Archive for the ‘Links’ Category

End of the race

October 19, 2009

Team Ontario/BC’s house.

Ruthless efficiency:

The Solar Decathlon is over, and zee Germans have won.  DCist has photos here, and DC Metrocentric has a few observations:

This year, it was evident that most of the houses were designed with mainstream marketability in mind. Most of the houses were designed around a contemporary aesthetic and open plan arrangement, while others like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and University of Louisiana Lafayette referred to localized American Vernacular styles. The forms of the houses were primarily long thin rectangles, some had courts, while others had breezeways, but in total they were designed according to market standards for handicap accessibility and for mass production. This plan of public accessibility and marketability was definitely working. The grounds were extremely crowded and the lines to enter the winning houses wound down the main walk. Inside, the houses were obviously over maximum occupancy, and the crowds were really excited by what they saw. I overheard endless questions about fixtures and furniture from the most unlikely guests.

Also, one thing I hadn’t noticed – following on discussions of green infrastructure and urban hydrology:

What was the most striking in the engineering field was not what the teams did, but what they weren’t allowed to do, which was re-use gray water (waste water from non-sanitary means) or rainwater within the dwelling. Many of the houses had been designed with systems to reuse water, but the DC plumbing code forbids the use of gray or rain water for any domestic purpose except landscaping. Apparently, in many jurisdictions across the country using any water besides well water or municipal water for domestic uses is prohibited. The students at many of the houses made it a point to tell the crowds about their water reduction features and the specific reason why they couldn’t use it and encouraged people to contact their representatives to change this ordinance.

Water reduction is certainly an admirable goal, but it’s also one of those features that’s going to matter much more in some geographies than others.  All the more reason for codes (enacted at the local level) to take their local context into consideration.

The other thing Lepler notes above is the popularity of the Decathlon.  I stopped by several times, each visit clogged by people waiting in long lines to stand in small, crowded houses.  This level of engagement seemed both genuine and tangible – people could envision themselves living in these places, in spaces of this size, etc.


NIMBYs under the microscope:

Ryan Avent’s found scientific discussions of NIMBYism.

Available here. This is the abstract:

This paper suggests a cause of low density in urban development or urban sprawl that has not been given much attention in the literature. There have been a number of arguments put forward for market failures that may account for urban sprawl, including incomplete pricing of infrstructure, environmental externalities, and unpriced congestion. The problem analyzed here is that urban growth creates benefits for an entire urban area, but the costs of growth are borne by individual neighborhoods. An externality problem arises because existing residents perceive the costs associated with the new residents locating in their neighborhoods, but not the full benefits of new entrants which accrue to the city as a whole. The result is that existing residents have an incentive to block new residents to their neighborhoods, resulting in cities that are less dense than is optimal, or too sprawling. The paper models several different types of urban growth, and examines the optimal and local choice outcomes under each type. In the first model, population growth is endogenous and the physical limits of the city are fixed. The second model examines the case in which population growth in the region is given, but the city boundary is allowed to vary. We show that in both cases the city will tend to be larger and less dense than is optimal. In each, we examine the sensitivity of the model to the number of neighborhoods and to the size of infrastructure and transportation costs. Finally, we examine optimal subsidies and see how they compare to current policies such as impact fees on new development.

Bold is mine.

Along those same lines…

Mammoth links to an article in the Wall Street Journal by Thomas Sugrue. Sugrue notes the problems of the ownership society and defining the American Dream in terms of homeownership – noting that renting is a far more prudent decision in many cases.

Yet the story of how the dream became a reality is not one of independence, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurial pluck. It’s not the story of the inexorable march of the free market. It’s a different kind of American story, of government, financial regulation, and taxation.

We are a nation of homeowners and home-speculators because of Uncle Sam.

I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Sugure speak on many items (including the state of Detroit), and this article doesn’t disappoint.  Mammoth notes the cultural aspects of sprawl, complimenting the economic analysis:

I tend to focus on technological (automobile), infrastructural (the interstate system, the regulatory dictatorship of the fire engine and its turning radii) and political (tax policies that favor home ownership, strict single-use zoning) reasons for the development of the form and ubiquity of the American suburb, but it is also very interesting to consider the suburb as the outgrowth of a cultural ideal, of a particular understanding of the relationship between person and home, or to consider the financial crisis as the (il)logical conclusion of that ideal, cultivated to absurd proportion and applied without regard to circumstance. That ideal is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is nearly invisible, seeming not a cultural construction but an essential and timeless rule, as deeply-embedded ideals often do.

As we re-examine the cultural underpinnings of the American Dream, we ought to re-examine the policies that biased that dream into suburban form and ask how we can give walkable, transit-oriented places a fair shake.


Columbus Weekend Links

October 13, 2009

I really like these Federal holidays when I actually get them off…

On airport transit service:

GGW had a point/counterpoint on how best to serve Dulles International Airport.  Spencer Lepler argued for using commuter rail along the Washington and Old Dominion right of way, while Matt Johnson argued in favor of the current plan, noting the greatly improved benefits, including access to Tysons Corner and other development along the toll road.   Johnson also noted the technical hurdles to reusing the old railroad right of way.

The entire idea of offering faster service between the airport and downtown DC motivates these discussions, and this isn’t limited only to DC.  Yonah Freemark notes the perils of Chicago’s Block 37 and the express airport service that doesn’t really exist.

In the end, express service to and from Dulles shouldn’t be a top priority.  The existing infrastructure certainly doesn’t make it easy to do so.

So what about the W&OD?  Matt’s post on the challenges to re-use the right of way also raise some potential uses – perhaps using the corridor, in addition to the Silver Line, as a light rail/interurban corridor might be a good use.  This allows at-grade operations in congested areas, as well as simplifying the terminal connection in Alexandria, either as a loop into Crystal City or as a connection to the new Potomac Ave infill Metro station.

With or without the Silver Line, however, I’ll still be looking first and foremost at DCA for flights.

First, convince the Bankers…

The Salt Lake City Tribune has a great article noting the biggest hurdle to transit-oriented development – the banks.

Transit-oriented development isn’t stymied by outdated zoning, unwilling developers or a lack of space. It turns out, banks, wedded to old-fashioned lending standards that stress parking, may pose the biggest blockade by denying financing.

The reason: Lenders operate from a tried-and-true principle that maintains more parking means less risk and a higher return on their investment. But ditching cars is the whole point of urban developers looking to create 24-hour live, work and play environments that hug light-rail hubs.

Take the capital’s gateway district, which soon could be further revived by a North Temple TRAX train, a new viaduct and millions in streetscape upgrades. City leaders envision a walkable, vibrant mix of housing, retail, restaurants and offices that one day will bridge the FrontRunner hub and a new North Temple transit station along downtown’s western rim.

But commercial investors, including one with a $100 million blueprint, complain banks cannot grasp the concept and instead slam their doors.

The first paragraph might be a little over the top, as outdated zoning, unwilling developers, and a lack of space are still huge hurdles, though I might change their language a bit.

Last week, there was plenty of discussion (BDC, RPUS, GGW) of the Post‘s article on DC USA’s woefully underutilized parking garage.  Valerie Santos, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, noted the parking was necessary to convince any number of parties to build the thing – tenants, landlords, financiers:

The District has lost nearly $2 million — or $100,000 a month — since the garage opened in March 2008, numbers that make Valerie Santos groan when she considers the city’s decision to build the structure.

“I don’t want to say it’s a quote, unquote, mistake. At the time the District did what it had to do to attract a retailer it sorely wanted,” said Santos, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “Am I happy about the operating deficit? Of course not.”

Obviously, there are lots of moving parts in any urban development equation, but overall education of all parties involved is a crucial element.

When speaking of performance parking, Dr. Shoup likes to advocate for removing parking restrictions from zoning ordinances and letting the market decide.  The challenge, however, is that this particular market is not acting with perfect information.  Rectifying that information gap is a huge challenge.  DC USA might have some use as an example of what not to do in the future, but that’s an awfully expensive lesson to learn.


Some of the ugliest buildings in the world?

So says this list.  (h/t Yglesias)

Amtrak ridership is down…

…but still up over the longer tiemframe (Housing Complex)

Exit, stage left

DC Metrocentric takes a look inside the new Arena Stage.

The data wants to be free

Rob Goodspeed looks at municipal data sharing programs, and wonders what differences they make.

Not dead yet…

October 1, 2009

So, the laptop repairs didn’t quite work out as planned.  A new machine is on order, but I’ve managed to commandeer a friend’s computer. 

Aw, thanks very much!  I’ll see you on Thursday.

Hopefully I’ll have some more substantive stuff up soon.  In the meantime, some quick notes:

More on the shortcomings of most libertarians when it comes to cities

I don’t want to lump everyone in one category, because there are some great thinkers out there applying libertarian thoughts to urban contexts, making sure to incorporate the histories, regulations, and subsidies into account.   Most, however, don’t follow that line of thought. 

BeyondDC points us to a great post from the Urbanophile:

I read articles out on the net with the general theme of claiming that a cabal of planners is conspiring to force us all to move back into overcrowded tenements in order to recognize their dream of reurbanizing America. There’s no doubt that plenty of progressives write about how people ought to more or less be forced back into the city. And I’m sure in some places there are planning rules designed to achieve this effect, like urban growth boundaries. But if you ask me, the practical reality in most of the United States is exactly the opposite situation. Virtually every piece of planning regulation I see acts to discourage urbanization and especially to reduce densities below market demand.

If you want people to live more densely, no nefarious planning rules are necessary. In fact, simply remove a lot of the ones we have and American cities would get much more dense in a hurry. The free market wants more density.

The whole thing is worth a read.   The assumption that planners who want more density are somehow communists or working against the benevolent hand of the free market is bunk – as is the assertion that the mere existence and popularity of McMansion-y sprawl is some magical manifestation of overwhelming demand for that lifestyle. 

While we’re on the theme of faulty assumptions…

Ryan Avent has a great post on Streetsblogon other faulty assumptions, particularly with what we consider inconvenient.  Namely, the assertion that Americans won’t chose to inconvenience themselves, whether by wearing a Jimmy Carter-esque sweater instead of fully heating the house in the winter, or using mass transit instead of the car (assumed to be both faster and prefered).  Europe is often cited as an example of a different lifestyle, yet the American choice of personal automobiles, larger houses, and the like are assumed to be ‘better.’ 

But there are lifestyle issues involved, particularly where transportation and land use are concerned. And contrary to Rosenthal, it isn’t that Europeans have opted for inconvenience. Rather, they have chosen different conveniences, as her Stockholm air train anecdote makes clear.

I think it is very difficult, objectively, to demonstrate that their choices have produced ways of life that are clearly less convenient than American lives. It is clear that Europeans tend to have better health outcomes than us, and they die in car accidents at much lower rates, and of course they’re enjoying levels of wealth similar to our own while producing half as much carbon.

The obvious retort to this line of thinking is that perhaps that’s all true, but like it or not America is now sprawling, and any effort to make the country greener by pursuing European land use and transportation options would be very difficult. In a similar vein, it is argued that attempts to push Americans into such a life via gas taxes or carbon prices would wind up being very painful.

But this is not quite right. As I have pointed out before, America will more or less need to build itself all over again by 2050 in order to accommodate population growth. Just because most of America is currently sprawling doesn’t mean that most of the America built between now and mid-century has to look the same.

Ryan’s exposure of the cultural differences points out, implicitly, what will be required to change these mindsets.  The important thing to remember is that we didn’t sprawl instantly, nor did we build our transportation infrastructure instantly.  The inevitable rebuilding of America will take place over the next 40 years, so there’s plenty of time to get the ball rolling in a more sustainable direction.

Cultural change starts at home.  If parents had the chance to downsize into an urban condo or other attached housing after the kids move on in life, perhaps this change could get started.  Now, if only there were some developers that wanted to build some urban density…


September 9, 2009

Basic Training

The Tsarchitect had a great reminder on the importance of the basics today – linking to a video from William Whyte, from a video version of his great work, the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.

Part 1:

The remaining sections of the video are available here: (onetwothreefourfivesix)

I hadn’t watched the video since graduate school – thanks for the reminder.  It’s well worth a viewing.

NCPC Items

A couple of items related to the National Capital Planning Commission:

JDLand had an item a while back about their largely favorable reaction to the 11th Street Bridges project – with the exception of the streetcars, of course.

However, they are not at all happy with DDOT’s decision to choose a streetcar system with overhead wires, and the document goes into detail on how this works against federal interests, as well as listing what non-overhead-wire streetcar options exist out there (none in the US so far). Their conclusions (page 22):

“Recommends that DDOT not include streetcar system components for overhead wires as part of the 11th Street Bridge project and that DDOT prepare an environmental impact statement for its proposed District wide streetcar system that examines potential impacts on the L’Enfant City and Georgetown and that includes an analysis of propulsion systems that do not require the use of overhead wires.

“Advises DDOT that the Commission does not support a streetcar system with overhead wires because it supports the unobstructed views to important landmarks along the city’s streets and avenues that are integral to the District’s unique character and result from the long-standing federal statutory prohibition against using overhead wires in Washington City (the L’Enfant City) and Georgetown.

“Encourages DDOT to pursue alternative propulsion technologies for the proposed streetcar system that do not require overhead wires in accordance with its January 24, 2008 commitment to include dual vehicle propulsion requirements in a solicitation package for the development and implementation of the broader streetcar system beyond the Anacostia and H Street/Benning Road corridors.”

Meanwhile, at GGW, Matt Johnson has a post up on potential freight rail bypasses of DC, triggered in part by safety concerns, and in part by the NCPC’s desire to remove the current rail rights of way though the District.

These aesthetic concerns shouldn’t be underestimated, but from my perspective, the minimal obstruction of streetcar wires isn’t worth the kind of opposition the NCPC is putting up.  Even if you take wires as a negative (which I do not think is a given), the net results are certainly a positive for DC.

Shopping Spree

Transit Miami reminds us all of a post from the Infrastructurist back in May with a nice comparative chart of transit costs by mode, with references to specific projects.

Modernism in DC

DC MUD had a great interview with architect Ali Honarkar (designer of the Lacey) with some great tidbits on DC’s style, height limits, and NIMBYs:

DCMud: Lacey has gotten attention inside DC, but also outside DC. What do you attribute that to?

Yeah, I don’t know! (laughs). We designed it to get attention, that’s what you do. We’re not going to write a hit song and apologize, you want it to be played. Actually we’re getting more national than local attention. I’m a little disappointed with the local media, and I think it may be driven by sponsors, this very conservative southern town. You would think the Washington Post, as local media, should know what’s going on around here. We’ve seen the Lacey in New York blogs, LA blogs, and architecture blogs, and I’m always amazed how they find us. But they don’t have to find you here, we’re here, they should know what’s in their back yard.

On sustainable design:

DCMud: So green is not cheap, design is not cheap, how do you combine those two goods, and still make it affordable?

Its hard, there are metropolitan cities, like NY would be the first, Chicago, San Francisco, LA, they have that. You put up a building anywhere in New York, they will still line up if its good. I think the DC culture, within the last 10 years has really changed, you see a lot more emphasis, not just on housing, but the restaurants, you see a lot more design, restaurants, bars, we’re getting there slowly but surely. We’re not very good at that, we just do it. There were so many ways to make the Lacy cheaper. But at the end of the day, the architect, the developer, have to be able to look back and be okay with it. The average life of a building is 25-30 years, we’d like to see the building there in a 100 years. Real estate is a long-term thing; we don’t do things for marketing purposes. With the whole green movement, nobody ever uses bad materials on purpose. Another way the AIA is using – you know when the record companies stopped using vinyl because it was no good – the same with the AIA, we achieved it in the Lacey, we’re doing it in a small residential project, you put a good project out there, people will follow.

On height limits and NIMBYs:

DCMud: Height restrictions and historic preservation?

It’s partly that, but, no offense to attorneys, you do any work in DC, forget the ANC and historic preservation, but every other neighbor is an attorney. Its great to have pride in where you live, but people feel like they get to claim it, we see that all the time, we always feel like we don’t want to deal with it any more, but then we get a good client, who wants to do something different, and we say, okay, lets do this again. Its not historic preservation, I think its more the people in the neighborhoods that want to stop the process.

Do you think the height limits are a good thing?

I like them; I think you are most creative when you are challenged. DC is my favorite city, and you have New York for that. London, Paris, the scale is completely different, most European cities are like that. I like the height restriction where it is, we should just be a little more creative. We have suburbs to balance stuff out.

Garden Variety Links

August 31, 2009

Garden Cities – Suburbs, back to the future…

Christopher, in the comments of my post on the American Dream, mentioned this great photo gallery over on Slate from Witold Rybczynski of Forest Hills Gardens, an American interpretation of the Garden Cities of the turn of the century.  Chris notes these Garden City suburbs have all of the principles of today’s New Urbanist communities – transit orientation, sufficient density, mixed uses and mixed incomes, etc.

It’s all about access

Cap’n Transit continues on his campaign for transportation to focus on accessibility over mobility.  The two concepts, of course, are intricately related, but accessibility is the more important paradigm for urbanism and city life:

Last week Grist had a well-sourced article (which came to me via Planetizen, via Portland Transport, via that nicely illustrates how improving access without mobility can get people to drive less. And of course by driving less, we reduce pollution and global warming, increase energy efficiency, and all the rest. In this case, when stores are located within walking distance, people walk more, improving their health as well.

Transportation planners should be willing to acknowledge when there’s a possible non-transportation solution that’s worth considering, especially when they’re dealing with taxpayer money. They should then be prepared to say, “You know, you really need a business development planner. That’s not my specialty, but let me introduce you to Joe, who’s really good at fostering downtown businesses.”

This kind of integration between professional disciplines ought to be the goal.  Of course, that’s easier said than done.  Nevertheless, fostering regulatory environments where such holistic understandings of urbanism, transportation, and the interconnections between them ought to be encouraged.

At the same time, I don’t think we need a complete revamp of the current system – but encouraging these conversations and spreading these concepts amongst the population at large is important for planners and urbanists.

Great Station Architecture

Aaron Renn has a post on the potential of Chicago’s El and other transit systems to be not just good, but great.  At the end of the post, Renn has a great collection of photos from various transit systems around the world – showing off great station architecture and high-minded design.  The gallery is well worth a look.

Within that discussion, Matt Johnson has a fantastic set of posts at GGW on the basic design elements of Metro’s system (part one – underground stations; part two – above-ground stations; part three – other motifs).  Matt lays out the basic elements of Metro’s stations and how they’re both constant yet varied within the system.

When it comes to creating great stations, DC’s immediate opportunity will be on the Silver line.  Discussion in the comments asked about the sole underground station on the new line (at Dulles), but since that station is in the second phase of construction, we don’t have renderings of the architecture – just some basic engineering.  We do have, however, renderings from the stations in phase one – and the comments in part two of GGW’s thread weren’t exactly complimentary of the architecture.

Some photos from the Dulles Metro website:


Tysons Central 123


Tysons Central 7 – interior


Tysons East

In other station news – over in Vienna, Jarrett Walker has a post on station architecture there – focusing on the Art Noveau elements.

While we’re in Vienna…

Jarrett also has some posts on other elements of Vienna’s transit systems.

First, he has a follow up on the city’s overhead wires. Jarrett’s great photos allow the reader to decide if those wires ruin the city or not.  My opinion is that they do not, and they won’t mean the end of the world for DC, either.  That is, once we decide to bring our new streetcars back from the Czech Republic.

Jarrett also notes about the excellent network effects within Vienna’s system – including cross-platform transfers.  Making transfers easy is an important part of a great system – even in DC, plenty of people I know hate to switch lines, especially at off-peak hours when trains run more infrequently.  Jarrett notes:

In talking about transit planning I’m constantly stressing the need to think in terms of interconnected two-dimensional networks, not just the one-dimensional “corridors” that are the focus of so many transit studies.  It’s a hard point to convey because (a) interconnectedness implies connections, also called “transfers,” which people supposedly hate, and (b) networks are complicated and abstract and hard to think about, which is why I’m always trying to create and promote tools for making them simpler.

What’s more, network effects are really hard to photograph.  The closest you can come is a photo of a really smooth cross-platform connection.

A cross platform transfer allows a rider to switch lines by simply crossing the platform to a different train without having to switch levels, as you currently have to do at Metro Center or the other main DC transfer points.  This diagram from Wikipedia shows how a cross-platform transfer works in Hong Kong’s MTR:

Basically, the train lines weave for you – thus the passenger does not have to navigate stairs/escalators to get to a different platform to switch lines.   Each train stops twice in this one ‘station’ – one stop facilitating a transfer to the other outbound line, the second to the other inbound line.

Jarrett also references one of his other posts, where he notes why transfers are good and why we should try to make them easy – they really make the system as a whole function smoothly.

More Updates

August 11, 2009
Spirit of Detroit

Spirit of Detroit

Still lots of good stuff to comment on since I was out of town…

What’s goin’ on in the D? Aaron Renn has a great post on the current state of Detroit.  If you haven’t been out in the neighborhoods, it’s hard to emphasize how open and desolate it is.  During my time in graduate school at the University of Michigan, I had multiple opportunities to spend time in Detroit.  Mr. Renn gives a fair assessment of the major problems facing the city, but also the unusual opportunities stemming from those problems.

In most cities, municipal government can’t stop drug dealing and violence, but it can keep people with creative ideas out. Not in Detroit. In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it. Maybe someone will eventually get around to shutting you down, or maybe not. It’s a sort of anarchy in a good way as well as a bad one. Perhaps that overstates the case. You can’t do anything, but it is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places because of the hand of government weighs less heavily.

What’s more, the fact that government is so weak has provoked some amazing reactions from the people who live there. In Chicago, every day there is some protest at City Hall by a group from some area of the city demanding something. Not in Detroit. The people in Detroit know that they are on their own and if they want something done they have to do it themselves. Nobody from the city is coming to help them. And they’ve found some very creative ways to deal with the challenges the result.

As the focus on agriculture and even hunting show, in Detroit people are almost literally hearkening back to the formative days of the Midwest frontier, when pioneer settlers faced horrible conditions, tough odds, and often severe deprivation, but nevertheless built the foundation of the Midwest we know, and the culture that powered the industrial age. No doubt in the 19th century many of those sitting secure in their eastern citadels thought these homesteaders, hustlers, and fortune seekers crazy for leaving the comforts of civilization to head to places like Iowa and Chicago. But some saw the possibilities of what could be and heeded the call to “Go West, young man.” We’ve come full circle.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  Even with Michigan’s crappy economy, prices in Detroit are so low that there’s opportunity for small scale revitalization.  Nothing large-scale is going to happen without larger changes in the economy, but some of the anecdotal stories are amazing.

If anyone needed convincing of the capacity of mass transit, consider this thought experiment about what Manhattan would look like without a subway:

Just to get warmed up, chew on this — from 8:00AM to 8:59 AM on an average Fall day in 2007 the NYC Subway carried 388,802 passengers into the CBD on 370 trains over 22 tracks. In other words, a train carrying 1,050 people crossed into the CBD every 6 seconds. Breathtaking if you ask me.

Over this same period, the average number of passengers in a vehicle crossing any of the East River crossings was 1.20. This means that, lacking the subway, we would need to move 324,000 additional vehicles into the CBD (never mind where they would all park).

Of course, at 325 square feet per parking space, all these cars would need over 3.8 square miles of space to park, about 3 times the size of Central Park. At that point, who would want to go to Manhattan anyway?

Cap’n Transit doesn’t want to take your car away. Just in case this popular line of anti-transit rhetoric comes up again, the Cap’n makes it crystal clear:

No, I don’t want to take your car away. I just want there to be some reasonable transit around for me to take when I’m old, and for my kid to use. I don’t want you to kill the hope of a sustainable rail transit system because you spent all my tax money on your stupid highway widening and airport runways. Can you please think about sustainability before it’s too late and we’ve wasted everything we’ve got?


  • Twin City Streets for People has a nice post on the Three D’s – Density, Diversity, and Design.  The author makes the case for focusing on design as the primary component of TODs rather than density – not because density isn’t important, but because it can be a lightning rod for opposition.  Emphasizing design allows to deflate concerns that conflate density with height, crime, and all the other usual fallacies.
  • Dr. Gridlock notes that people are losing trust in Metro.
  • Matt Yglesias draws attention to US demographic changes and how they favor urban living – also noting the potential for such gains to start positive feedback loops within urban communities and economies:

In particular, even if you assume no shift in underlying preferences regarding cities versus suburbs, and no pro-urbanism policy shifts, then the declining proportion of the population made up of families with children still implies a large shift back in the direction of urban infill.

Judged realistically, this should also open up possibilities for virtuous circles. Some people prefer to be surrounded by a lot of space, and others prefer the amenities associated with a denser urban environment, but nobody likes to live in a block with a vacant lot or around the corner from a broken-down shell of a former building. More people shifting into walkable urban neighborhoods allows those neighborhoods to capture more of what’s appealing about walkable urbanism.

Catching Up

August 11, 2009
Isthmus of Madison, WI

Isthmus of Madison, WI

Lots of items worth commenting on over the last week.

High Speed Rail Notes: Several good posts, including the transport politic shooting down some of Ed Glaeser’s numbers on HSR, as well as potential high speed connections between New York and Montreal.  Improving connections to Montreal, Toronto, and Canada’s main mega-region is a no-brainer.

The Overhead Wire also notes some assorted quotes on HSR, including a link to a Madison paper on weighing the different station options – either out at Madison’s airport, or closer in towards downtown (though not fully downtown by any means).  Having spent many years in Madison for college, I can’t quite see the major advantages of the proposed Yahara station versus the airport one.

The problem stems from the fact that Madison is on an isthmus.  The only way to get rail service downtown is to have a stub end terminal there, which complicates things from an operational perspective, given that both the line to Milwaukee and any potential lines northwards to the Twin Cities would approach Madison from the East side.  Current rights of way have a near U-turn at the proposed Yahara station area, taking some park land (a park I used to play Ultimate in, by the way), but the platform would still be awfully short for long term developments, not to mention hugging a sharp bend in the track.

Ideally, Madison would have solid rail transit service operating along some of those rights of way in order to get quick service from the airport (or the Yahara station) to downtown.  The tracks are there, they could theoretically start operating commuter rail tomorrow with a few DMUs.

Too Much Parking: Chris Bradford has a series of posts on the perils of too much parking – one and two.  Post one puts the reasons too much parking is bad in a handy-dandy bullet format, while post two takes note of a nice chart from San Francisco based Liveable City:

Old New
Parking is a social good. Parking is not an entitlement.
More parking is always better. Too much parking can create problems.
Parking demand is fixed, regardless of price or transportation alternatives. Parking demand is elastic, and depends on price and the availability of transportation alternatives.
Governments should establish minimum parking requirements. Governments shouldn’t mandate parking, and should instead establish maximum parking allowances where they make sense.
Parking costs should be bundled into the cost of housing, goods, and services Parking costs should be unbundled from the cost of housing, goods, and services.
Parking is a burden to government, and subsidies to parking will compete with other priorities for available funding. Parking can be a source of revenue for government, and if priced correctly can fund other city priorities.
Parking should be priced to encourage full utilization. Parking should be priced so as to create some available spaces at most times.
Cities should use time limits to increase parking availability and turnover. Cities should use price to increase parking availability and turnover.

That’s a solid summary of the old thinking about parking, compared to the new school of thought.  Chris also notes that you can easily replace “parking” with “roads” and the list is still valid (though it may require some grammatical adjustments).


  • ZipCar will get some competition in the hourly car rental market.
  • Summer Parks‘ are not the same as Summer Streets.
  • Miami’s zoning overhaul, entitled Miami 21, fails to advance.  This is a serious bummer for anyone who’s ever dealt with an arcane zoning code.
  • A token of my appreciation (har har) to Jarrett Walker for looking to abolish the $1 bill.  They’re a real pain in the ass for transit operations.   David Alpert mentioned equalizing Metrobus and Circulator fares, noting that the $1 Circulator fare seems to prioritize tourists over residents – but the whole idea of the Circulator is to be easy, and an even $1 fare is about as easy as it gets.  It would be even easier if we had Loonies (and, you know, it was culturally acceptable to use them).

Moving Time

July 30, 2009
Moving boxes by carlaarena on Flickr

Moving boxes by carlaarena on Flickr

Posting’s been light the last couple of days because I’ve been moving from one house to another.  No matter how many times I do it, I still forget what a pain it can be.  Now that I’m finally settling into the new digs, there’s been a whole lot of things worth commenting on posted in the past few days.

First, Richard Layman gave me a link on his blog, noting that we tend to disagree on a couple of things.  Though Richard and I do diverge on a number of issues, I think it’s worth noting that we’d agree on far more topics than not – including the general overall direction for the District and cities in general.   I’d also point out that a trend I notice in blog commenting in general (and many of my comments in particular) is that the truncated nature of the medium tends to focus my comments on one or two ideas from a post, and too often those ideas are critical rather than positive.  That’s the nature of the beast, I guess.

Thanks to Richard for having so much great info on his blog, I appreciate the link.

Poplar Point is a popular discussion item again.  GGW summarizes the development options presented, and Richard Layman chimes in.  Both note that all the options leave a little something to be desired.  One thing none of them have, however, is a soccer stadium – yet.  DC United officials have been chatting with Akridge about property they own, and is apparently still talking to DC officials about Poplar Point – though no one wants to admit anything.

All this stadium talk triggered a response from Noah Kazis at The City Fix.

While it’s good to see the Journal’s real estate blog thinking about neighborhoods rather than just individual sites, this is a common misunderstanding of how stadiums work. They aren’t vibrant providers of economic development; rather, they sit empty most of the time. The D.C. United schedule calls for 30 games a year, only 15 of which will be at the United’s stadium (not including playoffs, exhibition games and the like). That’s not enough to really spark development. While a built-in market of absolutely packed crowds at your sports bar is great for those 15 nights, the rest of the time you’ve got an enormous empty structure that will inevitably be surrounded by at least some large parking lots. That’s not a draw for street life.

First, I want to address a factual item.  DC United’s league schedule only has 15 home games, but DC United plays in several competitions beyond just MLS each year.  Just this past Tuesday I was in attendance at RFK for a game in the CONCACAF Champions League.  DCU also plays in the US Open Cup every year, plus there is also the SuperLiga, international friendlies, and plenty of games between National teams.  RFK will host the US Men’s National Team three times this calendar year, and has already played host to international matches between two non-US nations – drawing good crowds, too.

This issue of the number of games each year often is mis-stated, as most American sports fans don’t have experience with the idea of multiple, concurrent competitions as is commonplace in soccer leagues across the world (including MLS).  Most North American pro sports have their league’s regular season and then the playoffs – and that’s it.  Soccer has a whole lot more on the schedule, and it’s important to note that.

Still, I don’t think this changes the end result of Noah’s analysis.  Stadiums aren’t great for developing streetlife per se, but they can be an anchor to draw in crowds that would otherwise never venture into that part of the city.

I’d also argue that justifications for sports stadiums on pure economic grounds are misplaced from the start.  Sports are an important part of the civic identity of a city, and it’s important for cities to foster that connection.  Going so far as to hand over an expensive stadium on a silver platter (Nationals Park) probably crosses the line, but there’s something to be said for being a “major league” city.  DC United shouldn’t be an exception.

K Street’s transitway plans are moving forward, and not a moment too soon.  The two options at this point:

One option would create a two-lane busway in the center of K Street, leaving three general-purpose lanes on each side. The other option, on the other hand, makes the transitway three lanes, where the third lane lets eastbound buses pass each other in some spots and westbound buses pass each other in other spots. That option also contains a bicycle lane along the length of K Street. While at first glance the plans seem to provide a clear choice between more accommodation for cars versus more for buses and bikes, the difference isn’t that simple. Making a true “complete street” that works for all modes is not easy.

A nice debate emerged in the comments about bike lanes vs. trees vs. transit.  Leaving that discussion of priorities for another day, I’d offer one comment – I’d like to see a plan that can accommodate rail transit and buses on the same transitway in the space at the same time.  Seattle recently started doing this as they converted their downtown bus tunnel to handle both light rail and bus operations:

For any plan, I’d like to know how it could translate to rail in the future.  I would think that having some passing sections might facilitate streetcar, light rail, and bus operations.

Speaking of streetcars, Jarret Walker has a couple of great posts following up on the ‘debate’ between mobility and accessibility.  Also, along the same vein as trying to define the terms we use when discussing these issues, he has a great post about transportation planning in Australia and determining what values people want from transit.

One of the main reasons that skilled and talented people leave the transit industry is the impossibility of meeting conflicting political demands.   For example, I’ve actually seen cases where elected leaders told a transit agency to cut service on high-ridership route A in order to add new service to low-ridership rural area B, and then complained to staff when that change caused total ridership to go down. Obviously, if you move a service from a high-density area to a rural area, you should expect exactly that result. These hard-but-important questions are designed to elicit direction about the real choices that transit requires us to make, so that talented staff feel supported and encouraged as they follow that direction in building and operating the transit system.

This is the core of so many issues with transit, as well as the different emphasis on mobility vs. accessibility – our opinions of transit systems are expressions of value judgments.  Thus, it’s important to try and determine what those values are through the political process so that they can easily be implemented.

It’s similar to the idea of a community expressing their desires and values in a plan, then setting zoning rules to allow most development by-right, rather than the current mish-mash of PUDs, rezonings, variances, and the like.  Determine the values beforehand, rather than in an ad-hoc fashion while each individual case and decision festers.

Infrastructurist has a great interview with IBM’s HSR folks.

Matt Johnson has an intersting analysis of Metro’s ridership patterns.  More on this later, but the post is worth checking out now.

Good News, Bad News

July 23, 2009

Some good news here in DC:

Ryan Avent notes that despite the recession, the District is still a popular destination for people moving in.  It will be very interesting to see where DC’s population number ends up with the 2010 Census.

Bad news:

Construction within the District is way down from a year ago.

But there’s more good news!

Union Station’s bike station has glass!

From around the nation, some other promising tidbits:

72% of Charlotte’s LRT riders hadn’t used transit before.  Like The Overhead Wire, I think that’s a huge number.  Some of it might be to good timing with the nationwide increase in transit ridership and gas price spikes coinciding with the opening of the line – after all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Still, that’s a fantastic number and shows the kind of bias for rail potential riders have.

Small scale solutions to water issues get some publicity in Roll Call.

Most of us think of water and wastewater infrastructure as consisting of big pipes, treatment plants and reservoirs. Few of us recognize the importance of our natural infrastructure — the forests, wetlands, flood plains and grassy, permeable landscapes, which filter and purify water for humans, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and mitigate hot summers in city and town. Our natural landscape provides us with the most cost-effective and efficient system for recycling, reusing and filtering water.

This way of thinking has to change. Our infrastructure is aging. We pay relatively low water rates, which fail to cover the full value or cost of clean and safe water. We are losing more undeveloped land each year along with its trees, shrubs and grasses and are replacing it with impervious surfaces — roofs, roads, parking lots — that allow pollution to be carried off into our waters. We find ourselves in a changing climate, whatever the cause, bringing with it chaotic weather patterns including droughts in some places and greater precipitation and polluted runoff in others.

This kind of small scale thinking is something the Feds should encourage cities to take on, as it fits into their purview far more than, say, massive and expensive deep tunnel projects.  (Hat tip – Infrastructurist)

And one bit of bad news from New York: The Feds don’t like the delays and budget projections for the Second Avenue Subway.

The story is simple: The MTA has been unable to meet any of its self-imposed deadlines, and it now faces the prospects of massive cost overruns and a six-year delay in delivering Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. Original plans called for the entire line to be constructed by 2020. That is but a pipe dream right now.

The FTA numbers are alarming. The MTA is budgeting for an expected cost of $4.451 billion with a high end of $4.775 billion. The FTA believes a low budget estimate to be $4.978 billion with an August 2017 completion date. The federal government’s high end is $5.728 billion — over $1 billion more than the current MTA estimate — with a June 2018 opening date.

It’s too bad, since mismanagement like this (and Boston’s Big Dig also comes to mind) turns people away from thinking big and long term.

Counter-intuitive traffic

July 20, 2009

Perhaps the most confusing element in convincing the public about certain traffic improvements is the fact that traffic often behaves counter-intuitively.  We often think of traffic like water – if you remove some capacity from a stream, that water has to go somewhere.   In fact, traffic often behaves more like a gas – it expands to fill the volume given.  Conversely, when space is restricted, the same amount of gas will still fill that volume.

Obviously, this is a gross oversimplifaction of things.  The context of each situation matters a great deal, but for the most part, traffic fills the space available to it.

With that in mind, there are a couple of nice pieces circulating about traffic and how we deal with it:

Streetfilms visits the closures of Broadway at Herald Square in New York, noting how this particular closure has both increased available pedestrian space as well as improved traffic flow by vastly simplifying complex turning movements.

In a similar vein, Tom Vanderbilt (of Traffic fame) has a great piece up at Slate concerning the rise of the roundabout and some of the counter-intuitive effects they have.  Vanderbilt notes the disconnect between our common perceptions about roundabouts and the reality.  For example, we think they’re unsafe when they’re actually more safe.  We also think they’re slow (which they often are) yet they manage to move more traffic through the intersection in the same period of time – slower top speed, but faster average speed.

Ryan Avent has a couple of interesting posts on the potential for charging for roads based on vehicle miles traveled, rather than gallons of gas consumed.

The first concerns tolling technology.  The University of Minnesota has a cheap and easily installed device that could track miles traveled using mostly existing technology from on board car computers and SMS text messaging – thus using cell phone services rather than GPS based technology.  Such a device would seem to be both more cost-effective than GPS based systems and would also ameliorate some of the big brother privacy concerns with a VMT tax.

Discussion in the comments quickly returned to the idea of why a VMT tax is even necessary – why not just increase the gas tax? Avent’s second post takes this question on:

Several things to note. First, as I mentioned in the original post, this technology might also make it easier to do congestion tolling, which would be of enormous economic and environmental benefit. Second, I think we should increase the gas tax, whether or not we adopt a VMT. Oil dependency is pretty obviously a nefarious economic force, and I think it’s worth encouraging drivers to get off the black stuff. I’m also clearly in favor of carbon pricing, which would have a small but positive impact on gas prices.

Third, increasing gas taxes isn’t a very good way to pay for long-term infrastructure expenses, because higher gas taxes make people use less gas. So you increase the tax, and then people substitute away from the tax, reducing revenue, and then you can increase the tax again, and consumers will substitute away even more and revenues fall again, and so on. Higher taxes encourage efficiency, then a move to hybrids, and then a move to electrics, at which point you no longer have any tax revenue.

All good points.  Raising the gas tax now will help bridge the gap we have in transportation financing, as well as provide some much needed incentives to continue the shift towards both driving less and doing so in more fuel-efficient vehicles.  But this obviously is not a long term solution, and that’s where a VMT tax comes into play.

The devil, of course, is in the details.  Using VMT as a revenue stream is a great idea in the abstract, but that presumes heavier, road-damaging trucks will be taxed more than light cars.  As Ryan notes, linking such a mechanism with the ability to charge tolls is also an intruiging idea, as not every vehicle mile is equal.

Nevertheless, this will be the front line for the new transportation bill.  Without a stable funding source, financing infrastructure improvements will be difficult.

Also on the Avent watch – Ryan has a nice smackdown at Streetsblog of some conservative think tank dreck on the transportation front.