We have the smartest readers anywhere. On this past Monday's post (No New Roads), Daniel Herriges -- Strong Towns member and super-volunteer -- provided this great feedback:
I'm 100% on board with your goals—radical reform of the way we finance development, with the accompanying necessary changes in land-use and transportation patterns and their associated regulatory regimes. And I admire your principled stance. But is a purist position like this the most effective way to nudge the status quo from A toward B? And does the urgency of the situation we're in make a difference in your answer?
I find myself looking at the Twin Cities and thinking, well, what needs to happen to push the region toward fiscal (and environmental) sustainability and resilience? Among other things, major, major intensification of land use. But virtually the only places we've seen that intensification are where there have been large, top-down public transit investments. You may find the way the Green Line was funded deeply problematic (and I agree: orderly but dumb), but I have little doubt that 10 years from now, the neighborhoods along University Avenue will look a lot more like a strong town than they do now. And I have equally little doubt that most other Twin Cities neighborhoods, 10 years from now, won't be significantly more densely populated, walkable, or fiscally sustainable than they are now. Incremental intensification should be happening, yes, but it isn't, because there are enormous financial and regulatory barriers. So where does that leave us?
I hope you feel that this is at least a more complex objection than "Chuck, I just want a train." I want massive change. I want it quickly, not because rapid change is inherently better than gradual change, but because the system as it stands is a house of cards, and its collapse will be very painful for very many people. And I'm afraid it will take too long to line up all the necessary political pieces to make incremental change a possibility on the scale that it's required.
I do know that if Strong Towns becomes a mass movement with some clout, we can work to dismantle the barriers to incremental development. So I'm certainly all for that goal. As far as transportation funding bills in the short term, I'm much more conflicted.
I immediately wanted to highlight this comment and answer it thoroughly because it is absolutely central to what the Strong Towns movement is all about. I'm so glad Daniel wrote it.
Is a purist position of No New Roads the most effective way to nudge the status quo from A toward B?
Does the urgency of the situation we're in make a difference in your answer?
Let me state a pair of key insights to Strong Towns thinking that provide the foundation to answering those questions.
First, our current approach to growth and development -- the way we go about building our places - is financially unsustainable. I rarely use that word -- unsustainable -- but I will in this context because it is the correct place to use it. Our way of building places creates short term cash benefits that are later dwarfed by long-term liabilities (the Growth Ponzi Scheme). This can't be sustained. We've managed to buy ourselves time by transforming our economy from one based on savings and investment to one based on debt accumulation. As our liabilities pile up, there is an end to this story. It won't be pleasant.
Second, doing more of what we are doing is making everything worse. Every effort to throw a couple more dimes at this problem buys us a little bit more time today at a much higher future cost and/or much less time to address things. Even if we manage to stumble here or there into the right approach (more on that in a minute), we're starving ourselves of the future wealth needed to even make the good places work over the long term.
So our current approach is not financially sustainable and the more we do it, the more it hastens the approach of that breaking moment (whenever that may be). I don't think it is purist -- as in zealous and closed minded -- to insist that we stop building new roads until we come up with a plan to maintain what we already have. There was a day when that would have been called pragmatic, even common sense (if it was debated at all).
But virtually the only places we've seen that intensification are where there have been large, top-down public transit investments.
I tend to agree: almost all of the places that have recently gone from bad to trending-Strong-Towns have done so as the result of massive, top-down centralized government intervention. The Green Line in Minneapolis/St. Paul is a great example of this. We threw over a billion dollars at this project. Is it going to work? I'm sure in some places it will work well, in others it won't. Supporters will point to the former, detractors the latter. Here's the bigger problem in a Strong Towns construct: could we do it again?
And again and again and again?
Clearly we can't. We don't have the money. Even the wildest dreams of transportation advocates don't get us close to serving significant populations of this state with anything but automobiles (an approach that is unsustainable, as noted above). Green Line is one corridor in a state with tens of thousands of corridors. And the investments that need to happen to make that billion dollar investment viable won't happen when the 99.9% of the rest of Minnesota's developed land area goes bad.
Even if a centralized government approach could get this right, it can't work from the top down. There isn't the money or the will to build enough stuff to make it matter. When we built the interstate system, we mobilized an entire nation -- the entire military/industrial complex -- to that effort. We ripped down neighborhoods dislocating thousands of people at a time. And not just once: over and over again. We even seriously discussed blowing up entire mountains with nuclear weapons just to make a flatter, straighter highway. That's some level of commitment.
In Minnesota, we can't even run a practically free train through a neighborhood on an existing track without years of delay and acrimony. Aspirations for a train utopia are simply silly; we can't even manage to scale modestly-competent improvements. Mode share for automobiles is going to stay at 85% or higher in every practical scenario under consideration today (that is, until the system crumbles....then, who knows). #failure
And that's true even if the centralized approach wasn't dominated by the special interests that make their wealth transacting in the Ponzi scheme system. That's true even if government bureaucrats were able to, amid their competing silos and hierarchies, chart the perfect path to success. That's true even if there was some person, council or computer algorithm capable of understanding the infinite complex interactions, an impossibility.
Our Suburban Experiment systems were built in an era of extreme affluence and prosperity. We didn't have to be that good because we could just throw money at every problem and, in the end, overcome most of the really bad ones (or the ones we really cared about) with sheer force. We've lost that margin for error. It's really no longer a question of whether or not we are going to pay all these pensions, make good on all these debts, fund all these programs, maintain all this stuff. We're not going to; the wealth to do it isn't there. So the operative question really is: how do we transition to something else as humanely as possible?
Obviously, that's not the question they will be debating at the MN legislature or any other. They are still living -- as most Americans are -- with the illusion of wealth, believing that our extreme affluence and prosperity gives us a pass on financial solvency. As Strong Towns advocates, we know better.
Let's go back to Daniel's statement:
I want massive change. I want it quickly, not because rapid change is inherently better than gradual change, but because the system as it stands is a house of cards, and its collapse will be very painful for very many people.
This is what keeps me up at night, gets me up in the morning and puts me on the road sharing this message a hundred days a year. I want massive change. I want it quickly. I know the longer we delay, the more people are going to get hurt. So how do you bring about quick and massive change when you have little money, few resources and no real political clout but simply a powerful message and a lot of passion? There is only one way: you have to change people's minds.
We're not going to buy our influence. We can't use brute strength tactics because we don't have that option at our disposal. We won't change professional practices by focusing on their institutions or leaders. The only thing we can do is mobilize people.
Back to Daniel:
And I'm afraid it will take too long to line up all the necessary political pieces to make incremental change a possibility on the scale that it's required.
Here's the critical, critical, critical insight: If we are trying to do the incremental by reorienting our existing top-down systems to support it, we will lose. It will never happen. Even if they had the incentive (and they don't), they couldn't do it. It would be like Nero taking note of this small Jewish sect calling themselves "Christos" and deciding to make them the default religion for his empire. Christianity wouldn't become the default religion of the empire under Constantine until two and a half centuries later, and only then because the population became Christian first. If Constantine wanted to solidify his power, he needed to empower the Christians. Nero could feed them to the lions for entertainment.
Having any anticipation that power-brokers within highly centralized systems will seed a viable, bottom-up, incremental alternative is a little like expecting the dinosaurs to notice the approach asteroid and then, realizing their demise was inevitable, use their remaining time on earth to seed mammals. That's not a realistic aspiration.
Massive, quick change is only going to come by having a nation of people who care about their communities and are prepared, as an expression of that caring, to share the Strong Towns message with their friends and neighborhoods, then take action together to change their places. That's the Strong Towns movement. How do we take the time we have and get as many people as we can who care out there making their places incrementally better together? As the top-down systems fail -- and they are failing -- will we have a Strong Towns safety net in place so our country can have a source of real strength and stability: it's financially strong and resilient cities?
We're not trying to fix a failing system. We're trying to replace it while it fails around us.
Let me close with this: I know that No New Roads is not a politically viable approach in 2014. I think it will be someday and, in fact, I think we'll look back on our folly today and wonder why we built all this stuff when we had no mechanism for maintaining it. Even so, there will be a transportation bill and it will include new stuff, maybe even a few bike lanes and a rail line somewhere. Am I suggesting we oppose that bike lane on principle? Am I suggesting we protest the rail line through our neighborhood on principle? No on both accounts, but don't look at those investments as success. They are the random half-successes of a desperate, failing system, not the outcome of visionary public policy.
#nonewroads is a humane way to start winding down the Suburban Experiment and transitioning to a financially viable, Strong Towns approach. And if you want bike lanes and even great neighborhood transit, then we should be putting our energies into building productive places starting at the block level. They are working with projects measured in millions of dollars. We are going to be far more successful, far more quickly, working with projects measured in tens and hundreds of dollars.
Someday in the future, the Constantine of that day -- whether a person or an institution -- will accept our approach as fait accompli.
Until then, #nonewroads.