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Friday News Digest

This week I had the opportunity to be the opening keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association. My time slot was threatened by a little sporting event taking place right now in St. Louis (Go Cardinals!), but I finished up before first pitch and all went well. The highlight of the trip -- besides touring the St. Louis neighborhoods, which was amazing --  was getting to meet Mitchell Silver (Twitter), the national president of the APA. Here is a man with a vision for how to reform the planning profession. It is the exact message that is needed right now. If you get a chance to hear him speak, take the opportunity. There is some hope for APA if the members would elect someone like this.

Enjoy the week's news.

  • I'm astounded by the wide range of people that we reach here. I recently came across a blog called The meaning of things that is written by Chris Fair and Dianna Carr, a pair of strategic marketing consultants. They write about "what resonates in a changing world" and they were so kind as to put a link to Strong Towns at the top of their blogroll. You can follow them on Twitter and Facebook. If you are in need of some strategic marketing assistance, they certainly seem worth a look.
  • I've asked Justin (of podcast fame - he does the intro and exit) to write a blog piece on this article he sent me about one of my home towns here in Minnesota and their efforts to add Costco to their big box collection. There is so much there (and it is just too easy) but my favorite part was their argument over the theoretical pedestrian. Do we build sidewalks or not? I know some of you will say yes, but I've added a map after the quote showing the area roughly a half mile (walking distance) from the site. Lack of sidewalks-to-nowhere is the least of problems that Baxter has.

Pedestrian movement, not actively included in Costco’s plan, was recommended by consultants with sidewalks around the development and to access the expected fast food restaurants to Costco’s north. Marked crosswalks were suggested at Elder Drive at Forthun Road, Costco’s main access and at Foley Road.

  • The city of Edmonton has done some really great work using financial analysis to promote a more efficient pattern of development and an end to subsidies for the decentralized, auto-based approach. David Thompson of the Edmonton Journal wrote an excellent piece on their progress.

In the first 30 years, service delivery and operations and maintenance - at nearly $2.5 billion - greatly outweigh capital and renewal costs put together. Later on, renewal and replacement of aging infrastructure will climb steeply, hitting $142 million per year, every year.

  • Out of Seattle, Mark Hinshaw took a look at the changes taking place inside planning departments since the beginning of the housing correction. His optimistic viewpoint is that this reset is prompting communities to rethink their approach. I hope that's true, but see Baxter/Costco above for some signs that at least some places will be brought kicking and screaming into the New Economy.

If we learned anything from the past five years it is that the American ideal of home ownership has been cruelly oversold. At least 5 million people had no business trying to purchase a home. Once bankruptcies, foreclosures, and underwater loans have run their course, that number will surely be even higher. Yet people still have to live somewhere.  And in fact, the first wave of new development financing is for rental housing, not owner housing. The challenge for local governments will be to ensure that these places are livable.

Another fascinating new direction is that many elected official are now seeing the value of making long-term investments in “public goods” — those parts of a community that have a life well beyond the amortization periods of private sector development. They see the importance of making good places rather than simply issuing permits.

  • Ord, Nebraska is now my favorite county in the nation. The Daily Yonder reported how they got sick of waiting for their federal and state handouts -- the help we all "need" -- and instead decided to take control of their own future. They added a 1% sales tax dedicated solely to economic development and, reportedly, are doing very well. If a poor, rural county in Nebraska can do it, what excuse do the rest of us have?

“We weren’t going to stand for decline any longer,” writes Pollard. In 2001 the city of Ord, the county seat, voted in a 1% sales tax to be used for economic development projects countywide. The impacts have been dramatic, not just for local employment and business but for the arts, for housing development, for health care facilities, and for architectural preservation, too. And maybe more far reaching than all these successes, Pollard describes “an epic shift in attitude.” 

  • After finishing Michael Lewis' new book Boomerang, where wrote extensively about California's problems, I got a chuckle out of this NBC article out of L.A. explaining how sewer rates could double. Oh, they'll double alright -- in L.A. and everywhere else --  but that won't come near to solving any problems.

Over the past 20 years, the city has kept customer rates mostly flat, borrowing to fund improvements and emergency repairs. It receives more than $1 billion in federal clean-water grants to help cover the rising cost of infrastructure repairs to sewers and water treatment plants.

  • Porchfest. A beautiful idea that is so fantastic it is sad that it needs to be an idea (instead of something that just is on an ongoing basis).

  • Speaking of videos and engineers, did we need more proof that the engineering profession is insane than this video of the "diverging diamond". If we had infinite resources (we don't), this would still be crazy, but the fact that we're broke just shows you how insulated from reality so many of them are. Hey, engineers -- watch my TED talk on the difference between a ROAD and a STREET. You're trying to rid yourself of accident-prone left turns? Well, how about just build ROADS where there is no need for left turns and STREETS where they are no problem, instead of the STROADS you build today. I'm not joking.

  • Finally, when I was getting a little frustrated with some of the comments on this site and other places featuring our work, a friend sent me this piece from God's blog. Based on the feedback God is getting, I've nothing to complain about. A couple of my favorites:

Why are the creatures more or less symmetrical on a vertical axis but completely asymmetrical on a horizontal axis? It’s almost like You had a great idea but You didn’t have the balls to go all the way with it.


Unfocussed. Seems like a mishmash at best. You’ve got creatures that can speak but aren’t smart (parrots). Then, You’ve got creatures that are smart but can’t speak (dolphins, dogs, houseflies). Then, You’ve got man, who is smart and can speak but who can’t fly, breathe underwater, or unhinge his jaws to swallow large prey in one gulp. If it’s supposed to be chaos, then mission accomplished. But it seems more like laziness and bad planning.


Wow. Just wow. I don’t even know where to start. So the man and his buddy the rib-thing have dominion over everything. They’re going to get pretty unbearable really fast. What You need to do is make them think that there were other, bigger, scarier creatures around a long time before them. I suggest dinosaurs. No need to actually create dinosaurs—just create some weird-ass dinosaur bones and skeletons and bury them in random locations. Man will dig them up eventually and think, What the f?


This weekend my family and I get to live like kings and queens. Hope your time is just as wonderful. 

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Reader Comments (7)

We could also say to the authors of that Frankenstein anti-left-turn proposal: "Why don't you just build a roundabout?" It's just one more case of people's desperate need for originality overcoming their common sense.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Krouse

Jen, That is a fantastic point. Absolutely. -Chuck

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

I'm a little miffed at your comments about the diverging diamond. It's a highway interchange after all, and streets don't intersect highways. It's actually a pretty clever solution to improving capacity without having to build an excessively wide and expensive bridge (like a SPUI) or requiring a huge right-of-way for loop ramps. Yes it's pretty over-engineered and requires a lot of signage and specific geometries, but like I said, it uses a very small bridge, which is where most of the cost comes from. If you want to pick on some crazy road projects, take a look at some of the superstreet designs.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

RE: Diverging Diamond

"It's actually a pretty clever solution to improving capacity without having to build an excessively wide and expensive bridge (like a SPUI) or requiring a huge right-of-way for loop ramps."

While this new intersection is certainly "more efficient" when it comes to moving cars faster and safer, one must question whether such innovations on this model of transportation are even worthwhile. What benefit will be derived from increasing commutes by a few minutes? This intersection is merely an improvement on an out-of-date method of improving transport.

Here’s an outlandish, but relevant example: Take for example Dorito potato chips. Frito Lay can design them to have slightly less calories while decreasing the overall costs of production. This would be seen as a benefit, but if you kept eating and eating and eating the chips there’d be no real benefit. You’d still be oversized and unhealthy. That’s essentially what’s going on here.

This idea that if we move more and more cars everything will be alright doesn’t address the issue of what’s really wrong in this situation. I’m sure the intersections that might be converted to “diverging diamonds” in locations operated fine when they were initially built for the 5,000 less tract houses that now sprawl around them.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel

That's all very true Nathaniel, it just seems that Chuck went off on the deep end on some roads versus street tirade that's unrelated to the question of a particular interchange design. Besides, it's not as if roads don't need left turns either. They intersect other roads at regular intervals and are never going to be 100% limited access. I understand his analogy that roads should be like railroads, connecting two places with one another, but a strict interpretation of that ideal is unrealistic and counterproductive.

I completely agree that there's plenty of insanity in the highway engineering profession, but put the blame where it's due, at the 4-level stack mega interchanges, the 14-lane bridges, the 7-lane arterials, and the 14-foot lanes on residential side streets. The diverging diamond is a little thing that's not really worth harping on. Is Chuck going to go ballistic over roundabouts too? What about regular diamond interchanges? Left turn signals? Use that vitriol on things more deserving.

October 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Here is why the diverging diamond (as a "solution") can be such a joke:


October 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchris

@Jeffrey Jakucyk -- Sorry for not getting back to you. We left town Friday morning for a weekend vacation and am just getting back to things now. You're a very thoughtful person and have contributed a lot to the commenting culture here. I do respect your opinion.

I received a similar comment a few weeks ago from another great contributor here, Eli Damon, who was questioning how biking fits into my roads/streets discussion.

This is all fair and very good feedback. I think I may need to do a longer series to elaborate on this concept more. It is an evolving thought in my head and may need some more organization and all of your critique. At this point, in the "ideal" system, we have:

1. Roads between places.
2. Streets within places.
3. Something else (rural roads / country roads / low volume roads) surrounding places feeding traffic to our places and the roads that connect them.

It seems like we can all visualize and likely agree on the best way to handle (1) and (2). It is (3) where we struggle. If you want to visualize (3) in the current context, you can picture the county road system most states have. These are not interstates or really highways of any type. They are also not local streets. They are STROADS....a hybrid road with characteristics of a street.

These STROADS are the places I've seen the diamond interchange. That video @Chris posted presented it perfectly, even through the narrator thought the interchange was great too. This type of design -- the STROAD with our without the diamond interchange -- sucks money and creates little in the way of a platform for growth. It's all about moving cars which, due to the street elements (lights, intersections, turning traffic, etc...) it does not do real well.

You can also see the way it treats Eli's bikes.

@Jeffrey, if you are trying to be practical within the existing system, I agree with you that this is a cost-effective and elegant solution when compared to a expensive overpass and typical diamond interchange. You make a valid point. I'm not starting with the assumption that the existing system is rational or reflects values consistent with society's values or our pocketbooks. In that context, this is just a trip further down the rabbit hole.

I have from time to time had legislators here in Minnesota as well as lobbyists ask me what to do to fix the transportation funding problem. My first recommendation has been to eliminate the state aid system that funds county and local STROADS and put that money into our highway system with a priority being improving traffic flow through the elimination of accesses. I might as well have recommended that they shoot every other driver and dump their car in the lake. Neither is going to happen. At least not until we run out of money. Then hopefully it is the first that happens and not the second.


October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn
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