Last Friday I was in Greensboro and had great plans to share all of this stuff I had accumulated for the FND. While the mind was willing, the flesh was weak, largely due to many late nights in a week traveling through North Carolina. Ultimately, the mind was also weak and (I'll confess), instead of blogging, I wound up sitting in the airport terminal watching a movie as a way to let my brain decompress a little after an intense couple of days. In retrospect, I would have been better off napping as my flights were delayed and my 8:30 PM arrival time in MSP became 12:30 AM the next day. Ugh. With the drive home I didn't get to bed until 3:30 AM, but at least I was able to make it to the children's theater version of The Wizard of Oz, featuring two very enthusiastic munchkins, early Saturday morning. It's all good.
Enjoy the week's news.
- On my last evening in North Carolina, Joe Minicozzi and I spoke in Greensboro, a talk that was attended by a pair of graduate students I spoke with afterwards. They were debating buying a copy of my book or purchasing the Kindle version for half price. As I generally do with students at Curbside Chats, I gave them a free copy on the condition that they promise to read it and pass it on. One of them, Sunny Stewart, shared her thoughts on the talk in a well-written piece on her own blog.
Marohn’s talk was especially meaningful to me as a historian because he talked about the millennium of experience that has informed our approaches to development and how Americans have deviated from traditional urban patterns in the recent past. We have cast this new approach to development as “modern” and “progress,” but Marohn says, and I don’t think he’s wrong, that we are now seeing the consequences of this grand experiment. His talk carried on with the theme of my past semester: the post-World War II suburb (actually, the theme was more generally “suburbs,” because it included the early-20th-century version as well, but you get my point).
- Our podcast of the NextGen Debate Night has been really popular, as was the event, generating a lot of conversation and ongoing discussion. The Official Super Hero of Strong Towns, Cap'n Transit, shared his thoughts a couple of weeks ago. We've only posted the transit debate; there is another one in the hopper I'm going to try and get released later this month.
On one level, Erfurt and Burleson are right and you don't need transit to have a successful walking city. But you do need vehicle commuting to have a successful large city, and you need transit to do that equitably. I commend the debaters for what they were able to do within the constraints they had, and I thank them and the debate organizers for raising a number of interesting questions, and for recording the debate for posterity.
- I also want to thank SVR Design Company for citing our work on their blog and Planetizen for picking up our STROADing meme. On the former: I love companies with the courage to blog about substance and not simply release fluff.
The limitless sprawl of various American urban areas into surrounding farms and resource lands has long been derided for its impacts to the environment (deforestation, species loss, polluted waterways, etc), but more recently, fiscal conservatives like Charles Marohn of Strong Towns have been giving the financial model supporting this type of growth pattern a serious, well-argued drubbing. This week, Charles began digging deeper with a series called Dumb Money. It is wonky, but fantastic.
- It is hard to believe The Oil Drum has been around for eight years. It is also hard to believe it is going away. Sad. I learned so much from them.
- There was a spate of condescending articles castigating cities for not "seizing the moment" to borrow more money and build more infrastructure, one of the central inspiration for the Dumb Money series we recently shared. While I generally stay clear of comment sections, I had to let this one have it because it was all just too much. You should read the entire thing, but here's a little taste just to demonstrate how far from financial reality our conversation has shifted. States are "in a bind" and are having a "hard time paying back their existing debt" so we should deficit spend (borrow more money) as well as print money to build more stuff (which we'll ostensibly have no trouble maintaining). The Infrastructure Cult on display.
On a practical and political level, states are in a bind. To build, you need to borrow, and most states right now have a hard time paying back their existing debt. There are ways to raise more money, but most involve raising taxes or fees, which is a tough sell even in a recovery. And most states and cities are required to balance their budgets.
This all highlights the need for federal action. Unlike state legislatures, Congress can pass bills to raise funds for infrastructure projects, secure in the knowledge that deficit financing is legal and that the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Board can be willing partners. States and cities, on the other hand, can’t print their own money.
- And in a related vein, the Washington Post had a blog piece calling for the same: deficit spending to fund infrastructure. The entire "no retreat" mentality, where every prior investment is deemed a good one that must be continued forever, combined with the Infrastructure Cult belief that modern infrastructure spending is a net positive financially as it creates growth through the vaunted (although eerily abstract and not exactly measurable) multiplier effect, creates a dangerous paradigm where our central policy makers -- with their spreadsheets and beautiful theories -- have no clue that they are doubling down on a failed business model.
Summers used the example of New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. “Kennedy Airport is going to be repaired at some point. Potholes in roads are going to be filled. The question is whether we’re going to fill them now, when we can borrow to fill them at zero in real terms, and when construction unemployment is near double digits, or whether we’re going to do that years from now, when there will no longer be any multiplier benefits to those expenditures and when the deficit problem will be a more serious problem.”
- One major source of the cognitive dissonance is a lack of understanding when it comes to the magnitude of the problem. For example, in Massachusetts, the legislature is proposing a 13% increase in the gas tax and then future indexing to inflation, a controversial proposal made possible in that it will provide money for a lot of new projects, with just 24% of this new revenue going to maintaining existing systems. At that rate of spending, the $13.2 billion backlog of infrastructure maintenance could be accomplished in 110 years. But maybe if we just borrowed some more money....
In a memo to Patrick, Richard A. Davey, secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the legislative plan makes substantial progress in closing the operating budgets of the MBTA and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, but there is an alarming lack of support for fixing roads, bridges and trains. Davey wrote that the proposal provides $600 million over five years to fund what has been universally identified as at least a $13.2 billion minimum backlog in needed repairs to existing roads, bridges and trains.
In an interview, Davey said the replacement of the Interstate 91 viaduct itself could require about $400 million of that $600 million. Davey said the elevated section is in terrible condition, but it is safe and it is being monitored by the state.
"We're going to continue to throw bad money after bad money to patch it," Davey said. "When we have to absolutely replace it, it will crowd out every other project in Western Massachusetts, if not most of the state."
- Each day that goes by I find myself less and less engaged politically, especially at the national level. While I'm vested in the outcomes, I'm just not at all vested in the day-to-day manuevering, talking points and spin. It is very liberating to no longer be a pawn of the two party dogma and it allows me mentally to ponder articles like this one, which would have reflexively rubbed me the wrong way a decade ago, but which I now largely agree with.
This is the terrible result of Republican disengagement from efforts to optimize policy. Republicans aren't interested in coming up with smarter, more efficient ways to build rail infrastructure. So Democrats fear that if they don't defend wasteful, ill-conceived rail projects, they won't get any at all.
And this dynamic isn't limited to infrastructure. It also applies, for example, to the Rube Goldberg mess that is Obamacare, which Republicans aren't interested in improving and Democrats feel they can't be seen to criticize.
Republicans ought to be providing a healthy skepticism about government projects -- attention to cost-effectiveness, awareness of opportunity cost, recognition that sometimes government actions produce unintended consequences. But a healthy skeptic sometimes conducts those evaluations and still says "yes" -- which is why people take him seriously when he says "no." Republicans have shifted from skepticism to pure obstinacy, fighting at every turn against government solutions, which is why their (sometimes perfectly valid) critiques of government action lack credibility.
- The fastest growing suburbs of yesterday are the ones with the highest poverty rates today. I suppose we can blame that one "those people" or a failure of the rich to "pay their fair share," but the real -- and less simplistic -- concern should be preventing a country where the disenfranchised are gradually relocated to the periphery of cities, a despotic environment in good times but a devastating one when things start to fall apart and there is no money (or will) to fix it. The tragic legacy of the Suburban Experiment will be its repeated, systematic cruelty to the nation's poor.
Most of the metropolitan areas where suburban poverty has grown the most in the past decade also have had the largest overall increases in population. The U.S. population grew by 9.7% between 2000 and 2010. The population of eight of these 10 metro areas grew by at least 15%, and the population of six of the 10 grew by more than 25%. The population of Las Vegas increased by 41.8%, more than any metro area in the country.
- In modern America, each new generation has its angst with the prior. While my generation -- Generation X -- has largely been forced to play the game by the rules given us by Boomers (to which many X'ers adopted the slacker approach and simply opted out), Millenials are in a position to change the rules. The latest pushback came in the form of a letter from a Millenial -- we're not going to buy your house -- that made me laugh a little. The irresistible force (Millenials) against the immovable object (Boomers) is a generational battle I'm taking great joy in.
But take heed, baby boomers and Generation Xers. If you're planning to hold onto your home for years to come, don't count on my generation — the millennials — to buy it from you.
The top reason for our lack of interest comes down to money. As the Los Angeles Times reported this month, people in my generation have mountains of student loan debt, and we're so thoroughly freaked out by the Great Recession that we'd rather live in our parents' basements than sign our names to more big loans.
According to the Los Angeles Times report, "the housing industry will have to convince the next generation that home loans are as necessary and prudent as the student debt so many of them already carry." Yeah, good luck with that.
- And finally, while we are promoting STROADing as a way to draw attention to the over-engineering of our public spaces, Irish Road Bowling would be another option.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. Happy 4th of July.
You can get more of Chuck Marohn's insights by reading his book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the 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 ongoing conversation on how to make yours a strong town.