Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Toronto Tempo

Reader Steven Lee passed along this nice time lapse of Toronto. As I’m a sucker for these things, here it is for your viewing pleasure. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Cities as Software by Marcus Westbury

[ For those of you who haven’t heard the story or checked it out, I highly encourage you to check out Renew Newcastle, which is a great urban success story out of Newcastle, Australia. There are a lot of lessons here to be learned, particularly for places that struggle with a lack of financial resources. Hopefully this article can give you some ideas and some hope – Aaron. ]

This article was written for the latest edition of the Dutch architecture/ design journal Volume

Let me put a scenario to you. Say you live in an aging, fading industrial town. One that has been on receiving end of repeated shocks from earthquakes and natural disasters to the closure of its largest industries and mass unemployment. A city where an old urban core – a legacy of an era of trams and public transport long gone – has hollowed out and emptied. Retail has moved to the suburbs and a growing suburban sprawl. A city with dozens, if not hundreds of empty buildings in the old downtown. A place where the feedback loop has become so desperately negative that many of the shops and offices that remain are forced to leave by the growing vacancies around them.

How do you turn such a place around? How to bring life and people back to it? How to bring interest, curiosity and commerce? How to make it – or at least some of it – liveable and desirable again and to bring its decaying urban character back into flower?

Almost always, the answers to those questions are about physical things. They involve long planning process, research, workshops and facilitation followed by attempts to attract large amounts of capital to invest in new buildings, public amenities or to kickstart new industries.

But what if you can’t do that?

Suppose you have access to none of the above. Suppose that to varying degrees of quality and effectiveness all of the above has been tried and failed or at least stalled – lost in posturing and process.

Imagine that you have no money. That you cannot buy or build anything – that you are stuck with the building stock and the hard infrastructure. Imagine you are not the government and have little or no capacity to persuade them to make major investments or decisive changes.

If all that doesn’t make things difficult enough, let’s say the budget you have to work with is tiny – amounts you can put on a credit card. All you have is the city – beautiful, fading but endowed with many interesting small scales spaces, a talented enthusiastic creative community and a generous broader community willing to donate their skills and time and resources in kind.

What could you do?

Actually, this is not a thought experiment. It’s a real place. It’s my home town of Newcastle, Australia. As recently as 2008 the situation in Newcastle was pretty much as described above. Yet as of a few months ago more than sixty new creative projects, initiatives, galleries, studios, and creative businesses – all experiments of various kinds – had started up in the old downtown. The city – far from being a failed post industrial basket case – was being hailed by the world’s biggest travel publishers Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2011 on account, in large part, of a vibrant creative resurgence that had taken place in the long dead downtown.

So how did we get here from there? Two years is too short and the budget was too limited to address any of the city’s real hardware problems. Instead, Newcastle took a different tack. To do so we engaged the immediacy of enthusiasm and activity and stepped back from the contentious and divisive debates about what should and shouldn’t happen in the long term. To do that you need to start by rewriting – or hacking – the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves.


Perhaps this is an Australian thing but virtually every urbanist I know is a hardware person. They come from backgrounds in town planning, engineering, design, architecture or activism around the preservation or possibilities of the built environment. They like to draw things, design things, build things. They like tangible things. The futures that they desire, imagine and will into being are full of hard physical things from bike lanes to green buildings, transport links and physical amenities imagined and preserved.

The built environment and geography of a city is its hardware. It defines much of what a city can and cannot be. The hardware of the city – its topography, the scale of its spaces, its architecture, its patterned dense grid or its narrow laneways or its chaotic sprawl – places a hard limit on what is and isn’t possible. While the hardware of cities can and does change and evolve slowly over time, in the short term it remains relatively fixed – major changes are invariably expensive, can be paralysingly slow and often contentious.

The ability to design, imagine and build the hardware of a city are valuable skills and important catalysts but for better or for worse I am not a hardware person. I’ve spent much of my life as a festival director. Festivals – or at least the kind of un-institutional ones that I have been involved in – are places where artists, DIY media makers, installationists treat cities as places of opportunity and experimentation.

Unencumbered by the possibilities of permanence, they treat cities not as fixed places in which to build fixed things but as laboratories in which to try and experiment. The extent to which they can and can’t is defined only in part by what the city is – creative people are usually capable of hammering their own ideas around whatever starting position or location you give them. To a much larger extent their possibilities are defined by how a city behaves in response to their initiative. It is the software of the city – which is often intangible, bewildering and complex – that defines their possibilities.

Cities are also software – they actually have many layers of software. They have an operating system – a hard set of rules and constraints that are imposed and enforced by governments. Operating systems are hard boundaries too – they are laws that forbid and allow. They define what you can and can’t do as much as the hardware does. Far from open to opportunities, the operating systems of cities are often defensive, risk averse and closed to possibility.

In many respects the operating system needs to be defensive – it is vulnerable to exploitation and malicious intent. In Australia at least, many who seek to use the city are attempting to do little more than run a virus – a parasite of a program – called something along the line of Maximising_my_commercial_return.exe. They are attempting to do little more than build the cheapest building, with the greatest amount of saleable space, in the shortest time possible. Cities have quite rightly developed a series of strategies to mitigate the virus and its impact.

Yet processes that assume that this is all that people wish to do with a city misses the point. Artists, creative types and community minded collectives are often caught up in the same defensive systems. The fact that they have limited capital, their limited access to political processes and specialist expertise, their limited opportunity to recoup an expensive investment, and their precarious ability to survive complex and time consuming processes means that they are often more vulnerable to being stopped by process than malicious developers.

In my previous life as a festival director I was often asked by artists “can I do this?” Too often I had to tell them no, they could not – despite the obvious benefits it would bring. More often than not it was not for any particular reason but for the absence of a process – a software error. A failure to distinguish the nature of the activity. A category error around scale that could inadvertently treat a one night only event for 30 or 300 people in process terms in the same way that it treats the building of a new development or planning a subdivision. It’s a software error that fails to distinguish between creative and commercial intent. A process error that did not allow – or did not easily allow – the intended use despite the absence of objections or even wide community consent. A bug that introduces compliance, complexity and costs to people incapable of navigating it. Cities often fail to recognise the transformative powers of momentum and enthusiasm by blunting it with confusion, cost and complexity.

In many respects the software of the city is subtle – it is at least partially the cultural context, its history and its economic circumstances. Yet, in most respects the software of the city is codified and hard-coded – height and noise restrictions, planning processes, rules that enable certain possibilities and disable others. They can be embedded in common law rights and privileges. As an ephemeral user of cities I had inadvertently spent many years experimenting with the limits of what types of a behaviour a city will and will not tolerate. The more you do so the more it becomes apparent that cities can be arbitrary, irrational and incentivise entirely the wrong the things.


Renew Newcastle, the not-for-profit company that we established in late 2008 is a piece of software. It is a broker. It is an enabler. It is an interface between the aging, decaying, and at times boarded-up built environment and those who seek to use and activate it. It connects the many empty spaces in the city with the passion of people who want to experiment and try things in them. It has facilitated more than 60 projects in more than 30 once empty spaces in just over two years. It has done so without building, buying or owning anything other than some computers and some second-hand furnishings. It does not fund things – nor was it funded itself in its early stages – it just allows them to happen.

It has done so by changing the software of the city. Not in the slow and traditional way – the hard way – of seeking the political power to amend the rules, change the laws and rewrite the operating system. It has done so in an easier but less obvious way – it has followed the path of least resistance. Rather than rewrite the operating system it has hacked it and made it work in new ways.

Renew Newcastle started by hacking how much spaces cost and the terms they were available on. While there were over 150 empty buildings in Newcastle few if any of them were cheap or simple to access. They were bound up in complex rules – from bad tax incentives to complex, costly and long-term commercial leases that made it difficult to access them flexibly. Renew Newcastle traded cost for security. We created new rules, new contracts, and convinced owners to make spaces available for what was effectively barter – we would find people to clean them use them and activate them and they could have them back if and when they needed them. We stepped outside the default legal framework in which most property in Australia is managed and created a new one. We used licenses not leases, we asked for access not tenancy and exploited the loopholes those kinds of arrangements enabled. While such schemes are institutionalised in many European countries they have little precedent in Australia – in Newcastle, the entire scheme was devised, brokered and implemented directly from the community without the involvement of a government or formal development authorities still grasping at hardware based solutions. Only after the first dozen buildings had been activated did any funding appear. More than two years later any changes to rules and regulations – to the operating system – are yet to transpire.

Yet cheap space is not in itself enough. It is not enough to simply change how much space costs, it is also vitally important to change how it behaves in the face of initiative. Renew Newcastle created a whole system to lower barriers to initiative and experimentation. We created another layer – between the operating system and the users to make it simpler and easier to enable experimentation and risk.

Again we followed the path of least resistance. We decided to make things simple that could be made simple and not butt up against what would remain impenetrably hard. We managed to do what is easy rather than get caught up in waiting for the ideal – to find spaces that were usable and use them. Renew Newcastle designed systems – an API in programming terms – that made activation simple. We took spaces, brokered cheap access to them and gauged what could be done in them easily – what they were already approved for – and set out to find it and plant and water it.

In doing so we effectively made a whole system to make space behave as quickly and responsively. To allow people with enthusiasm and passion to direct it into the city. We made it quick for people to try and cheap for them to fail. We removed capital and complexity from the equation and in doing so we seeded more than 60 experiments – unleashing the energy of hundreds of people.

We made the city work for people for whom it had not worked in a long time. People without capital for whom low barriers to entry and not certainty of outcome were the defining issues. Those who were operating digital cottage industries and Etsy stores, artists and fashion designers, bedroom record labels and Flickr photographers. In effect we made the physical space behave as their virtual spaces did – easy to get into and out of, allowing of experimentation and failure and most importantly full of tools and structures and plugins designed to make it simple and cheap for them to do what they are passionate about.


As cities age, the challenge is not always to rebuild them physically but to re-imagine how they might function and adapt. In Newcastle in many respects nothing has changed since 2008. The buildings are mostly the same. The hardware is unchanged. Nothing has been built. No government has fallen. No revolution has taken place. Yet, on another level much has changed – dead parts of the city are active and vibrant, 60 projects have started, hundreds of new events have been created, and whole new communities are directly engaged in creating whatever it is that the city will become. The software – the legal templates, the contracts and the thinking – that has enabled has changed Newcastle is becomng a kind of shareware – downloaded, hacked and implemented in cities and towns across Australia from Townsville to Adelaide.

Cities are software. Yet as hard as the software of the city is to conceptualise the consequences of changing it are very real. It is only the results that give it away. They are as evident and visible as the process that led to them is invisible. There are new stories and narratives, new people and new possibilities, and a glimmer of renaissance where there was previously only ruin.

This article is reposted from with permission of the author.

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Announcing the Walk Indianapolis Architectural Tours

I’m pleased to be able to tell you all about another civic project I’ve been working on for some time, the Walk Indianapolis architectural tours.

These were inspired by the delightful guided tours of Chicago sights provided by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Those are awesome, but Indianapolis doesn’t have the sheer volume of visitors or sites to make that model work locally. Instead, we decided to provide tours using a self-guided, mobile device enabled model. We recorded local architects giving overviews of significant buildings and public spaces, then made those available to be consumed on the web via audio or text, or for download to your mobile device to take with you as you walk the tour route. There’s full integration with iTunes simple downloads. (Click here to check out the downtown landmarks tour, for example).

There are two tours up presently, but hopefully more to come. I’ve already had inquiries from those looking to contribute additional content. So we’ll see what happens. You may also want to check out a similar and more extensive project out of Los Angeles called Downtown LA Walks.

This was a project I originally proposed in my Pecha Kucha presentation “15 Quick, Easy, and Cheap Ways to Make a Big Urban Design Impact in Indianapolis.” I decided to take this one on myself because I figured even if I couldn’t find anyone to help me, I could do 100% of it myself.

As it turns out, most of what I had to do involved just asking others for help. This was a joint production of many volunteers including Jeff Robinson at the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association (recording, web hosting, and project management), Sarah Hempstead at Schmidt Associates architects (scripts, narration), and Nathan Sinsabaugh and his team at Kristian Andersen and Associates (web design). The AIA Indiana chapter also contributed to the projects, as did Sanford Garner of A2SO4 architects (narration), Jonathan Hess of Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf architects (narration), and Megan Fernandez at Emmis Communications (editing and fact checking). Thanks to all of them for making this a reality. It turned out not to be quick – it took two years – but it was cheap (i.e., free) thanks to all of them.

I think this is but one example of the ways we can use digital media and mobile device technology to enhance our experience of public space, and to just plain make our cities more functional. When you think about the transit tracker apps, the augmented reality navigation systems, etc. that are out now, you can see we’re on the verge of something big. It’s something every city and lots of entrepreneurs ought to be looking at.

Related: Announcing the Indianapolis Neighborhood Map (another project I worked on I’d encourage you to check out)>

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Indiana Not Seeing Economic Refugee Surge from Surrounding States

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette ran an interesting article noting that migration into Indiana had slowed from Illinois. Given the significant press on the troubles in surrounding states, the “Come on IN” campaign, etc. I decided to take a look for myself at Indiana’s migration trends for surrounding states. Here’s the chart:

Indiana migration has remained fairly stable with Ohio and Kentucky. It has seen an uptick in migration from Michigan, which isn’t a surprise at all given that state’s challenges over the last decade. But net in-migration from Illinois has plunged. It’s even below the trough of the last recession. I wouldn’t read too much into that since a lot of the cross border movers are intra-MSA migrants in northwest Indiana. But whatever the dynamics, clearly there isn’t a recent surge of people – note that this has nothing to do with business – across the border form Illinois into Indiana.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Rahm Emanuel Brings Congestion Pricing to Chicago

I’ve been very impressed with the Rahm Emanuel administration so far in Chicago. He’s made a lot of good moves. These range from hiring Gabe Klein as transport commissioner to a plan to hike water rates that will enable to city to collect more from suburbanites. (I suggested as long as a year or two ago that privatizing water might be a good idea because it would enable the city to establish that revenue stream – I’m glad to see him thinking that way).

There’s more, but what I want to highlight today is a plan for the first steps towards congestion pricing in Chicago. I don’t believe a London style congestion charge makes sense in Chicago. Unlike with the City of London, business in the region is not as compelled to locate in the Loop, so maintaining convenient access there is important to business growth.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for congestion charges, and one of them is in parking. The Tribune reports that Emanuel plans to implement parking surcharges for downtown garages and lots during weekdays. The money will be used for transit capital improvements, including a new Green Line station at McCormick Place.

This is a great move. In fact, it was one of my recommendations from my transit plan from a couple years ago. Parking surcharges encourage people to use our existing (fixed cost) transit system, and can also make a nice stream of additional money for transit at a time it is desperately needed. Plus it is a way to make drivers pay for the congestion costs they impose on others.

Also, the fact that this is a weekday only charge is a step in the right direction towards variable pricing by government in response to demand. There’s a lower elasticity of demand for commute trips during the week, plus great transit alternatives for those who don’t want to pay to drive. Weekends have lower transit availability (particularly on Metra), and have a higher percentage of discretionary trips.

The Tribune ran a story in which some criticized the city for not including meters and not going with a pure congestion charging solution. Part of the problem is that the city’s parking meter lease has a fixed rate schedule embedded in it, which, while it could be changed, would be cumbersome to do so. I already directly highlighted how this lease constrains policy adaptations to changing conditions. It’s one of the bad attributes of the lease, but that’s not Rahm’s fault.

From a practical standpoint, a tax is the simplest way in the short term to make this work, particularly since such taxes are already collected today. There’s no reason that in the future the city can’t evolve towards a more pure congestion pricing model, but when you are trying to move fast, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

There is one thing I’ve heard causing anxiety out there. Private spaces in residential buildings would be exempt. But some downtown residents rent spaces in buildings they don’t live in and are concerned they are going to get zapped. I don’t know what the details of the proposal are, but I’d encourage the city to get out in front of this issue. If there’s no problem, then be sure to aggressively communicate why not. If there is, then probably some tweaks need to be made to avoid hurting bona fide full time downtown residents.

In any case, in my view this is a good proposal and part of a series of moves that are taking the city in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

A Beginning Agenda for Making Smart Growth Legal by Kaid Benfield

[ Kaid Benfield is Director of Sustainable Communities for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He also writes what I consider the best blog out there by anyone who is institutionally affiliated. I’d encourage you to check it out. And more institutions who want to do social media well should learn from Kaid’s example.

I’d like to preface this article with an editorial comment that I’ll stress is mine, not Kaid’s. I sometimes get grief for saying that we are drowning in regulation in this country and it is killing our ability to get things done. But I’m more and more seeing writings from even clear liberals who increasingly see that this regulation doesn’t just stop bad stuff, it stops the good stuff too. Here Kaid explains how smart growth is actually illegal in most places. Reading the news we also hear about things like organic raw milk farms in Wisconsin getting shut down or how Occupy Charlotte protestors can’t bring in port-a-potties (a basic sanitary measure) because it is against code. And of course try to build a transit line and see how long it takes to clear the review. Hopefully at some point we’ll see some sort of bi-partisan consensus around dialing back at least the worst of this regulatory insanity – Aaron. ]

historic Annapolis (by: Kevin Wilson, creative commons license)

When then-governor Parris Glendening announced a key portion of what was to become Maryland’s path-breaking land use legislation in the 1990s, he stood in the historic district of Annapolis, where Maryland’s State House is located.  He told the crowd that the best parts of downtown Annapolis – a picturesque, highly walkable and much-loved collection of 17th- and 18th-century homes, apartments, shops, civic and church buildings, restaurants and small offices just above the city’s harbor – could not have been built in the late 20th century. 

Modern zoning and building codes wouldn’t allow it.  There are too many uses mixed together, insufficient setbacks from the street, not enough parking, stairways that don’t meet modern building codes, streets too narrow, and so on.  The implication was clear:  there is something very wrong with a system of laws that has deviated so far from our intrinsic instincts that it has, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless effectively, outlawed the very things that have made Maryland’s state capital so popular with residents and visitors.

Maryland Ave, Annapolis (by: Mr T in DC, creative commons license)This blog is replete with great examples of more recent development that attempts to recapture some of the attributes that make historic districts so loved.  We are pleased to celebrate these new examples of sustainability, places that make walking a viable option for going about one’s life, that shrink the footprint of development, conserving land and infrastructure.

But, in almost every case, those exemplary new developments have required special exceptions from the building and zoning codes in effect in their municipalities.  This has basically made sustainability much harder to build than sprawl, when our regulatory system should be doing just the opposite.

This brings me to a simple set of recommendations by “a roundtable of interested parties” constituted in Seattle.  My friend Chuck Wolfe is a member of that roundtable, and he has very helpfully summarized the group’s key findings in a post on the Seattle blog Crosscut.  (Chuck also writes his own blog MyUrbanist, and we are both writers in The Sustainable Cities Collective.)  The recommendations are not radical but, rather, all grounded in pragmatism and, if I may say so, common sense:

Encourage home entrepreneurship.  Home-based businesses should be freely allowed so long as impacts to surrounding properties are minimized.  I have to note that I am writing this blog from my home right now (it’s 10.30pm); I have no idea whether that is technically legal or not.  The large government agency where my wife works has such an aggressive telecommuting program that some 80 percent of agency employees now work from their residences most of the time.  living above the store in Kentlands, MD (by: EPA Smart Growth)It’s time for our laws to catch up with reality, save the transportation energy and congestion associated with commuting, and allow people to work and serve customers from home again, as we did routinely for centuries.

Concentrate street-level commercial uses in pedestrian zones.  On this issue, Seattle’s current law is actually more progressive than most:  street-level commercial uses have been required for some time in larger new buildings.  The roundtable, working from experience, is recommending that the requirement become more nuanced and be made applicable primarily to buildings in designated pedestrian zones, not uniformly applied outside of those areas as well. 

Enhance the flexibility of parking requirements.  “As Seattle’s transit service improves, demand for on-site parking will shrink. This recommendation will allow the market to determine how much parking should be provided in locations within one quarter mile of good transit service (generally, those with at least 15 minute headways). It eliminates minimum parking requirements for residential or non-residential uses in such locations.”  Personally, I might apply a nuanced approach here as well, with perhaps some limited minimum requirements for larger buildings that abut single-family residential areas.  There doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach, and we want neighbors to feel comfortable with nearby intensification where it makes sense.

corner store in Georgetown, DC (by: M.V. Jantzen, creative commons license)Allow small commercial uses in multifamily zones.  This should be a no-brainer; bring back the corner store, please.  The recommendation in Seattle is to allow small corner stores in two- and three-story multifamily zones in certain designated districts; the city already allows them in “mid-rise” and high-rise districts. 

Expand options for accessory dwelling units.  I believe accessory units – garage and basement apartments, “granny flats” and the like – should be allowed most everywhere.  They allow a bit more density with very little change to the look and feel of a neighborhood.  In this case, the roundtable is recommending expansion of Seattle’s excellent “backyard cottages” concept.

Allow mobile food vending and similar temporary uses.  Another no-brainer.  Food trucks and farmers’ markets are springing up everywhere in America.  And it’s not exactly a radical idea: ever hear of the Good Humor man?  But it some places it is restricted, common sense notwithstanding.  (Reminds me of the recent local case in suburban DC where a kids’ lemonade stand set up outside the US Open Golf Tournament was shut down by the authorities.  Jeez.)  food truck in Miami (by: muy yum/Larry, creative commons license)In Seattle, the roundtable would allow vending carts on private property where other commercial uses are permitted and extend the permitted days and hours of farmers markets.  Sounds like a baby step to me, but at least it’s in the right direction..

Change state environmental law to obviate redundant review of projects.  “The Roundtable recommended that the city take advantage of opportunities to streamline and combine SEPA review with other aspects of regulatory review for proposed residential and mixed-use projects in designated growth centers, such as urban centers and light rail station areas.”  This one may be controversial with some of my environmental colleagues and partners, but the angel can be in the details – if, for example, the impacts of area plans have been reviewed, review of the same issues may not need to be repeated for projects that conform to those plans, especially in places where we have determined that growth should occur and where mitigation is built into the project.  I don’t pretend to know the specifics of applicable city and state law in Seattle and how the recommendations would modify it, but I do think some degree of relaxation can be appropriate in designated growth centers, when the proposed project conforms to the desired types of growth as articulated in earlier legal documents.

As noted earlier in the post, these are hardly radical proposals.  As my title suggests, they represent “beginning” steps.  The real stunner is that our laws have become so contorted and restrictive that they are needed.  The roundtable has done the citizens of Seattle a service by undertaking their study and making the recommendations, and Chuck as done us all a favor by spreading the word.

Note: Hover over photos for image credits.

Editorial Note: For more information about what’s going on in Seattle, see:

Seattle Starts Making Sustainability Legal
Seattle Government Regulatory Reform

This post originally appeared in The Switchboard on July 27, 2011. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

Replay: A Civic Going Out of Business Sale

State and local governments from coast to coast are making major budget cuts as they grapple with plunging revenues and years of deferred investment and maintenance. One refrain of some has been that just like with household budgets, government simply cannot spend more than it takes in. Thus painful cuts are the only option.

There’s no doubt this is true in the short term. Clearly, we have to make adult decisions about priorities and can’t spend money on everything, no matter how much shrieking about the end of the world every single special interest group on the planet makes when they are asked to step up to the plate and do their fair share to balance the budget.

But let’s take this household analogy further. Let’s say a family is forced to make major cuts, to the point where they have to start cutting back on maintaining their car. They can’t afford oil changes, tires, brakes, etc. when the old ones wear out. All they have money for is food and shelter. In a sense it would be true to say that they don’t have money to spend on oil changes. But if you can’t afford to pay to maintain your car, what you’re really saying is that you can’t afford the car, period.

Similarly for cities, if they can’t afford to maintain their infrastructure, run decent schools, or provide any services other than basic public safety (and often even having to make cuts in that), what they are really saying is that they can’t afford to be a city.

That’s the situation too many places find themselves in. They can’t afford to be cities, and so are really in the process of an extended civic going out of business sale. As with a company that has been issued a going concern warning by its auditor and is about to be delisted from the stock exchange, people smell the whiff of death about it, so it doesn’t attract many customers or investors. Which is to say that people aren’t moving there – they are moving out if anything – and businesses are staying away. Who wants to stake their personal or financial future on a place that might not have a future of its own?

This is something merely balancing this year’s budget isn’t going to fix. What’s really needed is to restore investor confidence. That’s going to take more than balanced budgets. Just as most companies don’t fail because their costs are too high, but rather because of the forces of creative destruction, excess leverage, poor product positioning, quality and customer service issues, a bad strategic concept, etc., most cities don’t fail because their budget’s too big, but because they are no longer relevant to the marketplace. They are selling an inferior version of a product that customers no longer want to buy.

For too many struggling cities, especially former industrial towns, even if their current service levels could be delivered for a budget of zero that wouldn’t save them.

The real issue with many cities is that their leaders spend too much time grappling with short term issues, particularly budgets in the present day, and not nearly enough time thinking about where the trend line is taking them and what they need to do to drive a materially better outcome in the future.

That’s the challenge – and a hard one. Cities with long standing enlightened leadership and populations – like Columbus, Indiana, for example – have been able to stay strong by staying ahead of the curve. For those where the rot has already taken hold, it’s a far greater struggle. This applies not just to regions, but also struggling suburbs and inner city neighborhoods even within thriving metro areas.

By all means budgets have to be balanced and spending bloat can kill you. Fiscal and operational matters must be attended to. But until these places take a hard, spare no illusions look in the mirror and develop a compelling reason for a person or business to hitch their fortunes to these places instead of thriving ones elsewhere, too many older cities will continue on the slow road to oblivion.

This post originally ran on September 30, 2010.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

The Witold Rybczynski Interview by Brendan Crain

[ Today I’ll post another installment from the archives of Brendan Crain’s fabulous Where blog. Today an interview with Witold Rybczynski. I’d also like to note that I will not be posting again until Sunday – Aaron. ]

Last week, I posted a review of Witold Rybczynski’s new book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville. After talking to a rep at Scribner (who had sent me the book back in June) I got in touch with the author, who agreed to do a Q&A about the book. The following took place over a series of emails this past weekend.


Where: Thanks again for agreeing to do this Q&A for Where. So to start out, in my review of Last Harvest I took issue with your statement that “For the first time in history urbanization does not mean concentration” on the grounds that it undermines the difference between urban and suburban environments. What’s your take on that terminological disagreement?

Witold Rybczynski: Urbanization traditionally brought with it a whole set of particular advantages. By living together in dense concentrations, city dwelllers had access to a set of services, amenities, institutions, and goods that were distinct from what was available to those living in non-urbanized areas, i.e. the countryside. It seems to me that today technology has, for the first time, vastly diminished the advantages of concentration. Of course, mid-town Manhattan still offers unparalleled advantages, but the way of life in an average American city is no longer as vastly different from the way of life in suburban and rural areas as it once was. People may still choose to live in one place or another, but unlike in the past, concentration no longer offers decisive advantages in education, communications, employment opportunities, availability of goods, culture, and so on. It is not I who have undermined the difference, but society.

W: But does the decentralization of most cities really diminish the difference between urban and suburban neighborhoods? I would argue that it makes the contrast between the two stronger, more readily apparent. Decentralization has not cheapened urban environments…as the recent “revitalization” of many cities has shown, suburbanization has led to an increased appreciation of the distinct advantages that urban places offer. I guess, at this point, it would be good to have you explain what “urban” signifies to you.

WR: Think of the difference between “town” and “country” one hundred years ago. It was absolute and affected what you ate, how you lived, the amenities to which you had access, and much more. I would argue that today the differences between amenities, resources, etc. available to someone living in an exurb outside Denver or Pittsburgh, and living in downtown Denver or Pittsburgh, while they have not disappeared, are slight. The fact that information, medical care, education, entertainment, and so on have dispersed is significant. I am not aruing that there are no differences at all, but rather that they have, for most people, diminished to the point of being trivial. Nor is the balance weighted to the city, as it once was. Suburban Philadelphians, for example, have more choice in department stores or food stores, than those living in Center City. On the other hand, we all have equal access to Netflix and Amazon.

At this point in our history, urban means all of us who live in metropolitan areas, downtown, city neighborhoods, suburbs, and fringe areas.

I think that the “urban” that you describe, and which is what is described in the so-called “renaissance” refers to those who live in downtowns, who are generally either young professionals or retired people, and a small number of empty nesters. This is probably not more than 5 percent of the total city population.

Center City Philly has about 70,000 residents (very large for a US downtown), while the city has 1.5 million, so 5% is conservative, for most cities.

W: In a recent interview with Business Week, you were asked whether New Urbanism and Neotraditional Developments like New Daleville were in the vein of Jane Jacobs’ brand of urbanism and you confirmed that you did, indeed, believe them to be very similar. I agree to an extent — they do aim to achieve many of the same things Jacobs championed. But Jane focused heavily on density as a critical aspect of successful urbanism (and, from what I remember, did not think much of New Urbanist development), so how do you reconcile the extremely low (by compairison to her professed ideal) densities of these developments with the fact that they claim to aim for a rather Jacobsian ideal?

WR: Jacobs definitely espoused density + a mixture of uses. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” she wrote almost exclusively about Greenwich Vilage, which is an extreme example of both. I don’t think you have to interpret Jacobs literally to be influenced by her, and like almost all town planners post-DLGAC, the New Urbanism movement has found inspiration in her writing. It is true, as Robert A. M. Stern pointed out in his recent adress to the CNU convention in Philadelphia a few months ago, that the accomplishments of New Urbanism have had more to do with suburbs than with city centers so they have usually been built at lower densities. That has partly to do with the market in the 1980s, when New Urbanism started. Today, a few developers have figured out how to do high-density, mixed-use and we are seeing more new construction along those lines (Atlantic Yards, for example).

Incidentally, all ideas in urbanism that start out as ideologies (Charles Mulford Robinson’s city beautiful, Howard’s garden city, Jacobs, McHarg, DPZ) get severely compromised by the time they have gone through the sausage machine of the market. In the 1960s, did Jacobs imagine that her Village would become an expensive enclave? I doubt it.

W: The Village is certainly not what it was in the 1960s, but that has a great deal to do with people rejecting the aesthetics and isolation of the suburbs. The prices of places with a strong sense of place are rising specifically because of characterless development, which is what New Urbanism aims to change. It makes sense, then, that most of the successful NU developments would be outside of the urban core, but the one thing that the oft-cited examples (Seaside, Newpoint) share is a great attention to detail. After observing the development of New Daleville and comparing the outcome with other NU developments you’ve seen, how important do you think this attention to details is to successful New Urbanism?

WR: Attention to exterior detail in neotraditional developments is important. Partly it has to do with establishing a sense of place, partly with the houses being close to the street, hence more visible. I think that equally important is a marketing issue. Neotraditional development is not cheap to implement, since there is landscaping, street details, money spent on the public realm, usually a more expensive permitting process. The builder finds himself in the position of selling a house on a small lot for the same price as a house on a large lot. To offset the competitive disadvantage, builders have found that spending more on design and details of construction makes the house more attractive to buyers. The details at New Daleville included metal porch roofs, porch columns, solid front doors, often with side-lights, shutters, decorative moldings. The overall effect is to make the house appear more solid. The discovery that people will accept higher density in return for a sense of place and good design was one of the key discoveries of Seaside.

Incidentally, prices in places with a strong sense of place are not always higher. There are plent of attractive old villages that are languishing. Location is still an important factor. The first generation of neotraditional developments were in booming real estate markets—that helped a lot. At New Daleville, prices were initially set high (in the hope that people would pay more for detail), but as the market slow-down set in, prices were lowered significantly. This has had a positive effect on sales, and New Daleville now has the lowest prices in the area. But profits are lower than they were initially.

W: Speaking of money, much of the hesitation of the residents of Londonderry toward New Daleville seemed to have come from the fear of how increased density would affect land values in the area. How have things played out in the months since you finished Last Harvest?

WR: I think the general resistance to development from communities arises from the fact that new residents will mean more traffic on the roads, more children in the schools (hence higher schol taxes), and of course, development means the loss of views of open landscape, which is what originally drew people to the rural location. This is quite irrespective of density, except that lower density means less of all the above, so if development must take place, folks would prefer that density be as low as possible.

The other issue is that everyone wants their neighbor’s house to be more expensive than their own—not cheaper. So people are very resistant to having new housing that will cost less than what is already there. That is why it is so difficult to build affordble housing—nobody wants it in their neighborhood. By the way, New Daleville consists only of detached single-family houses. When I asked the developer, Joe Duckworth, about this, he said that he could have included town houses, but that would have made getting approval even more difficult, so he didn’t risk it.In Last Harvest I describe a town meeting at which Joe mentions that the future houses at New Daleville will cost about $200,000, which satisfied the neighbors. In fact, the New Daleville houses started at $340,000 when the sales office opened, although prices have now dropped to about $270,000. This is still more than the price of existring houses, so it is unlikely that New Daleville will negatively impact surrounding land values.

W: It’s sort of ironic that two of the three worries that you listed as being associated with higher density in the suburbs — increased automobile traffic and loss of natural open space — are two of the biggest concerns of urbanists regarding suburban and especially exurban development, yet the two sides view these problems from slightly different angles. All of it, as you note in your book, gets lumped together as “sprawl.” This seems to support your claim that sprawl is actually a myth, a scapegoat for change.

WR: As I wrote in Last Harvest, sprawl is always perceived as somebody else’s fault. I think there are serious issues to be addressed in a country with a growing population and technologies that permit decentralization–and plenty of space–but the concept of sprawl has not so far proved useful in resolving the issues. It seems destined to reinforce entrenched positions, rather than finding a solution. Which is a shame. We need another model, that permits discussion rather than merely argument.

W: Any ideas of what that might be?

WR: I don’t. But I do hope that it will be based on something other than prejudice, misinformation, and self-interest. Actually, replacing one simplistic model by another would not achieve much. I’m hoping that readers of Last Harvest come away with an appreciation of the complexity of the community building process. That would be a start.

This post originally appeared in Where on July 17, 2007.

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Review: The Gated City by Ryan Avent

Update: Ryan posted a reply to some of the points I raise here. It’s definitely worth reading.

The Gated City is a mini-ebook by Ryan Avent that makes the case for removing restrictions on densification in cities. In addition to being a left-leaning economist, Avent is also a journalist who is an editor at the Economist magazine and a principal contributor to its Free Exchange blog.

Avent’s journalism skills make him one of the more articulate and easy to read economists out there. This book brings Avent’s signature readability to the table and also has the virtue of being brief. This makes the book very much a recommended read. To me though that is as much for his introductory treatment of the economic value of cities as it is about the virtues of density. The primacy of urban regions in our new economic order is something that is hardly a matter of left or right. But I continue to be amazed at how few policy makers actually seem to know or care about this, particularly at the state level. Our governments continue to implement policies that are not just indifferent to the success of our cities, but in many cases outright hostile to them. More reminders of the real state of affairs are clearly needed.

Having read several other reviews of the book, I was expecting big and controversial claims to be made for density. In fact, Avent’s claims for the benefits of increased density are fairly modest. He suggests that removing artificial barriers to urban density might raise the growth rate in GDP by 25 to 50 basis points. That’s not a radical amount, though of course compounded over time adds up. He also doesn’t claim that more density is always better, that we should all live like Manhattanites, or that he professes to know what the optimum level of density is. In fact, he explicitly disavows all of those. He also says that he doesn’t care where people personally choose to live, and, while I would have preferred to see a more forthright statement on policies like urban growth boundaries and such that actively restrict suburban development, Avent does include New Urbanist critics of suburbia as among those who want to more strictly regulate land use.

In short, Avent more or less wants to reduce barriers to densification such as zoning, FAR limits, historic districts, etc. in order to allow the market to determine the optimum level of density. He hypothesizes that this would lead to an increase in density overall, and given that both the goal and practical result of much planning practice is to restrict density, I agree. (See: Planning and Free Market Density). While clearly Avent is sympathetic to urbanism and densification, in this book at least he makes a clear effort to avoid statements that might suggest he wants to force density.

On the whole, I’m personally very supportive of Avent’s goals here, though of course the best course for overcoming the huge structural biases against density is still speculative.

There are a few areas that weren’t clear and that I weren’t quite as sold on. One of them is that in some cases Avent talked about employment density and in other cases residential density. Those might be related in many cases, but I don’t think they are necessarily tightly linked. Most of the economic benefits would appear to occur from employment densification not necessarily residential. For example, until fairly recently, Chicago’s Loop business district was almost exclusively office oriented and had little residential density at all. While adjacent urbanized areas are higher density in terms of people, I don’t believe that’s the only factor supporting the Loop economy, or even the most important. (See: The Big City CBD Advantage and Employment Challenges Facing Small City Downtowns). Fully distinguishing between employment and residential density in terms of impact and policy would have been helpful.

Another is that the book heavily focuses on the supply side of the equation (i.e., the ability to build) as opposed to the demand side. But arguably demand had a bigger role to play in driving up housing costs in places like NYC. It came as no surprise to me that the metros Avent cities most in his dense cities list were New York and San Francisco. Those places are home to the two most successful macro-industries of the last 20 years in terms of wealth generation for their practitioners – finance and high tech. Avent notes increasing income inequality and stagnant wages for the majority. This by itself explains why the middle class is increasingly priced out of these cities. When the Fed pumps $14 trillion into propping up the financial sector in the last handful of years, it’s not unrealistic to expect that to show up in New York area housing prices. No amount of new supply would have been able to keep up with the significant deregulation of finance that occurred in the last two decades (repealing Glass-Steagall, raising the ceilings on the share of national deposits held by a single institution, etc) and Helicopter Ben’s printing presses.

Also, assume we were able to moderate the price of housing in these places somewhat. What would that do for us? Well, NYC and SF would still remain among the most expensive places in America to live. This means that they are going to continue to draw principally those who are able to tap into the particular wealth generating functions of those regions, along with those who particularly value the amenity set of those cities or who are following network path migration. However, the industry groups that are now predominant in those cities are ones that employ almost exclusively high end labor. So what this would mean in my view is that instead of say the top 1% being able to live and work in these places, we extend that down to the top 2% or 3%. That might add more new net economic growth, and even benefit the people who fall into those newly eligible brackets, but a few more near luxe jobs aren’t going to solve the fundamental problem of employing middle class Americans and restoring the engine of upward social mobility. The factories that used to be a big part of the economic life of Silicon Valley are now gone, and they aren’t coming back no matter what building restrictions we remove. Even if we could grow employment there, it would be almost certainly be more jobs for those who, as Joel Kotin put it, “already reside at the apex of society or expect to soon” thanks to their education, skills, or family connections.

With the current economic development paradigm for tier one cities emphasizing talent, higher end activities, and “global city” type affairs, I also question whether local leaders would actually want to make it easier for what are basically lower end activities to take place there. Everyone seems to want to keep climbing the value chain, not descending it. If you lower prices, you open the market to more economically marginal people and activities, and thus lower items like per capita income and GDP, unless somehow on a lifecycle basis this somehow changes the overall economic structure of a region (which would probably raise housing prices again….)

Another part of the challenge is that the business models of high tech and finance have evolved to thrive in an environment in which they a) now find themselves in a globally competitive market and b) have to pay for sky high real estate and expensive people in SF and NYC. I’m most familiar with tech. I’ve written before how the onshore tech market has reinvented its business model to focus on lean methodologies, design, being close to the customer, and rapid iterations. When you combine this with innovations in open source frameworks and cloud hosting, the average web company simply doesn’t employ that many people these days, and likely will never scale its labor force by much because the economic model of something like SaaS is almost 1:N – virtually all costs are fixed. (See: More Thoughts on the Programmer Shortage).

So to really boost employment, we’d need more than just cheaper land making labor more available at a reasonable cost. That might provide some boost. But we would also need business model innovation.

One nitpick: the choice of Phoenix as the primary example of a low density city wasn’t one that resonated with me. When I think of Phoenix I think of a retirement or leisure community, not a business center. Texas cities like Houston would have been a better choice. (Avent does mention Houston at times, however).

Avent doesn’t exactly slam sprawlvilles like Houston, but he has a clear affinity for the high end city. I can’t really begin to address this, but a few things come to my mind. Firstly, the amenity gap between cities can be seen partially in terms of life-cycle. While certain things like the collections at the Met can never be reproduced in a place like Houston, that city will only grow more sophisticated and amenity rich over time. Cities almost invariably get rich, then decide they want to use some of that money to buy class. It was true for Chicago, and it’s increasingly true now in places like Houston and Dallas, as well as emerging market cities around the world.

Second, how much of the perceived productivity of places like NYC and SF result from them having excluded all but high end activities in the first place? Houston not only has its energy cluster that has created fantastic wealth there, it has also managed to build a city where workaday businesses can do their thing. If a similar range existed in the Bay Area, it would look a lot less impressive in its stats. While it might make sense that transplanting tech works to Silicon Valley would make them more productive, it’s not clear that would be the case for workers in most other sectors. Whereas in Houston not only can the energy worker be more productive, other types of businesses and workers aren’t chased away. I’m sure he’ll correct me shortly, it strikes me that Houston could in fact be very much what Avent wants to see. It’s home to a powerful macro-industry cluster – energy – but has low enough housing costs that it doesn’t deter people who want to work in that sector from coming to Houston.

Third, Avent does believe increased density pays dividends across the board, so even places like Houston would benefit from raising their densities. And suburban type densities are very easy to raise without fundamentally changing the built form or quality of experience that people have there. So long as somehow this didn’t end up compromising Houston’s low housing costs, presumably even Houston itself would benefit from more density in Avent’s view. I mention this lest I leave the false impression that this book is all about a handful of already very dense places.

One last comment: I did not see rent control mentioned anywhere in the book. This is clearly a factor in the housing markets in both NYC and the city of San Francisco.

My main takeaway was that if we increased housing supply, we could boost the labor force in proximity to some high value economic clusters that are critical to the US economic future. Avent’s belief in the benefits of density are broader, but this is what it stressed. While I agree with the policy goals, I find it difficult to believe that what amounts to some marginal benefit is going to be sufficient to overcome the vast anti-density inertia and structural forces out there. Nor do I believe that this fundamentally solves the economic problems facing the United States, especially boosting employment over the long term, raising middle class wages, and addressing the broken engine of upward social mobility. What Avent’s prescription amounts to is tweaking the dials on the engine to squeeze out a few more horsepower. That’s a worthy goal and a potentially useful action, but only a small part of the solution to the challenges we face.

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

The Cost of Congestion, The Value of Transit

Last week the Texas Transportation Institute released the 2011 edition of its benchmark Urban Mobility Report. It is packed full of useful statistics about roadway networks, congestion, and public transit, though is not without its critics (see below). I’d like to highlight some of the more interesting findings out of this.

The Value of Transit

One of the values TTI estimates is the number of additional hours of delay each peak hour commuter would incur annual if public transportation were discontinued. In effect, this is one key benefit to motorists of public transport. Here are the top 10 cities:

Obviously New York is far and away the winner with 63 hours of additional delay per peak period auto commuter if its transit system were discontinued. TTI puts the value of an hour of time at $16.30, so this translates into an average of $1026.90 in dollar benefits to each and every auto commuter in greater New York City from transit. That’s not nothing.

To further show the value of transit to New Yorkers, let’s do a quick back of the envelope type calculation for illustrative purposes. The median household income in metro New York is $61,927. If each home with an auto commuter in it has one and only one commuter who obtains the average benefit, and incomes of auto commuters follow the overall, then this auto benefit is equivalent to 1.66% of income. You can think of it as sort of like a 1.5 percentage point cut in the income tax rate for those households, just based on the value delivered to them.

Now of course those households probably make contributions towards transit through taxes and otherwise, but clearly they are also getting a return even if they don’t ever ride transit personally. Also, this considers only peak period commuters, not non-peak drivers (who also experience significant delay in New York) or the value of transit to commercial vehicles, which is likely big as well given than NYC incurs over $2 billion in cost due to trucking delays from congestion.

After NYC, the savings drop off rapidly, but there are six additional cities with more than 10 hours of delay savings per peak commuter, so they probably get something material out of it.

On an aggregate basis, the total value of congestion avoided as a result of public transit is impressively high as well, as this look at the top ten cities shows (in millions of dollars):

Again, New York dominates the charts with nearly $8 billion in savings. But even down the charts there’s big money. In Chicago, which is gearing up for another round of fare hikes and service cuts, the cost of congestion avoided due to public transit is about the same as the combined operating budget of all regional transit agencies. Chicago transit is effectively self-funded in terms of benefits delivered to motorists alone.

Commercial Vehicle Traffic

TTI has also started trying to break out the cost of delays to commercial vehicles. Here are the top ten cities for trucking congestion delays, in millions of dollars:

It doesn’t surprise me to see Chicago is number one, given its status as the nation’s premier transport hub and the large number of highways that pass through it.

Lane Miles

When looking at congestion, I think it’s also relevant to consider the size of the roadway network relative to the population. TTI reports freeway and arterial lane miles, so we can do this calculation. Here are the top ten cities for freeway lane miles per capita, for metro areas greater than one million people.*

The one that jumps out at me is Cleveland. As a shrinking region, it would appear to be significantly over-supplied with freeways. I think this shows the excess infrastructure overhang that hurts these places in trying to turn around decline.

Here are the bottom ten:

Note: Riverside has a likely data error in the master TTI spreadsheet the artificially lowers its score here.

Again unsurprisingly, the big cities with bad congestion have a comparatively low number of freeway lane miles per capita. Make particular note of Chicago as we’ll come back to it.

TTI and Its Critics

I could do a lot more on the TTI report, and maybe I will in future posts, but I wanted to address the notion that TTI’s measures have been “debunked” as some have said.

The root of this goes back to a CEOs for Cities report called “Driven Apart” that basically says that TTI and the way they measure things are wrong, and that different measures would be more appropriate.

I doubt most of those who link to that report approvingly have ever read what it says in detail. I’ll freely admit I haven’t either. But having looked at previous work Joe Cortright did, I’m confident it’s technically sound.

Regardless, I think that this is never going to gain mind share with the greater public, and that only the hard core urbanist true believes are going to be impressed with it.

Let me explain why in contrast to the extremely successful CEOs for Cities “Talent Dividend” research which shows the size of the prize for increasing educational attainment. Firstly, in education there is already unanimous consensus that we need to raise education attainment, even if there are debates about getting there. So this is preaching to the crowd. Second, the idea that raising educational attainment boosts incomes its intuitively obvious because in our everyday experience, the people we interact with on a daily basis who have more education tend to make more money. And the causal link is clear. The Talent Dividend merely takes this everyday experience and makes it real at the macro level, showing the size of the prize. Also, its policy prescription of shooting for a one percentage point increase in college degree attainment is intuitively achievable.

Now contrast this with Driven Apart. Here we have low consensus about what we want to achieve. Additionally, the notion that places like Chicago are somehow better than Charlotte for drivers is counter-intuitive and flies in the face of the everyday experience of Chicagoans.

I am inclined to be pro-urban and pro-transit. But I’ve commuted in Chicago and can tell you that traffic is simply horrific. Complaining about traffic and the CTA are two of the most common Chicago pastimes. Not only that, traffic has been getting worse over the years. This is not just commuting. Expressways like the Kennedy and Eisenhower are now basically backed up all day. Even on a Saturday or Sunday, traffic frequently grinds to a halt. As near as I can tell, the ramp from the inbound Ryan to the outbound Ike is backed up effectively 24 hours a day. The numerous six way intersections like Belmont/Lincoln/Ashland and Fullerton/Damen/Elston make driving around the city a chore as you sit through multiple lights. (And hope you don’t have to turn left).

Now the Driven Apart report doesn’t deny this, but simply suggests that’s the wrong way to look at it. Rather, we need to consider distance, etc. and that it’s the total time driving that counts. Here’s the chart comparing Chicago and Charlotte:

Perhaps the “average” trip is shorter. However, what shapes most people’s view of traffic is commuting. And according to the Census Bureau, Chicago’s average commute time is longer than Charlotte’s:

A look at the distribution of commute times suggests that it’s better to commute in Charlotte than Chicago across the board:

Even if non-commute trips are on average far shorter and take less time in Charlotte, I can tell you that in Chicago, because of the unpredictability of traffic and transit, people routinely build huge extra time buffers into their journey, which is deadweight loss if your trip turns out to be short.

Driven Apart suggest that the real culprit we should be looking at is sprawl. I agree that’s a key problem. However, Chicago is one of the most sprawling regions in the US. Indeed, that’s one reason it’s traffic is so bad. This has been tirelessly documented by the Center for Neighborhood Technology and others. Talk to any urbanist planning group in Chicago, and restraining sprawl is a top priority. As I noted in my census coverage, virtually all Chicago growth in this stagnant region has been in the exurban areas. The region seems to actively promote this, with items such as extended Metra service to Elburn and a planned $69 million interchange expansion at I-90 and Route 47 in exurban Huntley. The sprawl has even spread into Rockford, whose metro area is seeing a big influx of people from Chicago despite its depressed economic state.

Beyond sprawl, Chicago also has the third lowest freeway lane miles per capita of any metro area in the US greater than one million people, though it does better when looking at arterial lane-miles.

So whatever the merits of Driven Apart (and I’m not claiming any of it is per se wrong), implying something like Chicago is better than Charlotte for drivers falls into the category of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Something that is effectively a technical argument is never going to sell, particularly when it flies in the face of the everyday experience of people who live in these cities. I know both Chicago and Indy (another city cited for its sprawly commutes in the Driven Apart study) intimately from a driver’s perspective, and there’s simply no comparison. In terms of getting places, Indy is just indisputably better to me. I don’t think I could ever be convinced to think otherwise.

Given this, I think the idea that traditional measure of congestion are going to be dethroned is a long shot at best.

* Note that TTI urban areas are not metro areas but a bespoke region. The population used for thresholding which regions to include was the Census population of the metro area, but the population value used for per capita calculation was the population of the TTI region as reported by TTI.

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