Friday, December 11th, 2009

Midwest Miscellany

The Good News

I thought I would lead off a few pieces of very good recent news.

First, Louise Nippert donated $85 million to Cincinnati arts groups. $75 million of this goes to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, making it the largest gift in that institution’s history and one of the largest to any orchestra anywhere.

Also, the Indianapolis Regional Center Design Guidelines won the 2010 National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice from the American Planning Association. Columbus, Ohio won in the Best Practice for Implementation category for its University District revitalization. And Chicago won in the Outreach category for its Wicker Park Bucktown Master Plan. The APA web site has the full list of winners.

Ideas For Cities

Back in September at Velocity Grand Rapids, an energetic bunch of urban enthusiasts came up with a collection of ideas for cities. I participated and previously shared some of the thinking this event stimulated in me. Recently, GOOD Magazine started blogging a huge collection of ideas that were captured from that event. It is called Ideas for Cities and is worth checking out. You won’t agree with all of them, I’m sure, but you are sure to find some good things on the list as well.

It’s Not a Race – But What If It Were?

I don’t know the original source of this video but I found it via Human Transit. It shows the progress of rail line construction in various cities over time. On your mark, get set…

If video does not display, click here.

2010 Housing Outlook

Pittsburgh’s Chris Briem pointed me at this Fortune magazine housing outlook for 2010. Pittsburgh happens to be the only market projected positive for 2010, though several markets turn positive in 2011. Here’s the Midwest cities from the list. The rank is in order of best to worst housing markets for the top 100 metros.

  • #1 – Pittsburgh: +0.41%
  • #7 – Kansas City: -1.81%
  • #8 – Louisville: -2.24%
  • #12 – St. Louis: -2.39%
  • #24 – Indianapolis: -3.23%
  • #30 – Milwaukee: -3.92%
  • #34 – Chicago: -4.30%
  • #40 – Minneapolis: -4.99%
  • #50 – Columbus: -6.54%
  • #51 – Cleveland: -6.98%
  • #57 – Cincinnati: -8.30%
  • #65 – Detroit: -9.40%

A Tsunami of Freight

The Cincinnati Enquirer has a great series of articles on increasing truck traffic in the region and insufficient investment in roads to keep up with it. I-75 is now the busiest north-south trucking route in the US, and 47,500 trucks per day pass through Cincinnati.

I know there are a lot of people out there that are anti-highway. But a lot of the arguments around it relate to local land use and development patterns and ignores freight. Clearly, rail freight and intermodal transport are growing at a rapid clip and need investment. But trucking is always going to be a very important part of our national economy and keeping freight moving on a national and regional level is critical. For a big rig, every hour of delay costs about $67 – that adds up quickly.

I support transit development but also believe we need highway investment. With almost every Midwest city and state saying distribution and logistics are going to be a big part of its economy, highway investment is even more critical. If your region has big time congestion and roads with obsolete dimensions, that’s dramatically going to hurt your business climate for transport intensive industries. The cities that figure out how to make this investment are going to distinguish themselves.

One of the things I said I was going to do when I started this blog was call them like I see them, and for this I know I part ways with many. We absolutely need major highway investment in our cities. Do we need transit investment as well? Absolutely. I believe they are actually complementary, not substitutes. Transit works well were highways don’t and vice versa. We need to complement urbanized cores with transit appropriate development patterns with strong regional and national highway networks. It’s a matter of AND not OR.

More from the Enquirer:

World and National Roundup

I want to highlight two long but fascinating and troubling articles about international cities. The first is The Dark Side of Dubai from the Independent (UK). (via @a_me1). It is an incredible peek behind the glittering facade of this Middle Eastern Oz.

The other is a piece in the Observer (UK) on Rio’s drug war. This piece is another example of why the Guardian/Observer is the best newspaper in the world.

Design Boom takes a look at some of the coolest subway designs in the world. Highly recommended. Nothing in the United States featured, of course.

Foreign Policy magazine published their first annual list of the top 100 global thinkers.

Forbes/Kotkin: The World’s Smartest Cities

PD Smith has an opinion piece in Wired UK proposing to use taxation to get people back into cities over there. You wouldn’t have to tax me to get me to move to London! Just offer me a job. It might be my favorite city in the world.

The Guardian: How locals transformed streets into public spaces.

The Atlantic: Mayors vs. Governors. How cities are getting short changed on the stimulus.

Glaeser: What Makes Cities Great

NYT: Entering the super-project void – Bemoaning the lack of transformational infrastructure projects in America.

Essay: Dawn of the Deal Mall (via Kaid Benfield)

A study shows that wind farms don’t harm property value.

CS Monitor: Five cities that will rise in the New Economy (via Houston Strategies)

Reihan Salam: We’re all Michiganders now

Elizabeth Warren: America without a middle class.

David Brooks: An Innovation Agenda

New York Magazine: The Encyclopedia of Counter-Intuitive Thought – a compendium of some of the best works of counter-intuitive thinking from the last decade. Very stimulating. (Via @jwalkersmith)

New Geography: Will New Urbanists Deliver a Home Win with Miami 21?

NYT: Trouble in Philly, Lessons in New York. There’s a backlash against bicycling in Philadelphia after bicyclists killed two pedestrians. It would be tempting to just bash cars more here, but biking advocates need to address the legitimate concerns about how biking affects pedestrians. Clearly there is an element of the biking community, albeit a minority, that rides rudely and hazardously. We need to educate and encourage bikers to share the road with pedestrians just as we do the same with drivers.

Streetsblog New York: MTA Doomsday Redux?

Five days that shook Seattle. A look back at the WTO meeting and riots (via @OtisWhite)

Sizing up a sharp turn at the Denver Art Museum. A look at that institutions progress as 20 year director Lewis Sharp departs.

How two cities revived train stations. The Detroit Free Press examines how Kansas City and Nashville reused their train stations, seeking a model for saving the Michigan Central Depot.

Nashville: Medical Mart chooses convention center home. (via Brewed Fresh Daily)

Kaid Benfield: Texas (!) becomes first state to adopt smart streets rule. I’m not as surprised as he is. With that Texas attitude, when they think they are behind on something, they make a point to catch up, which is why Texas actually bests almost the entire Midwest on most measures of urban progressivism.

Ohio Faces ‘Mobility Crisis’

Urban Cincy highlighted a study that talked about the precipitous decline of transportation option other than automobiles in Ohio. He’s got all the details you should definitely check out, but I wanted to share the maps of non-auto transportation links in Ohio in 1979 vs. 2009.

First 1979:

Now 2009:

Policing Levels

Urban Cincy has a another great piece, this one on police staffing levels in Cincinnati It’s an interesting and provocative analysis in an area in which the discourse is dominated by a political culture in which no one wants to appear soft on crime.

He had a great chart of police officers per capita for Midwest cities. Here is the research, in terms of police per 100,000 residents in the year 2000:

  • Cleveland: 381
  • Milwaukee: 335
  • Pittsburgh: 310
  • Cincinnati: 307 (2010 data pro forma with planned reductions)
  • Kansas City: 284
  • Louisville: 269
  • Columbus: 245
  • Minneapolis: 236
  • Toledo: 220
  • Indianapolis: 207
  • Portland: 190

Names and Identity

The New York Times had a great piece Sunday called “Vancouver Talks Tough to Itself“. That’s Vancouver, Washington. One of the key focus areas of the article is how sharing a name with Vancouver, British Columbia kills their brand recognition. One local even created a shirt saying, “Vancouver (not B.C.), Washington (not D.C.), Clark County (not Nevada), near Portland, Oregon (not Maine)”.

The town is actually considering the step of renaming itself back to its original moniker of Fort Vancouver in an attempt to eliminate the confusion.

This story made me immediately think of Columbus, Ohio. It’s another city that struggles under the weight of a fairly generic name. It’s not that it is overshadowed by a more famous or bigger Columbus, but rather that Columbus is simply a common name for cities in America (Columbus, Indiana; Columbus, Georgia) and that the word Columbus to many people means the Columbus in their own state. Also, until recently Columbus was in the shadow of Cleveland and Cincinnati, so didn’t have longstanding historic recognition. It is probably the biggest city in America where you always have to give the state, not just the city name – Columbus, Ohio. It is probably the largest city out there where a Wikipedia search on its name takes you to a disambiguation page.

It prompts an interesting question: should Columbus change its name? That would be a radical step for sure, one fraught with danger. But also a potential game changer for the city. Just the act of doing so would generate huge press. If I were them I would consider it except that such exercises are inherently so difficult, as most corporate branding initiatives show. I lived through the transition from Andersen Consulting to Accenture. So I know that finding a good name is problematic, and even the best of names sounds stupid when you first hear it. (I think Accenture did one of the better jobs out there). Would anyone pick, for example, Chicago as a city name today? No. The name has meaning because of the history and what it represents. So even the coolest of names would take a long time to “break in” so to speak. If someone really did come up with a great name though, it would be something to debate.

Cincinnati Agenda 360

The Cincinnati Enquirer did a major feature on Agenda 360 last week. Agenda 360 is the region’s strategic plan for the future, focused around raising the number of young people with college degrees, adding jobs, and more.

As the piece notes, however, the goals seem unattainable in the target timeframe, especially with the recession. The Agenda 360 organization is still thinking big, however. According to executive director Myrita Craig, “We wanted to aspire to not just an incremental increase, but to a quantum increase. Love it or hate it, that’s what it is.” The Enquirer suggests that they will be forced to re-evaluate these goals and I agree. I think it is good to set stretch goals and dream big, but if attaining them is patently impossible, it is time for a rethink. Having said that, there is still plenty of good in Agenda 360, and particularly in the process they used.

I previously took an in-depth look at Agenda 360 back in March.

The Enquirer also shared thoughts from several other people on the plan:

The Cleveland Infrastructure Challenge

A couple of news articles out of Cleveland got me thinking again about the infrastructure challenges facing not just that city, but most of our cities. The first was a piece on the recontruction of the Inner Belt bridge. This nine figure project is going to result in six years of construction and traffic disruption.

The other was about the city seeking $219 million to shore up the Cuyahoga River bank. A section of it is in danger of collapsing, which would disrupt the shipping channel, destroy a major sewer line, and take out a roadway.

When you look at expenses like this – and others such as CSO remediation – it shows again the problem that our core cities are forced to spend huge amounts of money just to replace or repair aging infrastructure. When suburban areas build infrastructure, at least they get the benefit of mostly net new product. But after a lot of these expenditures in our cities, they have more or less the same product. Fixing a decaying bank just holds off problems, but doesn’t add to Cleveland’s competitive advantage. Indeed, to the extent that local funds are used, it only adds to the fiscal burden. In my view this is again where federal assistance could help our cities tremendously.

Also, it is critical to find any way we can to get value add out of these projects. Too often instead we get value engineering that strips these down to the bare minimum to save on budget. The end result is a project that doesn’t move the needle for the city or region, but still costs a fortune.

The Asian Invasion

Illinois recently poisoned the Sanitary and Ship Canal in order to kill off Asian carp, and invasive species working its way north from the Mississippi River. There is a huge fear that these voracious eaters would devastate the ecosystem of the Great Lakes if they managed to make it to Lake Michigan.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to force Chicago to close the Chicago River locks to stop it. She’s even threatening legal action. Subsequent press coverage indicated the Army Corps of Engineers is actively considering a temporary closure.

Let’s face it, Chicago would never have been allowed to reverse the flow of the Chicago River today. Other Great Lakes states have long seethed at this arrangement and the threat to the ecosystem is a foot in the door to re-open the issue of whether Chicago can continue to divert billions of gallons of Lake Michigan water. This could get interesting.

More Midwest

Chicago
Comparing the Modern Wing and the Pritzker Pavillion (Build Blog). The authors reach more or less the same conclusion I did.

Cleveland
Casino, convention center, medical mart and other downtown projects need something else to succeed – more people (Plain Dealer) – via Brewed Fresh Daily
Cleveland’s Euclid corridor has paved way for economic development (Plain Dealer)
RTA’s Euclid Health Line faring well in ridership, innovation (Plain Dealer) – An architecture review of the new BRT line, with video.
Cleveland’s RTA exploring ways to saving on utility costs (Plain Dealer)

Detroit
Grand Cobo Ideas Not So Far Fetched (Free Press)
Population loss costs Michigan $4.3 billion (Detroit News)
Downsize Detroit: Strengthen city by phasing out depleted neighborhoods (John Mogk @ Detroit News)
Hundreds of Michigan road projects slashed (Detroit News)
Rethinking Talent Retention (Generation Y Michigan) – via Burgh Disapora

Indianapolis
Indianapolis displays the art of ‘Sacred Spain’ (AP) – A fantastic review of this exhibition from the Associate Press
Place making in Irvington (A Place of Sense)
New Lease on Life for Old City Hall? (IBJ)
Roadside America gets flair (American Dirt)
Zoning board to vote on I-465 sign request – PLEASE, PLEASE VOTE NO

Louisville
Louisville sidewalks get $7.4 million makeover (C-J)

Milwaukee
Regional Transit Authority caught in a funding tangle (J-S)

Pittsburgh
Regionalism: What Is It Good For? (Politics and Place)
Pittsburgh tuition tax plan spurs student fears (Philadelphia Inquirer)

St. Louis
Renewed Metro (transit) tax campaign will test St. Louis value (Post-Dispatch)

Twin Cities
Minneapols-Duluth rail price tag rises to $1 billion (Star Tribune)
What deficit? Vikings fans rally for new stadium (Star Tribune)

16 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Economic Development, Public Safety, Regionalism, Strategic Planning, Sustainability, Transportation
Cities: Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus (Ohio)

16 Responses to “Midwest Miscellany”

  1. Mr. Renn, how do you keep up with all this? thanks for your efforts, you’re a one-stop clearinghouse of great information.

    Sorry I couldn’t make it over to Black Rock yesterday to introduce myself — kids’ homework took precedence.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Well, the question is whether saving $67 per hour of delay per truck is really worth poisoning Cincinnati’s air even further and spending more on military protection of oil sources. Remember: just air pollution costs about $2.11 per gallon of gas consumed, in 2003 dollars, according to Greg Mankiw. CO2 costs another $1/gal. And depending on how you allocate the cost of an oil-based foreign policy, military protection of oil sources is at least $1/gal, counting just Iraq.

  3. Des says:

    I second James Finn Garner’s observation – how do you keep up with it all. What a great overview.

    Two comments:

    On the tsunami of freight. We always hear about how important highways are for goods movement, but expansion plans are almost never accompanied by any policy that would ensure that benefits are concentrated in the hands of truckers. There are rarely controls on development nearby, so the highway ends up being clogged by commuters/shoppers/suburbanites, nor are there ‘truck/freight’ only lanes (in fact the opposite is sometimes true). If highway expansion was truly about goods movement, there would be some major accompanying policy changes. Without these, I don’t buy it. In Vancouver (BC not WA, Canada, not US…), we’re suffering through the provincially-imposed ‘Gateway Program’ that is supposedly all about goods movement, but again, contains no measures whatsoever to guarantee that the increased capacity will actually benefit freight operations. If it’s really about our role as a Pacific Gateway/Port, then why not just build a truck-only bridge? See http://www.gatewayprogram.bc.ca for details.

    On Cleveland’s infrastructure: Are US cities in some sense ‘overbuilt’ when it comes to mega highways, etc…? From a Canadian perspective, some of these works seem downright gargantuan and over the top. In particular, it would seem that with dropping populations (in central cities), perhaps some of these facilities could be scaled down. Is that not feasible because of political will, or are there really that many cars, or would it really undermine economic development? I would think that some kind of downscaling might not be such a bad move, particularly in combination with a shift towards transit, or infill development, if that’s the chosen policy route.

    Anyways, thanks for the great posts as always…

    -Des

  4. Kevin says:

    Columbus definitely isn’t the largest city where a Wikipedia search takes you to a disambiguation page. That honor probably belongs to Phoenix.

  5. JC says:

    I love that you keep up with it all, but too much of a good thing …. is still too much for readers. It’s like too big of a bite of ice cream all at once: brain freeze.

  6. Thanks for the comments.

    Clearly, keeping up with this material is difficult. I actually would probably read it even if I didn’t blog it all. There’s not much effort in logging the links. But I will confess it is very time consuming to put together these news summary pieces. In general, it is the most time consuming type of post I do. I have given serious thought to terminating the Midwest Miscellany feature for that reason. I am also thinking about potentially getting someone on board to take that part over. Readers seem divided. Some think this is highly valuable. Others are indifferent. Feedback is always welcome.

    JC, yes, I was particularly backed up with links this time. When I started the blog one of my aspirations was to be the New Yorker of urbanist blogs. Part of that means you can never actually get through it all ;)

  7. Des, there are some proposals out there such as the four state I-70 dedicated truck lanes “corridor of the future” project that is being debated. You are right that it is mostly shared lanes though. I think there’s increasing recognition of the incompatibility of truck and auto traffic, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  8. JG says:

    Investment in interstate highways will continue to be necessary as our population grows. However, moving goods by freight rail uses remarkably less energy than by truck. Larger cross country trips by single tractor trailor trucks should take a smaller role in freight transit 10 years from now. I too support investment in both but with trucks operating in a radius of 100 (maybe 200) miles depending on location.

    The Chicago, St. Louis, etc freight rail bottle necks seem to be a big hurdle in getting more goods on trains and off the over capacity interstate highways.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    On the one hand, a gas tax that reflected the costs of pollution and CO2 emissions would reduce car traffic and make things slightly easier for truckers, who’d trade higher gas prices for less congestion.

    On the other hand, a user fee that reflected the costs of road maintenance would be brutal to trucks. The road wear a vehicle causes is proportional to the fourth power of axle load. A 30-ton 18-wheeler causes 250 times the road wear of a 3-ton SUV and 20,000 times the road wear of a 1-ton sedan. Fewer trucks on the road would mean much lower maintenance costs for highways.

  10. David says:

    Both rail and truck’s market share of freight transport has grown over the last thirty years, with rail up to about 45%, and trucks 33%. You can’t ignore either without crushing the economy, and the labor costs to build new tracks or roads are going up faster than inflation, which is beyond the control of any politician. This road vs. rail debate, on both sides, is rooted in political philosophy that is completely separate from any economic reality.

    Also, rail lines are all privately owned, which means unprofitable ones get cut off. This is an issue in the Great Plains, where many bulk grain shipments, ideal for rail, have to get trucked first because there is no track by the nearest grain elevator.

    Aaron’s point is important, because downtown Chicago needs the L just as Cincinnati needs its interstates. But that doesn’t mean we need an interstate through Wrigleyville, or a subway to Covington.

  11. david vartanoff says:

    Actually the trucking increases mirror both incompetence and disinterest by the RRs. A few years back Forbes gushed praise that Norfolk Southern had cut travel time from Birmingham to Allentown from 5 to 3 days. A trucker would make the roundtrip in less time. As long as RRs can’t do better, the trucks will continue to choke the Interstates. NS parallels I 81 which is jammed w/ semi’s. NS is waiting for the state of Virginia to pay them to fully double track their main to give them faster throughput. Virginia is thinking about doubling the lanes of I 81. Until we have a genuine “national transportation policy” we will be building lanes to encourage smog. Dumb. As to the bottlenecks in Chicago and St. Louis, CSX Queensgate Yard in Cincy is no paradise and delays carloads which merely need to pass through. The current # is 36.4 hours per the AAR website, and Corbin KY 29.7.

  12. cdc guy says:

    What’s sad is that many of the Eastern long-haul rail mainlines WERE double-tracked, or had parallel routes (competition) once upon a time. Penn Central (later Conrail, then CSX or NS) didn’t need two or three parallel tracks laid by their legacy forebears.

    Or so they thought.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    The former New York Central and PRR mainlines are still double-tracked – but they used to be four-tracked. The problem is that railroads pay property taxes in proportion to how much infrastructure they have, so when traffic was low, they had an incentive to tear down extra tracks and undermaintain the remaining tracks.

  14. George says:

    Rename Columbus? Columbus’ problem is that it has tried to throw the hail mary pass for years:
    -If we have a larger population than Cleveland & Cincy, people will ntoice us
    -If we host the AmeriFlora event (1992 international flower show), everyone will notice us
    -If we invest in a great start-up airline (Skybus-lasted 9 months in 2007-08) we will start an aviation cluster and everyone will notice us

    I think instead of renaming the city we need to build it. We are newcomers on the national scene. With the excpetion of Indianapolis, which did a fantastic job marketing itself, the rest of the big Midwestern cities have bene around for a while and have more “pedigree”.

    We just need to take time to build ours, one step at a time. Focusing on the little thing sthat make great cities will eventually pay off.

  15. cdc guy says:

    Columbus was founded in 1812, Indianapolis in 1821.

    Both are older than Chicago, founded in 1833.

    I don’t think “time” is the key factor in city branding or growth.

  16. david vartanoff says:

    @ Alon and cdc guy, A bit more detail on track capacity. Perlman downsized NYC from 4 to 2 in the 50’s but retained capacity by adding CTC and reverse signaling. If you travel the ‘Water Level Route’ today, you can be on either main in either direction passing a slower freight. The issue in the I 81 corridor is that line was never doubletracked and until the last twenty five years a minor route. With the huge growth in freight, capacity is now inadequate both by rail and road.
    As to CSX, NS, and predecessors reducing capacity, yes particularly the CSX bean counters ripped out way too many sidings/second mains. At the other end of the country BNSF is nearly finished double tracking the ‘transcon’ which had been single w/ passing sidings since it was built. This is BNSF’s speedway for containers from LA/Long Beach east.
    As to the tax/capacity nexus, CSX has been agressive in arm twisting state legislatures for tax giveaways (New York, Fla)

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