Wednesday, December 31

A Visit to Troy

Inspired by two recent KunstlerCast episodes on Troy, New York, I thought I would take some time to explore this fascinating city myself. I spent the first several years of my life there and just returned for a wedding this past week.

When the Hudson river was a main artery of the adolescent United States, Troy's location on the banks of the river was the perfect setting for a manufacturing powerhouse. That all changed, of course, and Troy became as dessicated as any other former industrial center - only, in the case of Troy, the timing was very fortunate. When more prosperous cities made decisions to cannibalize themselves in the name of renewal, Troy had to watch from the sidelines. Many of their own feeble attempts at self-destruction never really got off the ground. Today's result is a wonderful urban environment with much of its fabric still intact, some buildings restored nicely directly adjacent to others with considerable restoration potential.

Here are some annotated pictures of my trip:

Blocks and blocks of Victorian row house are maintained. The architectural variety offers a colorful diversity while still blending together.

Some newer buildings are more successfully knit in than others. A new bank, built in the Georgian style near this picture, looks like it was just dropped in from Williamsburg. Someone must have believed that as long as it was old it would fit.

The Troy Music Hall is apparently one of the four "acoustically perfect" music halls in the world, the only one in the United States approved by Steinway for recordings. It shares the building with a bank.

Service alleys like the one pictured were always a great way to offer additional connectivity.

Monument square is clearly the central "living room" of the city.

Also on the square, this central focal point is strung with Christmas lights.

The concrete slab of a city hall constitutes the third side of monument square (Monument triangle?). It was apparently cool when it was built, but it's now being taken down. I've heard conflicting reports of what will go there. Some say open space, others a mixed-use building, or some combination of the two.

The "Grand Staircase" was once the connection between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) on the hill and the city. Now it dumps you into the back of a motel parking lot.

The view from the top of the stairs. Notice the intentional symmetry with main street, with the off-center motel in between.

My father tells me highway engineers, in the mid-60s, wanted to run an expressway right at the bottom of the staircase. This was before the era of grassroots opposition when highwaymen got pretty much what they wanted. In Troy the plan apparently fizzled due to lack of finances.

Tuesday, December 23

Dogs on Private Property

There is an interesting property rights debate that has been simmering over the course of the last year in rural Virginia, and the recent opening of deer season has elevated the dispute again into the public spotlight. It revolves around whether hunters should be allowed to retrieve their dogs from private property. Virginians have been hound-hunting since there was a Virginia, and there had always been a tacit agreement that hounds could be retrieved if they strayed onto someone else's land. More recently, the State of Virginia has codified this privilege in a "right-to-retrieve" law that gives some conditions on how a dog can be fetched from private property.

However, according to state officials rural landowners have been increasingly complaining about hunters on their property. A study was initiated over whether landowners ought to possess the right to exclude from their property hunters in search of their dogs. Hound-hunters, on the other hand, are concerned that their own heritage may be lost.

What makes this interesting, from the perspective of this blog, is what may be fueling this emerging cultural clash between hunters and landowners. As an MSNBC report explains,

"A big part of the friction involves loss of rural habitat due to development. In Virginia, land is being developed at more than three times the rate of population growth, according to "Hunting with Hounds in Virginia: A Way Forward," a state-commissioned report. The upshot: More dogs are running on private lands, riling property owners."
Whatever side your sympathies lay on, it's pretty clear that the writing is on the wall for hound-hunting in Virginia - at least if land use trends continue as they have been for the last few decades.

Saturday, December 20

Car Talk Infrastructure plan

I've mentioned before that I'm an NPR junkie, and nothing is more classic NPR than Car Talk. I have been entertained by the banter between Tom and Ray for as long as I can remember, and I don't think I could even find the carburetor under the hood of our Corolla.

This morning, while sitting down to a cup a coffee, I was surprised to hear Ray answer his brother in all earnestness, "no, no, I'm serious about this." He had something he needed to get off his chest. 

He suggested a 50 cent gas tax increase, in order to encourage Americans to drive less and produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. The time is right while gas is so cheap, he said. The "cherry on top" of this suggestion was to use the billions in funds generated to build high-speed rail infrastructure between cities. The government could help GM, Ford, and Chrysler create train manufacturing divisions that would employ American workers for the task.
"The idea's time has come and I call on all non-wussie politicians, even the wussie ones, to get in line and stand with me. I'm calling on the president-elect too, because our country needs this! Whew, I have spoken."
Listen to the segment here.

Thursday, December 18

Paul Weyrich

Paul Weyrich, one of the key figures in modern Conservatism, passed away earlier today. He's known for such things as co-founding the Heritage Foundation, coining the term "moral majority," and helping Reagan into office. But what some people may not know is that he was a tireless advocate for mass transit throughout his entire life.

A year-end reflection he wrote, published today actually, contains this line,

"It is the worst of times because the Bush Administration has turned down 70 some cities which want light rail or streetcars. It is the best of times because Amtrak has set records in number of passengers carried. It is the worst of times because the airlines carry more people on one day than Amtrak does in a year."
Last month, he appeared on the Conservative Townhall site to tout election day transit victories. The 15 comments are nearly unanimously against him, which only underscores how much of a voice in the wilderness he has been in his own movement on this subject. He has made no pretense in hiding his opposition to the Bush administration, and he even abstained from supporting John McCain in the past election on account of his views on rail. From time to time, he has sharply criticised certain strains of Conservatism,
"Grassroots conservatives have told us that they, too, are disgusted by a conservatism that is defined as nothing more than "I've got mine."
Transit for Weyrich was not some idiosyncrasy, prehaps retained from a boyhood fondness for locomotives. It has always been integral to his worldview. He speaks with a reverance for traditional practices of all kinds, including streetcars, thriving cities, and productive farmland. Like Russell Kirk before him, Weyrich worried about a dispersed human habitat dominated by automobile travel. From a 2001 paper,
"In fact, we got to where we are through social engineering, massive amounts of it. In no other society in history have places to live, places to work and places to shop been separated from one another, separated so widely that you need a car to get from one to another. Why did it happen here? Because after World War II, social engineers rewrote the building codes to mandate it. In most places, if a developer now wants to build a traditional town, a place where you can walk from home to work or shopping, he can't. The codes won't let him."
Those who knew him attest to his unwaivering consistency of belief through many years.

Wednesday, December 17

Stimulus: Speed vs. Quality

Obama's stimulus package may be in the conceptual stages right now, but it's already stimulating quite a bit of debate. This is a good thing, because hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into our national infrastructure has the potential to shape the way we live for decades to come. We know there is at least a small window of time for the public to weigh in.

If it's possible to lump the viewpoints I've seen into two sides, I would break it down as such: the speed group wants to get money flowing through the economy as quickly as possible, and the quality group wants to be more cautious about which projects the money is spent on. This is not to say the speed group does not care at all about quality, or the quality group has no time schedule. Of course, both sides will say they are concerned with both speed and quality ("two sides of the same coin"), but reading between the lines reveals the crucial detail of where they place the relative importance.

The speed group sets economic revitalization as its number one priority. Just as Congress rushed to get the economic stimulus check to every household last spring and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson argued this fall that a bailout of the financial sector was critically urgent, this view sets the same standard of quickness for any transportation stimulus package. There's no time for complicated innovations; we must stick with the "mechanisms in place" to surge the ailing economy with a cash defibrillator.

Not surprisingly, many of the transportation projects sitting on the waiting lists of State DOTs happen to be extensions of the status quo - highway lane additions, new arterial roadways, etc. From a planning and construction perspective, if this is what we know best this is what we can produce most quickly. There are also extensive networks of special interest lobby groups and quid pro quo agreements between various governmental bodies that would ensure that road-building projects are the most "shovel-ready."

The quality group would rather take the time to judge whether each project is in the best long-term interest of the country. There seems to be two different motivations behind the members of this group. Conservatives, already squeamish about unprecedented amounts of government spending, are urging caution. The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (tip from Richard Layman):

"It's important that the elected officials view public works investment not as a short-term stimulus for stimulus' stake, or a vehicle for politically driven job creation. The goal should be to create the best and broadest necessary and permanent infrastructure for the most responsible minimal price needed to build it. Being careful here is necessary because this is borrowed, finite money; it could become prohibitively expensive for the feds to borrow as debt levels skyrocket. Spending is not investing."
David Brooks essentially said the same thing last week.

On the other hand, environmentalists are also very nervous about the implications of quickly-built roads being strewn about metropolitan landscapes. Richard Coniff of the Yale Environment 360 wrote today,
"But so far, when it comes to [Obama's] economic stimulus package, the rush to get quick results seems to be pushing the environment to the background and sending the process down a familiar path, as lobbyists and contractors jostle for handouts in another round of what one commentator recently dubbed "K Street Capitalism.""
Friends of the Earth, an umbrella group of environmentalists, just kicked off a "new roads = new pollution: keep the economic stimulus clean" campaign with the goal of imploring the President-elect to steer clear of new roads altogether.

It's interesting for me to see these coalitions - not necessarily consistent with traditional ideological dichotomies - develop in response to such a critical question.

Tuesday, December 16

What parking would really cost

This month the City of Chicago voted by a wide margin to privatize their parking meters – the biggest contract of its kind in the United States. Morgan Stanley will hand over a cool $1.15 Billion in exchange for a 75-year contract allowing the corporation to handle Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters. As the city sees it, the funds currently generated from the meters could be made up for with just the interest from $400 million of the lump sum, and the rest can be used to help the city weather the tough financial times. What they are giving up however is the control and future potential of these important urban spaces.

From Morgan Stanley’s perspective, it’s a good business deal because they can actually charge market rate for the space motorists would like to use to store their cars (at least for a few years, then city council will have regulatory oversight over the pricing). In fact, most of the meters in the city will be quadrupled in price – and doubled again in four years. There’s obviously a fair amount of untapped potential here.

The rates will be the highest in the United States, and may even be comparable to some European cities. These higher rates are expected to make finding a parking space much easier, and thus reduce the number of cars circulating in search of spots. In the short-term these changes could lead to some financial hardship for middle-class drivers, but in the longer term behavioral changes will likely balance things out – that is assuming these rate hikes are accompanied with other viable transportation options.

The shift of a major parking supplier from the public to the private realm raises some interesting questions about the storage of our cars. Is parking a basic human right (like freedom of speech) that ought to be publically provided for free, or is it a commodity (like gasoline) that should be paid for by the individual user? Americans remain very divided over the answer to this question, but at least one major city has come down firmly on the latter side.

(tip from Streetsblog)

Monday, December 15

Another affordability factor

Charlottesville is having an important discussion over some new census stats on the affordability of housing. Almost half of the renters in the city are paying over 35% of their income toward housing, which is considered by affordable housing advocates to be an undue burden. Some have pointed out that the student presence here may be skewing the numbers, but these are thought-provoking numbers nonetheless.

There's a major element to this that hasn't come up: housing and transportation costs are inextricably linked. To measure housing without taking transportation into account is like asking for the price of one shoe without checking the price of the other. Rather than setting an affordability threshold at 30% of household income for housing, a better rule of thumb is to set , say, 50% for housing and transportation combined.

Failure to include automobile costs makes cities seem to have a higher cost of living, leading to the myth of "drive till you qualify" as you travel out through rings of suburbs. The reality is quite different. New York City, for example has notoriously high housing prices. 37.8% of the average household income went toward shelter. However, NYC actually has a lower overall wage-adjusted cost of living than the rest of the country, because transportation costs only consume 15.4% of the budget - more than making up for the higher housing costs.

It's fascinating to me how much the average U.S. household expenditures have shifted during the late 20th century. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, food was the biggest expense for a family in 1950. Since then, both housing and transportation have shot well above the food budget.

In 2008, AAA estimates the average annual car ownership costs at $5,576. Operating costs are an additional $7K (assuming 10,000 miles driven a year). Because of contemporary land use patterns, most families are required to own one vehicle for each driving-age person. However, living arrangements that allow a family to own one fewer car can translate to significant cost savings.

All of these numbers are needed to consider the economic health of a community.

Friday, December 12

Christmas season in public

I snapped this photo last week. The wife and I were pretty excited to find that the Capital Christmas Tree this year comes from the Bitteroot National Forest, the exact place where we fetched our own tree the last two years. Those connections between places are always nice.

Conventional thinking dictates that people want to be indoors during the cold months, perhaps shuffling between buildings on skywalks or walking through a mall, certainly not outside bundled up in layers of outerwear. But this is just not the way reality always plays out. How many crowds gather in "first nights" around the country, waiting in frigid midnight temperatures just to see some digital clock change numbers? People are surprisingly resilient, and we never lose that yearning for fresh air, public celebration, and the use of places we call our own.

The Project for Public Spaces has written about successful winter events around the world:

"PPS president Fred Kent and senior vice president Kathy Madden came back from a tour of European Christmas markets in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and Munich last year amazed at all the public activity in chilly weather. "People were out walking, shopping, going to markets, eating from street vendors. The city hall squares were full of events," Kent reports. "You did not want to go indoors at all because there was so much going on."

Unlike any other time of the year, the Christmas season allows cities to create and sustain public traditions. Ice skating in Central Park or the lighting of the tree on Rockefeller plaza are not only popular events, they have taken on an iconic status almost emblematic of New York City itself. The coldness is no deterrent at all. It possibly even enhances the experience with a highlight of perseverance. And there's usually a cup of hot chocolate as a just reward.

Charlottesville has a few winter public traditions. Last week, we paid a visit to the Lighting of the Lawn at University of Virginia. Students and residents alike meandered around Jefferson's academical village, while an extensive line-up of a cappella groups sang from the steps of the Rotunda. The various indoor events held in each pavillion, where professors live, integrated seamlessly with the outdoor festivites. Even the rain did not keep the crowds away. It just concentrated them under the extensive network of verandas.

The City of Charlottesville holds a holiday market on Saturdays on the downtown mall:

"Unique gifts & decorations to meet all your holiday needs will be offered at the Holiday Market. All items are Handmade, Homegrown or Home baked by local farmers, artists, or Bakers."

I love haw Bakers got the capital letter. Makes me smile (I used to be a baker).

Most people don't want to live a climate-controlled life all the time. There are ways cities can leverage the winter months to their advantage.

Room to breath

I changed the layout a little. The old template was not scalable to the window, and that had always been slightly annoying. It felt constrained, especially when I tried to place pictures alongside the text. With one semester of grad school down and a couple of weeks with a little more flexibility, this time seemed as good as any to give this old web page a new lease on life.

Tuesday, December 9

Brooks on Obama on Roads

What just happened here? A week has gone by, and president-elect Obama now sounds like he wants to usher in a new golden era of Interstate construction – and David Brooks is schooling him on the finer points of sustainable urban design. I don’t know whether a) I’ve misread both of these public figures, b) I’m witnessing some seismic shifts in ideological allegiance, or c) I’m just reading too much into too few words.

Anyway, David Brooks has apparently channeled his inner Bobo, dismissing golf courses as passé and embracing coffee shops. He sounds positively visionary about development trends:

People overshot the mark. They moved to the exurbs because they wanted space and order. But once there, they found that they were missing community and social bonds. So in the past years there has been a new trend. Meeting places are popping up across the suburban landscape.”

Given this shift toward community and compact development, now is not the time to make rash infrastructure decisions simply for the creation of jobs.

If, indeed, we are going to have a once-in-a-half-century infrastructure investment, it would be great if the program would build on today’s emerging patterns. It would be great if Obama’s spending, instead of just dissolving into the maw of construction, would actually encourage the clustering and leave a legacy that would be visible and beloved 50 years from now.”

Monday, December 8

It's like a bus, except for cars

I came across an article in the magazine Planning with the intriguing headline, "commute by freeway and save energy." I had just finished reading a great story by Jay Walljasper on non-motorized transportation in the same issue, so I thought I would give this one a chance. Nope. For the life of me, I can't figure out how this proposal would do anything but add to the energy consumption of our current suburban commuting patterns. Maybe I'm missing something here.

The idea is to use 18-wheeler car carriers, the ones that dealerships use to cart empty cars around, to carry suburban commuters and their cars into the city for work. You would just drive from home to a loading station, dock yourself onto a truck with 6 -13 other cars, ride on the freeway to the city, unload and drive the rest of the way to work. Just like that.

So how does this system save energy? The idea is that these drivers would be using small, energy-efficient vehicles. Super. But this assumption is independent of the whole idea - if you've already switched to a SMART car why throw this massive truck into the mix? Now you not only have to use energy to cart your own car across the metro region each day, but you're responsible for at least 1/14 of a tractor trailer as well.

I don't understand any of the logic for the supposed "advantages":

"One driver can haul up to 14 small cars"

As opposed to 0 drivers if they just drove their own cars. Or if they took a bus, 1 driver could carry 50+ passengers and there would be no need to transport extraneous tonnage of steel to and from work.

"During transit, the land carrier's photovoltaic panels can charge the vehicles batteries, and provide power for lights, radio, laptops, and so on."

You could also slap a photovoltaic panel on a bus and share the energy generated more efficiently between all of the passengers. Or just put one on each individual car for that matter (once again, this suggestion is entirely independent of the whole car carrier idea).

"No commuter parking lots required."

Just lots more parking in the city, where the space is already apt to be tighter. And then you have to park these 18-wheelers somewhere too.

"The land carrier could serve double duty as mail carriers, thus reducing truck traffic on U.S. highways."

Does the U.S. postal service want to distribute mail in massive trailers designed to hold automobiles? How would they navigate residential streets? Even if there was a way to coordinate the shifting needs of these two entirely different systems, it would result in no reduction whatsoever in truck traffic. The trucks would just be different - and probably bigger.

And the truly surreal conclusion,

"To fund the land carrier system, I would look to the federal Department of Transportation, which now provides up to 80 percent of the money for many rail and bus transit systems."

Friday, December 5

A modest proposal for NIMBYs

The Not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) phenomenon has been a tough nut to crack for metropolitan regions around the country, particularly when it comes to accommodating the residential growth pressures that most cities face. On the one hand, it's a good thing for folks to take pride in their local neighborhood, feel a sense of civic engagement, and be a part of decisions that have an impact on their quality of life. This is something that should be encouraged. On the other hand, growth pressures are ultimately regional not local. When each neighborhood association challenges densification within their own borders, developers are forced to push out their projects to greenfields on the periphery of the metropolitan area. This has been the modus operandi in cities across the country for the last several decades, but most of us agree that the process is simply not sustainable into the future.

So here's a suggestion that may be too impractical to be an actual proposal - maybe more of a thought experiment - for how we can maintain rigorous citizen engagement with allowing new infill growth ...

When a neighborhood association expresses opposition to a proposed development, they should be asked the question: "If not here, where else should this growth be located?" They should then be required to point to a specific neighborhood on a map of the metropolitan region that has similar transportation access to the city as their own neighborhood. Transportation access should be the only condition, beyond obvious regulatory constraints (you can't point to a flood plain or a contaminated industrial site). This may be harder to measure in cities with a more polycentric form than more traditional cities, but some effort needs to be made for this proposal to make any sense.

Once a commensurate alternative has been selected, the local group opposing the initial development should have to meet with the neighborhood association in their chosen area and explain why the growth would be more appropriate there rather than in their own neighborhood. Face-to-face meetings would be ideal, but a letter could suffice if this is not feasible. If the citizens of the new neighborhood are convinced by the case and agree to accept the growth, the developer would immediately have by-right access to a site in this neighborhood (once again, taking other regulations into consideration). If they decline, the onus would be on the first neighborhood association to either select another location or accept the growth themselves. In fairness to the developer, there needs to be a time-frame to make these arrangements, after which the intial proposed site would have approval.

How would this play out? If anything, it could enhance individual citizen's ownership of their community and help them draw personal connections with other neighborhoods in their city. There may be parts of the city that would welcome new growth but are typically bypassed by developers for whatever reason. Developers would have an incentive take a closer look at these places. Finally, it should take the pressure off the exurban periphery of the city.

Thursday, December 4

The infrastructure we want

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has set up a website,, to collect public comments about federal transportation funding for the incoming Obama administration. As Streetsblog reports, their own proposal is par for the course for a highway lobbiest group - heavy on roads, light on everything else.

However, reading through the comments presents an entirely different picture. I've picked out a few snippets that seem representative to me (take a look yourself if you think I'm cherry-picking):

"That was $20 a barrel thinking. We need to innovate ways to get from point A to point B at $200 barrel oil."

"Support for mass transit and non-motorized transportation (bike/pedestrian) need to be a priority in transportation"

"bridges and overpasses need special attention for repair and renovation"

"More people bicycling would lead to a healthier population, less air pollution, fewer CO2 emissions, less congestion, and less dependence on foreign oil. However, we need complete streets that can be used by everyone, including bicyclists."

"We need places where we can walk to basic stuff of life."

"We need trains! Real, efficient, fast trains."

"Please, please raise the gas tax."

After reading upwards of 100 comments, I found only one person in favor of funding new roads. And this person identified himself/herself as a transportation planner for a State DOT. hmmm.

Monday, December 1

GM's Smithsonian exhibit

When I noticed that the new transportation exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History was sponsored by General Motors, along with State Farm Insurance, Exxon Mobile, and AAA, I wondered how this exhibit would be presented. I pretty much expected to see a gradual narrative of technological progress culminating in a glorious automobile age of unbridled freedom of mobility. After all, GM was the same corporation that sponsored the famous Futurama exhibit in the 1939 World's Fair casting this essential mythology of the American Dream into the future. Would not a complementary retrospective fit nicely into the arc of history?

But the story the exhibit told was quite different - much more honest actually.

From the plaque, "The Automobile and the City":

"In the 1950's, as new suburbs prospered and spread across postwar America, cities suffered. Rising car and truck ownership made it easier for businesses and middle- and working-class white residents to flee to the suburbs, leaving behind growing poor and minority populations and fiscal crisis. Transit systems lost riders and money and traffic jammed city streets ..."

And from another subtitled "sprawling metropolis":

"A rapidly growing dependence on the car helped reshape life in American cities and suburbs after World War II. It created the suburban landscapes and culture that have come to dominate much of contemporary American life ... Local and national transportation policy often encouraged suburbanization, to the detriment of older cities."

It's also worth noting that the "Interstate Era" was delineated from 1956 to 1990. It begs the question: what comes next?