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Name that speed

Driving across the Irish countryside, I was impressed and -- as an engineer trained in the United States -- actually quite stunned by how they handled the transition from country road to town street. Driving along the highway at a high speed, I would be channeled into a traffic calming section -- a roundabout with a small radius or a dramatic lane narrowing was most common -- and find myself suddenly in town driving at a very low speed.

On street parking, streets lined with buildings and people crossing randomly reinforced the "slowness" of the section, which was narrower than the highway and thus often forced me to drive 15 mph or less. At the other edge of town, the calming would be reversed (would that be agitating?) and, after a roundabout I'd be back traveling at high speed.

There is a lot of genius to this simple approach. First, it generally allowed roads to function as roads (moving cars at speed) and streets to function as streets (creating value with placemaking). It did this in a transition that was intuitive, even for someone who felt he was driving on the wrong side of the road. As a driver, it was quick and painless; my delay was really nominal. Finally, it was cheap. There were rarely any expensive traffic signals and the transition itself was inexpensive to construct.

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be in Grand Marais, MN, one of the most beautiful little towns in my home state. If you want to travel someplace remote yet connected, rustic yet sophisticated, Grand Marais is your destination. The perfect blend of nature and humanity.

Except for what the DOT has done to the highway through town. Highway 61 in Grand Marais is a perfect example of the way the engineering profession approaches highways through small towns. You can almost hear one engineer say "what town?" while the other ponders with disgust the nuisance of dealing with the locals.

When surveyors are sent out to get information for the highway, they are rarely asked to capture any information for properties beyond the public right of way. The only time this is done is when there is some type of obstacle that must be dealt with, like a structure that is too close to the back of the ditch or something. And most revealing, when the technician sets down the cross section, it typically does not vary from the far outskirts of town all the way through.

In short, besides accommodating accesses, the design is nearly blind to the adjacent land use.

Not only is this approach very expensive, it is unsafe. Besides arbitrary speed limit signs, there are no cues in the road to slow down. Such an approach detracts from the ability of the town to achieve any type of return on their public infrastructure investments, instead inducing a development pattern lined up along the highway, each business vying with the next to convince that car to stop. It creates a premium on billboards and parking, a race to the bottom that is nearly impossible for local officials to stop.

To prove the point, today I'm going to present photos of Highway 61 all taken within the city limits of Grand Marais. I have cropped each image to reveal only the highway, removing all of the adjacent land use. Your challenge is to go through and identify the speed limit for each section. You have three to choose from: 55, 40 and 30 mph.

If you want to venture a guess, post your response in the comments section. I'll give the answers and provide the full photo later in the week.

Photo 1

Photo 2

Photo 3

Photo 4

Photo 5

Photo 6

Photo 7

Photo 8


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Check Back Tuesday

I apologize to Monday readers that check in here early in the morning for a little bit of Strong Towns thinking. Last week I was fortunate enough to spend time on Minnesota's North Shore, which I can't recommend enough as a vacation destination. We made it all the way up to Grand Portage. Beautiful country.

I usually start working on an idea for Monday sometime around Thursday or Friday, work it over in my mind for a few days and then write it up Sunday night. Well, Thursday through Sunday I was mostly immersed in the natural -- not the human -- environment and, without the distraction, I allowed my mind to get into a couple of good books and just plain enjoyed myself. 

I'm back in the real world today and that tormenting internal radar system I have that sees the world through a Strong Towns prism is back to operating. I'm not happy about that -- it is like near-constantly having fingernails on the chalkboard (for those of you that remember chalkboards). Anyway, I'll have you something tomorrow.

In the meantime, just an FYI, I'm going to be on the air this Wednesday at 8:00 AM CST with my friend Scott Hall at KAXE talking about infrastructure, budgets and all things Strong Towns. The show will be an entire hour, which streams live or can be downloaded through their archive at www.KAXE.org.


Friday News Digest

This week a very special girl turned seven. You might have felt the earth's rotation stop as the universe began to orbit around her briefly. Sorry to those on the East Coast for that little earthquake thing. What this all means is that I'm currently at an undisclosed location (without Internet access) and so this News Digest only has two early week items. Hope your week has been as enjoyable as mine.

  • CNN reported this week that the "shadow inventory" of homes (sounds menacing, doesn't it) is improving. This is the tremendous number of homes that are sitting in some state of foreclosure waiting to be dumped onto the housing market, an estimate of somewhere between 4 million and 5 million homes (a swing of 20% in the estimate -- clearly using soft numbers). "Improving" is a relative term as we are talking about going from 4 years and 4 months of extra inventory to 3 years and 11 months of extra inventory. In other words, we went from a really, really, really long time for the housing market to correct to just a really, really long time....assuming there is not another recession.

A recent report from Standard & Poor's found that the time it would take for banks to purge all of this so-called "shadow inventory" from the market (through foreclosure sales, mortgage modifications and other measures) shrunk to 47 months during the second quarter, a significant drop from the 52 months it estimated for the first quarter of this year.

  • The Associated Press reported this week that new home construction continues to fall, with the number of new homes constructed falling to an annual rate of 298,000. For many communities like mine that had previously morphed the basis of their local economy into home construction, these numbers are devastating. For local governments waiting for construction to kick back in and for "new growth" to magically appear, the wait continues.

The troubled housing industry is hurting the broader economy. After previous modern-day recessions, housing contributed up to 20 percent to U.S. economic growth. That has fallen to 4 percent following the Great Recession.

  • Let's put these numbers together in what is admitted an apples to oranges comparison (there are so many regional factors, for example). Nationally we have 4 to 5 million homes in the current "shadow inventory" and at the same time are building homes at a rate of 300,000 per year. That means that every new home constructed is competing with between 13 and 17 homes being dumped onto the market through the foreclosure process.

Is there any question anymore that we are entering a new era, one where the old assumptions of growth and development no longer apply? We widen a road and are supposed to magically get growth. We build an industrial park or a frontage road and expect things to happen. We zone land in the anticipation that some private developer is going to come in and turn it into a development. These were fantasies brought to life by a one-time set of conditions that can not be repeated.

The sooner we come to grips with this, the sooner we can get on to doing something more productive.