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The cost of auto orientation

In the United States we've proceeded for sixty years with reconfiguring our public spaces to accommodate the automobile. The built in assumption of this approach, especially when it comes to commercial property, is that the more cars driving by the better. What we've overlooked in our haste to "modernize" is the lower return on investment we get from this approach, even under ideal conditions. Today we need the humility to acknowledge that our ancestors -- who built in the traditional style -- may have known what they were doing after all.

After a nice break, we want to welcome everyone back and wish you all a fantastic 2012. We're still dedicated to publishing this blog at least three days a week (typically Monday, Wednesday and Friday) as well as releasing a podcast every week or two. We've got one other channel here we'll be starting next week, so stay tuned. If you'd like to stay informed with what's going on with the Strong Towns movement, sign up for our newsletter. We don't share your address and we don't spam. We do bite though, at least rhetorically.

Highway 210 runs east/west through downtown Brainerd. In the hierarchical road system, it is the top of the pyramid and would be classified in most places as a "major arterial". It is designed as a STROAD (a street/road hybrid), attempting to apply highway design standards to what otherwise would be an urban street. In doing so, it has dramatically transformed the land use pattern of the area.

The picture below highlights two blocks that front the highway corridor. The one on the left, which we've labeled "old and blighted", is a block that has retained its traditional development pattern. To the right we have identified the "shiny and new" area, the block that has recently been transformed to an auto-oriented development style, to the glee of city officials and local economic development advocates. In between is a hybrid of the two; part traditional and part auto-oriented.

The old and blighted area is a collection of run down, marginal establishments. There are two liquor stores, a pawn shop, a barber shop, a bankruptcy attorney, a campaign headquarters, a retail establishment, a cafe and a vacant building. This is not a desirable area. If the adjacent highway didn't already ensure decline, local "improvements" have degraded what little pedestrian connectivity may have existed to the adjacent areas. None of it that remains is easy, natural or inviting. In the community's eyes, this is an area that is waiting to redevelop, to transform itself fully into an auto-oriented pattern. That transformation has begun; note that the very westerly building, which is a liquor store, has turned two lots into a parking lot.

By contrast, the shiny and new area contains only one business, that being a new Taco John's drive through fast food restaurant. The modern facility contains two drive-through lanes, good access to the adjacent streets and all the parking that would ever be needed. They've done on-site stormwater retention (the environmentalists applaud) and modern signage. It meets all of the city's design and zoning codes. The restaurant replaced some buildings that were, themselves, part of an evolution from the original, traditional development to the auto-oriented. With the new Taco John's, the transformation is complete.

If there was any question regarding the public's opinion on these two lots, the city of Brainerd's comprehensive plan specifically calls for the transformation of areas that we've labeled "old and blighted" into "shiny and new". The city has designated this area General Commercial, expressing a desire to see the development along this corridor become highway-oriented. This they describe on page 93 of their plan.

General Commercial 

The purpose of this category is to identify portions of Brainerd that should contain general retail commercial uses adjacent to the arterial highway system.  The intent of this designation is to provide areas for highway-oriented businesses.  Consequently, having a strong general commercial base in the city helps the downtown as well.  Having a strong highway commercial area helps draw consumers to the city and provides for a healthy downtown. Examples of these could include highway-oriented businesses such as fast food restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and other auto-oriented businesses as well as a number of large retailers.

In that definition of General Commercial, it is stated that a "strong highway commercial area....provides for a healthy downtown." The problem is that "strong" and "highway commercial" are -- in almost all cases -- mutually exclusive terms. The numbers prove the point in this case.

The eleven old and blighted lots -- some of the most undesirable commercial property in the city -- arranged in the traditional development pattern along the incompatible, major arterial of Highway 210 have a combined tax base of $1,136,500.

To compare, the Taco John's property -- the one that is not only shiny and new but configured precisely as the city of Brainerd desires the old and blighted properties to someday be -- has a total valuation of only $803,200.

At its nastiest and most decrepit, fighting the negative auto traffic speeding by and the absence of pedestrian connectivity, lacking all natural advantage from the neighboring land uses that would ideally accompany a traditional neighborhood design, the old and blighted traditional commercial block still outperforms the new, auto-oriented development by 41%

Imagine how much more valuable this traditonal block would be if the businesses were simply given some relief from the speed of the STROAD-induced traffic and/or provided some connectivity to the adjacent neighborhood, two things that could be done far cheaper than the millions the city has spent to make this area the dominion of cars.

Imagine how much more prosperous we would all be if we started building Strong Towns.


There is much more to report on this case study. Check back later this week. In the meantime, here is some related information:


If you find this material interesting and would like to know more about how to apply this thinking to your community, join us at the Strong Towns Network, a social enterprise for those working to implement a Strong Towns approach.

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Reader Comments (10)

For some reason the meme, "Does it blend?" popped into my head while reading this. Sometimes we just have to ask the silly (see obvious) question and check the numbers.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSid Burgess

Our bias -- especially within the professions that advise cities -- is so strong that it is heresy to even question it. I guarantee there will be engineers, planners and economic development people that sneer at this analysis, especially here in my home town. "That's your opinion," as one council member recently told me in response to numbers like these. This is why I have used the word "cult" in the past....it is so simple to run the numbers, yet we don't because we believe so strongly.

Thanks Sid,


January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Wow. It's posts like that, that you could replicate in towns anywhere that make me love the work of Strong Towns. Seems like it would be easy to contrast the employment opportunities too. Perhaps a future post?

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergml4

But here are other questions: what is the excise and/or sales tax revenue coming back to the community from these properties? Wouldn't you want to include those figures in your calculations also? Looking forward to seeing more - thanks!

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTami

Hey, Chuck. Is there any rationalization to this scenario that the reduction in land tax value is okay because it's offset by increased sales tax revenue on a business better suited to "processing" high volumes of auto customers? Or does Brainerd not collect a local sales tax?

Just curious what the apologists counter with, other than "Well, that's your opinion."

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterScott

All of this is coming in future posts this week, but in a short preview.....

Brainerd has no local sales tax except for a small one that is dedicated to the wastewater treatment plant. They are prohibited by law from having a local sales tax unless (a) approved by voters, (b) approved by the legislature and (c) it is directly tied to payments for a specific project.

That having been said, it is pretty clear that the number of people employed is greater in the "old and blighted", not to mention the residual impact of those being local businesses (and thus hiring other local services, like accountants, printers and advertisers instead of having that done at corporate somewhere else). Since we don't tax services here in MN, only the liquor stores and pawn shops would pay sales tax. Even if Taco John's exceeds that, you are now comparing apples to oranges because, if this corridor were properly designed, two liquor stores and a pawn shop would likely not be the highest and best use.

I've yet to reveal the most dramatic fact about these sites though. Right now I'm planning to do that on Wednesday.


January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Marohn

Brainerd's core problem seems to be that its citizenry doesn't understand the basics of local living economies, which are not enhanced by auto-based crap food chains:


In fact, there appear to be no BALLE member networks for MN at all.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSophia Katt

Scott and Chuck,

Is food sold "to go" taxed in Minnesota? If not, the drive-through costs the state money.

January 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErik Griswold

"The state sales tax in Minnesota is 6.875%, but there is no sales tax on clothing, prescription drug medications, some services, or food items for home consumption" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota

Yup, that drive-thru doesn't provide any sales tax revenue. Only those eat in the restaurant pay tax.

January 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph E


This is a fantastic analysis and in looking at the Google Earth 'street view' I was impressed to see that the outperforming 'old and blighted' simply has traditional form and massing but would place low on architectural quality. So, in this example it really is just form and land use driving the numbers.

January 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterneil heller
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