Friday News Digest


Last weekend we had a really important Strong Towns retreat. Not only did we finalize the agenda for the National Gathering – which is going to redefine all your expectations of what a conference should be – but we made some important progress on how Strong Towns, the organization, is evolving and adapting to grow this critical movement. I left excited and energized; we have some real visionaries working with this organization, as members and volunteers, and being with them is invigorating. Now we all switch to baby watch as our former board president – Faith Cable Kumon – and her husband, our Executive Director Jim Kumon, are expecting any day. August is going to be a great month.

Enjoy this week’s news.

  • I got in Monday morning and was given notice that Time magazine might be publishing an excerpt from Leigh Gallagher’s fantastic book, The End of the Suburbs, and that it would probably be from Chapter 2 (which was heavy with Strong Towns). Yeah, that happened and more. Wow! I’ve been blown away by all the kindness you have shown me this week, not only sharing the article everywhere but taking the time to congratulate me as if I had something to do with it. You are all too kind. We’ve all come a long ways the past few years and this is a nice time to pause and note that. Thank you for being part of the story.

Engineer Charles Marohn worked his whole life trying to make his community better—until the day he realized he was ruining it.

  • Later in the week, the Strong Towns message appeared in a refreshing corner of the interwebs: the American Conservative. They featured our chart on the gas tax and quoted us extensively in reporting on how Congress is patching the current hole in the highway trust fund. We’re making inroads everywhere – left and right – and this is simply further confirmation of that. Keep sharing with people outside your own echo chambers – it is making a difference.

We’ve been so wealthy and affluent that funding the most bizarre transportation arrangement on earth became akin to the American way of life. Congestion-free roadways and ample parking are to the United States what bread and circuses were to Rome. Get out your fiddle, that smoke is real.

  • Minnesota blogger and occasional podcaster (and friend of Strong Towns) Bill Lindeke wrote a piece for MinnPost questioning our State Aid design standards, the mandated over-engineering that comes with local expenditure of state gas tax dollars. I’m quoted as saying these standards are “the most destructive thing” we force upon cities. They are. In addition to contributing some quotes, I was able to shoot some photos for the piece, including the bare version of my favorite Strong Towns poster. I love seeing this message breaking through.

  • The Tennessee Brewery in Memphis is one of the great stories of tactical intervention. We documented it here with a fantastic video from Gracen Johnson. Now that story is turning into a fairy tale because, not only is the historic building not being demolished, but there is a purchase agreement in place to buy it, ostensibly for some better use now that the viability has been demonstrated. Memphis, you never cease to inspire.

Rasberry CRE principal James Rasberry told The Daily News his client has agreed to a deal with a buyer he would not disclose, with the terms including a 90-day due diligence period. Rasberry also declined to disclose the purchase price, except to say that the owners had listed the brewery at $1.2 million and that "the offer was very attractive to us.”

  • We need more and more people telling their own Strong Town stories, engaging with their neighbors in their own terms on how to build a stronger place. The next three stories are examples of that from our members. The first comes from Mike Christensen who wrote about how sprawl impacts religion.

It’s true that the LDS Church can and does transfer the abundance of donations from affluent wards to those wards that are in need; however, I feel that the redistribution of wealth functions much better when we can be personally involved in it.  The more we become personally involved, the less we need formal systems for redistributing wealth.  When we build communities that naturally encourage diversity and promote a natural redistribution of wealth, society has far fewer issues that need to be formally solved later on.

  • The second comes from Alex Pline, a cyclist and a bike advocate, who wrote a powerful column in his local paper on the city’s approach to a new drive through. This is the kind of personal connection and attention to detail that we can all learn from. Super job, Alex.

As the car dealerships wane in the area and other large parcels of land such as the old Whiskey location become available for redevelopment, the city must carefully consider the kind of development it should encourage. Case studies show reducing auto-centric development of roads and buildings benefits residents, municipalities and businesses. For example, an analysis by the nonprofit Strong Towns in Minnesota showed the fiscal productivity (tax revenue to the city) of the traditional main street development pattern versus a strip mall type drive-through restaurant was 30 percent higher (http://bit.ly/1tJGYeP).

Additionally, it shows this traditional pattern is significantly more resilient to economic changes because there are multiple tenants rather than relying on the success of a single business for the same amount of land. New York City published the results of changes to streets that included upgraded pedestrian and bicycle facilities and reduced auto speeds (http://on.nyc.gov/1pRKn8P). These changes resulted in significantly lower injuries to all street users, increases in retail sales and decreases in speeding, outcomes that benefit everyone.

  • The third is from a friend here in Minnesota, Matthias Leyrer, who is shouting into a strong wind in his hometown of Mankato but doing an increasingly good job at it. Using some specific examples from the city, he shows why details matter and makes the case for a more thoughtful approach to development. If we find a Matthias Leyrer or two in every community in America – someone willing to step up and engage with this level of detail and sincerity – this will be a country full of strong cities, towns and neighborhoods in short order.

Humans are lazy. If you make it hard for your resident to get to a sidewalk, they’re probably not going to take it, if you make it easy for them to get to a car, they probably are going to take that. We know that walking is critically important to a city and its residents, so we should think about walking first and driving second. Then we should make sure that the walk is somewhat nice, it’s the least you can do.

  • I have to say, before I go any further, that the world has long needed a website at HowardBlackson.com. Howard is not only a brilliant architect and urbanist, he’s one of the most sincere and kind people I know. Keep going, Howard.
  • It really is stunning to me that we casually spend hundreds of millions of dollars on saving people mere seconds in their commute yet, when it comes to billion dollar transit improvements, we have no problems with unnecessary delay. I realize the transit community here in Minnesota largely thinks our Green Line is a success and that the Southwest Corridor is a great addition to our growing transit system. Except for the fact that we’re spending billions, I find it all difficult to take seriously.

There would be 75,000 person minutes of delay per day. There are 1440 minutes in a day, so about 1250 hours per day, or 52 person lives are lost to excess time on the train.

At a Value of Time of $15 (just as a point of information MnDOT now uses $16 for auto-value of travel time savings per person hour, but maybe transit users have a lower VOT because they don’t mind being delayed so much because they can do other things on the train) per hour, this is $18,750 per day or $6.8 Million per year.

Over 30 years, this is $205M without discounting. With discounting at 2% this is about $152M.

  • When we make it easier to drive, people drive more. That this simply observation surprises people – and completely baffles the engineering profession – is hard to believe, yet any well-written article on induced demand that I share elicits the same level of disbelief. Yes, my friends, we need to stop thinking of congestion as the problem and start seeing it as the solution. Or at the very least, a sign of success.

The concept is called induced demand, which is economist-speak for when increasing the supply of something (like roads) makes people want that thing even more. Though some traffic engineers made note of this phenomenon at least as early as the 1960s, it is only in recent years that social scientists have collected enough data to show how this happens pretty much every time we build new roads. These findings imply that the ways we traditionally go about trying to mitigate jams are essentially fruitless, and that we’d all be spending a lot less time in traffic if we could just be a little more rational.

  • Being feature in left-leaning Time magazine and right-leaning American Conservative in the same week is probably a feat few other bloggers, or movements, could accomplish. Yet, when we get down to the local level and start talking dollars and cents, a lot of those crazy ideological distinctions just melt away. We all want to live in a nice place. We all want that place to remain solvent, avoid bankruptcy and keep its promises. We mostly all desire to turn over a wealthier and more prosperous community to those that come after us. With that in mind, articles like this really give me some hope that we’re all just about to turn our back on the dysfunction of Washington D.C. and simply build a better world ourselves.

In transportation, as in so many areas of American politics, the terms of debate are controlled by an elite that has lost touch with the rest of the country.

Voters on both the Tea Party right and the urban left have lost the desire to pay higher taxes for new roads. Yet powerful highway bureaucracies and their political allies insist that added revenues must go toward ever more cloverleafs and interstates. They keep searching for money to build what voters don’t want to pay for, a quest doomed to end in futility.

The roots of the congressional deadlock are best seen far from Washington.

  • That doesn’t mean that everything at the local level is going to be unicorns and skittles rainbows. Replacing corruption that is distant with corruption that is close is not always an appreciated nuance, especially when both are equally clueless as to how they are going to meet all the obligations they have assumed. I’ve written before about how local governments abuse the assessment process to illegally get money from residents in a way difficult to fight. In a related vein, Boulder County learned the hard way that this type of abuse of power is best done in small increments (and the poorer the people, the easier).

[Judge] Lowenbach said in his ruling that the authorization and formation of the road paving district the commissioners formed last year — and the county's imposition of millions of dollars of assessments on the owners of about 10,900 properties in nearly 120 subdivisions — "are invalidated."

The judge further ordered Boulder County to "promptly return the assessments and/or installments collected, with interest, and remove any and all liens" imposed as part of the funding mechanism intended to help pay the costs of rehabilitating and reconstructing about 150 miles of paved roads in the county's unincorporated residential subdivisions over the coming 15 years.

  • What do you get when you mix the deep pockets of big government and the deep promises of big business with the gullibility and naiveté of local government? One of the most ridiculous case studies of economic development failure you are going to see: Elk Run in Pine Island, Minnesota. After tens of millions spent on nothing, are there any lessons to be learned here, any knowledge gained on the downside of gambling with public dollars? Apparently not yet.

[Mayor] Steele said there are no bumps in the road other than the fact that the development hasn't taken off as originally planned.

"Now that they've got the infrastructure, the bridge in place, it makes it a little easier to market the property," Steele said. "I would imagine something will take off there in the not-too-distant future."

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City officials are still optimistic that development will take off, especially with the new interchange in place.

"Can you imagine any interchange like that along highway 52 that doesn't pick up businesses? It's prime property," said Pine Island City Councilman Jerry Vettel.

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers had a post on their blog about developing the next generation of engineers. I was skeptical when I started to read, but in the end would love to see this vision for the profession develop. ASCE can start by leading the way instead of being mindless shills for the status quo coming out of D.C.

The new breed of engineer must be able to embrace problems of uncertainty and, most importantly, help others understand uncertainty and make good decisions in the face of it. Balancing risk and reward among project team members is an important strategy for providing value through innovation. We need to accept ambiguity as a new permanent condition.

  • Some people were disappointed when I shared this link on the end of North Dakota’s oil boom on Facebook. They largely thought the math projecting an end to the “boom” was a little too obvious. I agree, but the people funding this boom don’t see it that way. The story here is that they (the money people) are going to be shocked when the process matures and the growth rate slows precipitously. That is going to impact the capital flows in a negative way that is going to create a large shakeout in the industry. We might be getting oil out of North Dakota for some time, but I would still recommend they not build anything that can’t be easily torn down or moved.

The issue isn’t whether North Dakota will run out of oil. There’s little doubt that the Bakken Shale, North Dakota’s main oil-producing reservoir, containsbillions of barrels of crude. The question is about getting it out. A well’s production rate — how much oil it pumps in a given amount of time — falls quickly, and wells drilled into shale rock like the Bakken decline especially fast, as much as 70 percent in the first year. That means oil production is a treadmill: Companies have to keep drilling just to keep production flat. The more they produce, the more they have to drill to keep up.

  • Our friends in Martin County, Florida, have a job opening for an engineer in their community redevelopment department. This is one of the more progressive and proactive CRA’s I’ve ever seen. It has great leadership and a really competent team. If you’re an engineer looking for a new, challenging gig, I’d give this one a look.
  • Finally, I’m still working on getting through the publishing process for my upcoming book, Moneyhall. You can get advance notice of the release and updates on my website. In the meantime, it seems that the guy who inspired the original Moneyball – Billy Beane – is worth FAR more than he is being paid. I’m convinced that we will, and should, judge our staff members in much the same way in the years ahead. I don’t want you working for my community unless you build value. We have the data to understand that, now all we need to do is start using it.

Over the past 15 years, the A’s have exceeded expectations by close to $1.38 billion — even better than our smell-check estimate of $1.18 billion. This suggests that they’ve performed slightly better in years when they were at a bigger payroll disadvantage (at 2013 market value, those A’s wins would cost closer to $1.78 billion).18

Yes, that’s “billion” with a B. (Or two.)

As the calendar turns today we find ourselves heading into the home stretch of summer now. Enjoy your weekend with some extra enthusiasm. We’ll see you back here Monday.