Sorry to those of you that tuned in last week for the News Digest and it wasn't there. That doesn't happen very often and, when it does, it usually has a very good reason. Last week there was no excuse except general writing fatigue, sunny weather and two girls enthusiastic to spend a day with dad. This Friday will be extra long as I try to catch up. And if you are at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis tonight, keep an eye out for me and Daughter #1 (that would be Chloe). This is only her second trip to our little bandbox. The first one did not go so well as I sprung for awesome seats but, unfortunately, they were in the sun, it was 95 degrees out and very humid. Tonight we are back to the season ticket seats, which are far less expensive as well as being in the shade. I love baseball. Go Twins!
Enjoy the week's news.
- Many thanks to the DCI Blog that named Strong Towns one of the Top Five Economic Development Blogs. Quite an honor.
- Also an honor was my friend, Sarah Goodyear, writing in the Atlantic Cities this week, calling me "one of the smartest people" she knows. (blush) Seriously, that was very kind, but the article is worth reading just to see the video of the Tea Party candidate talking about the beauty of the "neo-classical" strip mall. I typically stay away from the comments section on stories I am in but this farm boy from Central Minnesota had to set the record straight with one guy who indicated I was some ivory tower elitist. Oh, and then there was this comment, which is more on point:
Charles Marohn is one of the smartest guys you know? You need to broaden your circle of friends.
- The article I wrote reflecting on the Baby Boomer generation and our transition from the Suburban Experiment to some new (as of yet undefined) mode of economics generated a lot of conversation, especially on the BetterCities website. One additional comment came from my friend, host of our San Diego Curbside Chat, fellow blogger and Baby Boomer Walt Chambers. You can read his post and see how he very gently scolds me, but I am going to refer to this choice excerpt, which made my day.
GSSD has strong admiration for Charles Marohn and Strong Towns, and in fact hosted him in San Diego for his Curbside Chat. He speaks truth to power in the way Jane Jacobs did in 1961.
- I also want to acknowledge some great work from my friend, fellow CNU NextGen member and the brilliant designer of this website, Jen Krouse, who dipped a foot deeper into the blogger world with this post challenging the standard orthodoxy of the business plan. Jen is a great writer (among other talents -- you really should hire her if you need help with your website, business or concept launch) and I hope she continues to push the boundaries publicly like this.
Entrepreneurs and their investors have long overlooked the business plan's shaky qualifications as a startup tool, because the business world offered no more credible methodology for planning, fundraising for, evaluating, and operating a new business. The Lean Startup movement has changed that dynamic by proposing a sensible alternative. With the Lean Startup methodology, entrepreneurs aim to rapidly test their assumptions about how their product will fare in the real world. This testing accelerates the learning process that leads to greater certainty about the startup's operating environment. That greater certainty, in turn, provides a basis for better decision making and, by extension, greater chances for entrepreneurial success.
- If by chance you are going to be in the Brainerd Lakes Area this weekend, you really should swing by the John Chalberg Theater this Saturday evening for the Great Northern Radio Show. There will be singing, dancing, theater, some amazing showmanship and -- just maybe -- a short appearance by someone you might know (hint: he writes this blog). Aaron Brown is hosting and he is way cooler than Garrison Keillor. If you can't be there, stream it live starting at 6 PM CST from KAXE.org.
- About two dozen of you sent me this article on Smart Growth for Conservatives. That is a sign of two things. First, you are awesome. Second, this article is awesome. Print it out and share it with every conservative-leaning person you know. We have to reach a new, national consensus on what prosperity is and how best to achieve it. While I think both of our dominant national parties (along with their dogmatic adherents) are incoherent, I would submit that the line of thought put forth by this article contains truths we can all build on.
Liberals have spear-headed the critique of sprawl, to their credit, and they have largely defined Smart Growth. As is their wont, however, they frequently call for top-down solutions. There's no social problem that a good strong dose of government intervention won't fix! Allergic to calls for bigger, stronger, more coercive government -- herding people onto mass transit and into multi-family housing are the exaggerated images they react to -- conservatives have thrown out the smart-growth baby with the liberal bathwater.
Big mistake. There is nothing intrinsically liberal or conservative about the idea of creating more efficient human settlement patterns that expand the range of housing and transportation options while reducing the cost of government. Rather than getting stuck defending an indefensible status quo, conservatives need to articulate their own vision in a manner consistent with conservative principles.
- Writing in the Atlantic Cities, Eric Dumbaugh questions the conventional orthodoxy that equates fighting congestion with increasing local economies. And he doesn't just propose a theory, he tests it and backs up the assertion with numbers. A great step towards challenging the shamans in the traffic engineering profession and their voodoo models.
But this begs the question: is traffic congestion really a drag on the economy? Economies are measured not in terms of vehicle delay or the amount of travel that people do, but in terms of the dollar value of the goods and services that they produce. If it is true that congestion is detrimental to a region’s economy, then one would expect that people living in areas with low levels of traffic congestion would be more economically productive, on a per capita basis, than those in areas with high levels of congestion.
- An article in the magazine Governing was nearly comical in the revelation that -- you won't believe this -- transportation spending is not targeted to high return projects. In fact, according to the article, we don't even bother to measure the return on investment for transportation projects. (Here is the look on my face right now -- NOT.) Of course, this is all old, old, old news for readers of this blog. Ironically, the article refers to the TIGER grant program as a "bright spot" because it actually included an economic analysis. For those of you that weren't with us in 2010, you can read this series to see just how "bright" that spot is (about as bright as the sun would be from Pluto).
The study's thesis is that all stakeholders would be better served if both the state and federal governments conducted rigorous economic analysis before spending money on transportation projects. Such studies could answer whether the benefit that a given project has to the economy would, over time, exceed its construction and maintenance costs. It would also help officials – when presented with limited money for multiple projects – decide which would do the most good for the economy.
It’s an argument that seems painfully obvious – which the author concedes – yet it isn't the norm in government. Even as the states and feds struggle to find money to pay for transportation projects, they typically don't conduct the planning needed to ensure they're getting the best return possible when they invest in infrastructure, argues author Nicolas Norboge, an assistant researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute.
- Of course, the fact that we have spent decades randomly spending money on transportation projects with negative returns doesn't stop organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers, the National Society of Professional Engineers and now an organization I've never heard of called the Eno Center for Transportation for advocating for more money for transportation. The USA Today had this article on new ways to tax motorists for road repairs. They actually cited Minnesota as being one state where this conversation is quite advanced, seemingly suggesting that such a move was imminent. I'll bet anyone a case of Mt. Dew (my vice) that a mileage tax is not adopted in Minnesota anytime within the next decade. Make sure and scan the comments section before you take that bet.
"As the (national vehicle) fleet becomes more fuel efficient … we're going to lose a lot of revenue from the gas tax. If it's not replaced, we're going to see our transportation infrastructure deteriorate," says Joshua Schank, president of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. He expects to see a state vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) tax within the next five to10 years.
- If there is one city where potholes should not be a campaign issue it is San Diego. Hey Southern Californians....what, does your temperature variation of +-10 degrees in a year put too much strain on your system? It is not like here in Minnesota where our local streets have to endure annual expansion temperatures over 100 degrees followed by contraction temps of minus 40 below. Then each spring the snow melts but the ground is still frozen and so that water sits on that top layer of ground turning the entire road to mush. Seriously, how badly do you have to neglect your streets to get a pothole in San Diego? Of course, they do have Howard Blackson and his driving -- that may explain it.
When the city established a pothole hotline a couple of years ago it was swamped with complaints, some couched in the harshest of language.
Finally, as the city's finances began a slow recovery two years ago, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that 134 miles of the city's "most complained-about" streets would be resurfaced, at a cost of $47 million — more miles and money than in the previous eight years combined. And $30 million more is slated to be put into the repair project this summer.
But in a city with 2,774 miles of streets, the backlog is staggering.
- Of course, the world of San Diego struggling with potholes is only exceeded in bizarreness by a state like Arizona, where there have to be more parking spaces than people, issuing a report showing that compact growth patterns do not create congestion and, even more amazing, that traditional demand modeling is outmoded. There is hope. When you read these quotes, keep in mind that this is a DOT report.
“Fears about compact, mixed-use development leading to intolerable traffic congestion do not appear to be substantiated by what is seen in practice. While increasing development activity of any type will generate additional traffic, the nature and design and adequacy of the supporting infrastructure are critical variables in determining the severity of resulting traffic."
One important variable, the report says, is a street grid with short blocks that allow for short local travel distances. A local street grid can also relieve the traffic-carrying burden of arterials. This sort of infrastructure is needed in Arizona, where Phoenix and Tuscon have one-mile arterial grids.
“While this may serve the purpose of regional vehicle movement, it is the opposite of what is needed to accommodate pedestrian and vehicle traffic in mixed-use activity areas. When development is more concentrated, the network must be similarly articulated to maximize circulation and access to specific destinations, with parallel streets being no more than one-quarter mile apart.”
- The writing at Placemakers is always good, but it has been exceptional as of late. I particularly recommend this article by Geoff Dyer on the impact of multi way boulevards. I'm so happy there are people out there with this level of insight on the subtle differences the rest of us overlook.
If there are only subtle differences between the ingredients of the two roadways, there are many successfully built boulevards, and there are far, far more advantages of the multi-way boulevard over the arterial, then why are we still building miles of big dumb arterial streets while our multi-way boulevards are kept locked in the broom closet like Cinderella?
- Another group of brilliant people I deeply admire can be found at the Project for Public Spaces. Their answer to planning fatigue: start doing stuff. I can't agree more. Our ratio of talking about doing stuff to actually doing stuff is totally backwards. Thanks PPS for stating this so concisely.
America loves a good underdog story, and after seeing Motown emptied out, and staring at so many decadently macabre “ruin porn” photos of the city’s deteriorating train station and empty Deco office towers, Detroit is an underdog par excellence.
The green shoots of renewal have generated so much interest that we’ve heard that many Detroiters are beginning to develop a sort of “planning fatigue” as a rush of independent efforts launched to help turn their city around have left some wondering when the analyses, studies, and public input forums will produce some real results. “This is where PPS’s Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper approach comes in,” according to PPS’s Elena Madison. “There are a lot of great initiatives going in the city, but it is hard to connect them to a larger vision. The fact that farmers markets are often temporary and flexible means that they can spark immediate improvements and build local confidence today, while also informing strategies for long-term change at both the site and neighborhood levels.”
- Okay, all you legal minds in Alabama, interpret the practical impact of the language in this law for me (and reassure me you have a balanced budget, are solvent long into the future and actually have time for this nonsense).
"The State of Alabama and all political subdivisions may not adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to 'Agenda 21,' the bill said.
- Who is Kevin Klinkenberg? Well, I got to meet him at CNU 20 in West Palm Beach after meeting his brother here in Minnesota last year. Check out his blog, which has a link answering that question as well as posing another: Will smart phones make location irrelevant? From my own experience traveling across this country, I find where I am going to stop and eat, sleep and shop through my phone, not some billboard or roadside sign. Location, location, location has a whole new meaning when you have Foursquare recommendations.
That world that we’ve all become familiar with in planning and development appears to be on the verge of turning upside-down. In the new world of commerce, every business drives people to their stores with Facebook pages, reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon, and specials via Twitter. A plethora of smart phone apps can easily lead you to any category of business. Food trucks in many cities even change their locations daily, and tweet them to their thousands of followers.
I no longer need to walk or drive by a business to know it’s there – I simply need to access its location on my phone, and follow the GPS-enabled map to get there.
- The Fiscal Times is adding fuel to the generational fire by pointing out some more hard truths to Baby Boomers: there are not a lot of people lined up to buy your home in the suburb, especially at the prices you think they should be. Boomers, the impact your generation collectively had on the generation of World War I vets you displaced is about to repeat. I don't know how this plays out -- old generation with assets but fixed income needs young generation with debt but higher income potential to purchase home at over inflated prices -- but it will be interesting to watch.
“The largest impact of the most recent housing crisis will be felt over the next 19 or 20 years as baby boomers retire with less equity in what has historically been their largest savings and intergenerational wealth transfer asset, and younger populations are not really able to replace that demand," Rosner said. “This is the first generation in modern American history to be imbued with the notion that housing prices don't always go up, while at the same time they're saddled with $1 trillion in student debt and tougher lending restrictions. I expect, going forward, we'll see a very different relationship between younger populations and homeownership for those reasons."
- One of the cities I have worked with for a decade here in Minnesota is the city of Pequot Lakes. Late nights on my way home from a meeting I often stop for gas at the local Holiday, a standard strip commercial building with a faux-wood exterior we call the "Up North" style. I don't stop there to support the Holiday chain, but I do put off getting gas until I hit this store at this time of day because I enjoy the antics of Mr. Holiday. Seemingly others do as well. This was a really nice story that gives me a little lament over the fact that, living where I do in the auto-centric world I inhabit, there aren't more characters like this in my life that I routinely run in to.
- Finally, my Jace friend from Austin, TX, should never have shared this video with me. Congratulations to his workplace for this recognition. I won't identify Jace in this video except to say that tonight at the baseball game Chloe and I will be enjoying the traditional ball park delicacy. (Jace, we call that move the crappie flop here in Minnesota. Good thing you already have a girlfriend is all I can say.)
I hope this satisfied your news digest cravings. Take care, everyone, and have a wonderful weekend.
Okay, seriously, this post took me until 2:00 AM to write. If you want to help me get some staff so I can delegate some of the things I do daily to keep this whole operation running, please consider making a donation to Strong Towns. We're a 501(c)3 organization and, unlike your transportation dollar, we provide a great return on investment.