CNU is kicking off an initiative to sign up new members so, for those of you that have been following along here but are not members of CNU, here's a short video for you and the link to join. Even if you can't make it to the Congress, this is an amazing organization that is worthy of your support. And trust me, you put a little into it and you are going to get a ton back. 

Let's go Day 3!

A couple programming changes for those of you here at the conference. I had scheduled an Open Source session at 11 AM -- and someone added my name to it so you'll know which one is mine -- but I have had to reschedule that to tomorrow, Saturday, at 11:15.

The reason is because I have been asked to speak -- literally just asked -- at the Member's Choice session this morning at 11 AM. This is really an honor that I could not pass up. I'll be giving my Petcha Kucha presentation from last night.

This means I need some assistance because I am going to miss a session tomorrow I really wanted to attend and record the audio from. If there is someone here at the conference that would be willing to help me out by sitting up front and turning on and off my recorder, please get a hold of me at marohn@strongtowns.org. The session I want to get is Steve Mouzon's session on Megatrends: Technologies and Techniques that are changing the built world.

Edward Glaeser

Urbanist and Conservative, Professor Edward Glaeser is a speaker I am thrilled to hear. Thanks to my wonderful mother-in-law, I now have his book, Triumph of the City. The following are my notes from his talk.

As counties get denser, incomes rise. Productivity is connected to the ability of people's connectivity. This is the idea transmission concept - the notion that our increase in productivity arises from our ability to share and grow ideas, concepts and innovations together. 

We live in a world where we can telecommute from anywhere, but we don't. We choose urbanism. The technologies that would allow us to spread out have actually encouraged us to come together. This is more obvious in the developing world, where the cities are the future. Bangalore may seem like a place where we call when our computers don't work, but if you are there, it feels completely different. It is a place where bright, young engineers gather.

New York top three industries included publishing. An interesting story here about how piracy of books created a market advantage for New York, since they got the imported books first. (Sounds a lot like the complaints Microsoft has with China currently). 

A beautiful story about how the painters of the Renaissance connected and learned from one other. This how how humans create things.

Successful cities in the 18th Century were built around smart people, local production and connections to the outside world. The same is true today. Henry Ford and Detroit started this way, but their product - the automobile - and the process - the massive assembly line - gave them short-term advantages, but put them in a position where they could not adapt and change.

The car was going to be popular because of mobility advantages, but we did not have to subsidize it to the degree that we did. The same with home ownership, which bribed people to live cities and move into suburban homes. This moved mass amounts of people out of cities. We did not respond to this well...urban renewal, crazy things like building a monorail over abandoned streets, etc...

Two Policy Questions:

1. There is little care for continuing with the Federal obsession with home ownership. It is risk-enhancing, regressive and bad for the environment.

2. Transit policy is less clear. The price of Federal transit support is highways. It is not always obvious that Federal investments in transit will work out. Privatizing the transportation systems would allow transit to compete with the automobile. 

Quote: "Knowledge is more important than space." The trading floor as an anology. Technology does not make this less important, it makes it more important.

Quote: "It pays to work around smart people." As the number of college-educated people increases, wages go up for people without college degrees.

It is important not to indict cities for their poverty. Cities do not make people poor. They attract poor people because of the opportunity. If you are close enough to someone to sell them a paper, you are close enough to rob them of their newspaper. Still, a city like New York has a longer life expectancy than the average American, lower obesity rates and lower rates of suicides.

Quote: "There is a reason why New Yorkers like government more. They need it." They need it a lot more than someone living in rural Montana. 

Policy Challenges for the U.S.

  • Subsidizing our highways.
  • Subsidizing home ownership.
  • Fixing our urban schools.

Stefanos Polyzoides

The two great strengths of New Urbanism: We access history through study. We learn through observation.

A very interesting observation that I will try and relay. He is showing photos of pre-colonial architecture from Malaysia. Polyzoides then points out how the original colonial powers were different than the way we operate today. They came and, without petroleum, electricity, air conditioning, etc... they actually had to observe the way people lived locally and adapt to that in order to survive. He then shows some of the early colonial architecture and how it fits with the architecture that existed prior. Today, we are in the process of making the great cities of Malaysia - and other Asian countries - into L.A. 

Architecture is the place where I have the most amount of learning to do here with the New Urbanists, but this was an interesting observation to me. Kind of like the Mouzon Original Green discussion, modern technology has certainly set us apart from the natural systems that surround us, that we used to adapt to for our survival and thus became part of our identity. Are those days returning even in a small way because, if so, we are woefully unprepared. 

Members' Choice

I was asked to speak at the Member's Choice session here at the last minute to redo my Petcha Kucha presentation from last night. Cool. But first, other speakers...

Geoffrey Block (Twitter), NY bike activist, presented a video that I had seen at the NextGen session. You are going to want to check out this video, which is available on his blog.

Speed Kills

Lynn Peterson, Oregon, states that she is a "recovering engineer", a title I have used myself. I like her already. Said that she did not go into engineering to do "plug and chug" -- referring to the rote application of standards -- but instead wanted to solve problems.

Engineers need to be reminded that they are not standards, they are guidelines.

The issue of liability for those that differ from the guidelines is drilled into an engineer's head from early in their education. We need to focus on safety, but if we don't look at context, we will not be really looking at overall safety.

Engineers have three central design criteria:

  • Design Speed
  • Design Guidelines
  • Mobility Guidelines (Level of Service analysis - LOS)

We can't build to the maximums anymore because we don't have the money. Designing to LOS is not going to work anymore. The cash-in-hand analysis is forcing us to rethink our approach. She gives a great example of a project to widen and straighten a roadway that could only do a small part due to budget. Driving along on a winding road, all of a sudden you hit this widened and improved section, then it goes back to winding again. Not only does this mess with driver expectation, but it is silly to do if we don't have the money to build and maintain the entire thing.

She quotes an Oregon DOT attorney that said as long as they document their design decisions, the case can be made in court. If they just follow the standards, there is no good defense.

Billy Hattaway, PE and Florida Managing Director of Transportation, said that much of his job with the DOT was damage control. They were removing parking and sidewalks while widening lanes. Had a conversion process when he saw other communities - in the Portland area - do things differently. Moved out of the DOT to work on the problems from the outside.

Engineers have equated meeting the standards with providing safety. This is not true. We kill a lot fewer people today than we did before, but a lot of that has to due with lower VMT. The carnage is unacceptable.

The AASHTO Green Book is all about motorists. It actually says that we should "use as high a design speed as possible". The reality is that in suburban development we actually wind up with very low overall speeds. He didn't state why but I'm assuming it is due to the traffic controls and the start/stop nature of suburban driving. He said he studied a corridor and said the average speed was less than 20 mph. The obvious conclusion of this observation is that we could design for lower speeds, eliminate a lot of the traffic controls and thus save lives and probably shorten overall travel times.

The AASHTO standards are not based on safety. They are based on studies on how to keep traffic moving in the system.

Another observation - standard lane width measurement goes from the edge of the pavement. The gutters unecessarily adds another three to five feet to the width. We should design from curb face to curb face.

A yield street design is 24' curb face to curb face.

Obviously I - and many other engineers - need to read the AASHTO green book more closely. Hattaway had a ton of quotes from the book that were mind-blowing and go against the entire standard engineering convention. It is like discovering a counter-theory for Christianity in the New Testament. Blasphemy, but very exciting. Can't wait to use that information myself.