Friday, December 24th, 2010

Urbanoscope

Hard as it is to imagine amid the wreckage of the stimulus, American history is replete with examples of how government can actually do good things. The public support for canals, railway lines, the New Deal engineering and construction projects, the Interstate Highway, and space programs all greatly benefited the country’s economy. They underpinned first American leadership in the industrial age, and then in the information economy. In recent decades, public investment in basic infrastructure construction and maintenance has declined, even in the face of considerable population growth. – Joel Kotkin

The Census Bureau recently released not only the first 2010 Census results, but the results of its five year American Community Survey, which provides post-2000 demographic information at the census tract level for the first time. There’s a ton of fascinating detail in here, and a wonderful way to explore it is through the mapping system at the New York Times. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Apparently I wasn’t off my rocker when I suggested US rail capital costs are too high. Over at Human Transit, someone linked to Danish study (in English) that shows US capital costs/km running well ahead of Europe.

Top Stories

1. Richard Longworth: Cities on Their Own – “Both federal and state governments, including Midwestern state governments, are in deep deficit. Partly as a backlash against these deficits, voters handed power to congresspeople, governors and legislators pledged to cut those deficits. This means two things: (1) the money isn’t there, even if governments were inclined to spend it, and (2) they aren’t inclined to spend it. Government funding to cities won’t come to a halt, by any means, but it’s going to be cut back severely. Cities that had looked to Washington or state capitals to maintain or increase funding for schools, infrastructure, economic development and jobs are going to have to look somewhere else — mostly to their own resources.”

2. Portland Oregonian: Knocking the Lake Oswego Streetcar Off Its Rails – An interesting piece about how the federal regulatory process is sending costs through the roof and killing our country’s ability to invest. “If you paid a reasonably bright engineer $75 an hour and gave her 3,000 hours to work through traffic patterns, noise issues, job creation and design options, the tab would be $225,000. The draft EIS cost 19 times that amount, and no one even blinks. ‘It does seem like a lot of money,’ said Bridget Wieghart, a project manager at Metro, ‘but it’s fairly typical for this kind of process.’ Obletz breaks it down for us: $470,000 for the conceptual engineering, which TriMet couldn’t handle on its own; $440,000 for the traffic analysis, performed by David Evans and Associates; $1.37 million for additional consulting fees and the writing assignment; another $1 million for Metro’s input; $150,000 for ‘public outreach’ … And, yes, that $330,000 to Shiels Obletz Johnsen, which bills at a rate between $60 and $200 an hour. Once upon a time, the streetcar was low tech, low overhead, low design and construction costs, and worth celebrating. ‘A beautiful, streamlined process,’ Obletz says. Then the feds showed up. And the train wreck began. ”

3. 60 Minutes: State Budgets: The Day of Reckoning – “And nowhere has the reckoning been as bad as it is in Illinois, a state that spends twice much as it collects in taxes and is unable to pay its bills.”

4. WSJ: Town embraces the ugly truth: it’s a dump – “Nicolas Buissart leads an ‘Urban Safari’ that includes climbing a slag heap, exploring never-used metro stations, walking down streets reputed to be the ugliest in this country, and visiting the house where the painter Magritte’s mother lived—before she drowned herself in the canal. If this sounds like fun, hop into his van, which has no seats.”

A Physicist Solves the City?

The NYT Magazine article from last Sunday about a physicist who claims to have solved the city by reducing it to “a few exquisitely simple equations.” has been getting tons of airplay in the urbanist world.

I can’t figure out why. The article is IMO poorly written and despite its length, it doesn’t actually tell us much at all about what these equations are or what they say. We only learn three things about this:

1. Cities get more cost efficient as they grow larger
2. People are more productive in bigger cities. (“cities are valuable because they facilitate human interactions”)
3. Social pathologies of various types increase at a greater than proportional with city size.

None of these says much new. The first one is a straightforward application of scale economics. If you’ve got fixed costs and variable costs, your unit cost declines as volume increases. That’s why high volume manufacturers have a lower unit cost than small ones. The productivity can easily be taken both from Adam Smith’s division of labor principle – larger cities enable greater specialization and division of labor – and the reduction of transaction costs – both properties of cities that have long been known. As for crime and the big city? Puhleeze. So where’s the beef in this article?

Presumably urbanists get excited because West mentions Jane Jacobs and seems to endorse density and urban form. But a careful reading shows that the article itself never asserts West is claiming anything about density or urbanity in his equations, only city size. He also doesn’t explain why cities like Detroit stop growing while new ones like Atlanta spring up and many other things a casual observer can note about cities. Detroit didn’t suffer from any exhaustion of resources other than customers willing to buy its cars at a profitable price, for example.

Possibly his actual work contains more than this, but this weak article certainly doesn’t bring it to life. In short, I can’t figure out what all the excitement is about.

Innovative Roadway Design

The Reason Foundation published a paper called Innovative Roadway Design that has some suggestions even traditional urbanists might be interested in (not that they’ll like the whole thing, mind you):

People don’t like the look or feel of many of our big highways…This study argues that in too many American cities, despite much planning, we are planning highways poorly…Many of our highways have gotten too big, not because anyone wanted them to be that way, but because widening an existing highway was the simplest thing to do at each point—the line of least political resistance.

World and National Roundup

The Globe and Mail: A Tale of Two Torontos

NYT: Using waste, Swedish city shrinks its fossil fuel use

Forbes: Why can’t we do big things anymore?

Virginia Postrel: The Allure of Techno-Glamour

TNR/Brookings: Jobs jump off a cliff in the nation’s metro areas

Mashable: 5 ways cities are using social media to reverse the economic downturn

CS Monitor: Segregation hits 100 year lows in most American metros

NYT: Census data shows immigrants making paths to suburbia, not cities

WSJ: Downtowns get a fresh lease

NYT: High Line’s second phase differs from its first

WSJ: NJ Governor knew tunnel deal required repayment – Yes, Gov. Christie is now trying to welch on a contract he signed requiring New Jersey to repay the feds for federal funds already expended on the tunnel project he cancelled.

Michael Diamond: Is there a future for manufacturing in New Jersey?

Metropolis: Austin, Now What?

New Geography: Commissioner Leonard Steps Up Portland’s War on Fun

NYT: Michigan’s decade of tarnish seen in Census report

Blair Kamin/Chicago Tribune: Dubious design moves of 2010

MinnPost: Can a metro area so sharply divided by income, race, and geography continue to thrive on the national stage?

The Dream of the 90’s Is Alive in Portland

Randal O’Toole’s blog pointed me at this hilarious video, which appears to have come from the Independent Film Channel cable network, called “The Dream of the 90’s Is Alive in Portland.” (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Bicycle Parking in Copenhagen

Here’s another great video out of Copenhagen, this one about bike parking in that city. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Louisville’s Economic Future

The Courier-Journal did a major series looking back an an ambitious plan to boost the region’s economic fortunes that thus far has failed:

In 1997, a group of local business and civic leaders released a blueprint for Louisville’s economic prosperity in the 21stst century — imagining that by 2010, the area would have a fast-growing population and incomes soaring past the national average. It didn’t happen.

Instead, Louisville’s economy has declined — 24,600 jobs, or about 4 percent of the 13-county Louisville-Southern Indiana total, were lost between 2000 and 2009. That leaves Louisville near the bottom of 16 competing metro areas that vie for jobs, talented workers and investment

It’s a compelling, if gloomy read. Leaders identify, correctly in my view, educational attainment as the key issue, as Louisville’s college degree attainment is very low. One item that wasn’t stressed but I also believe plays a role is that the Louisville metro region is just a bit too small to have the heft it needs to really compete in the league it aspires to.

At the risk of going against everything I’ve said about focusing on attraction vs. retention, I do believe there are probably people Louisville is losing for no good reason. I grew up in Southern Indiana in the Louisville MSA. Out of my high school graduating class of 50, about 8-10 got college degrees. Of them, I live in Chicago, three more live in Indianapolis, and another lives in Kansas City. I believe we were the top five in GPA rank in our class. When I was in Indy, I was amazed at how many people I ran into from my tiny high school that lived there despite growing up right across the river from Louisville. This includes the girl I dated most of my senior year. I attribute this to Southern Indiana high schoolers going to Indiana state schools for tuition reasons, where they are more likely to be recruited by Indy employers than Louisville ones. I think there’s an opportunity for Louisville to pick up more Southern Indiana types coming out of school if it figured out how to better recruit at Indiana state schools. Just a piece of free advice.

Post Script

Kaid Benfield put together a delightful collection of photos of transit systems decorated for Christmas. Here’s a sample:

9 Comments
Topics: Economic Development, Transportation
Cities: Louisville, Portland

9 Responses to “Urbanoscope”

  1. Pete from Baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas. Thank you for all of the articles that you posted in 2010.Andi look forward to theones that you post in 2011

  2. Vin says:

    I found the NYT physicist piece worthwhile. I agree that it didn’t have much of anything to say about the problems cities face, but it was nevertheless interesting to hear that observed relationships stand up to mathematical scrutiny and are very broadly applicable. It wasn’t an earth-shattering piece by any means, but it was a good read.

  3. Vin says:

    Also – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  4. the urban politician says:

    That Portland video was hilarious! Thanks for sharing

  5. Jeff says:

    Merry Christmas, & Happy Birthday to yr Blog, too,

    good comment on that Louisville report in the C-J, too. The populatin size issue was recognized long ago..in the 1960s or 1970s… by a local mover-and-shaker, who called Louisville a “tweener”…meaning it had an odd in-between size, between the midsize size of say, Dayton or Toledo or Rochester or Syracuse, and the larger metros of, say, Cincinnati and Indianapolis and Buffalo

  6. Nice observation, Jeff. One thing that I think hurts Louisville in this regard is that its hinterland is largely sparsely populated rural territory. Places like Indy or Cleveland, by contrast, are ringed with other smaller industrial cities that are in their catchment areas that boost their effective size.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    A belated “Merry Christmas”, Aaron, and best wishes for a Happy New Year.

  8. Wad says:

    He also doesn’t explain why cities like Detroit stop growing … . Detroit didn’t suffer from any exhaustion of resources other than customers willing to buy its cars at a profitable price, for example.

    Jacobs explained it when she wrote that city regions need to keep the five forces (supplies, labor, productivity, transplants and capital gains) in balance.

    Detroit didn’t fail because it was bad at building cars. It failed because it became too good at building them. The car companies were able to take their capital and knowledge of car-building and build transplant factories far beyond southeastern Michigan.

    Also, other nations began to notice what was going on in Detroit and learned to copy its methods. They also built their industries for export markets, namely the U.S.

    The American auto industry has thrived, even though Detroit stagnated. Foreign rivals capitalized on this opportunity and gave the U.S. transplanted factories in return. This, ironically, was a consequence of the hysteria of the 1970s-1990s that the Japanese were out to destroy American industry. Fearing retaliatory tariffs by U.S. lawmakers, foreign car makers made it a long-term strategy to build cars and source parts from the U.S.

    Detroit’s problem is that too much of its economy was dependent on a single industry.

    Cities’ economies need to be very much like an investment portfolio: diversified not only by industry type but also by economic cycle. (You’ll note one of the stranger phenomena of the Great Recession was that supply regions became healthy as economic fortunes reversed.)

  9. John says:

    I think your diagnosis of the reasons for Louisville’s failing to recruit locals from within its own sphere of influence is probably dead-on. You suggested they should focus on recruiting at Indiana universities. I wonder if it would be more effective to offer in-state tuition to some students in Indiana, maybe just from the adjacent counties in Southern Indiana.

    This is not unprecedented. I believe the University of Toledo does this with Monroe County, Michigan and I’m sure there are other examples. Clearly Toledo isn’t totally awesome or anything because of this, but I think looking at the success of these policies would make an interesting case-study.

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.

Telestrian Data Terminal

about

A production of the Urbanophile, Telestrian is the fastest, easiest, and best way to access public data about cities and regions, with totally unique features like the ability to create thematic maps with no technical knowledge and easy to use place to place migration data. It's a great way to support the Urbanophile, but more importantly it can save you tons of time and deliver huge value and capabilities to you and your organization.

Try It For 30 Days Free!

About the Urbanophile

about

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.

Full Bio

Contact

Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.

 

Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Copyright Information