I want to let our readers -- new and long-time alike -- know that we're going into end-of-year mode. From a programming standpoint, that means that over the next two weeks we will be running a"Best of Blog" series containing our favorite ten posts of the year (if you have a favorite, let us know) and then we take a couple of weeks off to enjoy the season. I'm a baker of Christmas cookies and so I spend a good portion of this month putting together hundreds and hundreds of goodies to share with friends and family (and I may consume a few, too). Plus I think it is good to stop and catch our breathe a little.

You'll hear from me a few times yet this year, but I do want to take this opportunity to say thank you. Our growth in readership and support this year has exceeded all my expectations. The intelligent responses that I receive daily to our work has been a huge inspiration. My biggest lament of this past year is that I simply don't have the capacity to get back to every kind person that emails me (I'm working on a solution to that). Thank you everyone for all that you have done in support of the Strong Towns movement. Due in no small part to your efforts, these ideas are gaining a lot of traction in cities across the country. I anticipate that 2012 is going to be even more amazing for all of us. I really can't wait to see.

Take care, everyone, and enjoy this week's news.

  • If you've not received a notice about our upcoming Virtual Curbside Chat, you should really be signed up for our email list. We let those on the list know over a week ago that we'd be holding an online version of our Curbside Chat program this coming Tuesday at 1:00 CST. All you need is a web browser and a phone line. There is nothing to download or install - it is all very simple. Please get registered so we can get you instructions for how to login and participate. This is going to be a great time - we're really excited to share it with you.
  • I try to feature blogs outside of the standard planning-enthusiast sites that have included Strong Towns in unique ways. This week you have Shop New Rockford, a site for buying local in New Rockford. They prominently feature Strong Towns on their "ideas" page with the tagline, "Economic research behind the push to invest and strengthen small towns and downtowns across the nation." Very nice. We also want to give a shout out to the site called The Rocket Powered Butterfly, which is a grab all site from the mind of TJ Mayoette. The site recently featured a post called "A Strong Howard County" where TJ took our Ponzi scheme article and applied it to his community. I got a kick out of this line in particular:

The essay (and site) is a bit hysterical, just south of a shy-is-falling mentality, but I love a lot of its points...

  • The entire discussion on the Diverging Diamond and related transportation/land use issues has dominated this space in recent weeks, but I've not been able to highlight some of the great spinoff coverage. We'll start with our good friend, Kaid Benfield at NRDC, who I think enjoyed watching me fend off the hornets from the nest I rattled as much as he enjoyed the video I put together.

Chuck believes that we need more attention to walkable streets and fewer dollars going into insanely expensive, over-engineered highways.  He has some fun with this one, doing an entertaining edit of an video someone sent him to illustrate (with approval) the state’s attempt to engineer the intersection to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. There is little that Chuck enjoys more than going after his fellow engineers, and he contrasts the unwalkability of the diverging diamond with the true walkability of places like Amsterdam that really do put pedestrians and cyclists first.

  • Another old friend taking an interest in what we are doing is Sarah Goodyear, formerly of Grist and now with PPS and also writing for the Atlantic Cities. We've spoken many times by phone and met last year in person at CNU. I really enjoy her and she totally gets where I am coming from, so her pieces are always good, ground-breaking journalism as well as being fun for me to read.

This particular diverging diamond is in Springfield, Mo., and in the video an engineer gives us a proud tour of all its supposedly pedestrian- and bike-friendly features. Only problem is, this looks like an exhaust-choked wasteland where no one would ever walk unless they were absolutely desperate, maybe even destitute.

“The first thing that came to my mind was the Star Wars Death Star scene," says Marohn of when he first watched the video. "I thought, this needs some Death Star music, so I started there.” So you’ll see some Luke and Darth action.

  • One of the more thoughtful and thorough analysis came from a site Getting Around Minneapolis which is written by a self-proclaimed "notable nobody working a desk at a city agency" named Alec. He actually reviews our piece, then gives some research on the application of the diverging diamond and then proceeds to provide a redesign of one that is being proposed here in central Minnesota. Unorthodox, but definitely worth a read.

Making diverging diamonds walkable may seem like treating the symptom, not the disease.  But the insane part really isn’t forcing traffic to proceed on the left, it is the fact that people can design these things and think that it’s ok to send the pedestrians into a narrow concrete strip between two streams of speeding cars.  That shows a lack of contact with reality that is frightening, but all too common.  Good thing there are good doctors like Chuck Marohn to spread the diagnosis.

  • Matt Johnson of Greater Greater Washington mashed together one of Jim Kunstler's eyesore of the month photos with our diverging diamond video in a piece that was thoughtful amidst the absurdity pointed out by Kunstler and me. Check out the photo if you want to see what happens when too much money reacts with a profession (engineering) so dumbed down that all they seemingly know today is a rote adherence to technical standards.

In many cases, we've taken the completely wrong approach to planning and designing our public spaces. It's nice that Missouri's DOT put a place for pedestrians to walk on this bridge. But the whole built environment out there has so marginalized the mode of walking, that few will ever feel particularly welcome walking there.

Designing true pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly spaces means starting the design with them in mind. But in many engineering textbooks, people who don't come in cars are just afterthoughts. And the result is not particularly pretty.

  • As long as I am mentioning Kunstler, we've had no further discussion on a joint podcast (he's been moving and a little tied up) but I need to give a shout out to all those people on the KunstlerCast discussion boards. You guys have shown us a lot of love and it means a ton, especially to me as I'm a huge fan of what is going on in the Kunstler world. Special thanks to whoever is @The St.Paulite for starting a lot of the threads. I especially got a laugh out of one comment by @faraway discussing our podcast of the Koeping with Government show:

Oh that was great. 

Chuck Marohn for President!

This guy really needs more exposure.

  • Speaking of the Koeping with Government podcast, my friend Sid Burgess listened to it and found it so compelling he wrote this fantastic blog piece about it. I have to say, with all humility, the show did go really well. Even if you are not a podcast listener, you should check it out. Thanks so much, Sid. This really meant a lot. And I agree 100%. Sid Burgess for President!

We need strong, local political and social movements. We need stronger towns. Strong towns make for better public safety.  Better public health. More freedom for the markets to pick and choose winners and losers. Again, we are being divided on issues that are national and are then being prepped to import the partisanship back into our communities where the issues are much more practical.  You can hear it clearly during the interview.  We actually want to argue -- not because we actually know more, but because we have been taught that certain people with certain ideas are wrong and always wrong -- about everything.  The political system of today is framing the argument all wrong.  It is being framed in a way that makes it easy for campaign managers and pollsters to spin into money.  Don't buy it.

  • In the past few weeks I've also received a huge assortment of graphic intersection models depicting all kinds of transportation monstrosities. The amazing thing is how enamored we are with the technology - how proud we are of the simulation of all those little cars, as if there were no people having their lives sucked away in endless driving back and forth. Check out this one with all these happy cars darting around, blissfully unaware of the faded and flattened wasteland around them. Then there is this one from Utah where they modeled a "continuous flow" intersection, where "continuous" apparently means stopping at two lights instead of just one. My favorite part is at time marker 1:12 where they remind the driver to yield to pedestrians, which would need about three minutes of white crossing signal to make it across the TEN LANES of traffic.

  • For all of these intersections it would make sense if this (see below) were to become the new standard crossing signal. Making the change would be simple - it is just a matter of developing a new standard plate and then modifying the checkbox on the design form.

  • As opposed to channeling automobiles, cyclists and pedestrians into their separate troughs, in London they are actually taking steps to mix them more closely. They understand that giving each their own lane in a compact, urban area simply causes auto-aggression as well as priority problems when there is an intersection of two different lanes. When everyone has a right to be anywhere (as in this video or in this video, which we have shared before), everyone seems to respect everyone else. Imagine that - affirming positive human nature in our design instead of designing for deviants.

Instead, visual and textural cues let the street's users know how to operate. The pavement is styled with strips of lighter granite crosshatched against a black backdrop, an elegant and leisurely look that hints at paths for pedestrians to cross. Installing corduroy "warning tactile paving" and drainage covers will indicate to vision-impaired pedestrians where the area for cars begins, while removing curbs will make it easier for wheelchairs to navigate the area. 

What struck me was the absurdity of a small town (Castlegar) with four separate commercial zones (three existing, and one proposed at the airport), each effectively taking something from the others. There is little to blame for this but poor land use planning that led to the zoning of lands outside the downtown core for retail and commercial purposes, which led to a cascading disinvestment in the downtown. The latest such venture is the airport lands, held up as, “the only flat commercial land left in the Kootenays”. But for a community that was so interested in sustainability over the past couple of years, the decision to invest in development of utilities to these lands represents a huge departure froma plan for a walkable, compact community, and instead dilutes the density of commercial space.

  • Speaking of the American Planning Association, I had proposed to give that same speech on the finances of small towns as a session at the upcoming national conference. Denied. I also proposed to give a Curbside Chat. Also denied. Third, I proposed a session to review our upcoming report, Misunderstanding Mobility, which expands on the ground we've covered here recently in the Diverging Diamond discussion. Three strikes and I'm out. I can't say that I'm totally shocked to be shut out of APA (again). It's not like a well-developed, professionally-delivered message on the economic impacts of our land use pattern and how to build places that are financially viable has any relevance to the planning profession today.

"Today, California's transportation system is in jeopardy," says the 2011 Statewide Transportation System Needs Assessment. "Investments to preserve transportation systems simply have not kept pace with the demands on them, and this underfunding -- decade after decade -- has led to the decay of one of the state's greatest assets."

California needs $536.2 billion through 2020 for transportation needs, but it can expect only $242.4 billion over that time from federal, state and local sources of revenue.

And that does not include the $98.5 billion needed to build high-speed train system from Southern California to the Bay Area.

  • This is for my virtual friend, the Twitter super hero named Cap'n Transit, just to prove that I understand and respect his point of view. For the record, I thought this was brilliant analysis, but I still oppose stimulus spending that would pump more borrowed money into the suburban experiment (although we can text back and forth about it during Thanksgiving dinner again next year, if you like).

  • A pocket of fiscal sanity is starting to emerge from the Minnesota legislature in regards to the Old Economy Project that Refuses to Die, where thirty legislators are starting to do math and realize that spending $690 million on the St. Croix bridge (along with potentially another $150 million for new, remote highways for the Vikings to be in Arden Hills) leaves precious little revenue for their districts. Unfortunately, the reality is that they don't oppose the bridge, just the price tag. It's a start.

"As legislators on both sides of the St. Croix River we are united in our concerns that the current design of the bridge is far too expensive," the group wrote, adding that there are cheaper alternatives to the current plans, which are estimated to cost $690 million.

  • For our Minnesota readers: if you care to read a very thoughtful analysis on making government more efficient from someone who knows the many layers of government inside and out, then I highly recommend this piece by Jim Mulder.

Duplicative services are provided by multiple levels of government. Cities, towns and counties all have responsibility for planning and zoning, with one state statute for counties and a separate planning and zoning statute for cities and towns -- which too often conflict with one another. Economic development services are provided by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development; local Housing and Redevelopment Authorities; local Economic Development Authorities; the Minnesota Extension Service, and both the University of Minnesota and the state university system.

  • Before I finish up this week I want to recommend the new Muppet movie to anyone out there that may be thinking of going. I'm 38 years old and so I grew up on the Muppets. My very first cassette tape, which I listened to thousands of times, was of the original Muppet Movie. Sitting there in the theatre last weekend with my four year old daughter on my lap, watching a brilliantly-made movie, evoked a lot of happy memories and created quite a few more. And when those first banjo strums of the Rainbow Connection started, I admit to shedding a few tears. The movie was a perfect tribute to Jim Henson's vision and the original spirit of the Muppets.

 

Have a great weekend, everyone. I hope to see you at the Virtual Curbside Chat this Tuesday.