Friday News Digest

My trip last week to Maryland was fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the people there and sharing some ideas. I already wrote a little about Frederick and podcasted my keynote from the ESLC Vibrant Towns conference, but hope to add more here about Easton and Kaid Benfield, who I got to meet in person, next week. My memories are made fonder by the terrible weather we've had upon my return here. For the first time in years, I was completely snowed in, unable to leave the house. In fact, working late in the storm, my Honda Fit could not get through the parking lot and so I had to drive my Element home. That got stuck in a windrow and I had to get pulled out. Just brutal. I'm waiting anxiously for spring and hopefully a return trip out east.

Enjoy the week's news:

  • I love the discussion going on in Traverse City, Michigan. Once again, the My Wheels are Turning blog took our work and made it better by applying it to a local situation. Great job!
  • The Transportationist, David Levinson, this week posted a brilliant use of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as applied to infrastructure. The post was part of a larger effort published through Brookings. He places "Infrastructure Preservation" (aka "maintenance") as the highest priority with "Land Development" (aka "expansion") as the lowest priority. So in this Maslow mashup, maintenance is akin to our basic survival needs like food and water and expansion is akin to those oil painting classes you take once the kids leave home. Sounds right, and it starkly points out how misdirected we've become as a people as we forego maintenance for new expansion.

Two "Nobel" Prize winning economists have suggested some rules about managing economic policy:

1) Jan Tinbergen's rule: Achieving a multiple number of independent policy targets requires an equal number of policy instruments.
2) Robert Mundell's rule: Each policy instrument should be assigned to a policy target on which it has greatest relative effect.

"Fix It First, Expand It Second, Reward It Third" achieves these goals better than the status quo policies.

  • The Duluth News Tribune here in Minnesota ran the annual article about how our roads are getting worse. It's pothole season, whatcha gonna do? This article was pretty good in the depth of issues it addressed, but still overlooked the obvious: There are lessons to be learned from the district where the former chair of the U.S. House Transportation committee brought home untold amounts of pork to build roads while the comparatively low and diffused population of the district itself was not capable of disproportionately damaging said roads, yet the roads are in drastic disrepair. To paraphrase Sinatra, if you can't make there, you can't make it anywhere.

The statewide trend for remaining service life shows deterioration since 2001. Then, Minnesota roads had about 13 to 14 years of useful life left, on average. That figure has gone down to 7 to 10 years. The Arrowhead region is worst in the state for freeways such as I-35, and second worst for state highways such as 61, averaging between 6 and 8.6 years of life left.

“About a third of the roads have to be replaced a few years from now. Look at all these roads at the end of their life,” John Siekmeier, a professional engineer and a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told me, pointing to a map of the Arrowhead, which showed poor roads in red. “Significant investments have been made in the Arrowhead region over the years, but these investments have not kept pace with the needs. Each year the problem gets bigger with no financing plan to fix the roads we have. This is going to continue to get worse unless we do something.”

  • In fact, as reported by National Public Radio, there is a movement to convert high-speed highways through urban areas into lower-speed boulevards. The idea that somehow our road section should adjust to match adjacent land use patterns is bizarre to many Americans that measure prosperity in terms of road miles. Wide, fast road miles. If austerity makes us do intelligent things again, then bring on austerity.
  • We are all hoping for some political courage and leadership at the national level, but typically when the two parties agree it means we're wasting money on something. I'm interested in the infrastructure bank concept, but until we have a national dialog over the unsustainable costs of our development pattern, we're likely to put any new revenue into propping up the same system just a little longer.
  • If we want to get geeky, there is much more to like about congestion pricing than an infrastructure bank. It is actually very American - allocate a finite resource with market pricing. Streetsblog released this video that explains the concept.

Moving Beyond the Automobile: Congestion Pricing from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

  • We posted this article from the Economist on our Facebook site this week and had a good conversation about the way we value auto space versus bike space. As the author says, "from an economic perspective" there is no comparison.

I hate to belabour the point, but driving, as it turns out, is associated with a number of negative externalities (Mr Cassidy, being an economics writer, will know the term). When Mr Cassidy drives, he imposes a small congestion cost on those around him, drivers and cyclists included. Because he and others do not consider this cost, they overuse the roads, creating traffic. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had hoped to address this problem by adopting a congestion pricing programme in Manhattan, but he was unable to generate the necessary support. As a result, there are too many cars on New York's streets. From an economic perspective.

  • With housing starts reaching record lows, there are always those who believe it is darkest before the dawn. There are also those of us that understand that it gets darkest before it turns completely black. Double digit construction growth? These people are insane, which is bolstered by the fact that they want to charge me $20 to excerpt the first three paragraphs of their story for this blog. They're gonna need the money, because housing is not coming back.
  • Except in New Richland, MN, where they are so confident in their future that they are giving away land. Call it a 21st Century Homestead Act, except instead of establishing a farm you are building on what used to be a farm. This actually makes me sad. Do people really want to live on a street that looks like this? Someone call New Richland and tell them they need a Curbside Chat.

Street shot from new Richland. You can have a lot adjoining this beautiful runway for free. The American Dream, circa 2011.

  • Steve Mouzon, the Original Green, had a blog post comparing the return-on-investment of a New Urbanist development with a modern American development of the same land area. The result is not even close. And he also makes the police/fire arguments. It's brilliant - read it.
  • A few weeks ago we did a podcast about Meredith Whitney and her prediction on municipal defaults. There was a recent piece in the NY Times disputing Whitney's claim. I found the argument weak -- "no state has defaulted on a bond since the Depression" --  but it is worth reading anyway to gain a full understanding of the issue. Whitney's analysis is solid, and unlike a policy advisor at a think tank, she actually has real money in play based on her analysis. That being said, she does not even scratch the surface on the issue of unfunded maintenance liability, another factor - in addition to pension obligations - that will push some cities and states into insolvency.
  • Finally, with baseball season just a handful of days away, and with "tourism season" not far behind, I'll share this video with all of our non-Minnesota readers if only to highlight local hero Joe Mauer singing. Seriously, despite the snow this week (it's late March, right?), Minnesota is a beautiful place. If you are looking for a destination to visit this summer, check us out. And let me know - maybe we can take in a ball game together.


We had a great set of chats last week in Maryland. If you are interested in supporting our Curbside Chat program or our efforts to create a Chat video for broad distribution, please consider a donation to Strong Towns. We are still looking for 87 people willing to make a $25 donation towards the video project. Thank you for your support.