Saturday, April 30, 2016

Changes planned for CR Transit

CR Transit and the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization presented four possible plans for bus route changes at an open house Thursday. The plans range from incremental to pie-in-the-sky. They've employed ridership data as well as survey responses, which means all the options move in a good direction from the current array, which maximizes service area and synchrony of arrival and departure times.

I like all of the plans because they're making changes for the right reasons: better service, more attractive to potential riders, with more efficient use of the budget. I like the small steps of Concepts 1 and 2; I am less inclined to support Concepts 3 or 4 until they're justified by increased ridership.

The incremental plan, Concept 1, straightens some existing routes, meaning it would be more rational for people to choose the bus for transportation. Most intriguingly, it adds an express bus along route 5--which has, by far, the highest ridership of existing routes--from downtown Cedar Rapids to Lindale Mall and the surrounding plazas. This involves no additional financial cost, but involves loss of service to some areas that are more suburby and don't produce much ridership anyhow. (There's a hedge version of this plan that continues service along O Avenue NW, so that it doesn't look like they're abandoning the northwest side so much.)

Transit Concept 2 is more creative while still being close to cost-neutral. (It would require about $75,000 in additional funding to hire one additional driver.) It extends service into the evening along some routes to 10:00 p.m. instead of the current 7:00 p.m. This wouldn't necessarily help second-shift workers, but could be useful for evening shoppers. The tradeoff would be peak time service on routes other than #5. (Most routes now run two buses an hour instead of one between 5 and 8 a.m. and between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m.) This is an interesting proposal, but I don't have the data to judge whether it would be a positive exchange.

Transit Concept 3 would have fewer tradeoffs but would require a revenue increase. At this level they could run buses til 11 and keep the daytime peak hour runs. It require the three towns served by the transit system to increase their contributions to the maximum allowed by the state--95 cents per $100,000 of property value--which may be a non-starter given that Cedar Rapids (currently at 80 cents) has just shot down a library levy, and Hiawatha and Marion are currently at less than one-fifth of this target.
Transit Concept 4 would elaborate the hub system so there could be shorter routes that connected at strategic locations around town. I'm not sure how much additional funding this would require, but it would be an alternative universe to the one C.R. Transit lives in now. It's useful as a vision of how transit could contribute to the quality of life in some future, walkable version of Cedar Rapids, but we're not there yet.

Houston might be, though!:


Thursday, April 21, 2016

The tragedy of the commons (life)

Every morning before I go to work, I take a “constitutional” walk around my neighborhood. Occasionally I encounter a particular neighbor from the next block who walks his dog across to the median strip so it can relieve itself. (My street is a boulevard not only in name, but in the sense of having a median strip between the traffic lanes that is planted with grass and trees.) Neither the man nor the dog cleans up afterwards.

I’ve never said anything to him other than “Good morning.” It’s hard for me to think of what I would say if I wanted to confront him (which I don’t). There’s no direct harm to me or anyone from the poo itself: Once in a great great while I’ll see some children horsing around on the median, but not many people use it for anything other than a doggy potty. I’m not even terribly fond of the median, the main effect of which is to add distance and something of a barrier between neighbors on opposite sides of the street.

What concerns me about my neighbor’s behavior is that is an example, all the more powerful because of its triviality, of the “tragedy of the commons.” Philosopher Garret Hardin, in a famous 1968 essay with that title, argued that people had an incentive to over-use common property because they enjoyed immediate direct benefits while costs were both widely-distributed and postponed to some future time. What is often overlooked when Hardin is brought up is that he believed that, once informed, those same people could regulate themselves to avoid creating the problems (in Hardin’s essay, of excessive population growth). So, while incentives exist to overuse energy resources, or sprawl into the next county, or drive when roads and parking spaces are “free,” we in time come to recognize the social costs of those behaviors and we stop doing them.

When my neighbor walks over to the median so his dog isn’t pooping in his own yard (where he would probably feel the need to clean it up), it reminds me that while Hardin is probably right about both aspects of his argument, public recognition of community interests that outweigh individual convenience or pleasure is not happening quickly or broadly enough to suit me. It's not just taking the dog to the median or park or college campus so he doesn't have to clean up his own yard. It's protesting a sidewalk project because it would be "disruptive." It's wider auto lanes, with separate lanes for turning left and turning right, so no car ever has to slow down. It's smashing through an older neighborhood to build a limited access highway.

I can't speak for other cultures, but our culture has a strong individualistic strain with a vocabulary to match. Daily advertisers pitch convenience to us as if it were an absolute good, while an oil company offers us "a full tank of freedom." We have yet to develop an equivalent vocabulary to talk about community, or a way to discuss balancing individual and community interests. This needs to happen soon if we're going to live together in this world.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Book review: "The Lonely City"

Lonely City, The 07

Olivia Laing is a British writer who found herself isolated in New York City a few years ago, and this book is the result. The title suggests personal essays on loneliness in an urban context, and in a way that's what the book delivers, albeit with a twist. Laing addressed her personal situation by studying the theme of loneliness in the lives and work of four American artists: Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Henry Darger (1892-1973) and David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992). Her writing is clear and without jargon, her discussion of artwork accessible even to this dilettante.

She achieves some insights as she studies them, in the way of random personal epiphanies, any of which is an invitation to a conversation.
Loneliness is difficult to confess, difficult to to categorise. (p. 4)
I wonder now: is it fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age, underpinning the changes in both our physical and virtual lives. (p. 253)
Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that's moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture. (p. 261) 
 I think [the cure is] about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted. (p. 279)
The hook on which I'll bite speaks directly to the urbanist movement.
You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. (p. 3)
The biographical approach she takes to the phenomenon of urban loneliness is at once both illuminating and unhelpful. Each of the artists lived to some degree in isolation from those around them, usually for multiple reasons: artistic sensibility itself, homosexuality, mental illness or the presumption of it, poverty, social anxiety, fame, childhood abuse. Loneliness in their cases seems to me to be merely a symptom of other, deep problems.

What interests me about loneliness is not the experience of exceptional people, but its very ordinariness. As such, it is a psychological puzzle, or perhaps series of puzzles.

It could be a social puzzle as well. Does the way we construct our societies--their values, their design, their economies--affect people's abilities to connect with others? Urbanism has since the work of Jane Jacobs noted the distances and barriers between people created by suburban sprawl. And "it gets lonely in a small town," sings Greg Brown. But everyone knows it is possible to be lonely in a crowd, and certainly, as Laing points out at the beginning of her book, possible to be lonely in a crowded city as well.

Is the answer more traditional urban design? Third places? Churches? Social media--or staying off social media?

Note that there is a difference between urbanism and urban areas as they exist today (which are largely the by-product of several decades of suburban sprawl). We are not, in other words, limited in our choices to what already exists. In an essay on that was recently re-posted on Strong Towns, writer Jay Walljasper (cited below) notes design movements not only at the city level...
[New Urbanism seeks] to build new communities (and revitalize existing ones) by maximizing opportunities for social exchange: public plazas, front porches, corner stores, coffee shops, neighborhood schools, narrow streets and, yes, sidewalks.... [In Minneapolis] I marvel at the choices I have to mingle with the neighbors over a cappuccino, Pabst Blue Ribbon, juevos rancheros, artwork at a gallery opening or head of lettuce at the farmer's market.
...but at the neighborhood level as well. Walljasper highlights the work of Ross Chapin, a Seattle author and architect who has designed "pocket neighborhoods" of four to twelve households "where meaningful 'neighborly' relationships are fostered." This builds social capital, and from an example from Walljasper's own life, political capital as well.

I've used loneliness for years in introductory public policy classes as an example of a problem (defined as a situation with broad effects most people see as unacceptable) that is nonetheless not a public problem (defined as a problem where the public expects government to become involved). Ironically, loneliness may be a public problem. Government can't, of course, cure anyone's personal loneliness, but can design cities that facilitate interactions instead of isolation, and can facilitate access to mental health care for those who need it.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador, 2016)

Jay Walljasper, "How to Design a Neighborhood for Happiness," Shareable, 25 March 2011,

Review essay: who loses when a city develops?

Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class--and...