Sunday, December 27, 2015

How wide was my sidewalk

The Cemar Trail along K Avenue NE, approaching Prairie Drive: 7.5 feet
Cedar Rapids is introducing wide sidewalks into areas of the city. The standard sidewalk, such as the one that runs in front of my house, is five feet wide.
Sidewalk on Blake Blvd SE widens from 4 feet in the 1700 block
to 5 feet above 18th St
In some older areas of town, they're only three feet wide. A wide sidewalk can be several times that.

Urban designers commend wide sidewalks for areas of heavy pedestrian traffic. David Sucher (2003: 97) notes: The twelve-foot-wide sidewalk allows two couples to pass each other easily and with only minimal and unconscious maneuvering and no interruption of the conversation. He includes a picture taken in Alexandria, Virginia, showing two women walking side-by-side in one direction, a third woman walking closer to the street, and a man in a wheelchair coming the other direction. They’ll clearly pass each other without needing to squeeze through or be at all awkward. Andres Duany et al. (2010: 9.1) add, On active retail streets, a 15- to 25-foot width from building to curb is not excessive, particularly if outdoor dining is a possibility.

Reid Ewing and his students at the University of Utah (“Pedestrian Friendly,” cited below) note the problem that narrow sidewalks can force pedestrians to walk into the street to get around obstacles and other people…. Ideally, sidewalks should also be wide enough to allow benches for older adults and families to stop and rest or relax. Generally, two couples or two wheelchairs should be able to pass each other comfortably on a sidewalk, which requires about 10 to 12 feet across.

Ewing et al. cite Seattle’s municipal code as requiring sidewalks to be at least 12 feet wide; Knoxville, Tennessee, requires 10 foot sidewalks in the South Waterfront District, but that includes a five-foot planting zone. In Washington, DC, advocates note that Connecticut Avenue used to have 12 foot sidewalks on both sides of the street, but in 1962 the sidewalk on one side was narrowed to make room for a parking lot. At the time of the post they were trying to get the original width restored (Caudill… if you click on the link, be sure to watch the 1 ½ minute video trip down the sidewalk).

Wide sidewalks are commended in the “Best Practices and Design Guide” on the Federal Highway Administration website’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program: The width of the sidewalk corridor is one of the most significant factors in determining the type of pedestrian experience that the sidewalk provides…. Narrow sidewalk corridors are unsatisfactory because they limit the number of pedestrians that can use the area, require pedestrians to travel single file, and force pedestrians to travel uncomfortably close to buildings and/or automobile traffic…. Sometimes, narrow sidewalks do not provide enough clear space for people who use walking aids or wheelchairs to travel down the length of the sidewalk.

Wide sidewalks can already be found around Cedar Rapids. In fact, the sidewalk along 1st Avenue in front of Coe College is about 7.5 feet wide. Much of downtown features sidewalks of this width. Interestingly, some of the newer wide sidewalks are intended for both bicycles and pedestrians--for example, on K Avenue NE where the sidewalk was completed out to Prairie Drive as part of the CEMAR Trail. The wide sidewalk planned for Lindale Drive NE as part of the Collins Road project has a similar mix in mind.

Cedar Rapids's recent sidewalk construction initiative is welcome enhancement to our pedestrian infrastructure. Most are, of course, traditional five foot sidewalks. Are there places where foot traffic merits wider sidewalks? Along and around the high schools and middle schools, perhaps? Or, are there places where businesses as well as the general vibe would be helped by using wide sidewalks to invite walking?

3rd St SE entering New Bohemia:
7.5 foot walking area with additional space for benches
7th Av SE in front of the new federal courthouse: 10 feet (?)
400 block of 1st St SE: 10 foot walking space, additional paved space for signs and lampposts 
200 block of 3rd Av SE: 12 foot walking space (!)
Sidewalk along 3rd Av SE is 10 feet by Greene Square,
narrows to 5 feet above 5th St
7.5 foot sidewalk through Greene Square as you approach the public library
Herb Caudill, “Bring Back Cleveland Park’s Historic Wide Sidewalks,” Greater Greater Washington, 16 July 2013,
Andrew Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon, The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010)
Federal Highway Administration, “Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access” (2001),
 “Pedestrian Friendly Code Directory: Wide and Continuous Sidewalks,” ChangeLab Solutions, n.d.,
David Sucher, City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village (City Comforts Inc, 2003)

SEE ALSO: Priscila Pacheco and Lara Caccia, "How Public Spaces Make Cities More People-Oriented," The City Fix, 27 May 2015, [not about sidewalks specifically, but about how spaces for public interaction make cities safer and more pleasant... not to mention more productive]

Peanuts cartoon from 1951. Used without permission.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dan Burden on sidewalks and the future

Dan Burden at CSPS Hall
 I would never walk. I would take a car.

Dan Burden of Blue Zones praised both sidewalks and the City of Cedar Rapids's plans to include them in development in a talk at CSPS Hall last week. Burden, director of innovation and inspiration for Blue Zones, talked up both the social and economic benefits of complete streets, which he said "address all the needs of all the people all the time" instead of focusing exclusively on efficient flow of automobile traffic.

Burden said modifying the streetscape was an essential element of Blue Zones' efforts in Albert Lea, Minnesota, which helped bring about dramatic improvements in health spending and work productivity. Economically, he argued complete streets produce 4-5 times the revenue per square foot than auto-oriented streets; add value to homes at several times the cost of constructing a sidewalk and planting street trees; and, with more compact development provide more efficient use of city services such as the fire department. Socially, walkability addresses a basic human impulse: Walking, he says, is the first thing an infant wants to do on its own, and the last thing an older person wants to give up. It gives everyone a chance to exercise and meet more people, allows elders to age in place independently, and sustains the quality of neighborhoods.

Sidewalks are, of course, not an end in themselves but a means to an end, and should be pursued with an eye towards cost-effectiveness as well as "completing the system." That means intentionally constructing a network of sidewalks in places with the potential of generating "places to go to." He showed a poignant picture of the sidewalk in front of his childhood home, which his father had built himself. Neither their neighbors nor their city took it from there, though, and it remains, seven decades later, a very short stub of cement in front of one house. Effective sidewalks connect people and destinations, with "eyes on the sidewalk" along the way (i.e. windows not garages or fences). They make for a smaller life radius, defined as the area where 90 percent of the things you do are found. (In traditional urban development, this might be a mile or two, so accessible multiple ways including walking; in suburban sprawl, several dozen miles, so accessible only by car.)

Burden, joined by city staff in a question-and-answer session after the talk, stayed positive and general, as befits an inspirational speaker. But we missed an opportunity to engage the crux of the sidewalk construction issue when an audience member questioned plans to extend the sidewalk along the south side of Grande Ave SE. (I live near there and know the speaker, but will leave it to him to identify himself if he chooses.) Grande runs for about a mile, beginning at 16th Street in Wellington Heights, through some quite toney blocks, and terminating in Bever Park. The sidewalk along the north side runs the entire route; on the south side it ends at 21st Street, about halfway along. This year, a city proposal to build the rest of the sidewalk met with near-unanimous opposition from homeowners on both sides of the street. The speaker argued the added sidewalk would be redundant, given the existing sidewalk along the north side of Grande, but mostly that it would be "disruptive."

Residents on Chandler Street SW, which leads to Jefferson High School,
are fighting city plans to build sidewalks (Bing maps)
It's an important reminder that the case for walkable cities, and for sidewalks as a means of walkability, is far from being a slam dunk. Not everyone wants to meet more people, or to live in a connected community, or not to rely on their car(s) to take them everywhere they need to go. Burden is in my view absolutely right when he says "an uncertain future will require more collaboration than we're used to," but not everyone believes that or wants to believe that. This particular speaker is in his 80s, but even people my age and younger believe primarily in the suburban values of beauty, privacy and security (made famous in the Chicagoland of my youth by the Tru-Link Fence Company). There are fiscal. environmental, social and soulful reasons for backing off on those suburban values, but to say the least some people remain unimpressed. How can such mindsets be reached, much less convinced of the desirability of building connected communities? Will developing successful examples, to the extent it's politically feasible, help?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Violence, fear, guns and our common life

"Chi-Raq," Spike Lee's new movie, begins with a map of the United States outlined in guns. Its release poignantly coincides with last week's shootings at a community center in San Bernardino, California. Following so quickly on the Planned Parenthood clinic shootings in Colorado Springs, not to mention the terror attacks in Paris, the latest killings appear to have rekindled anxieties about violence in America. How will we respond? Early indications are that the American political system remains mired in old rhetoric and rigidly defined positions. Can we even respond at all?

President Obama addressed the country Sunday night, in an effort to assuage public fears of terrorism and gun violence. He promised to "destroy ISIL," which is what one might expect him to say despite the elusiveness of the goal, and provided details of military, diplomatic and intelligence efforts to counter terrorism. On guns he called for barring purchases by people on no-fly lists, as well as an assault weapons ban; not unreasonable, but not much impact.

I have never owned a gun, and have no plans to purchase one. So I have at best an outsider's perspective on the role they play in American life and culture. I also don't spend much time worrying about being the victim of an armed assault. At the same time, I recognize the risks that people face are real, and that fear can be as destructive as an actual attack. I'm pained by the high surliness-to-logic ratio of a lot of the discussion. I'm skeptical that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses individual gun ownership at all, much less protects it to such a degree that precludes regulation (see Spitzer for what details there are on the amendment's murky history).

This much I do understand:
  • Fear, of the other, or of random violence, is a natural human reaction. Fear is also political currency, and can be exploited if people are willing to have their buttons pushed (as too many are, alas). But the physical and fiscal realities of the 21st century continue to thrust us together. We can't afford to build walls high enough, or roads long enough, to keep us in our respective safe spaces. And while hoping that "a good person with a gun" would pop up and stop a bad guy is understandable, it amounts to nothing more than wishing for a less awful outcome, while overlooking the risks that gun entails at the times when it's not interrupting an assault. (The Cedar Rapids Gazette today reports a rising number of firearm thefts from vehicles.)
  • Some Americans own a lot of guns. There are by some estimates more guns in American than people. But despite occasional reports that gun purchases are increasing, driven by fear (of violent attack, or of governmental gun control), the proportion of gun-owning household holds consistently at about 35-40 percent (Morin, "Gun Ownership"). Most Americans own no guns. All those American guns are in relatively few hands.
  • The level of gun violence in the United States is exceptional, and not in a good way. New York Times analysis of American news databases found over 300 mass shootings--defined as shootings that left four or more people injured or dead--so far in 2015. Some get a lot of attention, like the ones in San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and Chattanooga, but a lot goes on outside the media spotlight. But here's the thing: 462 killed by mass shootings in 2015 is barely 1.5 percent of our annual total of gun deaths. According to the National Safety Council, there were 31672 deaths in the U.S. from firearms in 2010, a typical year, more than half by suicide, with a substantial minority by homicide. (The enemies aren't all without.) No other developed country, including Switzerland with its high rates of gun ownership, is even close to this level of gun violence (Lemieux). What are we doing wrong?
  • The National Rifle Association isn't helping. Neither are the Republicans, nor for that matter are the Democrats. The NRA is in a fix, albeit one other interest groups can only envy. Since adopting its absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment in 1977, it has emerged as a political force so powerful it has swept all before it. Like other interest groups, it is in essence a business, which can't sustain itself in a world that has all the gun rights it will ever need (Godwin). Hence the overblown, perpetual crisis rhetoric, with "confiscation" always right around the corner unless we keep up the fight. Because of the political universe the NRA has helped create, the Republicans are offering no helpful policy solutions, while the Democrats offer only tiny incremental policies--barring gun sales to those on terrorist watch lists, for example--that seem mostly oriented to finally getting a victory over the NRA, however small.
  • We can only address this problem in conversation. The solutions aren't going to be easy, and they're likely to be complex. They need to take account of the fact that guns are small and easily transported, making municipal regulations impracticable and even state regulations difficult to enforce. They need to take account of a variety of interests: concerns for self-protection; access to materials for hunting or collection; fears generated by openly armed individuals; the dangers of proliferation. Most of all, to accomplish any of this, we need to learn how to listen, how to exchange ideas, and how to work towards solutions that advance our complimentary interests (Fisher et al). Non-negotiable demands are not conversation. Calling people nuts or ignorant is not conversation.
  • Gun policy needs to evolve. A perfect comprehensive policy is unlikely to emerge all at once. We need to be able to respond to research on approaches to gun violence--which means there needs to be research on gun violence. The federal ban on research by the Centers for Disease Control is absurd, not to mention paranoid, and should be lifted at once. Then, as in any other policy areas, policy needs to change in response to what is and isn't working.
The vast majority of guns in the U.S. are owned by men.
Men are also somewhat less likely to support gun control.
P.S. One reason I so much admire the work and message of Parker J. Palmer is his enduring belief that the conversations we need to have can occur, that obstacles to having them can be overcome with persistence. I aspire to that level of optimism. Given the rut this issue is stuck in, and how well surliness has worked for the N.R.A., it's hard to imagine getting from here to there. But what's the alternative?

EARLIER POSTS: "Rights and Our Common Life," 26 August 2015; "A Gathering of Spirits in Cedar Rapids," 28 July 2013

 Stephen J. Dubner and Steve Levitt, "How to Think about Guns: Full Transcript," Freakonomics, 14 February 2013,
 Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Penguin, 2nd ed, 1991)
 R. Kenneth Godwin, One Billion Dollars of Influence: The Direct Marketing of Politics (Chatham House, 1988)
 "Gun Ownership in US on Decline,", 11 March 2013, [citing data from 2012 General Social Survey]
 Sharon LaFraniere, Sarah Cohen and Richard J. Oppel Jr., "How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur? On Average, Every Day, Records Show," New York Times, 3 December 2015, A1, A23
 Frederick Lemieux, "Six Things Americans Should Know About Mass Shootings," IFL Science, 5 December 2015, [author is a criminologist at George Washington University]
 Rich Morin, "The Demographics and Politics of Gun-Owning Households," Pew Research Center, 14 July 2015,
 Robert L. Spitzer, The Politics of Gun Control (Chatham House, 1995)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Black Friday Parking

As part of Strong Towns's Black Friday Parking event, I roused myself out of my warm house this morning after Thanksgiving--traditionally the start of the holiday shopping season, and possibly the biggest shopping day of the year--to go study parking lots. [Memo to non-Iowans: It had to be morning, just to be fair. Afternoon would have been like shooting fish in a barrel, because the Iowa Hawkeyes were playing Nebraska, and when the Hawkeyes are on, all commerce in our town pretty much ceases.]

Strong Towns, of which I am proud to be a charter member, has a particular animus towards local ordinances that require a certain minimum number of parking spaces for stores and offices. Minimum parking requirements "create a barrier for new local businesses and fill up our cities with empty parking spaces that don’t add value to our places." They encourage members to cruise their towns, cameras at the ready, to show that even on the busiest shopping day of the year, we're wasting acres and acres of urban space on off-street surface parking.

If Strong Towns was a very large organization, and every member participated, I could see where all of us would descend on mall parking lots across America, filling them with our cars and ruining each others' pictures, thus defeating our purpose. Well, we can't take that chance, can we? So I took a city bus to one of our main shopping areas, the north side of Collins Road NE.

Coming through the Lindale Mall parking lot a little after 9. Shopping was definitely on, but the lot was about 50 percent full.

Once across Collins, I debarked near the new Hobby Lobby...

which anchors a strip mall, and was doing a brisk business, but the lot was about 30 percent full.

I walked from there up the service road to Blairs Ferry Road NE, every bit as stroad-y as Collins though with somewhat less traffic (20000+ daily traffic load as opposed to 30000+). A strip mall anchored by a Dollar General was at about 25 percent of parking capacity.

A nearby discount store had a fair number of cars parked, but in an enormous parking lot. Call it 20 percent full.

It was nearly 10 when I'd made it as far as the Super Target at Blairs Ferry and Rockwell. They were certainly busy, with an unusual number of vehicles turned out.

Even so there were plenty of spaces yet available.

Point made and (I hope) taken, I forded my way through this decidedly non-walkable area to Roasters Coffee House on Center Point Road in Hiawatha, where a chocolate-peanut butter scone and a delicious cup of coffee were the just rewards for my photographic-hiking efforts. What a delightful place!  One of the finest of Cedar Rapids's bevy of locally-owned coffee shops is on yet another soulless stroad. It felt and acted like a third place. I thought it should be downtown somewhere, but it seems to be doing quite all right despite my opinion of its environs.

On the way back, Lindale Mall was practically bursting by 11:00, with parking lot at least 90 percent full.

Nearby Town and Country Mall, however, a classic remnant of first-wave sprawl now bypassed and dowdy, was maybe 25 percent full.

As we approach the summing up, it's time for me to confess I don't know whether these parking lots have resulted from government mandates or the individual decisions of developers. (If the latter, we might well consider parking maxima in future developments.) Either way, parking capacity that meets or exceeds the biggest crowd you're ever going to see all year wastes space, which means:
  • places are less financially-productive;
  • walking is difficult (if you're a nut like me) to impossible (if you're a normal person); and, most critically...
  • places are dead boring.
What would I do about Collins and Blairs Ferry Roads, if I were Lord of the City? Almost nothing.  They are what they are, which is what they were created to be. Establishing urbanism at the Blairs Ferry Super Target would be energy- and cost-intensive. (See Scott Doyon, "Walkability: Good Money after Bad" from the Place Makers blog.) Better to work elsewhere in the city, where if successful, genuine urbanism could prosper, and draw off some of the traffic congestion to boot.

Collins and Blairs Ferry Roads, not to mention the pavement ghetto around Westdale Mall on the southwest side, should remain as object lessons. If you screw up urbanism, you get this.

"Black Thursday: Does It Matter?" 28 November 2014
"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013

SEE ALSO: "Is 'Surge Pricing' Coming To Parking In D.C.?," The Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.5, 25 November 2015, [interview with panel including Donald Shoup of UCLA... the AAA guy on the panel is so awful I'm ashamed to be a member]

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I still believe in The City

At the Paix pour Paris vigil, Cedar Rapids
I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.

I've just finished Vivian Gornick's short, elegant The Odd Woman and the City (cited below). A cross between memoir and segmented essay, it describes her life in and relationship to New York City--Bronx in her youth, Manhattan as an adult. Her most soaring passages celebrate life in the city:

It's an evening in June and I am taking a turn through Washington Square. As I stroll, I see in the air before me, like an image behind a scrim, the square as it looked when I was young, standing right behind the square that I'm actually looking at.... With the street at my back and everything I know etched on my face, I look through the scrim directly into those old memories and I see that they no longer have authority over me. I see the square as it is--black, brown, young; swarming with drifters and junkies and lousy guitar players--and I feel myself as I am, the city as it is. I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies, and so has New York. We are at one. (pp. 169-170)

Each day when I leave the house, I tell myself I'm going to walk up the East Side of town because the East Side is calmer, cleaner, more spacious. Yet I seem always to find myself on the crowded, filthy, volatile West Side. On the West Side life feels positively thematic. All that intelligence trapped inside all those smarts. It reminds me of why I walk. Why everyone walks. (pp. 94-95)

It's her life, of course, and it's her city, but at a general level it's the Life in the City that is the fondest promise of the urbanists. Not that she is by any means Pollyannish or sanguine about it--there appear frequently in her stories the jostling of crowds, the noise of construction equipment and amplified music, the danger of crime, and the frequent encounters with fragile people that can make city life less than pleasant. But the energy and promise of the city and its people--all of its people--more than make up for the annoyances. She identifies across three centuries with the British writer Samuel Johnson:

For Johnson the city was always the means of coming up from down under, the place that received his profound discomfort, his monumental unease. The street pulled him out of morose isolation, reunited him with humanity, revived in him his native generosity, gave him back the warmth of his own intellect. On the street Johnson made his enduring observations; here he found his wisdom. Late at night, when he went prowling for tavern conversation, he experienced the relief of seeing his own need mirrored in the company he found: those who drank and talked of Man and God till the light broke because none of them wanted to go home either. (p. 10)

It's a good thing, too, that cities have attractive qualities, because for innumerable environmental and financial reasons urban areas are going to need to contract and get denser in the coming century. We're going to have to get closer to each other. Urbanism can help with that, by promoting the design features that undo a lot of the damage we've done in the post-WW2 boom.

But design will get you only so far. There has to be a readiness of a large part of the American people to live with a large and diverse population close by, and to accept that the threat of crime that comes with concentrated population is not worse than the threats that come with dispersed population. We simply cannot build enough roads and infrastructure to get everyone as far away from everyone else as they might wish to be. The only viable path is to learn to live together.

I thought about this after a spate of gun violence in our town last summer. Then, suddenly, the past few days have seen a series of terror attacks around the world: in Beirut, Paris, Baghdad and just now Lagos. All are attributed to ISIS, the rogue band of Islamists that seems intent on provoking a worldwide religious war. The West has responded with a mix of fear, anger and courage. At our best we are the Parisians of the 11th arrondissement, sitting proudly and defiantly at outdoor cafes (Alderman). At our worst we are the Republican governors and presidential candidates--including Iowa governor Terry Branstad, after an early cautious response--who have opted to stoke the public fear by declaring their states off limits to refugees from the Syrian implosion (Healy and Bosman; compare to Inskeep). Or make overtly anti-Muslim statements (LoBianco). It must be hellishly awkward to be or look Arabic in France right now (Nossiter and Alderman).

Fear and anger are direct threats to our ability to live together. They are certainly understandable responses, natural under the circumstances. But they cannot be our only responses. Putting up walls and bellicose threats can't get us to the good life, or even a particularly secure life. The truly good life can only come collectively, which requires constructive solutions to the problems of our society--and even then, security can never be complete in this world. To try and live otherwise wastes money and corrupts our souls, and we miss out on all the fun different people can be. We can only live together, together.

Liz Alderman, "French Crowd Cafes to Defy Terror With a Sip of Wine," New York Times, 18 November 2015, A12
Vivian Gornick, The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
Patrick Healy and Julie Bosman, "G.O.P. Governors Vow to Close Doors To Syrian Refugees," New York Times, 17 November 2015, A1, A10
Steve Inskeep, "Washington State Governor Says He Welcomes Syrian Refugees," The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR, 18 November 2015,
Tom LoBianco, "Kasich: Create Agency to Promote Judeo-Christian Values," CNN, 17 November 2015,
Adam Nossiter and Liz Alderman, "Distrust, Even Fear, As Secular France Dims on Muslims," New York Times, 17 November 2015, A1, A8

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Explaining the library vote

Downtown library's grand opening, August 2013
The Cedar Rapids Public Library's quest for a property tax increase met a decisive defeat on Election Day. The final margin was 45 percent to 55 percent, out of about 14,000 votes cast (16.2 percent of registered voters, which in Iowa means about 12-13 percent of those eligible). The measure would have increased the library's property tax bite from the current 4 cents per $1000 assessed valuation to 27 cents per $1000. The anticipated additional revenue of $1.6 million per year would have replaced one-time funding which ends through June 2016. The library's baseline annual budget is $6.3 million.

Without public opinion survey data, the reason(s) for the defeat will have to remain mysterious. News coverage included quotes from a couple voters, but they don't necessarily speak for everyone. Certainly it was not for lack of political resources: There were many "Yes=Smart" yard signs, no "No" signs at all that I saw, and the Gazette endorsed it.

So what follows is mostly speculative, although there is reason to consider each of these potential rationales to be experience plausible. I've ranked them in order of idiosyncrasy.
  1. The tax increase seemed like too much. We're used to voting on one-cent sales tax increases, so 27 cents per $1,000 valuation sounds large from the get-go. And while in reality that amounts to an additional $23.00 per year for a family in a $100,000 house--a lot less than the cost of an incremental increase in the sales tax--maybe it still seemed like a lot, particularly in this economy when so many people feel so vulnterable.
  2. Libraries seem like luxuries for the elite. Cedar Rapids unveiled a new library building in 2013, after the previous building had been heavily damaged by the June 2008 flood. The building is a few blocks farther from the river, features modern efficient utilities that make it much less expensive to maintain, and is altogether brighter and more pleasant to be in (not to mention some quirky features like the rooftop balcony and children's play area). According to a Pew survey (cited below), 24 percent of American adults read no books in 2013; half of all men read four or less. People who don't read books might well think the CRPL is already a palace, so why does it need more money?
  3. Anti-tax sentiment applies even to local, targeted taxes. Conventional wisdom maybe thirty years ago was that people resented federal taxes, but supported local taxes, particularly if it was clear where the tax was going. Since then I've heard "City Hall" or "downtown" spoken with as much venom as "Washington." Assuredly it doesn't help that the city has a thing for large projects of dubious productivity. Would a referendum to fund the rebuilding of Westdale Mall have passed? It's fashionable in some quarters to be against government anyhow.
  4. The value of community assets in general is not as widely appreciated as it should be. In an age where people entertain themselves in their private homes, and travel in private vehicles, and where the most prestigious sections of cities are designed to maximize privacy and space, having civic spaces and resources that are shared among all citizens is more keenly important than ever. But many of us may not be socialized to recognize it.
My hunch is that the vote reflected concerns that were broader than this specific tax or this specific library. The map of outcomes by precinct in Friday's Gazette showed a pattern typical of past referenda on street repairs and parks: strongest support from a band of precincts north of Mount Vernon Road, and strongest opposition on the edges of the city. If I'm right, it wasn't so much a referendum on the library as it was on taxes and our concept of community. In that case, those of us who believe in the city--any city--as a common project in which we all have a stake need to work harder to spread the word.

So what's next for the library? Library board president Joe Lock spoke of "shifting course." The first suggestions were they might close earlier on weeknights, close the downtown library on Sunday and the west side branch on Friday, and cut staff positions. My hope is that the library continues to be the best it can be, both as civic function and civic space, within the constraints of the current budget. Supporters, like me, need to be unstinting in proclaiming its value to the community, not to mention the value of community itself. In time, demand for library services may grow, along with willingness to pay for them.

Rick Smith, "C.R. Library Levy Fails, Board to 'Shift Course,'" Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 November 2015, 1A, 2A

Rick Smith, "Cedar Rapids Library Board Hears First Suggestion on Budget Cuts," Cedar Rapids Gazette,  6 November 2015, 1A, 9A

Katherine Zickhur and Lee Rainie, "A Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013," Pew Research Center, 16 January 2014,

PREVIOUS POST: "New Downtown Library," 24 August 2013,

Monday, October 26, 2015

Collins Road: Oy Veh

(Google maps)
Collins Road NE, a.k.a. State Route 100, is the best example of a stroad in Cedar Rapids. Running five lanes east to west between I-380 and 1st Ave, it handles about 30,000 vehicles per day. A series of access drives link it to Lindale Mall and an impressive array of strip malls. Traffic in and out of the plazas requires the intersections be signalized, which makes it very difficult to make any time along the main road. I, for one, never drive Collins Road unless I absolutely must go to one of the stores there.

Cedar Rapids's policy response to this, predictably, has been to "solve" the traffic congestion problem by widening the road to six lanes. The latest stage, from Lindale Mall to Northland Avenue, roughly 1/3 of a mile, will according to the city cost $15.4 million, including the costs of property acquisition and removing the frontage road that connects the parking lots on the north side. But that's not all! Lindale Drive, which currently stops at the frontage road, will be extended through to the mall, underneath Collins Road, which will be elevated to create a bridge over it. Construction starts next spring, with completion early in 2018.

Consistent with the city's recently-adopted "complete streets" policy, Lindale Drive will be augmented with 8-foot sidewalks on either side to allow pedestrians and bicyclists to pass from one side's strip malls to the other. This is not much in the way of additional expense--it adds maybe 1 percent to the cost of the project--but it could be better spent elsewhere. Moreover, it smacks of greenwashing the whole project, as witness city officials bursting with pride in interviews with the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Gary Petersen from the Public Works Department promises "pedestrians and bicyclists an inviting option in one of the city's principal commercial centers where few options now are in place for them." PR person Emily Muhlbach added, from the same article, "It's a shift in how people can access those retail opportunities."

Alternatively, the boondoggle can tarnish the city's genuine efforts to improve walkability, as witness a letter to the editor in Friday's Gazette who charged the city with blowing the whole $15.4 million on bike infrastructure.

Oy veh.

Where do I start?

Maybe by saying "oy veh" again?

First, the rational response to a mess like Collins Road is to leave it alone. Don't try to fix it. With luck it will attain some kind of comfortable stasis. It's certainly not paying for itself now, but you have to choose your battles, and putting more money into it isn't somehow going to make it cost-effective. Cedar Rapids should continue to choose the sort of very enlightened, positive changes to our downtown that promise to spill over into core neighborhoods. Triage, says Jeff Speck in Walkable City, chapter 10. If you've got $15.4 million to spend--actually, it's only $3 million of city money, because there's grant money from the State of Iowa, and the U.S. government has also determined that it's in the national interest for this thing to go forward--spend it where it can do the most good. Think of all the places in Cedar Rapids where you could more productively spend this chunk of taxpayer money (or not spend it at all).

Secondly... "complete streets," my eye. While the wide sidewalks on Lindale Drive arguably improve the project, at marginal additional cost, they are not going to make this area walkable and bikeable, anymore than tarting up the intersection of Collins and 1st Avenue with sidewalks and brick crosswalks did. The combined transportation budgets of the European Community member nations probably could not make Collins Road a "complete street." (For one obvious point, anyone seeking to walk from one strip mall to the next, or to the inviting sidewalk-to-be on Lindale Boulevard, has to cross acres of parking lots.) The Lindale Mall/Collins Road strip is, by design, so utterly and completely auto-oriented that it can't be fixed. On the other hand, many parts of Cedar Rapids can be fixed. Invest in making them walkable and bikeable.

So, despite the positive spin of Ms. Muhlbach from the PR department, I don't think we'll see significant change in how people access these particular "retail opportunities." Nor would the long-demonstrated principle of induced demand lead us to expect an easier, less congested auto commute.

Third point: Next to the Gazette story on Collins Road was another story about a state legislative proposal to keep more graduates of Iowa universities and colleges in the state by offering them tax breaks. Here we clearly are working at cross purposes with ourselves. While most young Iowans presumably don't move to Chicago or St. Paul because of those cities' low taxes (irony alert!), perhaps some would be induced to stay with sufficient tax breaks. If so, however, we should offer them a rudimentary, no-frills state, as opposed to building expensive infrastructure in unproductive places that will some day be theirs to maintain. If young people possibly are moving to bigger cities because of employment and cultural opportunity, well, investing in Collins Road isn't going to help that either.

Finally, what of the safety of those bold pedestrians who do challenge the four lanes and 30,000 daily cars of Collins Road? Apparently there are some. Ann Poe of Cedar Rapids's City Council, who clearly spends more time on Collins Road than I do, described here encounters with pedestrians there "frightening." I would find that hard to argue with, particularly as four lanes become six and induced demand drives that 30,000 number upward. All I can say to that is [a] having one underpass at Lindale Boulevard gives these folks an option, but only if they desire or are willing to cross there and not at a different point along the road; and [b] as I said above, there are surely many places in Cedar Rapids where you could get much more safety improvement for your $3 million.

There are things cities like Cedar Rapids can and should do to improve business opportunities, transportation options and traffic safety. I've written about some of them, and in general they fall under the complete streets umbrella. But first of all, you have to be smart.

And stop trying to solve bad infrastructure with more infrastructure. Petersen estimates the entire cost of the Collins Road projects at $100 million. Add in the Westdale Mall boondoggle and you're up to an eight of a billion dollars spent in one city just trying to fix the 1970s.

Oy veh.

SOURCE: Rick Smith, "Major Work for Prime Destinations," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 15 October 2015, 1A, 9A


"What is a Complete Street?Holy Mountain: A Blog About Our Common Life, 13 August 2014

Charles Marohn, "Dealing with Congestion," Strong Towns, 19 October 2015,

National Complete Streets Coalition Page:

[NOTE: I revised this substantially after first posting it. I don't know if that's within the bounds of propriety. But I needed to make more clear why I object to the different aspects of this project: to the road widening and bridge on effectiveness and efficiency grounds, and to the new sidewalks mainly for opportunity costs but also because they're being oversold.]

[NOVEMBER UPDATE: Three posts summarizing recent research on induced demand]=========

Dave Alden, "Induced Demand, Congestion, and Peak Spreading Redux," Where Do We Go from Here?, 16 November 2015,

Eric Jaffe, "California's DOT Admits That More Roads Mean More Traffic," CityLab, 11 November 2015,

Jason Schaefer, "Reducing Traffic or Inducing It," Strong Towns, 20 November 2015,

Sunday, October 18, 2015

One way or two? (II)

My recent blog post commending Cedar Rapids's conversion of one-way streets to two-way raised some eyebrows when I noted that not all cyclists agreed that the conversion improves cycling. It occurred to me that not all one-way streets in our fair land are the same, and that so the image that comes up in your mind when I say "one-way street" might not be the same as the one in mine.

This is Jackson Boulevard, an eastbound, two-lane, one-way in downtown Chicago. The average daily traffic count between Kennedy Expy and Michigan Av ranges from 10,100-14,300. Cycling on this street at almost any time of day is going to be fraught with fast- or at least suddenly-moving auto traffic. Creating some friction by converting to two-way would surely improve bicycle and pedestrian safety.

This is 2nd Avenue SE, a three-lane one-way through the Wellington Heights neighborhood headed towards downtown. It is scheduled to be converted to two-way in the near future. The average daily count through this stretch in 2009 was 2,710. Subsequent to that, the street was blocked at 12th Street to accommodate the Physicians Clinic of Iowa facility, and traffic has probably declined; in any case the most recent traffic map does not include a count for 2nd Ave.

It also happens to be the route I take to work. While cars typically exceed the 30 mph posted speed limit, there's enough room on the street that I can take the right lane and cars can take the left and center. Even in "rush hour," there never is enough traffic to complicate this arrangement. I never feel like I'm on Jackson Boulevard.

The right-turn-only lane at 13th Street, where I don't turn right, does get complicated, but that's a subject for another post.

4th Avenue SE has already been converted to two-way. (See before-and-after pictures in my previous post.) Whatever its traffic load, it's apparently not significant enough to merit inclusion in the posted counts. 4th Ave used to be a two-lane, one-way headed towards downtown, and again, traffic was rarely so intense that cars couldn't easily get around a cyclist in the right lane.

Below 8th Street there are two car lanes and two bicycle lanes each way, so bicyclists get the advantages of both friction-slowed auto traffic and dedicated cycle lanes. Above 8th Street, though, 4th Ave makes room for a center turn lane by ditching the bike lanes and making do with sharrows. This arrangement is begging for awkward car-cycle encounters. There haven't been many yet--even at 7:30 a.m. I often have no cars with which to compete for road space--as downtown and MedQuarter development proceeds apace, we should expect considerable increase in auto and bike traffic.

All this is not to abandon my earlier praise for the conversion project. Particularly for residential areas like Wellington Heights, the three-lane one-ways are counterproductive to the neighborhood. But we should bear in mind, as one of the commenters on the Strong Towns site notes, "sharrows are not going to make cycling accessible for [ages] 8-80 if there's any volume or speed to the [auto] traffic."


Paul Fritz, "Main Street Vacancies," Small Town Urbanism, 29 September 2015, [one-way streets partly responsible for downtown decline in Sebastopol, California]

Sarah Goodyear, "Can the Least-Loved Biking Infrastructure Be Improved?" CityLab, 23 October 2015, [painted sharrows in Oakland, California, improved performance and approval... but note it was a two-lane one-way street that they worked on]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Urban images in art: Gustave Caillebotte

Paris Street Rainy Day
This image of pedestrians on a Paris street is taken from one of the most beloved works of art ever, "Paris Street, Rainy Day" by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894). As testimony to its place in the pantheon, quite the crowd turned out to see it on the final weekend of an exhibition of Caillebotte's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., "Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye."
Entrance to the Caillebotte show, Saturday 10/3/15
It's not hard to imagine why Caillebotte's best-known work has such appeal: Even in the rain, Paris is Paris, and very few of us are currently in positions where we wouldn't rather be strolling in Paris. [Point of irrelevant information: I used to have an umbrella with this scene on it.] There are people, ordinary people like you and me, they look good, they're active, and the scene is very accessible. Like another mega-famous Impressionist work, George Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte," you feel like you could very comfortably pop into the scene yourself.

Yet Caillebotte's own attitude to the scene is marked by ambivalence, which becomes clear upon viewing five other Paris street scenes he painted during the same time period, between 1876 and 1880. He depicts a new Paris, produced in large part by Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman, a local official during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. Haussman's public works program assaulted the medieval city with brio, smashing old structures and widening streets. He was Robert Moses a century before Moses would remake New York City, except that the technology of Haussman's day prevented him from building expressways. Whatever the value of cleaning up the "dirty, crowded and unhealthy" old city (Rice, quoted in "Haussman," cited below), it also removed places of meeting... which may have been Napoleon III's idea to begin with.

Caillebotte's Paris paintings show people who are disconnected from each other, walking wide streets by buildings large and unfriendly enough to draw the ire of a 19th century James Howard Kunstler. (Come to think of it, Kunstler's favored word for this kind of design, "despotic," is precisely what Napoleon III was.) The city is not human-scaled, and the people are alienated.
"The Rue Halevy Seen from a Balcony," from
The painter's vantage point, an upper-story window, means he (and by extension us) aren't connected to the people in the painting either. In none of the six paintings is anyone making eye contact with anyone else. Even the couple in "Paris Street, Rainy Day" isn't, upon a closer look, particularly connecting with each other. In "The Pont de l'Europe" I thought I saw someone looking at a dog, but despite Gracen Johnson's eloquent tribute to dogs' contributions to urbanism, I think he's actually looking between the dog and its owner.
A few days later, by something of a coincidence, I attended an exhibit of watercolors at the Waterloo Center for the Arts by local retired architect Michael Broshar. Broshar's cityscapes are cozy and human-scaled.
"Venice 1"
"Chicago Street"
Broshar paints places he enjoys, and it's easy to see why. Clearly he's making a different point than Caillebotte was.

Caillebotte's ambivalence is underscored by his suburban and rural landscapes included in the exhibition. (See, for example, "The Bridge over the Seine at Argenteuil," painted in 1885.) There is still no socializing, but the colors are brighter and the skies clearer. Thanks to the commentary accompanying the exhibit, I can also tell you his brushstrokes were bolder.

The Paris we know and love today evolved out of Haussman's overhaul. Somehow over time urbanism and complexity reasserted itself. Maybe in an America beset by suburban sprawl our frame of reference is different, too.

SEE ALSO: "Physical Design Issues Illustrated" (on Hale Woodruff), 15 April 2013

Holland Carter, "Painting Paris in a New, Natural Light," New York Times, 10 July 2015, C17 & 19
"Haussman and New Paris,"
Mary Morton and George Shackleford, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye (Chicago, 2015)

Muddy but sociable: "The Halt at the Inn" by Isack van Ostade, c. 1645
National Gallery of Art

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One way or two?

The City of Cedar Rapids is converting a number of its one-way streets in the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods to two-way... or more precisely, back to two-way, since all of these streets used to be two-way back in the day. The process is being implemented gradually; additional street conversions are planned over the next five years, including the 2nd-3rd Avenue pair, the 4th-5th Avenue pair and the 7th-8th Street pair (only from 4th Avenue out). 3rd Avenue in particular will feature pedestrian areas and protected bike lanes, and numerous intersections are switching from traffic signals to four-way stops.

3rd Avenue SE at the entrance of Redmond Park; by 2020 this will be one lane each way

The city states four goals for the effort:
  1. make the streets accessible and easier to navigate
  2. improve opportunities to walk or bike [BN: I know bikers who will dispute this]
  3. increase visibility of downtown businesses
  4. slow traffic

There seems to be consensus that one-way streets are efficient means of moving automobile traffic through an area--limited-access highways being the quintessential example. That was indeed the purpose of converting city streets to one-way, beginning in the 1950s. That goal is enough justification for some people, but experience has shown adverse effects on pedestrian safety, business viability, and residential neighborhood comfort. For instance, along several miles of one-way streets in Cedar Rapids there is not a single successful commercial area (possibly excepting the Oakland Road Hy-Vee) and the remaining residential areas (in Mound View, Wellington Heights and the Taylor Area) are struggling.

Planner and author Jeff Speck summarizes:
One-ways wreck downtown retail districts for reasons beyond [faster and more aggressive] driving, principally because they distribute vitality unevenly, and often in unexpected ways. They have been known to kill stores consigned to the morning path to work, since people do most of their shopping on the evening path home. They also increase a situation in which half the stores on cross-streets lose their retail visibility, being located over the shoulders of passing drivers. They intimidate out-of-towners, who are afraid of becoming lost, and they frustrate locals, who are annoyed by all the circular motions and additional traffic lights they must pass through to reach their destinations. (Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012, pp. 179)
Speck cites the experience of Savannah, Georgia, which lost 2/3 of taxpaying addresses along East Broad Street after it was converted to one-way in 1969, but regained most of them after it was converted back to two-way (2012: 180). Can Cedar Rapids expect a similar transformation? Past experience is no guarantee of future results, but really, the conditions through which these one-ways run mean there's not much to lose by trying.

Criticisms of Cedar Rapids's one-way to two-way conversion fall along two lines. The first expects disastrous effects on auto traffic: more traffic jams, more accidents, and in general downtown becoming a frustrating tangle. In part this is informed by a viewpoint that privileges auto travel, as well as a view of downtown as a place to drive to, park ideally for free, do something and leave (which I do, too, but is economically unsustainable if that's all it is). But there's also this point: the places created by improving commercial and residential conditions are at the same time situated along paths to get to and from other locations. The conversions of 2nd and 3rd Avenues might divert more traffic to 1st and 8th Avenues, which can probably take more. But if 1st and 8th are road-dieted, then what happens? This bears watching.
4th Avenue SE before conversion to two-way: Will conversion help stimulate development?
4th Avenue today. Tomorrow?
The second objection anticipates mass confusion to be caused by the incremental way in which the project is being implemented. (See this local news story.) At this writing, for example, 3rd Avenue is one-way from 13th St to 6th St SW; two-way, with bike lanes protected by parallel parking, from 6th St SW to 3rd St SE; one-way from 3rd St to 8th St SE; two-way from 8th St to 13th St SE; and one-way from 13th St to 19th St SE (after which it becomes Linden Drive and two-way). Resulting confusion would be understandable, particularly as the layout changes over time. Possible mitigating factors are: (a) on none of these streets are we unable to travel in the direction we've been accustomed to; (b) a slow process spreads out cost and is reversible if problems arise; and (c) confusion can be functional if it forces drivers to focus on driving. I must also say that most of the wrong-way driving I've seen is on one-way streets of long-standing, particularly 13th Street/College Drive (same street... changes names when it crosses 1st Avenue).

Ultimately, though, the one-way to two-way conversion project needs to do more than not cause harm. This is a lot of effort to go to if we end up with the same downtown except for different, slower auto traffic patterns plus some bike lanes. The conversion project will be a success only if it contributes to the transformation of downtown.

David Sucher writes, in City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village (City Comforts Inc., rev. ed., 2003, p. 86), if one's goal is to move as many cars as possible through a neighborhood, the couplet [of one-way streets] works well. But if the goal is to create comfortable shopping districts, make streets two-way. The conversion will be a success if it facilitates transformation of the city center into a 24-hour downtown, with a successful commercial enterprises, permanent residents and cultural attractions all contributing to a vibrant place. This would be a lot different from what's there now, albeit there have been some important seeds planted. Conversion doesn't guarantee transformation--a lot depends on how surrounding areas (particularly the MedQuarter) develop, the emergence of entrepreneurs, and favorable overall economic and social conditions. (For more on what makes a neighborhood or downtown area walkable, see Susan Henderson, "Walkability: It's Not About the Buildings or Even the Streets, It's About the Experience," Place Shakers, 14 September 2015). But time and experience have shown that the couplet never gets this done.

Why get it done at all? Is it any more than the preferences of one set of people being imposed on others? To some degree, urban living and bicycling and such are more popular than they were a generation ago. We shouldn't build our cities to exclude those choices, but to enable the broadest set of choices possible. Even more critically, the environment, public health, and city finances simply cannot stand another generation of development like the last two. We have to do things differently, and we have to do them in city centers.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Now is the summer (and fall) of our discontent

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Cedar Rapids

As a political scientist based in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, I have a front row seat at the races for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. This should be exciting, particularly since both the putative front runners, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are notably under-performing, such that the eventual outcome is more in doubt than ever. Many people are excited, and expect me to be excited. In fact, I am finding the campaigns to be rather painful.

Ben Carson campaigns in Washington, Iowa

I want you to know that I feel guilty about this. For one thing, there are plenty of political scientists across this great land of ours who would love to be in Iowa during caucus season, and could take great advantage of it, although they would mostly be eating the dust of Iowa State's renowned Dr. Politics. I realize I am taking up valuable space, while my sensitive nature would be better off in a more electorally quiet place, such as Guam.
Note the bench in the shade. Swiped from

I am wary of seeming disrespectful of my friends and students who are working on campaigns. I also am wary of showing a "too cool for school" attitude about politics. I am not too cool for school. I understand the necessity of politics for our common life, and certainly campaigns and elections are essential parts of that. I will participate in the caucus and in the general election, and I will care deeply about the outcome.

Martin O'Malley campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Still, the process is far from edifying. There is, to start with, a numbing sameness to the candidates' appeals. They begin with a more-or-less accurate synopsis of current problems, including stagnant wages, the immigration issue, educational outcomes, various international threats and (depending on the party) structural budget deficits or the environment. Then there's the calling out of the enemy: unions for Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, the superrich for Bernie Sanders, or anyone else who doesn't understand "our" values. That makes us angry! and we have anecdotes that will make you angry, too! (Bobby Jindal's didn't even sound true.) Time out for some biography to establish solidarity between the candidate and us, for which a lot of candidates make jokes about raising children. Finally, what this country needs is a candidate who can overcome the nefarious efforts of the enemy and restore America to what it once was. Getting down to policy specifics, this means "the usual suspects" and talking points the parties have been respectively advocating for decades. I will give some credit to Rand Paul for articulating a libertarian ideology that differs in some respects from Republican orthodoxy, and to Bernie Sanders for putting unusual stress on labor issues (albeit that's a traditional Democratic constituency).

And everybody's angry. The candidates are angry, the audiences are angry. This is understandable. We do live in uncertain times, and real workable solutions to our problems are not readily available, particularly given the ideological stalemates in Congress. There's a story about the preacher's note to himself in the margin of his sermon: "Weak point--pound pulpit." And the partisan audiences at these events seem happiest when they're fed the soul-stirring reassurance of red meat. Lindsay Graham took a question at his event: "Defunding Planned Parenthood." That was not the subject of the question; that was the question. Here are my buttons--please push them. (Graham obliged by answering "yes," of course; the wise candidate notes that Planned Parenthood makes a lot of people angry.)
Lindsay Graham campaigns in Mt. Pleasant

Moreover, there's an unreality about the campaign rhetoric that I find off-putting. The candidates are not talking about the things that matter, or when they do their oversimplification verges on grotesque. Case in point: One of the best things about my year has been the emergence of a monthly chat in Cedar Rapids devoted to urban issues. We talk about transportation, housing developments, and locally-owned businesses. We don't talk about presidential politics, although not because we've intentionally forsworn it. My best answer to the question, "Based solely on the issues we discuss at the New Urbanism Working Group, who is the best candidate to support in 2016?" would be "Not applicable." Another highlight of 2015 were the presentations by Chuck Marohn in Iowa City and Ely. So let's ask: "Which candidate comes closest to the Strong Towns vision of 'an America where our cities, towns and neighborhoods are financially strong and resilient?'" My answer: "Not applicable."

Mike Huckabee campaigns in Iowa City

When a campaign's goals are merely to repeal the gains of the enemy and to restore what used to be back in the allegedly good old days, the candidates overlook ways in which the world has fundamentally changed: the nature of work and international trade, for instance, or our understandings of public health and the environment. Democrats are comfortable with government action but not with articulating trade-offs such as impacts on the budget or small businesses. Republicans are uncomfortable with government action on domestic problems, which requires them to deny the very existence of problems like climate change and unfair labor conditions. Four years ago The Economist observed:
As the Republican base has become ever more detached from the mainstream, its list of unconditional demands has become ever more stringent. Nowadays, a candidate must believe not just some but all of the following things: that abortion should be illegal in all cases; that gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it; that the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home; that the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame; that global warming is a conspiracy; that any form of gun control is unconstitutional; that any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk; that Israel can do no wrong and the “so-called Palestinians,” to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right; that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished. ("The Right Republican," Economist, 31 December 2011, p. 7)
It certainly doesn't help this year's batch of candidates to have to pretend we live in an alternative universe, exacerbated by Donald Trump serving as the role model for candidates saying outlandish things in hopes of media attention.The Republicans' friends-or-enemies approach to foreign policy is if anything even loopier.
Bobby Jindal campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Finally none of the candidates I've seen have articulated a plausible vision for our common life. Three decades on, the campaigns are stuck in Ronald Reagan's America. Republicans rehash Reagan's homely vision of a better life for all based on people who are different from us behaving more like us. Bobby Jindal's harangue against "hyphenated Americans" is an extreme example of addressing diversity by denying its existence. [I wondered how that played at the Swedish American Museum in Swedesburg, Iowa, but then realized there is no hyphen in its name.] Democrats as well as some Republicans follow Reagan's tactic of promising benefits for us paid for by someone else (if not the magic of supply-side tax cuts, then it's higher taxes on the rich and/or cuts in someone else's benefits). Non-discrimination and access to economic opportunity are undeniably prerequisites to common life, but if we stop there we're still talking about Mary Ann Glendon's "lone rights-bearer." Who is articulating the idea that the good life requires other people, that the benefits of common life also require that we contribute to it, and authentic common life accommodates rather than denies diversity because, if nothing else, we've learned it's healthier than monoculture?
Rand Paul campaigns in Cedar Rapids

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...