Thursday, March 26

Transportation in Virginia is on the the right track

There have been some very good decisions coming out of Richmond lately, and it's worth stopping to give some credit where credit is due.

From: flickr user Roger Carr
First, the Washington Post reported today that Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board has just agreed to fund intercity rail for the first time ever. There will be a daily line from Washington to Lynchburg (stopping in Charlottesville!) and another from Washington to Richmond. Getting this legislation passed has been a long saga, and it looked pretty harrowing at one time. Governor Tim Kaine speaks as if this move is part of a larger philosophy,
"We've been in a situation with some conflict between Congress and the future of rail, but I think that has changed," he said. "This administration is a real believer in passenger rail."
Why is rail so good for cities? It's mostly about the stations. A rail passenger can be transported directly into the heart of the city. Once she arrives she can walk to many of the locations that naturally cluster around the transportation hub, or she can connect to an auxiliary transit system and access the rest of the city. Airports, on the other hand, by necessity drop passengers off miles away from the city, requiring a cab or rental car to get anywhere. They repel, even forbid, development from coming too close.

Secondly, the Washington Post also reports that VDOT's new requirements for street connectivity have passed, and I know that state agents have started meeting with local officials to give some implementation guidance. The state will no longer allow public money to be used for semi-private roads, such as cul-de-sacs and otherwise disconnected suburban subdivisions. I've written on this more thoroughly here, and with more bluster here. This is a subtle, but powerful change.

The Congress for New Urbanism has been working hard to pass something like this at the federal level. This really great graphic from the CNU site explains it well:

From: CNU

Streetsblog recently spoke with John Norquist, the long-time mayor of Milwaukee who went on to become president of CNU. Norquist sees of the need for a metric for road connectivity to ensure that any codes would be understandable and enforceable.

"The metrics would be intersection density, block size -- you would reward intersection density. And the feds can do that, they can say that states could draw federal money and add to the density of a street network, creating more mobility that way. And the metric we use is 150 intersections per square mile."

From Commonwealth Transportation Board
VDOT has decided to use the term link-to-node ratio which is pretty elegant. A node is an intersection or a dead end, and a link is any segment of roadway between nodes. The lower the ratio of links to nodes (1 is a prefect grid), the more connected the street is. The state has set up a three-tiered system of separate requirements for rural, suburban, and urban roads.

Of course, these are for new roads only, but it will be interesting to see how these rules change the shape of our landscape. Maybe Virginia could be a model for the rest of the country.

Monday, March 23

Two different lawn strategies

From flickr user PhilTizzani
The town of Perris, California, which sits right in the middle of California's "inland empire," has decided to paint lawns of foreclosed houses green, as part of a larger effort to keep up appearances in quickly hemorrhaging neighborhoods. The paint is biodegradable, and it will last for six months. Each lawn will cost $550 to paint.

On the other side of the county, Michelle Obama has broken ground on a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. The garden will help provide food for White House meals, as well as a local soup kitchen. The garden will occupy a quarter of an acre of the White House lawn, which is slightly larger than the average lawn size in America.

From the Washington Post,
"The 1,100-square-foot garden, the first of its kind since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden during World War II, will grow dozens of vegetables, berries and herbs. The collection of crops, a wish list from White House kitchen staff, will include lettuces, squash, fennel, rhubarb, cucumbers and sweet and hot peppers."

Friday, March 20

Which way from here?

In the last post I followed Peter Norton in outlining how the social perception of public roads changed throughout the 20th century. In this post, I'd like to follow up by observing how this shift from multi-modal public space to mostly single-use automobile routes throughout American cities has led to a shift in how roads are most effectively governed and paid for.

The key economic concept here is "public good,” that is any good that is non-rivaled (no one person’s use detracts significantly from another person’s use) and non-excludable (no groups are excluded from using the good). Without getting into the details, it’s pretty clear to me that the early model of multiple-use streets meets the definition of public good, while the latter car-dominated model does not.

Generally it makes more sense to regulate use of a non-public good through a market-based approach, otherwise you end up in a tragedy of the commons scenario – endless traffic congestion, externalities from the emissions and noise, etc. Brookings fellow Anthony Downs explains the rationale for freeway pricing pretty succinctly in Still Stuck in Traffic:
Access to freeway space during peak hours is a desirable good definitely in limited supply. When it is free, the number of drivers who want it greatly exceeds the available space on the roads involved during peak hours. If that space is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, lines will form until space is fully occupied. That equals traffic congestion … The alternative of charging a “market clearing” price seems a lot more sensible. By setting the price appropriately, this approach can reduce the number of people willing to pay that price down to the level at which they can all move rapidly on the road.
I mention all of this to bring up a dilemma I’m puzzling over:

Road pricing makes sense to me, given that our roads are now essentially functioning as private space yet are still, at least partially, paid for with public funds. But won’t a full-fledged pricing system amount to the consummation of the automobile’s victory over this contested space? Is this throwing in the towel?

It seems that there are a few ways to slice this. Some roads, especially limited access highways, can be treated as private roadways, that is government-owned yet priced like a market, and other more local streets can be treated like public space. Or it can be sliced by mode, rather than spatially. Cars on all roads could be priced, since they are the ones causing rivalry and exclusion after all, while other modes could be treated as public amenities.

These hybrid strategies seem great in theory, but they may be hard for us to grapple with culturally. The more drivers believe they are paying for the roads, the more they will feel justified in not having anyone in their way. The alternative for local roads is the Dutch "Woonerf" strategy: all modes are mixed together in a truly public fashion, and motorists are not given any special rights. They have to cautiously navigate their way through the crowds like everyone else.

Are these conceptions of space mutually exclusive? Can they be mingled together or subject to local variation? Would that be too confusing?

I know some people reading have thought more about this than I have. Assuming I haven't shaken you off with my long-winded speculations, please help me out here!

Wednesday, March 18

From public space to motor thoroughfare

University of Virginia engineering professor Peter Norton has been collecting old newspaper articles and pouring over AAA archives for over a decade in order to document the origin of automobile dominance in American cities. Retrofitting city streets for the private car was not only a matter of physical engineering or political maneuvering, it involved drastic social upheaval in cities across the country. This is an interesting story that is not told very often. The culmination of Norton's research is presented in his recent book Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

In the early 20th century, city streets were universally considered public space, a crucial amenity in often overcrowded neighborhoods. It was simply taken for granted that children would be able to freely play in the streets. Streetcar rails ran through the center lane, meaning passengers would wait to embark right on the public street. The streetscape bustled with activity from numerous modes of travel simultaneously.

From 1920's Pittsburgh newspaper (courtesy of Norton)
When automobiles grew in numbers, an obvious conflict arose. Motorists used the public space in a very different way than everyone else did, as a place to pass through as quickly as possible. The number of fatalities grew considerably as these two functions clashed more and more. In most cases, a majority of those killed were children. This naturally lead to widespread outrage among citizens, earning reckless drivers the names "road hog" or "speed demon." A political cartoon depicting the car as a grim reaper was not at all unusual. Almost unanimously, blame was placed on the driver for violent incidents, not at all on careless pedestrians or negligent parents.

However, Norton documents the effective campaign to convince people that they no longer belong in this public space without the necessary machinery. AAA clubs around the country, as well as the automobile industry itself, fought tirelessly for driver's rights. They campaigned against a populist movement to install speed governors in new automobiles. Automobile groups volunteered to collect accident reports from newspapers into a database, in order to exert influence on where the blame for the accident was placed. They funded "safety patrols" in every school in the country, instructing children that they would no longer be allowed to play on city streets. They would have to wait until traffic stops to cross. This was a radical and jolting transition.

The introduction of the word "jaywalker" happened more suddenly than most words filter into the English language, which can be attributed to mass publicity campaigns. Boy Scouts were enlisted to hand out flyers to "jaywalkers" when they spotted them. Physical crosswalks were painted on the streets at 90 degree angles, leading many pedestrians to believe that this was the only place they were legally allowed to cross. After a mere 20 years of marketing, city streets were virtually conquered.

The rest is history.

Today, after decades of automobile dominance there are several groups fighting again for vibrant public streets, from Seattle's Streets for People campaign to the highly successful New York City's Streets Renaissance. If we're going to untie a knot, it's helpful to know how that knot was tied in the first place. Peter Norton has done a service by meticulously recording this phase of American history.

Saturday, March 14

Joel Salatin, Jane Jacobs

From: flickr user Wendy Cohen
I went to hear farmer and prominent local foods advocate Joel Salatin speak this evening. A strong libertarian and proponent of traditional farming practices, Salatin naturally did not have many kind things to say about the industrial food system. In his words, modern agribusiness has been made opaque, "put just over the hill, where we don't have to see it." It's zoned out of our lives. This leads to a disconnect between producer and consumer, and compromises the inherent business accountability of a community - an accountability that must somehow be made up for with a complex regulatory system.

According to Salatin, small-scale traditional farms can be "beautiful, aromatic, and romantic," somewhere that kindergartners would want to go on a field trip. Unlike a massive "Tyson's poultry processing plant," this is one form of agribusiness that does not have to be relegated to a far away location. It's existence can even enhance the living environment, even if some small-scale processing functions are allowed to happen on-grounds. This is at least one form of industry that we might not mind having in our backyards.

It struck me that this self-professed Jeffersonian agrarian was sounding so much like the quintessential urbanist, Jane Jacobs. In Death and Life of Great American Cities, she wrote,

"A restaurant or snack place, a grocery, a cabinetmaker, a printer's shop, for instance, can fit well into such a street. But exactly the same kind of use - say, a big cafeteria, a supermarket, a large woodworking factory or a printing plant - and wreak visual havoc (and sometimes auditory havoc), because it is on a different scale."

Both Jacobs and Salatin love the diversity of small-scale systems. Salatin works with the biodiversity of his farm to fit the interlocking pieces together into a mutually-reinforcing whole. Jacobs loved the daily "ballet" that occurred in her Greenwich Village neighborhood, with all of the homes, shops, public street life, and workplaces fitting together into a coherent whole.

Even industry, the classic case for separate-use zoning, need not be categorically separated on all occasions.

Thursday, March 12


I’m a cyclist/pedestrian/motorist/transit-user. It just so happens that the most convenient, most cost-effective, and most enjoyable method for navigating my particular environment involves wielding a number of transportation tools. And I don’t think I’m very unusual in this respect.

The bicycle gets me to work or classes almost every day. Nothing beats it for speed and efficiency within certain parts of town. Walking is my mode of choice when I have extra time to soak in my surroundings, or I'm traveling a very short distance. The bus is useful every once in a while, especially in accessing less hospitable parts of Charlottesville like the U.S. 29 corridor. Finally, I share a car with my wife. Driving is convenient for grocery shopping in my opinion, and it is a requirement for traveling out of town. I use each of these modes almost every week.

I bring this up only to make the point that most users of the transportation system are probably as protean as I am. We have the flexibility to adjust as constraints and opportunities of our living environment change. The U.S census categorizes the modes commuters use into discrete “journey-to-work” units, and often policy analysis assumes that users are either motorists or not. Sharp categories mean change must be cataclysmic; blended categories mean change can happen through evolution.

Right now in most places around North America it would take some major transformations in infrastructure and land use to entice any given family to stop driving entirely. However, incremental improvements in infrastructure can lead to incremental changes in commuting. First, a once-a-week bike ride to work, then perhaps sharing one car between the family. The political will to make infrastructural changes and the transportation behavior of citizens are inextricably linked. If change happens in our transportation networks, it will have to ratchet between these two categories, one step at a time.

Monday, March 9

A case for small cities

From: Flickr user Smaku
An essay in the Boston Review by Catherine Tumber presents hopeful take on the future of small cities, particularly former industrial centers in the northeast and midwest - places like Syracuse, New York, or Youngstown, Ohio. Rural small towns have always enjoyed a cherished place in American's hearts, and the big city represents cosmopolitan culture, the creative economy, and global interconnectivity. But small cities, fitting neither of these models completely, have often fallen between the cracks.

She describes the troubling recent history of American small cities. While major cities were hit hard by urban renewal and the dispersal of development, these forces have been almost fatal blows to smaller cities.
"Large cities survived the changes and the resulting onslaught of suburban shopping malls—itself a reaction to extended supply–chains—in the late ’70s. In smaller cities, malls decimated what was left of retail districts already damaged by massive downtown highway systems that choked off commercial centers from surrounding urban neighborhoods. "
Furthermore, the shift away from an industrial and into an information economy has drained small cities of capital and job opportunities, while major cities were able to refashion themselves as hubs of global finance and technology. Cultural creatives were drawn to the global cities, but most smaller cities have never acquired the cache or critical mass to draw significant numbers of people in.

However, with a growing emphasis on green jobs and sustainable agriculture, Tumber sees a new niche for small cities. She showcases some of the advantages small cities may have over major metropolitan areas in our transitioning economy. Renewable energy and sustainable agriculture both benefit from decentralization, which allows transmission costs to be minimized and sufficient land to be available.
"An inversion is at work here: placing smaller cities at the center of analysis leads to an imaginative template that is decentralized, deconcentrated, relocalized. One of the Obama campaign’s strokes of genius was bypassing big–city power centers, where self–appointed national leaders claim to speak for minorities, and working directly with the decentralized grid of smaller–city community organizations across the land. As policymakers rethink the American agricultural economy and invest in renewable energy, they, too, should be looking at smaller cities."

Wednesday, March 4

Where are the academic planning blogs?

I've been looking for a while, and as far as I can tell the number of Urban Planning university faculty with regularly updated blogs is very slim.

Randall Crane from UCLA operates a good Urban Planning Research blog, but there has not been any activity there for the last few months. The Transportationist, a blog by David Levinson of University of Minnesota, has some overlap with planning but it's primarily a transportation engineering blog. Michael Lewyn of Florida Coastal School of Law is an occasional contributor to the Planetizen Interchange blog. Ann Forsyth of Cornell, also a Planetizen contributor, and Martin Krieger of University of Southern California blog mostly about administrative academic matters (graduate admissions, the tenure system, etc.).

If I've missed anyone, please let me know in the comments.

Other disciplines have several high-profile scholars who have taken on the role of the public intellectual. Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, Law professor Eugene Volokh, and the group philosophy blog Crooked Timber come immediately to mind. And there are many, many more from across the academic spectrum. Why is there so little online public conversation happening within academic planning circles? (Or maybe it's happening and I'm not privy to it).

I find this particularly surprising, given the intrinsic nature of planning. Public engagement and the everyday shifting reality of the built environment are central to planning theory. From the beginning, planning theorist have had an activist bent. They have reached beyond the internal circles of research and applied their ideas to make a tangible difference in the world. I can understand why quantum physics may not lend itself to being hashed out online (although it is), but urban planning was made for it. Blogs are certainly not the only way to make this happen, but they are one important avenue of communication.

Back in the early days of blogging, there was an understandable hesitation to descend into the cacophony of the masses. Online discussion was considered less a marketplace of ideas and more of a sounding room for half-baked opinions from the most shrill, extreme voices. Blogs contributed to the celebrated information glut of contemporary society, which led to more distraction and less clarity of focus. There were supposedly millions of individuals blogging about their cat, in their pajamas nonetheless. Self-respecting academics would do better to remain in the structured world of peer-reviewed journals.

English Professor Alan Jacobs provided many of these reasons in 2006 for why he was giving up on blogging, but I notice that within a year he was up and running again at the collaborative blog American Scene. Something must have given him cause for reconsideration.

A shift happened that many observers did not expect: the chaos started to be ordered. Blogs did not stay radically egalitarian and irreducibly complex. New institutions emerged as gatekeepers, and the vast wilderness of information began to organize itself into meaningful categories along the basis of selective criteria. These new hierarchies did not subvert older accreditation schemes, but instead they subsumed them into the selection criteria. Having a PhD does not automatically mean people will pay attention, but it certainly gives a huge advantage in the darwinian struggle for readership.

Sure, guys are still blogging about their cats and extremists are ranting louder than ever, but there are mechanisms that allow us to sift through content we have no use for. Academics have found plenty of room for productive dialogue online, and they are genuinely respected for their hard-earned expertise in their particular discipline. The field of planning would greatly benefit from a few more talented scholars who take the risk of sharing their ideas publicly.

Scottsville holding strong

When Albemarle county released their property value assessments for 2009, few people were surprised to see drops in value across the boards. All six districts are down, but the one exception to the losses is the incorporated Town of Scottsville, which is up by 1.7%. This little factoid particularly piqued my interest, because the area just outside the town limits saw the steepest drops in the whole county. What's going on here?

As far as transportation access goes, Scottsville is about as isolated as any section of Albemarle, and I don't imagine that the town itself is a huge engine for job growth. They are certainly still within the economic orbit of Charlottesville. The only factor I can think of that distinguishes it from other parts of the county is the fact that Scottsville truly is a small town with some walkable options to retail, churches, small parks, library, schools, and so on. It looks a little like what New Urbanist architects aspire to, except that it was built in 1744.

I decided to visit Scottsville to see for myself the small town that is weathering the storm hitting the rest of the county.

A Renovation project is underway on this house on the north end of Valley Street, the main road through town. Scaffolds don other buildings around town, proving that construction work is still happening. Scottsville is on the National Register of Historic Places, and preservation seems to be a high priority for citizens here.

The railroad station is closed to passenger travel entirely. In 1915 the Scottsville station used to service four trains per day to Richmond. The last train left the station in 1956, the year Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act. While walking around town, I imagined how life in Scottsville would be different if passenger rail were to be reinstated.

Bruce park, established in 2003, is a nice pocket park right behind Valley Street. The town has another larger park with a play area, a levee walk with views of the James River, and another public theater area - all within an easy walk around town.

The historic downtown contains several viable and useful businesses, but there is a good amount of potential vacant storefronts available. Some of the upstairs residential units are being rehabbed as lofts and rented out.

I love this. A little community pride goes a long way. (Click on picture for a close-up)

Tuesday, March 3

Growing in or growing out?

For a while now some researchers like Christopher Leinberger have been pointing to a resurgence in urban redevelopment, while others like Joel Kotkin have been telling the opposite story of perpetual exurban expansion.

Leinberger wrote last year that "conventional suburban lifestyles fall out of fashion and walkable urban alternatives proliferate," and Kotkin, writing in the middle of the summer surge in gas prices, retorted, "Not so fast. The "out of the suburbs, back to the city" narrative rests more on anecdote than demographic or economic fact." Demographic research is not wine-tasting. Numbers are numbers. So who's right?

A new study of census data for residential building permits lands on a good answer to this: it depends on whether you're looking at absolute numbers or trends over time. Yes, it appears that more people are still moving into outer suburbs than central cities, just as they have been for the last several decades, but the share of building permits allocated to central cities has grown steadily over the last decade in most metropolitan areas - quite substantially in a few.

The study was conducted for the EPA by John V. Thomas. Because of the data it uses, the picture is necessarily drawn with a broad brush. The census tracks these permits by jurisdiction, and cities like Houston with perpetually growing borders are tough to compare with East Coast metropolitan areas that ground annexation to a halt in the early 20th century. Still, even if spatial comparisons are not entirely accurate, the story of changes across time is a relevant one.

The author of the study also points out:

"Even with solid economic fundamentals, many large-scale redevelopment projects still require changes in local regulations or public infrastructure investments to be successful. For example, transit-oriented development often requires updates to zoning codes, more flexible parking regulations, assistance with land assembly, or improvements to upgrade water, sewer and local streets. Brownfield properties often need assistance to evaluate contamination and potentially clean up soil and groundwater."

This is a helpful reminder that the picture of what is happening does not entirely reflect market demand. It is a fallacy to conclude that the majority of people want to live in the suburbs simply because the data indicates that a majority of houses are built there. There are a host of decisions made by the public sphere that have just as significant an influence on development patterns.

[Source: Smart Growth America]