Rational Response #1: What it means to STOP

Last week Chuck wrote Rational Response #1: Stop, in which he says:

Any city that wants to be financially strong and healthy needs to stop making investments that cost more over the long term to service and maintain than they generate in wealth. They need to stop accepting grant funding or "donated" infrastructure that they ultimately will not be able to sustain. They need to stop pursuing that quick fix solution, whether it is a new business we can pay to move to town or a big project that will put us on the map.

When we talk to people about the need to stop, sometimes they aren't clear on exactly what we mean. After all, it's always easier to agree about broad principles than implementation details. So, I thought it would be a good idea to dig into this a little deeper.

Here are some brief, real-world examples of things most cities need to stop doing:

#1. No new roads.

I borrow this from my friend Ian Rasmussen, who likes to bring it up all the time. Excessive construction of unproductive roadways has been the chief sin of the suburban experiment. The first step for a town that wants to deal with the crisis head-on is to not allow the construction of any new roads, or the widening of any existing roads, in their jurisdiction.

#2. No new subdivisions.

The conventional housing subdivision is the second most ubiquitous offense of the suburban experiment. The more people live in pods designed to be car-dependent, the harder it is to restore a productive, fine-grained land use pattern in your town. Instead of new subdivisions, communities should focus on filling in the abundant vacant and underutilized land served by existing public infrastructure.

#3. No increase in curb cuts.

The third biggest problem with the Suburban Experiment is the proliferation of Stroads -- roads meant for long distance travel but degraded by frequent intersections, driveways, stop lights etc. Over time these stroads will need to be converted to either streets (where safety and accessibility are the top concern), or roads (where safety and travel time are the top priorities). On a street, frequent driveways disrupt the public realm and reduce accessibility and safety for non-motorists. On a road, frequent driveways degrade travel time and introduce dangerous traffic conflicts. Either way, the conversion to a more appropriate type starts by keeping the number of driveways to a minimum. For stroads that should be streets, techniques like shared driveways and rear access should be used. For stroads that should be roads, development should not line the road, nor access it directly, but instead access a street network that has a limited number of connection points to the road.

#4. No new parking

Places built in the suburban experiment model tend to utilize between 50 and 80% of their land area for car accommodation. Seeing as those facilities cost a lot to maintain and create vastly less economic value (compared to any kind of building, for instance), cutting back on the percent of land dedicated to the car should be a top priority for any town. Most of the car-only land is used for parking, and in most cases the supply is vastly greater than the demand. The simplest solution? Get rid of all parking requirements immediately, and let property owners figure out their own parking supply. Encourage infill redevelopment where excess parking supply is currently available (which is probably just about everywhere).

#5. No new ordinances

A common reaction when cities decide they want to bring about some kind of change is to add new zoning categories and stick them on empty land around town. But the zoning and entitlement process is already a big, overcomplicated mess in most cities, and adding complex new rules doesn't help fix the existing problems. Communities should take a long, hard look at their zoning ordinances, and look for ways to fix problems by subtraction rather than addition.

#6. No new public debt

There is such a thing as prudent debt, but American cities and towns have not had much experience with it for the last three generations. Until towns can stabilize their long-term financial picture and demonstrate that there is enough existing tax base to cover current and future obligations, towns should not enter into any new debt. Even when the financial situation stabilizes, a Strong Town should remain very cautious about entering into public debt in the future, and only consider debt obligations that can be serviced within the community's existing surplus cash flow, even if the debt-funded investment fails to perform.

These examples don't necessary cover everything that every town will need to do, but they cover the most common - and most controversial - steps. If a town wants to face the end of the suburban experiment and unwinding of the growth ponzi scheme head-on, these are good places to start. Once a community has stopped doing the things that are hurting it, then that community can start to look forward and start working on healing the damage already done and building a better future.