Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Urbanism review

I've been invited to give a number of public talks this summer and fall, and at least a couple of them will allow me to spread the word about urbanist design. Urbanism (sometimes new urbanism, but it's not new anymore) is the set of ideas I along with many non-planners first encountered in the 1990s with James Howard Kunstler's critique of post-war development, The Geography of Nowhere (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993).

Kunstler's thorough, slashing prose made such intuitive sense to me that I wonder if I've always been an urbanist, and only lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate it. Not everyone swallows the premises of the urbanist argument so quickly, however, as I was reminded last fall when one of my students praised Cedar Rapids's Collins Road strip for having every store you could possibly want. I look at an endless sea of franchises arrayed thusly...

...and I see unwalkable form and hideous appearance, not to mention the intensity of infrastructure is costly. It does have a lot of stores, though.

For a starting point, then, we turn to two questions from the Strong Towns Strength Test, plus one I made up, that establish a baseline picture of any city. (The other eight strength test questions are good, too, but these are things someone could answer off the top of their head.)
  1. Take a picture (or a mental picture) of your town at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?
  2. Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?
  3. I'm visiting your home. You're going to show me one of the best places in your town. How do we get there?
Marion's Novak School lies across busy 29th Street, which has a left-turn lane but no crosswalk
The answers to these questions matter. Here's why. For most of the last 75 years, America has built cities to facilitate the movement...

...and storage of cars.

"Sprawl" has hollowed out downtowns and neighborhoods, and made it difficult-to-impossible to get most places without a car. That means (see sources below especially Duany et al chs 1-2, 4 & 7, Calthorpe and Fulton ch 1, Kellbaugh ch 1):
  • Isolation of individuals: youth and elderly have difficulty getting around, social groups don't encounter each other, no one gets exercise unless they intentionally work out
  • Unattractive civic spaces;
  • Areas of concentrated poverty disconnected from economic opportunities and civic life;
  • Traffic congestion, as single-occupancy vehicles travel the same paths as people go about their daily business;
  • Deaths and injuries in auto crashes;
  • Environmental costs, starting with wasted energy, as well as air pollution and climate change from auto emissions;
  • Financial liabilities of governments at all levels to maintain the infrastructure;
  • Financial costs to individuals who must have a car to get around; and
  • Less opportunity for local businesses because potential customers are whizzing by them (or struggling by them on congested roads)
To address these consequences, urbanists seek a return to the traditional neighborhood model of urban growth (Duany et al. ch. 4; Calthorpe and Fulton chs 1 & 2, Hester). This means designing places that are:
  1.  walkable and human-scaled: safe for bikes and pedestrians, interesting (signs of human activity), and creating a sense of enclosure with street trees and buildings constructed to engage people on the street (neither "towers in the park" nor "snout houses") 
  2. diverse in population: economic class, race, gender and sexual preference, religion, ethnicity, you name it
  3. varied in uses: residences, shops, offices and schools close to each other
  4. inclusive of public spaces that serve as community centers and landmarks, attract different kinds of people and foster a sense of commonality
"Chicago Street," painting by Michael Broshar, Waterloo, Iowa
Such places are productive because they foster economic activity without requiring a great deal of public infrastructure or subsidy. Another benefit is they sprout third places, usually commercial establishments that serve as informal meeting spots. Author Ray Oldenburg describes them as "public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work" (1989: 16).

Happy hour at The Lounge, 1st St SE
There are many reasons to be an urbanist: communitarian, environmental, financial, health/safety or sheer personal preference. We can do a lot better on all these scores than we're currently doing.


"The Urbanism CLEF," 4 February 2016 (four approaches to urbanism arranged to form a memorable mnemonic)
"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013 (focus on the work of Donald Shoup)
"Biking in the 21st Century," 28 June 2013 (focus on the work of Jeff Speck)
"Gleanings from the New Urbanism," 19 April 2013 (introduction)


The best first book about these ideas remains Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961). Her fluent, accessible language belies the power of the thoughts behind it. She analyzes how cities work, what makes them succeed and fail, and most importantly conventional misconceptions about cities that lead to disastrous policy choices.

More recently has come a cartload of books on design and its impacts. For me the earliest and most influential include:
Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001)
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 2000)
Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006)
Douglas S. Kellbaugh, Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited (University of Washington, 2002)
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (DaCapo, 1999)
Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Planners Press, 2005)
Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtowns Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012)
Jeff Speck speaks in Cedar Rapids, 2015

Friday, August 11, 2017

Welcome to college!

Source: Flickr
Without really meaning to, I've found I write an education piece about this time every year, which seems appropriate as America heads back to school. Since I wrote on K-12 policy earlier this summer, let's talk about the kind of school where I teach: college.

So you're going to college? Good for you! Having taught full-time at the college level for thirty years, it seems like a natural environment for me, but in the contexts of most people's lives it is a rather weird interlude, not to mention an expensive one. What I would like is for it to be a worthwhile experience.

From my perspective "on the inside," there are many misconceptions about college which can diminish your experience. A cranky column in Sunday's Cedar Rapids Gazette by northeast Iowa writer Sandra Reicks contains a bunch. From the column:
College campuses are heavily tilted toward liberalism. That's why most parents sending a child with conservative leanings off the college have had "the talk" with them. Know who has the power--professors. Know the likely political leaning of these professors--liberal. Know what could happen if you challenge their belief system--the "A" paper could become a "B" paper. Better to keep your head down, get through college, and let your conservatism shine after you have the degree in hand.
The column's argument contains some unstated premises: (1) College is important mainly because a degree provides a credential essential to most careers. How you get there is less important than that you get there. (2) The gatekeepers deciding who gets a degree and who doesn't are the professors. Achieving a degree is basically a matter of keeping the professors happy. If you do that, you can attend all the parties and play all the games you want. You could, I guess, do some assignments for classes, if you're into that sort of thing. (3) Today's society is essentially a battle between people who are Right and people who are Wrong. The Wrong are everywhere. There's nothing we can do about them, other than to avoid them to the extent possible.

If the first one was ever true, it certainly is no longer valid. There is a market for professionals, but it's a highly competitive one in which you will be with a lot of other people who are talented and had GPAs. What differentiates you from the rest will be critical: your ability to communicate, both written and spoken; your ability to think analytically and critically; the experiences you've had along the way; and whatever else you bring to the table that will pay for the cost of hiring you.

And your college wants you to succeed. Colleges have historically not been for-profit businesses, but that doesn't mean they don't operate in a highly competitive marketplace, or are insensitive to the bottom line. Colleges with satisfied, prosperous alumni have successful fund-raising campaigns and can use their reputation to attract the best new students. Colleges with unhappy, struggling alumni do badly financially and reputationally. Donald Trump didn't last long in the college business.

Without denyng the existence of ultimate truths, I argue that very few if any people are always Wrong, and no one is always right. Social phenomena are complex, and nobody has a complete handle on the truth. So the best, not to mention the wisest, way to a common life is through conversations in which the broadest possible set of perspectives is articulated and accounted for.

So, to the stated premise and conclusions: (4) Many college professors are ideologically biased to the extreme left, as well as being petty and vindictive. Therefore, conservative students should humor their professors, keep their own heads down, and figure out whatever they have to do to achieve a diploma.

This is tragically bad advice. It encourages the student to waste four valuable years by hunkering down and avoiding experiences, instead of accumulating experiences to prepare for the job market. It encourages the student to keep at a distance people who could serve as mentors. It encourages the student to close themselves off from others whose perspectives are different from theirs, when in fact they're going to be spending the next several decades of their lives dealing with them. It encourages the student to prepare for life as an "organization man," when that model of business has been absent for decades. It discourages the student from examining their beliefs, allowing those to become what John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1869, chapter 2) called "a dead dogma, not a living truth." Most tragically, it encourages the student to avoid opportunities to learn to disagree respectfully, which is a key life skill in the 21st century. Questions, challenges and contrary facts are NOT disrespectful; they show respect for the person and engagement with the argument. (And if we're only providing this for our conservative students and not our liberal ones, it's the liberals we're cheating.) Really, if students are getting and taking Reicks's advice, no wonder only 36 percent of Republicans think colleges and universities have a positive effect on America.

As a professor in the Internet age, I know I'm not the fount of knowledge, even in my field of study. I know less information than any student with a Smart phone. A classroom in which no one is the acknowledged authority is actually an exciting place where all can learn. What I can do is model the analysis of information from a number of perspectives, and moderate productive conversations. Any student who contributes to those conversations is welcome, and I value any perspective I can learn from. Maybe I'm unusual, but in this regard I don't think I am.

Of course, there need to be rules. An conversation that strives to be inclusive is going to make arguments for exclusion difficult-to-impossible. We need to respect data, however much our interpretations may differ. We need to respect each other, which means arguing in good faith, listening and responding to others, not being cynical, and not retreating into "Well, that's just me." Resist the temptation, which any exposure to social media will show is strong, to caricature and ridicule. Remember the goal is not "winning" some imaginary ideological contest, but to create a common life in which all can thrive.

I'm not saying this can be easily achieved or even easily described. (See my 2013 effort on deliberation.) The national political environment, and that of many states, has not for a long time provided much help by way of example. As David Koyzis points out, the ideal of inclusion exists awkwardly alongside revealed religions like Christianity which make absolute truth claims. (This reality leads me to wonder if a Christian, or a particular type of Christian, can be an urbanist, or an urbanist can be a Christian? I would say yes, and point to Eric O. Jacobsen as a prime example, but it requires a certain flexibility.) But if the way were easy, or straightforward, it would have been paved by now.

At some level, isn't this about negative assumptions about what people will think if I say I own a gun, or oppose abortion, or voted for Trump? (On the other hand, the personal is also political--how vocal should your opposition to homosexuality be in a conversation that inevitably includes gays and lesbians?) Such assumptions ahead of the fact amount to "verdict first, trial later" (if at all). Remember that in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus sends his disciples to "all nations," not to enclaves where they are to complain about the media and political correctness. Remember, too, the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, wherein this:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
You've got this.

SOURCE: Sandra Reicks, "Colleges Promote Diversity--Sometimes," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8 August 2017, 3D

SEE ALSO: "A Silent but Needful Protest," 1 November 2016

Friday, August 4, 2017

Cedar Rapids rolls out bus line changes

Cedar Rapids' rollout of new bus routes and schedules this week produced some confusion but also some positive comments from riders. It will take longer to see whether the mostly minor changes will attract new riders.

The changes fall into three categories:

First, previously-circuitous routes have been straightened somewhat with edges cut off where there was extremely low ridership. For example, two routes that formerly looped around and about the southeast side...

...have been combined into one (eliminated portions represented by dashes).

I think more direct trips will be less frustrating for regular riders, and maybe more inviting for potential riders. Note, though, that the new, continuous eastbound run along high-traffic Mt. Vernon Road has no westbound equivalent, and that the loop up to Washington High School is a bit of a diversion. This is nonetheless about as good as it can be with current resources in a small, non-dense city.

These route changes flummoxed a few riders this week, despite publicity efforts by the system and extensive coverage by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The new routes and schedules were online for several weeks (and available in print form since mid-July) but even informed riders such as your humble blogger were flummoxed by the removal of stops along the routes. This was done to expedite travel along the routes, and while drivers by my observation had been pointing out to riders where stops were being removed, the riders on new routes were presented with a few challenges. Drivers were most accommodating where they could be. I guess all this will take some getting used to.

Timing on the new combined Route 2 may take some tweaking. One concerned local citizen reports the bus arriving at his stop close to the end of the route more than 10 minutes late this week.

Second has been a sharp increase in service along 1st Avenue East from downtown to Lindale Mall (Route 5). Buses now run every 15 minutes throughout the day Monday through Saturday, which is bold innovation for our town. This means that there's no more sweating schedules--just show up at the bus stop and one will be there within 15 minutes tops.
Downtown-bound #5 bus discharges passengers near Coe College
Third and most intriguing has been the establishment of transfer hubs at Lindale Mall and the two Cedar Rapids Wal-Mart stores. Previously all routes went through downtown in a spokes-of-the-wheel sort of arrangement. There were some places where the routes intersected--the stop for Route 6 near Coe College is around the corner from the stop for Route 5--but there was no gain in time from doing it that way. In other words, you would get the same #6 bus whether you got off the #5 by Coe or went all the way downtown--although if you got off at Coe you would have time to stop at Wendy's Restaurant (pictured above) or Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse (across the street).

Now there are three hubs with three slightly different arrangements.

[a] At Lindale Mall, the #5 bus from downtown meets two circulator routes that never go downtown. Route 20 goes around the adjoining Ciry of Marion, and Route 30 goes across northern Cedar Rapids and the City of Hiawatha. Both the 20 and 30 start and end hourly at Lindale Mall, and spend about 10 minutes there during which #5 appears and takes off.
This time #30 gets there first
#20 pulls up behind
and a few minutes later, #5 joins the party
I was not observant enough to determine whether passengers were moving between the 20 and the 30, as the new routes make possible direct travel between Marion and Hiawatha. Previously three distinct versions of Route 5 running half an hour apart would go from Lindale Mall to northern Marion (#5N), southern Marion (#5S), or Hiawatha (#5B). Riders I overheard were split between preferring the new options and not having to switch buses to go towards downtown Cedar Rapids.

[b] Routes 4, 6 and 30 intersect at Wal-Mart on Blairs Ferry Road NE, stopping at a service road between the main store and the lawn-and-garden center. Routes 4 and 6 both run mostly north-south, with #4 slightly to the east, so I imagine the main benefit from this hub will be the opportunity for passengers to transfer between either of those lines and the #30, rather than between #4 and #6.
The bus stop
At this hub, the buses are not present at the same time. The #30 arrives and departs at the top of the hour; the #6, which runs twice an hour, at 15 and 45 minutes past; and the #4 at 40 minutes past. So a transfer at this hub is going to involve some waiting, albeit the entry to Wal-Mart is climate-controlled with a good view of the incoming bus--and when I was there, pretty quiet.

[c] Routes 1, 10 and 12 intersect at Wal-Mart on Wiley Boulevard SW as well as a number of other points as they wend their ways through a really astonishing tangle of suburban development including the former Westdale Mall.
Bus routes around Westdale: #1 is gold, #10 is green, #12 is blue
Routes 10 and 12 run every half hour; Route 1 runs once an hour. Routes 10 and 12 take parallel routes from downtown, so the value of the hub would seem to be coordination with Route 1, which goes north-south along Edgewood Road, eventually connecting to downtown via O Avenue NW.  They arrive at this stop within five minutes of each other--#10 first, #1 second and #12 third--so the hub would be useful for someone taking #10 from the southwest side and transferring to the #1 to go north on Edgewood, or someone taking #1 south on Edgewood and transferring to the #12 for the southwest side. However, they would be completely dependent upon the buses arriving in the scheduled order.

Bus #10 arrives at the shelter at 31st and Wiley
I didn't see anyone actually switching at this stop. Unlike at Blairs Ferry Road, this stop is at a distance from the stores. Kohl's on the other side of Wiley is accessible by sidewalk, but Wal-Mart and its enormous array of planet stores only via this driveway:

This seems to be the least serviceable hub of the three, but the bus system didn't design the area.

One casualty of the changes in routes is what has to be the metro area's nicest bus stop, on 7th Avenue in downtown ("Uptown") Marion.

Formerly a stop on both Routes 5N and 5S, it is not on the new Route 20, which meets 7th Avenue from the north on 10th Street, one block west. The shops of Uptown Marion are still accessible as ever, and the routes need to go where they serve most efficiently, but give me a moment to salute what has been a sort of jewel of the system.

Cedar Rapids Bus site
Track Cedar Rapids buses in real time here
Samantha Myers, "City of Cedar Rapids Works to Improve Bus System," KCRG, 26 July 2017
Steve Gravelle, "'So Far, So Good:' New Cedar Rapids Bus Routes Running on Schedule," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1 August 2017
Steve Gravelle, "Cedar Rapids Buses Begin Streamlined Routes Today," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 31 July 2017

"CR's New Bus Routes in Effect July 31," 30 May 2017
"CR Transit Moves Cautiously in the Right Direction," 16 March 2017

Urbanism review

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