John Oliver is a comedian in the court jester genre: speaking truth to power.
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The Infrastructure Cult
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.
We may have a transportation funding problem, but that’s not what is going to take us down. Our real problem is that we have not had to think about what we are doing for a long, long time. We’ve been so wealthy and affluent that funding the most bizarre transportation arrangement on earth became akin to the American way of life. Congestion-free roadways and ample parking are to the United States what bread and circuses were to Rome. Get out your fiddle, that smoke is real.
We received our 501(c)3 certificate from the IRS at the end of 2010 and very early the next year posted a shy "donate" link on the blog. The very first donation we ever received came from someone named Nate Hood. I looked at the Pay Pal notification in awe and wonderment. Who was this Nate Hood and what had prompted him to donate to us?
So, like anyone sensible starting a new venture in a field -- non-profit management -- they knew little about, I got a hold of him to get some answers. One of the best contacts I've ever made. Not only did I meet someone who has become a very good friend, but I discovered a person who is a gifted communicator with deep insights and good humor. Nate's work has appeared on this blog regularly ever since. He is a trusted advisor and an important member of our team.
All of Nate's work is very compelling, but today's piece struck me as particularly strong. It captures Nate's enthusiasm and willingness to put himself out there, come what may. As I wrote in the first comment on the original piece, I can picture him out there rearranging the bricks. So will you.
If we don't maintain, it'll fall apart (by Nate Hood)
If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart.
My neighborhood is lobbying the City for $1 million in streetscape redesign money to match $4 million promised by our business district. At some level, this is a reasonable public-private partnership; businesses provide 80 percent of the funding and the city covers the rest. Yet, there is another side to this otherwise agreeable story.
The neighborhood has been arguing that our streetscape is falling apart and it needs to be fixed. They've been making this plea for a couple years. Maintenance is expensive, or so it goes, and it'd be just better if we tore it all out and built something new.
Here's what it looks like today:
Bricks are missing. Retaining walls are sloping. The area is starting to age (well, it's almost 30 years old!).
Something has bothered me about the not-so-old bricked streetscape and the business district's complaint: there's nothing wrong that can't be fixed with a little duct tape and TLC. All of the neighborhood's minor chips and dents could be solved with about $5,000 of brick, mortar and the labor cost of an underemployed bricklayer.
But, if fixing what we have takes such little effort, why aren't we doing it? And why are we spending $5 million to boot!?! And, why should we trust someone with a new, more expensive streetscape if they aren't even responsible enough to minimally maintain the basics of what they currently have?
Let me give you a few examples:
Ten bricks have fallen off, but no one has even bothered to pick the weeds?
A tree has been removed, yet instead of re-planting a tree (total cost: $250 - $400), we let the soil collect weeds?
A patch of weeds? How about some grass, a bench and a bike rack?
Here's the level of disregard: I noticed the condition (left) had been poor for a couple weeks. I decided to get on my knees and get to work. Two minutes later I had rearranged the bricks (right). It's not a perfect, but it looks 10 times better (and it took literally two minutes). In weeks, not a soul who worked for the business or the city government thought to do something.
These are not streetscapes in front of marginal businesses. This is Highland Park in St. Paul. The photos were taken outside of a high-end yoga studio, boutique medical clinic, Barnes & Noble, upscale gift shop, popular book store and a busy sub shop. So, what gives?
The best analogy is that you buy a new house in 1985. For 28 years, you do nothing. Now, it's 2013 and the roof leaks water, the kitchen is out-dated and the basement is moldy. It's in a state of disrepair and you tear it down!
This, of course, is ridiculous. You wouldn't do that! The second the roof started to leak, you'd fix it. When the stove stopped working, you'd replace it. When the basement got musty, you'd clean it and buy a dehumidifier. Now, why aren't we doing this with local community infrastructure?
This is exactly what is happening with my local business district, and likely, yours too. The problem is that people involved assume it's someone else's responsibility. It's a byproduct of the top-down approach. The business district can contend it's the city's fault while the city claims the business district has it backwards. The real is answer that it's not clear. Nobody appears to know what's going on, so by default, no one does anything.
This model takes the constant "eyes on the street" to handle small issues away from locals, or at least, confuses them about what to do. The $5 million project is a big windfall that takes little effort on behalf of the businesses besides a financial contribution. They provide the money and the city rebuilds the sidewalks. Yet, constantly tending to bricks, picking weeds and planting flowers; well, that takes effort (but little money). It's the type of effort that can only be handled by the locals, those who experience and interact with the space on a daily basis.
We've bypassed the maintenance and defaulted to the "built it brand-spanking-new then leave it alone for 20 years and then say it's falling apart and we need a new one" policy. This is how we treat public infrastructure in the United States, be it a water main, public park, sports stadium or pedestrian mall.
There is one place that has a not-so-crumbling bricked planter. It's outside a wine and cheese shop and eye clinic. They've given the street some duct tape and it looks like this:
Not bad. It's the same bricked planter as everywhere else in the neighborhood. It's missing a few bricks, but pieced together and has some flowers. Flowers aren't cheap, but their small investment makes the streetscape better by many times over. If nothing else, while walking past, one gets the impression that the business, and the people who run it, care about the neighborhood.
St. Paul giving $1 million to Highland Park to improve the streetscape is akin to watching your teenager beat up the old Buick and then deciding to buy him a new car because the old car is in such bad shape (that, and there are about 1 million better ways to spend $1 million locally).
The heart of the matter is that this isn't the way we should treat shared infrastructure. We need to constantly be on the lookout at the most local level and constantly care for its health. If we don't maintain what we have, it will fall apart. And it'll cost us a lot more money to fix it back up.
We started this year with an examination of an intersection that had been eating at me for quite a while. In the summer of 2012, the Minnesota DOT did an obnoxious and very expensive widening of a dangerous stroad intersection in my hometown. The improvement was clearly a safety enhancement, yet this dangerous intersection was only 970 feet north of a full signalized intersection, clearly a much safer place to make a turn (and only 14 seconds away at 45 mph). Why would a cash-strapped agency spend so much money on a redundant access, especially when the investment would only marginally improve safety? Closing the intersection would not only be cheaper but vastly safer. Vastly.
The answer is easy: economic development. The accesses serve businesses and, along a stroad, that theoretically means growth, jobs and all the good stuff cities pursue.
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This post is the second day of the examination. In it, I take the theoretical approach to task and demonstrate, with the actual math, how our pursuit of economic development through transportation improvements -- not to mention our acceptance of a certain level of injury and death on this stroad -- is made even more pathetic by the low financial returns of the so-called "economic development". In this auto-oriented approach, we sacrifice so much yet we get comparatively so little.
Months after I wrote this, Minnesota's new DOT Commissioner would tour the state in an effort to drum up support for more transportation spending. He has been joined on the road of late by the chair of the Met Council. There is a growing coalition of road and transit advocates that are ready to get in bed together if they can birth a transportation bill with a lot more spending.
Where is the talk of reform? Any reform? Where is anyone talking about a transportation system where we evaluate things in a different way? One where we actually put safety first in practice, not just in talk, and not just by throwing money at it? Where is the push to create a system where projects like this one don't happen?
Nowhere. I don't see any serious, substantive conversation about changing our current approach. We're just desperate for more money to do more of the same...and then some more.
Over the weekend, a Strong Towns member from here in Minnesota, our friend Alex Cecchini, tweeted this:
We need more money for transportation, but I won't be supporting any revenue initiative until we have substantive policy changes. DOT's need to be working to build strong towns, not undermine them with an illusion of wealth and platitudes about safety.
Here's the first of our Best of Blog for 2013.
The nature of productivity
If we are going to make transportation investments as a way to create jobs and economic development, we should be doing so in places with a high return. Spending scarce resources to make STROADs modestly safer is not helping, especially if it induces more people to drive. What our cities need right now is to invest in productive patterns of development.
Yesterday we examined a dangerous intersection along a STROAD, one where the frequency and severity of accidents prompted a severely cash-strapped DOT to spend good money making modest safety improvements. This, despite the fact that the dangerous intersection is less than 1,000 feet from an expensive, fully signalized intersection maintained by the DOT, with the full complement of expensive frontage roads feeding back into it.
While closing the dangerous intersection would improve traffic flow, improve safety and cost less than the extensive reconstruction recently done, it remains open. For all involved, the seconds saved in accessing the adjacent big box retail establishments outweigh in value any other considerations. This must be one valuable location.
Or perhaps not.
The most valuable property in this section of STROAD is the Mills Fleet Farm site. The four parcels includes the Fleet Farm big box store, a Mills Motors auto dealership, a Mills gas station and related parking and storage. Of the four corners accessed off of the dangerous intersection, this is by far the most valuable (and the one with the highest traffic demand). The others are a collection of half-vacant strip malls, underutilized former big boxes, pole buildings with fake facades and other structures of much less value.
The Fleet Farm site is 22.8 acres. It has a total value of $14.4 million. The productivity of this site, in terms of value per acre, is $630,000.
Most cities would bend over backwards in order to have that kind of tax base. This is the kind of growth we get -- and celebrate -- when we make a nine figure investment in a major highway improvement. The Mills corporation pays a ton of taxes to the City of Baxter, Crow Wing County and the State of Minnesota. It is not difficult to imagine a world where the state, with all good intentions, would drop half a million dollars improving a pesky intersection that has proven frustratingly dangerous.
In order to provide an apples to apples analysis, I went to the adjoining city of Brainerd to make a comparison of the Mills site -- the most productive site on this STROAD -- to the productivity found in the traditional development pattern. The nine blocks of downtown Brainerd shown below create a site of slightly less size -- 17.4 acres -- but far greater value. The total value of these nine blocks is $18.9 million, a per acre productivity of $1.08 million, a 72% premium over the Mills STROAD site.
There is an important thing to note about this part of downtown Brainerd. While it is financially the most productive part of the downtown, that is not saying much. There is a small area where the streetscape has been given a freshening up, but most of the development is of pretty low quality. I've brought some of my planning friends from out of town there to survey the damage and they are always shocked at how bad it is. The neglect and atrophy is depressing, even more so when you know what it used to look like.
You can also see from the photo just how much of the space has been given over to automobile storage. In a race to the bottom, Brainerd has destroyed its tax base in an effort to achieve the parking ratios found along the 371 STROAD. Yet that historic value endures.
There are some important takeaways from these observations.
First, and most obvious, is the productivity machine that is the traditional development pattern. There are good reasons that thousands of years of trial and error produced this style of development. Even after two generations of neglect and disinvestment, it remains financially superior -- by a large margin no less -- to the most productive similarly sized STROAD investment in the area.
Second, the traditional development pattern is antifragile in so many ways while the STROAD development is anything but. In the downtown there are 132 different properties, many with multiple tenants. On the STROAD we have one corporate owner. With those 132 different properties, we have an entire ecosystem (albeit a starved one) of jobs, investments and micro opportunity. On the STROAD we have no such diversity; it is all in the hands of one business and their model. Downtown we have resilient building types where one storefront can be an office or retail or service or even residential, depending on the market demands and conditions. When the big box on the STROAD closes, there are few happy things that come next.
Third, since the beginning of the Suburban Experiment, we have had infrastructure throughout the downtown. No new investments have been required to obtain this premium return. To get the far inferior returns from the STROAD, we have spent over a hundred million dollars on highways and frontage roads along with tens of millions on sewer and water systems, all long term obligations that local taxpayers must now sustain on a meager, diffused tax base.
Fourth, the original impetus for this conversation was the way we willingly sacrifice safety for low-return economic development along the STROAD. Well, the traditional development pattern has no such safety concerns (although in this instance, the city of Brainerd has insisted on a high speed, dangerous design through their traditional neighborhoods). We may have fender benders, but your grandmother is not going to get smashed by a semi trying to time a highway gap fleeing from the road rage driver on her tail.
And finally, when we come to grips with the reality that the problem of our cities is not lack of growth but lack of productivity, we will ask ourselves: how do we make our places more productive? Look at the STROAD site. Unless there is an heroic effort by a well financed and determined developer, there is no way the value of that property ever doubles (in real terms). There is no way the parking is converted to structures, a second story is added and other improvements are put in place to improve the value and return on that site. And even if this happened, it doesn't fit with anything around it. It would become an isolated point of productivity in a ring of decline. Today's low return condition is the financial high water mark.
The traditional development pattern of the downtown not only starts the productivity race 72% ahead of the STROAD, it has lots of opportunity to grow. All of the parking can easily be converted to more productive uses. When that low hanging fruit is consumed, all of the buildings can be improved. The second and third floors can be recaptured, renovated and remodeled. This doesn't require one sugar daddy but can be accomplished through the organic functioning of many different players. And when this happens, it won't suck the life out of the surrounding properties. To the contrary, this can only happen successfully in conjunction with the surrounding neighborhoods. Even though the current downtown is far more financially productive than the STROAD, the current atrophy and decline should be the low point. With a little different focus, it is easy to envision the value of these nine downtown blocks doubling, tripling or more.
Now go back to the cash-strapped DOT; if half a million dollars is going to be spent on transportation improvements, and if economic development considerations are going to trump safety, the numbers would suggest that retrofitting the STROAD through the downtown to be more neighborhood compatible is the investment with the highest return.
That is what a state looking to build strong towns would do.
If you are interested, I did a post on the Strong Towns Network that explained my methodology and provided the math behind these numbers. It's still there for you to check out, along with a lot of interesting stuff.