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Stupid is as Stupid does

There are a lot of cities out there – a lot of staff members and a lot of elected officials – that would like to make changes in the direction their community is heading. There are many, in fact, who desire to move away from the financially-ruinous auto-dominated building pattern and into something that would provide for more opportunities for biking and walking. This can be scary, especially when these urges are relatively new, not well grounded in a coherent worldview, completely inconsistent with the local government’s other actions and being done in a place that is lacking a culture of walking and biking.

This Thursday we are having a member webinar event called Beyond Complete Streets. If you're not already a member of Strong Towns, now is definitely the right time to sign up. We not only have ongoing member events but we are actively organizing and engaging members to help us accomplish the important work of the Strong Towns movement. Get involved today by becoming a member.

Have no fear. Today I’m going to provide some tips – some do’s and don’ts – for public officials to help them navigate this difficult transition.

Do: Ensure that your proposed bike lanes connect places people may want to bike to.

Don’t: Simply add a bike lane to a random project where there is little demand, or even reason, to bike.

To be successful, a bike lane should actually allow a biker to get somewhere they want to go. For your first project, pick a location where you have destinations already in place. For example, a commercial node with restaurants, a barber shop and retail stores would work well. Schools and parks also make for good destinations for bikers. Your proposed bike trail is not likely to be embraced if it, for example, begins at a highway intersection and ends in a field with nothing but a church (more on that later) in between.

It is important that new bike lanes actually connect desired destinations, at least if there is an expectation that they will be used.

Do: Ensure that your first foray into real biking and walking transportation infrastructure will be a success by going where there is already a demonstrated demand.

Don’t: Simply pick the next project on the capital improvements plan and try to convince people who are not already biking and walking that they should be.

This might be a successful, and non-controversial, place to invest in some biking or walking infrastructure.Remember, if you want to build bike lanes throughout the community – and you really need to if you want to restore the city's finances to health – then you need to build demand for biking infrastructure. You can try having public meetings, use the power of persuasion (you’d better be charismatic), put together a report and apply for some federal/state grants OR you can simply look around and see where people are trying to bike and walk today, but struggling, and make their efforts a little easier.

In almost all communities, this low-hanging-fruit is everywhere. You just have to get out from behind your desk and actually go out in the community and observe. Where that mom with the stroller is trudging through knee high weeds, you could probably use a sidewalk there. Where those kids are biking on the sidewalks despite the street being void of cars, well there might be a reason they don’t feel safe in the street. Where people run across the street – even at a crosswalk and even at a stop sign – you might have a situation where some intervention would help.

The ideal scenario should be where you install your bike lanes and, within hours, people show up and start using them. Look for that situation and start there.

Do: Zealously advocate for common sense approaches within your community.

Don’t: Appear to be completely impotent in the face of state mandates that require you to do ridiculous things.

If you are going to truly advocate for biking and walking infrastructure, then do it. It is going to appear disingenuous – if not simply laughable – if you, for example, routinely meet with your legislative delegation to discuss a project that will spend millions and take away from walking and biking opportunities within the community yet you claim state rules that require two additional feet of roadway width prevent the installation of bike lanes. Are your legislators briefed and mobilized to get such a destructive and ridiculous rule changed, something they could do without spending any money?

You will not appear to be trying very hard if you claim, for example, that this street pictured below cannot legally – according to state rules -- accommodate biking lanes without expanding the roadway by two feet or removing the non-existent parking lanes, especially if that is the end of your story.

In order for this very low volume street to meet state standards for parking (??) and bike lanes, the street would need to be widened by two feet. In other words, an insurmountable obstacle.

Do: Build neighborhood coalitions and avoid making unnecessary enemies.

Don’t: Make your first project one that will only impact one very well-organized group.

When embarking on something new, something that runs counter to past and current practice and the general culture of the community, it is important to have allies. For example, local non-profits – especially the type that have a blog with hundreds of local readers and tens of thousands of national readers – can be a valuable ally in promoting a new agenda. Neighborhood activist groups, if they were supported and not simply feared or loathed, would also help out in this regard.

It might be best to avoid, for example, a church, especially if your proposal is not going to have broad support and immediate use but will remove parking used by parishioners. Christian churches tend to, by design, be somewhat organized with well-established leadership and an ingrained spirit of activism. Try to avoid picking an unnecessary fight with a church before you’ve had other successes and the demand for bike lanes throughout the community increases.

Do: Advocate for infrastructure to support biking and walking because it is a high returning investment within the community.

Don’t: Consider biking/walking infrastructure as a recreational amenity instead of transportation.

This is particularly important when your community is considered poor, has a large percentage of its budget as unreliable state aid and has lacked growth for decades. If biking and walking infrastructure is presented as some kind of recreational amenity, it will be the first thing cut the next time budgets tighten.

Successful biking and walking infrastructure is not recreation but transportation. It is also an extremely high returning investment, one that not only disproportionately grows the tax base but allows local money to stay within the community longer.

For example, the average car costs $9,122 per year to own and operate. If your city’s neighborhoods were made more walkable and bikable so that a family could relocate there and go down to having only one car, that is a huge amount of savings per year. If that amount were applied to a mortgage, the family could buy an additional $140,000 in housing. That’s a game changing amount of investment just sitting there waiting to be captured from the oil companies, car manufacturers, insurance companies and bankers that all reside outside of the community.

Do: Have a coherent dialog – or at least enunciate a coherent vision -- on why building biking and walking infrastructure is essential to the financial health and well-being of the community.

Don’t: Simply embrace the latest fad of the planning and engineering professions because that is what the APA newsletter suggests you should do.

If you do things like prioritize a recreational trail along a river or refer your community’s biking and walking policy to a committee not scheduled to report back for three years, well….you are going to lack credibility, to say the least. These things might score high on the sticker chart at your scripted visioning session, but look around and notice who isn't there giving input: most residents. You are not going to be taken seriously by the broader community and, when you do stick your neck out, people who would naturally be your allies are not going to defend you. They may even publicly call you names like “stupid”.

If you want to build biking and walking infrastructure, you first need to understand why. Why is this important to the future of the community? Why should people who will never use the bike lanes or sidewalks care that they are there? Why is this a priority worth fighting for, worth putting ahead of others things we might do when we are so cash-strapped? What exactly is at stake here?

The people who ripped apart our neighborhoods decades ago, destroying the historic fabric that was naturally walkable and bike-friendly in order to give priority to the automobile, those people could answer all of these questions. No problem.

If we’re going to stitch our neighborhoods back together and build a nation ofstrong towns, we need to be able to answer them just as clearly.


The latest from Chuck Marohn – MoneyHall – is set to be released in May. Sign up to be notified when it is available on Chuck’s site,, and while you are there, check out Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, a great primer on Strong Towns thinking.


Friday News Digest

Our Executive Director, Jim Kumon, has been up in Brainerd the past two days and last night, instead of working on the News Digest, he and Justin and I opted to take in the late showing of Captain America. Probably predictably, Cap’n is my favorite of the superheroes and I thought this latest movie was a lot of fun. I got home around 12:30 AM and sat down to get started when the week of travel began to catch up with me. Sorry this is going to be a brevity version of the FND and then, with the sun out, I’m going to wrap up this week and enjoy spring. I hope that you can do the same.

Enjoy the news.

  • I want to start this week by referring everyone to a website for Deb Hubsmith, the bike and pedestrian advocate, who was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Lukemia and is recovering from a bone marrow transplant at this moment. I think the thing that tugs at my heart the most is how this incredibly alive person – so full of energy for other people – has to spend so much time in relative isolation because of a weakened immune system. The world is missing out, but hopefully for not much long. Friends are holding a fundraiser to help Deb recover and get back to her calling. The details are here and, if you have the capacity to help, you can also make a donation.
  • Thank you to the Streetsblog Network for highlighting my essay on the bike lanes in front of my church. I heard from a lot of people about how this is a problem in their communities a well, particularly observant Jews who cannot drive on the Sabbath. The city council wound up tabling the proposal and followed the time honored tradition of referring the matter to a committee, in this case the bike committee. It isn’t clear to me, however, how the bike committee would possibly have time to look at this since they are scrambling to get a comprehensive bike and trail plan together by the end of 2016.

An Eighth Street resident, who said she was a parishioner and an avid bicyclist, said the practical side for the bike lane would be Willow Street’s south side. She gained laughter from the crowd by saying she hoped she didn’t offend [Father Tony] Wroblewski or if she did, she’d have to go to Father Daniel Wieske for confession.

  • And thank you to Kevin Klinkenberg again for including Strong Towns not once but twice this week. Put his website on your blog rotation – good stuff.

Infrastructure of virtually all kinds is costly and the budgets are increasingly too strapped to even maintain what we have. Chuck Marohn has an excellent deep-dive into the problem (as it pertains to Minnesota) here, including some specific recommendations on what to do. It's thought-provoking and worth the read. Here's hoping more cities (and states) start to find ways to maximize resources first by managing demand, rather than resorting to only supply-side solutions.

  • There is a rumor (partially confirmed) of a National Geographic series featuring the work of Jason Roberts, Andrew Howard and The Better Block. That might make me get television again. In the meantime, it was great to see these guys and their important work highlighted in Forbes.

While Duany is engaged in trying to work with cities to create lighter weight regulatory regimes for redevelopment, Jason and his compatriots just do it. They flout regulations and then invite city officials in to see the difference it makes. The whole talk is great, but if it’s too long, watch from about seven minutes in, for an account of how Jason and crew reconstructed a block with popup shops, plants, and outdoor seating, to show what it could become. Particularly striking is the schedule of fees the city of Dallas charges for improvements that, if anything, the city should be paying to people who are willing to improve the neighborhood.

  • The site Greater Places asked a provocative question this week: what if streets had nutrition labels? Most brilliance comes simply from asking the right question, but they also give a stab at the answer and it is really good.

  • Two cities I have done Curbside Chat in now have taken steps to advance the concept of Economic Gardening. I’m not claiming Strong Towns was the catalyst – cities that call us tend to be places already thinking on their own in multiple dimensions – but it is great to see it happen. Pueblo County, Colorado is a natural being so close to Littleton, the birthplace of Economic Gardening. The other place is Rochester, NY (the other Rochester for you Minnesotans) where I saw lots of great things happening last year. If you’d like to know more about Economic Gardening, listen to my podcast with EG guru Chris Gibbons.

  • By the slimmest of margins, the Brainerd city council approved a local food truck to be present at the grand opening of a new ballpark in town. A city’s approach to food trucks is a rough but fairly good indicator of the prospects of that community. Where staff and officials see them as a powerful force in revitalizing areas on the mend, they can be leveraged for great success as the first increment of private investment needed to get a place moving. Where staff and officials see them as predators instead of upstarts, forcing them to battle for every event and relegating them to a parking lot where they bring little beyond food to the table, I would call that city, well....stupid.

The city’s park board recommended granting approval with the stipulation of Prairie Bay donating 10 percent of its sales to the Miracle Field fund. Prairie Bay agreed. But when it reached the council chambers, members were divided on whether to allow the food truck a one-time exception to attend the grand opening. Scheeler said he was concerned about the precedent should there be a future event.

  • There is a lot of talk in this country about the gap between the rich and the poor, but as we experience each day, it isn’t the stuff of revolutions. The overthrowing of conventional order is rarely, if ever, led by those on the lowest financial rungs. They are too busy hanging on and, quite frankly, too easily appeased by those in power (when you have very little, it doesn’t take much to make your life better). Revolutions are most generally led by the second tier of leaders, those who are doing well but see both the excesses of the elites just above them and the dysfunction that it creates below. It is these people that can both do better for themselves while simultaneously making lives better for many others, a magic place for the human conscience. It is articles like this one from CNBC – along with the stuff I read in the book Flash Boys – that give me hope that our revolution is fast approaching.

From an economic perspective, the most dramatic wealth gap is between middling millionaires, who have seen only modest gains, and the booming billionaires, who now seem to defy economic gravity. It's between the guy making $300,000, who still feels poor, and the man who made $37 million a day for a year. Both are lumped together by politicians, the media and even economists as "the rich" or "the 1 percent," who are gaining at the expense of everyone else.

  • Michael Lewis and his book Flash Boys continues to grab headlines. My mentor, George Orning, is a big fan of Charlie Rose and so I’ve learned over the years to appreciate his interviewing style. This one brought out some new stuff from Michael Lewis and I thought was worth watching.

  • One of the most exciting people I’ve run into locally is Max Musicant. Not only does he have a great name, he has a great approach towards making our cities work. I wanted to share this article because it made me really happy to see someone so dynamic get out of the big city and employ his talents in a small town setting. In a week when I was forced to read the copy/paste comprehensive plan “prepared” by a hack consultant with a large engineering firm who is clueless about what it means to be a small town, Max’s work is even more of a breathe of fresh air.

Although zoning, maintenance and hard data about traffic and pedestrian activity are important elements of placemaking, the real magic lies in how a particular space engages people at the human level, Musicant said.

“Just stop and watch and listen closely,” he said. “Talk to people who are using the space.”

Thanks everyone. Enjoy your weekend and remember to be back here on Monday for more Strong Towns.


Podcast Show 170: Julie Flynn

This week Julie Flynn of the Street Plans Collaborative joins Chuck Marohn to talk about her latest publication, Mercado: Lessons from 20 Markets Across South America.

Show 170: Julie Flynn