Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Condition of the state 2020

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds's third Condition of the State address bore a lot of resemblance to her previous ones: In 45 minutes or so, she saluted Iowa's small town and rural history, while promising budgetary magic (cutting income and property taxes while increasing funding for mental health and water quality), subsidies for farmers, and a pro-life measure, this time an amendment to the state constitution. She also called out the tech education efforts of Osage Community Schools, which has established a partnership with Cedar Rapids-based NewBoCo, where my son works.
Gov. Kim Reynolds greets David Tominsky, chief relationship officer at NewBoCo, as she tours NewBoCo with executive director Eric Engelmann (right) in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. The governor announced a new focus on educational technology for growing Iowa’s economy based on a report released by Columbus, Ohio-based TEConomy Partners. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Reynolds at NewBoCo in October 2019 with executives David Tominsky and Eric Engelman (swiped from

One distinctive aspect of Reynolds's time as Governor has been her interest in criminal justice reform, particularly changing Iowa's strict provisions on disenfranchisement of felons, for which she wants another constitutional amendment. Her call came about 35 minutes into the speech, but we'd been led by advance publicity to expect it, she's talked about it before, and she spent some time on the subject, so it's clearly something she believes in.

She gave both practical and idealistic reasons for doing so. She argued that prisoners that are effectively re-integrated into the community are less likely to re-offend, which makes our communities safer. She also believes in "redemption," and that "When someone has lost their way, we are called to seek them out," alluding to Jesus's parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:1-7). She recognized in the audience William Burt of Waterloo, who has established a remarkable record of community service and entrepreneurship after being released from prison, and who recovered his voting rights by petitioning the governor.

Reynolds also quoted Ronald Reagan to the effect that the right to vote is the "crown jewel of American liberties." This is why it's such an important issue to me. I'm ambivalent about absolute expressions of many rights, viewing them as efforts to close off essential community conversations about the terms of our common life. But voting is different, because the quality and equity of those conversations is absolutely dependent on their inclusiveness. Only when people are fully included in society does that happen.

New York University's Brennan Center for Justice includes voting rights restoration as a key part of their Ensure Every American Can Vote campaign. They argue, Millions of Americans are barred from voting because of criminal convictions in their past. Felony disenfranchisement laws, relics of our Jim Crow past, hit African Americans disproportionately hard. (On the origins of these laws, see Behrens, Uggen and Manza 2003.) When Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order in 2005 automatically restoring all ex-felons' voting rights, voting turnout increased, until the order was rescinded by Governor Terry Branstad in 2011 (Meredith and Morse 2015).

Iowa is the currently the only state in the U.S. where all felons permanently lose their right to vote (unless they successfully petition). In eight other states, mostly in the southeast, this may happen. Other states restore voting rights after the expiration of the sentence, or parole, or probation. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote. (See map at The number of people affected, currently over 6 million potential voters, has increased dramatically in recent years, as you can tell by comparing the numbers in articles only a couple decades old which use figures like 4.7 million.

The process of amending Iowa's constitution begins in the state legislature. Both houses must pass the measure in consecutive years. Last year the House passed it but the Senate did not, so we start all over again in 2020.

Complete text of the governor's address is here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The opposite of BRT

The 10:15 run of Route #2 waiting to turn left
Some cities are putting resources into Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which tries to overcome the disadvantage of most public buses--they get stuck in the same traffic as private cars, without the convenience of immediate access that cars offer--without the expense of new rail infrastructure. Indianapolis's Red Line is one example. Yonah Freemark (2020) estimates 354 miles of BRT were added to American transit networks during the 2010s, at a total cost of $2.8 billion (albeit a tiny fraction of the efforts towards more roads).

Vancouver introduced the RapidBus this week on four routes; CBC reporter Justin McElroy found the RapidBus went about as fast as his car between a train station and the University of British Columbia--faster, if you count the time he spent parking and unparking (McElroy 2020).

Transit guru Jarrett Walker (2009) identifies three subtypes of BRT:
  1. Dedicated lanes and grade separated (no intersections)
  2. Dedicated lanes but at-grade with signals
  3. Shared lanes, at grade, but with signal priority (and stops spaced widely apart)
Richmond, Virginia's new BRT system is at level #2, with dedicated lanes and signal priority, although there are questions about how well the Transit Signal Priority is working in practice (Gordon 2020).

A city's choice depends on resources, both financial and land-available-for-pavement. A 2001 GAO study found the typical cost of creating BRT was about $15 million per mile (cited in Jeff Speck, Walkable City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2012), p. 157), which was about half the cost of light rail, but still... not beanbag. Speck has standards: True BRT systems include not only a separated path, but also signal priority at intersections, level boarding at raised pay-to-enter stations, ten-minute headways, and GPS-enabled wait-time indicators. If you can't do most of those things, don't call it Rapid (Speck 2012: 157). But Walker notes that Los Angeles BRT is at level #3, with shared lanes but transponders which can influence traffic signals--not ideal, but they could create 700 miles of routes in ten years. Las Vegas, where I rode an express bus last summer, seems to be a similar system, but has dedicated lanes downtown.

Even a low threshold for Rapid gives buses some advantage over cars in traffic, maybe in some cases enough to compensate for the fact that your car is available in your driveway to fulfill your every wish without delay.

Smaller cities may not have the density or the space or the budget to add features to their bus systems. I imagine most cities the size of Cedar Rapids have done what Cedar Rapids has done: spread their federal transit dollars across as much of the city as possible. (Even Tulsa, which is three times our size, has only just started dipping its toe into more frequent service along Peoria Avenue, though they've had nighttime service for a long time.) We serve the desperate, wherever they are, while the service level means anybody with options chooses their cars.

Although! The 2017 schedule changes marginally improved service by straightening some of the crookeder routes and adding service to route #5. My impression is that ridership has marginally increased as a result, particularly on the #5. [UPDATE: Elizabeth M. Darnall, transportation planner for the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization, confirmed to me that while apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult because of route changes, ridership on the #5 and the new Hiawatha and Marion circulars increased more than 40 percent in the first two years.]

What cities of any size should not do is disadvantage bus transportation relative to private cars. That is a recipe for making public transportation irrelevant. OK, a "coverage" system like ours is inherently telling most people "Drive if you can." But, to add insult to injury, there are intersections in congested area where buses wait at stop signs while cars go through on the cross street. A particularly egregious example of this is 2nd Street and 12th Avenue SE, which was recently converted from traffic lights to stop signs. Conversion good!--though any future transponders will now do no good there. But the stop signs only exist on 2nd Street, so when the #2 bus comes down it has to wait to turn left until all the cross traffic on 12th Avenue has passed AND then yield to northbound traffic on 2nd. Also, route #6, which goes inbound on 2nd Avenue SE, has to stop for traffic on both 8th and 7th Streets.

Here's the #2 this afternoon, waiting, and waiting, to turn left onto 12th (after waiting through a long line of auto traffic so it could turn left onto 2nd Street from 8th Avenue):

It's the opposite of Bus Rapid Transit... Bus Prolonged Transit? Bad acronym. Bus Interminable Transit Experience (BITE)? Bus Using Left Lane Stuck Here Indefinitely Transit?

Solutions: Make 2nd and 12th a four-way stop. I understand what the city is trying to do with 7th and 8th, and tinkering with intersections creates dangerous levels of confusion, but how about sending the #6 down another street which is not similarly controlled, like 1st or 3rd Avenue?

And then... look for opportunities to facilitate the steady movement of buses on all routes.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The persistent relevance of urbanism in an age of chaos

Discussing plans for west side development, June 2014
A month from the Iowa precinct caucuses that start the long process of voting in the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. announced it had killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, as well as an Iraqi militia leader, in a drone strike (Marcus 2020). Between this and the imminent start of voting for President, the news is full of impeachment efforts and the frightening effects of global climate change. With, city-level issues can seem pretty unimportant. They aren't.

The urbanist project at the local level, step by incremental step, remains the critical response to problems of our common life in the next century.

Image result for congress for the new urbanismUrbanism entered our national vocabulary in 1993 with the founding of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Reacting against five decades of suburban development, the CNU charter proclaimed: We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy. "New" Urbanism wasn't new in the sense of never having been thought of, but rather represented a rediscovery of traditional city design that provided for human life as suburban development did not: social connectedness, community identity, individual choice, environmental sustainability, and fiscal sustainability. (See a list of classic urbanist texts below.)

Seems all well and good, but how can we possibly ponder "the restoration of existing urban centers" and "the preservation of our built legacy" when the issues and personalities at the national-international level are so huge?
See the source image
In contrast to national politics, where we can watch helplessly as the country stumbles into conflict or the President Tweets out another juvenile nickname for his opponents, local activity offers people the opportunity to make an impact, and to see the impact they make. President Trump is an extreme example, but national politics has long been mostly a spectator sport, like the NFL playoffs except with real-world consequences, which is why the Russians were so easily able to co-opt social media in 2016.

12th Av SE, April 2018
At the local level, you know what (and who) you're dealing with. In Cedar Rapids, the pedestrian infrastructure on 12th Avenue SE grew out of a Better Block project in spring 2018 (pictured above). Anderson Park got playground equipment because of one family's activism, and Redmond Park has been adopted by a group in the Wellington Heights neighborhood. The 1500 block of Park Avenue SE remains one-way, for better or worse, because of neighborhood objections to the city's plan to reconvert it. During my semester in Washington, I saw the creation of the Safe Streets in Hill East group that lobbies for pedestrian and bicycle improvements in the neighborhood where we lived. I could go on. Examples abound.

Win or lose, participate or don't participate, local decisions define the conditions of our daily lives. The residents of the Rompot neighborhood didn't succeed in blocking the expansion of the adjacent train yard, and they will live every day with the consequences. More simply: Do you live with constant noises and noxious smells? Is it easy to meet people? Is there a place to get a quick ingredient you're missing that you can walk to without taking your life into your hands? Do your sewers work? City design matters to people, all the time.

People walk to this grocery store, but it's a battle
Local issues are, in short, about the conditions that people encounter in their daily lives. A one-way-to-two-way street re-conversion can make the difference between a speedway and a neighborhood. A good city park provides space for recreation, relaxation, and meeting. (See Kramer 2019 for a case from Pittsburgh where restored nature was chosen over a casino and/or strip mine.) The conditions of our streets affect how people make their daily way to work, school, and shopping. A city that overspends on infrastructure faces a day of reckoning where its citizens can't count on the bridges, sewers, electric lines and essential services they need (cf. Marohn 2019). Decisions at the local level affect the economic opportunities by which we make our livings, not to mention the quality of social interactions with our fellow residents.

Ellen Shepherd of Community Allies points to the demonstrated advantage of locally-owned businesses
Most importantly, the key issues we face require thinking about how we live our lives, and designing the conditions that make change possible--and that too happens locally. Individuals can resolve to live more ethical or neighborly lives, but the conditions that support those resolutions require conversations. There is no guarantee those local conversations will ever happen, nor that when they do they'll be adequately inclusive, deliberative, or lead to good outcomes. But the locality is the only place where they can happen.

Bike lanes and buses improve individual mobility as well as social connections

Want to address our epidemic of depression? Obesity? Gun violence? Poverty? All are driven by the way we've designed our communities to encourage or (until recently, mostly) discourage community-building. Want to address climate change and other environmental problems? We could use some effective international agreements, to be sure, but the rubber meets the road with individual behavior, and that means cities not designed for car-dependence. Worried about our fiscal future? At both the individual and community level, urbanist design is sustainable as suburban design is not. (See Karlinsey 2019.)

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct  measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased  since the Industrial Revolution.  (Source: [[LINK||||NOAA]])I'm not denying that we live in a global economy and a global climate, and that important decisions about them need to be made at the national and international levels. I'm not denying that a presidential administration that deals in favors and spite, while bidding constantly for attention, needs to be replaced. Some resources can only be moblized at the state or national level, and sometimes valiant local efforts are thwarted by state and national government malice.

I am saying that the drama of world politics should not distract us from building the towns we need to live in. I am also saying that the quality of national-level policy solutions depends in large part on their foundations--social, economic, cultural--in our communities. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne this week quoted Robert F. Kennedy:
When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens, but as enemies — to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered. (quoted in Dionne 2020)
A strong citizenry starts with the incidental contacts we have with others, which only happen when the town is designed to encourage them. On that basis everything else--unity, prosperity, quality of life--is built.

Make pancakes not war!
 Calthorpe, Peter, and Fulton, William. The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl. Island, 2001.
 Duany, Andres; Plater-Zyberk, Elizabeth; and Speck, Jeff. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. North Point, rev ed, 2010.
 Gehl, Jan. Cities for People. Island Press, 2010.
 Hester, Randolph T. Design for Ecological Democracy. MIT Press, 2006.
 Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, 1961.
 Kelbaugh, Douglas S. Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited. University of Washington Press, 2002.
 Kemmis, Daniel. Community and the Politics of Place. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
 Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. Paragon House, rev. ed., 1999.

"Gleanings from the New Urbanism," 19 April 2013

Monday, December 30, 2019

The future of religious spaces (VI)


Every year about this time, Faith and Form produces its worldwide survey of the best in religious art and architecture--mostly architecture, because "[f]or the second year in a row, the jury was concerned about the low number of Religious Art entries" (Crosbie 2019). It's fascinating, eye-catching, and an opportunity to reflect on the roles religion and religious places play in our common life.

It's also the time when Christians like me celebrate the birth of Jesus. We have appropriated Jewish prophecy like that of Isaiah, who may or may not have been discussing the Messiah when he wrote:
A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.... He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (Isaiah 11:1, 3b-4, NRSV)
Hearing these familiar verses again this year, I was struck by the seemingly casual reference to the killing that needed to happen to achieve the peace and justice of the "holy mountain" eventually proclaimed in verse 9. Again with the killing! which seems to be a prerequisite for Biblical promises. God's ways are beyond the scope of this blog, but it altogether too tempting to believe that things will be great once we (the hands of God?) first get rid of all the wicked/idiots/haters/evildoers. This is a prime example of what philosopher Martha Nussbaum (The Monarchy of Fear, Simon & Schuster, 2018, pp. 81-84) calls the "just world hypothesis"--the belief that I would get what I want if I weren't thwarted by bad guys--a worldview that leads to destructive, retributive anger. Instead of anger we need to affirm a common life, right this very minute, to deal with all humanity has to deal with. Excising the other only saps our energy and most likely adds to the evil instead of solving it.

The Christian apostle Paul offers us a rhetorical way out of this trap. In his letter to the Roman church, he writes of the believer dying to sin (see esp. ch. 6). How this death is accomplished seems to be a combination of divine grace, individual effort, and good old-fashioned Christian orthodoxy (see O'Brien 2012). That need not detain us here; we need only to accept that religious language about killing the wicked can apply to the evil within each of us, rather than some definitive expulsion of some individuals for the ultimate happiness of others.

Back to this year's award-winners. Leaving judgments about art and architecture to the professionals, and recognizing that what happens within places is as important as how they're designed, we urbanists can ask: How do the physical features of religious places help us achieve connection in a disconnected world?

One way is to bring us, for a time, away from the world into a place apart. Spectacular sanctuaries, like Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, can achieve that by creating its own world of wonder.
Elkus Manfredi Architects
Cathedral of the Holy Cross won an award for renovation
Usually these grand sanctuaries have spectacular acoustics as well, so those who raise their voices in song or prayer become part of a greater whole. Through our encounter with the divine, we are re-centered for life in the world.

Another way is to arrange seating in a circle around the altar, rather than having everyone in the congregation facing the same direction, as in Seattle's St. Anne Church.
Stephen Lee Architects
St. Anne Church won an award for renovation
Author James F. White (Protestant Worship and Church Architecture, Oxford University Press, 1964) argues this older form, abandoned for awhile, emphasizes communal worship rather than individual emotional reaction in a hierarchical setting. (See especially chapters 4 and 5.) Shifting from my experience to our action also re-orients us to a world of diverse people.

Most urbanist of all is the religious building that is accessible to the street, such as St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, which fronts directly onto Park Avenue in Manhattan--a block from the #6 subway line.
Acheson Doyle Partners Architects, PC
St. Bart's Church won a restoration award for its dome, which is not relevant to this post
This is the "meaningful destination easily accessible on foot" commended by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck and Jeff Speck (Suburban Nation, North Point Press, 2010 rev. ed., p. 64). In fact, it contributes to all four of their prerequisites for the street life--meaningful destinations, safe streets, comfortable streets, interesting neighborhood--needed to support community. Contrast that with the award-winning new church, St. Luke the Evangelist in suburban Ankeny, Iowa...
Neumann Monson Architects
St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church
...which opens onto a parking lot accessible from Weigel Drive only by a long driveway. Neither it nor the school next door will ever be walkable. (It's not even clear how you would walk from one to the other.) No one will ever happen by.

Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, [1961] 1993, pp.72-73) waxed eloquent about the social utility of public spaces like sidewalks that are building blocks of connected neighborhoods.
They bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion....
The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded....
The sum of such casual public contact at a local level--most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone--is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need.
The intentional design of religious places, new and old, architectural wondrous and humbly utilitarian, can contribute substantially to the public identity that will sustain us all through whatever lies ahead. Or not.

Primary Source: Michael J. Crosbie (ed), "2019 International Awards Program for Religious Art and Architecture," Faith and Form 52:4 (2019). All photos are from the article, and are used without permission.

Last Year's Model: "The Future of Religious Spaces (V)," 28 December 2018

Friday, December 27, 2019

Cities in the 2020s

Image result for Free Clip Art 2020

These are the days of miracle and wonder--PAUL SIMON

This week, National Public Radio's "Marketplace Morning Report" discussed economic forecasts by the Oxford Economic Group which expects weak global economic growth in the near future, including the U.S. (Safo 2019). Actual results may vary, of course, and the authors suggest the cities best situated for a prosperous early 2020s are those outstanding on dimensions of economic mix, cost of living, and quality of life. So the U.S. urban economy expected to grow the most in 2020-21 is... San Francisco??

I'm not questioning the report's methodology, rather taking it as read, because [a] it's proprietary, and [b] I'm cheap. But San Francisco's cost of living is infamously high, particularly housing. Its cost of living ranked #2 among U.S. cities in 2019 by Kiplinger, trailing only the Borough of Manhattan (which is only part of a city), thanks to "years of relentless growth driven by high-paid tech workers." Average apartment rent: $3821 a month. So, given their criteria, however is San Francisco #1?

Image result for San Francisco

Put another way, if San Francisco is in the best position in spite of its ridiculously high housing costs, what does that say about the rest of the country? For example, what is going to happen in Chicago, which ranks at the bottom of Oxford's list, thanks to the frightening budget and tax picture in the State of Illinois? What about small cities and rural areas, which can't compete with the big places for economic mix (or, arguably, for quality of life)?

The "winner-take-all" nature of the post-industrial economy applies not only to individuals but also to places (though see Sawhill 2019 for the argument that this situation results from political choices as well as economic fundamentals). In the modern tech economy, wrote Emily Badger (cited below) in The New York Times around the time Amazon made its HQ2 announcement, cities that already have wealth, opportunity, highly educated workers and high salaries will just keep attracting more of them.... A small number of rich and internationally connected cities keep increasing their economic advantages--and as a result, the inequality widens between them and everywhere else.

It looks like the 2020s will feature a big shakeout. I hope it won't hurt, but it probably will. Interestingly, Brookings scholars' list of the biggest economic stories of the 2010s focus less on places than on individuals (tax cuts for the rich, rising inequality, lower life expectancy, fewer teens in the workforce) and systems (monetary policy stuck on full-blast, good news on health care access and cost, no worker productivity gains, aging population). But it's fair to say that the fall-out from most of these individual- and system-level trends will impact localities, too, and not all localities to the same degree. Localities will have, already have, fewer resources to address either rising individual vulnerabilities or cutthroat economic competition.

Maybe the 2020s will be the placid sort of decade in which these sorts of issues can be thoughtfully sorted out. The 2010s certainly were, when you compare them to its immediate predecessor which featured a small recession, a massive terrorist attack, a debilitating war, and finally the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The 2010s have been quite a breather, comparatively, apart from a series of unforced errors. Future generations may well wonder why we squandered this opportunity in government shutdowns, highway construction, and the odoriferous politics of Donald Trump. The tasks of the 2020s will be hard enough without the possibility of additional pressure from:
  • an economic downturn
  • employment issues for the rest (of workers, of places)
  • natural disasters exacerbated by climate change
  • increasing refugee flows
  • increasing homelessness, due to rising incidence of mental illness and/or poverty (see Hu 2019)
  • changes in energy prices and supply
  • intensified inter-group hostility
  • crumbling infrastructure on which maintenance has been deferred too long
My Photo
Pete Saunders, a planner and blogger from the industrial Midwest, anticipates the decade to come might fulfill the transition period underway throughout the 2010s, turning away from the auto-centric era that ran from World War II until the last decade's housing crisis.
Our development future will be even more urban.  It will be based more on the mobility options and opportunities --autonomous and alternatively fueled vehicles -- that will expand this century.  It will be more economically unequal in America, as America's economy becomes more equal with the rest of the world.   And our development patterns will be something that will adapt to the demands put on it by climate change. [For the next twenty years:] The rebirth of cities actually does take hold nationally, as growth filters downward from our superstar coastal cities to other cities.  Interior cities will tout their assets and amenities and become cheaper alternatives to the coasts. (Saunders 2019)
This fulfillment will be facilitated if millennials stay in cities, as seems to be happening where such opportunities exist (Lewyn 2019), rather than coming to expect the same subsidized suburban development their parents came to expect. It will require the masters of capital to notice all the talent in the cost-efficient interior of the country, and to move to take advantage of it, and for interior cities to position themselves for strength--culturally as well as physically and financially. It will require a willingness to adapt to climate change, even if we have to call it something else to soothe the deniers.

Some days my town seems to be about attracting entrepreneurs and removing obstacles to traditional development, and some days its long-term plan seems to consist of subdivisions and strip malls, not to mention the casino. I guess the glass is never entirely full, nor is it entirely empty, and that history progresses incrementally, even imperceptibly. Whatever this new decade brings, may there always be voices of hope and visions of common life.

 Emily Badger, "The Same Cities Keep Attracting Tech. Why?" New York Times, 8 November 2018, B1, B2
 Winnie Hu, "Please, Don't Have a Seat," New York Times, 8 November 2019, A22
 Michael Lewyn, "Are Cities Really Losing Millennials?" Planetizen, 23 December 2019
 Nova Safo, "Economic Growth for U.S. Cities Will Depend on Mix of Industries," Marketplace, 23 December 2019
 Pete Saunders, "Revisiting the 'Big Theory' on American Urban Development," Corner Side Yard, 23 December 2019

SEE ALSO: "What Defined the Decade Since CityLab Launched," CityLab, 30 December 2019
"Globalization's Challenge to Cities," 25 June 2016
"Can Cities Change Their Luck?" 20 June 2016
"Two Tales of Cities," 7 June 2016

Friday, November 29, 2019

Black Friday Parking 2019

It's that time of year again! when Strong Towns members near and far prowl shopping areas on the biggest shopping day of the year to find unnecessary parking spaces. It's time for... #BlackFridayParking!

Black Friday may be only a shadow of its former self. Indications are businesses weren't getting the returns they had anticipated on the big discounts, and more bargain-hungry customers are satiating their appetites online (Selyukh 2019). The driver on the #20 bus reported scant crowds at the big box stores before 8 or 8:30 Friday morning.

Nevertheless, after a year's hiatus, your humble blogger is back on the case! This year the trail led east, out to the edge of Marion, Iowa, where sits our area's newest Wal-Mart store. At 10:00 a.m., there were a lot of cars in the lot, but a lot of unclaimed spaces as well. I'd say it was 50 percent full.

The view from the southwest corner:

From the northwest corner:

 From the northeast corner:

The (small) parking lot at the adjacent McDonald's restaurant was well-filled, although when I went inside there weren't that many people--customers or staff--inside.

The strip mall across the stroad (10th Street a.k.a. Business Route 151):

Doing a brisk business at the convenience store:

Not so much at the Culver's up Route 13. Too early?

Unlike other Cedar Rapids area big box stores, there's not a lot of development around this Wal-Mart. B.R. 151 goes southwest-northeast through Cedar Rapids and Marion, a stroad with mostly serious auto-oriented commercial development. Unlike other stroads in the area, this one doesn't even try to be walkable... there are no sidewalks, and bicycling would be dangerous. There's no safe way to access these stores without a car, unless you take (as I did) the #20 bus which winds its way there once an hour. This is true even for the residents of Eagle Ridge, the prefab home park across 10th Avenue from Wal-Mart.

In contrast to outer Marion, things seemed pretty hot along Collins Road in Cedar Rapids. The Collins Road Square lot was nearly full.

The lots at Lindale Mall were maybe 80 percent full...

...which meant there were still a lot of empty spaces...

The lot at the Town and Country Mall, which dates from the first wave of sprawl, was nearly empty.

... as was the Walgreen's on 1st Avenue.

Bottom line is there's a lot of acreage out there devoted to surface parking, way more than we can use even on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Is this due to city ordinances requiring parking minima, the particular bete noire of Strong Towns? Cedar Rapids planner Seth Gunnerson told Strong Towns: "City of CR has a couple of policies aimed at reducing parking," including parking maxima, credits for things like nearby on-street parking and bicycle parking. Parking minima have been eliminated in downtown, and in those areas covered by the form-based code (Strong Towns 2019, cited below). Maybe businesses are assuming that they're going to need all this space, either to assure every customer on the busiest day that there will be a space for them, or because they hope some day to need them all?

Whether government or businesses themselves are causing this situation doesn't matter to me, because either way, the amount of land devoted to parking cars in a typical city like Cedar Rapids is several degrees beyond excessive. As Daniel Herriges (cited below) points out, parking "has eaten our cities" with negative effects on the environment, city finances, and walkability (not to mention any alternative form of transportation). All those parking lots add to the distance between our destinations, which makes more driving more necessary, which requires more parking lots--not to mention worsening traffic congestion, and so probably contributing to the perceived need to widen the interstate.

Being a spectator on Black Friday--even today's diminished version--means being a spectator of spectacular consumption (not to mention that the increasing proportion of consumption done online is done out of sight of parking scolds like me). Maybe the root problem is not how we choose to design our places, or how we choose to get around them, but how we choose to live. Buy Nothing Day has been around since the 1990s, but is getting increased attention this year (Cain 2019). Would changing our perceptions of how much stuff we need improve the places we live?

Daniel Herriges, "Parking Dominates Our Cities. But Do We Really See It?" Strong Towns, 27 November 2019
Strong Towns, "Every City Should Abolish Its Minimum Parking Requirements. Has Yours?" Strong Towns, 25 November 2019
"Black Friday Parking 2017: After the Ball is Over," 24 November 2017
"Black Friday Parking 2016," 25 November 2016
"Black Friday Parking," 27 November 2015

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Case for Widening

I-380 (six lanes' worth) crosses 15th Street SW in Cedar Rapids
Drums continue to beat for the widening of Interstate 380 in eastern Iowa--specifically to add one lane each way in the 12 mile stretch of four-lane highway between US 30 and North Liberty, to match the six lanes that exist in Cedar Rapids and close to Interstate 80. The Iowa Department of Transportation has held public forums, and at least one local government (Iowa City) has taken a position (against).

The Cedar Rapids Gazette has published a number of opinion pieces (cited below), including one opposed to widening by Corridor Urbanism co-founder Ben Kaplan, and a strong statement of support by former Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett. Corbett's administration oversaw not only recovery from the devastating 2008 flood, but adoption of complete streets policies including bike lanes, sidewalk construction, and one-way-to-two-way conversions throughout Cedar Rapids. His record of public service as well as time in private industry makes his position particularly worthy of note.
Image result for ron corbett
Ron Corbett (Source: Radio Iowa)
In his guest editorial, Corbett offers three main sets of premises:
  1. We need to accommodate future growth. Linn and Johnson counties form the core of the economic region. (Corbett counts seven counties; the U.S. Census Bureau defines a five-county "combined statistical area." However defined, a huge proportion of the population lives in these two counties.) Their estimated combined population in 2016 was 442,000, which will surely prove larger once 2020 census figures are published. As the counties continue to grow--unlike most of Iowa--intercity commuting will increase, until it can't anymore. "Without an efficient transportation system," Corbett writes, "We risk losing our competitive edge." In other words, if car travel times increase beyond, say, 37 minutes, people won't switch to public transit, they will move to a more car-accommodating region, and our economy will strangle.
  2. Our region is designed such that private cars are the only way to get around. The combined population of the two counties is roughly equal to that of the city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, but spread over 1,332 square miles instead of 57 (not to mention that Minneapolis is part of a larger metropolitan area of almost 4 million people). Other than where downtown Iowa City abuts the main campus of the University of Iowa, employment even in the cities is spread over a wide area. Downtown Cedar Rapids has come back gloriously since the flood, but as a center is still a shadow of its pre-sprawl self. People live and work all over the place. This is the "last mile problem" with a vengeance: Even if auto addicts were somehow induced to take an intercity bus or light rail, they would face additional challenges getting to their final destinations once they got to downtown Cedar Rapids or Iowa City. [For example: Someone commuting from near Cherokee Park in northwest Cedar Rapids to North Liberty's Commercial Park faces a two hour commute by buses, with two connections, opposed to 30-45 minutes by highway.] There is no incremental way to promote other forms of transportation. We live by our cars, and our cars must be served by wider highways.
  3. Induced demand won't have bad effects. It will have good effects! Both Nicholas Johnson and Ben K. reference the Katy Freeway debacle in Houston, but given our relatively low population that nightmare will not be replicated here. (That's a nice way of admitting that the "congestion" on I-380 is pretty much a matter of perception, in a sparsely populated area where people often seem shocked to find someone else in front of them.) Corbett points out that if traffic increases enough, we will become eligible for more federal government spending: Right now, the ICR region is viewed as two different areas by the federal government due to the commuter activity between our two major cities – Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Expanding our current commuting options by widening I-380 will allow for additional commuters. Being recognized as one metropolitan statistical area (MSA) would bring millions of additional federal economic and community development dollars to our region. Remember, local governments and taxpayers are not footing the bill for construction of the Highway 100 extension and all the work on 80 and 380; these are funded by state and national governments. Besides, Des Moines got money for their interstates, and look what it's done for them.
Four lanes of I-380 north of Swisher in July 2018 (Google Earth screen capture)

On one level it's hard to disagree with Mayor Corbett: As our community journeys through time, the next step is most likely going to resemble the steps we've taken so far. It's the easiest decision to make, the easiest plan to implement, and requires only temporary adjustments by our residents. Switching public investment to different transportation modes might--might--catch on in time, but in the short run is unlikely to mitigate the congestion such as it is. We've been building highways for decades, for better or worse, and we know how to build more, expand the ones we've got, where to find the money, and how to drive on them once we've got them. Adding bike lanes to city streets was freaky.

But we can't be restricted to short-run responses to problems. Someone has to be thinking about long-term outcomes. What will this region look like a generation or two from now? Will there be a small number of densely-populated employment centers, or will population be spread thinly around? There are attractions to both, but only the former accommodates the environment, is resilient to changes in energy supply, affords alternatives to a car-dependent lifestyle, is resilient to changes in federal spending habits, supports local businesses, and is financially sustainable. Building and widening highways without taking into account the future we're building is committing future generations to the choices of the past--as well as all the consequences.

See the source image
St. Paul, Minnesota's A line (Source: WCCO)
Maybe slapping a light rail line between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City tomorrow, in hopes someone will use it, is not the solution right now. But we certainly should be taking steps towards conditions that will enable us to adapt to whatever the future brings. That means committing resources to something other than doubling down on what we've got. Ben in his guest column suggests bus rapid transit (BRT), which would be a huge step forward in Cedar Rapids's transit system, and which could spur transit-oriented development. We could expand the area covered by form-based codes, which done right help spur compact, affordable development. City development resources should focus on ways to improve our resilience. Is a development likely to position the city for a walkable design that works with intracity and intercity public transit? Good. Does it provide a short-term infusion of cash while making us more vulnerable in the future? Resist! Does it insulate from financial risk some big developer with even bigger promises? Definitely resist!

A couple more considerations:

The need to "accommodate future growth" through vast expansions of infrastructure assumes that growth is inevitable and will be substantial, or at least will not occur at all unless there is a great deal of improved space readied for it. This is a relatively recent assumption. As Charles Marohn has pointed out, pre-World War II growth was done incrementally, so that when failures occurred they were of small not spectacular scale:
We sometimes mistakenly view this approach as primitive, lacking the sophistication that today’s auto-based cities have. In that, we are disastrously wrong. Modern development represents not just a step backward in sophistication but an abandonment of complexity in favor of systems that are efficient, orderly, and dumb.
Traditional development patterns, based around people who walked, emerged through trial and error over thousands of years. Societies learned to build this way by innovating incrementally—expanding on what worked while abandoning what didn’t. The result is a resilient building form finely adapted to people, a pattern that repeats with eerie similarity across continents and cultures.
We need to approach development of our cities and regions in an entirely new, which is actually the old, way:
The central task of the Millennial generation is not going to be expanding the boundaries of our cities but managing their contraction. We must find a way to unwind all of these widely dispersed and unproductive investments while providing opportunities for a good life—a modernized American Dream—in strong cities, towns, and neighborhoods. And we have to do all of this with the drag of large debts and a failed national system for growth, development, and economic management that largely associates auto-based development with progress. (Marohn 2015)

Secondly, we need to stop treating the federal government like Dad-with-the-bottomless-wallet. When federal money is the answer to everything, the federal government winds up making a lot of our decisions for us (Gladney 2019). Admittedly I'd like it more if the federal government put more money into mass transit and less into highway construction, or if the Iowa government put more money into school maintenance and less into constructing new buildings. But the principle remains: When do what we can get federal money for, that's a problem. If Cedar Rapids needs money for highways, because Des Moines (and Correctionville) got money for theirs, where does it end? Sioux City and Waterloo have had rougher decades than Cedar Rapids. And the Iowa Rural Development Council wants you to know that our state has 900-plus small towns which they believe have not received their share of funding (Menner 2018). Doesn't every town in Iowa, every hamlet in the United States, deserve a new highway or airport or attraction? Remember, we're paying taxes to the state and federal governments, too. When federal money for I-380 seems too good to pass up, remember that it's only possible because we're paying taxes towards every other project in America at the same time.

City Lab recently quoted mobility consultant Rasheq Zarif:
It’s a matter of distributing the demand. It should not be expected that we should build more roads and it’s free. It’s a utility, a resource for us, and we need to respect that the same way as we respect energy, water, housing and so forth.... When you’re wearing big pants, loosening your belt will not help remind you about weight loss.
Loosening your belt after too much turkey solves your immediate problem, but not your long-term issue. Same goes for widening highways.

Ron Corbett, "Local Economy Depends on Infrastructure, Including Wider I-380," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 25 November 2019
Calvin Gladney, "The Feds Are Driving a National Policy of Sprawl," The Fifty, 22 March 2019
Nicholas Johnson, "Asking the Right Questions About Interstate 380 Expansion," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 26 November 2019
Ben Kaplan, "More Capacity on I-380 Won't Lead to Less Congestion," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 25 November 2019
Charles L. Marohn Jr., "Cities for People--Or Cars?" The American Conservative May-June 2015: 6-8
"P.S. on I-380," 24 February 2018

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