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Friday News Digest

This, my friends, is the last Friday of summer. At least it is for our family. We had school orientation this past week so we’ve met the new teachers, seen the new classrooms and given some hugs to friends we haven’t seen since early June. The school supplies are all purchased along with the requisite set of new clothes for the first day. I plan to spend today doing as many fun and memorable things with my two daughters as I can because next Friday they’ll be in class and I’ll be back in the office. Where does the time go? I hope your day and weekend can be as equally enjoyable.

Enjoy the week’s news.

  • We are in the final days of preparing for the National Gathering. I’m amazed by all the signups that continue to pour in here at the last minute. If you are interested in coming, we can still fit you in. Get signed up and don’t miss what is going to be an amazing event, one that will mark a critical jumping off point in this movement.
  • Many of you know that I enjoy my books. By request, the past couple of years I have released a list of books I read during the year. I’ll do the same this December, although I’ve been so enthralled with one particular book that I don’t want to wait to share it. The Cave and the Light: Plato versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Author Herman is the BEST book I’ve read this year. I just can’t quit it. It is the most fascinating mashup of philosophy and history I’ve ever read. It is brilliantly written, very engaging and I’ve found myself astounded page after page. If you’re searching for a good book, you can’t go wrong here.
  • And just because we’re in that vein, this NPR article titled Lessons from the Last Time Civilization Collapsed caught my eye and then I realized I had also read the book referenced in the article. The book, 1177 B.C.:The Year Civilization Collapsed, is less of a commitment that The Cave and the Light but also worthy of your time. We think we are so different, we have things so figured out, yet anyone who reads history will tell you that they all did too. Humility.

Thus complexity itself may have been the greatest threat to late Bronze Age civilization once the pressures began. And it is that fact, more than anything else, that speaks to the dangers we face today. As Cline wrote in the Huffington Post:

"We live in a world that has more similarities to that of the Late Bronze Age than one might suspect, including, as the British archaeologist Susan Sherratt has put it, an 'increasingly homogeneous yet uncontrollable global economy and culture' in which 'political uncertainties on one side of the world can drastically affect the economies of regions thousands of miles away.' "

So, what exactly is the lesson Cline thinks we should take away from 1177 B.C.? In an email to me, Cline wrote:

"We should be aware that no society is invulnerable and that every society in the history of the world has ultimately collapsed. We should also be thankful that we are advanced enough to understand what is happening."

  • I should also thank Gracen Johnson for prompting me to pick up the Grapes of Wrath while on vacation last week. Not the most uplifting of books, that one, but John Steinbeck may possibly be my favorite author, at least for the beauty he gives the English language.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I had several times in the past week, "Ferguson isn’t a Strong Town." No, it is not. Chuck Marohn has the numbers, and you have to wonder: if the town had retained its walkable and transit infrastructure and built on it over the past sixty years instead of sprawling, how much less desperate would it be? What if the entire Saint Louis region had bucked the trend and stayed dense, walkable and transit-oriented? What would it take to make it strong again?

  • I did a couple of interviews this week with reporters who were looking into the role that land use policies have in creating desperation in places like Ferguson. My statement Monday that, “I think we are going to see rioting in a lot of places as this stuff unwinds,” caught the attention of quite a few people. I’m not making some kind of unique prediction but simply explaining what I see. And as another example, here’s another incident in Stroad Nation, this one from Greensboro, a place where revolutions have begun before.

On Tuesday, Devin Scales said that he and his brother were walking to a nearby store, when the officer drove by and allegedly yelled, “Hey, you morons get off the road.”

“We didn’t say anything, we just moved closer to the curb,” Devin Scales said. “We weren’t really in the road, and we weren’t bothering traffic, because there was no traffic flow. ... And there are no sidewalks there. None.”

Devin Scales said Cole then “slammed on the brakes,” and asked the brothers to show him their IDs.

“We asked ‘What is this for?’ ” Devin Scales said.

Devin Scales said he tried recording at that point, but that Cole tried grabbing his camera.

  • As a preview of what is to come in this news digest, let’s pause and consider the wisdom one can find in a stairwell.

  • In Honolulu, a place every Minnesotan reflexively associates with paradise, they are discussing a $5.2 billion investment in transit. To sweeten the conversation – because that is some serious cash – an economist was retained to perform some voodoo math and give leaders confidence/cover that this investment “could” generate $20 billion in private sector projects over the next three decades. Spending $5.2 billion to get $20 billion sounds like a winner unless you understand return on investment and how local taxation works. We love transit but always advocate for investments that are more incremental, properly scaled to the community and less speculative. There is a good reason for that (#Ferguson).

"Absolutely, there's too much development and they haven't proven to me what the benefits are," said Kakaako resident Marilyn Yeager.

"We build expensive housing for people to come here and live. What are we doing for old people like me who are almost indigent."

"We had a retreat in July, and we outlined upcoming projects for the next five years," said Rod Steele, mayor of Pine Island.

Currently, the city is in the midst of its biggest, most expensive project, the roundabout on the east side exit of U.S. 52 and Goodhue County Road 11 as well as the city's portion of the east frontage road for U.S. 52 from the Elk Run interchange to County Road 11. That project, said city clerk Jon Eickhoff, will cost Pine Island taxpayers $3.37 million.

The city has also bonded for $1.15 million in 2012 and $1.13 million in 2010 for its ongoing Northwest Street Project, Eickhoff said. That project includes curb and gutter, sewer and water for streets in the northwest portion of Pine Island.

  • We need more money to fix the roads. We need more money to fix the sidewalks. We need more money to pay the pensions we promised to pay. We need more money to bus kids out to the school we built. And in St. Louis, they need millions more to keep the water system going. Oh, your house needs a new roof, new siding, a driveway rehab and all new appliances? That was predictable – it is thirty years old after all – so don’t tell me you failed to plan for that. Not our problem. (Our suburban experiment is not going to die from one wound but from a thousand cuts like this.)

report released Tuesday by the Metro Water Infrastructure Partnership says the region needs to roughly double the pace at which it replaces water pipelines to reach the industry standard of a 1 percent replacement rate — fast enough to swap out each pipe by the time it hits 100 years old.

That would cost roughly $34 million more a year. Add in the cost of maintenance and other operations, and the group expects average water bills over the next 20 years to rise to around $80 per month from roughly $30 per month.

If city wants to keep levy the same as 2014, they need to cut $1.3 million from the budget, said Finance Director Connie Hillman.

"Or, if you want to fund everything in budget, that’s how much it needs to be raised," she said.

Noting that the latter was likely not the desired action, Hillman posed the question: "How do you want us to balance the budget?"

  • I love you guys, but some of you have some serious domain dependency problems. While it is great when I talk about cities as complex, adaptive systems and point out the folly of traffic projections in such complexity, the notion that an economy might be a complex, adaptive system that also cannot be controlled, directed or fully understood is somehow pushing things too far. A few years ago I wrote about When Money Dies, the great book by Adam Fergusson on the Weimar inflation episode, and was inundated with people telling me to stick to engineering and planning and leave the macro economy issues to those less naïve. This week Adam Fergusson appeared on the McAlvany Commentary and, far from being a flaming right wing radical, was as brilliant and reasoned as I expected.

  • As a follow up to that last paragraph, I want to reiterate that, as Strong Towns advocates, we need to be hard on ourselves. When I talk about domain dependency, I’m calling on you all to be as critical in evaluating all complex, adaptive systems the same way we are in regards to cities and the practice of engineer, planning and economic development professions. If you want to be a Keynesian – and why not, everyone in Congress is – then at least have some humility when Fergusson points out that the ability of individuals to create trillions of dollars through credit cards – among the many other modern innovations used to create liquidity outside of the central banker’s control – is not something that existed when the tidy circular flow formula was derived seventy years ago. Go ahead and tell me I’m naïve. I can handle it. Just show a little humility.
  • Not much to quote from this article, but I loved the headline. So obvious, yet so difficult for many to grasp.

Transit Adjacent Development isn’t Transit Oriented Development.

  • My wife and I have found ourselves frequently of late discussing how different things were when we were young, how much more freedom and independence we had when compared to our kids. I’m sympathetic to the parents who are overprotective of their kids because, even though I’m aware of it, I’m all too often the same way. We’re taking some serious steps to change that (hope to have an announcement at some point in the near future). In the meantime, this Washington Post article was a perfect primer for why we need to step back in order to raise strong kids.

Yes. There are scary people out there. It is always a risk to let your children out of your sight. But truthfully, the most dangerous thing you do every day is drive anywhere with a child. About 300 kids are hurt daily in car accidents; an average of three are killed that way every day.

Yet I don’t see police pulling parents over and locking them up whenever they see someone in a car seat. But playing on the monkey bars without Mommy nearby? Book ’em!

  • This was a beautiful story about a coffee shop in North Dakota that had an honor system for payment. Contrary to what your initial reaction might be, it works really well. Why? Because most people are good, decent and honest. This had the feeling of a barn raising to me with people in the community pitching in to make the business work. This is the kind of enthusiasm a localized economy can create for us, an energy that will bring this country back with a roar. This is the America I love, the one I want to live in.

Yes, there are security cameras, but so far there hasn't been much to view, Brekke said.

Brekke has turned the space with high ceilings, mammoth windows and unique architecture into a gallery of sorts. It features artwork by local artists, used books for sale, two pianos, Wi-Fi and a cupboard with games. Much of the furniture was donated by residents.

"When people heard about it, they just started dropping things off, to make it work," Brekke said.

  • And if this isn’t the best endorsement for the ride sharing company Uber, I don’t know what would be.

  • Finally, as a father of two really wonderful girls, I’ve watched Mary Poppins more times than I can remember and danced as a pseudo-chimney sweep many time more. I loved what FiveThirtyEight did with the 50th anniversary of this classic, pointing out that, had Michael actually invested those tuppins like he was encouraged to do, his investment would not have amounted to much, despite the vaunted “wisdom” on compounding interest.

A reader asked us, in lieu of investing that 0.02 pounds in bird food, what if Michael had invested it in a savings account? What would the exponential wizardry of compound interest do for him if he went back to his account today?

Answer? Not much! I plugged the details of the question into Wolfram Alpha‘s compound interest calculator, and unsurprisingly Michael’s payoff heavily depends on the interest rate. Had he put 0.02 pounds in an account with 6 percent interest compounded quarterly for 104 years, his account balance would read only 9.79 pounds now, which is about $16.23. Not exactly making a mint here.

I hope you get a chance to feed the birds this weekend or, at the very least, enjoy some time doing something meaningful with a good friend or family member. Be safe so we’ll see you back here next week.


Dangerously Uninformed

I’ve often wondered about the actuarial approach used by auto insurance companies, but I’ve never had the data or specific insight to really question it. For example, why doesn’t my car insurance company care how many miles I drive in a given year? The past five years, I’ve put 80,000 miles on my car. That may seem like a lot, but back when I was doing planning work statewide I put nearly 200,000 miles on a car in that same amount of time. Most of those miles were late at night, a dangerous time to be on the road, as is evidenced by the number of moving violations I racked up (small town speed traps were a professional hazard). Have my insurance rates changed now that I’m driving a lot less? Of course not, how would the insurance company even know.

I am aware that some auto insurance companies charge different rates based on your home address. Again, just looking at my own area, there are places in my zip code that are absolutely treacherous to drive, with high accident rates and a significant number of fatalities. There are other areas where the worst you are ever going to have is a fender bender. My insurance company has never gotten that fine-grained in determining my rate, at least not with me.

Now, as part of writing this article, I did go through the Geico application process. The form there did ask how many miles I drive in a year, how far my commute is and how many days I go into the office. Maybe my insurance company (which isn’t Geico) would ask this as well if I were a new applicant. Even so, they aren’t following up on that. Maybe it is bad form – poor customer experience – to be pestering me about my miles driven, but it would seem to be in the interests of their business model to do this.

These are just a couple of the oddities I’ve pondered over the years, so when our friend Steven Shultis of Rational Urbanism sent me this article along with some contradictory data, I wasn’t surprised at all.

It appears that Allstate is claiming Massachusetts drivers are “the worst” in the nation. Here is from the article, which is from Steve’s home town of Springfield:

Springfield drivers are the fourth-worst in the country, and Boston drivers were the second worst. Worcester, at the center of the state, was the worst, home to the most dangerous drivers in the country, Allstate said.

If you live in Springfield, you are 85.8% more likely to get into an accident than the average American driver (a number of such precision that the Talebian side of me automatically knows it is a ridiculous stat). So why is Springfield, and Massachusetts in general, home to the “most dangerous” drivers in the country?

"I wish I could tell you why," said Allstate spokeswoman Julia Reusch. "More congested cities tend to be more dangerous. We really just want to decrease car crashes. We want these communities to be safe places for people to live and drive."

So, if we are to believe Allstate, the more congestion we have, the more dangerous things are. Dangerous for whom?

According to the site findthebest.com, Massachusetts ranks 50th (that’s out of 50, Allstate) in traffic deaths per 100,000 population. That 50th as in last as in best. Massachusetts experienced only 4.79 traffic deaths per 100,000 population in 2010, a tiny fraction of what the far less congested state of Wyoming experienced at 27.48. In other words, if you want to avoid death – which seems to me to be the ultimate danger – you are far, far safer driving in Massachusetts than any other state.

In fact, if we look at the five worst and compare them to the five best, we can easily test the validity of the hypothesis that congested cities are more dangerous.

What is Allstate doing here and why should we care? First, understand that they are not ascribing “danger” to death but instead to accidents. Put more succinctly, it is dangerous to their balance sheet when they need to pay claims and, gosh, in cities there are a lot of claims. Does danger to their balance sheet from fender benders actually mean danger to you, the city dweller? Absolutely not, there isn’t safer place to drive.

The obvious problem here is that the incentive for Allstate is not to save lives but to save dollars. While there is a rough correlation, defining “safe” in terms of accidents/claims instead of deaths feeds precisely into the wrong-headed stroad design mentality that infects our cities. It reminds me of the AAA spokesman’s quote I shared a few years ago with my series on the diverging diamond.

Mike Right, spokesman for AAA Missouri, said the new design is a positive change, as it reduces construction costs while moving traffic faster and more safely. As motorists have adjusted to roundabouts, American drivers will learn and adapt to the diverging diamond, he said.

Reducing congestion and getting traffic moving traffic faster might cut down on the raw number of claims and the amount insurance companies pay out, but it doesn’t reduce fatalities. Quite the opposite. The way to reduce fatalities is to eliminate stroad design and instead focus on building either streets with very slow traffic or high-speed roads with very limited access.

Unfortunately, that’s not what cities (hungry for their share of auto-oriented retail growth) want. It isn’t what builders, developers and contractors want. It isn’t what construction unions want. And it isn’t what insurance companies want. And they all speak louder than you.

How many fender benders equals one life? That may be an offensive question, and it might not be how they ask it internally in the actuarial chambers at Allstate, but it is the question in play. If someone tries to tell you it is more dangerous living in a congested city than driving the wide open roads, tell them they are dangerously uninformed.


Podcast Show 188: Talking Cities 

This episode was recorded at CNU 22 in Buffalo. Participating are Jason Roberts (twitter) of The Better Block, Mike Lydon (twitter) from Street Plans Collaborative, Chuck Marohn (twitter) of Strong Towns and Joe Mnicozzi (twitter) of Urban-3. You can also watch the video of this conversation thanks to Gracen Johnson.

Strong Towns Podcast - Talking Cities