Sunday, February 1, 2015

Blizzards get you thinking

The view from my front door
Iowa got its first major storm of the year this weekend--nothing like what hit New England and upstate New York last week, but enough to impact life. Area grocery stores experienced heavy business Saturday as people prepared for the worst, which of course did not happen. What did happen was all-afternoon rain Saturday gradually changed to snow during the evening, so of course the bottom layer was ice, with slush on top of that. After several hours' pause, the snow resumed, dry and powdery this round, and continued all through Sunday. The current total is 11 inches.
Hy-Vee, Coralville IA
Photo by Dave Wilson; swiped from Facebook page of Mark Carlson KCRG
City snowplows have been at work all day clearing roads. Most area churches canceled services, and most people seemed to hunker down for a quiet day. Football fans, once they had cleared their walks, could give their attention to the Super Bowl pre-game coverage. Had this occurred on a weekday, the plows would probably have started earlier and used bigger crews. (I'm guessing the city has to pay overtime on weekends, though I don't know that for sure.) Schools would certainly be closed--it doesn't take nearly this much to trigger that around here--but some people would have gone to work. Maybe there would have been more auto accidents?

Days like today remind a person of how metropolitan sprawl makes every day a gamble. Of course, we're not going to have a blizzard every day, but in this climate we average a few per year, so they're hardly unexpected. Sprawl works if the weather's fine, AND the roads are unobstructed, AND gasoline is cheap, AND there's plenty of parking at every destination, AND you are willing to overlook the costs in infrastructure construction and maintenance, social cohesion, loss of green space, personal money and time spent in cars, vehicular and pedestrian traffic fatalities, and lack of exercise. Add in a blizzard, and all of a sudden nothing is accessible: the miles to work, school, church, and groceries are fraught with snow piles and icy patches.

So as I rest from my shoveling labors--and try to think of anything rather than confront the reality I'll need to go back out there in a while and do it again--some questions occur to me, along with some tentative and personally unsatisfying answers.

(1) Why are we still building sprawl? Cedar Rapids is cheering the state's gift (with mostly federal money) of a highway extension around the west edge of the city. We are upset with the state's unwillingness to pop for two more interchanges, and are going to spend $5 million of our money to build them ourselves, but with the anticipation the state will soon come to its senses and pony up. We anticipate commercial development, as well as a population increase of 30,000, and all the tax base that accompanies them. We aren't anticipating the additional infrastructure will pile additional burdens on the city budget and city workers, because we believe that the expansion will pay for itself. (But see the Strong Towns booklet, Curbside Chat, especially chapter 3, "The Growth Ponzi Scheme.") The stories we tell ourselves: [a] City streets would be in better shape if the government wasn't so inefficient. [b] We'd have enough money for street and highway repair if we didn't waste so much on <choose one: the military, administrative expenses, welfare, bike lanes>.

In their first "Politics Wednesday" show of the year (7 January 2015), Iowa Public Radio host Ben Kieffer invited listeners to list their goals for government in six words or less. The first response was: Cut my taxes, fix my roads. I'd like to think the listener was being ironic, but that may be hoping too much.

(2) Can downtown develop/be developed by a resilient transportation system? In Cedar Rapids in 2015 the vast majority of people get downtown by car. Some take our dogged but limited bus system. A few, like me--I live just under two miles away--can walk or bike, but that's not practical for most people or (blizzard tie-in) every weather. If we anticipate the number of people working and living downtown to increase, does that mean we need more auto parking? Jon Rouse of Park Cedar Rapids thinks not, at least for the next three years, but admits most people "want to see the front door" of their destination when they park (Chelsea Keenan, "Seeing Spots," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1 February 2015, 1D, 2D). The trade-off between the number of parking spaces and downtown vitality (social as well as economic) is not as widely-known as it should be. And for now, driving is the only practical way to get downtown for people who don't already live there or are close by.

Speaking of transportation...

(3) How should I be rooting on the federal transportation bill? There is some uncertainty whether Washington can get its act together to pass an appropriations bill to fund the U.S. Department of Transportation, most of which is funneled through state departments of transportation to build and maintain highways. If the federal government is the founder of this ridiculous feast, maybe if they cut off the allowance states and localities will be forced to be rational? That's the Strong Towns argument anyway. Or maybe a state that funds tax incentives for business relocations and considers infrastructure exclusively in terms of highways and maybe airports, and a city that is spending $10.5 million of taxpayer money to remodel a mall on the edge of town, aren't in the business of acting rationally? Local governments are also vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful and well-connected. It would be at least interesting, because at least local choices would be clearer.

from Bernie Sanders Facebook page
Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who may be running for President, is promoting his own $1 trillion bill (see above) to fund infrastructure as a public works jobs bill, which is a dangerous way to think about the issue. Public works are notoriously inefficient means of creating jobs, and should only be used in extreme economic emergencies. We should fund transportation (or not) in the way that brings the greatest public benefit, and support employment by wise economic policies (which in most times means monetary policies).

(4) How should we consider climate change in planning? The Senate recently voted that the climate was changing, with only Senator Wicker of Mississippi in opposition. There remains disagreement as to whether humans' burning tons of carbon per person per year could have anything significant to do with it. Given that scientific research has moved past this question, perhaps it's time for government officials to do so as well. But in the meantime, one likely result of climate change is more severe weather events. Shouldn't resilience to severe weather be a factor in city planning? Why are we still building out like it's 1949?

(5) Why is the clearing of public sidewalks the responsibility of the homeowner, even though the clearing of public streets is undertaken by the government? This is hardly a burning issue of our common life, but my colleague Lynda Barrow--who owns a home on a pie-shaped lot with an extraordinarily long sidewalk--asked me and I didn't know.

I'll continue to ponder these questions as I head back out to shovel the rest of the snow. As the latest "snowmageddon" reminds us the development patterns of the last two generations are unsustainable, these questions are worth pondering. Let me know what you come up with.

As a reward for reading this far, here are two brilliant short videos by Gracen Johnson, one celebrating snow days and one assessing the advantages and disadvantages of walking in a snowstorm.

For analysis of President Obama's budget proposal for transportation, see Angie Schmitt, "Obama's New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," Streetsblog USA, 2 February 2015,

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