Last week I was on vacation in Florida with my family. My wife and two children and I spent a week at a place my parents had rented for the winter. We returned home last Sunday to falling snow and cold, a very abrupt (and unwelcome) transition, particularly for this late in March. By Monday we had six inches, temps below zero and winds over 40 mph. Yuck. Tuesday, I boarded a plane to head back to Florida, where I still am as of the writing of this post. I had a speech and a couple of other work things to do, but Friday I head back to the cold. I love Minnesota and embrace the winter, but enough is enough.

Enjoy the news and, hopefully, the weather as well.

  • From time to time I've come across the blog Bacon' Rebellion, which I've found a kinship with as they come across as free market, local government types. In the past couple of weeks, James A. Bacon has done a flattering review of my book, applied the STROAD concept to Virginia and has now picked up my thoughts about skin in the game with a post titled Playing with Other People's Money. This is all worth reading and I am grateful to Bacon for his interest in our work here.

I would add only that politicians, more than anyone (except Wall Street bankers) like to play with other peoples’ money. Unlike Wall Street financiers, they have no skin in the game. Politicians reap the up-front rewards from launching projects but they rarely stick around long enough to deal with the cost overruns. As Marohn rightly says, no one calculates the Return on Investment of public dollars, and the only feedback we get is financial collapse.

  • I was really humbled to get an email this week from a guy (self-described Strong Towns fan) named Andrew Price who wrote a fantastically detailed and descriptive piece on the need for human-scale streets. Price is an Australian now living here in the U.S. and is trying to do what he can to make his place better. If every city had someone this thoughtful and eloquent, we'd have a nation of strong towns.

Many people mistake walkability to mean slapping on a set of sidewalks to 4 lane roads. That will make the road safer for people that want to walk, but it doesn't encourage walking. You could even have a great public transportation system, but you're still going to drive if you have to cross over five 4-lane roads just to get to your destination in an environment that was clearly built for the automobile. If you want to encourage people to walk, then you need to build the environment for people, not automobiles.

At the end of the movie, there was the requisite “call to action.” Keeping within the spirit of the movie, it said (paraphrasing), “Let’s boycott Koch Industries and ExxonMobil. Together, we can stop these bastards.”

That sounds nice, but I wanted to ask the director: “how come every scene in the movie that showed you going somewhere involved a car?” Many of the director’s soliloquies were staged while driving in his Toyota. With all the damning evidence of the oil companies, why was no one talking about car dependency?

  • I had a chance to finally meet Tanya Snyder with SC Streetsblog earlier this month at the Bike/Walk Summit. She called me this week and informed me -- I didn't even know -- that ASCE had released another report card and then asked me some questions (which made it into a good article). I'm so unimpressed with ASCE I don't even bother to ridicule them any more or even point out the bad assumptions they continuously use.

Chuck Marohn, a planner and engineer who runs the Strong Towns Network, is one of the most vocal critics of the ASCE methodology. “[The report card] is a propaganda document by an organization whose members directly benefit from the current approach,” Marohn said after the ASCE report was released yesterday morning. “This is not a serious look at infrastructure in this country.”

  • I had a chance to talk with Andres Duany while in Miami this week and while he was musing (as he does) that the most popular professions for youth today are ones that do not require any licensing. This was not suggesting non-professional but non-licensed, as in no government bureaucracy. I thought this was an astute observation. I did not renew my NSPE membership and, when they called me to find out why, we had this nice discussion in which the nice woman I was speaking with told me that the most important thing NSPE does is protect my license. (She probably didn't realize that this secured my permanent voluntary separation from her organization.) Knowledge and expertise is not something that should be monopolized and all great professions have mechanisms to avoid becoming a calcified echo chamber. This is all a long way of introducing this paper by Bent Flyvbjerg questioning the openness to critique of the American Planning Association.

With a point of departure in the concept "uncomfortable knowledge," this article presents a case
study of how the American Planning Association (APA) deals with such knowledge. APA was
found to actively suppress publicity of malpractice concerns and bad planning in order to sustain a boosterish image of planning. In the process, APA appeared to disregard and violate APA's own Code of Ethics. APA justified its actions with a need to protect APA members' interests, seen as preventing planning and planners from being presented in public in a bad light. The current article arguesthat it is in members' interest to have malpractice critiqued and reduced, and that this best happens by exposing malpractice, not by denying or diverting attention from it as APA did in this case. Professions, organizations, and societies that stifle critique tend to degenerate and become socially and politically irrelevant "zombie institutions." The article asks whether such degeneration has set in for APA and planning. Finally, it is concluded that more debate about APA's ethics and actions is needed for improving planning practice.

  • Someone from Michigan let us know if this bill "clarifying" that local governments are responsible for the safety of vehicles on highways within their jurisdiction but not bicycles or pedestrians actually became law.

Government entities will certainly argue that the change eliminates a duty to maintain roadways for pedestrians and cyclists. Alternatively, it will be argued that, even if a duty exists to pedestrians and cyclists, the duty is only to ensure that roads are maintained in a reasonably safe manner for vehicles and that it is not necessary to maintain roads in a reasonably safe condition for pedestrians or cyclists.

  • We are in what I have started calling the Desperation Phase of the Suburban Experiment, the (predictable) part where we try to keep it all going and pretend that it all isn't just one big Ponzi scheme. Another example of this desperation comes from suburban Chicago where a decline in the rate of growth has led one city to institute a "cash for clunkers" type of program for homebuyers. And like the desperation stimulus measure, "success" is measured by people's willingness to accept free money for doing something not in their interest.

Some distant suburbs that were counting on fast growth have taken desperate steps. Yorkville, a Kendall County city 50 miles southwest of Chicago, on Tuesday extended an offer of $10,000 to anyone who buys a new single-family home there.

Lynn Dubajic, executive director of the Yorkville Economic Development Corporation, calls the program a success. “We’ve done nearly 60 permits since its inception about 14 months ago,” she said.

I understand the author's enthusiasm for great streets and boulevards. Much of what makes these great is the atmosphere (shops, restaurants, pedestrians, bustling activity). I agree. However, this book as well as many other publications out there regarding streets, traffic calming, automobile dependance, etc all seem to forget that streets are primarily for cars. The author is worried about the survival of one of the Spanish boulevards due to its emphasis on carrying traffic.

  • It is sometimes depressing to see that, even when we have a decent accounting of the costs, local governments are so desperate for new growth that they will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid confronting reality. Where else would there not be an expectation of pending insolvency with a continued policy of losing money on every transaction? Oh, Chuck, what if that growth went to the neighboring community? Well, it just means they are going to go broke quicker than you are.

The Fort Worth City Council backed off of the proposed $1,680 increase, instead favoring to add about $1,000 to the cost of a single-family home. The new $3,000 fees still falls far short of the estimated $12,000 that each house adds to the city’s street, maintenance and infrastructure costs.

“This year, we are recognizing the costs have gone up for the city to provide infrastructure,” said Fuller, recommending the city raise those to $3,680 on a single-family home and making his comments at the council meeting.

The council was unanimous in its approval of the smaller increase. Mayor Betsy Price pointed to the fragile housing recovery and a desire not to impede that progress in casting her vote.

“Too high means a lack of competiveness,” said Price, worried that a higher fee might drive developers to nearby municipalities. “I think this is a tremendous compromise.”

  • I've spent much of the past two weeks in the STROAD-dominated environs of suburban Orlando. There is hardly a more unsettling environment for me in the country, offset only by the brilliant use of roads/streets in the Disneyworld complex. Once I was traveling a mere 14 miles and my GPS, accurately, let me know it would take more than a half hour, despite the STROAD being six lane the entire way (stop lights every half mile or so). Along the various STROADs you have new development that is occupied, pockets of new that is unoccupied and then large stretches of run down and even abandoned development. Get a block off the STROAD and the variability is even greater, with some tidy subdivisions and some total train wrecks, seemingly random in their distribution. All this makes this article about two Orlando area neighbors separated by a seven mile drive all the more insightful.

Just how absurd have American development patterns become over the past few decades?

Behold: Two houses with adjoining backyards in suburban Orlando. If you want to travel the streets from point A on Anna Catherine Drive to point B on Summer Rain Drive, which are only 50 feet apart, you’ll have to go a minimum of seven miles. The trip would take almost twenty minutes in a car, according to Google Maps.

Bachmann said she wants to build on the success Minnesota had building bi-partisan support for the replacement of the Stillwater Lift Bridge. She said I-94 improvements will help add jobs and development west of the Twin Cities.

Business and political leaders in the area say there is already congestion during the daily commute which gets worse when drivers head to their cabins during the summer months.

  • This is not to suggest that state and local politicians fare any better. When state politicians of two parties (we have three in Minnesota) ask local bureaucracies what they need, the answer is more of the same. This is truly a bipartisan dysfunction (and one of these guys has been to a Curbside Chat and, seemingly, "got it").

The bill, authored by Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter and Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, in the House and Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, in the Senate, calls for $7,150,000 to be appropriated from bonds for the project. The legislation was referred to the House Jobs and Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee. Airport Manager Jeff Wig said the extension from Brainerd’s Lum Park to the airport would cost about $6 million and about another $1 million would be spent on infrastructure improvements in east Brainerd to accommodate the connection.

  • Anytime you can have a natural experiment it is a beautiful thing. Thanks to Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms for this great example.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him a day. Move the food kitchen off your block and it's not your problem anymore."  

— Proverb

"A house divided (into multiple units) cannot stand."  — Abraham Lincoln 

"A chicken in every pot, NOT in every backyard!"  — Herbert Hoover

  • Finally, two videos I wanted to share, the first one a funny take on conspiracy theories and the second a touching story I just wanted to share. (Sorry - had to remove the second one because the TV station had it set to auto-start. Yuck.)

Enjoy your weekend, everyone. See you all back here on Monday where I'm planning to continue the conversation about "spend money to make money".

 

 

If you'd like more from Chuck Marohn, you should really get a copy of his recent book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on thr Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the conversation on how to make yours a strong town.