Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The parking dilemma

(Shoup in Paris, from his website)

Donald Shoup is an economist at UCLA who in 2005 published the definitive book on motor vehicle parking. It is a massive work (which alert readers will recognize as code for "I didn't read all of it"), painstakingly describing studies by himself and others. But it comes down to this: free curb parking creates all manner of problems for society. The solutions are to allow fewer parking spaces, charge more for parking, and (maybe) require limits on parking spaces.

Shoup lists in chapter 5 a number of ways free parking creates harms: it subsidizes cars (all taxpayers provide a resource that decreases the cost of car-driving), distorts transportation choices (because driving is cheaper), warps urban form (all those parking spaces) and debases urban design, increases housing costs, burdens low-income households, damages the economy and degrades the environment. In busy areas free curb parking means individual drivers "cruise" for an open space, sometimes for several blocks, adding to traffic congestion, as Shoup explains in this clever video. His own study of the Westwood Village area of Los Angeles found drivers spend an average of 3.3 minutes to find a curb space, which translates over the course of a year into 100,000 hours of cruising-for-parking by all drivers, going a total of 945,000 miles and wasting 47,000 gallons of gasoline (ch. 14).

One way towns have dealt with demand for parking on the street has been to require businesses (including medical facilities, schools and apartment buildings) to provide parking lots. This has resulted in a massive use of land for car-parking, particularly in certain areas. Surface parking lots are physically unattractive, waste space (and the money used to build them), and create vast empty areas in the town. Empty areas mean more space between places people are going, making people more likely to use cars; and they make those parts of town as a whole less attractive to people. If you're in Cedar Rapids and need a specific example, look at the area between 5th and 12th Sts, running pretty much from the interstate to the river, with a spur between New Bohemia and downtown. That's a lot of territory, and it is full of parking lots; if I had more time and research assistants, I'd count them, but it must run into multiple thousands of spaces.

There are several reasons for this phenomenon, but the most basic cause is city zoning requirements. Part I of the book (chs 2-10) details the extent of parking requirements for new construction, based on shaky or no data, and almost always excessive. Developers who wish to provide less parking must petition for an exemption, with uncertain prospects for success. Why governments persist in this irrationality is not clear, but it's probably some combination of (a) demands from the public, especially shoppers who want to park for free, and neighbors who want the shoppers parking somewhere besides in front of their houses; (b) impressive but false precision marketed by planning agencies; and (c) inertia.

It's not clear, though, that if governments backed off, the problem would vanish. (If so, Houston, Texas, which has no municipal zoning to speak of, would have solved this problem, to the envy and wonderment of all.) Developers and business owners have their own reasons for liking parking lots. In a society where a huge proportion of trips are made by motor vehicle, parking lots give customers somewhere to put their vehicles while they shop. Again, Cedar Rapids provides some instructive examples. The parking lot on the site of the former First Christian Church, and the one that required the closing of a block of 2nd Av, were initiated by the medical facilities, not by the city. Both have detracted from the urban fabric, but it's certainly easy to park there when you need to.

Shoup suggests several solutions, some small and some large. Cities should repeal minimum parking requirements; can provide central space(s) for public parking instead of requiring separate lots for each business; and/or encourage developers to provide incentives to customers and employees not to drive. More intensive solutions include market prices for parking spaces (explained in the video linked above, and detailed in chapters 15-21 of The High Cost of Free Parking). Today's technology allows for better adjustment of prices to varying demand at different times of day, and for more efficient collection of fees. (Many's the time I've lacked the right change to park at an open meter.) Political resistance to market-priced parking can be overcome by dedicating the revenue to pay for public services in the neighborhood.

Westwood Village is an example of an area with what Randolph T. Hester calls "impelling form" (a phrase I'm in love with, you may have noticed). A city is "impelling" when people are willing to endure some cost or inconvenience to get there. (The impelling nature of Chicago explains why businesses there haven't decamped en masse to Indiana, even though Indiana's taxes are lower than Illinois'.) As applied to parking, it matters enough to people to visit UCLA and/or the businesses around it that they are willing to pay market price for parking or take public transportation or walk. Pasadena has done even better than Westwood Village, coming from farther back (pp. 413-418). The vicious cycle described by Shoup that has dominated American towns since World War II--excessive supply of parking incentivizes driving while increasing space between businesses, thereby making walking harder and places less lively--is in such places reversed. Then it becomes a virtuous cycle, as parking lots are replaced by residences and businesses, making for a more lively and impelling town.

I, however, write to you from an under-confident college in an under-confident town. The under-confidence of Cedar Rapids is exemplified by our "Song of Dedication," which is written from the perspective of someone moving away. "Time and my life are like the river"... We'll miss this lovely town, but we're leaving. It's hard for the city to stand up for development when we're afraid businesses will leave for the hinterlands, and businesses are afraid they'll lose customers to outlying strips, if there isn't beaucoup parking. We don't get on the virtuous cycle if everyone deserts before we have a chance to become impelling. Shoup suggests Business Improvement Districts, like the Medical SSMID in Cedar Rapids, can be vehicles for collecting and spending parking revenue. But my conversations with Medical SSMID folk in May suggest they are more concerned with providing adequate amounts of parking for out-of-town patients than with filling in what is already a parking-rich empty quarter.


 (These are rather poor pictures. You'd have to see the whole area from above to get the full effect.)

(This was taken at 11:00 on a Wednesday morning. Certainly we have no shortage of parking, just maybe not in exactly the right spots.)


Coe faces a quandary similar to that faced by the City of Cedar Rapids and the Medical SSMID. A few years ago, we built a parking lot that runs for two blocks along 14th St. There are some trees around it, but even so it's not pretty, and creates something of a barrier between Coe and the Mound View neighborhood.
(The lot is mostly empty during the summer, but filled to capacity during the school year.)

In the hearing before the Board of Adjustment, Coe's representative expressed concern that the cars had to go someplace, and better a big parking lot than all over the streets. A city person wondered why Coe students had to all have cars. After all, Northwestern University bars students from having cars on campus for at least a year. Well, our representative responded, we're not Northwestern. And it's true that students aren't willing to endure as much to attend Coe as Northwestern students are willing to endure to attend Northwestern. Just so, Cedar Rapids isn't Chicago. And few churches around town would say they have a surplus of congregants. So they all build parking lots, too. How do towns like ours get off the vicious cycle?

OTHER STUFF

Donald Shoup website

"Freakonomics" podcast on parking's pricing problem (March 2013)

"The Shoupistas" Facebook group

Alan Durning, "What's in Your Garage?," Sightline Daily, 5 June 2013 [http://daily.sightline.org/2013/06/05/whats-in-your-garage/]... addresses parking requirements at individual residences, which I don't get into above, but which surely are an additional zoning absurdity. Thanks to John Heaton for sending this my way.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A gathering of spirits in Cedar Rapids

Author Parker Palmer commended community spirit to a large audience at First Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids last night. He urged the listeners to "imagine how we might live our political lives as people healing the whole," and not to become discouraged either by others' rage or the lack of tangible results.

(Parker J. Palmer, from couragerenewal.org)

Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal in Seattle, Washington. Joining him on the program singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer and pianist Gary Walters, making for an interesting mix in which Palmer's pithy observations were punctuated by Newcomer's songs (including "Better Angels," on which Palmer is credited as co-writer) and a couple instrumental improvisations by Walters. The evening concluded with Newcomer leading the crowd in two of her songs, "If Not Now" and "Peace Like a River." So we got the glow of a folk concert combined with the extended commentary of a lecturer who's clearly thought deeply about the problem of how we can all live together.

(Carrie Newcomer, from carrienewcomer.com)

For the record, the third song Carrie Newcomer sang was "Betty's Diner," which is included on this playlist of songs that evoke a spirit of urbanity.

Palmer focused his talk almost entirely on the audience, rather than on those unnamed persons who may not share our interests in building a civil community that approaches our aspirations.  He spoke of the importance of relationships, arguing "the more you  know about another person's story, the harder it is to dismiss or demonize them." Diversity, which the U.S. Constitution tends to encourage, means including all kinds of differences not just demographic. And by "including" Palmer stressed he meant more than "mere toleration." Differences are to be valued, because what we (Americans, humans) hold in common is more important. It is easy, maybe too easy, to see where others fall short of this appreciation; it is harder to see it in ourselves, but the more we try the easier it is to keep working for community and not get discouraged. One of the participants told the story of an Indian doctor running a vaccination project who said that if they vaccinated 10,000 people a day it would take 300 years to vaccinate the whole country. When asked "How do you do it?" he responded "One person at a time."

The ideal of community is challenged by individualism and outrage, which are everywhere abundant. Palmer suggested each of these are not forces in and of themselves, but symptoms of something else. He characterized individualism as an "illusion" given the reality of inter-dependence, jokingly suggesting that July 5 be designated Inter-Dependence Day. It's a place people retreat when the project of community becomes too challenging. (The same can be said for retreat into tribes of like-minded people. Parker said at one point, "You can learn a lot about people when you find out what they mean be the word 'we.'")

Outrage is a symptom of "broken-hearted" politics; across the political spectrum economic insecurity, cultural issues and war seem beyond our control. The key is not to react to the emotion or the illusion, but to recognize the pain that lies behind them. Telling our stories, especially if we can do it with humor and gentleness, creates bonds in a way that hurling our opinion cannot. Maybe someone's heart can be made "to break open" instead of in a million pieces.

Palmer did not discuss those who traffic in outrage, for surely it is quite an industry these days, maybe outgrossing some more traditional sectors of the economy. Maybe we can/should just ignore them?

In his concluding section Palmer listed a number of specific ways to work towards community: listening to children, exposing students to different beliefs, inquire instead of argue, if you're involved in a church ask if your congregation is truly safe for diversity, encourage workplace, and respond to hateful expression with gentleness and caring. We must, he concluded, live out our answer in the "tragic gap" between the harsh realities of this world and what we know to possible even--especially--when we know we won't see results in our lifetimes. But we should keep working anyway.

Some concluding thoughts from your humble author. Last week one of my Facebook friends posted, in response to vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial, "How can people do such things?" It put me in mind of a much-younger Robbie when we found some graffiti at our neighborhood park, asking me with a confused mix of emotions why someone had written "I hate --" on the equipment. I could come up with any number of answers, but perhaps it's best not to answer it at all. Perhaps it's best to leave the question hanging out there. We all know of the evils in this world, and the evil that people do, and over time we get more experience with it all. Maybe it would do us good not to try to understand it, to always be surprised by it, because we're spending our mental energies looking for the good in people. I believe I will try this, though it will require daily exertion to undo bad mental habits of many years' standing.

Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966: 158): 
In Louisville, at the Corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
Merton's enclave, where he had believed himself separate, was the monastery where he lived. For others it might be living in a large-lot suburb, enclosure in an ideological bubble, or being in the white middle-class. To build community we need to get out of our enclaves.

Reader, I too, even I, have at times felt the overwhelming feeling Merton describes. Palmer's essential argument is this feeling must be sustained, so that your love for humanity is not a momentary rush of passion but a long-term relationship. The challenge, that requires the daily exertion I mentioned in the last paragraph, is in time (sometimes not very much time) you realize that much of humanity does not want a long-term relationship with you. Some have no interest in developing community; some even think that ensuring economic opportunity, accommodating diversity, and environmental sustainability are foul ideas. Some people think that when your gay friends get married it is a body blow to our civilization. Others steal unguarded purses, abuse alcohol or drugs, or are mean to kids. They smile in your face, when all the time they want to take your place. Or they talk on and on, and on and on and on, always about themselves. The temptation to give up on the whole community thing is ever-present; faithfulness to community in the face of all this surely is strenuous.

I am reading The Duty of Delight by Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Page after page she records her self-doubts, her fears, her daily encounters with difficult people. And yet she persevered. She was a model of faithfulness.

P.S.--A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled "Who Is My Neighbor?" that posed, though not very directly, the issue of whether the welfare of others is a practical problem or purely a moral (or religious) problem, either for individuals or communities. Palmer dealt with this question last night only in brief, so briefly in fact that I didn't catch what he said. I think it's a pertinent question, though, and will probably return to it in time.

SEE ALSO Emily Busse, "'Healing the Heart of Democracy' Emphasizes Community in Cedar Rapids," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 July 2013 [http://thegazette.com/2013/07/27/healing-the-heart-of-democracy-emphasizes-community-in-cedar-rapids/]. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Geography is destiny?


The New York Times yesterday reported at length on a study of economic mobility by metropolitan area. The results reported in the Times focused on the chances of a child whose family was in the bottom 20 percent of incomes moving into the top 20 percent by age 30. Not surprisingly the chances aren't very great overall (8 percent), but the variation across areas was striking. They ranged from 11 percent in Salt Lake City, San Jose and San Francisco, to 4 percent in Atlanta, Charlotte and Indianapolis. That may not seem an awfully wide range, but note that if all outcomes were totally random 20 percent of people in each quintile would wind up in each quintile. Getting 11 percent of a poor population into the top 20 percent is fairly impressive, while 4 percent is pretty darned close to zero.

[For the record, Chicago's score is a weak 6.1 percent. Cedar Rapids scores 12.6 percent, higher than any of the larger metropolitan areas. I'd call that unbelievably high. I'm not sure 12.6 percent of all Cedar Rapids children are going to wind up in the richest quintile, much less 12.6 percent of poor Cedar Rapids children. There are areas of west Texas and North Dakota that score over 30 percent, which is ridiculous. I'm not sure why these anomalies exist... maybe too small a sample size? Anyway, it suggests treating data from smaller population areas with caution, which I do not do below, but even if I did the points I make still stand.]

The results are so intriguing that it's easy to overlook some details and some important qualifications. So before I comment on the findings, let's address these.

First of all, the "quintiles" are groups of 20 percent of the U.S. population, ranked by family annual income. For the starting point:
  • top quintile (80-99th percentile) = $107,000+
  • second quintile (60-79th percentile) = $73,000-107,000
  • middle quintile (40-59th percentile) = $47,000-73,000
  • fourth quintile (20-39th percentile) = $25,000-47,000
  • bottom quintile (0-19th percentile) = less than $25,000
For the end point, the study took age into account. A 30-year-old reaches the top quintile at $70,000 annual income. For 45-year-olds it's $100,000.

Secondly, movement from the bottom to the top is used as a measure of mobility, but it certainly is not the whole story. One can live very well in the second and middle quintiles, for example, and they can be worthy aspirations; but being truly stuck at the bottom can be cause for despair. Data showing movement from the bottom quintile to the top 60 percent might be more illuminating. Age 30 (chosen because they analyzed a group born in 1980 and 1981) is not necessarily the finish line. It is the age at which many people have begun having families, but if mobility were occurring more gradually--say, if poor children were regularly making it above the median by age 40 or 50--that would still indicate a strong degree of economic opportunity.

The authors of the study were specifically investigating the impact of tax policies on mobility, but found (to their surprise, they said) "only slightly" positive impact of larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the wealthy. What did have an impact:
  • size and dispersion of social classes: are poor families isolated in ghettos, or more dispersed across neighborhoods with a mix of incomes?
  • marriage, or at least the proportion of households with two parents
  • education, quality schools at the elementary and high school levels [The news story quoted Lawrence Katz, an economist, who noted that the areas of highest mobility correspond roughly with areas that established high schools earliest and have a long tradition of strong education]
  • civic engagement, greater membership in religious and community groups
What had little or no impact:
  • number of local colleges
  • cost of college (whew!)
  • extreme wealth
  • overall wealth (e.g. Seattle and Atlanta are similar in average income but Seattle has way more mobility)
  • race (greater mobility for whites is explainable by location, but see below)
The study is a brief for the role of place, particularly city design when we're talking about how the poor are or aren't connected to the parts of the city where the jobs are. (Do they live there already? Do they have access to public transportation? Is traffic prohibitively congested?) As noted in earlier posts, city design can also affect levels of civic engagement... that's the premise behind walkable cities, and the movement to establish third places. For Cedar Rapids, it shows why it's critically important to get the MedQuarter district and the West side right. If they develop in a way that creates jobs and builds connections from the downtown out to the poorer neighborhoods, that will do much to create economic opportunity in this city. If they develop in ways that create even more physical barriers, that will have the opposite effect, and institutionalize those barriers for decades.

Eyeballing the map suggests some relationship to politics, though I confess that relationship is unclear. The Times map has the areas under 5 percent in black, so they're easy to spot. They occur in parts of Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota, Indiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolina. The 2012 electoral vote total from those ten states was Romney 87, Obama 0. All but Arkansas have Republican governors. [NOTE: Looping in Louisiana and Virginia, which have specks of low mobility connected to commuting zones in Mississippi and North Carolina, respectively, makes it Romney 97, Obama 13, and 11 of 12 Republican governors.] Those states also have higher rates of inequality and poverty in spite of economic growth 2001-07, more child poverty, and higher percentages of women addicted to painkillers. [10/7/13 update: add declining female life expectancy.] Something's going on there, either in policy or culture, that's producing suboptimal outcomes.

That should give us pause before we embrace the Mississippi economic model: low taxes, low public services, little labor or environmental regulation, weak-to-no unions.

Finally, I wonder if the authors were too quick to dismiss the corrosive effects of racial prejudice. They note that whites have higher rates of mobility than blacks, but point out that that's due to where they live. Whites and blacks in the same area (e.g. Atlanta) have the same levels of economic mobility, but more whites tend to live in higher-mobility areas (e.g. Seattle). Race, then, is spuriously correlated to economic mobility. 

But I wonder if, instead, race is an antecedent variable? In plain English, do metropolitan areas have lower social mobility because there are high proportions of blacks living there? It's been pretty well documented that racial diversity affects how whites think about politics. Particularly lower-income whites are less likely to support redistributive policies, even though they'd benefit from them, if they live near blacks. If my mental image of poverty has a black face, is it easier not to pursue policies that create economic opportunity (and the resulting mobility)?


SOURCES

Emily Badger, "A Child in Seattle Has a Much Better Chance of Escaping Poverty Than a Child in Atlanta," The Atlantic Cities, 22 July 2013 [http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/07/child-seattle-has-much-better-chance-escaping-poverty-child-atlanta/6275/]

Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez, "The Economic Impacts of Tax Expenditures: Evidence from Spatial Variation Across the U.S.," http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/.

David Leonhart, "Geography Seen as Barrier To Climbing Class Ladder," New York Times, 22 July 2013, A1, 12.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why historic preservation

Historic preservationists, with whom I have spent some quality time, feel like their animating passion is unappreciated by a lot of developers. They quote developers telling them things like, "Sure, people miss such-and-such a building for a while, but eventually they forget."

Did anyone actually say this? If they did, they said something that is accurate, but only at the surface level. I will personally admit to an amazing inability to remember whatever was there before what's there now. [Wasn't that always there? Weren't we always at war with Eurasia?] Today there probably are people who drive down 3rd Avenue and think, "People's Church used to be there. What a cool old building that was. That thing that took its place sure is butt-ugly." But even in such egregious cases, such comments will--as the developers know--diminish with time.

 And soon we'll forget where the A & W was, where they put your tray in your car window well into the 1990s, or Hubbard Ice Company, where they used to erect a huge red-white-and-blue block of ice on Fourth of July. Conscious memories are fleeting things, as are feelings of sadness at the loss of city landmarks.

At the subconscious level, though, it's a different story. It is here that historic preservation matters, for three reasons:
  1. Familiar places help to orient you, giving you a sense of where you are, in a place that is comfortable because it is familiar. No, I don't get lost driving down 3rd Avenue because People's Church and the First Christian Church are gone. But it doesn't feel right... feels alien. Take out First Presbyterian and Daniel Arthur's and I might as well be on Mars.
  2. To thrive, a downtown--or any part of a city--needs to feel interesting and safe to people. That occurs when there is a mix of old and new building. Sure, new building doesn't have to be ugly. [Do you like the Great America Building? So do I! But a downtown full of such buildings would be ghastly.] Anyhow character takes time to acquire even in a well-designed building. Would Little Bohemia be what it is in a new structure?
  3. Historic buildings connect residents of a place to that place's history. If you're in Boston, or Williamsburg, or Amana, of course you've got tourists who are interested, too. But even towns that aren't famously historic have history. And if you're going to spend time there, your experience deepens if you feel connected to former residents who have long since passed.
For each of these reasons, historic preservation matters to people who may not consciously consider it a priority, and the loss of historic structures has impact long after people realize it.

Besides comfort, appearance, and connection, there are other reasons why I feel historic preservation is a public good. As Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities [Random House, 1961], ch. 10) argued years ago, older buildings tend to have lower rents. This makes room for a wider set of entrepreneurs. The big boys, like Alliant Energy or Wellmark or Physicians Clinic of Iowa, can afford to occupy offices that are brand spanking new. A start-up store or tavern, not so much. Yet it's these little stores, restaurants and taverns that give life to a neighborhood, especially after business hours. This is where third places are most likely to spring up.

And sometimes we find we need buildings we thought were useless. About 50 years ago Cedar Rapids got rid of its historic downtown train station and replaced it with a parking garage.
(Union Station, swiped from thegazette.com)

Who needs an ol' train station when everyone has cars and cheap oil will flow forever? Now that what James Howard Kunstler calls the "era of happy motoring" is endangered, maybe we'd like intercity commuter rail service, in which case we might could use that old train station after all.

Peace and quiet

My son Eli and I spent three days in Chicago last week, my second visit to the Windy City this year.
(Lakefront, looking north from Ohio Street Beach, 7/16/13)

Being in a more dense, urban environment than I'm used to means there are more people, a faster pace of life, and more ambient noise.These are part of what make urban life attractive to many people. Phrases like "sleepy old town" and "quiet evening at home" are typically not intended as compliments. Yet it occurs to me that (a) some people choose to live in suburbs and small towns because they want to live away from the crowds and noise; and (b) everyone probably needs some measure of peace and quiet in their lives.

We shouldn't overstate the contrast. It gets noisy in Cedar Rapids, too, even on the toney southeast side. There are car alarms, ambulances, outdoor speaker systems, barking dogs, unmuffled motorcycles and lawnmowers, not to mention several people seem to be in daily training for the leafblower Olympics, usually when we're trying to listen to music or have a conversation. But even if it isn't always quiet when you want it to be, you can always count on periods of quiet, often extended periods.

In Chicago the noise and hustle are more constant, though that statement begs for qualification. The River North area, where I usually stay, is less bustly than the Loop. I didn't spend any time in residential neighborhoods, which I'm guessing are quieter than downtown though still noisier than my neighborhood. [Truth in blogging notification: The last sentence was written while the author's next-door neighbor was vivisecting a tree with a chainsaw.]

As I pondered this an article appeared in the New York Times last week talking about noise in New York City. The main problem at present seems to be that building construction is occurring at such a pace that crews are working round-the-clock. That would seem to be a temporary problem, atypical even of large cities. The letters-to-the-editor that commented on the article were uncommonly interesting: one person recalled a car alarm going off night after night until a neighbor took a baseball bat to the offending car; another writer noted the problem of highway noise in rural areas.

While enjoying my visits to Chicago I've come to appreciate opportunities to step out of the urban flow and enjoy some quiet time. In April, for example, I enjoyed a movie at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and a church service at the Chicago Temple. Apart from the quality of the actual events, being in those places allowed me to slow down for awhile and recharge my batteries. You can find the same sort of rest-for-the-senses in libraries, museums, and where accessible natural settings. The restaurants, bars and coffee houses I've visited didn't quite qualify, but I imagine with some simple investigation you could find quiet places to hang out. [Note that sanctuaries or quiet places aren't the same as third places, which are places to seek interactions not solitude.]

So, quiet peaceful places exist, even in America's third largest city, to the benefit of all, I'm sure. But what about people who want more than an occasional respite? For now cities probably can and should seek future residents from the set of people who enjoy a faster pace and more interactions, and who can put up with a little noise. They may even find it a "Beautiful Noise," to quote the title of a Neil Diamond song and album. They can sell the advantages of the urban environment, and not try to be something they're not. And I'm certainly not advocating making people live in places they find unpleasant.

But, what if society changes in the way that some people are predicting: considerations of energy, environment, economy and/or government finance pushing the population to consolidate? If there are no jobs, what happens to small towns? If gas is $6.00 or $7.00 a gallon what happens to large-lot suburban subdivisions? And if people who'd rather be (relatively) isolated find themselves forced to relocate to a more urban area, what personal and social problems will that lead to?

FURTHER READING: Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006), ch. 15.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Third Places in the City of Five Seasons?

Ray Oldenburg's book, The Great Good Place (Paragon House), was published in 1989. Much of its social commentary has dated, but its central message not only endures, it seems to have inspired a movement.

Oldenburg argued than that America was suffering from the loss of casual gathering places, such as the neighborhood taverns, corner stores, soda fountains and coffee shops that had been been a key part of American life prior to World War II, and are still found in much of Western Europe. He coined the phrase third place, referring to the "great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work" (p. 16). Personal benefits of third places (ch. 3) include an accessible set of friends, spiritual uplift, an improved and broader perspective on humanity, and the opportunity for novelty. Social benefits (ch. 4) include a forum for free association, gentle social control, "fun with the lid kept on," and modulated political discussion. Do folks even know how to do that anymore?

Such places have disappeared with the urban neighborhoods that supported them, as Americans live farther from work, work longer hours and organize their children's lives to a fault, and as commercial establishments emphasize profit and fast service. In newer areas they're often prohibited by zoning ordinances that tightly segregate residential and commercial uses. The loss of third places, Oldenburg goes on, has led to higher levels of individual stress including heretofore-unheard-of childhood depression, crime, marital stress and divorce, and the loss of public/community life that engages and sustains us. Don't even start him on the Internet--because this book was published in 1989, he has more to say about shopping malls than online gaming or social media. But it's not hard to imagine him including them in his diagnosis.

Oldenburg's book has a definite "what's-wrong-with-America-today" feel to it, but he concludes on a hopeful note. It's vaguely hopeful, but it's hopeful. He is sure that our need to associate is fundamental, and that it will eventually win out over the forces that isolate us. He quotes approvingly from Patrick Goldring's The Broilerhouse Society (New York: Heybright and Talley, 1969, p. 216):
I believe the human instinct towards real community and dignity will survive any processing and will assert itself in a crisis. Sooner or later there will be a check in the seemingly inexorable movement towards ant-like humanity, organizing for organizing's sake.
Tangible signs of hope emerged by 2001, when Oldenburg published his follow-up volume, Celebrating the Third Place (Marlowe & Co.). After a brief introduction, he presents first-person experiences of 19 third places, nearly all of them local businesses. They include taverns, coffeehouses, and restaurants, as well as a garden store, a gym and a photo shop. Many of the accounts are written by the entrepreneurs themselves, who describe how they self-consciously aimed to create community gathering places as well as profit-making establishments.

Just being a coffeehouse or a bar doesn't make you a third place. Oldenburg's introduction cites examples of establishments that claim to be third places but are not: a chain of "neighborhood" restaurants that are found in congested strips, a "friendly diner" that's anything but, a chain of coffeehouses that "are high volume, fast turnover operations" where "Seating is uncomfortable by design and customers in line are treated rudely when uncertain of their orders" (p. 3).

What makes a third place thirdy? Not all the establishments in the book share all of these characteristics, but ideally they are (my list): local, easily accessible from home, preferably on foot; comfortable, where you could drop in by yourself and feel welcome; relaxed, meaning you can stay as long as you wish, spending some but not a huge amount of money; and possessing a steady clientele, so that when you drop in you're sure to encounter people you know. The combination results in spontaneous social encounters, which in turn bring the benefits to individual and society listed above. Oldenburg adds "The best places are locally owned, independent, small-scale, steady-state business..." (p. 4). This addresses my question from an earlier post--Are local businesses really better than franchises?--by saying third places traditionally drew most of their business from a three-block radius, which would generate too little income for a chain to flourish. That's not all the story, I'm sure, but it's a start.

The third places profiled in Celebrating the Third Place may have established some beachheads, but they face a lot of obstacles. Oldenburg notes that governments all over America have for decades practiced unifunctional zoning, which means most residential areas don't have commercial establishments anywhere nearby. Where do the third places go? They have trouble competing for price with incorporated chains. In most areas, people spend the time between work and home commuting from one to the other, leaving them with no "community time." And however much we might crave community, it's hard to break the 70 years' habit of staying at home, especially when our homes are bigger, farther from the third places, and possess prodigious home entertainments systems, fitness centers and bars.

Cedar Rapids is the City of Five Seasons, because our size obviates the typical urban commute. Even so, I don't know if there's a lot of third place behavior here. There are certainly opportunities: the coffeehouses around town are friendly and outside of downtown Cedar Rapids seem oriented to long-term occupancy. (To be honest, I spent a lot of time in downtown coffee shops during my sabbatical, and even there never once felt hassled or hustled.) Some of them, like Wit's (formerly Witte's) End and Tatyana's, close at 2 p.m., which rules them out as third places for working people. I don't spend much time in bars, but have found two that seem oriented to neighborhood third place behavior. At our old house we used to walk to the nearby Tic-Toc (600 17th St NE), which welcomes children and has good beer on tap. The waiter got to know our orders, or at least Jane's, because she always got Blue Moon, and I could never make up my mind. Of course I was bringing my own company. The last few months I've attended a jam session at Little Bohemia (1317 3rd St SE), in a hardy 19th century building with a friendly host and a local beer (Roller Dam Red) I've never found anywhere else. It has at least the potential to be a neighborhood hangout once New Bohemia gets established. [Here is a video tribute to Little Bohemia after it was wiped out by the 2008 flood. It reopened in 2010.] Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, Tic-Toc, Little Bohemia and Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse are all accessible by pedestrians directly from the sidewalk, without having to cross a parking lot.

Another obstacle to the success of third places that Oldenburg doesn't consider is whether after 70 years out of practice we still know how to behave in them. I know I don't. Whenever I go out for coffee by myself, I always bring work to do. Last week at Brewed Awakenings I saw a colleague and a former student, both sitting by themselves. I greeted them both, but then settled in with The Cambridge Companion to Early Greek Philosophy. I assumed they were busy as well, and if I did decide to cast the early Greeks to the winds either of my acquaintances would find my joining their table an intrusion. If third places are going to do their stuff, we need to come with the expectation of spontaneous meeting and the anticipation others will welcome our company.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who is My Neighbor?

The e-mail signature of one of our Illinois correspondents includes a quote from Jane Addams (1860-1935): "The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." It's taken from a speech she gave in 1892, "The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements," and appears in her autobiography which was published in 1910.


The tricky part of the last phrase is not the word "common," as all but the most strenuous of individualists would agree that our lives are importantly connected to other people. The tricky part is "all of us." With whom do we share common life? Who is in our community? And who is out?

In Luke chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" It's a freighty question, because Jesus and the lawyer have just agreed that the command in Leviticus 19:18--You shall love your neighbor as yourself--is at the core of religious obligation. Jesus answers the definitional question with a story of a man who is robbed and savagely beaten while traveling on a country highway. Two religious elites ignore his plight, until he is rescued and cared for by a foreigner. (In an updated version recently done by my church's youth group, the despised Samaritan became an Iranian Muslim with AIDS.) Jesus asks the lawyer: 'Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?' He said, 'The one who showed him mercy.' Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise' (vv. 36-37). Jesus's interpretation is interestingly expansive, since the original verse in Leviticus clearly addresses only not holding grudges or taking vengeance. A negative admonition (don't do these mean things) becomes a positive one (show mercy).



I used to be troubled by the way Jesus turns the lawyer's question around. The lawyer asks, "Who is MY neighbor?" Jesus, though seemingly intending the lawyer to emulate the Samaritan foreigner's actions, asks him who is the beaten man's neighbor? Which way does the obligation to love/show mercy flow? Maybe it makes more sense in Greek.

ANYWAY! Admitting that even as a boy I tended to overthink things, and that the relationship of neighbor is two-way, questions remain about this much-beloved passage. Interestingly, the fact that the good guy is a foreigner is not one. That feature of the story has rhetorical punch, but doesn't expand the scope of Leviticus 19, which goes on to say The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God (v. 34).

But I am a social scientist, always on guard against generalizing from a single case. The beaten man is, though he never speaks and we never learn his identity or really anything about him, a wholly sympathetic figure. We can hardly blame him for his plight; he is suffering from a random horrible event. Assuming he's able to recover from his injuries, he will go back to his old life, resume supporting himself and if applicable his family, and will require our (well, the Samaritan's) care no longer.

These questions matter because much of American policy revolves around the question of who we include in our obligation to care, and what we're obligated to care for. Niles Ross said in response to my last post, "Students, the poor, the elderly, and the disabled [lack] the loud voice of those who already have cars, and see no need for mass transportation.... Do we care?" Is the fact that some around us lack political and economic power a problem for the rest of us?
  •  Do we owe some care to people who are poor, and are likely to stay poor without sustained intervention (and sometimes even then)? 
  • To people who lack good health insurance? 
  • To animal and plant species threatened by oil exploration or climate change? 
  • To people who are in bad shape because in the past they took drugs, had unprotected sex, dropped out of school, or otherwise violated the norms of society? 
  • To immigrants who are in the country illegally? 
  • To people that have personally injured us? 
  • To people we have never seen? 
If we owe some or all of these people care, how much care do we owe them?

My initial answer, based purely on gut reaction would be that our obligation to care is expansive, albeit (a) beyond an initial patching up, we should focus our efforts on helping people become self-sustaining; (b) I have no problem jailing people who have committed crimes, and even in extreme cases executing them; and (c) I'm fine with rational and effective regulation of immigration i.e. not what we've got now. This is a first pass at the question, however, and I can see where others could make the case that we draw boundaries around our obligation to care. Drawing these boundaries too closely, though, leads us into gated communities, either real or metaphorical. Isn't that the point of a gated community, to winnow a few into the circle and define everyone else as beyond the pale?

Here, at last, THE POINT: Two sets of questions...

  1. Are there moral consequences for drawing the circle of community/care too small? Do our souls wither or shrink if we decide some people are not our neighbors?
  2. Are there practical consequences for drawing the circle too small? If some part of a city or metropolitan isn't flourishing, does that materially impact the rest of it? If Detroit is dying does that affect Grosse Pointe? Does it matter to the rest of Cedar Rapids if people in Wellington Heights or the Taylor Area aren't thriving?
Answering either of these in the affirmative makes it imperative to figure out how to live together, and moves issues of economic opportunity, environmental sustainability and accommodation of diversity to the center of American public policy. Otherwise they are merely matters of  personal preference. We could try to protect ourselves from any practical consequences of social problems through more physical distance, police, gates or guns.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Should CR get rail service?

 (The trains of Sodor, swiped from fanpop.com)

Sunday's Gazette reminds us that in 2006 a study by R.L. Banks and Associates assessed the feasibility of commuter rail service between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Rail service has certain appeal, for environmental and traffic congestion reasons--and, let's face it, it's part of our heritage. (The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City (CRANDIC) line ran passenger trains from 1904 to 1953.) Nevertheless, we should proceed cautiously, if at all, keeping an open mind for alternatives.

Disclaimer #1: I like trains. Trains are cool.

Disclaimer #2: I do not work in Iowa City, and so would very rarely use the commuter rail service.

Intercity rail service would address the reality that many two-career couples in eastern Iowa are divided between two cities. For example, my friend Dan teaches with me at Coe; his wife works in Iowa City. I nominate Dan to take the train. According to census figures cited in the Gazette article, more than 6000 people commute daily each way between Cedar Rapids and iowa City. Currently there is no alternative to driving, usually by I-380 (though S.R. 965 is a workable alternative if necessitated, as it was by a major pile-up on 380 Tuesday evening the 2nd). Even if both cities stopped sprawling, and families over time moved close to one job, in such cases they couldn't possibly move close to both. Rail service would also draw the cities of the corridor closer together, helping recruit employees from towns along the line, and spurring commercial development around rail stops.

People from Cedar Rapids commute to Waterloo and Cedar Falls as well, though I have no numbers or even awareness that train service between the two areas has been thought of. So my ideal train line, straight from my brain to your eyes without any research as to where actual tracks are laid, would run from Cedar Falls to Iowa City, with maybe two stops in Waterloo, one in Center Point, three in Cedar Rapids (downtown, airport, one other), North Liberty, and maybe Coralville. That would serve the needs of commuters as well as university students, and special events like football games. [Update: Now I've looked at the Iowa rail map and see the tracks don't go through Center Point but Vinton. OK.]

One problem is people have to want to take the train. And it's not clear they do. As the Gazette article points out, "the concept has largely fallen off the radar in the past several years with no significant clamoring for it to come back." They go on to cite support from a personal trainer who lives in Coralville and works in Cedar Rapids, but in several places around town so she wouldn't be able to use the train. She would like fewer drivers on the interstate when she's commuting. This recalls a recent Onion headline in which such-and-such a percentage of the public favors "public transportation for other people."

Congestion alone doesn't make rail service compelling. The Metra system around Chicago serves thousands of passengers on a daily basis. But still people drive on the brutally congested Eisenhower and Dan Ryan expressways. It might well help nudge people towards rail travel if there weren't oceans of downtown surface parking, and if any calls to widen the highway were resisted.

A second problem is that the tracks in Cedar Rapids would need sufficient upgrade. Because of that R.L. Banks studied a potential line running from downtown Iowa City only as far as the Eastern Iowa airport. I love research, but if that's the proposal, why even bother? I can't imagine that there is a single person in Cedar Rapids who would find it convenient to drive (or bus) to the airport to catch a train to Iowa City. Heck, by the time you get to the airport from my house you're a third of the way there and have fought more than a third of the traffic. Either do the train right, or don't do it at all. An airport-to-Iowa City line is a surefire money loser that would taint rail service in the area for decades to follow.

We can add other dimensions to the issue as well. What opportunity costs are created by investing public money into commuter rail service? Improving connections to Iowa City, and arguably Cedar Falls, could do much to improve economic opportunity in Cedar Rapids, and rail promises an environmentally-sustainable, community-building means of doing that. But are there other ways to promote opportunity, sustainability and community that would be more cost-effective?

Are there other means available to provide an intercity transportation alternative? I've poked around on transit sites and haven't seen mention of any, but I'm hardly an expert. Maybe rail is over and there's some new better way to do it?

So far I've thought about the line in a vacuum. The equation changes if interstate rail service is developed, particularly if there is a line from Omaha to Chicago through Iowa City. At that point I think building a CR spur becomes compelling, as compelling as it was to build I-380 back in the day. An accompanying editorial in today's Gazette cites many good reasons to develop this line, but the governor and legislative Republicans are having none of it. Yes, it would cost money, but so does keeping up roads.

Commuter rail service is definitely a topic worth pursuing. People in the communities along I-380 need to think about what the future is going to look like. The term Corridor is used in ways that suggest people anticipate this area becoming a commercial and research hub. The combined population of Linn and Johnson counties in 2010 is 350,000. If we see that growing in the next 20 years to, say, 400,000, where are we going to put those people? Are we anticipating that they will be mostly in the metro areas or spread along the corridor? If we are going to avoid sprawl and all its attendant problems, we need to develop attractive cities, structure transportation to encourage urbanization and discourage sprawl, and share revenue so that communities like Shueyville or Walford (or Hiawatha) don't feel the need to encourage sprawl to come their way in order to thrive.

The economies of the cities along I-380 are already linked. Right now those links are by automobile, and are very vulnerable to gasoline price spikes, shortages and such. I'm not a peak-oiler, but at the same time I find that the promise of the tar sands providing cheap fuel forever hard to believe. We need to be contemplating a back-up plan.


SOURCES

Gregg Hennigan, "Commuter Rail on Slow Track," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 July 2013 [http://thegazette.com/2013/07/07/eastern-iowa-commuter-rail-proposal-on-slow-track/]

"History: Timeline," Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Company, http://www.crandic.com/CompanyHistory/Timeline/.

"Passenger Rail Fact Check," Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, http://iowacityarea.com/Content/Passenger_Rail_Fact_Check.aspx

"Riding the Rails," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 July 2013, 9A, 12A


ADDITIONAL INTERESTING MATERIAL

Yonah Freemark, "The Administration Refreshes Its Push for a Major Infusion of Funds into the National Rail Program," The Transport Politic, 29 April 2013 [http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2013/04/29/the-administration-refreshes-its-push-for-a-major-infusion-of-funds-into-the-national-rail-program/]. Describes Obama's rail proposal, which is ambitious in content but not much changed in approach from what's previously been dead-on-arrival in Congress, which as has been argued on this site is dysfunctional. The Federal Rail Administration funding authorization expires this year, though, which may or may not change thing.

Iowa Department of Transportation, "Rail Transportation Plan" (2009), http://www.iowadot.gov/iowainmotion/rail.html. Summarizes studies of various freight and passenger rail proposals, some of which are in the official plan (like Omaha-to-Chicago via Iowa City) and some of which are not (Iowa City-to-Eastern Iowa Airport).

Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, "A New Alignment: Strengthening America's Commitment to Passenger Rail," Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, March 2013 [http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2013/03/01-passenger-rail-puentes-tomer]. Recommendations based on a study of Amtrak, which finds increased ridership and revenue on short-distance (less than 400 miles) routes connecting major metropolitan areas. Chicago-to-Omaha would exceed that, of course, at 471.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fourth of July in Cedar Rapids





(Blake Blvd on Independence Day)

July 4 in America comes with a variety of meanings, besides the explicit one of being the anniversary of U.S. independence. It certainly is also a celebration of civic life. Much of what we do on the Fourth we do together, with family, friends, and--this is where the civic part comes in--bunches of fellow townspeople. In Cedar Rapids the celebration gets stretched out over several weeks, coordinated out of a downtown office by the Freedom Festival, which is a non-profit corporation with a board of directors and staff and everything.

But with apologies to Chalk the Walk, the Balloon Glow, and Movie Night at the Kernels, the big day remains the Fourth. This year the Fourth was exceptionally fine, weather to write home about. The day began early, with races through the southeast side sponsored by the Cedar Valley Running Association. The route took them down Grande Avenue, a block from my house. I caught the end of it; you can't quite see runners or spectators in this not-very-good picture, but they were there:



People were seated in lawn chairs along the route, cheering on the runners, but also visiting (adults), playing (children) and looking for playmates (dogs). Many of the houses were decked out for the holiday:

I got greeted by any number of people I didn't know as I walked through. It was truly beautiful. "Nice day," someone said. "Sure is," I said. "And a lot of runners," he continued. I, being a non-runner unless attacked, thought about saying, "It's not that nice," but I didn't.

Things started early downtown with a pancake breakfast on 1st St. It was ending by the time we got downtown, and things were pretty quiet. The Veterans Memorial Coliseum, badly damaged in the 2008 flood, is nearly repaired, and we got in to see the restored Grant Wood window.





The Riverfront Amphitheater/levee project is nearly finished as well. It will be open in August, but can be seen here from the 3rd Av Bridge. Would-be trespassers were discouraged by a friendly but bored security guard smoking and listening to rap music (not picured).



Meanwhile they were setting up on the bridge for the evening crowds they were expecting...

...with good reason. Come evening I couldn't believe the lines for corn dogs and funnel cakes!



Well before sunset, people were massed on the 3rd Av bridge...

...and on the lawn in front of the Veterans Memorial Building...

...all along the riverwalk, spread out through various other downtown vantage points, and even atop the 4th St parking garage:

The crowds were entertained by Dogs on Skis, here playing "Fat Bottomed Girls":
The stage was in the same 1st St. parking lot as the morning's pancake breakfast, making two imaginative uses in one day for one of downtown's sea of surface parking lots.

There were some unusual t-shirts--two men in two different places were wearing t-shirts proclaiming them to be "Tattooed and Employed"--but I saw not a trace of surliness. We were all about celebration not confrontation.


Eventually, the sun set and fireworks ensued... not just downtown or at the other officially-sanctioned shows at the country clubs, but seemingly throughout the town. As I walked home along 1st Av. there were bombs bursting in air in all directions. Hope everyone still has all their eyes and fingers!

After a day of celebrations, it was more than just noise and flash, more than just running, more than a funnel cake procured after heaven knows how long a time spent in line, more than just a sunny pleasant day off work. It was a day with fellow citizens.


 (Your correspondent hopes you'll notice he is bedecked in red, white and blue,
and that he is wearing his Freedom Festival button)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thinking about bicycles (part 2)

After writing my last post about bicycling, which mainly was about the role of bicycles in our evolving transportation matrix, and how we might cope successfully with the transition. I was thinking about what I wrote as I rode my bike to work on a mostly-empty street. I began to wonder about how much of what I preached was unwittingly located in the context of a small city with not very much traffic (except for certain times of the day on certain streets, which I can and do avoid). If I could rethink that piece I would try to sound a little less sure of myself.

My friend Bob thinks and rides in a quite different context from me. He lives in a city that has a much larger population than Cedar Rapids, and is more compact and so the streets are more crowded. Bob indeed comes to conclusions quite different from mine. He writes:

Many bicyclists fought hard to get bicyclists the right to be on our roads. Along the way, they looked very hard at all the safety issues and concluded that bicyclists are almost always safer riding as vehicles. I am not knowledgeable to give you all the details, or even good references. But I can say that some major points are (not in order of importance):
     1) dooring. You know about this. Sticking to the side of a road where cars are parked makes dooring much more likely. Partly because it means doors are more likely to open in a bicyclist's path, and bicyclists are less able to avoid. But also because it means drivers who are about to open a door are less likely to see bicyclists.

     2) visibility. Drivers often fail to see bicycles. The problem is worse when bicyclists hug the side of a road. And even worse around right turns. Riding in the middle, or even left side, of a lane increases visibility.

     3) simplicity, memory, and predictability. Drivers and bicyclists have enough trouble remembering one set of laws. Having a separate set for each type of vehicle would tax memories even more. Yes, laws aren't quite the same for bicycles as for other vehicles. But they aren't the same for all cars, trucks, buses, etc.

     4) passing room. Travel lanes are rarely wide enough for a car to pass a bicycle safely. If the bicyclists knows a car can't pass safely, the bicyclist is safer making sure drivers know also.

Good bike lanes can help. Bad bike lanes are worse than none. Unfortunately, bike lanes are too often designed by folks who don't understand the issues well enough and/or not maintained.



In my city, all modes of transit (cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians) tend toward anarchy. Bad for all.
Stay well.


Bob 

Meanwhile, things are reportedly not as rosy in Amsterdam as I was reading in Speck's book. The New York Times carried a report Sunday, June 21 (which I didn't read) that bicycle-friendly Amsterdam is becoming overwhelmed with bicycles. Since New York, like Chicago (and Cedar Rapids), is striving to become more bicycle-friendly, it augurs alarmingly, at least for the writer of this letter-to-the-editor which appeared yesterday:

The horrendous bicycle congestion in Amsterdam portends my worst fears for New York City if Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's crusade to promote cycling at any cost is not scaled back by his successor. In addition to the ubiquitous tombstone-like parking stands for the new bike-sharing program, Citi Bike, more and more bikes are appearing on our sidewalks, clumsily chained in bunches to anything stationary, cluttering pedestrian areas and complicating emergency services, trash collection and sanitation....

From reading all this city design stuff I've started to see that a variety of problems are surprisingly, at least in part, problems of design. A lot of transportation in Cedar Rapids is anarchic, too, but it's easily overlooked because at most times in most places traffic is so light. That would not be the case in a compact city, which is what I'm sort of driving at (pardon the pun) here. Could better design overcome that? I don't know, whether or how much.

The New York writer concerned about bicycle congestion is another matter. We have for decades designed transportation around moving cars more quickly through space, and accommodating cars wherever the drivers' destinations are. In other words, lots of roads, lots of parking spaces, all designed for cars. Bicycles and pedestrians are uninvited guests, and they tend to fit in about as well as me at a party. Thinking about the space between Coe and downtown, about 1.5 miles long and maybe 2.5 miles square... what would you say is the ratio of parking spaces for cars to parking spaces for bikes? I'd say, off the top of my head, about 200-to-1. The ratio of road space for cars to bike lanes has to be at least 100-to-1, with a bike lane on 3rd Av and the Cedar River Trail cutting through downtown at 4th St. That's not too far off from what current transportation usage would indicate, although I often find myself locking my bike "to anything stationary" downtown because it's blocks to the nearest bike rack. Doubling and spacing out the bike racks would probably do for now, but let's say Cedar Rapids gets bike crazy. If I ride to Coffee Emporium or Brewed Awakenings, I can lock to a tree. If six other bikers follow me, it's an instant mess!

Cities all over America need to prepare to be flexible, in order to respond to shifts in transportation usage. The societal benefits of shifting away from motor vehicles are manifest. And if burgeoning numbers of bikes are suddenly "clumsily chained in bunches to anything stationary," the city is behind the curve and needs to catch up. Easier said than done, of course. And, of course, local governments are starved for resources.

Urbanism review

I've been invited to give a number of public talks this summer and fall, and at least a couple of them will allow me to spread the ...