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Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Failure to Communicate: Accentuate the Positive

Late last spring I posted a piece called Beyond Starbucks Urbanism, which I billed as the first in a mini-series on urbanist communications failures. It’s later than I anticipated, but here’s the second piece.

I recently had the privilege of seeing Jan Gehl, godfather of Copenhagen’s bicycle network and a consultant to New York City and many others, speak. He was beyond awesome, but one thing that really stuck with me was how he got the tone completely right. One of his observations about how they transformed Copenhagen was, “We never talked about taking away things from people. We only talked about what they were going to get.”

This is a lesson too seldom heeded by urbanists, who almost seem to define themselves as much in terms of what they are against as they do what they are for. The anti-car rhetoric immediately comes to mind of course. All these things we want to do are talked about in terms of cars all the time. But what’s that got to do with it? If these are good policies, and have all sorts of good benefits for citizens, why can’t we talk about that? Why don’t we defend these things on their own merits?

Carol Coletta has a great saying that “eat your spinach” marketing doesn’t work. CEOs for Cities has been working for a while now to try to create a new vision of the American Dream, one rooted in a more urban context, something that would do for the city lifestyle what the GM Futurama exhibit did for the suburban, auto-based one. They want to create that positive vision rather than a dour one to inspire people to want to buy. That’s a hugely important initiative, and one that we should all seek to emulate.

Moving Beyond Sustainability

Nothing has done more to hurt the urbanist cause than it getting almost inseparably linked to the notion of “sustainability” and climate change. Sustainability has become almost a shibboleth of the right thinking urbanist. Architects, planners, politicians, journalists and more all try to out do each other with ever more rhetoric about radical transformations and grandiose, even science fictiony visions of the future low-carbon world. These might score points with the inside crowd, but they don’t impress the average member of the public all that much. Quite the opposite in many cases.

Right now in America millions of people are out of work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has had to invent new categories of long term unemployment to measure it. Ben Bernanke just said it might be five years before employment normalizes. Over 43 million people – one out of every seven in America – are on food stamps. That’s about the same size as the entire country of Spain. State and local governments are broke. Our local social safety nets are getting shredded as they cut back. The federal government is drowning in debt. Millions of people are or soon will be in foreclosure. Many more are underwater on their homes. People are hurting out there.

Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Americans have roundly shown that they ain’t buyin’ it on cap and trade or other measures of sustainability. Apocalyptic but nebulous risks like climate change seldom resonate even in normal times. But especially with everything going on in America right now, it’s just not on the list. We might not like that, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s like Julian Simon put it, “No food, one problem. Much food, many problems.” Climate change is the concern of people who aren’t worried about where their next paycheck is coming from, where they are going to go after they lose their house, or how they are going to feed their kids.

Bill Clinton was right: it’s the economy, stupid. Urbanists prattle on about sustainability all the time as if the last few years didn’t even happen. No wonder it’s not working. And because pretty much all urbanist policies have been sold as about sustainability, there’s a linkage in the public’s mind, so that if they don’t believe in climate change or don’t rate it highly in favor of more immediate concerns, that takes urbanism down with it.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. With better packaging, I believe there is a case for pro-urbanist policies (including those that promote sustainability), one that can work with the times and the trends instead of against them. Some people will never be converted. But I’m convinced there’s a lot more people who would be open to various environmental and urbanist ideas if we talked about their practical benefits rather than how they are good for the planet (even if they are).

Delinking Conservation from Sustainability

Back in the early 1980′s my father ran a freon packaging plant. They took in bulk freon in rail cars and put it into smaller cylinders for the marketplace. When he came in, a lot of excess freon from the packaging process was simply blown off into the atmosphere. Now my dad’s not exactly a staunch environmentalist, nor was the ozone hole even on the radar then. But he calculated how much money they were losing from wasting all that product, and decided to install recapture equipment to eliminate that blow-off. It didn’t require any environmental consciousness. Eliminating waste was simply good business.

Similarly at my old company, we talked about sustainability a lot. But what we talked about a lot more was cutting costs. Reducing our office space footprint, encouraging telecommuting, going paperless where possible and defaulting to double-sided printing, installing high end “telepresence” video conferencing reduce executive travel, etc, etc, etc. all reduced the firm’s environmental footprint a lot. But they also saved beaucoup dollars for the shareholders.

In an era of belt tightening, why not play up the money saving angle of conservation? After all, wasting all this stuff we do all the time costs a lot money – money many of us don’t have. There’s a real business case to be made here.

If I were mayor of a city, I’d be targeting my green message not at the sustainability-urbanist axis, but the taxpayers, making sure they know how much money I’m saving them. That’s the kind of green that resonates with them right now.

New York’s Positive Livability Message

When it comes to transportation policy and urban livability, New York City is setting the bar from a policy and taking action perspective. But they’re also doing it from communications one. I’ll show here again this great video on New York’s quality of life agenda. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Mayor Bloomberg, Janette Sadik-Khan and others don’t bury their environmental goals in the sand. She says the goal is to make New York “the greatest, greenest city in the world” and they do talk about taking space away from cars.

But the clear focus is the positive benefits to New Yorkers. Not only is the imagery great, so are the talking points, stressing quality of life – “We really try to focus on things that improve the quality of our lives today.” (Bloomberg) – safety (traffic fatalities down 20% since PlaNYC released, pedestrian safety improved by 60% in Times Square since closing Broadway), better services (reduced bus boarding times, faster bus speeds), the benefits to business – “Our agenda is to unclog our streets so commerce doesn’t get stifled” (Bloomberg), and the fact that businesses are pleased (sales are up) now that Times Square has been reconfigured – and the inclusive nature of the improvements – “It’s not just for the spandexed and the brave. It’s for moms, dads, kids, everyone.” (bike planner).

A recent article on Sadik-Khan in the Guardian reinforces the messaging:

Congestion – sclerotic city arteries clogged with traffic – is economically inefficient, ergo making mass transit work serves the city’s economy. Since 96% of Wall Street’s workforce goes to the office by subway, bus, boat, bike or on foot, keeping the city moving and making it prosperous are of a piece…. “The goal has been moving as many people as possible as quickly as possible – and safely,” she says. “Re-engineering streets is about re-imagining streetscapes, but it’s also about making streets safer.” … “What we’ve found is that we’ve not only achieved a 50% reduction in cyclist injuries where we have these lanes, but a 40% cut in all injuries because of the pedestrian refuge islands,” she says.

More Good Marketing Messages

New York isn’t alone in spreading the good news about practical benefits of these policies. If you ever get to hear Washington, DC planning chief Harriet Tregoning talk, she’s a fountain of evidence about how that city’s approach has paid off. For example, even during the recession, DC sales tax collections have been going up. Now obviously as the nation’s capital, there’s always unique dynamics there, but that blows me away.

She’s also been working hard to marshal statistics to help make business even better. For example, a lot of national retailers rely on traffic counts to decide where to locate stores. But in the city, there may be huge numbers of people passing by on foot or in buses that aren’t getting picked up by that measure. So they are working diligently to find ways to gather data to give a more accurate picture of demand to retailers. That’s the intersection of urbanism and business.

There are also sorts of fiscal benefits that can be talked up. As I like to say, “less lanes is less money.” Why spend money on more concrete for cars than you actually need by over-designing for peak of the peak and such?

I was also stunned to read in Streetsblog that all New York’s current bicycle initiatives combined only cost $8.8 million – and only $2 million of that came from the city’s budget. As bike commuting has doubled since 2006, albeit on a low base, it’s tough to imagine any investment that could be more cost efficient or have a higher ROI than that.

Let’s face it, most municipalities and states are broke right now. So looking at low cost, fast to implement, high impact changes like NYC’s public plaza program and pedestrian/bike improvements are clearly the way to go. We can’t afford anything else. In the short term especially, the pedestrian and bicycle need to be at the core of the transport policy for any city that hopes to have a fiscal future.

There’s a lot more where this came from. I think this is the type of thing that needs to inform our arguments to a much great extent going forward. As Jarrett Walker said over at Human Transit, let’s not talk about “coercion”. Let’s stop talking about what we want people to give up, and about how we have to do this or that to “save the planet.” Instead, let’s talk about why it’s just plain a good idea to do anyway. Let’s defend our policy prescriptions on their own merits – because I’m convinced they can stand on their own two feet.

More Goodness from Munich

I’ll leave you with another video. Copenhagenize pointed me at this video out of Munich, talking about marketing bicycling to help build the bicycle culture in that city. They want to produce something that inspires an emotional connection, that gets people to experience the “joy of cycling.” Marketing isn’t all just about dry facts and figures, though that’s what I stressed in this post. This short piece talks about how Munich developed their sales approach. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Friday, January 7th, 2011

Urbanoscope

I am a transplant to Louisville, and I must admit that the culture here has been difficult to adapt to, although I still try. There are many things I like about this city, but in terms of jobs, ambition, and looking toward the future, I have to say, these results are not surprising. I don’t get the impression, on the whole, that Louisville wants to move ahead. Every city has its faults. Clannish immaturity is Louisville’s. I hope that Louisville can retain its character while simultaneously opening up. It may not be possible. Young, educated workers do not want to recreate the 1970s in their work environment. I’m sorry if that’s harsh, but it’s the truth. – User “cccc2222″ commenting on Courier-Journal story about Louisville’s failure to achieve its economic ambitions

I’m going to be on Chicago Public Radio’s 848 Monday at 9am talking transportation as part of their “Mayor Monday” series. They might even be taking listener calls, so check it out if you’re in Chicago.

Also, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on quality of place and product at an event on Building Prosperity in the Greater Akron Region on January 18th, sponsored by Greater Ohio and the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce. There will be a lot of great speakers including Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities, Julia Taylor of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, along with many state and local leaders. If you’re in the region and want more information, click here.

How’s this for an offer? The Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago is looking for people to host house party gatherings to discuss issues about the next mayoral race. If you’ve got a group who would be interested, let them know and they’ll supply staff and resources. If you support CNT and their policy recommendations, they’ll actually do the work in educating your friends on them.

The National Film Board of Canada created an interactive site called Out My Window showing panoramic views from residential high rises and such with 13 families living in them in various cities around the world.

Top Stories

1. Ben Schmitt: Broken windows in the Motor City: A Detroit exit journal. A reporter talks about giving up on his plan to stake a claim in Detroit’s revival, and moving to Pittsburgh. This is a really tough story. “Those people who helped me that night, as we waited more than two hours for the cops to arrive, illustrate the fight inside many residents desperate to turn Detroit around. For a while I believed in that fight. I purchased a home in one of the city’s stable neighborhoods nine years earlier because it felt real. I scoffed at other colleagues and editors who drove to work on the freeways and never spent a minute in the city they covered. But when I heard my daughters’ screams that evening, I knew I was gone. No more compromises.”

2. Gov. Ed Rendell: The NFL Thinks We’re a Nation of Wussies – Not urban related per se, but I liked this piece. – “To call off this game because of snow is further evidence of the ‘wussification’ of America. We seem to have lost our boldness, our courage, our sense of adventure and that frontier spirit that made this country the greatest nation in the world. A little snow, a potential traffic tie-up, a long trip home caused us to cancel a football game? Will Bunch, a writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, said that if football were played in China, 60,000 Chinese would have walked through the snow to the stadium doing advanced calculus as they did so. He’s probably right, and it’s no secret why the Chinese are dominating on the world stage.”

3. Ed Glaeser: America’s Revival Begins in Its Cities

4. Demography Matters pointed me at a very interesting blog called Spike Japan that talks about a side of Japan we rarely see, a side falling into Rust Belt ruin – “It may come as a shock to almost all of you living outside of Japan, and to some of you living in the center of its big cities, that as we approach the summer of 2009, swathes of the country are in ruins. It came as a shock to me, too, I have to confess, having lived for almost all of the last decade in the bubble of central Tokyo and only venturing outside occasionally to get to the airport, nearby beaches, and old friends in the mountains.”

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

The trailer for a forthcoming documentary about the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis, which was designed by starchitect Minoru Yamasaki – architect of the World Trade Center – and demolished in 1972. The trailer looks very interesting, so I’ll look forward to seeing the whole thing. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

World and National Roundup

Miller-McCune: A road less traveled – Have we reached “peak travel” in the industrialized world?

Human Transit: Do roads pay for themselves? – Jarrett Walker looks at a recent study on the matter by the liberal non-profit US PIRG.

Daily Mail: Eco-light bulb cost to triple as ban on old style bulbs kicks in – well surprise, surprise.

Jim Russell: The End of Migration

The Atlantic: Dire States – more bad news about state finances

Alex Marshall: Distinctiveness: A Big Secret to Cities’ Success

Tim Campbell: Cities on the Prowl

Ed Glaeser: Behind the population shift – He credits it to housing regulation.

Business Insider: The 11 State Pension Funds That Will Run Out of Money – No surprise Illinois is #1, but Indiana is #3, and it also scores poorly in many other pension rankings though the pension situation does not even seem to be on the radar in the state. Odd.

New Geography: Washington opens the virtual office door

City Roundups

Next American City: Interview with NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe

LA Times: In a region that imports water, much goes to waste – A discussion of how rain that does fall in LA is basically just channeled off into the ocean instead of captured and reused.

Richard Longworth: A New Year for the Midwest

NYT: Chicago to redevelop US Steel site on lakefront

Chicago Tribune: Chicago’s transportation infrastructure weakening.

Chicago Tribune: Will Chicago think big after Daley?

Chicago Reporter: Loopholes – Despite the huge investment in TIF money, central Chicago actually lost jobs.

Megan Cottrell: Did public housing destroy Chicago’s black voter base? – I’m convinced there’s a Pulitzer for the person who tracks down where the former residents of Chicago’s demolished public housing projects went. A have a friend who is a cop in Gary who says there has been a big influx of ex-CHA residents there. Dittos a friend in Danville, Illinois. And I’ve heard similar reports out of Iowa. It immediately raises the question, was demolition of the projects less about helping the people who lived there than about a deliberate deracination program?

Indy Star: New projects could boost city’s entertainment districts – Quotes Yours Truly plus Kevin Kastner of Urban Indy.

Indianapolis Business Journal: Indianapolis startup scene gains momentum

Cleveland Plain Dealer: In hard times, Cleveland blacks’ views about immigrants shifting

NYT: Trying to overcome the stubborn blight of vacancies in Youngstown

Audrey Russo: Immigration and In-Migration in Pittsburgh

Pittsblog: The New Pittsburgh

Detroit Free Press: Risky best cost Detroit pension funds $480 million and Where the Detroit pension funds went wrong

NYT: In Michigan, Hamtramck pleads for a bankruptcy option

Welcome to Cleveburgh

Chris Briem had a great op-ed piece in the Post-Gazette this week touting a super-regional “Cleveburgh” corridor running from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. If a true mega-regional concept is ever really going to take off, the first step is probably this sort of cross-metro collaboration between neighbors. Here’s Briem’s Cleveburgh map:

Will the Boondoggles Never Cease?

UrbanCincy reports that in it’s latest five year construction plan, the Ohio Department of Transportation, an agency that doesn’t have enough funds to maintain the roads it has in a state in the middle of an acute economic and fiscal crisis, has allocated $809M to extend I-74 through Hamilton County.

Huh? I can’t believe anyone would put this high on a needs list, if indeed it is needed at all. I certainly don’t think so. Hamilton County actually has fewer people today than it did in 1970s, the region is growing more slowly than the national average, and it may already have more miles of six-eight lane freeway than any peer city in America.

Here’s a great chance for new Gov. Kasich to show his conservative bona fides. He cancelled the less expensive 3C rail project as something that state couldn’t afford. (I was also not a fan of that project). Here’s another one he can kill.

I’m a big believer in building infrastructure, and yes, even in building more roads where appropriate. But even among nominally fiscal conservative governors, it’s tough to find any highway boondoggle big enough that they are willing to cancel it. Here’s a perfect opportunity for Kasich to distinguish himself and step up to the plate.

Chicago Lakefront Trail

I think Copenhagen’s bike infrastructure is great, but it’s always great to get nice videos that come from other places too. Here’s one that Joe Peterangelo put together of the Chicago lakefront trail. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Post Script

Here’s another amazing early film, this done in 1897 by Thomas Edison of the intersection of State and Madison in Chicago. Hat tip How to Be a Retronaut. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

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:

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Five – Getting It Done

This is the fifth and final installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. It has been updated from the original version.

As I write this [in 2009], Chicago has just announced another massive transit revenue shortfall. The CTA’s budget deficit for next year is a projected $300 million – an incredible percentage of the overall budget. The need for change is clearly more urgent than ever. While we probably can’t look to raise revenues in the current economy, a lot of ground work needs to be laid to get to where we need to go.

Who Should Lead the Charge for Change?

The reality is that the CTA and the existing transit agencies are not going to be able to drive this themselves. The CTA is only one of the service boards. And many of the transit projects on its own system aren’t even driven by the agency, but by other organizations like the city DOT. The CTA has its hands full just operating the system. And it doesn’t have the clout to really drive regional change.

So who does? In Chicago, it starts with the mayor. It is critically important to convince the new mayor to make transit a top priority for the city. He has to look at the CTA the same way Mayor Daley looked at Millennium Park or Chicago 2016 or the O’Hare Modernization Plan. If it isn’t important to him, it won’t be important to anyone else either.

Mayor Daley was an incredible mayor for the city in many ways. Whatever you might think of various parts of his personality or ways of running the city, I believe this is a guy that gets up every day and says to himself, “What can we do today to make Chicago a greater city?” That’s a quality of leadership all too rare in American cities.

But Daley just didn’t get it on transit. I mean, I believe he intellectually understood it – he’s reputedly quite the policy wonk – but he doesn’t feel it in his gut. If you’ve ever gotten a chance to see Daley just talk off the cuff about the city, it’s incredible. This is a guy who overflows with passion for Chicago. When he gets started on, say, education, you can tell it’s a topic close to his heart. But I’ve never heard or heard of him talking like that about transit. He doesn’t ride it, unlike Bloomberg who has made a point of regularly taking the subway to work in New York. It’s just not something that emotionally engages him.

That’s not to say it was an invalid choice. A leader is faced with infinite problems to address – budgets, the economy, crime, infrastructure, parks, economic development, taxes, education, transportation, equity, etc. – but only has finite time and resources, even in a city like Chicago. You can’t chose to do everything. Daley chose to focus his efforts elsewhere.

So the immediate critical question is whether the incoming mayor, whoever that is, puts transit on his list of top agenda items. Given that this is a longer term, not instant gratification, it doesn’t seem likely to bubble up frankly.

So who could get the mayor to put this at the top of his agenda? Ultimately, I believe it has to be the leadership of the business community. If you look at major civic change in most cities, including Chicago, the business community has been a big driver. That needs to be the case here as well.

Reputedly it was former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan who sent Daley on his legendary trip to Paris that led to a lot of the beautification efforts in Chicago. It was supposedly Lester Crown who convinced Daley to undertake the ambitious, long term, and expensive O’Hare Modernization Plan.

Similarly, what’s needed is for some current and former CEO’s to go to the new mayor and make the case for him to take on this issue. They have to make it clear that absent major investment in Chicago’s transit system, business investment in the city and especially the Loop will be threatened, and its ability to stay in the top ranks of global cities impaired. Of course, they have to really believe this themselves. I do. That’s not something that can be taken for granted given that most of them probably don’t depend on the CTA. But assuming they do, then they are the ones to do that sales job.

They also need to stay engaged to drive a community effort to make it happen, with the mayor’s full support. This probably involves creating a committee similar to Chicago 2016 – one that has participation from the key stakeholders that would be necessary to move transit forward. The beauty of this issue is that is – or should be – everyone’s issue. It’s difficult to identify a natural constituency who would oppose it. The Loop business community needs it, organized labor should definitely be on board with a big construction program, various advocacy and grass roots organizations want the CTA upgraded, and minority communities want better access to transit and enhanced mobility in their neighborhoods. If there is any one issue that should unite the White, Black, and Latino communities, it should be better transit.

The city coalition should be easy. Of course, the city isn’t the only player. The big problem is likely to be suburban areas and the power structures in Springfield. Clearly, those are areas that need to be tackled, and that’s one of the group’s key to-do’s.

The Program for Change

So what does this committee do? Here is what I see as the workstreams that need to get accomplished. Most of these can and should run in parallel:

  1. Visioning. Create the end state vision of what our city is like with an enhanced transit system. This includes a holistic, phased view of what is to be implemented. The existing plans can be used as input, but I believe we ought to rethink a bit what our system needs to look like. Many of the current proposed expansions, for example, are simply pet projects of various politicians. Again, I won’t give the answer, but simply say that we need to ask the question.
  2. Cost Reduction. Figure out how to drive major reductions in the cost of construction on rail projects.
  3. Governance. Rethinking how we ought to organize and run our transit systems, set investment policies, the city-suburb situation, etc.
  4. Financing and Legislation. Identifying the preferred financing plan and doing the ground work to get the enabling legislation through the state legislature and for maximizing federal funding.
  5. Sales and Marketing Plan. Looking at a short and long term program of making the case to the public and building that demand for the program so that when it is in Springfield and up for a vote in a referendum, there will be clear and overwhelming public support. This is where having that broad coalition is critical.

This creates the plan we need. In parallel, we should start right now, today, dramatically improving the quality of design in our system. And of course we then need to make it happen politically. Once approved, we need a clear focus on execution. I think part of the governance effort ought to look at the best way to organize the new build and capital side of the business vs. the operating side. And I think there should also be ongoing marketing as we deliver on the system to show people how the benefits are actually coming to life.

Doing this won’t be easy. It will probably take some time and cost some money just like Chicago 2016 did – money that won’t be easy to raise in this environment. Probably it would have to involve a mix of public and private funds to really put together a proper and credible plan.

Again, taking Chicago’s transit system to the next level isn’t going to be quick, easy, or cheap, but it is important to be done. Without this investment, it will be a struggle to merely maintain what we have, and a deteriorating transit system could ultimately be a major stumbling block to the city realizing its civic ambitions.

More in This Series

Part 1: Building the Vision
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It

This version of this post originally ran on October 11, 2009.

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Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Four – Paying for It

This is the fourth installment of my series on taking transit to the next level in Chicago. This one has some updates from the original version.

Other installments are:

This piece focuses on the $35 billion question – how to pay for it. Next up: wrapping it up with the strategy for getting it done.

If transit today is underfunded, how can we expect major improvements out of our agencies? The answer is, we can’t. That’s not to say that the CTA can’t and shouldn’t improve. It should, and I’d argue it has in the recent past. But we’re not going to change the game, to go from good to great, without a lot more money. So, where can we get it?

Can We Afford It?

This section is new for this version of the post. The first question perhaps is can we afford it at all. I think transit advocates and urbanists generally need to face reality that starting up a major new program at this time is a non-starter. States and localities are broke, particularly in Illinois. The job market continues to be terrible. And the public is in no mood to spend. Don’t fight the tape, people.

So before we can even think about pulling the trigger on implementing something, we need a clear change in macro-economic fortunes nationally and locally, and we need to both resolve the long term structural issues with the budgets both in Illinois and in the city of Chicago. (To put this in perspective, see “Illinois is Broke” and “Broken Budget Awaits the Next Mayor“). I wouldn’t count on much help from the feds given the recent election and the previous botched stimulus.

Speaking of the stimulus, the reality is that a program to renew Chicago’s transit infrastructure for future generations is not a “shovel-ready” project. There is a lot of planning and organizing work to do to get ready to make the pitch for money to actually do something. That work can proceed now while these other things are resolved. (If they don’t clear up in at least the next 2-3 years, we’ve got bigger problems than transit, anyway).

Also, this notion that somehow if we simply don’t spend any cash, that we’re not spending money and are showing fiscal discipline is a mirage created by the completely bogus practice known as “government accounting.” That fantasyland is a world run on cash only. There’s a reason real businesses don’t use cash accounting. It’s nothing but a gimmick. Yes, cash matters. But just because you aren’t spending cash on something doesn’t mean you aren’t incurring an expense. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is balancing his budget “without raising taxes” by, among other things, zeroing out the state’s pension contribution. But the pension liability was incurred regardless. It’s only a question of whether you fund it or kick the can down the road. Most governments have elected to kick the can, which is why so many of them are now broke. That’s not fiscal conservatism, it’s budgetary flim-flam.

Chicago is going to pay a price for its transit system, one way or another. There’s no escape from that.

Lastly, the “Mitch Daniels solution” is simply not going to work in Chicago. That is, this is not a city that can become prosperous merely by squeezing spending because it will always be cost disadvantaged versus most of the rest of the country. And the ultra high end services on which it is betting its future depend on quality of services more than minimum costs. Of course we need to manage costs aggressively, but Chicago is also going to have to choose to do some things. The “Do as little as possible” approach simply won’t work here. Transit may not be the right task to take on, but you’ve got to take on something.

Financial Facts

First, let’s start with the fact that the CTA does not control any material funding lever except fares, which are already high. The remainder of the CTA’s money, save for some minor advertising income and the like, comes from a mixture of federal capital aid, and taxes whose rate is set by state law. So any change in the funding situation will require legislative action.

Second, the CTA, Metra, and Pace are required by law to achieve 50% farebox recovery. This might not sound like much, but is much higher than most transit systems. Portland, for example, only has about 20% farebox recovery. While the CTA, as a big city system, might be expected to be higher, 50% is probably still too high. Incidentally, only a tiny handful of transit systems in the entire world that break even or turn a profit.

Third, the CTA is burdened with innumerable unfunded mandates from the state and federal government, including free rides for seniors and other discounts.

Fourth, the CTA is caught in a big pension vice. Its pension system was vastly underfunded, until it borrowed money to top it off – with repayments that comes right off the top out of the operating budget. The Illinois constitution prohibits the impairment of any pension benefit already earned.

A Fixed Cost System vs. Variable Revenues

A transit system is more or less a fixed cost system to operate once you decide on service levels. That is, the CTA decides how much seat capacity to put on the street and rail lines, and the cost to operate it is more or less fixed regardless of how many people actually ride.

However, the CTA’s tax revenues come from two principle sources: sales taxes and real estate transfer taxes. Both of these are highly cyclical. And where we are in the cycle, those revenue streams have declined massively, putting huge holes in transit budgets across America. The fact that the CTA is so dependent on fares is actually a plus right now, since fare revenue is fairly short term stable, at least in contrast to other revenue streams.

If you are going to fund a fixed cost system with variable revenues, you had better have a healthy reserve account for a rainy day. Chicago’s regional transit systems do not, which is why there are repeated “Doomsdays” as revenues decline.

You Have to Pay For It Yourself

So where is the money going to come from to improve and operate Chicago’s transit system? At the end of the day, Chicagoans are going to have to use their own money to do so.

I find it interesting that most local transit advocacy focuses on getting more money from Washington and Springfield. While a Chicago-heavy White House with Democratic control of Congress [update: no longer] might enable something to happen there, I’m not holding my breath.

Consider that there are only a handful of cities with older systems like the CTA that need upgrading. That right there creates a numbers game problem, particularly in the Senate. Likewise, historically Springfield has done little to help. Even the recent $25 billion state capital plan included a comparatively small amount for transit.

Most importantly, other cities around the country are paying for their own transit. In city after see we see transit levies placed on the ballot to raise funds to construct and operate new light rail lines and other systems. Last November, for example, the Seattle area voted to raise its own taxes in order to collect $30 billion over the life of the tax for transit improvements. This is in an area only about a third the size of Chicago.

This also creates problems in Congress. If every other city is voting to raise taxes to invest major local dollars into transit capital, why should Chicago get a pass? Also, this goes right along with the heritage of the Burnham Plan. Chicagoans voted dozens of times to allow bond issues to finance the major public works programs coming out of that plan.

The answer to me is pretty clear. To really change the transit game in Chicago means putting a tax on the ballot for the people to put up or shut up on whether they actually want a better transit system.

Parameters of the Financing

Before getting to the specific measures, I’d like to propose some basic things to use the money for.

First, I’m assuming there is that compelling vision from part one to get people to buy into the system. This probably has a mix of near term and long term items, tangible and conceptual items. That means there is probably a phasing that needs to be figured out. I would suggest that it would be a limited number of phases, with a pretty beefy first phase. If asking citizens to vote on a tax increase, they should get something pretty big and visible out of it. Also, you don’t want to go back to the well too many times. On the other hand, you can’t expect people to buy a pig in a poke either, so it probably can’t be everything in one vote.

With that backdrop, I would suggest the a ballot to raise taxes with the proceeds to be used for:

  • Establishing a CTA operating reserve of $500 million, with parameters to make sure it isn’t rapidly drained and never replenished. Metra and Pace need reserves as well, though potentially we’ve reorganized our governance at this point, remember?
  • Rolling back CTA fares to $2 and eliminating transfer surcharges.
  • Providing additional operating assistance and reducing the required farebox recovery percentage.
  • Funding debt service on a bond for a fairly healthy first phase of work. I would suggest something in the neighborhood of $15-20 billion. Potentially the actual program could be bigger when combined with federal assistance or other revenue sources such as existing TIF’s.

Sources of Funds

Typically, transit bonds are backed by increases in the sales tax. However, given the sale tax dependency of Chicago transit today, and the high Chicago sales tax rate and associated political drama around the Cook County tax, this may not be realistic. Where then could the city look? Here are some ideas:

  1. Land Value Tax. A land value tax is a tax not on dirt, but on a physical site. This does not include any improvements made to the site, such as buildings. This is an attractive form of taxation for a few reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t distort production. If you tax something, you get less of it, but since the surface of the earth is already fixed in extent, this isn’t a problem here. The marginal supply of new sites is zero no matter what. Also, it encourages people to put land to good use. Today, if someone builds a skyscraper downtown, their “reward” is a huge tax bill. But if someone tears down a historic building and puts in a surface lot, his taxes go down. That makes no sense. A LVT discourages land banking and speculation, and encourages people to invest in their property. And, the value of a site is really not a function of what any individual person does. Rather, it is a result of overall community growth and investment. This is in contrast to the value of a building, which is principally a result of what the owner does. Consider the value of the Chicago Loop. Now consider the value of the Chicago Loop without transit. The enormous site values in the Loop were created by transit, so why not capture for transit the value created by it? I can’t do this topic full justice here, but suffice to say there are many reasons why, if you have to have a tax, a land value tax is the best way to go. Its principal downsides are a lack of familiarity and a lack of experience in implementation, which would doubtless result in some bumps.
  2. Congestion Charges/Tolling. This would involve something along the lines of converting the freeways in the city into tollways, using the proceeds to fund road maintenance and operations, and also transit. It could also be used for congestion management purposes. This would require federal rule changes and no doubt much political difficulty. I do not believe a London style congestion charge around the Greater Loop area is feasible or desirable.
  3. Automobile surcharges. This could include items such as additional registration fees or parking taxes.
  4. Income taxes. Illinois income tax rate at 3% is not that high on a comparative basis. It remains to be seen where it will be after the legislature finishes addressing budget deficits, but this is one possible source of funding as well. It seems likely to me the income tax is heading higher, but even at a base of 4-5% it would still be lower than competing jurisdictions like California and New York.

I would suggest that a land value tax and congestion charges are the best approaches, but that the income tax based approach is probably the most straightforward and easiest to implement. I don’t have the time right now to do the math, but it should be fairly straightforward to calculate the supplemental rate needed to raise the types of funds outlined above.

Chicagoans may not go for this, but I do not see any other realistic alternative to raising major funds other than local dollars. Fundamentally, if Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, Denver, Charlotte and many more places can do it, I don’t see why a truly world class city like Chicago can’t step up to the plate and do what needs to be done, particularly when the need is evident and when you have that vision in place and the other elements needed to convince the public.

Next up, Getting It Done.

A version of this post originally ran on September 27, 2009.

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

The Silicon Valley Advantage

Lots of cities are trying to build up high tech/internet industry clusters. I think there’s room for a lot of places to significantly boost their employment and business formation here, particularly in focused areas, but the top hubs like Silicon Valley have huge advantages that mean they’ll likely stay on top of the heap for quite some time.

A brief story about a company called Formspring illustrates this. Formspring is a spin-off of an Indianapolis online form vendor called Formstack. (Actually, Formstack was originally called Formspring, but the spinoff business became so big they changed their name). Formspring was one of those crazy social media growth juggernauts that signed up something like 15 million users in only eight months.

Of course, they needed money to keep up with this, and so went looking for investors. In the interview below from July with Formspring CEO Ade Olonoh, the interviewer described this as an “iconic super-angel funding round where every bold faced Silicon Valley name put money into you guys.”

The entire process end to end lasted 12 days. Somehow they got a conversation with Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures. After a few phone calls over the first week, the Formspring team flew out to Silicon Valley where Steve arranged about 10 meetings over two days with a who’s who of investors, people Olonoh admitted he couldn’t have even listed on a whiteboard before the process started. Shortly thereafter the funding round was closed and Formspring relocated to Silicon Valley. Here is the entire interview, if you are interested. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

In Silicon Valley they just plain move faster than everywhere else. That’s a huge advantage. And they have a huge reservoir of strategic investors who bring not only dollars to the table, but significant experience and expertise in growing businesses.

Another advantage is talent. In staffing up the business, Formspring was able to hire a couple people who worked on Second Life. Though the competition for developers in Silicon Valley is intense right now, the talent pool is still the world’s most robust for this type of business.

Similarly, talent and access to capital led a couple of University of Chicago entrepreneurs to relocate their enterprise to Silicon Valley. As WBEZ reports in “The One That Got Away.”

They didn’t go with the intention of staying. After all, Lieb and Mintz still had another year of B-School ahead of them. But like lots of good tech companies, the train barreled down the tracks at breakneck speed.

They took part in a summer business incubator program run by Y Combinator. By the end, they got a big, fat $3 million check from the venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital and some Valley angel investors.

But just because they got the money there didn’t mean they had to stay. They could have come back to Chicago. But they didn’t. They opened their headquarters in Mountain View, California, and now have 15 employees there and are “aggressively hiring.”

Lieb says the main reason was because Huibers lived in California already. But there was another reason that speaks to Silicon Valley’s dominance.

“We knew we needed to hire a bunch of people, and being here in the Valley is really where all that technical talent is,” Lieb said in an interview.

And even though they did talk with venture capitalists in Chicago, there aren’t as many of them and they’re more cautious, Lieb says.

Now all is not doom and gloom here. I don’t think a place like Indianapolis was a great fit for Formspring. It’s a perfect fit for B2B businesses like Exact Target, but a mass-consumer social networking site is not the city’s sweet spot. So I wouldn’t feel too bad about losing the business. Similarly, WBEZ also reported how Groupon has ignited a startup boom in Chicago.

But I think this story shows some important differences in the capabilities and ways of doing business between the Midwest generally and Silicon Valley. (For example, there appears to have been a media blackout in Indy regarding the relocation. I read about it in the New York Times). It shows why the Valley has had such staying power, and why it is so hard to build and sustain an innovative tech cluster like this over time.

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Three – Cost Control and Governance

Continuing my series on taking Chicago’s public transit system to the next level, I wanted to address a few miscellaneous topics before moving on to the matter of how to pay for it. For those of you who did not see them already, click through to read part one on building the vision and part two on raising the bar on design.

Cost Reduction

I mentioned in my previous installment how we need to raise the bar on the design of the system. While some of this would be nearly free, other items, particularly L stations, would appear to legitimately cost a lot more money to do right. How do we reconcile this?

In the spirit of Burnham’s “more study, not more money” quote, I’d like to suggest we need to take a serious look at how to drive step-change reductions in the cost of heavy rail projects. Consider this: the proposed Red Line extension to 130th is 5.3 miles and $879 million – a cost of $163 million per mile – nearly $21,000 per new daily rider. This is for a line with limited ROW needs. And my numbers are very generous, since they are current year, not construction year numbers, and they exclude a $200 million yard reconstruction that is part of the project. Frankly, at those rates, highway investment actually starts to look like an attractive option. IDOT’s Dan Ryan reconstruction, which included adding a lane south from 67th or so to 95th, was about the same the cost as this proposed extension

The proposed Orange Line proposal is even more expensive on a per unit basis. It is $455 million in current year dollars for 2.26 miles – a cost of $197 million per mile. This is for 7,800 new boardings per day, or over $57,000 per boarding (likely around $100,000 per passenger assuming most people make round trips).

I’ve read of estimates up to $4 billion to renovate the North Main embankment. Just that segment would cost more than the Kennedy reconstruction + the Stevenson reconstruction + the Dan Ryan reconstruction + the Kingery reconstruction and widening + the recent resurfacings on the Edens and Calumet Expressways + the Ike bottleneck reconstruction from a while back – all combined.

I’m not saying anyone is making these up or anything, but the numbers themselves just seem way out of line.

Let’s consider some rail transit construction costs from around the world. Seoul, Korea is building a heavy rail route called the New Bundang Line as a public/private partnership. It will cost 1.1809 trillion won ($966 million) for 18.5km (11.5 miles). This is a cost of $84 million per mile – far less than Chicago’s expansions. And the New Bundang line is partially underground, requiring tunneling, and is a fully automated, driverless system with state of the art technology too. Read more here.

Madrid too has a much lower cost approach. Its Metrosur line (admittedly opened in 2003) was euro1.55B ($2.25B) for 40.5km (25 miles), including 29 new stations, six of which permit transfers with commuter rail. This is $90 million per mile, again, far less than Chicago’s proposed expansion even if you inflate the numbers to current dollars. Again, this included extensive tunneling (full on boring, not just cut and cover) in terrain where that was very difficult. See here for more info on the line, or this excerpt from an article titled simply, “Madrid confirms its low cost approach“.

Even the libertarian City Journal praised Madrid’s subway program, albeit as a foil for critiquing New York, saying, “New York might take instruction from an unlikely place: Madrid, Spain, which first opened its subway in 1919. Between 1995 and 2007, the Spanish capital swiftly and cost-effectively upgraded its subway system, building more than 150 new stations over 120 miles at costs far below New York City rates.”

It seems like every time I read about a metro line outside the United States, except in the UK, it is way cheaper than we can do. I don’t think there’s anything unique to Chicago about this. Alon Levy has contrasted the cost of subway construction in New York with the much lower costs in Tokyo, for example. We seem to have a system in the US that significantly inflates the cost of construction vs. the rest of the world. Many of the typical complaints as to why this might be would seem to have no merit. Other countries are heavily unionized and regulated, for example, so don’t blame organized labor. (South Korean unions are famously militant). Spain and Japan are not exactly low cost countries. And basically all new systems world are fully compliant with equivalents to the ADA.

Any dollar we can take out of the cost of these systems is found money. It can either be invested back into quality of design, used for more projects, or returned to the taxpayers and riders.

I would propose that we create some sort of a task force with a mandate to drive significant reductions in the cost of construction – I’m talking a target of 25-50% or greater, no excuses. This would include the CTA and FTA, but also outside experts brought in from overseas and from outside the fairly small circle of US transit consulting firms. US engineering firms need to be included, but frankly outside leadership and new seats at the table are going to be needed to really drive new thinking as these firms actually profit from higher costs. We need to examine every aspect of these systems. What is the minimum we are legally required to build? What requirements are driving excess construction costs versus overseas systems and can we eliminate them? Are there new techniques such as pre-fabrication that could drive large savings? Can we pool purchasing with NYC or elsewhere? Can off the shelf systems be used where possible instead of bespoke (admittedly, maybe difficult in an other legacy system like Chicago)? Can we use more grade level construction and street crossings instead of expensive elevated construction and viaducts? What could we do with public-private partnerships and concession agreement a la Madrid? What about real TransMilenio style BRT as an alternative to heavy rail? There would appear to be all sorts of things that could be investigated as means of materially reducing the cost of the system. Some of them might require legal or regulatory changes, but given the dollars at stake both locally and nationally, it is worth fighting that fight.

Again, we need an aggressive target for cost savings and incentives to drive results. At a minimum, someone should be able to detail why our costs are so much higher than the rest of the world’s as right now there is no prima facie reason evident.

Regional Transit Governance

Chicago has three more or less independent transit service boards: the CTA, Metra, and Pace. The RTA provides financial oversight and is also chartered with coordinating these agencies. It’s been long noted that in fact the three agencies mostly don’t cooperate that much, and there are frequent turf battles, etc.

I think a bit of this is overblown. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a lack of integration between the CTA and Metra is a major barrier to improved transit regionally. Would integrated fares and more coordinated schedules help? Sure, but that’s not the secret sauce to really moving the bar.

However, the various turf battles do lead to challenges on occasion, and the fact that these agencies are so independent in their operations leads to bad “optics” and provides ammo to those who would oppose change in the region. It’s like when the CTA had a bus on Lake St. Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of that route, it was really minor in the grand scheme of things. But it was always something people could point to as an example of misplaced priorities. (“As long as the CTA has a bus running underneath the L, I’ll never take them seriously” and such). It plays into the whole “gotcha” mentality of politics.

So this is something we should probably take a look at while putting together that vision. And there are some legitimate items that need to be addressed. Again, I won’t be prescriptive as to what that more integrated vision is, or how governance would change, just say that it ideally ought to be part of the discussion.

Unfortunately, this is likely to be the most troublesome aspect in many ways. Consider this: the CTA carries 80% of the region’s transit ridership. But the CTA gets far less than 80% of the money. This is true of the RTA tax, the stimulus, the recent capital bill, etc. Someone labeled my winning entry from the Chamber of Commerce competition as “suburb infuriating”. Actually, I’m not anti-Metra. I think they are a fantastic agency and love riding Metra trains. In fact, I budgeted for heavy increases in Metra ridership and significant investment in that system in my winning entry. The but the fact remains that the lion’s share of the region’s transportation ridership is on the CTA. All service boards aren’t created equal.

For their part, Metra also has some legitimate complaints. They’d no doubt say that since they carry passengers over longer distances, passenger-miles, not passenger counts is the best measure. There’s something to that. (Though I’d argue it leads to certain perverse outcomes such as rewarding service to far exurban areas like Elburn. Why are we using precious transit dollars to subsidize non-transit oriented sprawl developments even further from downtown? Why make it easier to live even further from downtown with this subsidy?) Also, Metra provides significant service in the city, but doesn’t receive any of the RTA sales tax in the city. It should come as no surprise to anybody that their service priorities follow the funding. And Metra is arguably the long pole in the tent when it comes to feeling the pain of transit underinvestment. As Metra trains get more crowded and turn into standing room sardine cans, this is going to very negatively affect the perception of the Loop as a business destination. It won’t take that much ridership growth to get there.

So there is a lot to consider here and it will obviously be something difficult to pull of politically, but a challenge that should be tackled along with the rest.

The “Racquet”

Lastly, I received an email followup to part one of this series from someone who had some interesting insights as to offer about why Chicagoans don’t seem to demand better transit. Presented here in an anonymized fashion.

Your discussion of what Chicagoans want or are willing to pay for vis-a-vis world-class mass transit reminds me of a concept I learned in the early ’90s.

The concept is “Racquet”. I learned of it related to organizational behavior but it sounds like the inhabitants of Chicago may have a racquet as well. A racquet is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix it. Upon delving into the roots of racquets one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed – the subject of the racquet is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that “no one wants” are not acceptable to the people (the complainers).

I worked for a rapidly growing company in the early 90′s. We were a company with many cowboys. We (the top 70 leaders in the company) commiserated on any number of things. The CEO hired two consultants to help “transform” the company into a modern, international company with cohesive leadership. They introduced us to the “racquet” theory. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the racquets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives that it would be in a each-man-for-himself city.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance (this post)
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)

This post originally ran on September 15, 2009.

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

Minneapolis-St. Paul: White, Liberal, and Cold

As we are experiencing an early winter storm here in the Midwest, one that is particularly slamming the Twin Cities – the Metrodome roof just collapsed – perhaps it is time for a brief look at the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis-St. Paul has always been a bit of an outlier in the Midwest. Its economy was originally based around grains and such, not the auto and metals axes that supported the rest of the Midwest. So it had a very different trajectory than most other regional cities. The economy, along with its location far to the north, meant that it experienced the Great Migration to an extent far less than other cities. Today, the Twin Cities are among the least diverse in the Midwest. The black population of Hennepin County is only 11% and Ramsey County 10%, compared to 26% for Cook County, Illinois, which is more representative of Midwest industrial cities. This, along with its Scandinavian demographics, give the Twin Cities a not entirely undeserved reputation as white cities, though there has been significant international immigration of late.

Minnesota is also famously liberal. Home to politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, Minnesota has long been known as a progressive bastion, something perhaps related to its Scandinavian heritage. Richard Longworth, for example, noted that in 1978 33 of the 37 corportations that donated 5% of profits to charity were located in Minnesota. The Twin Cities have a large gay population and it is among the most gay-friendly locales in the country. Yet the picture is more nuanced than that. Republicans have often been elected there. The current governor is a fairly conservative Republican. And as immigrants have moved in and the economy changed, state politics have shifted to the right and now more closely resemble American than previously.

And of course there is the weather. It gets cold in Minnesota, making Minneapolis perhaps one of the few cities that can justify its downtown skywalk system. Unlike places like Chicago, however, where people hunker down for the winter or migrate to warmer climates, Minnesotans embrace the winter and winter sports. Their love of the outdoors doesn’t stop in December, and many people enjoy outdoor winter activities.

White, liberal, cold. In my view that sums up the easy popular outside stereotype of the Twin Cities. And like many, it is not without its grain of truth.

Interestingly, that rep is not that different, except for the cold part, from places like Portland and Seattle, places to which the Twin Cities are sometimes compared. Indeed, we see that it is similarly very educated, with a metro area college degree attainment of 37.6%, #8 in the country among metro areas with more than one million people. There’s also a surprisingly strong biking community. The city of Minneapolis has 3.9% of all workers commuting by bicycle, which is #7 out of all cities in the US, trailing only Portland among larger cities. They built a light rail line. The Twin Cities clearly deserve a place in the top ranks of urban progressivist cities.

Indeed, despite the weather and lack of diversity (the political climate’s affect depends on one’s own orientation), the Twin Cities enjoy a strong reputation, especially regionally. Interestingly, when I visited there last spring, a lot of the locals were concerned that, like many other Midwest cities, they have low brand awareness in the marketplace and are often a cipher to people out there in the world. That may be true to some extent, but I can tell you that they are far ahead of most Midwest cities in this arena. Especially within the region, people clearly know the Twin Cities and hold them in very high regard, even if they don’t think a comparison is necessarily fair. One example, an uber-hip person in Indianapolis was talking about some aspect of that city he felt was particularly strong compared to the rest of the Midwest. When I brought up the example of Minneapolis, he said, “Yeah, but everything about that city is just cool.”

So I think the Twin Cities have a positive brand image, from an urbanist perspective at least. And I can tell you from my time visiting and working there that it’s a great city. I could definitely enjoy living there, though there are some caveats I’ll get to in a minute. And it’s not just cool living either. The city is home to many corporations like Best Buy, Target, and 3M as well as a major hub for Oracle and a large American Express facility. There are tons of white collar, knowledge industry type jobs there. Its per capita income is well above the US average, as is its per capita GDP. This is a city that appears to have transitioned well to the new economy, even if employment is a challenge and it has experienced some serious housing bust issues.

The other advantage it has is the the metro area has the trifecta of being the largest metro in the state, the state capital, and home to the main state university. It also has a large share of the state’s population, giving it influence in the statehouse that a Columbus or Indianapolis could only dream of. The geographic downside is that it is remote, and geographically located near the fringe of the US, though it does have good air connectivity.

There are some caveats for outsiders, however. Although the region is below my large Midwest metro average for percentage of residents who were born in their current state of residence (possibly also affected by being a bi-state metro), I definitely get the impression of lots of Minnesotans every time I go there. That’s not necessarily bad, but as with many Midwest towns, it reinforces the feeling of being an outsider if you aren’t one, at least to me.

Possibly that’s a bit because the Twin Cities is a bit of an isolate in the Midwest. In Chicago, you always run into people from where ever it is you are from, especially if that’s in the Midwest. I don’t experience that in the Twin Cities. Indeed, looking at the numbers, other than Chicago and Wisconsin, the Twin Cities do not appear to draw a major number of migrants from other Midwest cities. Denver, San Diego, and Seattle send more people to the Twin Cities than do Detroit, Kansas City or St. Louis. It gets more people from Portland than from Columbus or Indianapolis. The Twin Cities seem more connected to other talent hubs than the rest of the Midwest.

The other thing I notice about the Twin Cities is a very old money feel to it. Perhaps it is just the local style, but the natives I know there often seem to have a somewhat patrician bearing and speaking style. Virtually everyone I’ve met who is a native whose origins I can conclusively identify is somehow connected to money or power. And even for those I can’t, there are strongly indicative things, like a stray mention that, “I grew up in a house along the other side of the lake.” Perhaps because I grew up in a poor rural area, I notice that stuff more, and it’s a little disconcerting. It gives off the impression that there’s a club, and you’re not ever going to get to be a member.

In short, while I really like the city and think I might enjoy living in it, I’m not entirely comfortable there. And I know I’m not the only one. I know multiple people who moved to Minneapolis and left it because of difficulty fitting in or penetrating the social structures there. This might be one cultural weakness of the city. In the type of dynamic, diverse world we live in, cities that turn off a significant number of people can be limited on the talent front. Also, the fact that I’ve heard reports of difficult to penetrate and navigate social structures is also not a good thing.

Nevertheless, given the strong structural advantages of the region, its educated workforce, its air connections, the strong and diverse base of employers, and its ability to attract immigrants, Minneapolis-St. Paul looks to be a successful place going forward, unless they screw it up somehow. What I don’t see yet is a catalyst for turning the region into a real economic dynamo that would strongly grow employment, population, etc. It strikes me that the most likely course is a more restrained and stable path into the future. Regardless, the economic state of the Twin Cities is one which many Midwest towns would dearly love to have.

PS: Here’s a video of the collapse of the Metrodome roof from the inside (if the video doesn’t display, click here):

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part Two – Raising the Bar on Design

This is the second installment in my series on building demand for increased transit investment in Chicago. Part one was “Building the Vision“.

You must at least skim this article to the end to check out the photos of transit stations from around the world. (I found most of these on message boards without photo credits. If they are yours, I’m happy to credit you or remove them at your request)

Imagine a public transit system that was a source of pride to its community. A system that was so great people would actually take their out of town guests just to see it. What would that do for Chicago? When people take pride in something, when they have a sense of ownership in it, then they want to take care of it and see it thrive. They are jealous of its upkeep. This is one of the emotions we have to inspire to make Chicagoans stand up and demand more – and more money – for transit.

To do that, we need to up the ante on design – by a lot. This might prompt one to ask, “How can we afford to spend even more money we don’t have?” But I firmly believe that better design does not have to mean spending more money. I’ll return to the topic of cost later, but it is worth remembering the words of Daniel Burnham in his Plan of Chicago:

As a rule, the general aspect of our suburban [train] stations is not pleasant. They should be bright, cheery, and inviting in a high degree. More study, not more money, is needed for this work. Let the architectural schools and societies take up this topic; it demands artistic imagination as well as skill. Let the man who undertakes this problem think of the hundreds or even thousands of people who must habitually use the given station, and let him do his utmost to bring into being for these people something that shall be a joy to them. A delightful station conduces cheerfulness as a man goes to work and as he comes home, while a shabby or neglected station produces the opposite effect. [emphasis added]

Or in the words of former Curitiba Mayor Jaime Lerner, father of that city’s famed busway system – which incidentally carries more riders than the CTA: “If you want creativity, cut one zero from your budget.” Good design isn’t just about looking pretty. It also involves meeting the other needs of the project, and among them are the budget. Good design can embrace constraint, and budgetary constraints is one of them.

Great Design – Millennium Park

Speaking of great design, here it is:

Millennium Park is a fantastic, world class design. It should come as no surprise that consequently it is hugely popular, a must-see tourist attraction for the city, and has become almost an icon of the city’s transformation for the global age. Look at where Chicago is attracting the world’s notice in its built environment today, and you’ll see examples of great design like Millennium Park, the Koolhaas student center at IIT, and the Modern Wing.

The problem with these is that they are obviously very expensive showpieces. The ends up sending the message that good design is for special occasions and special places only. And it reinforces the notion that good design must be a budget buster. But the mark of a great city is not in how it treats its special places, but its ordinary ones. Lots of cities have hired starchitects for major buildings. But what have they done beyond that? Chicago has always been a city that got it on the importance of the everyday urban spaces in which its citizens live. And indeed, much of the design of things at present is competent and workmanlike. Things like bus shelters, street scape improvements, bike lanes, etc. have really improved the livability and attractiveness of the city.

But other cities are going beyond that.

To be direct: in many respects Chicago, for all the great things that are happening, is falling behind on the design front. This includes its public transit system. Chicago needs to take a look around, figure out how to up the ante, and get back in the game. By starting – right now – to change the game on design, Chicago can put down a marker of a new, ambitious attitude towards its transit system, and start building that community pride and sense of ownership that will lead to the demand for more investment.

The rest of this post will compare what is being done in Chicago transit design with what is going on around the world. I think you’ll agree that while we not doing bad, we could be doing even better. Please keep in mind, some of these items are actually not under the CTA’s control in Chicago.

Bus Shelters

Here is the bus shelter Chicago is currently installing:

About the best that can be said for this is that it’s not offensive. It does its job in a nice, background way, but certainly doesn’t inspire.

Here is the new San Francisco bus shelter:

Its polycarbonate roof is made of 40% post-consumer recycled waste and contains photovoltaic cells that store power by day to illuminate it at night and also feed power back into the grid. The steel frame is 75% recycled material. These shelters even contain integrated WiFi hot spots. It is a totally custom, unique design for the city. 1,110 of these are scheduled to be installed in the city by 2013. You can read more here.

Here’s a simple but effective design from, I believe, Brooklyn:

Here is a prototype design from Ljubjana, Slovenia

Bus shelters are an easy one. These are provided, for free, to the city by JC Deceaux as part of an outdoor advertising arrangement with the city. Interestingly, JC Deceaux has an entire subsidiary in Europe that does super-cool bus shelter designs for cities over there. I believe Chicago already had them do this one as a bespoke design, and perhaps we’re stuck with them for the lifespan, but next time out – and for anything new we deploy – we’ve got to do better.

I’d suggest a design competition where we especially encourage younger, local designers to get creative and take bus shelter design to the next level in terms of functionality, amenities, aesthetics, environmental friendliness, local materials and fabrication – and of course, cost efficiency. And they should look uniquely Chicago, like they sprang forth from our Midwestern soil, not just generically “cool”.

Bus Liveries

A CTA bus:

A good, solid design. But not inspirational.

A London bus:

There is simply no more iconic bus design in the world. The double decker bus is one of the signature images evoked by the very name London. London is a perfect example of how to use the design of the mundane to create a distinct urban identity. London is not just the city of the Palace of Westminster, the Tower Bridge and the London Eye. It is also the city of the double decker bus, the black cab, the red phone booth and the bobby’s cap.

The CTA doesn’t have to go this bespoke. Indeed, even London has many single deck buses. But a more unique livery could make a big difference. Perhaps the CTA and Pace could get some local artists and graphic designers to pimp our rides? We’ve got to put the CTA and Pace livery on to begin with, so the net cost of deploying a much better livery on new buses should be low to zero.

By the way, to see one good livery, you don’t have to look very far:

Subway Entrances

Again, let’s forget the old and look at the new. Here are the special decorative subway entrances to the Red Line on State St. in the Loop:

You should click to enlarge this since there’s a more elaborate fully enclosed one in the background. These are very nice. I particular like the illuminated red stripe at the top, which is a nice touch, and the light globes on top. But again, we have a very retro, play it safe design. It’s ornate, but not distinctive. And for some reason I can’t put my finger on, this design makes me think of New York first, not Chicago.

Here are the Blue Line versions on Dearborn. Done in black and with a cleaner design, I actually like these better.

Looking elsewhere, of course, the place to look for iconic subway entrances is Paris with its Hector Guimard designed metro entrances. They define the word classic in this space:

These work in Paris not just because they are excellent designs but because, in a very real way, the embody the essence of Paris. They capture its romance and history. To walk past one of these is to be transported back to the Belle Epoque. Sundered from its native setting, these could easily end up looking cheesy.

I really hate to admit this, but Chicago actually has a clone of this on its Metra system. Here’s the entrance to an underpass at Van Buren St. Station:

Paris gives out replicas of these to cities around the world, and I believe this was one such gift. Even so, this is the sort of thing that would, if done in say Cleveland, make a Chicagoan snicker.

That’s what I’m talking about when I say these designs need to look like they sprang from the native soil. We need designs that do for Chicago was Guimard’s did for Paris, namely capture its core essence in a way that even a stranger can process.

By the way, Paris isn’t afraid to get funky too. Here’s is the metro entrance at Palais Royal. Not my favorite personally, but you’ll never forget it and I’m guessing kids love it.

If clean and modern is more your thing, here is a Norman Foster designed metro entrance in Bilbao, Spain:

It’s probably more likely you’ll end up in London than Bilbao, and Foster has a very similar design at Canary Wharf.

And check out this metro entrance in Perugia, Italy:

Uniforms

I don’t want to show any local transit workers here to avoid invading their privacy. But most people know what CTA uniforms look like. Uniforms have an extremely powerful affect on the person seeing them. Military organizations such as the US Marine Corps have long taken advantage of this. I have not done any real research into transit uniforms around the world, but most of them I’ve seen are very poor. Chicago should not look to them. Instead, look to the military and to military like municipal organizations such as police and fire departments. Another good place to look for inspiration is the airline industry. Here is a picture of some airline pilots:

The camera angle is even great. I’d sure trust those guys to fly me safely home.

Airlines have no doubt put tons of research into the types of uniform imagery and symbolism that creates the desired effect in their customers. I think there’s a big opportunity here too – again, at modest cost since you can use the existing uniform cost as a design constraint. A change in uniform might change completely how the public perceives – and treats – our transit employees.

Chicago already has one good transit uniform example: Metra. My Chicago office has a lot of old time pictures of Chicago in it and one of them is of a couple of railroad conductors from 1910. They don’t look too different from Metra conductors today apart from wearing their uniform a bit neater. Metra is sometimes criticized for its old school operating practices. And while some modernization might be called for, in the case of commuter rail, the old school retro look works. It is a way to tap into a truly Chicago image of its days as the railroad colossus of America. Rather than sleek and modern, perhaps Metra should be trying to make us feel like a 19th century robber baron or Jazz Age plutocat. That private car they’ve got on the UP-North line is the kind of mystique I’m talking about.

L Stations

Lastly, we come to the feature cities’ transit systems are known for: their metro stations. Again, let’s not look at the old, rundown stations. Let’s compare some newly renovated CTA stations to others from around the world.

Here is the entrance to the newly replaced Brown Line station at Addison:

Here is the platform:

I think this was basically a decent concept that got derailed by value engineering. The basic, unpretentious red brick could have been the type of solid, masculine image I think Chicago should be projecting, for example. But with canopies removed from scope, escalators, paint, etc., we are left with a basic working station without much in the way of passenger amenities. You can tell that these were taken last winter. Clearly, being up on that platform in inclement weather is a bleak experience.

I can say that the CTA did a great job of preserving the public art program as part of this overall project. There are some delightful pieces at the various stations that make me want to visit them.

Here is a picture of what I think is the best new station so far: the rehabbed Red Line subway stop at State and Lake:

This station is like night and day versus what was there before. Check this out, then ride south to Monroe to see the difference. Just the lighting is a revelation. Speaking of which, I love the polished metal light bands along the roof line with the embedded signing. It’s excellent. The flooring is definitely a big upgrade too.

On the other hand, the pale color scheme, apart from the red, is very timid. The use of tile mosaic patterns is also a facile retro effect. Again, it’s seems more New York than Chicago. And its a big cutesy.

People will be very happy to travel through this station, but it won’t inspire pride or passion. It won’t attract people in any way like Millennium Park or other great designs locally.

Here’s a similar version at Chicago and State.

Again, very solid – and definitely a big upgrade – but pedestrian.

Please keep these in mind as I show you a sample of metro stations from around the world. This is, perhaps, a bit unfair since non-US cities tend to treat their metro systems as civic showplaces. But maybe that’s the point. After all, Chicago aspires to be a big time global city. It’s time to check out the global competition.

Los Angeles – Highland Avenue

Vancouver – Brentwood

Note the fully enclosed station here, not just canopies.

London – Westminster

This type of industrial motif would have worked great in Chicago, I think.

London – Bermondsey

Paris – Arts and Métiers

Lyon – Valmy

Berlin

Hamburg

This type of design thinking would be readily transferable to Chicago – not that I’d suggest just copying, mind you.

The Hague

This station was designed by Rem Koolhaas.

Rotterdam – Wilhelminaplein

Valencia, Spain

Santiago – Cristobol Colon

Santiago – La Cisterna

Valencia, Venezuela – Monumental Station

Kaohsiung, Taiwan

The famous “Dome of Light”

Minsk

Moscow

Moscow is famous for having the most beautiful subway stations in the world. This is but one small sample. Moscow is something that probably can’t be replicated, since Communist-era rulers spared no expense in creating the world’s most lavish system. I believe the Moscow subway carries the most riders of any city in the world.

Conclusion

Chicago may not be able to make its L system Paris grade, but there is a lot that can be done to improve design and start building the affection of the people towards our transit systems. Bus shelters, bus livery, and uniforms would appear to be among the easier places to start.

I’d originally intended to go straight to a concluding part three discussing how we pay for this. But with this so long already, I’ll insert another installment between now and then, talking about cost containment and other matters.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design (this post)
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

Other Transportation Related Articles
The Urbanophile Wins Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Transit Competition
Transportation and the Burnham Plan
Metropolitan Linkages (high speed rail benefits case)
High Speed Rail (implementation)

This post originally ran on August 30, 2009.

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

College Degree Density Revisited

You may recall a while back that a blog post by Rob Pitingolo ranking cities and counties by their density of college degrees (and vs. their expected density based on population) deservedly got quite a bit of attention.

I wanted to return to that topic and this time look not just at college degree density, but how density and other metrics related to college degrees have changed in the last decade. I thought it would be interesting to ask what counties in the US increased their college degree density the most in the last decade. Here’s the answer:

On the one hand this isn’t surprising, since you think New York is big and dense already. But then you think that New York has actually been a slow growth city in the last decade. And then you look at the numbers. Frankly, it’s staggering. Manhattan increased its density of people with college degrees by 7,500 people per square mile in the last decade. That’s just the increase in density of just people with college degrees. That’s more than the total population density of most cities in the United States.

We also read a lot about Brooklyn’s (Kings County) transformation – and this metric shows it. But what jumped out at me was the Bronx – wow. Unsurprisingly, other talent hubs like San Francisco, Boston, and DC feature highly on the list. This helps illustrate what’s been going on with these places. I should come as no surprise to see the incredible resurgence of New York, for example, given this type of educational attainment performance.

Now clearly there are caveats. These places benefit from generally high density to begin with, and are geographically small counties. There’s no true apples to apples comparison here. If you are LA or Chicago, both of which occupy gigantic home counties, there’s simply no way to compete on this metric. You’d need to pick a like for like geographic element, which would require some custom analysis. (I did not do city population in this analysis, because city boundaries change so frequently it would entail a lot of work). I suspect that on similarly sized areas, they’d show similar results. By the way, Alexandria, VA is shown on here since cities in Virginia are treated as independent cities, and thus show up as county equivalents in the data.

Let’s take a look at these counties on some other dimensions of the educational attainment number. Here they are ranked by total increase in adults with college degrees.

Again, pretty big numbers for the most part. To put it in perspective, the 171,000 college degrees added in Manhattan in the last nine years would constitute by my quick look the 141st largest city in the United States in its own right, roughly equal to the entire population of Chattanooga, TN.

I thought it would be interesting to see what percentage of total population growth was accounted for by people with college degrees in these places. Given that they are generally low population growth, I was expecting a high number, but even I was surprised to see that growth in people with college degrees was actually more than 100% in most of the cases. In other words, the population of people without college degrees shrank in these places.

Hudson County, NJ actually lost population while adding about 45,000 people with college degrees. So I left it off the list.

This points out one of the negatives often highlighted about these cities, namely that they are getting more exclusive as increasingly you need to be in the educated elite to be able to live there (or at least to make it worth living there). This might be good for those cities at some level, but I’m not sure it’s entirely good for America.

This was a quick hand crank analysis, so a particular caveat emptor on this one. (I used Census midyear estimates for the population).

Here’s another experimental chart. I’m not sure how valid this is, but I applied a location quotient function to the numbers. LQ is normally used with employment data to measure the concentration of an industry in a region relative to the US concentration. If you have a number > 1.0, then you have a greater share than predicted by the US, and vice versa for < 1.0. Here I applied an LQ function for adults with college degrees, and looked at the change in that value over time:

As you can see, all of these places increased their concentration of college degrees relative to the US, with the exception of Alexandria. That city did grow degrees, but it was on such a high base to begin with that the percentage growth didn’t match the US percentage growth. But many of the rest of these were on a high base to begin with too, and still managed to increase their relative concentration. Manhattan already had an LQ > 2.0 in 2000, for example.

This was some of the data I was looking at this week, which will hopefully provide some context around the changes that have been happening in America in the last decade, particularly with regards to talent hubs.

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