Sunday, May 20, 2018

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess is the officially-designated Big Day. That, of course, puts all the chips on one day's weather, which in mid-spring is decidedly a gamble. As reported last year (see below), Friday in Cedar Rapids was wretched and not even your humble blogger was biking to work in that slop. This year in Washington, Bike to Work Day fell on a wet day--the sixth day in a row of measurable precipitation, as it happened--which held crowds down but not completely.

Bike to Work Day in Washington has mobile and stationary features. On the move were nineteen bicycle convoys through various parts of the metropolitan area. Nearly all started in suburban locations. Eight of them ended at Freedom Plaza in Washington's business district, but others ended in suburban areas. Start times ranged from 5:30 to 8:00 a.m. with routes described as secondary roads, trails, and bike lanes. The "experienced riders" who led the convoys surely know how to navigate all the perils of commuter cycling.

There were also 100 pit stops throughout the region, 28 in the city, with refreshments, prize drawings, and--for those who pre-registered online--t-shirts.

I volunteered at the Eastern Market Station pit stop near my apartment, which was hosted by the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District. I was there to help the folks from Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which was encouraging signups and renewals with $5 off the regular fee ($30 instead of $35). Our captain, Ursula Sandstrom, was hoping for 30 signups after getting 20 last year--we got 15, which we decided was pretty good considering the weather.

The stream of visitors was steady from before 7 til after 9. Lines didn't compare to last year's, experienced pit stop staff told me, again attributable to the weather, but our business was constant, and even included some children on their ways to school.

Visitors got helpful handouts along with fruit from Harris Teeter...

...bagels from Bullfrog...

...doughnut holes from District Doughnut and coffee from Peregrine Espresso. City Bikes was there to do checkups.
It would take more than a little rain to put the damper on this party.

Washington is a gold-level Bike Friendly Community, and bicyclists are everywhere a presence here. There is much to be negotiated yet in the competition for space on streets and sidewalks, but the desire is manifest even on a rainy day for safe, viable choices in commuting, and that has me feeling optimistic.

Earlier posts

"Bike to Work Week Diary," 15 May 2017
"Bike to Work Week 2016," 15 May 2016
"Cycling Update," 24 May 2015
"Bike to Work Week Diary," 13 May 2014

Friday, May 18, 2018

Things have changed

HHS secretary Alex Azar speaks at the American Enterprise Institute
"We've learned from mistakes" is a common theme in recent policy presentations around Washington dealing with long-standing public problems. The solutions offered seem familiar as well, though possibly "Versions 2.0" that address earlier policy failures.

Government should make public policy where problems persist due to market failures i.e. where the private actions of buyers and sellers don't resolve some widespread public need. (Frustratingly, there is no metric for when the market fails. It's a matter of perception. One way of distinguishing conservatives from liberals is where and how often they perceive market failures.) Health care's market failure occurs because consumers lack information about price and quality they need to make informed decisions, because health insurance policies usually mean consumers aren't price-sensitive anyway, and because the traditional fee-for-service model creates incentives for providers to over-treat patients. Infrastructure's market failure occurs because while roads, bridges, sewer pipes and such are excludable in theory, in practice everyone gets to use them so generating profits is impossible. Basic research's market failure occurs because, as Maria Zuber of the National Science Board pointed out at the Bipartisan Policy Council last week, the payoffs are uncertain and occur in the very long term at a time when corporate shareholders have come to expect returns quarterly.

Governments, however, are not always effective in filling the breach when markets fail. Freed from the need to make a profit, political institutions must nevertheless be responsive to the public, or at least to the attentive portion of it. Moreover, without market price signals, it is difficult for governments accurately to perceive returns-on-investment, particularly when officeholders are feeling pressure from the public. No government in the world is flush enough to provide everyone with everything they might need. The amoral market does not allocate health care in any morally-satisfying way, but any health care system has to set limits on coverage, and that's a lot harder when it's as explicit as it is in a policy context. Infrastructure suffers because while new construction can be politically rewarding, routine maintenance is not, so funding is a constant losing battle. Basic research, on the other hand, sounds exotic and often goes down blind alleys, so it makes an easy target for people who target government "waste, fraud and abuse."

"Fixing health care" panel at American Enterprise Institute, 16 May
A panel at the American Enterprise Institute this week promoted private sector initiatives in health care aimed at reducing inflation, which has taken this sector of the economy from 8 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 1980 to nearly 20 percent today without any observable advantage over other advanced democracies. Two themes that emerged from an energetic and wide-ranging discussion were providing at least primary care through Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) as an alternative to fee-for-service medicine, and reducing expenditures by catching problems earlier through what Rashika Fernandapulle of Iora Health termed "high-impact relationship-based care." I've been hearing both of these for 25 years or more. Accountable Care Organizations, as defined by Kaiser Health News, are "networks that coordinate patient care and become eligible for bonuses when they deliver that care more efficiently." They are a key cost control tactic of the Affordable Care Act. They sound a lot like Health Management Organizations (HMOs), which were authorized in 1973, and when employer-based plans shifted in their direction on a large scale in the 1990s helped to restrain the growth of costs, but over time became infamous for denial of care. "Some people say ACOs are HMOs in drag," the Urban Institute's Kelly Devers told Kaiser, but there is more flexibility provided to patients in choosing specialists and there are more regulations to ensure the cost savings don't impact the quality of care.

Infrastructure panel at National Association of Counties, 17 May
A panel at the National Association of Counties celebrated Infrastructure Week by exploring the potential of public-private partnerships. John Porcari, a former transportation official now with the consulting firm WSP, suggested that private firms are essential to design and maintenance of infrastructure which are harder for governments to fund. Of course these sorts of partnerships are not new. The panel didn't mention the expansion of Stapleton Airport which was a byword for governmental failure in the 1990s, but they did raise Chicago's 2009 privatization of parking services, which has become a byword for bad contracting (see Kaehny 2009Cohen and Farmer 2014). Indeed, today's Post reports on malfeasance by a contractor on Metro's Silver line that was reported by a whistleblower. Moderator Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institution raised other problems of the past, including overstretched city staff being outgunned in information and focus by the contractor and unable to do proper oversight, and contractors left in the lurch by sudden policy changes. The panelists noted these problems were widely understood, and could be anticipated in program design and process, as well as through intergovernmental information sharing. They commended value capture as a means of funding infrastructure spending (including ongoing maintenance), and praised its inclusion in the Trump administration's infrastructure recommendations.


Last week's panel at the Bipartisan Policy Council agreed on the need for government to fund basic scientific research; Erik K. Fanning, CEO of Aerospace Industries Association, added the need to educate "a well-prepared dynamic workforce." Again, these are long-standing policies, but our national commitment is being questioned even as "Chinese and Europeans are also making scientific research and development investments." Spending caps for the Department of Defense, the major source of basic research funding, are "coming back with a vengeance in FY20." Education funding at both federal and state levels is under the gun (see Olen 2018 for the U.S. Department of Education, and widespread protests in many states). President Trump has not nominated anyone to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy (see Waldman 2018 on why this matters). The United States, says panelist Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "has to decide whether it wants to be a leader or a participant" as other countries adopt "our playbook for economic prosperity." So, needing a means of taking research to the next level in order to maintain our edge, we find ideological game-playing.

The policy panels were optimistic about market mechanisms in health care and public-private infrastructure partnerships, and at least the possibility of more assertive science policy. When pushed by the moderators, several of them were less optimistic that substantive policy could be achieved any time soon. I'd like to think that the reasons for earlier policy failures--including resistance to health care rationing, economic as well as political incentives that conflict with the general public interest, and budget pressures--have been addressed in the current versions of these approaches. I'm still working on actually thinking that, however.


The Bipartisan Policy Council hosted "Investing in the Nation's Future--A Renewed Commitment to Federal Science Funding" on 8 May 2018. Speakers were Erik K. Fanning (Aerospace Industries Association), Mark S. Berry (Georgia Power), John Keller (University of Iowa), Michael L. Telson (General Atomics), Maria Zuber (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and National Science Board).

The American Enterprise Institute hosted "Fixing Health Care: Driving Value Through Smart Purchasing and Policy" on 16 May 2018, co-sponsored with the Brookings Institution, Pacific Business Group on Health, and University of Southern California Schaeffer Center for Health. Speakers were Alex Azar (U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services), Kevin Bozic (University of Texas Medical School), Rushika Fernandopulle (Iora Health), Mai Pham (Anthem), Jeffrey White (Boeing), Lanchee Chen (Hoover Institution), Chris Jennings (Jennings Policy Strategies), Mark Miller (Laura and John Arnold Foundation), Gail Wilensky (Project HOPE), Joseph Antos (AEI) and Paul Ginsburg (USC Schaeffer).

The National Association of Counties hosted "Collaborate to Build: Modernizing Infrastructure Policies to Advance Public-Private Partnerships" on 17 May 2018, co-sponsored with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. Speakers were Roy Charles Brooks (Tarrant County, Texas, and President of NACo), Elliott Bouillion (Resource Environmental Solutions LLC), Judah Gluckman (DC Office of Public-Private Partnerships), John Porcari (WSP) and Adie Tomer (Metropolitan Policy Program).


James Morone, The Devils We Know: Us and Them in America's Raucous Political Culture (Kansas, 2014). Chapter 3 addresses the need for and political response to health care rationing.

Richard Rose, Lesson-Drawing in Public Policy: A Guide to Learning Across Time and Space (CQ Press, 1993)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Letter from Washington (VIII): End of semester

Me, at George Washington's Mount Vernon
We'll be moving back to Iowa in a few days after our semester in Washington. In nearly four months, we had time to get around to quite a few of the spots you'd expect we'd have gotten to, besides teaching for the Capitol Hill Internship Program, attending innumerable lectures and public policy panels, and following the latest Trump scandals in the Washington Post.

My warmest memories of this time are of the places off-the-beaten-track, that required discovery but also rewarded it. I don't think I came close to my goal of experiencing the day-to-day lives of urban Washingtonians, but to the extent that this has felt like home for a few months, these were some of the places that helped make it so.

(1) Anacostia Community Museum. This small museum is part of the Smithsonian empire, but located off the mall and across the Anacostia River. It is, we've been told, really the only museum in town specializing in the history of the city. When we visited, it had just opened a new exhibit, "A Right to the City," on conflicts over neighborhood development, an important chapter in recent Washington history. There was a lot to digest, and getting back to it is a priority.

(2) Bullfrog Bagels. My Saturday morning routine was to walk six blocks or so to their Eastern Market location, stand in line for 10-15 minutes with a slice of Washington life, and get three bagels (always an "everything" for Jane) to go for our Sunday breakfast along with a small coffee for now. Usually I hate to wait in line, particularly in narrow confines, but this gave me a chance to people-watch. Bonus points if the Uber Eats person comes through while you're waiting and reminds you that waiting in line is optional. 

(3) DC Library. We live a few minutes' walk from two branches, the Northeast and the Southeast. Getting a temporary card was easy, and we've checked out books and magazines, attended talks (and the Northeast's 80th birthday party!), and used it as a temporary office. For that I have to use the Southeast facility, as my laptop's adapter isn't compatible with the Northeast's plugs. Patrons are a diverse lot; last time I sat next to a guy with an open container of fried chicken.

(4) Jazz Night in DC. Westminster Presbyterian Church on the near southwest side hosts jazz concerts every Friday night (and blues every Monday night) in their sanctuary. There's delicious home-cooked food for sale in the basement, and the musicians are among Washington's finest. Seating is comfortable, acoustics are excellent, and nobody's expecting you to buy rounds of drinks. The MC (pictured above) is an absolute card, too.

(5) Lutheran Church of the Reformation. After six weeks or so of attending churches in our neighborhood, we realized we needed to choose a community. We chose differently, and I wound up at this socially-conscious congregation a block east of the Supreme Court building. I found an adult Sunday school group that engages vigorously with whatever topic the vicar brings, met a group from the church at the March for Our Lives, and even helped with Easter brunch. 

(6) Metro's D6 bus. I've been taking the Metro's rail system on visits to Washington for decades, but felt like a real local when I mastered the parallel bus systems run by the Metro and the District of Columbia ("the Circulator"). The D6 stops at Stanton Park near where we live, and proceeds to downtown, DuPont Circle and Georgetown. At certain times we're joined by students going to or from school. It was the means to getting so many places we came to call it the Magic Bus.

(7) 1 Million Cups Fairfax County. The Kaufmann Foundation's inspired network of entrepreneurial coffee klatches has yet to reach the city, but in February a new group started in suburban McLean, accessible by the Metro's silver line. There are more government contractors and online ventures than I've been accustomed to hearing in Iowa, but the presentations have been strong and the attendees friendly and willing to share ideas.

William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center
Source: Department of Parks and Recreation website
(8) Rumsey Aquatic Center. This city facility a few blocks from our apartment is our go-to place for workouts. It was easy for us to get temporary resident status, and while we were advised to keep a copy of our lease with us, the staff usually recognizes us. The pool is well-used, but in the city people are used to sharing space. About halfway through our time here they got a new swimsuit wringer for the men's locker room.

(9) Coffee ceremony at Sidamo Coffee & Tea. The video on their homepage shows the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which they celebrate every Sunday afternoon at their store on H Street. It's understated but beautiful watching them (usually her) roast the beans on what looks like a campstove (open the door to let the smoke out), share their aroma with whoever is in the store, and then grind and brew them. Everyone gets a small cup.

(10) Washington Area Bicylists Association. Washington is a bike-friendly city, gold level, and elected officials as well as the District Department of Transportation are supportive. Keeping the fires lit beneath all these initiatives is this grass-roots organization headquartered in Adams-Morgan. I've attended sessions on advocacy, as well as plans for Irving Street, and joined a group in my neighborhood working on ideas for K Street.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Supercenters: Prize or curse?

Wal-Mart Supercenter, Cicero, Illinois,
mere blocks from the Chicago city limits
Chuck Marohn's recent Q-and-A with Joe Minicozzi on the Strong Towns Podcast reminds me of a conversation I had recently had with some old friends from Illinois. One friend noted the recent effort by Wal-Mart to build a supercenter on the south side of Chicago. Put off by Chicago's higher minimum wage for big-box stores, Wal-Mart instead built three supercenters across the city limits, in Evergreen Park (2006), Cicero (2014) and Hammond, where they now no doubt attract a lot of customers from the city. My friend considered this a blunder by the City of Chicago, because of the loss of jobs and sales taxes. So does the Chicago Tribune, which reports the city has subsequently reached accommodations with the giant retailer.

I'm agnostic about requiring certain employers to pay a super-minimum wage, but have been wondering how great were Chicago's losses, if any.

Joe Minicozzi (Source:
On the podcast, Minicozzi, a planner and principal of Urban 3 LLC, explained the origins and rationale behind his formula comparing buildings according to their property tax paid per acre. Most city services are funded through property taxes on business and residences. The city's core asset, after all, is land, for which it needs to be making the most productive and efficient use. Wal-Mart is notoriously awful on this dimension, despite the volume of sales at its stores, because its footprint is so huge. In Minicozzi's example, the big-box store in his town generates $6500 in property tax per acre on a 34 acre lot, while a downtown mixed use development generates $330,000 per acre. Watch his video... it's short (3:43). See also Marohn's own 2012 analysis of two blocks in Brainerd, Minnesota.

In 2016, I participated in Strong Towns' crowd-sourced database on taxable value per acre. Here are the results from Cedar Rapids:
SW Wal-Mart $501,557
NE Wal-Mart $456,917
Great America bldg $13,999,048
Geonetric bldg $1,926,308

In a 2017 post I calculated the value of the Bever Block in downtown Cedar Rapids, soon to be demolished, to be $2,153,423 per acre. My Corridor Urbanism colleague, Ben Kaplan, reports that 1420 1st Av NE, also about to be demolished in order to make room for a development with chain restaurants, comes in at $1,740,695.

The Cook County, Illinois property search page is not currently functioning, so we can't do a similar analysis of Chicago area Wal-Mart Supercenters, but looking at results from around the country we can hardly expect they'll prove productive uses of city land, either. And that goes without taking into account subsidies provided to the retailer (Loury 2009).

But what about sales tax? Does the gain in retail sales from a big-box store counterbalance its relatively low property tax generation? No, says Minocozzi. In most states, sales tax collections don't go directly to the city treasury. They go to the state, which to the extent it redistributes the money to municipalities, does so according to a complex formula. (My state of Iowa does this. A few years ago, the nearby town of Bertram voted down a local option sales tax increase. Bertram has no businesses, so it basically was turning down its share of whatever revenues the increase generated. Needless to say, they re-voted in a hurry.)

Minicozzi challenged us to check our city's budgets, and compare the proportion of revenue produced by property and sales taxes. For Cedar Rapids's FY19 budget, 22 percent of revenues come from property taxes, 4 percent from sales and hotel/motel taxes. For Chicago's FY18 budget, 19 percent come from property taxes, 6 percent from sales taxes. Evergreen Park's FY17 financial report credits 21.5 percent of revenues to property taxes, 6.3 percent to local sales taxes. Hammond's revenue information, four years out of date, lists only "taxes" without disaggregating them into types of tax. For Cicero, your best bet is to know someone in city government; a search on their website for "budget" turns up a tribute to the 2016 Chicago Cubs, and their "contact us" function only works for Illinois residents. But you get the idea: property taxes are several times more important to these towns than sales taxes.
City of Chicago revenue sources
More property than sales tax, more grants and fees than taxes overall
(Source: City of Chicago)
So did Chicago make the right call? Or did Cicero, Evergreen Park and Hammond? As far as I can tell, Chicago wasn't foregoing a lot of revenue by losing Wal-Mart, as long as it was able to find people to make more productive use of that land. The adjacent suburbs might get a short-term bump in sales tax revenue, but they're using an inordinate amount of land area to do it. Moreover, in 15-20 years--which Minicozzi, citing Charles Terrell, director of property tax for Wal-Mart, reminds us is the anticipated useful life of a big-box store building--they'll have to deal with the clean-up.

See Also: Rachel Quednau, "6 Surprising Perspectives on Big Box Stores," Strong Towns, 8 May 2018

Monday, May 7, 2018

Woonerful woonerful

Woonerfs are complete streets taken to the next level. They are designed as space to be shared by all people, however they're getting around. The idea originated in the Netherlands in the 1960s, albeit like many urbanist innovations they re-create street usage of the pre-automotive age. You can see some Dutch examples here and here. Common in the Netherlands, they have spread to the United Kingdom, and have popped up here and there in other countries as well. The first in the United States appears to have been Commerce Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts (Hockenos 2013).

Woonerfs are featured throughout most of the Wharf, a development in southwest DC by PN Hoffman and Madison Marquette, that lies between Maine Avenue and the Washington Channel, and between 7th and 10th streets. The development caters mostly to tourists, with several hotels taking advantage of the proximity to the river. The shops are predominantly franchised boutique-y…
Shops on District Square
…with more of the same coming.

Wharf, Phase 2: Coming attractions
The latest Southwester notes that a rare locally-owned business, Jenny's Asian Fusion, has lost their lease at the Wharf (Vaughn et al. 2018). Along my way I did find a hardware store (attached to a bike shop and cafĂ©)…

District Hardware and Bike, 730 Maine Av SW
…as well as a CVS pharmacy and an optometrist, so residents of the new condos won't have to go elsewhere for all of their daily needs. There is also the headquarters of the American Psychiatric Association. 

American Psychiatric Association, 800 Maine Av SW
 I bought coffee at a chain bakery…

Milk Bar, 49 District Square
Milk Bar is in the center of things
…which I took to some functionally smooth rocks in the street’s median.

District Square

District Square
 What makes these streets woonerfs is the absence of curbs.

Pearl Street SW

800 block of Water Street SW
It is usually pretty clear, though, where the cars, and the pedestrians, are supposed to go.

crossing 7th St SW
Sometimes, though, streets were blocked off, either temporarily...

District Square
…or permanently.

700 block of Water Street
Pedestrians walked comfortably on the streets when cars weren’t operating...

700 block of Wharf Street
…and sometimes when they were

Wharf Street approaching 7th Street
As I observed the street during the noon hour, usually people in the street gave precedence to cars; incidentally, most motor vehicles were taxis. Once I heard a taxi driver honk at a man crossing the street, but usually people gave way without confrontation. (These men gave way after being alerted to the presence of the taxi by a bystander.)

700 block of Wharf Street
We bystanders were treated to some jogging Marines, chanting taunts at the Air Force.

700 block of Wharf Street

Getting to the Wharf seems fairly easy. The walk from the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station was short but complex due to the need to get across I-395. There is a free shuttle from the Metro station.

Wharf stop is on Maine Av at Sutton Square
The Wharf itself remains privately owned and managed. I saw two police officers, but I think they were off-duty. There was a constant presence of security guards.

Private management may explain the complete absence of street people, which in DC is immediately remarkable; the plenteous availability of public restrooms...

…and a labor protest

Even so there are a lot of areas open to the general public, including parks and piers.
Recreation Pier and splash pad with a view of construction across Maine Av

the Wharf as seen from the Wharf Torch at the end of Recreation Pier
The terrace in front of the Hyatt was available for public use as well. At least they didn’t chase me away. I had a good view of the channel, or if I shifted position, Wharf Street

Download the app. Because banners are so 2013.
Woonerfs are being considered for other places in Washington: a short block of Q Street in the NoMa area is in the works, and may be used on Delaware Avenue near Union Station as part of that area's thorough overhaul ("Union Station" 2016). At least a couple years ago, Seattle was considering the design for East John Street near Summit Slop Park (Packer 2015); Alexandria was talking woonerf for Union Street in Old Town in 2012 (Pope 2012, Beinert 2012), but must have decided against it.

Everyone I spoke to at The Wharf--OK, I'm lying about this part--asked the same question: How would this approach work in Cedar Rapids, say on 12th Avenue SE?
Image may contain: outdoor
400 block of 12th Av SE gets the Better Block treatment in April
(Source: Cedar Rapids Main Street Facebook page)
I could see some functionality in New Bohemia as well as Czech Village, where multiple small shops and arts venues generate a lot of pedestrian traffic. Newly-constructed 16th Avenue could take the auto pressure off 12th Avenue in New Bohemia. Unfortunately, that's the very avenue that goes through the heart of Czech Village, where 12th serves as the bypass. I'm not sure I see auto drivers, who remain kings in Cedar Rapids, serptentining their ways through this stretch. There's also the complication of having to go through the political process to undo existing development, rather than a private developer creating their own space.

Jon Banister, "What's a Woonerf? The Streetscape Design That's Sweeping DC," Bisnow, 18 July 2016
Payton Chung, "How Are the Wharf's Shared Spaces Working Out?" Greater Greater Washington, 28 November 2017
Shannon Vaughn, Christy Vaughn, Julia Cole, Katelynd Mahoney Andersdon, Jason Kopp and Jan Callender, "Op-Ed: Forty Years Should Mean Something," Southwester, May 2018, 1, 11

See Also:
Tara Lerman, "The D.C. Waterfront: At a Glance," Bisnow, 8 May 2018
B.A. Morelli, "Could a Ped Mall Work in Czech Village?" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 21 April 2018

Bike to Work Day 2018

This year's Bike to Work observation finds me in Washington, D.C., where it's mostly confined to one day, Friday, which I guess i...