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Friday
May232014

Friday News Digest

This week I was scheduled to spend a lot of time working on some longer term writing projects. While I did manage to get three hours in on MoneyHall on Wednesday, I’ve seemed to be continuously caught up in dotting and crossing (as well as putting out a lot of content here). There’s always next week, but as May starts to slip away along with the clouds and rain, I’m suspecting I may just need to lock myself away for a few days. Or at least escape to the front porch. It looks to be a beautiful here in Central Minnesota. I hope that it is where you are as well.

Enjoy the week’s news.

  • This week I wrote about the new executive directors of APA and CNU. About sixty seconds after it posted, Jason Segedy of Notes from the Underground had a long and well-written analysis of his own that picked up where I left off giving a solid critique of the planning profession. And you thought I was a prolific writer – that was astounding. Worth a read, especially if you are a planner.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

  • I was also interviewed this week by James Kennedy out of Providence, Rhode Island, about the city’s proposal to build a parking ramp to kick start development on a 20-acre piece of property. Lots of quotable stuff here. I’m glad he got the essence of the need to take incremental action.

“In the beginning, if anything, you want parking problems. If people can’t find a parking spot, that’s a sign of success,” [Marohn] said. “Are people going to get in their cars and visit a parking ramp? No. Build a place that people want to go, and the need for a garage may eventually come about naturally.”

  • There is one more week to go until CNU. If you are going, you will likely run into Kevin Klinkenberg who blogs at kevinklinkenberg.com. This week he tied some of my writing in with the legendary Donald Shoup. Quite a compliment.

Donald Shoup has written about the lack of true science behind much traffic engineering data as well. A great piece he wrote about a decade ago is here called Roughly Right or Precisely Wrong. It's only a few pages, but devastating as a critique of the methods engineers use to establish "trip generation" and thus, demand for parking.

  • I’ve decided to share this article on how pork projects impacted the popularity of the Nazi regime not because (a) I believe one or the other of our two political parties are Nazis, (b) I want this blog to descend into mindless Hitler references or (c) I’m trying to juice the comments section. I am sharing this because I think it says something important about us as humans, how we are wired and how we tend to react to things. In short, we will often tolerate a lot of really horrible things when our own needs are being met. Don’t read that as an excuse but as a challenge – we need to be aware of our own inclinations and work diligently to overcome them.

In modern democratic elections, ‘political budget cycles’ may be driven by politicians’ need to signal their competence. Similarly, the Autobahn served as a convincing proof of Nazi Germany’s ability to get things done – a project to showcase the ruthless energy and organizational capabilities of the new regime, as Hitler promised in his speech inaugurating the project. Sold as a key factor for economic revival, the rapid fall in unemployment after 1933 convinced many that road-building had ‘worked’.

After the perceived incompetence and gridlock of Weimar politics, many Germans were undoubtedly impressed by the rapid progress in road-building. The propaganda machine took particular care to connect the roads in the public imagination with Adolf Hitler himself – the motorways were called ‘roads of the Führer’, piggybacking off the leader’s popularity and enhancing his image still further. While these effects would have affected voting in the country as a whole, it is plausible that the regime’s accomplishments in building the Autobahn were more salient for voters in districts where the new roads were taking shape (Gennaioli and Shleifer 2010).

  • I’ve been mulling a blog post about sprawl being good for you (yes, you read that right), but Robert Bruegmann writing in Politico beat me to it this week. His subtitle – Why urban yuppies have it all wrong – I could actually mostly agree with as well. Get two paragraphs into the story, however, and he loses me with the shallow analysis. We measure success in terms of congestion? Yes, if we are going to order cities in terms of how quickly a place grew in the first fifty years of the suburban experiment, then props to Atlanta. Hopefully Bruegmann will lead the cheers during Atlanta’s next water crisis, deficit crisis or snowfall. Growth is easy, right Keynes. Productive growth – growth that makes us wealthier and stronger -- is a completely different undertaking.

You would assume, from the rhetoric of smart-growth advocates, that traffic congestion increases as urban areas spread out. In fact, in general, and around the world, the exact reverse is true. As logic would suggest, traffic congestion tends to rise with increased density as long as a substantial percentage of the population drives and there is no public transit system capable of offsetting the increased density of people and trips. However, most trips in virtually all affluent urban areas worldwide are by private vehicle and public transportation, outside the very center of a few American cities, is a negligible factor in the overall transportation picture. The result, according to a wide range of data from organizations like the Texas Transportation Institute and INRIX, is that the greatest congestion and longest commuting times in this country, as elsewhere in the affluent world, tend to occur in the largest and densest urban areas like Paris or New York and the least congestion and shortest commuting times in lower-density areas like Phoenix or Kansas City.

  • Of course, earlier this month in Politico we had another look at Atlanta, this one by Rebecca Burns analyzing some of the side effects of fifty years of suburban growth. We talk a lot about finance here at Strong Towns, but if you want to delve into the social impact of our bad financial decisions, this article is really well written. A few weeks ago I wrote about the social challenges of the great inversion – the natural restoration of the historic development pattern – and said it is the defining social challenge of this generation. Read the Burns article in Politico to get an even deeper sense of what I’m talking about.

“People went to suburbia for the American dream, and it became a nightmare,” says Rev. Dwight “Ike” Reighard, MUST’s president and CEO. “People have such little margin in their lives, it’s staggering.”

  • I’ve been inundated lately with stories of stupid (I use that word intentionally) fire departments and their stranglehold over the design – and even the use – of our public spaces. This article about the same in San Francisco is representative. When are we going to stop asking fire departments what we can do and instead telling them what we are doing and then leave it to them to do their job? Today we beg fire departments -- people who fight fires, not design cities – for their approval. That is a little like the president allowing the Secret Service to decide where he goes, what he does, who he engages with and when. If that were the case, the president would never leave the secured White House bunker. Tail wagging the dog doesn’t begin to describe this bizarre situation. If you are a fire chief, go visit the Detroit Fire Department, a perfect example of what happens when a city designs all their public spaces for response time.

Fire departments around the country have an understandable desire to maximize ease of access for large fire trucks, and promoting fire safety is in everyone’s interest. But prioritizing fire truck access in a way that makes streets less safe for pedestrians and other users – and which undermines neighborhood fabric with high-volume, fast-moving traffic – isn’t the right solution.

  • I know some of you in Texas are feeling a little picked on by me lately. There are a lot of things to really love and admire about Texas, but you have the most messed up approach to transportation in the country. You make California look Tea Party when it comes to ridiculous transportation spending. Here’s a news report of a project (for some reason it doesn’t start for ten seconds or so in). Watch the background imagery of the area they are spending tens of millions to build a pedestrian underpass. Texas, are you insane?

  • The president of the Philadelphia brank of the Federal Reserve says that there is a “ticking time bomb” that has built up due to the Fed’s easing policies. Oh…but we expected this, Chuck. What were we supposed to do, let the economy fail? Just look what we have done: propped up a failing and destructive national business model, artificially prolonging something that is desperately trying to change.

“One thing I worry about is that if we are late, in this environment, with all these excess reserves, the consequences might be … more dramatic than in previous times,” Plosser said. That’s central-bank speak for an economic fiasco.

The timing and strategy by which the Fed handles the drawdown in reserves could end up a major source of contention among central bank hawks and doves.  “Our challenge is subtly different,” Plosser said. “We have to restrain the pace at which banks lend those reserves out.”

Go too fast and economic growth could get stunted. Go too slow and inflationary pressures would build rapidly. In the past, Plosser asserted, the Fed has almost always reacted too late. “If you study the Fed over the years, over its history, it’s always behind the curve.”

  • The really tragic thing here is that, with all our heroic efforts, all the fragility and “time bombs” we’ve added to the economy under the guise of “saving” it, we’ve had only modest impact on housing prices. We still have nearly one out of five mortgages underwater, families that are stuck in debt slavery for the indefinite future. All of this productive capacity in our economy is being wasted for the sake of big banks, big government and big corporations. It is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

Nearly 10 million U.S. households remain stuck in homes worth less than their mortgage and a similar number have so little equity they can't meet the expenses of selling a home, trends that help explain recent sluggishness in the housing recovery.

At the end of the first quarter, some 18.8% of U.S. homeowners with a mortgage—9.7 million households—were "underwater" on their mortgage, according to a report scheduled for release Tuesday by real-estate information site Zillow Inc. While that is an improvement from 19.4% at the end of last year and a peak of 31.4% 2012, those figures understate the problem.

In addition to the homeowners who are underwater, roughly 10 million households have 20% or less equity in their homes, which makes it difficult for them to sell their homes without dipping into their savings. Most move-up homeowners typically use their home equity to cover broker fees, closing costs and a down payment for their next home. Without those funds, many homeowners can't sell.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Reid Dulburger, president of the Economic Development Growth Engine of Memphis and Shelby County, announced the expansion of the business-building program during a Tuesday, May 13, reception at Memphis Botanic Garden.

The EDGE board approved $50,000 to expand the program to include 25 additional companies and Dulburger said he would ask the board for another $50,000 for the next fiscal year, saying the program adds another important level of support for existing small to midsize companies.

“This was the board saying if this program works we need to expand the funds to do it,” Dulburger said.

  • And finally, you can probably guess that I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I fit the profile, don’t I? I’m a 40-year old male, the perfect age to have been there at the start. I’m an engineer (little geeky). Need I say more? I’m more than a little psyched about the next movie, due out at the end of 2015. They started filming and just released this video, which is a great tease and also really brilliant way to do some good for the world.

Enjoy your long weekend and, if you get an opportunity, make sure and thank a veteran for their service. There are a lot of young people today who have silently served this country in difficult places who suffer greatly as a result. You may not be aware of their difficulties, but they are real. Do them a favor and just give them a thank you. Let them know you care and that you are there for them as they have been here for us. It might just make all the difference.

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