Thursday, July 1st, 2010


“Today, mobility is not fundamentally different from 20 years ago. Although the pressure for innovation is significantly higher: in 20 years we will still have internal combustion engines on the streets. The road will remain the main mode of transport. Railway will still not have taken sufficient capacity from the street. Aircraft will be an indispensable means of transport. We will still see traffic jams in urban areas. But air will be much cleaner and there will be much better integration between modes of transport.” – Peter Ramsauer, German Transport Minister

Top Stories

1. Grist: Tell me again why we mandate parking at bars?

2. Errol Morris: Something is wrong but you’ll never know what it is. An interview with David Dunning, discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which the more incompetent you are, the less likely you are to be aware of it. I’m convinced this effect has broad applicability, even to areas of urban development.

3. Karen Heller: Stuck in Pennsylvania

4. Grist has a couple of other great pieces on Charlotte’s light rail system, that are critical reads for smaller cities looking at transit. Charlotte does light rail right and “How Charlotte’s mayor championed light rail.

5. Loving London. I don’t usually put videos in my top story list, but I’ll make an exception for this simply brilliant stop motion time lapse video by Alex Silver called “You’ve Got to Love London.” It starts with 15 seconds of pastoral bliss, then Wow. Click the link if it doesn’t display for you.

Scary Labor Market Chart

Writing at his Economist blog, Ryan Avent put up a very scary chart of US job losses:

The US is the blue line. The chart shows 1Q08 to 1Q10.

Fool Me Eight Times…..

Yes, this is a video-heavy post. I don’t normally link to Jon Stewart either, but his Daily Show monologue on the failed promises of the last eight consecutive presidents to wean America off foreign oil is priceless. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here.)

World and National Roundup

Moncole magazine just released their annual list of the best cities in the world to live and work.

Andrew Manshel: Enough with Jane Jacobs already

Business Week: Top down tech clusters often lack key ingredients

The Guardian: Norman Foster at 75

Transport Politic: Barcelona metro continues its expansion at a relatively cheap price” – Yonah demonstrates yet again how US transit construction costs are way out of line.

Joe Peach: London 2010 Olympics missing an opportunity for truly sustainable development

Joel Kotkin: The Productive Economy Still Matters

Ed Glaeser: The Health of Cities

Nancy Folbre: The Sagging of the Middle Class

Silicon Alley Insider: This latest wave of New York startups is just getting started

Fred Siegal: John Linsday’s Bright, Shining Failure

Ryan Avent: Immigration and Detroit

Business Insider: California Pension Funds Assume Dow Reaches 28 Million. I’m beginning to see why they have a pension crisis.

LA Times: LA’s ‘phantom parking’ is a jam

Transport Politic: Philadelphia selling full naming rights to SEPTA station to AT&T

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Diversity a point of pride for East Point

peHUB: Chicago is not the next Silicon Valley, but at these prices, what a shame (h/t Windy Citizen)

Chicago Sun-Times: Regional transit faces $24 billion repair bill

Rust Wire asks if Ohioans are the Okies of the Great Recession. They link to an article in the Charlestown City Paper about with stories of people complaining about Ohioans. Most of it sounded like good-natured fun to me, but it’s interesting to watch.

St. Louis Post Dispatch: Sinquefield not discouraged with return on his political efforts. This St. Louis billionaire is spending millions to try to significantly change public policy in Missouri.

NYT: Fostering entrepreneurs, and trying to revive Detroit

Taking the Slide

Volkswagen did a promotion in the city of Berlin, where they installed a slide from the mezzanine to the platform level of a subway station. They call it the “Fast Lane”, and yes, adults can use it too! (If the video doesn’t display, click here.)

This is both super-fun and very cool. Alas for America’s litigious nature and the general killjoy attitude of our elected officials. h/t CTA Tattler.

Triple Lightning Strike

A severe thunderstorm in Chicago last week produced some dramatic lightning strike imagery. This short video captures an amazing moment lightning strikes the three tallest buildings in the city simultaneously. Click the link if it doesn’t display for you.


Continuing my Columbus, Indiana series, here are a couple of interior shots of the North Christian Church, designed by Eero Saarinen. My camera isn’t the greatest for dimly lit interior shots, but you can get the feel for this spectacular space. This building is a National Historic Landmark.

Topics: Architecture and Design
Cities: Chicago, London

11 Responses to “Urbanoscope”

  1. cdc guy says:

    North Christian is on my personal “Top 10 Favorite Buildings Anywhere” list. Thanks for the spotlight.

    (Since Saarinen’s landscape has grown up, it is a little harder to get the the classic/iconic long shot of North Christian’s exterior. When I was a kid the trees were not fully mature and there were good views from almost every direction.)

  2. Matt Petryni says:

    Grist asks, “Why do we mandate parking at bars?” and I wonder, “Why do we mandate parking… anywhere?”

    The Grist article is a good quick read, and I’ve yet to find a reasonable explanation for this. A long investigation into the rationale for parking requirements in Bellingham, Washington resulted in the following two conclusions:

    A. Consistent with the ITE Manual Parking Generation,
    B. To serve the potential needs of the motoring public.

    And that was it. None of the minutes, legislative intent sections, or enacted codes had anything more to further to offer in support of (a) the authority of the ITE in local land use legislation or (b) the reasons the “potential needs of the motoring public” must be served at immense private developer (and taxpayer) expense. Whatever the underlying rationale, I assume it must have been self-evident at the time, not important enough to write down, or simply omitted for some other reason. Perhaps the ITE rationale was adopted by reference?

    I’ll never know. Bellingham is now deregulating parking, albeit slowly.

    Thanks for this extensive update, as usual, Aaron.

  3. Daron says:

    That St. Louis billionaire is the same guy behind this,

    The paper today just announced he threw out two more $30,000 political contributions this week (to democrats). Very interesting guy. I often find myself reading the stuff put out by the Show-Me Institute with a mix of horror and excitement. If their priorities shifted to a more neutral position, they could do a lot of good as a government watch dog.

  4. Wad says:

    Matt, Donald Shoup (he of “The High Cost of Free Parking” fame) dug into the history of minimum parking requirements. He’s wondering how planners and engineers were able to determine the exact number of spaces needed for certain uses.

    There are general manuals the trade consults, but going back into where the manuals got the numbers, they updated it from the first minimum parking guidelines. And what was the foundation for those?

    Turns out: Nothing. Some city leaders just asked for a number of parking spaces, any number, to make it pass legal muster. Future generations of planners and engineers then worked on a “more precise” number, to the point where the trade can guess that, say, a beauty parlor will need about 4 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of working space.

    Interesting this comes up because I wanted to comment on the L.A. Times article, about the “phantom parking” phenomenon.

    That’s not the consequence of Shoupian parking reduction strategies backfiring. That’s what in any other place in the world is known as a political failure. In L.A., we actually depend on failure as a source of civic momentum. I’ve coined a verb for it: it is to L.A. up something.

    L.A. doesn’t make wrong choices. We make choices wrong. Trying anything is our first step to screwing up, and no matter what we try, we screw up every choice put before us.

    Take the parking matter. The area in question is in a well-to-do area between Hollywood and Mid-City. It’s an older pre-WWII development, so its pedestrian character has been preserved. These areas have been spared the strip mall that is the Southern California architectural paradigm.

    These areas weren’t built with cars in mind, yet the shops insist on attracting motorists and motorists insist on finding space. Meanwhile, nearby residents insist on not sharing residential parking spaces and demand permits to park there. Valet parking has only compounded the problem as the valets abscond with public spaces.

    Out of all these moneyed, well-educated and allegedly sophisticated groups, amazingly not a single one can emerge to find a solution.

    Instead, L.A. will likely say Shoup’s parking theories don’t work because they caused a parking shortage.

    That’s not the problem. The problem is that these areas don’t know how to size up demand and manage a supply for it.

    You have a pedestrian area with a lot of car traffic. Solution: Inventory the parking stock, and you’ll find plenty of capacity in the larger shopping centers. Provide information on where to park, and let people park and then walk a little bit to their locations. Charging for parking helps, too, as the patrons don’t try to cruise four times to visit four stores.

    Boom! The pedestrian character of the neighborhood is preserved, prices work as a signal to get people to evaluate their choices, and you cut cruising congestion.

    At least it would outside of L.A.

  5. Matt Petryni says:

    Thanks, Wad. I’m with you on that. I haven’t read Shoup’s book, but I have read a number of his articles in JAPA, where he argues about the same thing. My issue with parking requirements, though, is less about the number (which, as you rightly point out, is generally “made up”) and more about the rationale for a requirement in the first place: is this a logical thing for the government to be regulating?

    I mean sure, one could make an argument that certain businesses “need parking.” But then why not leave it up to private developers to decide that? It’s not as if meeting the parking requirement is the only reason developers would provide parking: they’d lose in the marketplace if a business can’t rent from them for fear of too little parking.

    However, these regulations mandate that developers finance parking with new construction, and the “housing affordability” of commercial space is thus limited to those well-capitalized enough to build massive parking lots or structures. And then we wonder what happened to all our mom-and-pop stores and local manufacturing… etc. We can only conclude that the “efficiency” of the bigger stores squeezed them out of the market, and completely ignore how regulation might have done so.

    So, in speaking to your comments about LA, I could see reasons why someone might oppose “intentional parking reduction,” though you argue effectively why they would be unwise to do so. Even that aside, though, I have yet to really understand why someone might object to getting the government out of the business of deciding how much parking is appropriate.

    Nonetheless, I’m sure there’s a great many “free market” Joel Kotkin-types that would insist any attempt to deregulate parking is some “new urbanist central planning regime trying to force families to live in tenements because their new planning dogma tells them to hate cars and suburban parking requirements” or whatever. So there is that whole “leave up to individuals” rationale that insists we urbanists simply have no business, well, leaving it up to individuals?

    To hell with our totalitarian, socialist, “New Urban” schemes to let markets decide these things! How dare we suggest something as un-American and collectivist as providing individuals the freedom to make their own parking decisions, Wad! Provide information on where to park? You must mean “provide propaganda,” comrade!

    Hahaha, anyways, Kotkinite straw man aside… if someone has a reasonable explanation for why we have the government requiring parking according to square footage–for bars or otherwise–I remain curious.

  6. Ken Zapinski says:

    The Grist article on Charlotte’s light rail system is particularly interesting if you dig behind the numbers, both those in the story itself and those that aren’t addressed. Start with ridership — at its peak so far (July 2008), the light rail system was providing 17,000 on the average weekday. That translates into roughly 8,500 individual riders per day, in a metro area of 1.7 million people.

    According to the latest data available from the FTA’s National Transit Database, the Charlotte light rail system carried 2.3 million people in 2008. At the same time, Charlotte’s bus system carried 19.9 million people, at a lower operating cost per rider. And that’s before accounting for capital costs.

    The light rail system (according to Grist) cost $473 million to move 2.3 million people per year. Charlotte’s 272-bus fleet (assuming $350K average per bus) cost $95.2 million.

    So, comparing bus versus rail in this case, for 1/5 of the capital cost, you move 9 times more people at a slightly lower operating cost per passenger. If this is how, as the story maintains, a community “does light rail right,” what does “light rail wrong” look like? Just asking…

  7. visualingual says:

    Aaron, I’ve been to Columbus, IN several times. On one visit with a friend, we got to the North Christian Church just as the organist did as well. He let us explore the space while he rehearsed; it was absolutely magical. It’s an incredible structure, inside and out, and the acoustics are spectacular as well.

  8. Wad says:

    Ken, you’re begging the question, not asking it.

    Here are the 2008 data for Charlotte’s CATS on the National Transit Database:

    Charlotte has gotten its light rail operating costs in line with its bus operating costs. CATS, overall, has the problem of relatively high costs and relatively low transit usage for both buses and light rail.

    Its bus operating cost is $101 an hour, and a CATS bus moves about 24 passengers. Its light rail cost is higher but somewhat similar to buses: $310 an hour and a productivity of about 74 passengers. Light rail’s costs are three times higher, but then again, LYNX is also three times more productive than a bus. It’s per-boarding costs are merely two cents apart $4.18 for bus vs. $4.20 for rail.

    LYNX’s per-passenger mile expenses have become lower, at 73 cents a mile versus 85 cents a mile for bus.

    At 17,000 boardings, LYNX has already accounted for 20% of its boardings while only being just a small percentage of total system mileage. Anything that happens to LYNX will impact a fifth of Charlotte’s transit riders.

    Also, you have to remember that capital costs (especially at the federal level) are not fungible. CATS doesn’t have the discretion to forgo light rail to expand its bus system. It either has to build LYNX or give up the money so another city with a New Starts-eligible line can build its train system.

    One thing Charlotte did right was the way it built up its transit base. The local tax that allowed for the building of LYNX also put a lot of money into expanding its bus fleet. Charlotte got both a new light rail line and more buses. It wasn’t an either/or decision.

    By the way, if you want to know what “light rail wrong” looks like, here’s .

    That’s San Jose, the bottom of the barrel for light rail.

  9. Wad says:

    Matt, sometimes the government can do a great job in parking management.

    California’s smaller cities have their heads in the right place when it comes to the parking issue. One of the leaders is San Luis Obispo. Here is its parking division: .

    In the downtown area, the city is responsible for parking. A business can petition the city to provide parking for private use (e.g., a hotel), but otherwise downtown merchants just have to focus on business costs.

    The result has been to integrate car use, price and time management and encourage pedestrianism. The intent is to treat downtown as a single destination, rather than plan for a car trip for each function (one parking space for the restaurant, another for the bank, a third for the dry cleaning, etc.). This leaves one space for multiple functions, as drivers are likely going to park once and then walk around to their functions. This also frees up land from low-value parking to high-value business.

    Also, by applying a price to parking, people can now value their time by their willingness to pay. Also, the pricing serves as a signal because it’s more effective to raise or lower rates to influence demand rather than to oversupply spaces for a perceived shortage.

    L.A.’s problem is that it didn’t give anyone (business owners, drivers, valets, nearby residents) any suggestion of solving the problem. All L.A. did was juggle various irreconcilable needs.

    L.A. is too big and stupid to do something like San Luis Obispo. And we actually tried. In Hollywood, L.A. is the public owner of a subterranean garage beneath the Hollywood & Highland shopping center.

    Yes, it’s the very same Hollywood & Highland that was built around a subway station.

    Hollywood & Highland was a transit oriented development that still had a parking plan that premised on everyone driving to it, as well as an added supply to compete with the numerous privately run surface lots.

    Want to know how it turned out? As likes to say, hilarity ensues.

  10. Ken, Wad already took a whack at the costs, but I will just say that I’m a light rail skeptic when it comes to small cities like Charlotte. But of those who have done them, Charlotte has a pretty good record, particularly in their aggressive TOD zoning and other initiatives to spur development. Calgary is another good small city example.

  11. John says:

    The inside of that church creeps me out, looks too much like a spaceship.

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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