Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Can regional planning be antifragile?

Nassim N. Taleb argues that individuals and systems might merely survive chaos, but if they're properly prepared they can actually thrive in it. He calls this characteristic antifragility, which can be thought of as one step beyond resilience (or Taleb's preferred term, "robustness.") Fragile people are destroyed by chaos, robust people ride it out, but antifragile people come out stronger. The same classification can be applied to businesses, governments, scientific research and any number of other contexts (see Table 1, pp. 23-27). In chapter 2 he presents a wide range of examples including body-building, obsessive love, mass riots, ideas and their critics. The book was published long before the U.S. presidential election, but Donald J. Trump, whose support increases the more virulently he is criticized, seems to be a distinctively antifragile candidate. (Hillary Clinton might be, too.)

In Book I Taleb argues that antifragility not only exists, but that to develop it is in most contexts a desirable goal, because prospering is better than mere survival. He further argues that because specific crisis events are random and therefore unpredictable (see pp. 66-70), the best way to prepare for chaos--to develop antifragility--is to be subject to the right amount of stressors over time. Stress provokes progress by requiring innovative responses:
I hold--it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction--that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity... Naturally, there are classical thoughts on the subject, with a Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger (artificia docuit fames). (pp. 41-42)
Too little stress makes one fragile, albeit too much stress without time to recover can be fatal. In other words, whoever first said "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger"--Taleb tells me it was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)--was onto something.

Finally, in chapter 4 ("What Kills Me Makes Others Stronger"), Taleb argues that groups and systems are strengthened--made more anti-fragile--when individuals fail. "[E]rrors and their consequences are information," says Taleb. "For complex systems" like societies and economies "are, well, all about information" (p. 57). Those individual failures can serve as negative examples for the rest of the group, and anyhow the survivors are likely to be stronger than those who perish:
Restaurants are fragile; they compete with each other, but the collective of local restaurants is antifragile for that very reason. Had restaurants been individually robust, hence immortal, the overall business would be either stagnant or weak, and would deliver nothing better than cafeteria food--and I mean Soviet-style cafeteria food, Further, it would be marred with systemic shortages, with, once in a while, a complete crisis and government bailout. All that quality, stability, and reliability are owed to the fragility of the restaurant itself. (pp. 65-66)

Applying this powerful concept to governments, Strong Towns asks: We often assume that regional planning is good; people working together. I tend to see regional planning as an attempt to simplify (dumb down) complex systems into merely complicated system. Would we all benefit -- as in airline crashes or restaurant startups --  from having cities behave more independently and competitively? What would need to change to optimize this approach?

I've argued elsewhere that metropolitan governance needs to be made stronger, not weaker. I follow the logic of Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton (The Regional City, Island, 2001, esp part I) who argue that competition among municipalities has often served to diminish the quality of the whole region, particularly for people who can't afford to ride the waves of exurban development. Even the well-off suffer the effects of the suburban model such as traffic congestion and air and water pollution.

If we are starting a metropolitan area we might well decide to let a hundred municipalities bloom with a garden variety of policy mixes and see what happens. In 2016, however, American metropolises find themselves with older central cities and first-ring suburbs existing alongside edge cities with wealthy residents and cheap real estate. Letting things rip... well, that's what we've mostly been doing for the last 100 years. Chicago is already in competition with the well-heeled edge city of Naperville, and close-in suburbs like Bedford Park and Rosemont that lure businesses with subsidies and low tax rates. Chicago is competing more effectively of late, but too many people are still left behind without resources or opportunity in areas where law enforcement and school systems are over-stressed.

So the obstacle to antifragility is not regions per se, or planning per se, but regional planning that tries to suppress competition among municipalities in order to guarantee good outcomes for everyone. Does this occur? I can well imagine that it does, because even though "something deep in your soul likes a certain measure of randomness and disorder" (Taleb 63), the human drive to create order is also strong. When people have market power, they often try to use some of it to purchase some security for themselves and then to avoid inheritance taxes so they can pass it on to their descendants. Individuals and towns can use political power the same way, manipulating the regulatory function to try to preserve their advantages. Any number of posts on the Strong Towns site have shown that national policy can have a distorting effect as well (see also Calthorpe and Fulton ch 5). Stronger regional government, though, would be better-positioned to respond to general as opposed to narrow interests. The answer to bad planning is not no planning: As Andres Duany and colleagues argue, "better policy and better planning can produce better cities" as long as urban leaders "borrow a page from the suburban developers' handbook and look at their communities from the outside in, through the eyes of a customer who is comparison-shopping" (Suburban Nation, North Point, 2000, p. 154).

Regional planning can be antifragile when it is empowered to address the quality of the system as a whole: when building codes, transportation, and so forth enable competition between businesses and municipalities, while ensuring opportunity for everyone. Calthorpe and Fulton again: Each community and neighborhood "will need to develop its own vision of community and the built environment" but also "will have to find a way to tap into the emerging Regional City" and to "progress toward greater diversity, more walkable environments, and a more compact urban form" (p. 195). The metropolitan system can prosper when competition among municipalities means more than zero-sum poaching of each other's businesses and well-off residents, and when every individual is positioned to benefit from the success of the region. Someone--probably government--needs to have authority to defend those without political or market power--like natural spaces, and the poor and working class. Of course, planners should allow for the possibility of failure, but the act of failing should not be catastrophic for the people of the town, nor mean that individuals are trapped in poverty for endless generations. Recognize that the failure of a restaurant or a bank has many fewer negative consequences for the citizen than the failure of a town.

 Dave Alden, "Is It Time for Regional Government?" Where Do We Go From Here, 25 May 2016, http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com/2016/05/is-it-time-for-regional-government.html
 Mariia Zimmerman, "Celebrating Regional Planning's Golden Anniversary," MZ Strategies, 13 May 2016, http://mzstrategies.com/blog/celebrating-regional-plannings-golden-anniversary

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Post No. 200: Next to the arena

Theodore Roosevelt is making the rounds lately, which is good to see: As a multifaceted man who recognized the complexities of policy and policy making, and who looked for opportunities to use governmental power to advance the public interest, he offers a lot by way of example to today's political scene.

In particular I've been seeing a lot of this quote, which originates in the time between his presidency and his 1912 bid to return to the office:
This poster is on the wall of the Vault, a co-working space where I'm spending the summer. It's meant to inspire the entrepreneurs and techies who are hoping to use the resources in the Vault to launch their businesses.

I am inspired to take time to salute those in the arena, whether their arena be business, society or politics. As I've been thinking about the poster and this milestone post, I see examples all around me of people who are putting themselves forward in positive ways.

There's Eric Engelmann, the visionary CEO of Geonetric who houses and nurtures the Vault:

The teachers and staff at Garfield School, where I volunteer, whose dedication to their students taxes their minds and their bodies:
Preservationists like Beth and Tom DeBoom, who put time and energy into saving buildings like Cedar Rapids's historic White Elephant shop (here, in its new location waiting to be renovated):

The staff of Foundation 2, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention task force who today celebrate the opening of their new youth shelter:

The men and women through the years who have served in our nation's military:
And, of course, in this political season, we should remember the candidates and government employees. Drew Curtis, who runs FARK.com, spoke at Geonetric last week...
...offering lessons from his career as an entrepreneur, but also recounting his 2015 independent candidacy for governor or Kentucky. He got 5 percent of the vote, but his conversations with the eventual winner--Republican Matt Bevin--led to some policy changes, particularly on felon voting rights. "So I improved the lives of about 100,000 people," he noted. He thinks you should run for office, too.
So hurrah for people who take action, who are, as TR said, "in the arena." As I pile up posts on this blog, though, I think he undervalues critics.
As President, Roosevelt no doubt dealt with a lot of critics, and that was an era before radio talk shows, television pundits, and social media sites mocking Barack Obama's Dead Fly. It's not hard to imagine that he often lost patience with their sniping. We've all heard those people who have nothing good to say about anything: businesses are just out to gouge you, the government is incompetent and corrupt, people who complain about disadvantages should just shut up and shape up, the home team is just going to choke in the end. Such people are mentally lazy and certainly tiresome, whether you're the one actually doing things or just have to listen to them.
This blog, and pretty much my whole career, are predicated on the idea that critical analysis can and should have social value. We can explain different groups to each other, hold those in the arena to standards, and remind those who are up to their necks in alligators what their purpose was in entering the swamp in the first place. I write Holy Mountain to explore issues of our contemporary common life, on the principle that the exigencies of the near future--environmental and energy needs, economic opportunity, and the realities of a diverse population--are going to force us into more contact with a greater variety of people than we're used to having. Someone's going to have to do something about all of these exigencies, and thankfully there are numerous someones already at it, but there is also value in articulating, explaining and critiquing. To the extent possible I stay away from personalities and scandals... that pointless way lies madness.
If critical analysis is your calling, as I believe it is mine, go to it. Do it with integrity, constructive intent, and admiration for those people--and remember, first and foremost, they are people--who are bold to enter the arena.
This is the 200th post on Holy Mountain. Here are the most viewed posts among the first 199:
  1. "Am I Blue," 14 June 2013 [was #1 after 100, and still far in the lead, thanks mostly to Russian robots]
  2. "Turn Red for What?" 5 November 2014
And in the interest of balance, here are the least viewed posts, mostly featuring celebrations of community life in Cedar Rapids:
  1. "Halloween 2013," 1 November 2013 [was #5 after 100]
  2. "A Holiday Tradition," 24 November 2013 [was #1 after 100]
  3. "Nothing Says Community Like...," 13 January 2014 [was #3 after 100]
  4. "MPO Ride 2016," 15 May 2016
  5. "A Preservation Protest," 8 May 2014

Sunday, May 15, 2016

MPO Ride 2016

Gathering at Greene Square
About 15 bold cyclists had a rather miserable but rather enjoyable time of it on the Corridor MPO Bike Ride Saturday. The riding was complicated by a ferocious west wind, which accentuated the effects of hills and heavy traffic.

Temp without wind chill... The crowd was clearly held down by the unfriendly weather
We made two stops in Cedar Rapids.

The first was at Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Cedar Rapids Kernels minor league baseball team. Community relations manager Ryne George gave us a tour of everything but the dugouts and the playing field, which were occupied by the teams participating in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference baseball tournament. In the press box they have oversized baseball cards representing nearly all 405 major leaguers who played for Cedar Rapids.
Concourse view
Mezzanine view
Urbanists want to know: Was the stadium, built with public funds in 2002, a good investment for the city? Hard to say. The Kernels are not privately owned, and their community outreach (to schools and veterans, for example) is energetic. But they've never achieved the 200,000 annual ticket sales which would have paid for the stadium.

Next we rode to Beverly Park on 37th Avenue SW, where Ken Barker from the Linn Area Mountain Bike Association talked to us about the trails the city has created in the last 10 years, after there had been unofficial trails since the 1980s.

Mountain bike trails work with the existing flora to the extent possible

A mild jump

There are trails for all ages and levels
Battling out to Fairfax was facilitated by a newly-created trail south of Westdale Mall to Beverly Road, but once out in the country it was us, the hills, the wind, the traffic and the wind. The drivers were very amenable to our presence, perhaps sympathetic to our struggle. No one honked; one guy gunned his engine as he passed, but that was it. Hooray for humanity putting up with each other!

Fairfax is an old small town southwest of Cedar Rapids that did some serious sprawling in the 1990s. They've just put a cycle track through town, starting here along Cemetery Road:

Our target was the Star Bar, a historic tavern that dates from about 1870.

It's comfortable, good beer, good food. The woman who co-owns it told us about the history and the ghosts.

Our departure was delayed by train:

For the way back we opted for Stoney Point Road over 80th Street to save on hill-climbing. We might have done that, but it was no less windy, and traffic was surprisingly (to me, anyway) heavy. That was the most difficult part of the trip, but we were encouraged by the news that there is a trail planned along 80th Street. Once in town, the wind was less fierce, and ditto the traffic.

We made several brief stops on the west side of Cedar Rapids, where multimodal transportation planner Brandon Whyte showed us the planned route for the Cherokee Trail, which will run through the city from 80th Street through Cherry Hill Park

...and the chain of parks near Hoover School. Getting it over or around the Vinton Ditch is the most difficult part.
The Vinton Ditch from E Avenue NW. It's what looks in this picture like a crease in the field.
 Second most difficult is obtaining rights-of-way in a few key places.

Cedar Rapids and the other towns in Linn County are making great efforts to expand our trails network. I'd argue that trails are merit goods, offering opportunities for recreation and in some cases (like the proposed Cherokee Trail) commuting. That gets people exercise and gets cars off the roads.

LAST YEAR'S RIDE: "Riding on Infrastructure with the Corridor MPO," 2 June 2015, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2015/06/riding-on-infrastructure-with-corridor.html

Touch My Street and Die

Tempers flew Wednesday night at a Cedar Rapids Paving for Progress open house regarding the Grande Avenue storm sewer and pavement replacement project at Washington High School. About 30 residents objected, at times forcefully, to design features in the project. City officials, who seemed prepared for logistical questions of the "How do I get little Johnny to his doctor appointment when the street is closed?" variety, appeared taken aback by the subject matters raised.

Jen Winter, Public Works Director, begins the presentation
The discussion revealed consensus on the core of the project: extending the storm sewer the length of the street, replacing 100+-year-old water main and lead water service lines, and completely replacing the pavement. No one at the meeting spoke against any of that, and in fact a few present expressed gratitude for the new storm sewer.

Grande Avenue from 21st St to Forest Dr; arrows indicate "bumpouts"
Grande Avenue from Forest Dr to park entrance
Where there were the sharpest differences arose from the city's taking advantage of the project to add some complete streets features. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, the complete streets approach is to design streets  "with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities [emphasis in original]." I added in my post from two years ago, "The corollary... is to allow individuals to choose their mode of getting around, rather than feel forced to travel by car because it's not safe to go by any other means of transit." Back to the NCSC for the promise to"improve safety, better health, stronger economies, [and] reduce costs," as well as reducing traffic congestion. (See also Lane, cited below.)

Both the City of Cedar Rapids and the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization have adopted versions of complete streets policies. The principles have been applied to great effect in and around downtown Cedar Rapids, and by adding sidewalks to important pedestrian routes like Prairie Drive where they had been glaringly missing for years.

In the original version of the Grande Avenue project, presented last year, complete streets design features included [a] narrowing the street from 36 to 28 feet by eliminating parking on the south side; [b] adding a sidewalk on the south side to the one that already exists on the north side; [c] using curb extensions at intersections to demarcate parking areas and keep cars to the traffic lanes; [d] squaring intersections to improve sight lines and possibly slow turning cars; and [e] converting the intersection with Blake Boulevard to a roundabout. (They also proposed [f] upgrading sidewalk curb ramps and [g] sharrows, which do not appear to have occasioned comment or objection.) The neighbors rose up as one to object. A petition signed by all residents on both sides of the street but one--"He works for a radio station, and can't sign petitions," explained one woman at the meeting--and testimony at city meetings brought elimination of the sidewalk, the roundabout, and most though not all of the bumpouts. City officials may have felt at that point that the controversy was settled. That would explain why they were so taken aback at the open house, while residents who saw features they didn't like still in the plan--[a] and [d], as well as the rest of [c]--were frustrated and angry.

Grande Avenue is among the oldest streets in the city, and this stretch--about two miles east of downtown--has aged well. Lots and setbacks are large, but a pleasing variety of housing styles and mature trees make for aesthetic charm that is hard to beat anywhere else in the city. Its eastern end is the heavily-used Bever Park, but that's a side entrance; the main entrance to the park is off Bever Avenue, about a quarter mile to the south. Grande's average daily traffic count reported by officials at the meeting is about 700, so although I've seen it on some maps as a minor arterial, it's pretty much a side road.

Grande Avenue residents at the open house argued that any change in the appearance of the street would have a negative affect on the "historic feel" of the neighborhood. (A few went so far as to make it an issue of historic preservation.) They also argued that bicycles and city buses--two forms of transportation complete streets are supposed to encourage--are hampered by narrower streets, curb extensions and squared intersections. They feel the loss of on-street parking would be greatly inconvenient when there are events at Bever Park or Brucemore National Historic Site that draw audiences from a wide area. Moreover, they say, the problems complete streets are designed to solve--speeding cars, lack of opportunities to bike or walk--aren't problems in their neighborhood.

Officials from the city cited a number of resident complaints--presumably, not the same residents who attended at the open house--about speeding traffic. Those present and objecting to the narrower street were hardly receptive to this, or any other, information. (When one official noted, "Wider streets encourage faster traffic," one man's response was, "I don't believe it." So there.) Even if speeding does occur on Grande, it's hard to know without data collection whether it is a systematic problem, or just the occasional hot-rodder (which would be more noticeable but maybe less urgent). My observations of Grande at different times during the week shows there are very very cars parked in this stretch.
Looking up Grande from 21st St, Saturday morning 8:30 a.m.
The friction that slows cars assumes there are opposing traffic and parked cars that make drivers instinctively more cautious. Without much of either, you have what amounts to 18 foot travel lanes in each direction. Cutting that to 14 feet each way may not have any effect on travel speeds.

Speeding aside, though, what remains is a 36 foot street with an average daily traffic count of 700 and extremely little parking. In an era of straitened finances at all levels of government, it's hard to justify taxpayers paying to maintain that much superfluous pavement.

The curb extensions are expendable. The North Central Texas Council of Governments has posted a very informative slide show about curb extensions. Very little of this appears to apply to the intersections on Grande. (See also the links in Johnstone, cited below.)

As far as the expunged sidewalk goes, it's hard for me to be sympathetic to people who view putting in that sidewalk as the moral equivalent of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Sidewalks are essential to connecting parts of the city. (On the other hand, sidewalk construction and maintenance, unlike streets, are assessed to the adjacent property owner, and I'm sympathetic to that bone of contention.) But the south side sidewalk is also expendable: This situation isn't at all like that of 3rd Avenue, or for that matter Chandler Street, which has no sidewalks and is a block from Jefferson High School.

For the rest of the complete streets package, it's incumbent on the city to make the case that the design features they propose are solving a real problem rather than imposing standards on an area that doesn't want them. Otherwise, as my Corridor Urbanism colleague Ben Kaplan says, "They should just spend that money in Wellington Heights where it's really needed."

Patrick Johnstone, "Curb Extensions," Patrick Johnstone, 7 February 2016, https://patrickjohnstone.ca/2016/02/curb-extensions.html
Scott Lane, "Show Me the Money: Why Complete Streets Make Economic Sense," Stantec, 27 April 2016, http://www.stantec.com/blog/2016/show-me-the-money-why-complete-streets-make-economic-sense.html#.VzS61XLmpJB

Bike to Work Week 2016

Monday, May 16
The Cedar Rapids area got an early start on Bike to Work Week when Cedar Rapids City Council member Ann Poe (above) read the official proclamation shortly after 7 a.m. to about three dozen cyclists gathered outside Red's Public House.

The early morning crowd gathers outside the historic downtown building
Enjoying free coffee, courtesy of Red's
Council member Poe signing the official proclamation in the morning breeze
We celebrated the proclamation with a ride up 3rd and Grande Avenues as far as 19th Street.
3rd Avenue and 5th Street
The approximately 4 mile round trip included three types of bike lanes--protected, buffered and regular (pictured above)--as well as streets of various lanes and widths. Streets like 19th pose the biggest challenge to bicycle commuting: an arterial with narrow lanes and parking on both sides. As our group turned south, another cyclist was coming north trailing a few cars. Is there a solution, or is this even a problem?

The riders returned to Red's, which in addition to the celebratory free coffee was offering breakfast burritos for $5. All riders received a bag containing this swag:

Late in the afternoon, Sag Wagon Deli and Brew hosted a Handlebar Happy Hour.

Sag Wagon not only is located on the Cedar River Trail adjacent to Cedar Lake, it has bicycle seat shaped bar stools.

At 5:00 the event was not particularly well-attended...

...but there was a ring toss game with prizes. It took me ten tosses to get one, but mission accomplished.

Tuesday, May 17
This is the first of two days this week that the cyclists can make pit stops. There's a new location this year, in addition to the traditional spot on the Cedar River Trail where it crosses 1st Avenue. Red Ball Printing in New Bohemia is hosting pit stops this year as well. Tuesday afternoon city planner Hillary Hershner was staffing it, offering snacks, handouts, and (to anyone who missed it yesterday) swag.

There was a contraption on which you could mount your bike for inspection. I put my bike on it for photography purposes, but to my surprise Tony Burnett from Red Ball came out and adjusted my brakes.

All of a sudden I had new stopping power! thanks to stopping at the bicycle pit stop (and to Tony Burnett).

Ron Griffith was staffing the 1st Avenue stop...
...with folk from Hall Bicyle Company handing out t-shirts.

Wednesday, May 18
The mayor's back from China, and bike-to-workers (bikers-to-work?) met at City Hall to ride to lunch with him. When you ride with the mayor, it's a media event!

When Mayor Ron Corbett arrived, he was resplendent in his official Bike-to-Work Week t-shirt:

We rode about a mile and a half on a combination of streets and trails to lunch at Kickstand in New Bohemia.

The crowd arrives...

I didn't stay for lunch, though, having a previous commitment (that involved a free lunch). It was 2.4 miles away; my route there took me through downtown but it was nearly all by trails. Had I needed to use city streets the trip would have been grueling and trafficky. The gradual development of trails in our town has made bicycle commuting more feasible for more people.

Stats from Wednesday:
  • Number of intersections where I was stopped opposite a car turning left: 2
  • Number of intersections where the car turning left yielded to the bike going straight: 0
[Several prior commitments kept me from the remainder of the mid-week events, which included a ride of silence Wednesday night in memory of those killed in bicycling accidents; morning and evening pit stops on Thursday; and a kids' ride Thursday evening. Which brings us to...]

Friday, May 20
Today is National Bike to Work Day, but for logistical reasons I drove to work. So I drove home and rode back to the National Czech and Slovak Museum for the commemorative picture. We arrived amidst the hoopla of Houby Days...
...but wended our way through the crowds to the picture site, and got ourselves and our bikes suitably arranged. (The official picture will soon show up on the Bike CR site.)
Then it was back through the crowds to Lion Bridge Brewing Company, where there were draft beer specials on their patio.
Transportation planner Hillary Hershner managed the prize drawings.
I came away with the Hall Bicycle t-shirt you can almost see in the lower right corner of the picture. So I wasn't skunked like last time, and rode home with triumph as well as joy in my heart. Here's to Bike-to-Work Week!

B.A. Morelli, "Bike Boulevards, Protected Bike Lanes, Supersharrows: Lingo of BIke-Friendly Cities," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 19 May 2016, 1A, 7A, http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/bike-boulevards-protected-bike-lanes-supersharrows-lingo-of-bike-friendly-cities-20160518
Aimee Curtis, "Friday is Bike to Work Day. Here's Where to Find a Pit Stop," Greater Greater Washington, 18 May 2016, http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/30830/friday-is-bike-to-work-day-heres-where-to-find-a-pit-stop/

"Cycling Update," 24 May 2015, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2015/05/cycling-update.html
"Bike to Work Week Diary," 13 May 2014, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2014/05/bike-to-work-week-diary.html

What is the future of Iowa's small towns?

Former Audubon County courthouse, Exira (Source: Wikimedia): county population has fallen from 8559 (1980) to 5578 (2017) A recent colum...