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What now, Chuck?

People are always looking for simple solutions. I'm routinely asked at Curbside Chats to give the one or two things that should be done to fix our current economic problems. Those things don't exist, because if there were a painless, simple way to solve our problems, we certainly would have done it. In fact, part of the reason we are here today is that we've done the simple and painless thing for so long (see Growth Ponzi Scheme series). Today I present a couple of more difficult, but long-term more effective, options.

One of the comments from last Tuesday expressed the common frustration with my analysis of the Springfield, MO, diverging diamond investment and the surrounding land use pattern:

I agree 100% that this area is poorly designed, pedestrian-hostile, and dangerous; that Walmart is a cancer on the economy and on society; and that were we to start from scratch this outcome ought to be considered a monstrous failure. But here in the real world, we have a busy and dangerous street, a bottleneck overpass to an area where a lot of commuters live, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of existing infrastructure in place. Do you leave the area to rot? If not, how do you improve it?

Ah, the "real world". I respect the point, of course, but also get frustrated by the limitations we put on ourselves. So much of our dysfunction is simple inertia. Changing our approach is so difficult. We know, for instance, that something like Medicare spending is unsustainable, but we also realize that collectively we are unlikely to do anything substantive to deal with the problem until we're actually in a crisis. Some of that is human nature. Some of it is the variant of democracy that we have evolved into. Either way, I'm going to go back to the original post in this series and remind our readers today of the three critical insights.

  1. We don't have anywhere near the money necessary to maintain our current surface transportation system.
  2. The system we've built is financially inefficient and unproductive.
  3. Americans do not understand the difference between a road and a street.

On the first point specifically, the crisis is coming. It is actually already here, but we've been using debt to avoid facing it. We don't have nearly enough money to maintain all of the systems we've built. (Note that you can argue that we do have the money, and technically you would be right, but it is the same as arguing that someone should be able to pay their $2,000 monthly mortgage on an annual salary of $30,000. Technically they could, but in the real world, they can't.) Because we don't have the money, and because each increment of investment in the current system makes us financially weaker over the long-term, our approach is going to force a crisis. In short, at some point very soon we're going to look at the "real world" in a very different way (and, if you keep reading this blog, you might actually see the "real world" -- that is, the world as it really is -- much sooner).

Here are two simple ideas of mine that would effectively deal with the STROAD (street/road hybrid) problem within a generation. While these may seem politically impossible today (and that is why I emphasize that they are solely my ideas), I offer two points of support up front. First, we are nowhere near being able to afford to maintain our transportation system and thus we are ultimately going to be forced to make choices that, as viewed today, seem politically impossible.

Second, when you view our current transportation system with clear eyes, you can see that it is an incoherent approach. Dabbling around the edges, like so many of our transportation initiatives do, is simply conversing with incoherence. The result: incoherence.

Idea #1: End the State Aid System

Each state has their own version of a state aid program. I'll focus on Minnesota's with the informed belief that other states are similar in their approach. 

The Minnesota non-profit Fresh Energy explains how money is allocated between the highway system and the local state aid system.

Dedicated state funding (the money that comes from the gas tax, tab fees, and the motor vehicle sales tax) is allocated by formula through something called the Highway User Tax Distribution Fund. The State Trunk Highway Fund receives 62 percent to build and maintain Mn/DOT highways, the County State Aid Fund receives 29 percent to pay for county roads, the Municipal State Aid Fund gets 9 percent to take care of roads in cities, and 5 percent is set aside for purposes determined by the Legislature. Most of the federal money comes through formulas as well, while it is predominately targeted toward the state highway system. Between 2004 and 2008, an average of 84 percent of federal money went to the state highways while cities, counties, and towns received 16 percent.

In short, large sums of money are collected at the state and federal levels for transportation and then a portion of that money is transferred back to local governments for transportation. Along with the money comes requirements that dictate how that money is to be used. These include engineering requirements for things such as lane width, degree of road curvature and design speed and planning requirements for things like maintaining a hierarchical road network. (Knowing this can actually make you a touch sympathetic, on a personal level, to the ridiculous engineer bear.)

In the "real world", the state aid system is the primary funding mechanism for the worst design practices at the local level. Most STROADS are built using this funding. Financially, these are the least productive of all transportation investments, spending enormous sums of money to speed up purely local trips by nominal amounts of time, often right through the middle of neighborhoods, lowering the value of the place in the process.

Let me provide three local examples so you can start to see these places in your community (they are everywhere). 

(1) When I was a kid riding the bus we used to travel down Knollwood Drive in Baxter. It was a local street that ran through a post-WW II subdivision, with lake-fronting properties on one side and off-lake on the other, curving streets and a lot of cul-de-sacs. This was an early suburban-era design -- I would guess 1960's -- and so, even in my youth, the infrastructure was showing its age. It was a bumpy bus ride.

Sometime in the mid-1990's, the city of Baxter reached population levels where they qualified for state aid. State aid rules require the designation of state aid routes, corridors that begin and end on state highways or other state-funded corridors. Knollwood fit the bill, and so a convenient remedy to repair the failing infrastructure along Knollwood was to designate it a state aid route.

Of course the residents did not like this one bit. This was a small neighborhood, not a major transportation corridor. But as the project proceeded and was combined with sewer and water extensions as well as other "improvements", the price tag climbed to levels where accepting the state aid designation, along with the significant money, was the lesser of two evils. 

In the photo below I've highlighted Knollwood in red. You can clearly see that it serves no significant purpose in terms of regional transportation. At best it is a shortcut through a otherwise-sleepy neighborhood, allowing someone to save a few seconds or a minute on getting from one place to another.

(2) The city of East Gull Lake has a small dam that serves as the crossing of the Gull River. It is a single lane crossing and so you have to stop on each end and then yield to oncoming traffic. It is actually kind of charming and, particularly in the middle of a campground/recreation area, does a lot to calm traffic.

Unfortunately, the approach to the damn from the west is a county state aid road (CSAH 70) while the approach from the east is a simple county road (CR 125), a road not supported with state aid money. The catch here is that CR 125 was decrepit and in need of maintenance. The cost was (and the exact figures allude me so I'm going on memory) somewhere around $1.2 million. Because CR 125 was not a state aid route, it would be entirely the county's bill.

So they could access state aid money -- along with some other federal grant money -- for this project, the county came up with a plan to connect CSAH 70 with CR 125 with a new bridge across the Gull River. The cost for this project would have been in the many millions of dollars for a new bridge, the widening and realignment of CR 125, the condemnation of a couple of homes, etc... The catch is that the local portion of the project -- the county's share -- would have been only around $600,000 and they could have used state aid money for it.

In retrospect this looks even more ridiculous because, while the bridge project didn't happen and nothing remotely calamitous has transpired from a traffic standpoint since, the public was told at the time that tremendous traffic projections along with safety enhancements made this project a necessity. That was utterly ridiculous. It was simply the ability to access outside funds that pushed the design of the project, not local traffic concerns.

(3) Our local heartbreak project in Brainerd is our Last Great Old Economy project, College Drive. I've written extensively about this project in the past because it is a perfect example of the destruction wrought by the state aid system. Poor neighborhood in decline on one side, local community college on the other side. Instead of building a sensible project that would connect the two and strengthen each (local cost around $1.2 million), we instead leverage our next four years' worth of state aid dollars, along with other federal "stimulus" money, to build a $9 million, 4-lane STROAD. (Ahh, but it's a "complete street" says the engineer). Local cost for the STROAD is less than $1 million.

The state aid system actually makes it cheaper for the city to build a destructive corridor -- one whose central outcome will be to allow the people of South Brainerd to reach the Walmart in Baxer 45 seconds more quickly -- than to build a neighborhood-affirming corridor, one that would capitalize on all of the existing investments made by the city and its residents in this area. 

Ending the state aid system -- eliminating the funding of local auto-based transportation along with the planning and design mandates that accompany it -- would effectively end the destructive practice of building terrible local transportation corridors, and it would end it within a generation. As soon as these corridors became decrepit, local values and sensibilities would demand that their replacement respond to the community, not outside design criteria.

Note that I am not arguing that the there should be no role for the state in funding local transportation. That is a completely different discussion. All I'm arguing is that the state aid system is broken, should not be "reformed" but should simply go away.

Idea #2: Institute an Accessibility Tax

There is talk about funding transportation improvements through an increase in the gas tax, a mileage tax, tolls roads, increased allocations of general fund revenues, etc... Each of these has upsides and downsides, but all of them do nothing to address the fundamental lack of productivity inherent in the current system. They would all simply be new revenue streams that would reinforce the unsustainable status quo for a little while longer.

As I discussed Tuesday, one of the problems we run up against in building roads is that it is really difficult to close accesses. There are all kinds of constitutional issues around takings that make it very difficult and costly. I don't want to have that argument -- heads you win, tails I lose -- regarding the cost and benefits of improving a transportation corridor when you don't have any control over the access. Let's allow as much access as property owners desire, but let's charge for it.

There are no constitutional issues for a state when it comes to taxing or tolling on roads. We should institute an access tax (or toll) that would be designed to, in a sense, compensate the public for the decrease in capacity caused by the access. It would work something like this.

On a rural country road where you have 1,000 cars a day, putting in an access is no big deal. You have a driveway that goes out to the highway and it is no problem to wait for the car that may be happening to drive by when you pull out. Your driveway, and the turning movements it creates, does not inhibit the flow of traffic on that corridor in any way. Your tax would be very low, perhaps $20 per year.

On a very busy highway, something with say 20,000 cars per day, Walmart would like to build a new store. They want a traffic signal and a 3/4 interchange on the north and south ends of their property, respectively. Okay, we know from the math used to justify highway projects how much cost adding those accesses would create for the public. It is the opposite of the "benefit" improved mobility would create. Here's how the math would work.

Let's say the new signal and intersection delayed the average car by one minute. At 20,000 cars per day, one minute each, in a year you have a total delay of 122,000 hours. If we hold to the belief expressed in so many reports justifying highway expansions that this time should be valued at (on the low end) $13.40 per hour, then that signal has a cost to society of $1.6 million per year.

If Walmart wants that signal -- if the local unit of government wants that access -- than there should be a tax/toll/charge of $1.6 million per year to compensate the public for the time lost and the reduction in capacity. That money could be used to enhance the system and restore a comparable amount of mobility elsewhere. I'm not sure who pays it -- the businesses, the drivers or the local unit of government -- but there should be some mechanism for compensation.

(Note that I am proposing this for highways only, not for local streets, the latter of which we need to encourage more access to.)

Such an access tax would not only raise revenue that could be used to improve mobility, it would have two other immediate impacts. First, property owners eager to avoid the access tax would immediately and voluntarily start closing accesses along major highway corridors. Not only would this improve traffic flow and mobility, it would dramatical improve safety.

Second, and most important, it would actually restore the local property market to something based on place and not something based on government transportation decisions. Decisions on land use would again be local. With local decision-making, where the financial costs and benefits are also local, there would be strong incentives to, once again, start building places of value. We would immediately get away from the too-big-to-fail mega subdivisions on the edge of town and again start incrementally wringing value out of our places, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.

Where an additional access to the highway was needed, there would be every incentive to maximize the value capture from that access. You wouldn't have a traffic signal that you have to sit at where there is simply a gas station, a donut shop and some storage sheds. That type of land use would not be viable (not because of the tax but because it actually is not viable without the enormous transportation subsidy). Our highways could not only function as highways again (fast, efficient connections between places), but our places would start to redefine themselves along a financially-sustainable pattern. They would have to or they would fail.

Now there's the catch, and so I'm not pretending this proposal would be easy to get passed or easy to implement. It would, by ending the perverse transportation subsidy we've created, expose all of the poorly- and inefficiently- configured spaces that we have made in the post-WW II era. That would be extremely painful for many communities. Some would be able, over a generation, to reconfigure themselves in a more viable way. Others would not. Some community triage and support would certainly need to take place. I'm not pretending that I've either the answer for that or have even thought it through enough to suggest how it would happen. A later post, perhaps.

I'll go back to where I started: we don't have the money to maintain everything we've built. Continuing with the status quo approach will only make that problem worse in the long run. We can tinker around the edges with new state aid standards, new federal and state mandates, new taxes and fees, but unless we do something to deal with the core problem -- the financially unproductive nature of the post- WW II land development pattern -- it will not solve the problem. 

These two proposals, as difficult as they are to imagine enacting today, would address the real problems we have and do so in a substantive way. While they would certainly create other problems and harships, doing so is a necessity for getting our places healthy. We need to think in terms of generations, not months. Phasing in these two approaches over the next few years would set the stage for a renewed Strong Towns discussion in each and every community in America.

And that is something that desperately needs to happen.


Don't forget to sign up for our Virtual Curbside Chat, to be held this Tuesday at 1:00 PM CST. If you have not already registered, please sign up to reserve a spot and to receive instructions for connecting to the Chat. Our Curbside Chat program has been immensely popular and this "virtual" chat is a fantastic opportunity to take part if we've not been to your community. 

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Reader Comments (20)

"There are no constitutional issues for a state when it comes to taxing or tolling on roads. We should institute an access tax (or toll) that would be designed to, in a sense, compensate the public for the decrease in capacity caused by the access."

Limiting access is the opposite direction from where we should be headed. The real problem with our current transportation system is that we have valued mobility (aka capacity) over access to needed services. So we design roads to allow people to travel further, faster and then have them sit in congestion getting over, around, onto and off these "limited access" facilities. We treat the mainstreets of small towns as "highways" where people are travelling through town, even when most of the traffic is local where people are trying to access the services the town provides. To make them work better as highways, MnDOT limits access so that all the traffic has to go through a few limited chokepoints.

One idea for financing that would move us in the right direction is a tax on parking. There is a huge gap between what people pay for parking, usually nothing, and what they would be willing to pay. Moreover, there are huge costs to providing free parking that are recovered in the price of goods no matter how much parking a person uses. Whether you arrive with four people in one car or four cars, your parking costs are the same. Likewise if you walk, bike or use transit, you will still pay for parking. And businesses that rely on a lot of parking also rely on a robust road network to get their customers to those parking spaces. And, like their customers who get "free" parking, the business pays almost nothing for the road system those customers require.

If you want people to make rational transportation decisions you need to tie the benefits to the burdens a decision creates. Make people pay for decisions that add public costs, while avoiding charging people for things that reduce public costs. The result of that approach runs counter to how private business sets prices where maximizing revenue over expenses is the goal. The goal of tax policy is to pay for the maximum benefits at the least cost. Taxing parking would shift economic incentives so that the marketplace would become an ally, rather than the enemy, of good development.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

From the post:

"(Note that I am proposing this for highways only, not for local streets, the latter of which we need to encourage more access to.)"

When a highway enters a town, it needs to drop its highway geometries and become a local street. Low speed, high value capture, high access. Outside of town, it needs to function as a highway, and that means limited access. The line between in and out of town should be based on long-term return on investment, not transportation slush funds, local political patronage and short-term incentives.

And I think there are arguments on both sides about taxing parking. The amount of parking needed in a town is going to be city and actually neighborhood specific. I would rather leave that decision up to the local gov't depending on where they are in their evolution to being a viable, Strong Town.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Awesome idea to use their own time savings economics against them.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeth


From my experience I think such an accessibility tax would need to have at least two tiers: (1) a flat residential access fee (say $20 or $50/yr) because howsoever busy the road being accessed is, the access road will almost always have an AADT under 50, and (2) a progressively-scaled commercial accessibility tax, acting closer to the way you envisioned things.

Also, I am much more in agreement with your first proposal--transportation decisions need to be community-driven rather than leverage-driven (and subsidy access is a form of leverage) than I am your second--partly because I feel like we need more work done seeing how we can pencil out the tax before we commit to it.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

@Steve I totally agree. Any tax would need a LOT of details worked out and it would need to directly relate to the amount of conflict created. A driveway to a residence and an access to a big box store would have much different implications for how the current capacity of the road is impaired. A sophisticated system, which I feel is within grasp, could account for such nuance.

@Seth So glad you caught that. I've been saving that one for a long time. :)


December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

"Where an additional access to the highway was needed, there would be every incentive to maximize the value capture from that access. You wouldn't have a traffic signal that you have to sit at where there is simply a gas station, a donut shop and some storage sheds. That type of land use would not be viable (not because of the tax but because it actually is not viable without the enormous transportation subsidy). Our highways could not only function as highways again (fast, efficient connections between places), "

I see models for the development pattern this encourages along 169 in Elk River and 53 in Hermantown. You have mile or more between shared access points, but I don't see that as creating "great places". I am confused about whether you intend for those situations to be models since they are now within urban areas inside the city limits. But then, I don't know of any Walmart's being built on rural highways outside of town.

The larger problem is that you seem to want to charge for access where you don't want development. But the more direct way to do that is just to ban the development in those locations. Oregon has done that with their urban growth boundaries. The problem isn't a lack of tools, its a lack of political will. That same problem exists in deciding where you will and won't charge for access.

Moreover, I don't really think encouraging Walmart, with surrounding parking lots and associated strip malls, to move into the center of town is going to create a great place to live either. You can find that style of development on urban arterials in many large cities.

In short, the idea that improved mobility will create better places to live is misplaced. Increased mobility just spreads services out so that they are only accessible by automobile.

"The amount of parking needed in a town is going to be city and actually neighborhood specific."

Taxing parking has nothing to do with how much parking there is. It simply places the actual cost burden into the decision making process. That makes more sense, and gets better decisions, than passing most of the costs associated with auto-dependent development onto the public .

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

Walmart, parking lots and strip malls are not financially viable development patterns w/o huge transportation subsidies, subsidies we cannot afford. If those subsidies were eliminated -- or offset through an access charge -- the resulting development pattern would look nothing like Elk River 169 or Hermantown 53. It could not waste so much space, and so much public infrastructure investment, with so little return.

Oregon's UGB has not exactly create a design utopia. To my knowledge, outside of their core neighborhoods they have the same financially unproductive development pattern you would find in other places in the country. I've not been there, but have been part of too many discussions to count on this subject.

For those trying to understand what I'm talking about, look less at the road or street and more at the per foot (or per square foot) level of private sector investment adjacent to it. Our rate of return -- which relates to the amount of private investment per increment of public investment -- is ridiculously low today, especially when we spread everything out along 45 mph STROADS with stoplights every mile.

If you are to make this work, you can't just squish things down into a smaller area. You have to redesign them completely and they will need to function much differently. So don't envision Walmart or a strip mall in the middle of town. Think of traditional neighborhoods connected to a traditional downtown, them both being mixed use and walkable, and you are getting closer.

Kind of like this picture, only we'd still have cars, parking and all the modern stuff we enjoy today. Only the cars would not dominate in town and they'd actually be able to get around safely and quickly outside of it.



December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Seth beat me to it. Even if the idea itself isn't doable, turning the calculations around to achieve a completely different goal is brilliant. There's got to be some other ways to apply it as well.

One thing I think needs to be clearly illustrated is some actual hard examples of a proper road/highway versus a proper street. I'll admit I had a bit of a hard time picturing it myself, because for so long we've lived with a huge gradation of subtle hierarchies from the small back alley to through the suburban arterial to the rural interstate highway.

The key to understanding the proper functioning of roads versus streets comes from looking at them in a pre-WWII (or preferably pre-WWI) context. They key distinction is, streets are urban and roads are rural. Historically, all streets in the city were streets. Whether a 10 foot wide alley or a major axis like San Francisco's Market Street, they were all about access and servicing their immediately adjacent buildings. Even the abundantly wide streets of New York City were teeming with people walking, cycling, playing, or just standing around. There were also wagons, horses, streetcars, the occasional steam train, carts, street vendors, and all manner of activities. Yes you could go across town on these streets, but movement in general wasn't so much along the streets as across and through them. It was a buzzing mish mash of activity in all directions. It's all about grids, networks, connections, webs, fine-grained access from above, below, and all sides.

Rural roads are all about going from one place to another, with limited access precisely because there's so little along them. They're very narrow and entirely linear. This is what gets us confused because we see the suburban arterials and imposition of hierarchy on the city street grid that attempt to overlay mobility and access on top of one another. It's further confused by things like urban versus rural interstate highways. The geometry of the rural interstate is applied in cities as well, only with more width. Newer urban/suburban interstates tend to be a bit better in limiting access in the support of mobility, whereas some of the pre-interstate or early non-interstate highways and parkways were the same sort of confused mess as suburban arterials in that they tried to be grade-separated highways, but with a lot of access ramps and slower speeds. The trouble with all those though is that they're trying to create rural roads/highways in an urban context, which is detrimental to both.

So to illustrate the ideal situation, you'd have something like a rural two-lane undivided highway with a 55 mph speed limit or thereabouts going through farm fields with the occasional farmhouse scattered about. Then at some point you see a sign, "Welcome to Strong Town" and the speed limit drops to 20 or 25 mph, the road may get narrower or wider depending on circumstances, but that's when you get houses, side-by-side, sidewalks, curb and gutter, street trees, crosswalks, etc. Even historically we didn't do this very well here in the US. Our small towns, aside from Main Street, are still in a highly suburban pattern of single houses on fairly large lots. European, Asian, and Latin American towns and villages, even if only a few blocks across, still have 3, 4, or 5 story buildings right up against the sidewalk (or even the street itself if it's a nice narrow one), and all attached side-by-side. They're highly urban places, more so than we tend to get even in our largest cities.

Of course nowadays, in our confused semi-suburban small towns, you'd have miles of strip development on the road outside of town, a bypass around town, and excessively wide streets/roads inside town too. This is what gets people confused, because they wonder about how to deal with the bypass, or all that strip development, or the office park on the fringe.

Chuck put it best in one of his comments in Tuesday's "Understanding Roads" post. We need to stop investing money into those areas that have a negative financial return. They don't need to be torn up or let completely go to the wolves in one fell swoop, but when the infrastructure needs a major overhaul, then either the subdivision residents or the store owners pony up the dough to fix it themselves or it simply gets abandoned. The limited funds go to the place that actually has a positive return on investment. So if the Waffle House three miles out of town can't get water or gas anymore, they and the other businesses can either pay themselves to fix it, get their own wells and propane tanks, or move into the vacant storefronts on Main Street where those utilities can be maintained.

The same actually goes for Wal Mart. No little hamlet could support one, but a good sized department store can be housed in many a small downtown. Take a full block, build 5 or 6 stories tall, and you've got one damn large building. Those who live in that town could walk there, and people from out of town could drive, or hopefully take the train from the next few towns over like they did in the past. You actually don't need nearly as much parking in an urban type area with the same stores you have in the suburbs because people can park once and hit all the stores, rather than drive, park, shop, drive, park, shop, drive, park shop, drive. Of course it doesn't have to be nearly as big as a typical Wal Mart. Yes there's some lost efficiency if every decent small town had a Woolworth's size store, but it worked in the past, it could work again.

I think that's enough for now.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

"If those subsidies were eliminated -- or offset through an access charge -- the resulting development pattern would look nothing like Elk River 169 or Hermantown 53. It could not waste so much space, and so much public infrastructure investment, with so little return."

I am trying to figure out why you believe that. There is no direct highway access for the businesses and they appear to be financially viable. Adding an access charge that is shared by all the development is not likely going to drive them out of business.

"If you are to make this work, you can't just squish things down into a smaller area. You have to redesign them completely and they will need to function much differently. So don't envision Wal-Mart or a strip mall in the middle of town."

I understand your vision. The question is whether increasing mobility at the expense of access actually gets you any closer to that vision. As I said, there are plenty of models of dense urban areas with large auto dependent retail like Wal-Mart. They are not great places to live.

"Oregon's UGB has not exactly create a design utopia."

That wasn't their purpose. The discussion of Oregon's UGB usually mostly focuses on Portland, but there are UGB's for every community in Oregon. And the sprawling development around rural small towns that you see everywhere MIinnesota, does not exist to the same degree in Oregon. My point, however, was that if you want to stop sprawling development, you can regulate it directly. Trying to use highway access costs is not only indirect, its not really going to get the result you want.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams


Dude - I so love you. Thanks for putting that into words. You've captured it 100%, more elegantly than I did even. We may have to get you writing for us if you keep this up.


December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Chuck, all I have to say is you better bring a few camera batteries and an extra memory card when you come to Mason City....

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarty

The trouble with urban growth boundaries like Portland's is that when they implemented it, they thought that was all they had to do. It was "we have an UGB, so we can just sit back and rest on our laurels." They paid no attention to what was being built inside the boundary, so they got the same or worse suburban crap as everywhere else. Then, once that development reached the boundary, there were cries that the city was "built out," so they must extend the boundary, lest it cause either huge spikes in housing and office prices, or the city will stagnate.

Of course, no proper city is ever "built out," because it can densify and redevelop from within. Such isn't the case for most postwar suburbs, especially if antiquated zoning codes (and by antiquated, I mean standard Municode crap) are kept in place that prevent successional development. That's the real problem with all zoning, whether traditional Euclidian or form-based. They're about stagnation, not succession. They don't allow for growth beyond what's already there.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

Jeff -

I think it is important that the Oregon UGB's were created in the 1970's to protect farm and forest land from development. It was an alliance of the powerful forest products industry, the Farm Bureau and urban liberals that got it passed and then defended it from subsequent attacks. That law required cities to maintain a 20 year supply of developable land. So the idea of expansions was more or less built in.

Your larger argument, however, is correct. Even making development outside the boundary all but illegal and not investing in infrastructure outside the UGB, suburban style development patterns persisted within urban areas. You can see this in many small towns that have commercial strips.

Portland adopted a more progressive development pattern in the 1980's, in part spurred by the rejection of a new freeway and adoption of light rail as an alternative. That decision proved enormously popular and its extension to the western suburbs in the 1990's helped promote the idea of dense, transit oriented development even in suburban areas. In addition there were a wide variety of other public investments that supported that new pattern, from a public square in downtown, to a park that replaced a highway along the river. The suburban areas along light rail also invested in urban infrastructure to make themselves more walkable and transit oriented. In short, whatever money was saved by avoiding sprawl got poured back into making the places that were developed more attractive places to live. It was those investments, not the UGB, that makes Portland what it is.

You can look at small towns in Oregon and see a mixture of results. Some have moved closer to the Portland model. Others, despite their UGB, continue to develop in an auto-dependent fashion. Discouraging sprawl, no matter how effectively, does not guarantee a more livable small town.That requires different investments in infrastructure, but not necessarily less.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

I believe that Chuck offers a lot of examples and details here to support his view of transportation issues and how they are affecting this country's land use patterns. I agree with Chuck's perspective. To generalize this and help apply it to other states, I might suggest the following language for Chuck's recommendations:

1) Eliminate Fed and State transfer funding to local communities for local transportation projects
2) Establish new local taxes on land use that incorporates the true cost of transportation infrastructure

In essence, I agree it is important that we realign costs and decision-making and reestablish ownership of various segments of our transportation infrastructure. In order to do that, we must establish local funding for transportation that doesn't exist today. Local governments are dependent on state and federal transfers to fund transportation projects, and there is not enough money to go around. Local governments must prioritize transportation projects, align them with land use regulations, and fund projects with local taxes. Whether those local taxes take the form of access fees (per Chuck above), parking fees (per Ross above), land taxes, and/or transportation utility fees, the concept is still the same....local governments levying consumption-based taxes to fund local projects. Until we reorient in this way, the country will fail to break away from the Growth Ponzi Scheme. If we don't proactively take action, then the scheme will eventually collapse and cause tremendous damage on all fronts.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMidwestern State

"I believe that Chuck offers a lot of examples "

I was't going to go here. But take a look at that picture above and the street on it. Do you notice that the red line stops at the highway, but Knollwood doesn't. Then look at the alternative route. Is it clear that Highland Scenic stops at the highway and there is no crossing? You can turn right, you can turn left. You can't get through.

The street which clearly "serves no significant purpose" is the only crossing of Highway 210 connecting the neighborhood, a middle school and park on the south with the elementary school and neighborhood on the other side of the highway. I suspect buses might use that street to go from one school to the other. But even if they don't, it is the sort of connectivity that makes communities walkable and bikeable and reduce traffic.

There is another crossing all the way over on the other side of the lake which is a very roundabout way to get there. It certainly would not make the trip from one neighborhood school to the other walkable or bikeable. It would add a whole lot of out-of-direction traffic. That just adds to the burden on maintenance.

I am sure there are examples out there of poorly conceived projects, but the argument that we will build Strong Towns by cutting off gas tax funds to local jurisdictions so that they won't waste it ignores the wasteful projects being funded at the state and federal level. I would rather fund this neighborhood collector than the St. Croix bridge or another MnDOT highway.

The problem isn't that we are investing too much in local communities, its that we aren't investing enough. We are using limited money to improve mobility instead of access.

December 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

@MidwesternState - I think you make really good points. Spot on.

@Ross - I'm not sure why you believe you need to be the bully / last word on everything in the comments section. You actually have had some intelligent thoughts and insights this past week. I wish you would tone it down a little, try to find some common ground with people and not always feel like you have to "win" whatever discussion we're having here. I read your stuff and while from time to time you are seeing things, very often you don't get what I'm talking about. This makes your bullying tone even worse for a positive discussion here.

For example, the Knollwood Drive example is a post-WW II neighborhood. Your entire conversation is your last comment here seems to forget the fact that the neighborhood itself was badly conceived and that the state aid funds used to expand it is simply pouring bad (federal/state) money after good (local). I get what you are saying on the schools and parks, but they are all part of a really warped suburban-style mess. We need to start looking at this entire system with different eyes and, if we did that, the location of the school and the park becomes the problem, not the lack of money for a wider collector road.

I'm glad you are reading and finding some value in this site, but I wish you would take some time off from commenting. When you do return to comment, I wish you would work harder to understand what everyone else is saying and start with that. Use this template: "I hear you saying ________ and I see your point in that _________, but have you considered _______________."

I think if you do that, you'll find that people react better to you (including me).


December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

"very often you don't get what I'm talking about"

I don't think that is true. I just don't agree with you and you assume that MUST mean I don't understand it.

"Your entire conversation is your last comment here seems to forget the fact that the neighborhood itself was badly conceived"

No, it doesn't forget that. But that certainly didn't seem to have anything to do with the point in your example ...

"This makes your bullying tone ..."

Chuck, in the past you have called my comments "insane", "idiotic" and "ridiculous" and now you are accusing ME of a bullying tone? My tone may be antagonistic at times, but that is because I disagree with you and believe that while you have some good intentions, your approach is seriously flawed by your ideological predispositions.

I will respect your wishes and stop commenting.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Williams

I'm sorry if this is tangent to the current blog post, but it relates to the ongoing issue of excessive infrastructure. It occurred to me that measuring the actual property tax revenue of a city and forming a ratio between that and the miles of streets might result in a useful metric. The only data I could find readily was that for my home town, Norwalk CT, and NYC. Comparing them I found that NYC had 2.5 times the revenue for street mile. However, Norwalk is a city of 85,000 in 38 square miles, so many of the streets are 2-lane country roads and power and communications in most of the city is overhead, while in NYC, everything is underground and at least in Manhattan, infrastructure is dense and expensive (with a network of steam lines). An improved metric would be revenue per lane mile, which strongly levels the playing field, as the average street in Norwalk is just over 2 lanes, while NYC probably is in the 4-lane range. Plus you would have to skew NYC even more to take account of the street lights, etc.

In short, I found that this metric didn't explain why our streets get paved on an average of once every hundred years, and new projects replace existing granite curbing with concrete, and just holding our own with regard to deferred maintenance is chewing a big hole in the city budget. Either NYC infrastructure is deteriorating as rapidly as ours is, or we are misusing our funds - probably both. I suspect however, that when you compare a relatively dense city like Norwalk with a typical outer suburb, this metric would prove useful in showing that places like NYC and Norwalk had a fighting chance of staying afloat (given a substantial increase in tax revenue), while the outer areas are hopeless.

So the purpose of my post is to ask Charles whether this metric or one like it has been contemplated and whether such data is available anywhere without a massive effort. I think something like this is needed to quantify exactly which infrastructure works and has promise, and which needs to be scrapped or repurposed.

A related notion: the U.S. with its vast oversupply of retail and infrastructure, sprawl, and dedication to every homeowner having a complete suite of stuff (no one shares anything), causes us to use 5 times the global average of resources and twice the energy per person as Europe and Japan. So one easy way to imagine how we would catch up, at least with Europe, and at least with respect to energy: simply import another 330,000,000 people WITHOUT ANY NET NEW ENERGY CONSUMPTION. Obviously resources would have to be rebalanced, replacing leaf blowers with food, for example, but net no change in consumption. It is obviously a thought experiment and not a proposal, but certainly a sobering one. And if extended to all consumption and not just energy, it is a concept that should boggle the mind of any American. Yet this is exactly must happen in the long run. I personally don't think it will happen except through a catastrophe.

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Tully

It sounds simple enough Gordon, but I think it might turn out to be a lot harder to calculate than it seems. The trick is figuring out just how much is spent to accommodate people going out of town or coming into town from elsewhere. This should be easier to figure with a small town than a large metropolis, but it's still complicated. For instance, how many people who live in Norwalk work in Norwalk versus Bridgeport, Stamford, Fairfield, or Westport? The more people who cross from one to the other, the more roads are needed. That makes these things much more difficult to figure, especially when you start talking about roads or public transit that takes people through town, like interstate (or state) highways for instance.

Another thing that's missing from a lot of discussion is just how much road is necessary as a "public good" versus strictly accommodation to the automobile. The residential side street or downtown high street are still necessary for access to light and air, as an easement to run utilities, a route for trash pickup, deliveries, emergency vehicles, etc., but that doesn't mean they have to be 6 lanes wide, or even paved at all. Some like to argue that without good roads then food won't get from the farms to cities. That doesn't mean they have to be paved to allow 55 mph speeds. As long as they're passable during harvest season, the food will get to market, even if they can't go faster than 20 mph. We managed to get fresh milk and produce from the country into the heart of the city before paved roads, and even with suburban development widening the distance between agricultural hinterlands and the city center, there's still ways to do it.

So a lot of these things are rather intangible, but there's some level of public benefit. There's a number of things rural areas enjoy that are subsidized by those living in urban places, like electricity, the postal service, and yes, roads too. It goes with that public good notion. Back to the original question though, you'd almost have to plot out the travel patterns and usage of every utility on each property in a particular city to see just how far their reach extends, then calculate the cost per user. That would be difficult but not impossible in a closed system, but are any such places so thoroughly isolated AND self-sufficient?

December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey Jakucyk

I'll bet he can't stay away. After all he HAS to be a jerk because Chuck is ideologically defective. I give him 48 hours max.


December 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohnT
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