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Friday
Jun272014

Friday News Digest

I usually stay up late on Thursday nights (as I do pretty much every night) writing the Friday News Digest. This is no exception. It is midnight as I write this and we’re sitting at 42 new members, just eight shy of our goal. So close – we can do this.

If you love the Friday News Digest – and who doesn’t, really – then you really need to head over and become a member of Strong Towns. Help us continue to put this together every week along with all the other posts, podcasts, videos, webinars, chats and other content we deliver, all free and all available for you to use to make yours a strong town. It’s the home stretch – we need you. Don’t let us down.

Go sign up and you’ll enjoy this week’s news even more.

Chuck & the Strong Towns team have provided a critically important new voice to the discussion of how we build successful places. Their message is complex and not always welcome. But, it's critical to the future economic health of our cities, towns and nation, which is why they need your support. You'll also have the benefit of learning a lot in the process.

  • You know….you wake up, go about your business and everything seems to be looking up when all of a sudden….DOH! There’s no way anyone could have seen that coming (actually, yes…). From 0.1% expansion now down to a 2.9% contraction….it is almost as if predicting the future behavior of complex systems is a difficult, dare I say, fruitless undertaking. Feel free to use the comments section below to offer your favorite excuse since “bad weather” is clearly no longer adequate.

The Commerce Department said on Wednesday gross domestic product fell at a 2.9 percent annual rate, the economy's worst performance in five years, instead of the 1.0 percent pace it had reported last month.

While the economy's woes have been largely blamed on an unusually cold winter, the magnitude of the revisions suggest other factors at play beyond the weather. Growth has now been revised down by a total of 3.0 percentage points since the government's first estimate was published in April, which had the economy expanding at a 0.1 percent rate.

  • I had no clue that Strong Towns member, fellow Minnesotan, kickball player and my able assistant in the NextGen Late Show, Matthias Leyrer, had a blog, but I do now after he took on some of the ridiculous math of our “broke” DOT. A full $20 million to upgrade a country road that carries just 1,100 cars per day. The real story here however, is that this is simply a buyout for the state – a form of early retirement for a little used highway – so the money spent is simply a bribe to get the county to take over the long term liability for maintenance. There’s always a greater fool, until there isn’t.

MNDOT and the county both have the traffic counts for that road. They say it’s a “main route” ergo it’s “important.” In other news, we’re building a staircase from Cape Canaveral, FL to the Moon because it’s a “main route” and “important.” A lot of things are main connections, but the question is how important are these routes and do they have a quality return for their investment.

  • This is the early leader for Silliest Statement of the Year (mayor category). In a blog posting on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s site, Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said his city doesn’t “have enough” infrastructure. I was in Tampa last year and, while there are certainly many redeeming things about the city, like 99% of American cities, there is no lack of infrastructure. There is, unfortunately, a lack of understanding of how to make productive use of the miles of highway, sidewalk and pipe that the city already has in place and is committed to maintain FOREVER. Tampa would be well-suited focusing on getting more out of their existing investments and spending less time pandering to Washington D.C. politicians in an effort to chase cheap and easy growth.

Compared to cities across the country, Tampa is lucky. While we have significant needs, we haven’t had to close any bridges, and our interstate is generally an efficient way to move around our city. Our infrastructure is stable and reliable. The problem is that we don’t have enough of it.

  • In competition with Mayor Buckhorn of Tampa is Mayor Dewey Bartlett of Tulsa. I’ve been in Tulsa too and am simply baffled by this toll bridge project. There is clearly not enough traffic to justify it, there is no indication that there will be, the regional planning group – not a body known for its restraint in projecting huge demand – is saying the project is not justified, yet the mayor is ready to bet on his intuition that, if they build it, they will come. I’m a huge supporter of local control, but the only limit I would put on local leaders is in their ability to use debt to pursue madcap schemes.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority finished a $1 million feasibility study in 2012 that found traffic would be too sparse to support the authority’s finishing the final 12-mile gap, including the bridge, in the highway loop around Tulsa.

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While some have called the Gilcrease Expressway an expensive route to Tulsa’s under-populated areas, Bartlett said finishing the roadway would have a significant impact on parts of Tulsa that need growth.

“I think it’s something we can do and would have a huge economic impact on parts of Tulsa that haven’t gotten to participate in our economic expansion,” Bartlett said. “They need an economic shot in the arm.”

  • The most fascinating post of the week comes from our good friends at Streesblog (Angie Schmitt, specifically) who compiled a series of photos showing one part of Detroit over time. In retrospect it is so obviously disastrous yet I keep having to remind myself (and you should too) that this is what people at the time thought would create a great future for themselves and their heirs. They weren’t stupid, just wrong. The lesson there: we’re not stupid either, but we need more humility when it comes to our desires to remake the world as we see it.
  • Minnesota just invested a billion dollars into something called the Green Line, a light rail line that runs between the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. There has been a lot of buzz with its opening and I’ve not wanted to rain on the parade, but we did talk about it a little last week when I was on MPR. Jim Kumon and I have discussed going out there later this summer and shooting some video, but in the meantime, I found this analysis by Sam Newberg (aka: Joe Urban) a tasteful, and well written, way to approach the critical details of this project.

Much has been already made of the time it takes to get from one end of the line to the other. 48 minutes! Why should we fixate on 48 minutes and the tiny minority who make the entire trip from end to end? We shouldn’t, but this causes needless waiting and confusion at every station. As an example, two of the three eastbound trains I saw approaching Westgate Station had to wait more than 30 seconds for a green light before actually reaching the station. Not only does 30 seconds at every red light really start to add up, inside the train the announcement of Westgate Station occurs before the intersection. What I witnessed was when the train stops for the red light, one passenger heard the announcement and thought she was at the station, so she began to frantically push the “open door” buttons on both sides of the train, only to be patiently told by another passenger that they weren’t even at the station yet. These red lights cause delay and confusion. If I wanted to wait at a red light, I’d ride the bus.

  • Also in Minnesota, the “broke” state DOT is spending $200,000 on advertising and public relations around the issue of pedestrian safety. They are targeting motorists and pedestrians (as if both somehow have equivalent responsibility here). In reality, they would be much better off spending the money educating their own staff with this simple message: In cities, people first. Outside of cities, cars. Speed kills so make your design conform to where you are.

Billboards that read, “Hey Drivers, Stop for Pedestrians at Every Corner,” “Distracted Walking is Dangerous Walking” and “Walkers Look Twice Before You Cross” have been appearing on Snelling and University avenues in St. Paul, both major arteries that have high numbers of walkers. Transit stations have been plastered with posters in three languages and light-rail cars on the new Green Line have been wrapped with safety messages.

“We saw the launch of the Green Line [June 14] as an opportunity to grab pedestrians’ attention,” said Sue Mulvihill, MnDOT’s Deputy Commissioner. “We hope this campaign helps raise awareness and makes people pay extra attention at intersections.”

  • Anytime I talk about Detroit I get a list of people – all deeply passionate – that have their own complex analysis of what has happened there. Set that aside for a second if you would and ponder a city that is shutting off water to thousands of people. You know there are a lot of deadbeats here taking advantage of the bureaucratic dysfunction – and what an astounding level of dysfunction – but there has to be a lot of people that simply can’t pay their water bill. What a terrible mess. I’ll say it again: Detroit is not the anomaly, it is the canary in the coal mine. When you aren’t solvent, bad things happen. For all of you “it will never happen to us” people out there, understand that a century ago Detroit was not just one of the greatest cities in the United States, it was one of the top cities in the world. There is nothing in Silicon Valley that won’t fall apart more quickly than Detroit with just a little bit of the wrong kind of stress. For local governments, solvency is a prerequisite for success, not growth.

"What we see is a violation of the human right to water," said Meera Karunananthan, an international campaigner with the Blue Planet Project. "The U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water, and this is a blatant violation of that right. We’re hoping the U.N. will put pressure on the federal government and the state of Michigan to do something about it."

  • Steven Shultis at Rational Urbanism – a really great blog from another member of Strong Towns – shared a really brilliant piece this week detailing how he transformed his place to provide more “eyes on the street”. So counter-intuitive to what the realtors might tell you, which makes it all the more charming and genius when it is complete. Great job, Steve.

Quite a few people thought it was crazy to “lose the privacy” the bushes created, but right from the beginning I knew that living happily in this neighborhood was going to require engaging with it, not hiding from it. Some people even questioned removing the dying trees from the alleyway, as they believed that making it more beautiful would attract, instead of discourage, ne’er do wells. I keep my outdoor tools in the little backyard we have, there is also a garden and some nice (nicer) outdoor furniture and I am always pleasantly surprised in the morning when I go out back and find that it is all still there and undisturbed!

Our house looks like the people who live inside it just might care about what goes on not just in, but around it. I don’t think it makes us or our home impervious to mischief, but I do believe it is a more successful strategy than giving the impression that we live in fear.

  • The city of Miami police department – when not out running stings on Lyft ride sharing cars – is struggling with how to handle an even greater menace: cyclists that want to get out and use the streets once a month. The leaderless movement, called Critical Mass, involves thousands of bikers of all ages going out together once a month to exercise their right to use the streets. While I get the confrontational nature of some of the actions, I can’t help believing we would be well served having this going on in every city across the country.

Critical Mass rides take place on the last Friday of every month in hundreds of cities around the world. Some cyclists have criticized the aggressive character of the rides in other cities as counterproductive, leading to greater motorist resentment of bikes. Official efforts to stop or crack down on riders, meanwhile, have been largely unsuccessful given the large numbers of participants. In some cities, police bike patrols accompany Critical Mass rides to curb improper behavior and ensure safety.

Mainstream cycling organizations have been supportive of Miami’s version, which they say has played an important role in promoting cycling in the city. The fact that it’s gotten so big, they say, demonstrates pent-up demand for safe opportunities to cycle in streets that many people otherwise regard as hostile to people on bikes.

  • Speaking of non-traditional business models, I’ve been very interested in Aero and whether their loophole – quite genius, actually….maybe too much so – would met judicial scrutiny. Nope. For those of you upset with Citizen’s United (a reasonable emotion) take note of how who voted in the interest of established corporations and who voted for subversive business models. Politicians and national media outlets do us few favors when they reduce the complexity of what happens in the Supreme Court to sound bites. Go listen to the arguments and read the rulings for yourself – you will be a far more informed person.

Dissenting in the case were Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. In their opinion, written by Scalia, the justices said TV networks and affiliates who sued Aereo on the grounds that the company performs their works publicly were wrong "because Aereo does not 'perform' at all."

'Unlike video-on-demand services, Aereo does not provide a prearranged assortment of movies and television shows," Scalia wrote. "Rather, it assigns each subscriber an antenna that — like a library card — can be used to obtain whatever broadcasts are freely available."

Congress might look at ways to update the copyright law to take new technological innovations into account, Scalia wrote, "but it is not our job to apply laws that have not yet been written."

  • And in a case that will likely never go to any court, let alone the Supreme Court, the city of Leawood is cracking down on a little boy and an illegal accessory structure he erected to share books with his neighbors. While Leawood allegedly has no problem with children reading, they apparently wish the youngster had read the city code (its only 792 pages after all) before he began sharing literature through the offensive bird-house-like structure. It shocks me that his parents didn’t realize such an accessory structure would upset the health, safety and welfare of the community, but what do you expect from parents these days. At least the city has the courage to enforce their standard, sensibilities be damned. By the way, I think the outhouse back on the farm I grew up on was constructed out of leawood. At least it smelled that way.

"We empathize with them, but we still have to follow the rules," said Richard Coleman of the City of Leawood. "We need to treat everybody the same. So we can't say if somebody files a complaint but we like the little libraries -- we think they're cute -- so we ignore it. We can't do that."

  • I know I already mentioned Tulsa and its mayor, but in a redemption of sorts, Tulsa gets some major kudos for the “dive bar town hall”, a new and refreshing take on public engagement. One of the guys behind the concept – Blake Ewing – is a city councilor and an advocate for the downtown. If I can get anywhere near Tulsa in the next year, I want to be there for one of these. Great job.

“I think people feel they don’t have access to the people who control how Tulsa is run, and the great thing about a ‘dive bar’ is that you can have people sitting together, as human beings, talking together, perhaps in a different kind of conversation,” said Blake Ewing, a co-founder of the concept.

  • And finally, and not a moment too soon, the Cincinnati Preservation Collective released a video this week drawing our attention to a critical problem going on in successful cities all across this country: a loss of parking. At least someone is looking out for the future of Cincinnati.

 

A special thank you to everyone who became a member of Strong Towns this week. I knew you would pull through for us. It means so much. I’m exhausted after this long week but promise you to be hard at again Monday morning. Until then, enjoy your weekend and be safe out there.

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