Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Downsides of Consolidation #1: Neighborhood Redevelopment

This is the first in a short series of posts on the downsides of city-county consolidation. Actually, it might better be described as a discussion of some of the pros and cons of “big box” vs. “small box” municipal government. It is similar to business. It seems like every large business is either doing one of two things: centralizing or decentralizing. There’s a sort of cycle of reincarnation about this. Every model has its flaws, and people tend to gravitate towards the other side of the spectrum from time to time when the problems of the current mode manifest themselves in a particularly severe form. As a prologue to this, you might want to read my previous examination of city-county consolidation post, if you haven’t already.

I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory. Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region.

But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.

Redevelopment in Indianapolis

Indianapolis is a good example of this principle in action. It underwent a city-county consolidation in 1970. Four smaller municipalities were excluded from merger and so are known as “excluded cities”. So we get here both consolidated neighborhoods and some unconsolidated ones we can compare.

Since 1970, downtown Indianapolis has experienced a major resurgence. And Indy has emerged as what is in many ways the strongest performing Midwest metro area. I happen to believe its consolidation was instrumental in setting the stage for that. Many of its urban neighborhood have seen challenges, however. This includes many reasonably upscale areas, and I’d like to highlight two of them.

The first is an area centered around 71st and Binford Blvd on the northeast side. It was an established suburban area annexed under consolidation that started experiencing problems recently, notably with decay in its commercial developments, a common concern in aging suburbs. The population was also aging and not being renewed. This prompted a local woman to found a new neighborhood group called Binford Redevelopment and Growth (BRAG) to try to change the situation. BRAG wants more urban, mixed use development anchored by a transit stop on a future rail line, infrastructure upgrades to add basics like sidewalks that are missing in the area, and help redeveloping the commercial districts. They’ve had some successes, notably attracting investment in local strip centers, with a new Starbucks, CVS, and Kroger. But there has been little city investment.

The other is Midtown, an area encompassing the historically most desirable urban neighborhoods in the city. It includes the Meridian St. mansion district, Butler University, and Broad Ripple, the city’s main bar district. This area is loaded with gorgeous 1920’s era architecture and many independent shops and restaurants. But this area too started to experience problems, with vacant houses, some struggling commercial nodes, increasing crime, a property tax spike, and deteriorating infrastructure.

A group of neighbors here also formed a group called HARMONI designed to change this. They are also promoting neighborhood infrastructure investment, more urban development, etc. As part of this they purchased copies of Suburban Nation and distributed it to all regional elected officials. They even secured pledges of private funding for some infrastructure improvements. However, there has been little city investment in Midtown either.

But turn to the excluded cities and see a different pattern. Lawrence, the largest, inherited part of a closed military base. They created a commission to repurpose this into a new town center area. This included a multi-million dollar extension of 56th St, which involved building a bridge over a double-tracked rail line. That project also featured high quality streetscape treatments along its length. Former officers quarters on the base were renovated, and many other townhomes and other residences built. And there has been significant new commercial development as well, such that this area appears as nice and thriving as any edge suburb in the region.

As the name suggests, Speedway is the home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It is also an older industrial suburb, with gridiron streets and its own Main St. The town really never leveraged the track outside of race days. The Main St. had businesses but was struggling, and the town was at best stagnant. However, the town council has taken on a major redevelopment program that will involve a major street reconfiguration and significant commercial oriented development designed to turn Speedway into a year round tourist destination and hub of motorsports themed businesses. It’s a $500 million plan, and while not much has happened yet, the town is getting ready to issue bonds to finance millions of dollars in road improvements.

A third of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove, is also improving its town center, and has already spent millions rebuilding its main gateway street, Emerson Ave.

So three of the four Indianapolis excluded cities have active town center renewal programs, while the two annexed neighborhoods, even though more upscale than the excluded cities in many ways, have seen little tangible city investment. Why is that?

The excluded cities have their own city governments. So they have elected officials whose sole focus is their own community. They’ve also got the legal powers, such a the ability to create their own tax increment financing districts, that let them control their own destiny without regards to a higher authority.

The annexed areas, by contrast, only have neighborhood groups. These groups have no power to do anything except lobby the main Indianapolis city government. This city government has to cover a huge area and is besieged with many groups wanting things. The mayor has an incredibly limited ability to deal with individual neighborhood issues. For example, he does a monthly “Mayor’s Night Out” in which he visits each township in turn, a different one each month, to answer citizen questions along with his senior staff. But there are nine townships, each one of which would rank among Indiana’s largest cities by itself. And that doesn’t even get to the neighborhood level.

It should come as no surprise that progress is slow. For example, there’s a proposal in the Midtown area at 49th and College Ave. called (interestingly) “The Uptown”. This would replace an old gas station, another vacant commercial structure, and a few single family homes with a three story, multi-use building featuring 75 apartments and storefront retail. It is exactly what the neighborhood needs. It’s a rare example of approved upzoning for density in Indianapolis. And from an urban design standpoint it is the best designed structure Indianapolis has seen in the modern era. Here’s the present view of the site:

The project needs tax assistance to ever get built, but it is looking like it won’t as the project has been on hold for well over a year. If the Uptown were in one of the excluded cities or in an actual suburb, it is almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t get built. The local government would find a way to make it happen. But Indianapolis has higher priorities. For example, a major civic focus is a project on the near East Side in conjunction with hosting the Superbowl. That’s the sort of major event that consumes management time and attention in a large city.

This is not to criticize the mayor. In fact, people from both BRAG and HARMONI have told me the city is very willing to engage with them and that the mayor has been supportive. The problem is structural. No mayor could physically deal with the demand. It’s inherent in the very nature of a large, big box government. It seems likely to occur in any consolidated government or very large city without sub-city level authorities with real powers.

It was before my time, but reportedly Bill Hudnut, a previous mayor, saw this problem and wanted to create more neighborhood level structures in a system he called Minigov (versus “Unigov”, as the consolidated government is known). But that never happened.

Midtown vs. Bexley

Another interesting comparison is the Midtown area of Indianapolis with the suburb of Bexley in Columbus, Ohio. Bexley is more or less exactly the same as Midtown with the exception that it is a separate municipality, though one that is completely surrounded by the city of Columbus. American Dirt ran very interesting profile of Bexley you might want to check out.

Bexley remains a thriving city, especially in contrast with the surrounding areas of Columbus. Its streets largely have up to date infrastructure, including full sidewalks, which Columbus often doesn’t. It has maintained thriving commercial districts, and has had more intense urban infill as well, as this picture will attest:

Photo courtesy Jung Won Kim.

Why the difference vs. Midtown Indianapolis? Well, the fact that Bexley gets to have its own city school district while Midtown is part of the stigmatized Indianapolis Public Schools no doubt has something to do with it. This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area.

Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above.

But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved.

I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully.

So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.

The Chicago Ward System

So how do you deal with this? Chicago is a big box government that has solved the governance problem with a ward system. There are 50 city council members, who more or less are the gods of their ward as a result of a system called aldermanic privilege. This is where the alderman basically agree they will let each other do whatever they want as long as it is in their own ward. Various city agencies also more or less defer to the alderman on almost any decision to do anything. This results in a system where the mayor deals with the big issues of the city and major developments, while the aldermen deal with neighborhood issues.

The Chicago system has maintained many strong neighborhoods in the city, but it has its downsides. Aldermen have virtually unlimited authority in their wards, making it a sort of elected dictatorship. So it should come as no surprise that corruption has been rampant. In excess of 40 alderman have gone to jail for corruption in the last three decades, an astonishing rate. This also makes things like planning difficult, and creates a climate of great political uncertainty around development.

The Chicago system is a de facto one, not based on a city charter or anything like that. It would be interesting to see how it developed. But it does show that you don’t necessarily need constitutional change to effect small box government inside of a big one.

Jane Jacobs and District Governance

Jane Jacobs saw this problem of big box government very clearly and dedicated an entire chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to it. (Chapter 21, Governing and Planning Districts). This is not one of the chapters that generally gets a lot of attention these days, and that’s a shame. She says:

The historical changes relevant in this case are not only an immense increase in the size of great cities, but also the immensely increased responsibilities….which have been taken on by the governments of great municipalities. New York is not unique in failing to match such profound changes in circumstances with appropriate functional changes in administrative and planning structure.

I can’t do this chapter justice here, but it is a must read. Her basic solution is that all city agencies – police, fire, planning, parks, etc) would be organized around districts (neighborhood groupings), with contiguous borders, with service delivery coordinated between them and with the input of the neighborhood. Chicago’s ward system is similar to this, with the notable exception of having a district dictator. That might be a cautionary tale about what this sort of thing can turn into.

Implication for Small Box Cities

To me this implies that cities which retain a relatively small and governable core along with a plethora of unconsolidated suburbs might be in an advantageous position from a redevelopment perspective. Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh come to mind. Their many separate towns in the core county have the independent power they need to take matters into their own hands if they so desire. And the core city itself should be small enough to enable more fine grained governance from city hall.

On the downside, it seems almost inevitable that many of these unconsolidated suburbs will turn into complete failed cities, often left ignored and forgotten. There are plenty of beyond dysfunctional suburbs in Chicago just like this. I presume it is similar in places like Pittsburgh. I think it is notable that consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville don’t have any truly failed suburbs. Another benefit of the big box city.

Summing it Up

I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in.

Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development.

For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city & urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Midwest Miscellany

“Sustainable urbanism doesn’t have to carry the weight of the overhead and egos of mega developers, starchitects, and all the myriad fixers — lobbyists, lawyers, flacks, event planners, consultants etc. — that live off their wake. It doesn’t put the public purse at risk on speculative real estate ventures. The public isn’t jolted with yet another over-the-top effort to shock and awe them with ever-larger and more lavish excess. Instead, sustainable urbanism thrives off both the synergy and the competition that comes from appropriately sized and scaled additions to the cityscape.” – Rick Cole

Top Stories

1. The Atlantic: How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America.

2. New York Observer: The Man Who Closed Times Square to Traffic – A great profile of Mark Gorton, who is the backer of Streetsblog.

3. Richard Longworth: Who Cares? and The Ax Falls on Academia. Two more great reads from Longworth. You should be reading this blog.

4. Kansas City Star: Reorganization of school district would involve closing half of buildings. Kansas City schools enrollment has dropped from 75,000 to 17,000. This is a story probably relevant to many urban school districts.

State Pension Woes

One trillion dollars. That’s the cumulative gap in state pension funding according to a new study from the Pew Center on the States. It is scary stuff.

Here are the unfunded liabilities they have for Midwest states:

  • Illinois – $54.4B
  • Ohio – $19.5B
  • Kentucky – $12.3B
  • Michigan – $11.5B
  • Minnesota – $10.7B
  • Indiana – $9.8B
  • Missouri – $9.0B
  • Iowa – $2.7B
  • Wisconsin – $0

Obviously this is total, not per capita, so caveat emptor.

Best Airports

JD Power just released their 2010 list of top airports for customer experience. When it opened, I called the new Indianapolis International Airport terminal the best airport in the United States. Apparently the public agreed with me, since it received the top score of any airport and also earned top honors in the small airport category.

Here’s a picture I took during a preview tour. The skylight in the background is over a Great Hall like civic plaza and is the same diameter as the dome at the West Baden Springs hotel.

This is arguably the most environmentally friendly airport terminal in the world as well.

The Midwest got a clean sweep in these ratings as Detroit took top honors the large airport category and Kansas city in the medium category. Congrats to the winners.

For those who are interested, I published a seven part in depth review of the Indianapolis airport terminal that was excerpted by the airport authority chairman at the dedication ceremony. It has over 50 photos covering every aspect of the terminal.

World and National Roundup

NYT: Cities prepare for life with the electric car

Seed: Urban Resilience

TNR/Brookings: Amazon’s Kindle: A Symbol of American Decline?

John Austin: Enhancing Venture Capital to Drive Innovation.

BBC: Did immigration transform Britain by accident? (h/t Jim Russell)

NYT: China sees growth engine in a web of fast trains.

So many bikes, so little space in the Netherlands. (h/t @gosner)

Human Transit: An independent inquiry on transit in Sydney.

The Winter Olympics have prompted a spike in urbanists writing on Vancouver. Human Transit has an Olympic transit preview and NRDC’s Kaid Benfield talks about the medal worthy Olympic village.

New York is planning to keep Broadway in Times Square and Herald Square permanently closed to traffic. Coverage is available from Streetsblog and from New York Magazine (h/t @OtisWhite) and from the New York Times.

Joe Cortright: ‘Keep Portland Weird’ makes sense as a jobs strategy.

Houston mayor considers fareless transit. As I’ve said, for smaller transit operations, fareless transit is an excellent idea.

Transport Politic: Nashville considers light rail but the city’s unfit for it.

WSJ: A profile of architect Shigeru Ban

NYT: A contrarian’s lament in a blitz of gentrification.

More Midwest

This is probably the topic of its own post at some point, but the Brookings Institution just released a report on restoring prosperity in Ohio that I wanted to make sure people saw (h/t RustWire).

WSJ: Great Lakes States face tough choices in carp battle

Subrban sprawl, meet suburban tall (Blair Kamin @ Tribune)

Planning commission approves new bicycle parking requirements (Soapbox) – all new garages must include bike parking.

The Cleveland Model (The Nation)

Survey finds one third of Detroit lots vacant (Free Press)
Blueprint America: Moving Detroit Forward (Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space) – Richard Layman takes a skeptical view on transit by itself renewing Detroit’s fortunes.
Robert Bobb’s biggest challenge: Create a new Detroit Public Schools (Free Press)
Detroit auto suppliers branch out to other industries (NYT)
Budget woes put big road projects in jeopardy (Free Press)

Infrastructure is key to a successful City Market (A Place of Sense)
Clarian, IU plan $100M neurosciences center (IBJ)
Local convention activity warming up during winter months (IBJ)

Kansas City
Switch in federal policy could help plans for rail in KC (KC Star)

750 Humana workers in Louisville to lose jobs (C-J)
Abramson releases details of public art plan (Business First)
When Louisville, NE trumps Louisville, KY (Broken Sidewalk)

Post Script

Wind turbine wake effects (via Treehugger)

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

St. Louis: Reconnecting the City to the River

Now that the competition to redesign the Arch grounds in St. Louis is underway, a group of citizens is hoping to use that as an opportunity to make an even bigger change happen, namely demolishing I-70 through downtown St. Louis and replacing it with a boulevard. Their plan is called City to River, and it would do just that, reconnecting downtown St. Louis to the riverfront by eliminating the freeway barrier.

I originally wondered if people would be interested in a story on this. I mean, the idea is great, but this is something that has been done enough times before that it isn’t really trailblazing.

Then I realized that was the story. The fact that so many downtown freeways across America have been demolished (SF, Portland, Milwaukee, Boston) or have an active movement to (such as in Louisville) such that it has almost become commonplace is reason to celebrate. Maybe one day in the future getting rid of these monstrosities will be no more newsworthy than installing yet another bike line. At least we can hope so. And I say that as someone who actually thinks we need to built and widen some roads in a number of places.

Before (aka Now)

All that doesn’t mean this isn’t a project without potentially big impact in St. Louis because it is. Downtown St. Louis features a disappointingly standard issue tangle of elevated and depressed freeways and ramps that cut off its downtown from the riverfront.

This one I particularly love because someone went through the trouble to install historic gas lamp replicas and a decorative sidewalk underneath the freeway. I want to laugh, but this was probably a good faith attempt to humanize an otherwise thoroughly depressing space. That’s much more than most places ever did.

There is a Flickr group with many more where that came from if you are interested.

I have to admit, looking at the pictures, I-70 seems like it uses a pretty compressed ROW, which limits the impact versus some other urban freeways I’ve seen, but there is still no doubt you’ve got a freeway separating downtown from the river. It converts what should be prime real estate into less desirable frontage.

A Possible After

City to River wants to whack the freeway and replace it with an at grade boulevard called Memorial Drive. Here are a couple of renderings.

Looks better to me. The concept is obviously a good one. There are still plenty of questions to be addressed, engineering, money, public involvement, etc. But projects like this ought to be pursued with a “can do” not a “can’t do” attitude. More info is available at the City to River web site.

The Case for 8664 – an in-depth look at a similar but larger scale proposal in Louisville

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Peter Christensen: Why Transit Used to Be Profitable and Isn’t Now

[ Note: This article was originally written for a computer technology oriented discussion site. ]

It’s a complicated issue, so here’s a little background (I have a Masters in Urban Planning so I’ve read a lot). Streetcar lines (and subways in some places) were profitable businesses, just like railroad lines. But there were a few features that we don’t have today.

First, it was a new mobility technology so it opened up land that was too far away to be developed. There is no such land now in metro areas because highways and have cars make all areas equally accessible.

Second, they were a real estate play as much as a transportation play. Because they opened up new land, the lines tended to go to greenfields where the streetcar companies and their allies owned or could buy land. Take a look at the Brown line in Chicago and watch how it winds – that was a land acquisition issue. This wouldn’t work now because a rail line doesn’t increase the value of land enough since so much is accessible by car.

Third, people rode trains a lot more then than people ride them even now. These trains were extensions off of a very dense, centralized city. Technology and social changes reduced the number of daily rides. For instance, refrigerators meant that women didn’t have to ride into the market every day. Worker benefits (like the 6 or 5 day work week) meant that workers didn’t ride as often. As shopping and employment decentralized, people didn’t have to ride to the city as often. And when people got cars, they had an alternative to the train.

So what can we learn from history and contemporary transit to make transit more valuable today?

First, there must be attractions at both end so the fixed costs in tracks and cars can make money both ways. Early streetcar lines often has amusement parks at the terminus to promote two-way travel. The Las Vegas monorail is a decent modern version of this – there’s something at every stop. Transit lines that end in the suburbs at a big parking lot will be underutilized by definition.

Second, land use matters. All of the streetcars and subways were built before zoning and so the market built what the market could bear by transit, and buildings could be razed and built bigger if demand grew. Housing in transit-rich cities and near light rail in cities with new transit systems is more expensive because zoning restricts how much can be built. In addition to maximum height, massing, and lot utilization, there are also minimum parking limits that mean every house/condo is much more expensive and not affordable to people that would use transit the most. Take a look at the area around the transit stops in Arlington, VA for an example of transit zoning done right – extremely dense development within 1/2 mile of transit stops. It has the lowest car ownership and usage in Northern VA and generates 50% of the county’s property tax in 5% of its land area.

Third is that quality of service matters. Buses in the US suck and are slow because fare collection takes place one at a time while the bus is stopped. Curitiba, Brazil (look it up, it’s the world leader in bus transit) has bus stops where you pay to enter and everyone boards at once. The city has one of the highest rates of car ownership in Brazil and the highest transit utilization in Brazil. On their main bus routes they have 1-3 minute headways so there’s no such thing as looking at a schedule. Other things like priority lanes for buses at stoplights, tech to let the bus hold a green light to make it through, etc help. Bogota, Columbia is the other leading bus tech center and both cities do something like 50x the miles of service per dollar as a subway would have cost to build and operate.

Fourth, if there’s lots of free parking at the destination it’s almost always easier to drive. Point to point means the trip is faster and free parking means it costs less. Places in the states that have the highest transit usage (Boston, New York, Chicago Loop, SF) are places where parking sucks or is expensive. Even LA traffic doesn’t keep people from driving because a) the buses are stuck in it too, and b) it’s free to park when you get there.

Basically, any city that’s building a light rail or subway line and not dramatically increasing the zoning around it is throwing money away. Without the proper land use, there’s not enough population to drive demand, without demand there’s not enough incentive to provide good levels of service, and without good levels of service people will find it faster to drive.

This article was originally posted on Y Combinator’s Hacker News discussion group and also ran on Peter’s blog What’s In Peter’s Head. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Eye on the TIGER

* Winners and Losers – No Political Bias in Awards – Donor States Lose Again *
* Congress won’t outsource earmarking to Sec. LaHood *

Last week the US DOT unveiled the recipients of its TIGER grant program. This was a pool of $1.5 billion in stimulus funds directly awarded by the federal government to innovative projects of any type based on merit.

Looking at the project list, it looks like the DOT did an absolutely first rate job of picking winners. The projects I know personally such as CREATE, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, and the Madison-Milton Bridge replacement are all critically needed and these awards have me excited.

The grants were heavily weighted to rail and transit projects, with highways getting a comparatively small piece of the pie in comparison to how federal transportation funds are typically allocated. And therein lies the problem as far as future programs of this nature go.

You can’t compare apples and oranges. Trying to compare projects in radically different modes such that you can select winners based on “merit” is inherently difficult. The only real way to do it is based on benefit/cost, NPV, ROI, or some other financial metric. But the DOT is explicitly moving away from these traditional measures, as evidenced by the recent decision to eliminate a financial hurdle rate for new start transit projects.

So how then do you decide? One of the evaluation criteria was “enhancing community livability”. But I’m not aware of any objective way to measure that.

Ultimately, the projects had to be chosen using the professional judgment of the team doing the evaluation. It should be no surprise that the list reflects the political priority the Obama administration has put on rail and other matters. If you leave the decision process up to the executive branch, what else can you expect? That’s why America elected President Obama in the first place.

In effect, the TIGER grant program outsourced earmarking of $1.5 billion dollars for specific projects to the executive branch. While I’d argue that Sec. LaHood did a far better job at this than Congress ever has, I can’t imagine that the legislative branch is going to be willing to give up that prerogative again the future. Even this only happened in the harried environment around the passage of the stimulus. Indeed, I already read that there is skepticism about future TIGER grant like programs in Congress. Also, because of the heavy focus on rail and such over highways, Congress is likely to view this as yet another alternative transportation program.

I hope I’m wrong because I like a lot of the results and the generally high quality of projects. But I’m not holding my breath for another round. I’d expect DOT discretionary decision making to retreat to those areas within modes where it has been traditional.

With that, let’s have some fun looking at the projects.

Winners and Losers

Most discussion to date about winners and losers has been based on the total dollar value of the projects awarded. While that’s one way to look at it, our states are radically different in size. I prefer a per capita metric as the best way to look at it. For example, New York City received $83 million for Moynihan Station, one of the largest grants. But New York state is big, and actually received less per capita than the national average.

Based on per capita awards, here are the top twenty winners:

Of course, plenty of states lost too. In particularly, eight states received no money. These were Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Utah.

Of course, this is only one way to slice it. Some states might prefer taking a per square mile view, for example.

A full list of states and their awards is below.

The Red and the Blue

Over the last year I’ve read various vague allegations by Republicans about stimulus funds going to pro-President Obama areas or car dealers who donated to Republicans being disproportionately targeted for closure during the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy and other such things. Since hard data was readily available on the TIGER grants, I decided to look at the percentage of grants that went to red states and blue states from the last presidential election.

The TIGER grants were almost perfectly balanced between red state and blue. In fact, red states actually received a slightly higher percentage of the grants. Red states received $5.16 per capita and blue states $4.75 per capita. That’s probably about as close to 50/50 as you can get with this sort of program. Notable red states like Texas ($1.74) were below average, but so were New York ($4.25), California ($3.52), and Connecticut ($0). The administration appears to have been scrupulously fair here.

Urban vs. Rural

I recently wrote about the persistent anti-urban bias in transportation spending. State governments routinely spend disproportionate amounts of transportation funds on rural projects to the detriment of cities.

The TIGER grants showed the almost opposite allocation. Only 16% of funds went to rural areas, while 84% went to metropolitan areas. The Brookings Institution tracks the largest 100 metro areas in the country through their Metropolitan Policy Program and they found a similar result. They found that 70% of TIGER grants went to the top 100 metro areas compared to only 59% of stimulus funds through other programs, which were largely allocated by states. The ability to allocate funds to critical transportation projects in urban areas, often ones of national importance, aligned with return on investment, population, economic activity, and other metrics is a win for the TIGER. It shows perhaps that if more project funding decisions are made at the federal level, we might see the shift we need.

I further classified the TIGER projects as to urban (those within a core city of a metro area), suburban (those located anywhere else inside a metro area), and rural (all other projects).

This is even better news for urban advocates. Over half the money went to core cities.

Donor State Blues

One of the hot topics in federal transportation planning circles is the percentage of federal gas tax revenues that are collected in a state vs. the money sent back in the form of transportation grants. A majority of the states adding up to almost 80% of the population get back less than they contribute, making them so-called “donor” states. Obviously that doesn’t sit well with them. If you look at some of the states that get more than their tax contributions back, some of them are geographically large states with low populations like Montana that intuitively make sense. But there’s a significant pocket of states in the northeast like New York and Pennsylvania that also get more back than they put in (in transportation funding specifically, that is).

Since TIGER grants were awarded on a discretionary basis based on merit, not funding formulas, in theory it should not have followed the traditional donor/donee state allocation – but it did. The pattern of donor and donee states held up in the TIGER awards. States that were donor states in the regular funding formula received $4.60 per capita, while donee states received $5.87 – a 28% edge. If you take the national average as 100%, donor states received on average 94% of that, which is only two percentage points higher than the 92% minimum guarantee under traditional funding formulas.

A La Mode

The DOT had a big focus on multi-modalism in the TIGER program, which makes sorting the dollars by mode difficult. Some folks like Reconnecting America simply classified some spending as “multi-modal”.

I decided to take a cut at assigning each project to what appeared to be its principal mode. This, and the assignment to urban/suburban/rural areas, involved a lot of judgment since the project list I had didn’t give sufficient information to authoritatively sort it. Full data is at the bottom so you can critique or adjust as you desire.

As you can see, transit and rail got more than their usual share, while roads got less.

I am actually somewhat troubled by the freight rail grants. Most of these are going to projects on privately owned railroads. While some projects like short line improvements in West Virginia might deserve some subsidy, other spending is going to the core infrastructure of major Class I railroads. CREATE is one example. Grade separating a UP/BNSF line coming out of the ports in the LA area is another.

These projects do have big benefits to the US economy. But they also have enormous benefits to the rail carriers. These are some of the most critical piece of infrastructure in their systems. Why would these profitable companies not pay to improve them themselves? I believe we have sent a terrible message to these companies that if they simply refuse to fix major freight bottlenecks, eventually the government will pick up the tab for them. We’re creating an incentive for bad behavior.

BNSF is being bought by Warren Buffett’s company. Why should American taxpayers be subsidizing Warren Buffett? Especially when there is so much bona fide public infrastructure needing investment in America, I don’t think these are the kind of grants we should be making going forward. After programs like CREATE wind down, we should draw a clear line under this.

Data and Analysis

A full list of TIGER projects with all of my codings and analysis is available for download in Open Office format or Microsoft Excel format. This should enable you to change my codings if you desire to create your own slices. What’s more, it should be straightforward to extend this to any number of additional coding types, so should make a useful tool for further analysis. It’s certainly possible I made errors, so please mail any corrections to

Other Coverage

The TIGER program received quite a bit of media coverage. Here are what some other folks had to say:

TIGER’s Tale and Lessons for Stimulus Spending (TNR/Brookings)
TIGER Grants: Which States Were the Big Winners? (Infrastructurist)
Rail and Transit Benefit, Highways Lose Out in TIGER Grant Distribution (Transport Politic)
Who Lost Out in the Bid for a Piece of TIGER Stimulus? (Streetsblog)
Rounding Up More TIGER Coverage (Streetsblog)

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Replay: An Examination of City-County Consolidation

[ This piece will serve as a warm-up to a forthcoming series on the downsides of the consolidation of US city and county governments. I updated it from the original with a bit of information about the current mayoral election in Louisville. ]

H. V. Savitch and Ronald K. Vogel of the University of Louisville authored the paper “Suburbs Without a City“, analyzing the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, and in the process making many good observations about or relevant to other consolidated cities like Indianapolis and Nashville.

Savitch and Vogel make the argument that the primary goal and pratical effect of merger was to re-align power relationships to put the levers of power in the hands of the business, political, and media elite. Among the changes leading to this were:

  • A strong mayor, weak council system.
  • Dissolution of the city of Louisville while retaining smaller suburb cities
  • Dilution of the voting power of minorities
  • A transfer of the locus of political power from the old central city to suburban Jefferson County

In their words, “Reformers frequently support consolidation because they assume rather than make an effort to prove its benefit…changes in local governance are often about power not bureaucratic efficiency or effectiveness. More often than not, power shapes the reception of ideas and determines who has voice in community debates. Bringing this to public attention is difficult, and elites often respond with hostility to attempts to distinguish between power and better government.” Rather than a Ruskian city without suburbs, they believe Lousville has become suburbs without a city.

They also make the argument that merger has not and will not improve efficiency or result in cost or tax savings. It is also explicitly non-redistributionist in that wealthier areas are firewalled off from having to support the less well off areas, and in fact if anything the reverse is true.

All of these features are, in so many words, said to have been imported from Indianapolis’ Unigov. I believe there is some degree of parallel between these mergers, so the experience of Indianapolis under merger is something that bears examining.

In 1969 a unique political alignment put Indianapolis and Indiana under the unified control of Republicans. Then Mayor Richard Lugar was able to push through a legislative city-county consolidation called Unigov. Key features of Unigov:

  • A county-wide mayor, with a combined 29 member city-county council.
  • Administration, planning and zoning, parks, and infrastructure development were consolidated.
  • School districts, police departments, and fire departments were not consolidated. Subsequently, police departments were merged.
  • Cities and large towns (four total) were excluded from merger, but still allowed to vote for mayor. Smaller towns were semi-included in merger, but remained legal entities and retained some powers.
  • Townships were unaffected, as were all special purpose districts.

As you can see, this was in a sense a merger in name only. Many of the most important government services were not merged.

Louisville’s merger followed a similar script, with some updating.

  • A county-wide mayor with 26 council members
  • Administration, planning and zoning, parks, and infrastructure merged
  • Police and fire departments of city and county merged
  • All other incorporated municipalities excluded, including 83 incorporated towns and 19 suburban fire departments.
  • Schools were previously consolidated in the 1970’s and so were unaffected
  • Special districts unaffected
  • An “urban service district” established to provide for higher taxes in the old city limits to pay for services only delivered there.

As you can see, this is broadly similar, with a lower degree of consolidation of municipalities, but a higher degree of departmental consolidation.

As in Indianapolis, the population of the outlying county had grown to be larger than that of the old city. Thus, merger transferred the balance of political power from the “city” to the “suburbs”. In Indianapolis, this led to nearly three decades of Republican dominance, and the political marginalization of minorities. The old city of Indianapolis effectively ceased to exist as a political force, outside of downtown interests. The authors suggest a similar fate awaits Louisville, saying “the city’s autonomy, its power, and its unique qualities have been homogenized into a larger entity.”

In the case of Lousville, there was a strong desire to consolidate power into a strong-mayor. Jerry Abramson went to work for a law firm after leaving office the first go-round. It was his law firm that was the primary backer of merger. A partner in this firm actually drafted the enabling legislation. In a sense, he wrote his own job description for his comeback. This reinforces elite control over the government because of the large amounts of money needed to effectively campaign for office in the consolidated city.

This was acknowledged in a recent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

“When he’d campaign for mayor in the old city, Abramson said he would often find himself going door-to-door and talking about issues in living rooms. After merger, those discussions happened in public meeting rooms, because the campaign had to reach more people more quickly.” and “None enjoys the name recognition of Abramson, and there is a wider range of voters and concerns to consider.“This is a completely different animal,” Shea said of running a campaign for mayor of a merged government. “There is distance and defined constituencies all over the city and county. It has to be a personal campaign. Because the city and county have grown so much, if you don’t have a pre-eminent candidate like Abramson, you have to deal that in a much more intimate way.”

Also, a large city government is so complex and difficult to manage that even an outsider would be dependent on the entrenched power structures to do anything, and so would end up co-opted. We see this happening right before our eyes in Indianapolis. Outsider Greg Ballard was elected mayor in a stunning upset. Now we hear the shrieks of outrage as he turns to establishment Republicans on his transition team. But fundamentally, he has no other option. There are literally hundreds of appointments that the mayor has to make, and as a lone outsider without a posse to bring along with him that has the experience necessary to do the jobs, he has to turn to establishment players. The large size of the city council also makes it difficult for individual reformers to make a difference. This sort of thing is exactly why no one has ever reformed Washington and no one ever will.

I won’t go into the details of the case for saying merger was to entrench the power of the elites. Read the article for yourself. While they don’t actually say so, it is clear that authors do not much care for merger and especially this aspect of it. Indeed, the term “elites” itself is pejorative and indicates their point of view. They dismiss merger as not the driver of above trend growth in Indianapolis and Nashville, and also suggest that the City-County Compact could have served indefinitely in place of merger.

I agree that merger in both Indy and Louisville was primarily designed to rewrite the power map. I tend to agree that merger in both Indy and Louisville had a tendency to reinforce the power of the elites. But that is a sort of secondary impact. Rather, I believe the most important thing merger did in both places was to make sure that all the elites were together in the same boat. This aligned their personal interests and makes it much less likely that there would be infighting in the upper classes. It is this lack of infighting itself as much as anything that leads to the dramatic increase in the elite’s power.

What is the practical effect of this? Is it good or bad? As with anything, there are pluses and minuses. On the positive front, it has really enabled the leadership of Indianapolis to rally around key decisions and ambitions. This cannot be underestimated as a source of strength in that community. When dreams of downtown retail appeared dead, and several blocks just empty holes in the ground, Indy was able to rally behind completion of the Circle Centre Mall. Look at the comparative ease with which Indianapolis built first Conseco Fieldhouse and next Lucas Oil Stadium. You can pretty much bet that any major civic project in Indy is going to get done, and at a minimum will not be torpedoed squabbles amongst civic leaders.

The downside is just the flip side. There is less serious scrutiny of any proposal in Indianapolis than in many other cities. Once a decision is made, community leaders close ranks behind it. The result has been a generally lower quality of project than in places with a more robust tradition of civic debate.

The contrast with Louisville could not be more telling. Louisville has long been a city characterized by high levels of mistrust and bickering. In many ways, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I have always said that in Indianapolis almost nothing gets criticized by the establishment, no matter how bad it is, whereas in Louisville everything is subject to intense bickering, no matter how good.

The situation there now seems to have reversed itself and is more closely following the Indianapolis model. After seemingly decades of debate over building a new downtown basketball arena, one is finally breaking ground. There has been a veritable flurry of new downtown development, much of it receiving significant of tax subsidies. I don’t think it is any accident that the use of TIF districts skyrocketed after merger. This has really jump started downtown development. I do not believe most of these projects would have happened without merger.

Thus far, quality has only suffered at the margins. The arena has a poor design and an inflated price tag, for example. But projects like Museum Plaza [now apparently dead] are first class. When elites dominate a political structure, as with an aristocracy, the focus of civic virtue is on the character of the rulers. In that regard, Jerry Abramson is more in tune with quality of development than Bart Peterson, who is stronger as a deal marker with his real estate background. When Abramson finally moves on, we’ll see what happens in Louisville.

On the matter of governmental efficiency, I have long been a skeptic that consolidation brings the cost savings touted by proponents. If that were the case, federal government services would be a paragon of efficiency. The larger the bureaucracy, the less efficient it usually is in my experience. This is true not only from a cost perspective, but a speed one. How often do we observe in a corporation or other entity that good decision making is very difficult, and that even good, motivated people are ineffective at making things happen. Smaller, more entrepreneurial companies are famously more nimble and responsive.

This is something that should be kept in mind as Indiana looks to reorganize local government in an attempt to rein in property taxes. While I am a big supporter of abolishing townships, I don’t believe that this will, by itself, result in material cost savings to the taxpayer.

The last point, regarding the anti-redistributionist nature of merger, is one worth noting. While political power is redistributed away from central city residents, especially minorities, in a merger, redistribution of resources from well-off suburban areas to less well-off inner city areas is not done. In fact, there are explicit steps generally taken to make sure this doesn’t happen, and if anything the flow goes the other direction.

Unigov retained the township structure where services such as poor relief that benefit largely inner city residents are not contributed to by suburbanites. Similarly, the inner city school district was left intact. People inside the pre-Unigov city limits paid for the Indianapolis Police Department, but people outside did not. However, everyone in the city paid for the Sheriff’s Department, which only patrolled suburban areas. The consolidated services are those like infrastructure, where the balance of spending will be to the suburbanized areas. If anything, Unigov forced poorer, inner city residents to subsidize the suburbanites in the outlying townships.

Nashville included a similar two-tier structure with an “urban service district” paid for only by central city residents. And Louisville has taken a page from the same playbook. The old city of Louisville is to be designated an urban service district where only taxes raised from that district will provide certain city services. Well-off suburban enclaves such as Prospect were excluded from merger, and can vote to provide premium services for themselves without regard as to equity elsewhere in the county.

To me the most interesting case is downtown development. Major civic attractions such as sports teams, etc. that benefit the entire county or region are located there. Yet much of the freight for paying for these community wide assets falls on the residents of the old inner city only. How is that?

One of the main vehicles for doing this is through Tax Increment Financing or TIF. Those who read my blog know I am generally skeptical of TIF’s, though think they can be useful in certain circumstances. When a certain area is declared a TIF, the current tax revenue is frozen for a long time, often 20+ years. All new taxes from new development in the district goes into special TIF fund. The money in this TIF fund is spent for the benefit of the district. Usually it is pledged for debt repayment on bonds that are issued up front to subsidize a big project in the TIF.

TIF’s hurt the central city urban services area because they take valuable property off the general tax rolls there. Let’s take a hypothetical example. An urban service district provides garbage collection paid for solely by central city taxpayers, funded by property taxes. TIF’s freeze the level of taxes collected in part of that taxing district for years and years. This means residents outside the TIF’s have to pay more to cover increased costs of services over time. TIF proponents argue that no development would have occured without the TIF bond, and while that might be true in certain blighted areas, it most certainly is not true in major downtowns. Since downtown is the major tax base in the urban core, this impoverishes unconsolidated services districts.

Indianapolis is a heavy user of TIF’s downtown. Louisville had typically avoided them, and TIF laws are stricter in Kentucky than in Indiana. But since merger, Louisville has gone on a TIF orgy. It has TIF’d much if not most of downtown to support the arena, the Haymarket District, the City Center project, and Museum Plaza. I don’t think it is any accident that Louisville’s appetite for downtown TIF’s has only manifested recently in the wake of merger. The city used to have to worry about the overall health of its inner city tax base. Now it only worries about the county-wide tax base, where downtown TIF’s have less of an impact. Because former suburbanites dominate the city now, the fiscal health of the urban services district is not the principal concern.

There is one aspect of Louisville’s merger that is very different from Indianapolis and very troubling to boot. Not only did every municipality other than Louisville remain intact during the merger, after a 12 year moratorium, they will be free to annex. Conceivably they could even annex territory inside the old city of Louisville itself. As the authors note, “In theory and in practice, small cities can annex parts of the former city of Lousiville. This raises some disturbing questions. First, if the former city of Louisville is supposedly protected by ‘local consolidated government’, how can parts of it be annexed? Second, what is to prevent smaller municipalities from combining with more affluent neighborhoods of the city and cutting it up? Last, would not annexation result in cherry picking parts of the city and shedding its least desirable neighborhoods to a much larger and impersonal megastructure?”

In effect, merger in Louisville meant the dissolution of the city of Louisville combined with a reoganization of county government. This is in marked contrast to Indianapolis, where most small cities were, for practical purposes, subsumed into the new consolidated city, and where all future annexations in Marion County are forbidden because the entire county outside of the excluded cities is considered part of the incorporated city of Indianapolis.

I don’t agree with everything the authors write. Nevertheless, this is a great paper with a lot of points to ponder and I would consider it required reading for anyone interested in the rationale for and consequences of merger.

This post originally ran on December 15, 2007.

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Cleveland and the Regionalism Challenge

Most people get it by now that cities compete in the marketplace as regions. Of course it matters that individual cities, towns, and unincorporated areas that make up a region all prosper, but the fate of a region is generally collective. The real battle is not between city and suburbs, but between regions, including those around the world. Now the competition metaphor is somewhat flawed since the economy is not a zero sum game, but clearly some places are more attractive than others to human capital and business. Place that spend less time fighting amongst themselves and more time working on success for their city-region will differentiate themselves.

Cleveland has long been a city and a region with challenges on this front. It is an area with traditionally high levels of distrust between city and suburbs. This was illustrated a year or so ago when the Cuyahoga County dominated metropolitan planning organization voted to block the construction of a new interstate interchange in a suburban county even though a developer had agreed to pay for it. Cuyahoga County demanded a cut of the tax revenues in return for voting to approve the interchange. I castigated this approach at the time and still think it was a big mistake.

On the other hand, there have been a lot of positive developments on the regionalism front in Cleveland as well. Clearly Northeast Ohio knows that this has been a problem area for them. They’ve responded with a number of regional initiatives, including a regional strategic planning organization called Advance Northeast Ohio, an economic development group called Team NEO (which alas uses the unfortunate brand of Cleveland+ as well), and Bioenterprise, a life sciences promotion group. There’s also a very interesting program called Tech Belt, which is about creating a technology corridor along the “Cleveburgh” corridor from Cleveland to Youngstown to Pittsburgh. That’s an even megaregional type of effort.

Many cities have a roster of similar type groups, but one that really stands out is a philanthropic effort called the Fund for Our Economic Future. Founded in 2004, this is an association of local foundations that agreed to pool their money and jointly decide on regional grants designed to boost the economic fortunes of the greater northeast Ohio area. And it isn’t just a few. There are 69 foundations that pledge a minimum of $100,000 per year to be part of the fund. That’s pretty incredible.

I’m not aware of anything quite like this out there. Detroit had an organization that was somewhat similar and was actually headed by Brookings’ John Austin for a while, but that was a separately chartered organization while this is an unincorporated association of foundations. Foundations often don’t work well together, so having this group come together is noteworthy. It’s not just regionalism, it is also about building trust among organizations. And it is a non-profit foray into the economic development world. That’s not without risk, but places like Cleveland need to take a few to change the game.

The Fund for Our Economic future was in the news recently as the largest foundation in the group, the Cleveland Foundation, all but pulled out and decided to start making its own grants in the space again. Part of the rationale appears to be a desire by the Cleveland Foundation to focus its giving on the city of Cleveland:

Richard and David Goldberg, chairman of the Cleveland Foundation’s board, said in an interview that the future fund’s mission and 16-county target area grew beyond the foundation’s Cleveland-centered goals.

Cleveland “is the core of the region,” Richard said. “Unless we revitalize downtown Cleveland and its neighborhoods, we can’t bring back the region.”

But leaders of the future fund said the foundation has essentially rejected the collaborative spirit of an effort that’s helping spur the region’s economy.

This is a bit of a bad news/good news situation. In trying to do something ambitious like this, setbacks are to be expected. The Cleveland Foundation is a community foundation (actually, it was the very first community foundation ever, and is still the second largest in the country), and they are generally restricted as to the geographic scope of their giving. A community foundation is one type of organization whose mission has been traditionally focused on a particular community. In fact, it’s almost the definition of a community foundation. Still, there were likely some personality conflicts along the way. And I can’t help but wonder what it takes to utter with a straight face, as the Cleveland Foundation’s president did, “There is no doubt in my mind that the Cleveland Foundation is the most magnificent collaborator of any foundation in the United States of America.”

But despite this, the Fund is not collapsing and other foundations are committed to continuing it. This is the good news part of the equation. Again, every endeavor is going to suffer setback and disappointments. Any real personal relationship is going to undergo some period of stress and conflict. That’s just human nature. The real question is not how to avoid all troubles, but how to react to them. If Cleveland can move forward in a positive direction from this, not allowing the Fund to die or creating a permanently poisonous situation, then this type of conflict might be one that shows a region that is growing beyond the fragile flower phase and into something more substantive and real.

Ed Morrison is generally a Cleveland critic, but he sees significant upside potential in the Cleveland Foundation decision. In his view, the Cleveland Foundation can concentrate on Cleveland, while the Fund becomes a more truly regional entity.

The recent decision by the Cleveland Foundation to reduce its commitment to the Fund for our Economic Future (the “Future Fund”) opens the door to a new, promising future for Northeast Ohio. In the past, the Future Fund concentrated its investments on a handful of important regional initiatives.

Now, it appears, these regional organizations will continue to move forward, but with different funding formulas. The Cleveland Foundation has invited these organizations to apply directly for support. This step frees the Future Fund to concentrate on the development of a more network-based approach to regional economic development.

The development of a truly regional strategy in Northeast Ohio has been slowed to some extent by the perception that most regional initiatives are anchored in Cleveland. In other words, the regional entities based in Cleveland (including the Future Fund) faced difficulty to overcome the perception of being too “Cleveland centric”.

Concentrating too much on Cleveland ignores the major competitive strength of the region. Unlike most regional economies, which rely on a single anchor metropolitan economy, Northeast Ohio operates with multiple metros. This diversity creates strength, if the assets of each of these metros can be strategically linked.

Morrison, an economic development consultant who also is affiliated with Purdue University, is a strong proponent of networks, with methodologies he refers to as open source economic development and strategic doing. His web site goes into much more detail on these. (As an aside, it is also clear that Morrison understands his region’s geography and its applicability to urban success).

The types of positive outcomes are what Cleveland should look to achieve. This Cleveland Foundation move is a test for the community. Will it deal with the fallout and move on positively, or fall back into bickering and recrimination? The answer will be a sign of how far Cleveland has come on the regionalism journey.

And it is a journey. Regions don’t get there overnight. Whatever happens here, Cleveland has gone from being a metro that was nowhere on regionalism a decade ago to having many active regional programs underway today. Regardless of how far northeast Ohio may still have to go, it has come a long way already, and that’s a real accomplishment.

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Featured Sites: Girls on Bikes

[ Welcome Copenhagenize readers. If you like this post you might also want to check out I Almost Got Killed and others. I hope you’ll stay and check out the blog. ]

Anyone who studies cities should also study fashion, in both the broad and narrow sense. So much of our perception of whether something is good or bad is shaped by contemporary fashion trends. The underlying reality may have nothing to do with it. Which things are good and which are bad are so often just matters of taste, tastes inevitably shaped by the zeitgeist of the moment. So much of that is about what is viewed as sexually attractive, or is intended to make consumers feel sexy and desirable themselves.

Consider the automobile. Bono, as part of an NYT op-ed on ten ideas for the next decade, said that we need to have “the return of the automobile as a sexual object.” Per Bono:

How is it that the country that made us all fall in love with the automobile has failed, with only a few exceptions, to produce a single family sedan with the style and humor and grace of the cars produced in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s? Put aside the question of whether those models were male (as in longer, lower and wider, Dr. Freud) or female (as in fender skirts, curvy belt lines and, of course, headlights). Either way, they all had sex appeal. (In Ireland in the ’70s, it was the E-Type Jag that made sense of puberty.) Today, however, we have the mundanity of our marriage to the minivan and the S.U.V. and long-term relationships with midsize cars that are, forgive me, a little heavy in the rear cargo hold.

This caused an alternative transportation blogger to take umbrage:

Bono’s creepy festishization of the automobile is part of the core psychological problem that has led to the country’s transportation, energy, and urban design mess. Despite the problems we’re currently suffering from too many people being in love with their automobiles – air pollution, suburban sprawl, skyrocketing gas prices and the outsourcing of our energy development to hostile foreign powers – Bono suggests that, in the coming decade, we need to love our cars more, we need to make them prettier, we need to want to spend more time in them and invest more money in them.

Perhaps this writer would have taken this more in stride if he’d known that it is actually bicycles today that are increasingly portrayed as objects sexual potency.

Riding bikes in the city, something that was rarely done not that long ago, is now hot. As part of that, the entire way bicycles are perceived and portrayed has changed in our society. This is probably best illustrated by the trend of associating sexy and stylish women with bicycling. An entire genre of photography and associated blogs has sprung up around this that I wanted to highlight in honor of New York Fashion Week.

Cycle Chic from Copenhagen

Cycle Chic from Copenhagen is possibly the definitive site in the genre. It posts photos of women (and some men too) out and about riding their bikes in Copenhagen and elsewhere, along with occasional photos of accessories, and some light commentary. Its tag line of “Streetstyle and Bike Advocacy in High Heels” says it all.

It is winter there, of course, so there are many winter themed shots at present:

This one appears to be from Bologna, however, hence the lack of winter:

Here’s one that the poster describes as possibly the most iconic in his collection:

Cycle Chic from Copenhagen has 5,681 subscribers, which blows away most urbanist blogs. Consider that Copenhagenize, a bike-focused, Streetsblog-like site that is widely linked here and in other urbanist circles only has 663 subscribers. It prompts a serious question: who is doing the better job of bicycle advocacy?

This site also has an astonishing blogroll of links to similar sites, by the way.

Chicks and Bikes

Another paradigmatic example is a site titled simply “Chicks and Bikes”. Every day the anonymous author publishes 4-5 posts of containing only pictures of women and bicycles. The posts don’t even have titles for the most part. The shots run the gamut from actual fashion advertisements to sports themes to vintage photos and more. But they lean towards the “hot and sexy” end of the spectrum. I’ll share a few of these here.

NB: I am not linking to the main page of this blog since it is occasionally not safe for work. That’s really unfortunate, especially since the handful of photos they post that are inappropriate add nothing to the site. I will link directly to some safe pages.

Here’s one that appears to be an image of a fashion shoot from a magazine:

The bike is clearly part of the overall fashion ensemble. It’s even color coordinated with the rest of the shoot (maybe too coordinated, frankly). Note the guy leaning against the wall staring straight at her.

Here’s one that is a bit racier – almost literally. This picture is reminiscent of the covers of hot rod type magazines in which a hot car is always paired with a hot woman. Where we used to see the pairing of cars and sex, we now see the pairing of bikes and sex. Is there any surer sign bicycling has arrived? Buy the bike and get the girls, or something like that.

Not all of them are staged shots. Some of them are, or are intended to be perceived as, “on the street” type photos. Here’s one of a happy winter woman biker who may have just gotten off the train with her bike:

There is no mistaking what the pictures in this post are trying to convey.

Now one might say that this is of purely prurient interest. But perhaps that’s the whole point. The alternative is to let cars have the field to themselves. And as we know, sex sells.

The Sartorialist

To bring this back to the classy, fashion sites don’t come any bigger than The Sartorialist. He now, incidentally, has a book, that you might want to check out.

Among the things that the Sartorialist loves is the bicycle. He sometimes shoots his subjects riding them. He even conveniently has a bicycle tag on his posts for your viewing pleasure. The Sartorialist primarily shoots men, so if guys on bikes are your thing, he’s one to check out. Here’s a picture he took of a woman in Cologne.

Incidentally, the Sartorialist lived on my dorm floor my freshman year of college. I actually didn’t remember him and only connected the dots after another college friend reminded me. While Scott Schuman is certainly way bigger than me in the fame department, it is interesting to think about The Sartorialist and The Urbanophile sharing the same dorm floor. At least it is to me :). Scott and I were also both active posters on the Ask Andy About Clothes fashion forums when he was first starting out with his blog.

These three sites only scratch the surface of what is out there. I was frankly astonished to discover the quantity of sites in this genre, most of which appear to receive significant traffic. Clearly there has been a sea change in how bicycling is perceived out there in the world. The subject of attractive and stylish women, of course, is one that never goes out of fashion.

I’m not certain how to apply it, but there’s certainly a lesson in these sites about selling cities and aspects of them. Clearly this “girls on bikes” phenomenon is to a great extent organic, but we’ve got plenty of parts of urban life that could also use a makeover. I’m reminded of this ad that Richard Layman found:

How can we make buses (or many cities with image stigmas) sexy? Seems difficult, but I never would have thought it was possible with bicycles either. Remember what Gucci was like before Tom Ford took over, after all.

Back to the Sartorialist for a moment, the site Refinery 29 put out a humorous How to Get Shot by the Sartorialist guide. You can click the image below to enlarge:

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Cincinnati: The Urge to Merge, Or Learning to Love Your Urban Geography

Last week the Cincinnati Enquirer did a series on the potential merger of the Cincinnati and Dayton metro areas after the results from the 2010 census are in. This has been a talk of some local obsession for a while. One of the big reasons is that if the two regions were combined into a single metro area, it would catapult Cincinnati’s metro population to over 3 million, and move it up the league tables.

Much of this talk has been driven by increasing suburbanization in Warren and Bulter Counties. Areas like West Chester and Mason have become the region’s high growth zones, and focus of most new high end development. Because Cincinnati and Dayton are so close together, and this rapidly urbanizing area lies between them, the idea is that development will soon fill in along I-75, linking the cities into a Dallas-Ft. Worth style metroplex. The main article is “Cinton? Daynati? We’re all one city now:”

A furious rush to the middle during the last two decades has transformed the land between Cincinnati and Dayton. Fleeing income taxes and the problems of established cities, and seeking the suburban dream, people and then businesses flocked to Butler and Warren counties, attracted as if by magnetic force to the expanses of available land around what has become the region’s Main Street, Interstate 75…..Travel between Cincinnati and Dayton is no longer marked by farm fields, but by a long stretch of nearly unbroken suburban development. Official recognition of Cincinnati and Dayton as one entity may happen around 2013….The resulting 19-county Cincinnati-Dayton area would have a population estimated at approximately 3 million, making it the 15th highest population center in the nation…..Such a change could alter perceptions of the region to those outside of it, and within.

There’s also concern about suburban sprawl, however:

At the center of this possible Cincinnati-Dayton giant is West Chester Township and its glittery new main drag, Union Centre Boulevard – marked by a giant overpass with grillwork that proclaims “UC.”

A hulking suburb straddling I-75, the township boasts regional draws such as an Ikea store, close proximity to the first hospitals built in the Cincinnati area in the last 30 years and, in nearby Monroe, a shopper’s mecca of outlet stores as an alternative to Prime Outlets in Jeffersonville, near Columbus. A career college and a luxury hotel soar over the highway, with a multiplex cinema and a dining smorgasbord nearby.

In 1990, West Chester’s population was 36,894. In 2008, the Census Bureau estimated that 57,960 live in the township, meaning it is jockeying with Colerain Township in Hamilton County for the highest township population in Ohio.

This got me thinking more broadly about the nature of Cincinnati’s urban geography, which has many unique aspects. Cities generate sustainable competitive advantage by creating a unique environment that is difficult to replicate and which serves attractive residential and business market segments better than other cities. Urban geography is often unique and difficult to change. Given that, it is clearly an area to study to understand how to leverage it as a competitive asset. Cities located in high natural amenity regions tend to do this by default. Midwest cities, by contrast, have often viewed their position as a negative. It’s time to change that.

With that in mind, I will identify some of the aspects of Cincinnati’s geography that merit further consideration by local leaders. I won’t necessarily have all the answers in terms of what to do with them, but Cincinnati should consider all of these various facets of their region and try to answer the question: How could we convert this more or less fixed fact into a source of value? In fact, every city should be asking themselves that question.

1. Cincinnati-Dayton Axis. I might as well start with this one. Cincy and Dayton are 50 miles apart. By contrast, Dallas and Ft. Worth are 33 miles apart and Minneapolis and St. Paul only 10 miles apart. Still, that’s pretty close.

One of the implications of this is the possibility of the metro areas merging. I don’t think this would affect much from a practical perspective. The idea that businesses will somehow change their perception of this region because of that seems dubious. This assumes a degree of unsophistication that I don’t believe is warranted. Also, for every statistical positive that comes with size comes a negative (from the standpoint of Cincinnati) of having its figures merged in with a metro that is underperforming.

On the other hand, the region could market itself as a metro area of 3 million. There’s got to be some value in that and it is hard to see any downside from a marketing and civic pride perspective.

The question is, how can you take advantage of this geography? I would hypothesize that it only makes the Butler/Warren County area even more attractive. Businesses that locate there can draw from a bigger labor force and customer base. The fact that this region is located along I-75, the heaviest north-south freight route in the country, only makes it more attractive.

That might imply a greater force towards sprawl in Cincinnati. I haven’t studied the matter, but I don’t see any indication that the growth in West Chester and places like that is particularly unique right now though. Most similar sized metros can tell a similar tale. Kansas City has Overland Park, Indianapolis has Carmel, and Nashville the Cool Springs area. All of these regions face the same challenge of having their premier new office location migrating away from the core county.

But if Cincinnati and Dayton really look at ways to collaborate, there could be some benefits. The cities are largely separate today in many ways. They have their own media markets, their own airports, their own arts groups, etc. There are some exceptions like the Cincinnati sports teams. If they could somehow combine forces in some of these areas, it might save money and help create stronger institutions.

The practical challenge is that this probably implies a loss of some distinctiveness and prestige in Dayton. That’s a tough sell. But practically speaking Dayton has huge challenges and isn’t well positioned to go it alone. And if the region could really find a way to bring the scale of three million people to bear, that could have benefits for everyone.

2. River. Another obvious feature is the river geography. This creates a great natural amenity for Cincinnati, with spectacular skyline and river views from the hills, parks and recreation areas, etc. Of course, it is also a barrier that implies significant costs to overcome, such as the $3 billion Brent Spence Bridge replacement project, which will suck up a huge portion of regional transportation dollars.

3. Tri-State Geography. There aren’t that many tri-state regions. Generally bi-state and tri-state areas mean lots of bickering. But how can you make it into an advantage? Indiana obviously figured out how, by putting casinos in the region. But there have to be more useful ways to put this to work.

Three states implies three different tax and regulatory frameworks. This can be used for poaching businesses within the region, but could also potentially lead to a greater pool of businesses overall as you can optimize different states for different things. Ohio might be attractive to set of businesses A, Kentucky set B, and Indiana set C. If these were non-overlapping enough, potentially this helps for economic development. I saw a presentation recently that listed Cincinnati as the most diverse economy of any region in the US. I wonder if this might have a role to play?

4. Urban Ohio. Ohio is interesting in that is has three cities with over one million in metro area population, plus several others like Toledo and Dayton that are sizable as well. This gives Ohio an urban feel, but also means the cities are in competition with each other for state attention and money. This is very different from places like Georgia or Colorado, with one dominant city.

5. Megaregional Positioning. Cincinnati is located at focal point of a group of cities including Louisville, Lexington, Indianapolis, Dayton, and Columbus, all about 100 miles or less away. Cincinnati is also the largest of those metros, and was historically the most important. This gives Cincinnati some ability to position itself as a mega-regional destination. We already see this with things like Kings Island and the IKEA store that draw from an expanded regional geography. Are there other things like this Cincinnati could develop?

One thing I noticed growing up near Louisville is that residents there viewed Cincinnati differently. Cincinnati was like a big brother, someone Louisville didn’t mind deferring to in some ways. Louisville takes a very competitive attitude towards Indianapolis, Nashville, and Lexington, but Cincinnati was always sort of different, almost like Louisville’s nearest “big city” destination. I don’t know to what extent this attitude still exists or whether it is shared in other similarly situated cities, but it might be a basis for tourism or various cooperative ventures.

6. Political Fragmentation. The Cincinnati region is very politically fragmented. Hamilton County has numerous independent towns just by itself. This is often viewed as a source of weakness, but as a couple of forthcoming posts will illustrate, it is actually a potential source of strength from a community development perspective.

7. Cincinnati As a Standalone Region. Cincinnati is a bit of an oddity from a regional standpoint. It’s in Ohio, but isn’t like a traditional Midwest city in many respects. In his book about the Midwest, Richard Longworth didn’t include Cincinnati in his definition. But it’s not really a Southern city either. Some previously suggested a Mid-Atlantic feel. Cincinnati definitely has a very strong local and regional identity of the type you don’t often see today. It is to some extent a cultural isolate. Cincinnati is sort of just off in the corner of Ohio by itself. What do you do with this? Cincinnati itself seems to have tried to play off this by marketing itself as “Cincinnati, USA”. I’m not sure that’s the right way to go, but the uniqueness of Cincinnati here clearly needs to be recognized and leveraged.

8. Centrality. Cincinnati is an interior city in the eastern time zone. It lies on a major north-south interstate, but not a major east-west one.

These are some of the aspects of Cincinnati’s geography. Many of them are very unique and clearly in combination they aren’t replicated elsewhere. How can this uniqueness be exploited to civic benefit? That is the question that needs to be asked for each of these elements. Other cities would benefit from a similar exercise of examination.

Here are more articles in the Enquirer series on Cincinnati-Dayton blending together:

Connecting the dots: cities can when region grows
I-75, the new Main Street
West Chester’s the center of it all

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Cincinnati: The State of the Arts

The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a special feature this week on the state of the arts in Cincinnati and the financial challenges facing many of its institutions. This is hardly limited to Cincinnati – it is happening from coast to coast, in big cities and small. Cincinnati has been fortunate in many ways. It has a number of very old and strong arts institutions, and even some good financial news as well, such a recent $85M gift to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I thought this series was broadly relevant, so wanted to share it here.

The main article is “Arts groups struggle through the recession to maintain quality – and survive.” Some excerpts:

“My great fear,” said Playhouse in the Park’s Ed Stern, “is that there will be a time when artistic directors will only deal with name shows – greatest hits. That’s the most terrifying thing of all.”

The good news is that most of the region’s arts groups are reporting stable attendance – some even increased ticket sales. But because ticket sales and museum admissions provide less than half of their annual support, local arts groups are struggling to stay afloat because of precipitous declines in sponsorships and funding. In a tough economy, fewer opera or theater lovers may write that extra check for $25. Corporations, many still in layoff mode, and foundations that have seen dips in their stock portfolios are slashing how much they give to the arts, leaving local arts groups scrambling to find new angels.


Across the country, the arts picture reflects the dismal economy – in some regions more profoundly than here. In November, the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy. After closing for five months in 2008, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra is struggling to come back and facing a possible $1 million shortfall. Museums nationwide are cutting exhibitions and laying off staff. Opera companies are erasing productions from their seasons. And 77 percent of theater companies surveyed by the Theater Communications Group last year said they had cut costs, including wage freezes and layoffs, and were bracing for cash flow problems this year.

On a more positive note, Margy Waller of the Fine Arts Fund argues that the city’s vitality and creativity are on an upswing. And Ray Cooklis, who came to Cincinnati 26 years ago to be the Enquirer’s classic music critic says that society has changed, but the arts are still a big deal:

Compared even to the 1980s, the arts as we persist in defining them – mainly Western classical music, theater, dance and visual art – strike me as being in a far more precarious situation. They are marginalized, further out of the American mainstream, which has been devoured by pop/celebrity culture. My generation had Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” on TV. Now we have “American Idol.” This makes me wonder: Is there a real future for arts organizations, even if they come through this recession unscathed? Or are they simply whistling past the graveyard?
Cincinnati may be more fortunate than comparable cities, for the arts have been virtually encoded into our civic DNA. And as the Fine Arts Fund’s Margy Waller points out, the traditional Big Eight such as the symphony and opera, with their endowments, high profiles and prestige, have been joined by a rich array of new, smaller, often edgier groups that are helping to draw people together, expand our vision of the arts, and make this a more attractive place for young professionals. Have you been to the Gateway district? Walnut and Sixth downtown? There’s fresh creativity and excitement here, adding to the economic and cultural vitality of our city.

I can’t really do the Cooklis piece justice without quoting the whole thing, but I highly recommend checking it out.

Other pieces in the series include:

Big Eight Arts Organizations in Cincinnati – a slide show
Fine arts fundraisers may be running uphill
Carnegie pares schedule, sharpens focus

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