Yesterday I had an opportunity to speak with a group of planners from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana in Columbus, Ohio. We had a great discussion and I met some good people. My flight home was scheduled for noon. At about 9:45 AM I received an email from Delta notifying me that my noon flight had been delayed until 1:30. That was fine and, since I had a desk and good wifi at the hotel, I decided to stay there and work a while longer. 

As I was packing up to leave, I got a second email from Delta. This one notified my that my flight had been changed to 11:20 AM. That gave me a half hour to get to the airport. By the time I got there, my flight had left and I had to reschedule. It was okay; I was going to lose three hours but now had a direct flight and could catch a later shuttle once I reached Minneapolis.

The flight left and landed on time, but when I got to the baggage claim, no bag. As I rushed around trying to track my luggage in the ten minutes before my 5:00 shuttle left, I discovered that it had somehow been routed through Detroit and would not be showing up until 6:30. Long story longer, I had to switch shuttles and did not make it home until 10:30 PM. So not only did I lose two and a half hours but, more importantly, I did not get to tuck the girls in tonight. And when I woke up this morning, that was the one thing I was looking forward to the most.

The great thing about being a dad is that, when you blow it one day, you can wake up the next day and do it better. That's today. I'm glad it's Friday.

Enjoy the week's news:

  • The only way this week's New Digest could begin is with an enormous thank you to Kaid Benfield. From the early days of this blog, he has been enormously kind and generous to me, not to mention very supportive of what we are trying to do. I've come to value his insights and, when I've had the occasion, his advice. This week's review and recommendation of my book was as unexpected as it was humbling. I'm blessed with the good fortune of friends like this. Thank you, Kaid.

Chuck is now a star among people who think about towns and cities, in great demand as a consultant and speaker, which he clearly enjoys. In my opinion, his emergence as someone worth paying attention to is not just because he is such an earnest, nice guy (although that's part of it), but also because his plain, easy-to-understand logic about public spending and return on investment is so consistent, and insistent. Somewhere along the line he and the Congress for the New Urbanism discovered each other, and that has been to the benefit of both.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, I hate to give any more spotlight to the dysfunctional conversation I stumbled into in Kansas City, but it keeps getting crazier. Just yesterday some dude at the site Tony's Kansas City commented on my writings about KC. The photo (not appropriate for some work environments) will tip you off to how seriously to take it all, but I had to laugh when he actually seemed to agree with me more than some of the supposed downtown advocates. Bizarre place.

Finally, the d-bag urban planner concludes his Kansas City polemic with a horrible idea about turning off all the stop signs in Downtown and making the intersections "shared space" so that some unlucky urban core pedestrian can inevitably have their head taken off as they get hit by a car at around 40mph. 

Of course this stuff interests other amateur urban planners who pretend that they aren't failed or low rent architects.

  • Oh, and at the suggestion of one of my Facebook friends, I'm pondering a line of t-shirts with the slogan taken from one Kansas City commenter. Anyone want to preorder?

  • Life is getting rough in the suburbs. The Detroit Free Press reported this week how some suburbs that bet on growth and lost are now struggling to make their bond payments. (Side note: I believe an incredibly intelligent, not to mention beautiful, reporter did this same story a couple years ago.) I'm actually struck by the optimism delusion of these public officials. These projects have been a disaster today because they didn't work. What goes unstated is that, had they worked, it would only have delayed the financial disaster for a couple of decades, at most.

"It's been a juggling act for two or three years," [Oakland County Supervisor Lannie] Young said. "I think one more year, and we're out of a mess that looked pretty bleak a couple of years ago."

  • Angie Schmidt of StreetsBlog covered this same story but provided some additional analysis (and opened with a kind reference to Strong Towns). One thing I would caution is falling for the "we're better off because we made the developers pay" line of smugness some public officials like to dish out. That buys you one life cycle, but to paraphrase Keynes, sooner or later we're all insolvent. Either way, the level of gambling with public money is stunning, as are the ramifications today.

Places like Howell, Sylvan and Tyrone townships are having to dip into their general funds, lay off employees, reduce services, or ask voters for tax hikes. All because they borrowed money to build new infrastructure for housing that never materialized. Howell Township is now going back to voters — who already rejected the proposal 4-to-1 — to pay about $350 a year, each, in property taxes to repay the water and sewer loans.

  • As we travel across Pennsylvania in early 2013, I'll be sure to pass along the observations reported this week in the Next American City that taxes are rising more quickly in the suburbs of Philadelphia than in the core city. Tax rates are complex and I would not read too deeply into single year data, but it is interesting to note some of the reasons cited for the shift. These are changes we've predicted as inevitable.

Sprawling development, which has stretched across the Delaware Valley over the last 60 years, has left a constellation of tiny, centuries-old boroughs and townships in the area struggling to keep up with ballooning infrastructure costs. This, along with the combination of the recession and, sometimes, an increase of traditionally “urban” problems, like rising crime and poverty, have forced many local governments to cope with these challenges by raising property taxes — and introducing wage taxes of their own.

  • There is a process here in Minnesota whereby Mn/DOT "turns back" highways and other segments under their jurisdiction to local units of government, typically counties. This generally happens during construction projects where the DOT creates a new alignment and then gives up the old, but I've seen Mn/DOT do swaps of segments with counties as well as just turn stuff back that really shouldn't be part of their system. With transportation budgets everywhere in a state of structural insolvency, I expect discussions like this one to happen more and more.

What MnDOT seems to be saying to the county, more or less, is this: Here’s what we’re offering you, Steele County. Take it or leave it. And, by the way, Steele County, if you don’t accept it by the deadline we’ve set, then you’ll still have the road, but you won’t have access to millions of dollars in the County State Aid Turnback account.

  • A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to drive through Troy, NY, home of my friend Duncan Crary. I was on my way to the Amtrak station and did not have time to stop for a gam, and Duncan was on the canal anyway doing his great tugboat adventure, but what I saw captured my imagination. We have nothing like that here in the Midwest -- what a fantastic-looking old town. I can't wait to go back for a longer stay. Duncan, passionate as ever about Troy, had a little Facebook rant this week about a project to gussy up an alley and turn it from a place for the necessary functions of garbage handling and deliveries to chic dining. I agree with him that this is not really a high priority or the correct use for an alley, which is a necessary space for all those things we need to keep out of the public realm out front. Do you agree?

The plans call for repaving the alleyway; removing the Dumpsters, of which 21 were counted in the alley; placing metal ornamental gates at each end of the alley; and demolishing a garage to create space for the outdoor cafe off the alley.

The alley is about 5,200 to 5,400 square feet, while the proposed cafe area is about 3,500 to 3,600 square feet.

  • I've met Reuben Collins through collaboration at the site Streets.MN where we both contribute content on a routine basis. He is a traffic engineer and a transportation planner and has a perspective that I have really enjoyed. This latest article on the way we compare alternatives is a good example.

A common argument used to oppose spending money on bicycle and pedestrian projects is that we shouldn’t spend money on new bicycle infrastructure when we have crumbling infrastructure elsewhere that should take precedence.  How do we justify spending scarce transportation dollars on a new bike trail somewhere when we are surrounded by existing infrastructure we can’t afford to properly maintain? The bike trail, critics will say, is an unnecessary extravagance we can’t afford.

Promoting bicycling should save us money. Collectively, we should see savings if more people rode bikes more often. Bikes are cheap (compared to cars). They’re cheaper to build, cheaper to transport, cheaper to maintain, cheaper to provide infrastructure for, cheaper to regulate, cheaper to operate, cheaper to clean up after, cyclists are probably healthier reducing medical costs, etc.

  • I had a copy of this story about community solar power sent to me multiple times this week (check out the byline and you'll know why). Not only is the story incredibly well written and sourced (**smile**), but it focuses in on a fringe passion that is getting more mainstream: local power production. We have a long history of local power production in the United States but have gone away from it because, like everything else in our society, we exchanged the immediate cost savings from the brute efficiency brought about by centralization for the resiliency and innovation of a local approach that was more redundant and chaotic. Nice to see the tide turning.

Community solar projects, popping up across the USA, are being touted as a model that makes solar power both affordable and accessible to everyone. The projects allow everyone to get involved in producing solar power, "not just the ones with a really good south-facing roof," said Eric Jensen, chairman of the Minnesota Renewable Energy Society.

  • Finally, if you want to go to a place where everybody knows your name, check out Club Mouzon. Now that's one lovable place.

Have a great weekend, everyone. See you back here Monday.


If you would like more from Chuck Marohn, check out his new book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1)

 You can also chat with Chuck and many others about implementing a Strong Towns approach in your community by joining the Strong Towns Network. The Strong Towns Network is a social platform for those working to make their community a strong town.