced events that demonstrate it.  Regardless of how it was phrased, Phoenixville’s spirit of “Community” stood head and shoulders above any other subject.  It was described in different ways, using different terms, but they all were basically describing the same thing.  We are on to something here, for sure.

I reprint below a substantial excerpt from one email, because it asks my “Why Phoenixville?” question—in its own way—but only after offering, by example, the fundamental answer.

     “December 6, 2014 will live as a day of infamy in the hearts and minds of residents of Phoenixville Pennsylvania. Sitting down in front of my computer, that Saturday, I could barely believe my eyes when I read “Vandals Torch Firebird”. It had been exactly one week since my wife and I moved into our new home in the area once called “Ironsides”, just west of the borough line. We had moved from West Chester, a town thought to be on the up and up. Prior to that we have lived in some of the less fortunate river towns of Reading and Pottstown. The Schuylkill flows through my veins. We had attended Firebird festivals a few years earlier and looked forward to this one, our first as newly minted residents. Seeing as the bird had been torched, this seemed a wash now that it was a fait accompli.
     The details were sketchy, but what was certain was at 3:30 AM fire was reported out at Friendship Field. By the time the crews arrived the bird was a goner. A call had been made to the community for help, I felt the need to be a part of it. Although it was a cold rainy day with many boxes yet unpacked, as a retired carpenter, I knew I could give them a hand, even if I didn’t know anybody out there at all, a strong force was nudging me towards the door.
     Arriving at the scene  of the crime I found an amazing sight. Crowds of people lugging pallets, old lumber and anything else flammable in nature across the muddy fields, deeply rutted by the firetrucks that had managed to only save one wingtip. Hendrik [The Firebird Festival’s single-named founder, leader and visionary] had put the call out to the community for anything that could be had to give a long-shot chance at rebuilding a bird. At the curbside, a line of pickup trucks emptied piles of donations from many of the community’s businesses along with tons from local attics and garages. Finally Hendrik announced “We have enough!” With the light rain cooling the ash pile of the old bird, we got down to the business of giving life to a new one. Although not the bird that once had been, our collective effort produced a worthy stand-in and just a few hours later, to the roar of the crowd, it then also succumbed to immense flames.
     So, what does this mean? Wouldn’t any other small town, given the circumstances, pull together and match it? I believe most small town residents would say, “Yes we sure would.” If they could, or could not, is it not really as important as why should Phoenixville be the place to pull this off?”

Why indeed?  That’s what I seek to find out.  The spirit that induces a brand-new resident (and not, technically, of the Borough itself), along with so many others, to offer what they can to save a community event is clearly central to any attempt to answer the question “Why Phoenixville?”

As a historian, I note regretfully that most of the responses to my question have come from recent residents, who moved from elsewhere.  This raises several interesting questions, some of which I shall address in future posts, but for now I would like to ask the Borough’s older residents (that’s in length of residence, not necessarily age, although obviously the two go together) to be heard, and speak/write of “the bad old days,” those decades after the final demise of the Phoenix Steel Company.  What was the nature of Phoenixville’s “Community” back then, or even earlier, during the long post-war decline?  Did the spirit die and was reborn, or did it survive, nurtured by the few faithful during the hard times?  This kind of knowledge would go a great way toward answering the question “Why Phoenixville?”

If you have any thoughts, I’d like to hear them.  Please email me.


I have been publishing this blog every two weeks, on Fridays.  Now, I need to create space to undertake my next writing effort, as it will be a very different subject from those on which I have so far focused.  Thus, beginning after this post, I will publish a new “The More Things Change…” post on a monthly basis.  It will appear on the first Friday of each month.  This post, coming as it does two weeks after my previous one, is the last according to the old schedule.  As it appears on the first Friday of June, it is also the first post under the new schedule.  My next post will be on Friday, July 1st.  I hope to compensate with longer, more thoughtful, essays.  I thank you, in advance, for your patience and for your continued support.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dear Stan Huskey: I’m Sticking To My Guns On This One Too!

I utilized my most recent blog post to differ with the published opinion of Stan Huskey, editor of the Times Herald newspaper, that “the business of Norristown should be business.”  Such an attitude, I argued, fails to appreciate how history has changed the realities of living along the lower Schuylkill Valley.  He recently replied, prompting this post in return.  

First, I must clear up one not-so-minor point before getting to the relevant ones.  Stan wrote in his column that

“Tolle believes that business doomed America to the Great Depression.”

I don’t believe any such thing.  Here is what I actually wrote in the disputed post:

It was a basic assumption of the times.  Of course, that assumption and others closely-allied to it led to the Great Depression, but never mind that for now.”  

“It” was the attitude summed up in Coolidge’s expression “the business of America is business,” and it definitely led to the Great Depression.  I am in very good company on that one.

But never mind that for now.  We are not talking about old, no-longer relevant aphorisms, but about the changes that rendered them that way, and how understanding these should alter a municipality’s traditional outlook and priorities.  It’s really more about attitude than actions, because actions derive from the interaction of attitude and assumptions.  Many of the attitudes held by Norristown residents and their assumptions about “the good old days” need to be fundamentally altered for them to apply today and in the future.  Still, I believe there is less that divides us than that which unites us on this subject.  Here is a quote from a post dated October 2, 2015, that summarizes my general approach:  The point is not whether or not a municipality should try to attract businesses, but rather what kind of businesses it should try to attract.

What triggered this initial series of posts about Norristown was my learning that the Municipal Council had put together a financial package to ease the way onto Main Street for a restaurant.  A restaurant is what I have termed a “service” business.  My definition means that its primary market is local, a combination of within town and not far away.  A municipality should not focus on bringing such businesses to town, let alone pave the way financially.  “Service” businesses will begin to arrive—of their own volition—as a town’s population increases due to people moving in who possess disposable income.  You do not need to “bring” such businesses to town; scarce resources are better spent making the town itself safer and cleaner, to attract the base clientele that any such recreation business needs.

Yes, that’s “recreation business.”  I didn’t think that Stan meant the return of a steel mill when he said “business,” and he should understand that when I say residence and recreation, I am referring to businesses.  Not only are they businesses, they are the type that attracts ancillary businesses.  Today, such businesses like to locate in picturesque river valleys, particularly if they are also accessible to the major road network. Residence and recreation appear to be doing fairly well for Conshohocken and Phoenixville these days.

In the final analysis, the only real disagreement I have with Stan’s explication of his stance about business comes with this statement:

“But let’s cut to the chase here, Norristown can be the cleanest, safest place on all of Pennsylvania, but if there isn’t anything (read: businesses) downtown to attract people, they’re still not going to come….Bring an upscale boutique to town….Open a new distillery, which is happening on Main Street….Build a thriving arts district with a variety of offerings, which we’re doing with the now-established Theatre Horizon and the return of the Centre Theater….And then bring a restaurateur to town and let him or her see the crowds coming out of the theaters and he or she will want to open an incredible new place that is going to attract even more people to town."
If Norristown were to become even close to the cleanest, safest place in all of Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t need to attract either businesses or people.  Both would be beating down the doors to become part of such a community.  You wouldn’t have to bring a restaurateur to town, because he or she would have already heard all he or she needs to know.  You can’t simply “Bring an upscale boutique to town”; that’s not how it works.  Upscale boutiques locate among communities of upscale people.  Want to “bring” upscale businesses to town?  Focus on the town.  Up-and-coming communities do not need to attract businesses; the fact that they are up-and-coming is sufficient.  That’s why you focus on the community—on its people—and not on attracting businesses. 
One final note, if I may.  In his riposte, Stan observed that
Clean and safe are one of the key components of revitalization, and if Tolle had been following along with the bouncing ball he would know I’ve been writing about that as well, and he did reference one of my columns from last year, so…
I do, in fact, read Stan’s columns on a regular basis, and have for longer than I can remember.  He has been a consistent advocate for Norristown, one that the community definitely needs.  His repeated return to the subject of property tax demonstrates that his grasp of the fundamental issues is sound; there is really no more important issue than that one.  The fact that this is my first published disagreement over the years should indicate that we are not that far apart in our viewpoints. 
I am less certain that he reads my blog posts (although they are available in the Times Herald digital edition).  This is no place to repeat—yet again—some basic truisms that I have offered before.  So I simply ask Stan—and you all—to read my series of posts entitled “Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come,” which were published from 10/2/15 through 11/13/15, and the most recent series on Norristown’s pending revival, which began on 1/29/16.  They explain why The Business of Norristown Should Be To Make It A Safe And Clean Community.  
 Let me end this post by reaffirming my continued, unqualified support for the next “Norristown Rising” roundtable.  In Stan’s words, it will focus on
“What do we need to do to make sure Norristown is clean and safe?”

That’s the issue, the biggest issue of them all.  I encourage you to show up, and make your voice heard.  This one is about YOU.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Should The Business of Norristown, Pa. Be Business? A Dissent

Norristown, Pa., has several advocates, some in positions of authority and others who simply care and try to organize the community to move forward.  Few, if any, are better placed than Stan Huskey, editor of the local newspaper, the Times Herald.  He may not be in authority, but he certainly possesses a bully pulpit.  He organizes the “Norristown Rising” roundtables, and decides on their topics.  That’s why I take no pleasure in disputing a recent pronouncement of his, but I must.

To promote the most recent “Norristown Rising” roundtable, Stan laid out a vision for Norristown, saying,

“Personally, I’m going to have to go with the Calvin Coolidge theory that the business of Norristown should be business.”

I respectfully disagree.  History suggests something quite different.  I view Stan’s position as an example of remembering history instead of learning from it.  Stan is correct in his memory of the past, and of Calvin Coolidge.  While that pithy expression about business has become attached to Coolidge’s name, it was equally applicable at every level of government in pretty much every place during his day.  Back then, Norristown government reflected the Coolidge attitude, as did almost all municipal, county and state governments.  The business of Norristown was business.  It was a basic assumption of the times.  Of course, that assumption and others closely-allied to it led to the Great Depression, but never mind that for now.  The real point is, as I often phrase it, “that was then; but this is now, and things have changed.”

Boy, have they!  In fact, some very important things have changed a full 180 degrees.  Back in “the good old days,” the business of every Schuylkill River town was business, both manufacturing and commerce.  Factories fill the floodplain, with the main commercial street close by.  The two lowest priorities for the floodplain were residence and recreation.  Well, guess what?  Both the factories and commercial streets are gone now, and as both Phoenixville and the Conshohockens can testify, the growth industries are residence and recreation.

If the Norristown Municipal Council were to make business their business, they would be making an enormous mistake.  That would be a misapplication of scarce resources.  I have already identified a municipality’s two highest priorities, and business wasn’t one of them.  It ranks high, but well after Clean It Up and way below Make It Safe.

Don’t jump to the opposite conclusion, that I am in some way “anti-business.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  First, I fully support an earlier Huskey question, “Is Norristown business-friendly?”  That is a super-important question, and one that Norristown should strive to make true.  On that subject and others closely related, I refer you to a previous post, on October 2, 2015, entitled “Make It Safe, Clean It Up and They Will Come, [Part I].”

My point in that post was businesses that service the local population will establish themselves when that population is adding people with disposable income, most likely younger.  Financial incentives to lure such businesses are a bad bet and worse policy.  Save that for those businesses that are considering locating in town, but will not depend on locals for their market.  They are your financial net gainers.

But most of all, make it your policy that people come first.  Make It Safe and Clean It Up.  Then they—both people and businesses—will come to Norristown/Bridgeport.  As for people, I’m not talking about those who know that their housing voucher goes further in those communities.  They currently constitute a disproportionate component of the population, so no one should cry foul if their consistent numbers become a smaller part of the population (Of course, they won’t cry foul, they’ll cry “Gentrification,” but I’m getting way ahead of myself here). 

I am speaking of those people—they tend to be younger—that are law-abiding and possess disposable income (there should be no further qualifications).  So what will bring such people to Norristown/Bridgeport?  To repeat: Residence and Recreation.  Along the lower Schuylkill River, what was last is now first, because, well, that was then and this is now.  History is all about change. 

As for businesses, let’s face it, they will probably be bars and restaurants, i.e., recreation.  But mix in some new riverside residences, and once word spreads of a safe, clean pair of communities with a growing nightlife that face each other across a beautiful river, directly accessible to several trails, all else can pretty much follow.  This includes those businesses that might want to locate in such a community that is also directly accessible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just as an incentive for their employees.  They need not have any connection to Norristown at all, as long as they pay their taxes.  They will be the ones that create the rush-hour traffic jams (yes, the New Norristown must actually seek the return of the very same thing that helped to destroy Old Norristown, but I’m getting way ahead of myself again here).  But all things considered, wouldn’t that be a net gain?

I am much happier to support the topic of the next “Norristown Rising.”  Stan phrases it as a question:
“What do we need to do to make sure Norristown is clean and safe?”
That IS the question, not the only question, but the most important one by far.  It’s what I’ve been saying all along.  So attend this one, and make your voice heard.

Having begun with a charming but no longer relevant aphorism, let’s close with another, still relevant if significantly modified.  It’s the one that goes “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.”  In truth, it is those that attempt to repeat history who are doomed.  Don’t just remember history; learn from it.