Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Framework: Transit Ridership

You might have a hard time believing I’ve spent most of my career in consulting due to the lack of Power Point presentations on my blog. While I’ll admit to not being partial to the tool, I can create frameworks. Going forward, I’ll occasionally share some that are relevant to cities, starting today with public transit.

Last year I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. The goal was to devise a strategy for boosting regional transit ridership to one billion rides annually. If you’d like, you can read my winning entry, which won out over 125 others from around the world.

My plan includes over 50 potential actions that could be undertaken. You could think of them as being organized around the following framework.

In short, to boost ridership you need to create ridership demand, which you accomplish by increasing the number of transit addressable trips, then making transit the mode of choice for them. You then have to supply the capacity and pay for it, as well as creating an appropriate governance and operating model structure.

Generating transit addressable trips comes primarily by boosting CBD employment and land use policy changes. Making transit the mode of choice involves creating a transit service with the right mix of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience versus other modes. Capacity is provided by more efficiently utilizing what you have and building new where appropriate. Financing – which includes capital and operating – typically comes from a mixture of federal assistance, sales taxes, and fares. I would favor a greater reliance on transit value capture, however.

To give some further perspective on this, I’ll share some considerations around various aspects of the framework.

Generating Transit Addressable Trips

Transit addressable trips are those that can reasonably be served by public transit. For example, a trip to Wal-Mart anchored shopping center or a suburban office park is generally fairly difficult to service by transit, at least for choice riders. We need to generate demand for more of the trips that are.

For work trips, the place to start is the Central Business District. CBD’s are generally fairly dense, constitute the largest single employment base in the region, were historically served by transit and thus are walkable, and are generally the focus of the transit that exists today, at least in the United States. The more jobs in the CBD, the better for transit.

Unfortunately, this is a challenging matter. Jobs have been decentralizing from downtowns for decades. Most cities have a fairly low percentage of their regional jobs in the CBD. This isn’t per se a problem as long as the CBD holds a significant job base, as it does in places like New York and Chicago.

The problem is that outside of the tier one cities, CBD employment has been experiencing absolute declines. Last year a Toledo Blade series documented how all of Ohio’s top seven downtowns were losing jobs. Even a great performing city like Columbus lost over 12,000 private sector downtown jobs between 2000 and 2005. This is not to pick on Ohio since I’d speculate most other places would show the same.

I have done a lot of thinking on this topic, but we’ll have to save that for another day. Suffice it to say that this will be a challenge outside of tier one cities. But as the key to the central city’s tax base, it’s an important matter to tackle even without the transit considerations.

Beyond that, land use policy is something I’m sure my readers already get. You need some level of density and walkability along transit lines and near rail stations.

Making Transit the Mode of Choice

Apart from a small hard core, I fundamentally do not believe people will choose to ride transit to save the planet or otherwise because it is the right thing to do. Rather, they are going to make the mode choice that seems best to them based on a combination of price, end-to-end journey time, and quality of experience.

Price again is where the CBD is poised to shine since that typically features expensive parking. This is the easy lever to win. Outside of CBD commuting though, the price equation can change dramatically. When you can park for free near a restaurant, for example, the price of round trip bus fare for two ($9 in Chicago) is a material amount of money. Heck, you can sometimes valet park for less than that. This off peak, non-commute price disincentive is one reason suggested that small cities should have fareless transit.

Price is also a consideration for automobile. Pricing roadway travel, especially congestion pricing to help ease peak of the peak travel, could potentially help transit even more. Also parking prices and taxes.

End to end journey time will almost always favor the automobile. It’s tough to address that. Most of the periods that feature express runs are during peak periods, targeting CBD commuters only, which is a group that already has reasons to take transit. Again, this is going to be tough for transit, but not necessarily a killer.

Quality of experience is an interesting one. Generally I think many people would prefer the private interior of their own car to a bus or train with other people. However, there’s a lot that can be done to make the experience better, as anyone who has used a first class overseas transit system can attest. And of course commuting in bad traffic is like a form of torture at times.

Also, the rise of wireless devices means transit time can be productive time. This might even favor longer commutes by transit since you can get some uninterrupted work time. Many people I know get lots of work done on Metra trains, for example.


It’s obvious that we need to build the capacity to serve the market we want, but I’d like to highlight the idea of optimization of existing capacity. Public transit is to some extent like an airline. Once you decide how many vehicles and runs to put on the street, it is more or less a fixed cost business to operate. So you want to make sure that none of those seats go empty.

As with many things, adding capacity at the peak of the peak period is costly. For example, the CTA spent $550 million to lengthen platforms to enable eight car Ravenswood L trains that are only needed during rush periods. The rest of the time that capacity is useless.

To avoid having to add this type of very expensive but limited use capacity, we should look at how we can shift peak demand to shoulder periods or off peak. Variable pricing is one way to do this. I already wrote about this in my post “Transit Pricing Reconsidered.”

Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Many smaller cities would dearly love to have fully occupied buses.


How do we pay for this? Typically capital comes from a mixture of federal grants and bonds backed by sales taxes. Operating subsidies also come from things like sales and real estate transfer taxes. One problem with this is that it implies funding a more or less fixed cost system with variable/cyclical revenues. Without healthy reserves, this will lead to periodic “doomsdays”.

My preferred method of financing is transit value capture, where transit is funded through increases in the land values created by transit. I wrote about this previously as well.

Governance and Operating Models

This is not the sexy part of transit, but needs to be carefully considered. Often the current structures are more or less the result of legacy choices and aren’t appropriate to the current or desired environment. Changing them can be politically difficult, however. Part of this is recognizing that no system of government investment will be made purely on an ROI basis. Thus we need to find a way to strike the right balance among civic objectives in a way that enables real benefits to be delivered.

Obviously this only touches the surface of these items. I just wanted highlight some of the matters that must be considered when planning transit systems inside of an overall high-level framework for doing so.

Friday, January 29th, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

We have something La Jolla doesn’t have. It’s called ‘diversity of weather.’ But we have to be able to compete with those places. We don’t have the Pacific Ocean, we don’t have the Rocky Mountains. So we have to work harder on our cultural amenities and in our built environment to make it beautiful – and to make it a place where people want to choose, to spend their lives, raise their families, and retire….Many of the initiatives and projects we have implemented are not the norm for the state of Indiana, and it takes courage to move forward with conviction, knowing that it is in the best long term interests of our city.” – Carmel, Indiana Mayor Jim Brainard, 2009 State of the City Address

Discover what over 2,000 people already know by following me on Twitter. Every day I send info on many of the most important and interesting urban developments in America and the world, with select diversions to media, art, and current events. It’s a great way to keep up to date and expand your horizons. Don’t miss out.

Top Stories

1. Joel Kotkin @ WSJ: The Kids Will Be Alright.

2. Megan Cottrell: Eviction Is to Black Women What Incarceration Is to Black Men.

3. NYT: In Dayton, the Emptiness Echoes Where NCR Used to Be

High Speed Rail Grants Announced

The federal government announced the winners in the $8 billion high speed rail grant program. The Infrastructurist has the details, but major winners include:

  • California: $2.25B
  • Florida: $1.25B
  • Illinois: $1.1B
  • Ohio: $400M

Here’s a map:

The Transport Politic has additional coverage.

I think this shows the challenge we’ll have moving the needle. The feds basically peanut butter spread the money. Given the modest amounts involved to start with, don’t look for game changers anytime soon.

Related: Richard Longworth’s Derailing the Midwest and Thanks for Nothing.

The Surbanization of Poverty

The Brookings Institution recently released a major study on the increasing suburbanization of poverty. While poverty is often associated with the inner city, and we indeed see poverty concentrations there, the suburbs are actually home to 1.5 million more poor people than cities.

Here’s a national map of change in suburban poverty levels:

There is a huge amount of information in this study, including detailed profiles of the top 100 metro areas, so it is one to check out if you have an interest in poverty data.

Small Business Vitality took a look at small business vitality. They computed an index score for 100 largest metros. Click through for the full list, or here is how key Midwest cities scored:

  • #8 – Des Moines: 27.62
  • #18 – Madison: 16.12
  • #38 – Kansas City: 5.14
  • #39 – Minneapolis-St. Paul: 3.61
  • #48 – Indianapolis: -0.77
  • #52 – Columbus: -2.35
  • #57 – St. Louis: -3.81
  • #71 – Pittsburgh: -7.83
  • #72 – Chicago: -8.83
  • #76 – Louisville: -12.01
  • #83 – Cincinnati: -15.30
  • #94 – Cleveland: -27.42
  • #96 – Milwaukee: -29.74
  • #100 – Detroit: -53.96

People Prefer the Suburbs

I think any realistic strategy around cities has to start with the recognition that people predominantly live in suburban areas and in fact like living there. I realize many of you would disagree with this, but as I promised when I started the blog, I’ve got to call ’em like I see ’em regardless of whether or not it is popular. There may be subsidies to the suburbs. There may be all sorts of reasons why people choose and prefer them, but they still seem to do it.

The Columbus Dispatch carried an article called “Sprawl Has Spread Deep Into Our Minds” that addresses this matter, citing the work of Ohio State urban planning professor Hazel Morrow-Jones:

Hazel Morrow-Jones has spent much of a lifetime trying to answer a simple question: Why do we live where we live?

The question might be simple, but the answer isn’t — hence the decades of research.

Do we choose a home because it’s close to work or has a pleasing design? Because it’s in a safe neighborhood or a good school district? Near family or close to where we grew up?

The question isn’t merely academic. Finding the answer is vital to keeping our cities and older suburbs healthy, or else residents will push farther and farther away from the central city.

As a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University, Morrow-Jones knows the possible answers are endless. She also knows that buying a home is an extremely emotional and individual decision, and that no single study will explain every choice.

Despite the daunting possibilities, some broad conclusions can be drawn from Morrow-Jones’ 30-some years of researching the topic, and they present huge challenges for urban planners.

The short version: People like new and big homes far from the central city.

Not all truths are pleasant to hear. I think we should understand and evaluate this research. If we want to really realize the potential of our urban cores, we need to understand where people are coming from, and figure out how to craft a re-imagining of the good life in an urban context that appeals to a material segment of the public. (This article is also indicative of the lure of greenfield economics, where people move to shed legacy costs. Tackling that problem would also help enormously).

World and National Roundup

City Mayors: Cities have to develop into successful brands

The Guardian: Berlin is poor but sexy, and oozes creative wealth

WSJ:E-Yikes! Electric Bikes Terrorize the Streets of China

Neal Pearce: No End in Sight to State’s Fiscal Agony

WSJ: The US Needs an Infrastructure Bank

Urban Omnibus: The Public Works

Fast Company: Why You Should Start a Company in New York.

Mass Transit Mag: Bay Area Trains, Buses Face Declines in Ridership and Revenues – “After enduring the most brutal year in the history of Bay Area public transit systems, train and bus operators are barreling down a track toward bankruptcy.”

SF Chronicle: Market St. changes as city evolves (via @OtisWhite)

The Advocate published a ranking of the top 15 gayest cities in America. Interestingly, three of the top five are in the Midwest: Iowa City (#3), Bloomington, IN (#4), Madison, WI (#5). College towns, obviously, but still, there are plenty of those all around the country.

Lastly, here’s a link to a presentation in Akron by economist Joe Cortright. Cortright is the person who did a lot of the research behind the CEO’s for Cities “talent dividend” and other items. He talks about the importance of talent and civic distinctiveness. It’s an hour long piece, so definitely not for everybody, but if you are interested in such things, it is worth checking out.

Amazing Cycling Infrastructure

Broken Sidewalk pointed me at this great idea for cycling infrastructure from Copenhagenize. The picture says it all:

Copenhagenize also posted a video about a super-cool automated bicycle parking facility developed by a Japanese company. Click the previous link if the video doesn’t display.

The Equal States

Fake is the New Real created an interesting map redrawing US state boundaries to make them equal in population.

More Midwest

Transit for World Class Metropolises: Can Chicago Compete? (GOTO2040)
Fewer conventions are choosing Chicago (WSJ)

Phase 1a of the Banks to rise quickly (UrbanCincy)

Detroit: Open for Business (Hour Detroit) – Interview with Mayor Bing, via @urbanbydesign
Designing a better Detroit (Time)
High Class (Hour Detroit)
Blueprint America: Beyond the Motor City (PBS) – Preview of a forthcoming program

Hotels spark expansion of downtown skywalk system (IBJ) – Features Your Truly

Kansas City
Missouri Transportation Alliance is looking for ways to run road improvements (KC Star)
Jackson County Sues Kansas City Over TIF (KC Star)

Tarc rolls out another bus music video (Broken Sidewalk)

St. Louis
St. Louis demolished 8,000 buildings in the 2000’s (Dotage St. Louis) – Wow


Talk about a public transit fan. This woman had a map of the Chicago L system tattooed on her foot (via George Ritzlin Antique Maps and Prints).

Anybody want to step up and identify themselves?

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Another Epic Public Space WIN in New York

I recently gave an overview of some of the great developments in the transportation system and public space of New York. Well the hits just keep on coming as this week New York announced the result of its sidewalk shed competition.

Sidewalk sheds are those generally unpleasant steel and wood scaffolding structures you have to walk through when traversing a construction site. They protect pedestrians, but not much more. Here’s an example of a classic version (via Lynn Becker):

And here’s a rendering of the new New York version:

Wow. Quite the difference, don’t you think?

The design is called “Urban Umbrella.” It’s so nice you might want to even, say, put a sidewalk cafe under it:

This is the type of thing that separates the men from the boys when it comes to cities. Here’s one more rendering showing the cool, integrated lighting.

The use of the urban umbrella will be encouraged, but not required. As there are approximately 6,000 sidewalk sheds in New York City, with over one million linear feet, the potential impact on public space over time is huge.

But beyond the design itself, there are a couple of other aspects of this that are noteworthy I want to higlight.

Design Process

The design was chosen as part of an international competition that received over 164 entries from 28 countries around the world. The winner was Young-Hwan Choi, a 28-year-old first year student from the University of Pennsylvania.

That’s right, New York’s new standard sidewalk shed was designed by a first year architecture student. Lot’s of cities hold design competitions, but how many select winners from student work? Thinking specifically about our smaller Midwest cities, I’m having trouble imagining it, though maybe there are some examples.

What usually comes to mind is something like the St. Louis arch grounds competition. Admittedly, that’s a significant landscape, not an object, but the cost of just participating in the competition is likely to scare off even many professional firms.

New York has the self-confidence to pick something it likes, regardless of where it came from. Perhaps that’s because New York is where reputations are made, while other places are where they are consumed. Almost paradoxically, a young upstart like Choi has a better chance of getting noticed in a hyper-competitive market like New York than in an ostensibly less crowded talent pool.


One of the standard complaints I hear when suggesting we should make step change improvements in the quality of our public space is that “we can’t afford it.” I might argue you can’t afford not to, but that’s for a another day. But the reality is, in many cases cost isn’t even a legitimate objection.

The urban umbrella design costs the same amount of money as a conventional design, but costs less to maintain. In other words, this vastly superior design is actually cheaper. This is particularly noteworthy in New York, which is one city that might legitimately take the view that cost is not a major concern.

Design competitions always have various criteria around engineering, green feature, etc. I don’t know why we don’t just always include price in the equation. If I were running a competition like this, I’d say, “Unit cost 25% less than current models.” Even if you don’t get quite there, you’d be amazed what you can accomplish. It’s like Jaime Lerner said, “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget.”

Beyond the better appearance and pedestrian experience of the design, beyond the cheaper price that should appeal to CFO’s, the design also hides less of the building, letting building owners show off more of the facade. It’s an even greater incentive to install the product – no mandates required.

Another Example: Columbus, Indiana Bike Racks

I mentioned the New York bike racks before, but I want to highlight another bike rack project in Columbus, Indiana. The city decided to create bike racks from its icon “C” tourism logo. Here’s the result (image via American Dirt):

The city was able to get these fabricated locally at a cost of $200 each. A standard U-rack ranges from $80-$250, so this is at the high end of the range, but not out of line. Keep in mind, this is for a low volume production run, not output at scale. It’s bike facilities+civic branding+local production. In other words, a “win-win-win”, just what I always like to see.

Given the prices here, there is simply no excuse. If you aren’t doing things like this, you either don’t care or don’t have it on your priority list. Or maybe it’s like Wal-Mart, where the architecture of the store is deliberately intended to look cheap, to convey the message that the company is committed to low cost and low prices. Regardless of price, maybe communities consciously don’t want change or to look “uppity” or like they are aspiring to anything other than the generic status quo. Perhaps, ultimately, the quality of public space in America is simply a deliberate statement of community values.

More Coverage of New York’s Urban Umbrellas

Streetsblog: Coming Soon – Ped-Friendly “Urban Umbrellas” for NYC Sidewalks
The Architect’s Newspaper: The Decorated Shed
GOOD: No More Ugly Scaffolding
A Daily Dose of Architecture: Three NYC Projects
Lynn Becker: Scaffolds Slum Up Chicago’s Streets

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Drew Klacik: Place-Based Clusters

Indiana’s Cities and Their Contributions to the State’s Economic and Fiscal Condition

The Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute (IFPI) and the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research recently released a report that proves that in Indiana, as in most other states, when it comes to funding state government urban areas subsidize rural areas (Intrastate Distribution of State Government Revenues and Expenditures in Indiana, 2010). Civic leaders in Indianapolis and other urban areas often battle the perception that urban areas are net takers. But the fact that large urban areas are now documented as net givers rather than net takers may not be enough to change that perception and the entrenched anti-urban bias that accompanies it.

The IFPI report does an excellent job of documenting the patterns of state revenue collection and distribution. However, focusing solely on state revenue ignores the locally subsidized contributions most of these urban counties make to their regions and the state. These contributions include investments in growing the state’s economy in the form of tax abatement and tax increment financing, as well as the provision of services to large, regionally important tax-exempt properties.

For example, the city of Indianapolis provides both tax abatement and TIF to support the hotels, restaurants, and shopping facilities required to attract conventions, Big Ten and Final Four tournaments, and even the Super Bowl to the state. When these big events come to Indianapolis, it is primarily the taxpayers of Marion County who pay for the services, such as public safety, that visitors consume. Additionally, many of the facilities that attract visitors, including the convention center, football stadium, and basketball arena are tax exempt yet located on valuable property.

In addition, core cities make contributions to regional and state economies that go well beyond the convention and tourism industry. In Indianapolis, TIF and tax abatement have been used to attract and retain firms in the life sciences, information technology, advanced manufacturing, and a wide variety of other professions. Indianapolis is home to 18 percent of all the jobs in Indiana and 24 percent of all wages earned. The fact that the share of wages is higher than the share of jobs suggests that the jobs located in Indianapolis are of high value.

I suspect that this evidence is not going to result in an outpouring of support for Indianapolis or any other of Indiana’s urban counties. But what if we looked at the state’s economy spatially rather than from the now traditional industry cluster perspective? Virtually everyone accepts that the life sciences, transportation, distribution and logistics, advanced manufacturing, clean-energy, motor sports, and information technology are the competitively advantaged economic clusters that are essential to Indiana’s economic future. However, if we looked at the state’s economy geographically there are eight place-based clusters in Indiana that contain 48 percent of all the state’s jobs and 54 percent of all the wages earned in Indiana. Furthermore, when you add in their subsidiaries or places where employment and wages are attributable to the core industry, the share of Indiana’s employment increases to 66 percent and wages to 68 percent.

Those eight place-based clusters are Indiana’s most populous and most urban counties—Allen, Elkhart, Lake, Marion, Monroe, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe, and Vanderburgh counties. All but Elkhart are net givers rather than takers. The subsidiaries are the suburban counties that comprise the metropolitan areas that surround these core counties and prosper due to their proximity. By definition, without a core city/county there cannot be an affluent suburban county.

Indiana’s Place-Based Clusters (Graphic by Luke Renn)

To suggest that we think of clusters as place based as well as the more traditional industry perspective is not intended to diminish the importance of industry clusters, rather it seeks to acknowledge that many of our competitively advantaged industries are located in these urban counties and their surrounding metropolitan areas. For example, a study of the life sciences industry in 2000 found that 48 percent of all life science industries in 30 central Indiana counties were located in Marion County (Indianapolis) and an additional 11 percent of the Central Indiana life science firms were located in Monroe and Tippecanoe counties (two of the other core place-based clusters.*

Life sciences employment in Central Indiana

Of course, there are key exceptions scattered throughout Indiana, such as the life science firms in and around Warsaw and advanced manufacturing facilities such as the new Honda plant in Greensburg. More importantly, when we think about supporting the state’s economy, it does not have to be one cluster or the other, rather we should support both the industry clusters and the places where many of those firms are located (the eight core counties). As the attraction and retention of human capital continues to emerge as an important economic development strategy, making sure the place-based clusters are exciting and appealing is becoming an increasingly important strategy to assure that our cluster industries can attract the creative class workers they need to thrive.

These key urban counties have many economic and cultural assets, but not all is positive. Fifty percent of all individuals living in poverty in the state in 2007 resided in these eight counties, average educational attainment levels trail the state average, and many of the urban counties have high crime rates. These issues and others threaten the ability of these counties to continue to be net givers supporting the state’s economy and generate the revenue necessary to invest in the future of our small towns and rural counties

As Indiana and the nation seek to emerge from the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression, it may make sense to turn to history and consider a notion first espoused by the 1937 National Resources Committee’s report – Our Cities: Their Role in the National Economy. The report suggested that big cities are the drivers of the nation’s economy and that as go the cities so goes the nation. As Indiana begins to work its way out of the recession of 2008-09 perhaps it makes sense to recognize the economic and fiscal importance of Indiana’s place-based clusters and consider how Indiana might invest in our economic clusters (the key industries) and our place-based clusters (where the key industries are located) to jump start our state’s economy. Perhaps most importantly, as the IFPI study suggests, without the tax revenue associated with these economically vital urban areas there will not be any resources to invest in the future of the state’s small towns and rural counties.

Thus investing in our urban areas is not taking resources away from small towns and rural counties, rather investing in our urban areas and making certain that they continue to remain economically competitive is actually a strategy that assures that we continue to have the resources to support the entire state. We cannot have a great Indiana without a healthy core.

* Wolcott, Susan. The Life Science Cluster in Central Indiana. The Center for Urban Policy and the Environment 2001.

Drew Klacik is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute’s Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at IUPUI. Drew’s principal areas of work include economic development, state and local taxation, and community development policy. Much of his work is focused on trying to understand how these issues interact and affect the quality of life and economic vitality of regions. He can be contacted at

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

The Core Vitality Imperative

You can’t be a suburb of nowhere.” – Bill Hudnut

What does a healthy urban core mean to a region? Maybe the difference between success and failure. Here’s a look at urban core and regional job growth for selected cities*, ranked by percentage job growth in the core county from 2001 to 2009.

City Job Change – Core Pct. Job Change – Core Job Change – Metro Pct. Job Change – Metro
Austin 21,500 4.0% 79,000 11.8%
Portland (17,300) (3.9%) 10,300 1.1%
Columbus (46,500) (6.6%) (11,757) (1.3%)
Cincinnati (64,200) (11.5%) (24,400) (2.5%)
Cleveland (95,600) (12.1%) (108,700) (10.1%)
Detroit (181,200) (21.3%) (382,800) (18.7%)

Notice a pattern? Clearly, for these cities at least, core county performance is an excellent proxy for overall regional performance. I’m not making a statistical claim here, but the data for these cities is suggestive. I think it also foots with our common sense view. How many thriving metro areas have a core city/county that is going down the tubes? I can’t name one.

The Dynamics of Growth and Decline

It might be easy to dismiss cities like Cleveland and Detroit by simply calling them dysfunctional. But that misses the point. Of course they’re dysfunctional. All struggling cities and organizations are dysfunctional, or they probably wouldn’t be in that state. What’s more, rather than just dysfunction causing failure, which is sometimes true, it’s also true that failure causes dysfunction. As a city (or company or other organization) starts into decline, it fails to attract customers, top talent leaves, and operational and financial issues creep up. In this regard the civic dysfunction noted in places like California is as much as product of decline as its cause.

Growth and decline are both positive reinforcement cycles. During growth, economies of scale drive unit cost efficiencies, and there’s rising wealth to fund investments that generate more wealth. As places like Phoenix and Florida attest, even the raw construction that accompanies growth can generate its own bubble.

Similarly for decline. Scale economics go into reverse, there’s no money to invest, people start fleeing. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser attributes a lot of this to an inelastic housing supply. As people leave, the quantity of houses stays the same, which drives prices down. This scares more people into leaving, attracts poor people, which cause more middle class people to leave, which cause prices to decline further, etc.

The Imperative of Preventing Core Decline

Given these dynamics, it is imperative to prevent decline from taking hold. I identify four basic states of regional growth: Hyper-Growth, Moderate Growth, Stagnation, and Decline. Austin is Hyper-Growth, Portland and Columbus are Moderate Growth, Cincinnati is Stagnation, and Cleveland and Detroit are Decline in this scenario. (Assignment not entirely based on job growth).

I posit as a hypothesis that these states don’t exist as a pure continuum, but rather behave more as discrete quanta, with forces that tend to keep cities in their present state. What’s more, I’d suggest that transitions from one state to another occur as a result of a sort of “punctured equilibrium” that occurs when growth, or more likely decline, in the core reaches a tipping point. Or as Dietrich Dörner put it, “‘Catastrophes’ seem to hit suddenly, but in reality the way has been prepared for them. Unperceived forces gradually eat away at the supports necessary for favorable development until the system is finally unable to resist any longer and collapses.”

Why the core? Because it seems that decline in a region first becomes evident there. The implication is that we should would keep a very close eye on core city and core county demographic trends (population growth, domestic and international in-migration, and educational attainment) and economic statistics (job growth, income growth, output growth). It seems unlikely that core counties are likely to have net in-migration as they are structural exporters to the suburbs. But if they aren’t attractive to international immigrants, are losing jobs, etc. that’s definitely a very bad sign. These negative trends might not be obvious or be ignored because of the stickiness of the current growth state – until it is too late.

For example, even ostensibly healthy cities like Columbus, Ohio might have underlying trends that put it as risk. How likely is it that the Columbus region will be long term successful if Franklin County loses 50,000 jobs per decade? Not very. That’s the city’s tax base slowly bleeding away. And with Columbus very dependent on commuter taxes, that’s doubly true in this case.

Don’t Hate the Suburbs

It might be tempting to view the suburbs as the “bad guy” here. I reject that view. In a growing community, it isn’t reasonable to believe that all the new residents and businesses are going to land in a fixed area. And clearly, despite an optimistic trend towards urban living being back in fashion, the suburbs continue to have a hold on the desires of large numbers of Americans, particularly families with kids.

I want to bring the central city up, not pull the suburbs down. A great city needs great suburbs. That doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s room for regional solutions or other matters. But especially in a struggling region like the Midwest, we need every part of a region to understand its role on the team and bring its “A game”. Pitting city and against suburb is like beggars arguing over table scraps. The real competition is between, not within regions, on a global basis. And even that competition need not be a zero-sum game.

If we start taking an antagonistic point of view towards the suburbs, especially in regions like the Midwest and South with strong suburban traditions and little political demand for pro-urban policies, we’re just asking to fail, practically speaking.

I think we need to focus on maintaining core vitality, without worrying that the suburbs are growing too. Even Austin has most of its growth in the suburbs, but the core county is still growing as well. Portland has moderate core decline, but that may be a temporary state due to its under performance in the recession. And Portland has the problem of being on a state border, which leads to tax and policy arbitrage with nearby Washington – a tough challenge. Still, the policies Portland has put in place has kept its core significantly more healthy than those of the Midwest. As long as the core stays strong, that’s a good thing.

And, of course, as these numbers show, perhaps the best way to boost the suburbs is to boost the core.

What’s Your Policy?

So how do we keep our urban cores successful over the long term? That’s a tough challenge. Frankly, it’s a nut America hasn’t cracked, other than for the tier one global cities, and even there, the story is very overplayed.

On the one side are those that cite high costs and poor services in the city. The recipe here is cutting costs, improving schools, and reducing crime. But as readers of my blog know, this, by itself, will never save the core. Cut costs and taxes? By all means, let’s be as efficient as possible. But we’ll still have higher taxes than the suburbs. Reduce crime and improve schools? Sign me up. But no matter what, the city will still fail to measure up to the average suburb. Cities are structurally higher cost and and structurally weaker providers of education, public safety, and some other services than the suburbs. This strategy, by itself, isn’t enough.

On the other hand, promoters of urbanist solutions du jour – light rail, bike lanes, “green” projects, stadiums, etc – often fail to make the case for how their projects will actually change the game. Rather, they rely on cookbook policy and talking point advocacy.

What’s more, success is often measured by eye candy rather than hard data. For example, people visit Chicago and gawk at the skyscrapers and crowds without considering that the area tourists and even many residents see is only a tiny part of the city or region. People visit Portland and see crowded street cars and sidewalks in the Pearl District, but discount job growth if they even consider it. I can read urbanist blogs all day long and rarely ever come across the word “job”, unless it is some reference to the green economy.

That’s not to say that Portland or Chicago are failures – far from it – but the impression given by visiting or a glowing magazine article is certainly not the whole story.

The Way Forward

For me, I think the first imperative is still to convince people of the importance of the urban core to overall regional (and state and national) success. Too many people still don’t get this. Our cities are still often resented more than loved. As they are often home to the upscale amenities, high end jobs, and may wealthy residents, this reinforces the notion that they are already privileged, when as the data above shows, this is really not the case. And of course, cities are often Democratic strangleholds, which makes Republicans take a skeptical view of pro-urban policy. It’s a hard argument to make, but we’ve got to figure out how.

We also need to remember the importance of the basics. Things like costs, taxes, regulatory policy, crime, and schools do matter. We simply can’t take our eye off the ball here, or ignore costs. We need to remember that sustainability includes demographic, economic, and fiscal sustainability.

On the other hand, cities do have to offer a differentiated product. They can’t try to out suburb the suburbs. That’s a sucker’s game. Rather, they do need to strengthen their core urbanity, make diversity into an asset, and find ways to make targeted investments that are aligned with an urban strategy, tailored to the local context, and for which we think we can generate good ROI.

It’s a tough balancing act and a hard challenge, one we haven’t figured out yet. But we’ve got to go beyond dogma and ask the tough questions. Because if we fail to keep our urban cores healthy, we’ll end up in a place we really don’t want to be. I plan to keep exploring how we get to a better place in this blog.

Related from the Columbus Dispatch: When will Ohio’s economic plunge end? (Answer: When its urban cores return to health)

Post Script: Suburban-Only Job Growth

Lest someone thing I’m trying to disguise the suburban-only growth, here it is for the cities in question. Note that other than Portland, the rankings don’t change.

City Suburban Job Growth Percentage Suburban Job Growth
Austin 57,540 44.1%
Columbus 34,800 19.2%
Cincinnati 39,800

Portland 27,600 5.3%
Cleveland (13,100) (4.6%)
Detroit (201,600) (16.8%)

* Data is from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Q1-2001 to Q1-2009, which was the maximum year over year range available for easy download from the BLS at the time I started pulling data. I originally intended to include all my Midwest metros, but the BLS took the database offline for multiple days in the middle of my queries. This isn’t the first time that happened. Their database query uptime is highly suspect, so caveat emptor if you ever need BLS data.

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

Replay: Impossibility City

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

The Louisville Cardinals were in the NCAA regionals last weekend in Indianapolis. In conjunction, a group of people from Louisville planned to bring up a laser projector and put images on the sides of buildings in Indianapolis ranging from the Cardinal logo to Louisville’s “Possibility City” marketing slogan. I thought this would be great fun in the grand tradition of college game day pranks (here’s a famous one to show you what I’m talking about).

The city of Indianapolis, however, felt otherwise. Prosecutor Carl Brizzi said it would be illegal since these projections would require a permit and a variance. I thought this was a terrible shame. A permit? Print them one. Or fine them afterward. You can bet that if the Colts wanted to do this, no permit problem would have been allowed to stand in the way. It shows fear, as if Indy is a city so insecure that it would have felt itself “disrespected” by a mere light show. They could have taken the high road. The right response is would have been a bit of bemused, “Whatever”. (For Louisville’s part, they screwed up by announcing they were going to do it. You can’t do guerrilla marketing if everyone knows about it in advance).

While this incident is a nit in the grand scheme of things, it makes me think generally about the ways cities more and more are trying to regulate fun out of existence. An ever more complex regime of permits, licenses, inspections, and a general attitude that “whatever is not explicitly permitted is forbidden” seems to have taken hold in American cities. Every urban activity now seems to be subjected to some form of scrutiny and sanitization.

I think this is a mistake. There’s a name for a places with an over-regimented, over-scripted, over-manicured, “approved fun only” mindset: the suburbs. But cities aren’t suburbs and they shouldn’t imitate them. Many urban advocates correctly abhor bringing strip malls and other manifestations of the suburban built form into the city. But we shouldn’t import suburban values or functioning either. It’s not that those values are bad. They are wonderful in the right context. But they hurt cities.

The richness of life in the city comes from its capability to contain diversity, generate the unexpected, and produce the innovation, color, and energy that comes from a vital “informal” sector. I think about the busker, the Latino men you see pushing around ice cream carts, elotes sold from a ramshackle corner stand, gypsy cabs, grafiti artists, etc. Even in a less edgy sense, I think of an enterprising guy who turned an old bowling alley into Chicago’s premier punk rock venue or the internet entrepreneurs taking advantage of a new area without regulation to create one of the most dynamic and thriving sectors of our economy.

The focus of much research on third world cities is often on how to “regularize” things and bring marginalized activities into the mainstream. But first world cities now seem to have the opposite problem. They are squeezing out anything with a hint of the unusual or the unscripted. They suffer from over-formalization. I think this is an area that needs serious academic study.

This has been ongoing for a while, but I attribute a lot of the current penchant for it to the Rudy Giuliani administration in New York. He tamed a city once thought ungovernanable by employing a variety of techniques and programs, ranging from aggressive policing informed by the “broken windows” theory to an aggressive campaign to “clean up” Times Square by running out the sex businesses and bringing in Disney. Other cities are keen to see the same results.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that it co-mingles multiple items into a single program when they should really be evaluated separately. Broken windows policing seems to be backed by solid social science research, including some very interesting recent studies in the Netherlands, hardly the poster child for the police state. On the other hand, cracking down on criminal activity is very different from using zoning, and civil and administrative processes to get rid of legal activities you don’t like.

Also, this took place in New York City. New York is sui generis in America. Its scale and density are beyond any other place. And its unique ability to draw the not just America’s, but the world’s elite, as well as massive quantities of tourists, all into a rather confined geographic space, means that killing off the traditional generators of urban energy doesn’t destroy the power of the urban fabric as a whole because so many other forces sustain it. This isn’t true in the vast bulk of other cities.

Unfortunately, the same story of clamping down on anything that isn’t Disney compliant has spread throughout America. When I was in school, my college buddies and I could hang out in Grant Park during the Taste of Chicago proudly drinking our own beer out of cans right in front of the cops. Try that today and you are going to jail. The city’s “public place of amusement” license requirement has all but rendered starting a live music club – the central meeting place of Chicago’s fabulous indie rock scene – impossible. A new ordinance would require any music show promoter to get fingerprinted. The City Council banned foie gras, since thankfully repealed.

Now a lot of this regulation is in place for good reason. Chicago had an incident where an unsafe, overloaded deck collapsed, killing several people. The fire at the E2 nightclub killed 21 people in an environment that was overloaded and not compliant with fire codes. INDOT just built a fantastic looking new overpass at 46th St. in Indianapolis, and some jerk already tagged it. I’m not saying there’s not a legitimate role for public regulation, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

There are two things we need to do to put this into perspective.

1. We should understand what we are giving up as well as what we are gaining through this hyper-regulation approach, and make a balanced choice.

2. We need to understand that novel, unplanned, and even uncomfortable activity in the city is the key to urban function and success – not just street energy and attractiveness, but also economic success.

On the first part, I want laws to protect public safety. I don’t want to eat unsafe food, nor do I want somebody spray painting my house. On the other hand, we need to understand that everything comes with a cost.

Consider the example of America’s love affair with huge SUV’s and vans. I frequently see this ascribed to our national character, cheap gas, subsidies, etc. But while Americans have long loved big cars, I think the rise of SUV’s and mini-vans is more easily explained by child seat laws.

I’m 39 years old, not young, but hardly ancient. My parents were divorced and my father got re-married to a woman with two children of her own. When my brother and I were with them, we’d often drive around in a Toyota Corolla with the two adults in the front and us four kids piled into the back. Nice and eco-friendly – and wallet-friendly too. Today, that would get my dad arrested. How can you possibly ferry around four kids who all require child seats except in a huge SUV or van? And even if you only have two kids, they might have, you know, friends. And think about it, parents who might want to live in a city with their young kids in a car free lifestyle are handicapped because they can’t use taxis easily on account of the car seat issue. Not good.

I think a lot of the anti-SUV crowd are urban dwellers without kids or with few kids, where they simply don’t run into this issue. It is virtually impossible to have a decent sized family today without a large vehicle whereas in the past a small vehicle would do. Remarkably, most of us did not die. Improved safety? No doubt, but at a cost.

Another classic example is, of course, zoning, which accomplished many good things, but also had a lot of unintended side effects that hurt our cities.

On the second front, I don’t think people truly get the link between a broad vision of what a city is, a large sphere in which individuals can pursue divergent activities and goals, and economic success. As Sam Jacob of FAT put it, “Cities are not about the perfect vision; they are not about a singular idea. They are about a collision of all kinds of incompatible demands.” The life of the small town or the suburb are rigidly circumscribed. They might not be about a single vision, but they are about a more narrow and defined view of what life should be. They demand conformity. A place like that, no matter how large or even how successful, is not a true city.

A collision of incompatible demands. What a great way to put it. It is in containing that collision within a geographical, political, social, and culture context that a city creates its meaning. Cities can resolve the paradox, reconcile the incompatible into something new and powerful. It isn’t always pretty. The results are sometimes messy or unpleasant. But its in that resolution process that we create the energy and innovation that moves the city forward and allows its residents, business, and institutions to reinvent themselves and their lives if they so choose.

Let’s put it in terms that are broadly understood, by considering this in the framework of Richard Florida’s “Creative Class”. I don’t think this is the end all, be all by any means. But clearly, in a nation pinning its hopes on an innovation economy to replace the jobs lost by productivity gains and offshoring in traditional sectors, and to power the economic growth of the future, you need to both have the talent and the catalyst to make innovation happen.

Florida’s simplified thesis is that successful cities are about talent, technology, and tolerance. The last point is usually taken to mean a tolerance for gays and various “bohemian” types. But tolerance isn’t about non-discrimination ordinances and it isn’t about gays. Tolerance is a mindset.

The dictionary definition of tolerance is “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own”. From this is clear that most advocates for “progressive” policies of the type advocated by Florida really aren’t tolerating anything. They might be about allowing differences, but it is seldom about allowing views or actions that are in actual conflict with their own values. Indeed, progressives can be as intolerant as anyone for beliefs or actions that differ from their orthodoxy.

We need tolerance properly so-called. We need an environment where we are willing to put up with things we don’t like in return for the same freedom for ourselves. We need cities where “live and let live” is the motto. Rules that stifle this in order to produce a perpetual suburban style family friendly or least common denominator view of what a city should be are ultimately counter-productive. They sap the city of its animating power.

This isn’t just an obscure philosophical point. It’s real and tangibly important. George Bernard Shaw famously said that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. Innovation requires non-conformity with existing ways of doing things. This requires not just the idea, but the mental fortitude to break away not just from our own patterns of doing things, but from the social pressure to conform. In a sense, all innovation depends on the outcast.

A civic culture that over-values social conformity will ultimately stifle innovation, creativity and the conditions that bring it forth. Firstly, such locales are not attractive to innovative people in the first place, hence you won’t have the talent. Secondly, it raises the degree of difficulty for bringing innovative ideas to be because there are so many social obstacles to overcome. And thirdly, it deprives the city of the conflict of incompatible demands that catalyzes and sparks creativity. “Iron sharpen iron, so one man sharpens another”. Perhaps another great description of the essential function of the city.

We’ve got to stop making our urban areas “impossibility cities”. We’ve got to adopt a mind set of, to use another basketball analogy, “No harm, no foul”. We’ve got to let people play. Let the people themselves decide the outcome of the game. By all means we need to take an appropriate stance on health and safety, bona fide criminal activity, and the environment. But we also need to create an enlarged public sphere in which individual expression and action is permitted to flourish. Our cities will never be truly successful over the long term until they do.

It might seem a leap from tolerance of some projections on the sides of buildings to the innovation economy. But you can’t expect a civic culture to stop at the boardroom doors. It’s hard to have good table manners at a fancy business dinner if you eat like a slob at home. Similarly, building the culture that supports success in the 21st century knowledge economy starts with letting innovation and creativity flourish on the streets and in the general life of the city.

I’ll wrap this up with one other personal observation. I grew up in the country. The mindset I just described is not that far off from rural values. In the country, you meet a lot of strange people. But interestingly, people tend to stick to a “I’ll stay out of your business if you stay out of mine” mindset and quirkiness is often surprisingly tolerated. In a sense, city and rural dwellers have more in common in this way than small towner or suburbanites. Is this a way to bridge the city-rural divide in some way? It’s something to think about.

This post originally ran on April 6, 2009.

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

You Can’t Fight the State DOT – Or Can You?

It seems to be remarkably difficult for citizens to influence the decisions of major transportation agencies. I use the example of a state DOT here, but it could be a transit agency. How might one go about doing this effectively? There are two major parts: political and technical.

Political Organizing

The political side is about basic organizing and making sure that the state, the public, and the press perceive you as representing an important public constituency. If you don’t represent a constituency, even if it is just a group of angry neighbors, you won’t be taken seriously no matter how good your argument.

Back in the 1990’s I used to frequently submit feedback during public comment periods for proposed highway projects. Never once did the state DOT ever include more than a boilerplate response. And never once did they change a single aspect of the project. If you are just a lone campaigner for change, save yourself some grief and forget about tackling the agency until you first do some organizing.

Political organizing has been written about extensively. Since I won’t profess to be an expert on it, I’ll leave that as a research project for you. It’s all about making it painful for the politicians and agencies to ignore your demands.

Technical Analysis

The other side is being able to technically analyze and critique DOT plans. This is frankly quite difficult for the novice. Highway planning and design is carried out by professional engineers who are trained, experienced, and licensed to practice their field. Their recommendations come from computer models, standards, and professional expertise that the layman is not always able to understand, much less counter.

I have found most engineers to be very competent in their trade. I’ve never met one I thought was stupid. On the other hand, there are a few things to keep in mind. Most of these engineers are junior people, either civil servants or consultants, who are at the mercy of direction from their bosses. While they would not design an unsafe bridge to please a political appointee, they clearly know which way the wind is blowing. Most highway projects have some sort of powerful political backing or else they’d never have made it to the top of list, so why would these people stick their low paid necks out?

Also, there is never just one solution. The wide variety of bridge designs in use provides ample visual evidence. And, engineers are very likely to weigh the considerations most relevant to them ahead of broader community concerns that are often not their area of expertise.

I happen to think there is plenty of scope to disagree with engineering led recommendations that don’t involve questioning the professional judgment, motives, or intelligence of the engineer. All it takes is a willingness to read some overly-long, dry documents with a skeptical eye. I will share some of techniques I use to analyze these plans in the hopes that you find them useful.

Some things are just obvious. If there aren’t sidewalks, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. But other times the project just doesn’t seem right for some reason. I operate on the principle of where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Here are some techniques to find out if that’s the case.

A: Question the Assumptions

The first thing I do is look at the assumptions of the project. The first one is the set of goals for the project. As I noted before, especially for major environmental studies, the purpose and need statement is of vital importance. Defining the problem lets you to a great extent define the solution. And the problems to be solved can definitely be questioned. Ask yourself if the problems only relate to cars, for example? Are there other potential considerations or community goals that should be taken into account?

B: Look for Obviously Incorrect Data and Trends

Capacity of roads is driven by demand. Demand is typically based on demographic and employment forecasts and some shockingly simple assumptions, such as that volumes will grow x% per year.

The first thing to do is plot out the population, job growth, and traffic growth forecasts and compare them to the previous years’ actual figures. I usually go back a decade. If the future forecast is materially different from the past, that’s a red flag. Then you’ve got the right to ask them to defend that. Even if it came from a computer program, remember the fundamental rule: garbage in, garbage out.

The last decade actually saw limited traffic growth. For example, opponents of a second downtown bridge and major interchange complex on the Louisville riverfront there have said that traffic didn’t increase at all on the existing bridge in the last ten years. Why do they think the next ten will be different? Consultants might mention two recessions and an oil price spike. But do we think this is the last recession we’ll ever have? Or that oil will never spike again? Seems dubious.

I also like to compare future forecasts against standard sources like the Census Bureau. What does the study say about population and what does the Census Bureau say?

In Indiana, I’ve long noticed that transportation planners use population forecast that are often materially in error.

Here’s one example. Consider the Indianapolis Regional 2030 Transportation Plan. If you go to page 45, you’ll see that they estimate the 2010 population of Hamilton County at 238,200. But if you click over the Census Bureau, you’ll see that in 2008 the estimated population of Hamilton County was already 269,800. Oops.

I picked this example to be charitable since they admit in the text of the document that their forecasts materially deviate from the Census Bureau. So they relied on an old 2005 forecast – which is still dubious since according to the Census Bureau, Hamilton County had already passed that estimated 2010 population in 2005.

If you look at the document you’ll find many impressive graphs and tables about population. But that doesn’t mean they are right.

Demographic and employment forecasts are the most import input into future projections. If this baseline data is wrong, then everything that comes after it is more or less invalid.

If you want employment data, you should visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Or conveniently the University of Georgia has this handy web site for querying jobs by county.

C: Look for Conflicting Data

Sometimes engineers let the most interesting information slip when it doesn’t affect their own project. So I like to get studies from multiple adjacent projects and compare their data to see if they foot.

I’ll use as the example for this one I-465 in the northeast corridor of Indianapolis. I’ll probably take some flack for this from some people because I actually want to make a road wider. INDOT’s preferred cross-section for I-465 is four lanes each direction with an auxiliary lane between interchanges. This is often presented as “ten lanes” which I think is a bit misleading since the existing interstate is six lanes – three each direction w/o an auxiliary lane. This implies a 66% percentage increase in capacity when the reality is that mainline capacity is only increasing 33% – the absolute minimum possible amount of widening.

My simple logic here is that since six lanes is not enough today, why would anyone believe that eight lanes will be enough 20-30 years from now? Particularly after the interchanges are all upgraded to channel traffic onto the road faster. I think that in the high growth northeast corridor, five through lanes in each direction is more appropriate.

INDOT apparently disagrees. However, their own data contradicts backs me up. First, the a recent northeast corridor study they did shows that six lanes (five through lanes plus an auxiliary) are needed south of I-69, on one end of the project. But since INDOT thoughtfully constructed an overhead bridge with only four lanes of clearance (56th St) in a newly reconstructed interchange just south of here that would cost in excess of $100 million to replace, this isn’t possible to build. Makes me wonder why they didn’t know the number of lanes that would be needed when that segment to the south was widened just a short time ago in a separate project…

Also, those traffic figures in a separate study of US 31 on the other end of the project show that five through lanes are needed on that side of the project as well. Again, it makes me wonder why this wasn’t the case in the project documents for I-465 itself?

There is enormous pressure exerted to keep these projects on budget and conform to preferred design typologies. Given that all the numbers are produced from various estimated input parameters and assumptions, it isn’t hard to imagine that data might be tweaked to tilt the outcome one way or another, particularly when there is no one precise “right” answer.

This example might not be your cup of tea, but this technique of comparing studies to see how they match each other is very useful.

D: Don’t Accept a Handwave For an Answer

The handwave technique is when officials use the logical fallacy of an appeal to authority to dismiss a suggestion. My favorite version is “Standards say…” or the “Feds require us….” Few of these stand up under scrutiny in and of themselves.

There are standards and requirements that exist for good reason. However, these aren’t always right in the context of a particular design solution, thus there is a design exception process you can go through when appropriate. There are criteria around this, but there’s a great deal of judgment involved too.

What I like to do in these situations is find examples, preferably by the same agency, where they have made an exception to the standard. Here are some examples:

1. Can’t build below the water table. During the US 31 EIS in Hamilton County, Indiana, local governments wanted to depress US 31 under cross streets rather than use overpasses to minimize the barrier of the freeway. At a report of a public hearing, I was very curious to see that an FHWA official said that depressing the road below the water table wouldn’t be allowed.

Now, I don’t think doing so would be a good idea for many reasons, but is it really against the rules? The Big Dig in Boston includes tunnels that are literally under water. How did they get approval for that? The Ohio River Bridges project in Louisville also includes a tunnel approach in close proximity to the Ohio River that I strongly suggest is below the water table.

2. Interchange Spacing. There are rules that say you need to have a minimum of one mile interchange spacing on freeways in urban areas and three miles in rural areas. Engineers prefer fewer interchanges since merging traffic impedes traffic flow. This can lead to cases where the interstate basically doesn’t serve the neighborhoods it passes through.

One example was again an article I read some years back about the proposed long range transportation plan for the Lafayette area. Some people wanted an additional I-65 interchange, but were told it wouldn’t be allowed for spacing concerns. But shortly before that hearing, INDOT opened a new interchange on I-65 at County Line Rd. in Indianapolis that failed to meet the spacing rule.

3. Lane Widths. Again, lanes are supposed to be 12 feet wide to accommodate heavy trucks. But exceptions can be made. I don’t know what the final design ended up as, but preliminary designs for Pendleton Pike in Indianapolis included outside lanes of 12 feet but inside lanes of 11 feet. Sounds like a good compromise to me.

I won’t suggest that standards are always wrong. There may be very good reasons why the designers want to do things they way they do. But they need to defend their decisions on the merits, not on an appeal to standards that are not absolute and which they themselves would seek an exception from if they thought it appropriate to do so.

E: Look for Laziness

Sometimes you notice things indicate a lack of attention to detail. Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of this from time to time.

Here’s one of my favorites. The Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the US 31 Hamilton County project is available online. If you scroll down to Appendix B, you’ll see that they only include the odd numbered pages in the capacity analysis! Obviously not many people read this far.

F: Find Examples of What You Want

If there is a particular solution you would like to see implemented, it is always helpful to find examples of where it has been done elsewhere. This can help cut the legs out from underneath objections. Engineers prefer the tried and true. There’s nothing per se wrong with this, but it can make it difficult to gain acceptance for new ideas in a particular jurisdiction.

Just one example. When Carmel, Indiana wanted to build roundabout interchanges on a highway they were taking over from the state, they researched where similar interchanges had been used successfully in Europe. They even hired a engineer from the UK to consult with the onshore engineering team to give them confidence they were going the right direction. The result has been a collection of the best interchanges ever built in Indiana.

Engineers Are People Too

Remember that planners and engineers are people too. They’ve got jobs with the same sort of pressures we do, and have to do a balancing act between conflicting demands like everybody else. I’m confident no engineer would ever deliberately certify an unsafe design. But beyond that, there is plenty of room for judgment. Theirs should certainly be respected, but that doesn’t mean a different perspective isn’t valid as well.

Also remember that the people at public hearings are often not the top dog decision makers. Sort of like airline ticket counter personnel and gate agents, they are there to deal with an often unhappy public. Try to remember that and treat them like you would want to be treated in the same situation. While they might not always agree with us, let’s make sure we take the high road in our personal dealings with them.

To see one example of how I analyzed a transportation study, see my post on that US 31 Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Michael Scott: Robert Clifton Weaver’s Quest to End Housing Segregation – Has Anything Changed?

[ This post by Michael Scott is the first of two that will appear this week in honor of Martin Luther King Day. – Aaron ]

Surprisingly few Americans have heard of Robert Clifton Weaver. His name, in fact, was foreign to me until I stumbled across his biography at the infamous Powell’s Book in downtown Portland. Entitled Robert Clifton Weaver and the American City: The Life and Times of an Urban Reformer, this book offers a fascinating look at Weaver’s work as economist, academic and civil rights advocate under the backdrop of the New Deal movement prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s. His claim to fame though came in 1965 when he was selected by then president Lyndon Johnson to lead the recently formed Housing and Urban Development agency (HUD)—a distinction which made him the the first black presidential cabinet official in American history.

In his public service work Weaver courageously walked a fine line between the white power structure prevalent at that time and a dispirited African-American community whose lives he devoted his career to improving. His brand of “Radical Liberalism”—an approach which attempted to minimize the focus on race in resolving disputes—made him the go-to person at the federal level in terms of mediating divisive issues commonplace during the Jim Crow era. Weaver was most notably a staunch advocate of urban revitalization and its role in replacing segregated ghettos with integrated communities. He believed that public housing integration could serve as the catalyst for dismantling the myths of prejudice, leading to greater racial harmony.

Picture of Robert Clifton Weaver

Weaver’s steadfastness in remaining true to the belief that government action could ameliorate the segregation of our nations cities is to be admired. Unfortunately, it could be argued that the urban environments to which he dedicated his life remain as deeply divided today by race and poverty as they were during his time.

It pains me deeply that this division continues to exist in a nation as great as ours. The city of Chicago, where I resided for many years, offers just one example of the systemic nature of this problem as it remains one of the most segregated cities in North America. It currently has a segregation index of around 81, which means that in order for every Chicago neighborhood and suburb to have a racial mix commensurate with the overall racial demographics of metropolitan Chicago, an astounding 81 percent of the residents would have to move. Oakland, California paints a picture much the same: Colleagues of mine living in this area talk of the racial tension and class segregation serving as a barrier to meaningful progress for the city. And in my own community, a suburban enclave just outside of Sacramento, the lack of resident diversity has been cause for my only African-American neighbor up the street to refer to the two of us as the “only flies in the buttermilk.”

Despite his rising stature Weaver himself had problems securing middle-class housing in segregated Chicago when he was selected chairman of the city’s Committee on Race Relations in 1944. With no other options afforded to him outside of the predominantly black areas on the south side of Chicago, he eventually found respite at the famed Hull House, the settlement founded by progressive leader Jane Addams.

Interestingly enough, Weaver’s experience mirrors that of a colleague of mine during a career move of his in the mid-nineties. During the process of looking for a new residence he and his wife became puzzled as to why the real estate professional kept steering them to exclusively black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side when their stated desire was to live in one of the city’s more integrated communities. Having come from Washington D.C. where they raised a family in a diverse setting, they were dumbfound to find that this was still an accepted, albeit illegal practice among a fair number of real estate agents in the Chicago metro region.

The vestiges of these housing practices are historically rooted in what are known as restrictive covenants—laws from back in Weaver’s day that barred homeowners from selling or leasing their properties to people of color. While segregationist proponents argued that these practices were necessary to protect property values—the proverbial “there goes the neighborhood” argument—Weaver claimed that there was no factual evidence to support this contention, noting that the ghettoized areas that blacks lived were economic rather than racial in their cause.

In the 50s and 60s Weaver initially attempted to bridge these gaps by advocating for public housing as a mechanism for creating integrated neighborhoods and overcoming the barriers to prejudice. While the development of public housing projects such as Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green were a noble attempt to move our nation beyond “single class”, racially restricted neighborhoods, they actually fueled the very exclusionary practices that Weaver had hope to overcome.

Weaver deserves a great deal of credit for fostering dialogue around housing integration and the role that it plays towards achieving a color blind society. Yet his efforts are arguably still a work in progress—likely to gain traction only when the barriers that which continue to perpetuate this divide are brought out into the open.

Michael Scott is the president of Visions for Downtown America, Inc, an economic development firm supporting the growth and sustainability of downtown central-cities. He can be reached at

This post originally appeared at Urban Engagement Webcity. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Related: Chicago Is America’s Most Segregated City

Also by Michael Scott: Is Sacramento an Indianapolis Wannabe?

Extra: Robert F. Kennedy in Indianapolis

The day Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy was visiting Indianapolis. On being told the news, he decided to move forward with his planned speech to an audience that included a large number of blacks. His words on that day were credited with averting violence in Indianapolis when it struck so many other cities.

Here is a film of RFK delivering the message that night. If you don’t see the embedded video, click here.

I previously noted what we would consider today very unusual in a speech to any audience: references to the tragedian Aeschylus. I previously wrote about this in a post called “An Odd Occurrence.”

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Portland and the Limits of Urban Planning Policy

My latest piece is online at the Portland Oregonian. They commissioned me to write a piece for their Sunday print edition giving an outsider’s view of the city. It is called “Picture Perfect Portland?” (their headline) and you can read it at the Oregonian’s site.

In it I note as a positive that Portland was clearly ahead of other similar sized cities in understanding the importance of density, transit, bike lanes, etc. But more importantly, that the “Portland model” had a wide influence in America. Perhaps Portland has had a greater influence on America’s urban environments than any other city its relative size in history. That’s an amazing accomplishment if you think about it. And what’s more, that influence has been a good thing.

Naturally, they don’t need me to just tell them “It’s all good”. So on the areas for development side I noted their underperforming economy. It’s not so much that Portland is particularly suffering in this recession, though it is, or that it is a failure in an absolute sense, which it is not. No, rather I look at it like diving. There are two aspects: execution and degree of difficulty. Portland has very low degree of difficulty, so we would expect it to perform much better.

I’ll be discussing this piece in a live web chat hosted by the Oregonian Tuesday at 2p Central Time, if you are interested in discussing it.

“First” vs. “Worst”

I’d like to illustrate this performance from a Midwest perspective by comparing Portland to Indianapolis. You can think of Portland as being in “first place” from a policy perspective by popular acclaim. It has an urban growth boundary, extensive transit, excellent urban density, a strong biking culture, a strong culture of civic engagement, the most microbreweries per capita, and on down the line. It is a place people want to live in so badly that they will move there with no job in hand and would be one of the cities that comes to mind among similar sized metros as a talent hub.

If Portland is first, then you’d have to characterize Indianapolis as “worst”. Indianapolis is surrounded by expanding suburbia with very pro-sprawl policies on all four sides. It is one of the least dense cities in America. It has no rail transit and only the 99th largest bus system, along with one of the lowest transit market shares in the country. It is currently in the middle of a multi-billion program to widen about 60 miles of freeway. It just recently put in its very first bike lanes. It scores near the bottom in all measures of environmental sustainability. And its brand image is hardly the best. You don’t hear too many people around the country going, “Man, I’ve gotta get me to Indianapolis.”

But let’s look at how these cities compare on various quantitative measures of urban performance. Note: I pulled these very rapidly, so please confirm yourself before repeating them.

 Portland   Indianapolis 
Population Growth (2000-2008) 14.5% 12.5%
Domestic In-Migration (2000-2008) 5.4% 4.2%
International In-Migration (2000-2008) 3.7% 1.4%
Job Growth 2001-2009 (QCEW) 10,300 (1.1%) 17,100 (2.1%)
Job Growth 2001-2009 (CES) 23,800 (2.4%) 31,000 (3.6%)
Unemployment Rate (Nov 2009) 10.8% 8.2%
Per Capita GMP (2008) 47,811 46,450
Per Capita GMP Growth (2001-2008) 22.4% 1.7%
Median Household Income (ACS 2008) $58,758 $53,671
Median Monthly Housing Cost (ACS 2008) $1,522 $1,125
College Degree Attainment (ACS 2008) 33.3% 31.8%
Travel Time Index (Texas A&M) 1.28 1.21

Now in most of these Portland does beat Indy, but not by a lot. Indy actually leads on the jobs and unemployment front, which is top of mind in today’s world. Portland’s higher incomes are offset by higher housing costs. There are only two stats – international migration and GMP per capita growth – where Portland has a big lead.

Given the wide difference in their policies, it is striking to see these cities so close. By rights, it should be total world domination by Portland – but it isn’t.

Now obviously these aren’t the only statistics to measure a city by. Portland residents would no doubt tout their many livability advantages. Yet at some point isn’t livability supposed to translate into superior demographic and economic performance? Isn’t it supposed to make a city attractive to the talent pool needed to thrive in the 21st century? And isn’t that talent supposed to power the economy? I was particularly struck by how close the cities were on college degree attainment. While I called Portland a talent hub, perhaps I spoke too soon. Contrast with Boston, which has 41.9% of its over 25 population with a bachelors degree or better.

It may be that policy changes act with a lag. But Portland has been at this a long time. The UGB dates to 1973 and the light rail system started construction in the early 80’s. And hey, Indy must be doing something right.

Under-Utilized Talent

One of the problems is that Portland isn’t able to effectively put all of its talent to use. This phenomenon has been extensively written about, but I’ll share this one excerpt from GOOD, a publication that is very pro-Portland.

Portland, Oregon—the misty evergreen Shangri-La for the young, the creative, and the progressive—has an interesting problem. Its miles of bike lanes, its rock-bottom rents, its deep vats of craft brews are all far too good. Yes, Portland has actually made itself too attractive. According to one study that compared May of 2009 with May of 2008, Oregon’s unemployment has grown faster than any other state in the country, 3 percent. For large metropolitan areas in the country, Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates, which topped out at about 11.8 percent—even higher than Detroit. To blame, some economists believe, are the large numbers of designers and artists who have been moving there without jobs, dubbed the dubious “young creatives.”

And the unemployment rate doesn’t tell the entire story. A significant number of people who moved to Portland are simply under-employed.

The Nikki Sutton Story

I’d like to illustrate this with one anecdote. I had originally hoped to include this in the Oregonian piece but ran out of space.

Nikki Sutton was born on the conservative South Side of Indianapolis. Nevertheless, she somehow managed to grow up as a vegan leftist activist. She had visited family in the Pacific Northwest growing up, and fell in love with the place.

Eager to be in this great physical setting and around more people who shared her values, Nikki moved to Portland without a job in the early 2000’s. (She originally thought she had one, but it fell through right as she was moving). She spent 14 months looking for serious employment, but couldn’t find it. In the meantime, she worked at the Banana Republic flagship. According to her, the entire staff was in the same boat – people who wanted to live in Portland but hadn’t been able to find employment in their own field.

Since it gave benefits to part time workers, Nikki also applied for a retail job at Starbucks. She was told there was such a backlog of applications it would likely be some time before she even got a call back. Yes, there appears to be a long waiting list for jobs at Starbucks in Portland.

After more than a year of this, she was lured back to Indianapolis by an actual job offer from a local architecture firm. After working there for some time, she launched her own firm, Level Interior. She’s also active as a model and fashion stylist. I’m personally very impressed with her work.

When a city isn’t able to put top talent like Nikki to work, that’s a warning sign. It would be different if it were, say, New York, where large numbers of people are trying to penetrate elite levels of niche professions, but that’s not what we are talking about.

It may well be that Portland’s approach is right for it. Focusing on livability and sustainability is certainly a good thing.

But there’s a downside for places that do this at the price of major commercial ambitions. Portland offers a very high quality of life beloved by its residents and a more environmentally sustainable vision of a city. But to take advantage of that, you first need a job. It’s not livable if you can’t live there – just ask Nikki.

True Sustainability

Which brings up another point. Nikki now gets the privilege of “enjoying” a car dependent lifestyle and electricity from coal fired plants. What’s the carbon impact of Nikki not being able to get a job in Portland? I wonder what the carbon footprint of the city would look like if it counted people who had to leave for economic reasons, or who wanted to move there but decided discretion was the better part of valor when they couldn’t secure advance employment. Similarly, I guess, what would be the carbon footprint of California be if it counted all the ex-Californians that moved to Texas?

It strikes me that Portland has adopted an approach of quality over quantity. But trying to create a local footprint that is maximally green may not be the right overall solution. We’ve got to keep in mind the entirety of the saying “think globally, act locally.”

What we really need is quantity of quality. That means places like Indianapolis need to step it up – bigtime. But it also means that we need to maximize the use of places like Portland and California that have the lowest carbon footprints. It’s like Ed Glaeser said last year, we should be building skyscrapers in California. We ought to be encouraging more people who might want to to live in places like Portland. By focusing on construction, Glaeser gets part of it right, but misses the other side of the equation. You’ve got to have jobs for the people who want to live in those skyscrapers.

The Limits of Urban Planning Policy

Perhaps Portland also shows the limits of urban planning policy. By that I mean land use and transportation policy. These can play an important role in creating livable, desirable cities. They might even play a role in improving the brand and attracting talent. And of course they affect the environmental footprint of a city. They surely play a role in maintaining core vitality, a huge challenge for a place like Indianapolis.

But they do not, by themselves, turn a city into an economic dynamo.

Here is an interesting local reaction worth checking out: Landscape+Urbanism: Picture Perfect

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

All the local and regional economic development groups throughout the Midwest are in a fierce competition with one another. My favorite advantages touted in Indiana are: 1). The cost of doing business is less expensive, and 2). 80% of the population of the U.S. and Canada can be reached within a one-day drive. Do these Indiana officials realize they have accepted commodity status? Low cost is the best we have? I suspect other states tout similar messages.” – Jon Speer

Attention non-US/Canada readers. If you read this blog from outside the United States or Canada and we don’t already know each other, I’d love to make contact with you. Please send an email to Thanks.

Vacant Parcels In Chicago

I was privileged to be on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago Public Radio this week with the incomparable Lee Bey discussing vacant properties in Chicago such as the Michael Reese Hospital site, the old Cook County Hospital, and the Uptown Theater. It’s a 12 minute segment embedded below, but if you don’t see it, click here.

Lee also blogged about this topic in A Way to Fix That Empty Feeling….?.

Brookings Metro Monitor

The Brookings Institution issued their most recent Metro Monitor report looking at the top 100 metro areas in the country. Here is the map they put together showing their current economic performance (via Map Scroll)

Manufacturing Follow-Up

As a follow-up to my recent piece on manufacturing, I want to highly a New York Times story this week on China’s rules hurting foreign companies that want to do business there. This in the wake of Google’s threat to quit China over its restrictive regulations and a series of hacker attacks.

Google is far from alone among Western companies in its growing unhappiness with Chinese government policies, although it is highly unusual in threatening to pull out of the country entirely in protest.

Western companies contend that they face a lengthening list of obstacles to doing business in China, from “buy Chinese” government procurement policies and growing restrictions on foreign investments to widespread counterfeiting.

These barriers generally fall into two broad categories. Some relate to China’s desire to maintain control over internal dissent. Others involve its efforts to become internationally competitive in as many industries as possible.

Doing business in China has never been easy. Foreign companies have long complained of being cheated by joint venture partners who set up parallel businesses on the side or abscond with assets. Many other countries also have policies that favor home-grown companies, although the opportunity for industrialized countries to do so is limited because they operate under tighter W.T.O. rules than China.

See also from the FT: Frustrated foreign groups in China rethink their position.

Education Week State Ratings

Education Week magazine released its Quality Counts 2010 ratings of state school systems. Click through for details if interested, but here’s a map:

Note: This map differs from the version you might have seen at GOOD. Mine is the overall scores. For some reason they elected to create a map based on a subcategory.

Transit Projects USA in 2010

The Transport Politic has a great roundup of planned transit projects for 2010, including a great map:

Cost, Residents, and Jobs in the City

Chris Briem, writing about the impact of a proposed prevailing wage law, takes a digression to look at the curious fact that while Pittsburgh’s population has plummeted, the job base in the city (if not the region) has remained constant for decades, despite many disadvantages one might expect to cause jobs to leave.

I really swear that everyone in their psyche keeps confusing the story on the city’s population (down in the past, going down now, probably going down in the future) with the story on the number of jobs located in the city of Pittsburgh which really are as stable as the rock of Gibraltar. Again the factoid: 300K jobs located in the city in 1960… same as today give or take some noise. If you realize the two trends are different then you get to some very different policy conclusions on just about every issue in local public finance.

The city honestly has lots of things that could make it a disadvantage to many a business. Parking fees of any kind are a killer for folks who like to drive to work and parking is nominally free for most suburban locations. In Downtown and Oakland that will never be the case. Other fees and taxes, inherently more restricted zoning in dense urban environments and innumerable other reasons make it hard to attract a new business to locate in the city proper.

Yet the jobs have remained. Go figure. Understanding that is the key to understanding most everything about the future of the city. Why do jobs act so irrationally and stay in the city? One could argue in Oakland it is a preponderance of tax exempt investment that anchors them to their location. A fair enough argument, but not something anywhere near as true for Downtown which continues to be one of the densest jobs centers in the nation.

So again.. Why? There are lots of details, but when you get to the core of it there must be something valuable in the location that makes businesses willing to put up with all the unique costs of doing business in the city.

Other Top Stories

Since I know I include a lot of links in these Midwest Miscellany posts, I wanted to inaugurate a feature of including a brief list of just the top stories I’ve selected. If you are limited on time, these are the ones I would recommend reading the most.

1. Ada Louise Huxtable @ WSJ: Eero Saarinen, Shaping the Future, at the Museum of the City of New York.

2. oobject: Top 15 Modernist Gas Stations (great pictures)

3. Der Spiegel: Squatters Take on the Creative Class: Who Has the Right to Shape Hamburg? (in English)

4. LA Times: Vancouver Engineers Its Own Urban Dream

5. NYT: Stadium Boom Deepens Municipal Woes

World and National Roundup

NPR: China aims to ride high speed trains into future

LA Times: Freight trains make big comeback in nation’s transportation network

NYT: A trainspotter’s guide to the future of the world – TNR/Brookings responds.

McKinsey study: The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in Education

NYT: Factoring Walkability Into Home Values – Nice coverage of the CEO’s for Cities research on this topic.

Proper Scale: Cracks in the Building Blocks of Mixed Use

The American Prospect: The Ruse of the Creative Class – A critique of Richard Florida. Ryan Avent posted a rebuttal.

NYT: Ambitious $4.2 billion transit hub in San Francisco

WCVB TV-5 Boston: Mayor Menino Inaugurates ‘New Era of Shared Innovation’ (via Brewed Fresh Daily). Also, NYT: Biopharmaceutical industry is banking on Boston – $2.3 billion in manufacturing plants under construction.

Human Transit: Portland – A Challenging Chart – transit market share not increasing.

More Midwest

A task force says Ohio urban centers should have more incentives to keep businesses and residents

Indian immigrants value entrepreneurship and education (Plain Dealer)

Columbus Is a City With a Lot to Celebrate (Experience Columbus)

Michigan: The Dark Ages (The Economist) – via Jim Russell
Detroit entrepreneurs opt to look up (NYT)
Detroit Skids from Dream Machines to Bailouts in Vivid History (Bloomberg)
Poll of residents finds grim but optimistic outlooks (WashPo)
What to do about Detroit? (Richard Layman)

Kansas City
New convention hotel might also expand Marriott complex (KC Star)

Lagging research puts city behind (J-S)

Twin Cities
Funding change worries suburban transit systems (Star Tribune)

Post Script

Colonel Sanders delivers some finger lickin’ good fire extinguishers to Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard:

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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