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:


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



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”



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.


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.

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

New York City’s Taxi of Tomorrow

Having redesigned almost everything else – from bike racks to sidewalk scaffolding – New York is now moving on to the redesign of its taxi. This is being done through, of course, another big competition. Due to the nature of the product, this one is among vehicle manufacturers rather than designers. They’ve even got a dedicated web site for the competition, where the public can provide its input and feedback on the three finalists. The idea is that the city will standardize on a single design for the next decade, signing an exclusive contract worth up to $1 billion.

Here are the entries. First, an adaption of an existing vehicle by Ford:

Next, one by Nissan:

Lastly, a ground up design from a Turkish company called Karsan. This is apparently the only one that is full accessible to the disabled at the moment, and also potentially supports wi-fi.

Personally, I think the styling on all of them leaves much to be desired. Too mini-vanish. Of course, I realize that functionality has to trump coolness. And although I appreciate classic design, I think the vehicle livery on this is definitely due for a refresh. That’s something that could be done in an open competition with artists and designers. The goal should be something classic, but which also has the potential to become iconic in its own right.

Whatever the case, New York shows yet again that it’s out pushing the envelope and and re-examining literally everything it does to make it more relevant to the 21st century global age. I’m not saying that any particular thing jumped out at me as awesome about these cabs. But it shows a mind set of taking a deliberate look at every aspect of city governance and services to figure out how to make it better and contribute to a more livable city.

You can read additional coverage in the New York Times.

More on New York:
New York’s Leadership in Transportation Design
Another Epic Public Space Win in New York
Janette Sadik-Khan on Changing the Transportation Game
New York’s Quality of Life Agenda
The High Line

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Taking Chicago Transit from Good to Great, Part One – Building the Vision

[ Last year I ran a five part series called "Good to Great" about how to fundamentally change the game on transit in Chicago. I guess you could sum it up as, "We need a Chicago2016 for transit." In the lead up to the mayoral election, I am re-running this series over the next month. Virtually all of the material is relevant to any US city with an existing major transit system, so please check it out.

I will add one thing by up front offering the new mayor a suggestion. As much as I might covet the job for myself, he should try to keep Richard Rodriguez as CTA president. I don't even know if Rodriguez wants to keep this tough and thankless position. But given the constraints and pressures he's operating under, I think he and the team there have done a very good job at managing the agency in some difficult circumstances. He's a keeper. If you need to see an example of why, read this article. ]

Earlier this year, I won first prize in a global transit competition sponsored by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. So perhaps it is past time that looked at transit in Chicago. While this article is about that city, the techniques are applicable to most places.

Both the current and former CTA presidents, Richard Rodriguez and Ron Huberman, said that Chicago has a good transit system (I agree) but deserves a great one (I also agree). So with apologies to Jim Collins, this article kicks off a multi-part series on taking Chicago area transit from good to great.

The Problem: No Public Demand

Why doesn’t Chicago have a great transit system? I’m going to make a rather contrarian and controversial indictment. Namely, I think Chicago doesn’t have a great system because its citizens don’t want one. If there were greater citizen demand for a better system, that’s what we would have. Absent that demand, we get at best a good system. That’s because it is impossible to create a great, world class regional transit system without more money – a lot more. This might sound a lot like blaming the victim, but please bear with me.

The numbers are stark. According to a joint promotional site run by the region’s transit agencies, Moving Beyond Congestion, Chicagoland needs $10 billion in funds just to bring the current system up to a good state of repair. Even if the city wanted to simply keep the system at current levels, spending at $1 billion per year would be required. The 2007 strategic plan says that $57 billion is needed over the 30 years to give the city the system it wants and needs. The stimulus funds and monies provided under the state’s recently passed capital program are only a minimal start. Even if you think these numbers are inflated – and I don’t – they are certainly not orders of magnitude too high.

Without significant new dollars being made available, it simply isn’t possible for regional transit agencies to create a transit system worthy of Chicago. It’s just not going to happen. I actually think regional agencies do a pretty good job considering the financial and regulatory constraints they operate under. As they say, “You can set your watch to Metra”. The CTA too has improved service markedly in recent years, and has proven that you can accomplish a lot when you take a “can do” attitude despite not getting more money. The CTA has done a lot to reduce the number of slow zones, roll out passenger friendly services like bus tracker, and experimented with things like iGo car integration.

So why do I say that the people of Chicago don’t want a great system? Because it’s true. People in Chicago like to grouse about the CTA the way they complain about the weather. But that doesn’t translate into anything more than amusing newspaper columns and blog postings. Like the weather, the problems of transit underinvestment are viewed as simply the “background noise” you have to put up with to live in Chicago.

Contrast public reactions to the state of transit investment with that on other controversial affairs of the day – parking meters, the Olympics, crime, or whatever. Heck, there are more people out there pounding the table about how upset they are about the pending demolition of Michael Reese Hospital than there are people demanding more money for transit. If tens of thousands of angry citizens were marching, publishing blogs, and writing letters to Springfield and Washington to express their unhappiness about this state of affairs, we’d see action. If politicians thought they would lose their jobs in the next election if they didn’t do something about transit, well, they’d do something about it.

So much of the writing on transit futures focuses on what we ought to do functionally and technically. But that’s irrelevant if we don’t have the money to pay for it. So this series will focus on how we build public demand for transit investment, elevating its status in our civic priority list. And give an idea of how to actually get the money. This will be a five part series:

Part 1: Building the Vision (this article).
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
Part 3: Cost Control and Governance
Part 4: Paying For It
Part 5: Getting It Done

This installment focuses on building a shared civic vision of the future of the city and its transit system.

Why a New Vision Is Necessary

Frankly, it is pretty easy to understand why the public views investing in transit with all the enthusiasm of a dose of castor oil. It’s what I call the “Rusty Furnace Effect”. Imagine you’ve got a gas furnace in your house that is pushing 20 years old. It’s been poorly maintained, is badly rusted, and has an alarming tendency to break down. You open the door to your utility closet and stare at that thing for a while and contemplate a choice: spend $6000 on a new furnace, or pay $250 every time it breaks down. I think most people are going to defer shelling out $6K as long as they can. It’s the same reason I put off getting my wisdom teeth removed until I was in college and had a particularly bad infection. Until the pain of the disease outweighs the perceived pain of the cure, we aren’t going to act.

Transit is in the same boat. We are told that we need to spend $10 billion to “bring the system in a good state of repair”. This will no doubt involve much inconvenience as well, including station closings, three track operation, etc. Why would anyone want to pay $10 billion to get a system that is basically the same as the one we’ve got today, only a bit spiffier? Until, for example, trains start derailing, people don’t perceive the need.

This is basically the problem with all “plumbing replacement” type operations. I don’t think it is any accident that the people selling furnaces tout their potential to reduce heating bills through energy efficient operation. You’ve got to have a hook to convince people that they are getting something.

That’s what we need for public transit in Chicago. We’ve got to have a hook to show people how they are going to get something for all this money. We have to create a vision not just of how transit will be better – though we should do that – but how life in Chicago is going to be different and better when we execute the capital plan. We have to make it real to people and inspire an emotional connection so that they say, “Yes – we’ve got to have some of that!” to the point they support the fund raising necessary to see it happen. That’s the piece we are missing today.

Why Transit Advocates Are Often Poor Marketers for Transit Spending

One thing I’ve noticed is that pro-transit advocates are ofter poor at selling the need for public transit to the public at large. Indeed, except where the public is already primed to support it – places like Portland and Seattle – opponents of transit are generally more effective at making their case. I recently noted this, for example, in the case of Cincinnati’s proposed streetcar system.

I think part of the problem is that the case is obvious to us, thus we are unable to conceive of others who don’t think or feel the same way, which creates a blind spot on selling. Pro-transit activists tend to view people who oppose it as Philistines or representatives of nefarious forces. The idea that people have to be convinced seems foreign.

We see this problem in the Moving Beyond Congestion site. It relies heavily on facts and figures to make its case, as if the mere fact that we need $10 billion to repair regional transit stands on its own. Well, people like me read that and think, “Seems pretty straightforward to me. How much can we afford to spend now and where can we go start raising the money?” But to others those are just numbers. The facts are not in dispute. The numbers on the MBC site are what they are. But facts don’t inspire. Because many of us live and breathe in this space every day, we don’t need the sales job and thus don’t appreciate the need for it.

Also, as we well know, political decisions aren’t always made on the basis of facts and rational analysis. The numbers elected officials really care about are the vote totals, the number of constituent letters and phone calls, etc. So we’ve got to make sure we create that public demand so that politicians see the numbers that matter.

I’m not going to be prescriptive as to what that contents of the vision should be here, but rather talk about some of the elements and techniques that should be brought to bear, including some that were used to great success in Burnham’s Plan of Chicago.

Learning from High Speed Rail

A commenter in one of my blog posts described a lecture at one of the Burnham Plan celebration events, and how the section on high speed rail seemed to really get people excited. This person was wondering why that was. Why has high speed rail captured so much of the public imagination and gotten so much federal funding when we can’t mobilize similar results for metro transit?

It is actually pretty easy to understand why. High speed rail would be a major new transportation system that doesn’t exist at all today, unlike fixing up the CTA to “bring the system up to a good state of repair” which merely lets us keep what we already have. Again, do you want to replace your rusty old furnace or get a shiny new kitchen?

Also, high speed trains tap into a deep romantic streak in the human psyche. The best description of this is Jonathan E. D. Richmond’s paper, “The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. This is actually written as an anti-rail tract (metro rail, not high speed), but also provides the playbook in favor of it. I can’t do it justice here, but this is an absolute must-read paper. Among other things, he clearly explores the idea of the fast train as sex symbol. Per Richmond:

Arnold Pacey (1983) writes about the “virtuosity values” of technology, the enjoyment of:

having mechanical power under one’s control, and of being master of an elemental force. The teenage enthusiasm for motorcycles reflects this. Many farmers, it is said, buy larger tractors than they really need, to the detriment of soil structures, because of the pleasure they get from using such powerful machines… Dennis Gabor talks about “archetypal human desires” which include the wish to communicate at a distance, to travel fast, to fly [p.84-85]

It is the meanings related to power, virtuosity and sex which the train appears to symbolize which most convincingly seem to focus attention on the technology. The technological power of the train was often equated to sexual potency by those interviewed. A train as both genders: it is referred to as “she” and as a penis. According to LACTC Commissioner and Mayor of Santa Monica, Christine Red:

There was an intense amount of ego over the fact that San Diego had whipped a trolley system out, kabloom, like that. They just did it. And I mean everybody else was like, oh my God, you know, what an affront that this little city could do that, and here we are – a big county – powerful, two-thirds of the population of the state, blah, blah, blah, and we can’t do this [my emphasis]

The fact that San Diego got their bright red cars in working order before Los Angeles even got off the market left LA feeling impotent or even castrated. The metaphorical sexual imagery – of penis envy – in this account is unmistakable. When the LACTC (1991) publication Metro Moves announced the opening of the Blue Line tunnel into downtown Los Angeles, furthermore, it headlined: “A tunnel just waiting for a train.” A picture of the tunnel was contained within the outline of a heart (Fig 4)

Clearly, as the ultimate fast train, high speed rail is also high on the sexiness factor. Also, the idea that the United States is falling behind, and that the world’s super-power is being humiliated by much smaller countries (and major competitors like China) with rail investments plays a role.

There’s a lot more in there, and clearly tapping into the lessons Richmond teaches is important. Chicago is a city with a long history of massive civic pride and boosterism. A city that refused to be anything other than #1. This is something that can be leveraged to good effect in selling transit investment. Likewise Richmond’s “social connections” metaphor (investing in disadvantaged communities to connect them to opportunities) would appear to be a good one to leverage.

Learning from the Plan of Chicago

The most viewed article ever in this blog was called “What Made the Burnham Plan Successful”, which outlined nine items that contributed to the plan’s success. A few of these are highly relevant to this effort as well.

  1. A mix of the practical and conceptual. Burnham’s plan both included things like a Michigan Ave. bridge – a practical and concrete item – with items like the harbors and ring road diagrams that were more just ideas. We need something similar here. A mix of practical items like “build this rail station here” with more forward looking items like high speed rail integration or airport express service.
  2. A mix of both work in progress and new items. Burnham wisely glommed onto things that were already in the pipe or partially completed. The Michigan Ave. bridge and the lakefront park came to mind. By mixing these with the new, the forward looking items were associated with recent successes. Plus, by having near term items included, they could demonstrate rapid progress on the plan. The CTA could do the same. Today, projects like the Brown Line expansion or the Douglas L rehab are presented as standalone projects, not part of a larger program of renewing Chicago’s transit system. Similarly, the three new L extensions that were approved are likely to be viewed as ho-hum. Unless it affects you directly, why would you care? I’ll likely never take the Red Line to 130th. Having discrete projects instead of a program means each individual one is of mostly parochial interest. What Burnham did was draw the big picture and showed how the pieces fit in. That’s what we need to do. Actually, a lot has already been done. Combine the past projects with near term items and longer terms with an overarching vision to show the public that we are marching towards a better future. Then you also build a coalition in support of an overall program, instead of just having different groups and neighborhoods who care mostly about their own local project.
  3. High quality renderings and design in the plan document. This is examined below. But the quality of design in the plan itself excited the public, made the vision real to them, and gave it an authoritative feel.
  4. Sustained follow-through on sales and marketing. The plan didn’t sell itself. There was a big, consistent push behind it. This famously included the Wacker Manual, a condensed version of the plan taught to children in the public schools.

Planners today could learn a lot from the techniques of success used by Burnham and his team.

I’ll conclude this post with a look at three examples of efforts that have done this right, focusing on visualizations, to show the type of effect we need to be aiming for: Burnham’s original Plan of Chicago, the “Imagine KC” project from Kansas City, and Louisville’s 8664 initiative.

Burnham’s Artwork

One of great things about the Plan of Chicago is that its backers spared no expense in creating a high quality output. They commissioned an artist to do bespoke artwork to literally show a conceptual picture of what the Chicago of tomorrow would look like, drawing on the legacy of the World’s Columbian Exhibition. These were gorgeous, full color plates in the output. Even children could appreciate them. Here are a couple of samples:

It’s easy for us to take Chicago for granted today. But in 1909 it was a crowded, filthy, dangerous, and rather ugly place. For people to see these gorgeous renderings of a clean, beautiful, well-ordered, spacious city, with gorgeous parks and boulevards must have prompted amazement, perhaps even disbelief. This is Chicago? The city could really be like this? Ultimately, it whetted people’s appetites to actually get it.

Imagine KC

Here’s another example, this one transit specific. It comes from Kansas City. Kansas City does not have rail transit today. A proposal to fund the construction of a light rail system was voted down last November. Frustrated that people did not really understand what light rail would do for the city, a local design agency created this video for Kansas City Public Television to try to make it very clear visually. Some of you may have seen it since I’ve linked it before, but if not this three and a half minute video is well worth watching.

The video shows the time wasted in cars, followed by a demonstration of benefits of dense, mixed use development, then an example of transit creating this very type of environment in Kansas City.

One cautionary note here. This video would makes Kansas City look like a nearly 100% white city. Plus the development featured – fitness clubs, sushi bars, etc – are oriented towards yuppies. This feeds into criticisms of transit in small cities as being gentrification tools and subsidies to the already well-off. This is a common failing in small city transit advocacy. Of course, Chicago is nothing like Kansas City. The value of transit is clear to the whole community.

The techniques of this video are very applicable to Chicago.


Lastly, I’ll mention again a movement out of Louisville, Kentucky called “8664”. This is a grass roots movement that wants to stop a major new downtown bridge and expressway widening in favor of tearing down an elevated waterfront freeway, replacing it with a park.

8664 tapped into a powerful idea of recapturing the rivertown heritage of Louisville. They’ve relentlessly touted the benefits – financial, recreational, environmental, etc – and have really captured the public imagination. Without any official backing, they have totally changed public opinion. While many many not be sold on the idea of tearing down I-64, they clearly have soured on the idea of the huge Spaghetti Junction reconstruction and new bridge.

Part of 8664 has been a series of wonderful drawings and videos, some of which I’ve shown before. Here’s their compare and contrast of the state’s plan:

with their plan:

Extremely effective. Their marketing is running rings around the state DOT’s. They are rigorously on message, repeatedly touting a more livable future for Louisville, and enumerating the benefits of the project, while continuing to generate quality collateral like this.


To really capture the public imagination and build demand for public transit is going to require the creation of a compelling vision, an emotionally resonant picture of what life will be like in our new and better future, and a strong and sustained marketing plan to sell it. As the examples above show, the vision can be conceptual at some level, as long as it is generally honest and there is a real, credible plan behind it.

More Chicago

Chicago Transit: From Good to Great
Part 1: Building the Vision (this article)
Part 2: Raising the Bar on Design
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 19, 2009.

Sunday, November 28th, 2010


Once you accept the facts of instability, every dilapidated building becomes an opera set, every anarchic service becomes a business idea, every un-enforced law is an opportunity. – Bahi Ghubril, speaking of Beirut in Monocle magazine

Check out my Thanksgiving open thread to see what people are thankful for about their city.

Another awesome program by CEOs for Cities is the Give a Minute campaign, in which they are asking people what would encourage them to bike, walk, or take the CTA more often. Please click on over the web site and make your contribution.

And also if you’re in Chicago, you might want to check out Metropulse Chicago, a new community indicators site put out by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

For anyone interested in the story behind Cincinnati’s abandoned subway tunnels, Jake Meckelnborg wrote a book about it you can check out.

Indianapolis Parking Meters – Final Installment

I wanted to close the loop on the Indianapolis parking meter lease. Unlike in Pittsburgh, where a wise city council rejected a long term lease, Indianapolis unsurprisingly passed it, which is truly disappointing.

I focused on the bad public policy angle of this, others covered conflicts of interest or political angles or whatever matters to them. But all this debate over the transaction of the moment I think obscures the larger trend. Once, Indianapolis was a place where visionary and determined leadership across the community and across parties transformed an overgrown small town and backwater state capital known as “India-No-Place” into arguably the best performing large Midwest city and one of the few holding its own or even leading the rest of America. Today, as this contract helps illustrate, Indianapolis is more and more just another city. That’s disappointing. I certainly hope for the best, but it will be interesting to watch Indy’s performance going forward in this new civic era for the city.

Richard Florida on CNN International

Richard Florida talked about his book the Great Reset on CNN international last week. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here). Unfortunately, there will be a pre-roll ad on this video.

World and National Roundup

Esquire: Janette Sadik-Khan named one of 2010′s ‘Best and Brightest’

The National Endowment for the Arts published an interesting report on Creative Placemaking

William Fulton: City and State Smokestack Chasing Blows Mostly Smoke

Neal Peirce: A ‘Golden Moment’ for Cities?

Joel Kotkin: The Rise of the Efficient City

NYT: “Smart” Electric Meters Draw Complaints of Inaccuracy

New Geography: The Other Chambers of Commerce

Richard Longworth: A Region on the Mississippi

Daily Yonder: Many outmigration counties are prosperous

NYT: Walgreens tackles food deserts

Owen Hatherley: Shanghai International Exposition

Steve LaFleur: Toronto Election Shows the Failure of Amalgamation

WSJ: New York Poised to Grab New Jersey’s Tunnel Money

NYT: New York Studies Subway Tunnel to New Jersey – Extending the 7 line to Secaucus.

Richard Layman: Corruption: DC vs. Maryland Jurisdictions

NYT: Los Angeles Mass Transit Is Expanding

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Area stunts growth by feeding on itself

Indianapolis Business Journal: West Side revitalization plan aims to capitalize on diverse retailers

Chicago Tribune: Deals bring Chicago’s public pension funds to the brink of insolvency and Risky investments not paying off for Chicago pension funds.

Chicago Sun-Times: Houses more valuable near Metra stations

Vote With Your Feet: Stalled on the Bloomingdale Trail

The Guardian: Top Players Fall Silent as Detroit Symphony Orchestra fights for survival – Even Detroit’s symphony issues are able to muster tier one international press coverage.

NYT: Hello, Columbus – How Columbus, Ohio became a gay mecca.

Winter Cycling in Copenhagen

Apparently most cyclists in Copenhagen keep right on doing it even in the heart of winter. Copenhagenize put up this great one minute video to prove it. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). It’s something to keep in mind as he head into the winter season here in the US and the rest of the northern hemisphere. Copenhagenize the planet!

Buffalo, This Place Matters

I normally don’t link to promotional videos, but this piece from from Buffalo’s CVB called “Buffalo, This Place Matters” is very well done. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

New York Bicycling in Montreal created the four minute video below about cycling in New York that’s definitely work a watch. (If the video doesn’t display for you, click here).

Reinventing Pittsburgh

A web site called “Changing Gears,” a collaboration of public radio stations in Chicago, Michigan, and Ohio, did a five part series profiling Pittsburgh’s turnaround and the lessons it might offer to others. The site has audio available of course, but also the transcripts of the pieces are there for your reading pleasure:


Matt Heidelberger profiles the 12 most dingy New York subway stations in his wonderful post “The Dirty Dozen.” Like the loss of the Bilerico Project duo to DC, the loss of Matt Heildelberger to NYC is a cruel blow to Indy’s blogosphere.

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Replay: Louisville – An Identity Crisis

Following on from my article on Cincinnati, I’ll now take a short 100 mile trip downstream to another old river city, Louisville. Louisville came of age in a similar era and traditionally viewed itself as a sort of little brother to Cincinnati. However, while Cincinnati was once the Paris of the west, Louisville never held so lofty a position, so it lacks Cincy’s grandeur. Luckily, it also appears to be missing some of the dysfunction.

See here the river city tradition as the Belle of Louisville steamboat fires up. There were obviously no emissions standards back in the day.

Straddling the Ohio River, which serves as a border of sorts between the South and Midwest, Louisville has always had a bit of an identity problem. A recent article in Leo, a local alt weekly, highlights this.

For some reason for which modern science has no accounting, the subject of Louisville’s identity keeps coming up — in bar conversations, coffee shop summits, Chamber of Commerce meetings, at church, at shows, in this newspaper — and nobody knows really what to say about it. We are a city of naturally prideful, boasting people who are, to some degree, unsure about what we’re pitching. In some ways, we grate against our inferiority complex by offering wildly optimistic comparisons: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Austin. It’s hard to just be Louisville.

Louisville is a jumble. It’s got that genteel Southern feel at the Derby. It’s also the place that was “strike city” in the 1970′s, a bastion of hard core unionism and industry more befitting a Rust Belt burg than a southern metropolis. It retains the legacy of Kentucky and its rivertown heritage as a traditional haven for vice. Old school leading industries have included tobacco (Brown and Williamson cigarettes), booze (Brown-Forman and other distillers), gambling (Churchill Downs), and freon (DuPont). It has extremely low educational attainment levels, but has also been home to a large number of influential creative types, especially in the indie rock world, with people like Will Oldham, Janet Bean, Slint, Rodan, VHS or Beta, and others. It is comparatively lacking in corporate headquarters. It has been a home to innovative architecture. It’s heavily segregated by race and class, but has an comparatively large number of thriving in-city neighborhoods. It is a hotbed of evangelical Christianity and also home to a large regional gay entertainment complex. It’s too small to be a true big city, but big enough to force itself into the conversation. It has a phenomenal selection of local independent restaurants.

Here is some of that innovative architecture. The Michael Graves designed Humana Building is on the right. This mid-80′s structure was one of the buildings that really created his reputation as an architect you’d actually hire for a structure you planned to build.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Louisville is that the locus of civic identity is not downtown, but rather in the neighborhoods. Louisvillians have an immense attachment to their native soil. I’ve never been to a place where it is so frequently stated as a point of pride that “I’ve live here my whole life.” People who move away are viewed a bit strangely, as if, what’s wrong with this person?

For those in Jefferson County, what matters first is the segmentation by class and race. The West End is almost totally black, the South End working class whites, and the East End the home of the white upper classes. This class consciousness is highly pervasive and permeates people’s vision in a way I’ve rarely seen in other places.

At the next level down, Louisville has many distinct and thriving neighborhoods in the city, mostly spreading to the east and south of downtown. And one of the things that is really different about Louisville from Cincinnati is that these neighborhoods are basically still connected to the downtown. It is possible to walk or bike from downtown through Old Louisville and out to the University of Louisville, for example, without passing through a bunch of slums to get there. Similarly to the east end there is a chain of more or less intact neighbhoods extending all the way from downtown to the eastern burbs. Louisville experienced in city decline and population loss to be sure, but is never had the central city implosion that hit so many other places. The one exception is the West End, where one finds the unfortunately standard impoverished black neighborhoods. The river cuts off the West End, leaving it as an isolated island of blight in an otherwise surprisingly strong inner city, it’s residents largely ignored and forgotten.

Unfortunately in my view, the city has overly fixated on building up downtown as the heart of the region at the expense of investments in neighborhoods. As the Leo article would suggest, Louisville has a major inferiority complex and so feels compelled to invest in the trappings of big city downtowns so that it doesn’t appear to be “falling behind”. This is misguided in my view. Louisville does not have the population base, corporate base, or financial heft to compete in this game at the level it would take to build a distinguished offering.

That’s not to say Louisville doesn’t have a nice downtown. It does, including some great architecture that includes, for example, a large cast iron storefront district on west Main St. I also think that judicious investments in downtown are a good thing. It shouldn’t be left to whither on the vine, that’s for sure. But disproportionately investing in downtown ignores Louisville’s greatest strengths in favor of a game where it is not well positioned win.

Buildings along Main St.

The Kentucky Center for the Arts, also on Main St. The concentration of attractions on Main St. is one of the nicer elements of downtown.

Louisville has always self-consciously viewed and promoted itself as a city with a great arts community. Some of this is overblown, IMO, but that’s not the important thing. What’s important is that Louisville is a city where the arts are taken seriously, and where having a strong arts scene is something that is core to what the city is about. I do think this is something that should be played up and leveraged for the future.

The Louisville Science Center, a sort of children’s museum, also on Main St.

The cheesy 4th St. Live entertainment complex occupies what was once a failed downtown mall called the Galleria. Louisville bought into the dubious trend of pedestrianizing its traditional principal shopping street, in this case 4th St. While I guess having a downtown bookstore like Borders is a good thing, I can’t believe investing in cheesy bars downtown is really the key to having a great city.

Since I’m saying that it is Louisville’s neighborhoods that are so great, I probably shouldn’t spend too much time on downtown, though I must confess that’s what I mostly have photos of. In case you were wondering, downtown Louisville does have its share of classical architecture, such as this example.

Just south of downtown is a neighborhood called Old Louisville. This was actually an earlier suburb where the moneyed folk build their mansions. 2nd and 3rd Streets and awesome for just walking around and leisurely enjoying the architecture under a canopy of trees.

The Filson Club, a local historical society.

A streetscape, I believe along 2nd St.

I noted that three of the things that are great about Louisville are its neighborhoods, its great independent restaurants, and its funky arts scene. All of these are on display in the Highlands. Now the definition of the Highlands is fluid and depends on what real estate agent you are talking to. But the popular conception of its spine is the major commercial district extending outwards along Baxter Ave. and Bardstown Rd. This is an area that doesn’t photograph well, but to me has a very college town type of feel to it.

A yuppie running store across the street from a tattoo joint.

Seviche, one of those great restaurants I mentioned.

Not to be missed if you are on Bardstown Rd. is a quick visit to the legendary Ear X-tacy record store. Pick up a bumper sticker and slap it on your guitar case.

One of the other great assets Louisville has is a great park system designed by the firm of Fredrick Law Olmsted. Places like Iroquois Park and Cherokee Park are just lovely. You can experience a slice of Cherokee Park for yourself by driving east from downtown on I-64, where you almost don’t know you are in the city.

Louisville currently has a first class, ambitious initiative ongoing called City of Parks, which is designed to add thousands of acres of parks and trails, mostly in the outer county area. While I’m all in favor of this, it also illustrates the Savitch and Vogel theory that city-county consolidation in Louisville, which occurred recently, would lead to the center city tax base being exploited to build suburban infrastructure. I’ve written before about Louisville’s big plans. I’m not so sanguine on all of them, but really like City of Parks.

Speaking of big plans, that reminds me that one of the more innovative proposals floating out there is one that would tear down this:

That idea is called “8664“. Proponents want to tear down I-64 along the riverfront near downtown in order to reconnect downtown to the river. It is touted as a cheaper and better solution to traffic problems than the $4.1 billion Ohio River bridges plan. As financing prospects for the bridges become ever more bleak, 8664 continues to gain supporters. The establishment doesn’t even want to evaluate it, fearing it will shatter the fragile consensus around the bridges that took nearly 40 years to build.

The bridges project is an interesting case study because it highlights a problem that has long bedeviled the region: civic strife. It has proven extremely difficult to gain consensus on any major local project because of in-fighting between the various parts of town and various interest groups. The various ends of town area all suspicious of each other. Indiana and Kentucky have poor relations across the river. Mayor Jerry Abramson has long been outright hostile to any development of any type occurring outside the city limits.

The bridges project had this in spades. Indiana demanded an east end bridge to complete the I-265 link across the river. Abramson, then mayor in the pre-consolidation age, saw this as a threat and demanded a new downtown bridge instead. Wealthy residents of the east end hated the eastern bridge too, as did various environmental groups, some of which were east end fronts. In the grand spirit of political compromise, ultimately it was decided to build everything, leading to a crazy price tag and opening the door to 8664. I think it is still fair to say that nobody trusts anybody on this project, even to this day.

Fortunately, the situation generally is much improved post-merger.

Before I go too far astray, I should probably complete my neighborhood tour with this shot of Crescent Hill. This is a small commercial district along Frankfort Ave., another one of Louisville’s fantastic neighborhood arteries. It is well worth a drive out from downtown along through this, as you see the transition from Louisville’s established neighborhoods, to the older suburb of St. Matthews, and out into the full metal burbs. Heine Bros. coffee is money, by the way.

One other unique characteristic of Louisville is that it has not experienced a collar county boom. This is probably partially due to its smaller size versus places like Cincinnati. The vast bulk of people and commercial development is still inside Jefferson County. I don’t believe there is any significant Class A office space outside its borders for example. This gives Louisville the opportunity to get ready for the future before Jefferson County is full and the suburban counties really explode. Places like Oldham County have gained people, but are still largely rural in character and without a significant population or commercial base.

The key challenge facing Louisville is what to do about the transition to the 21st century globalized world. It was traditionally a manufacturing center and has a workforce and education levels with that orientation. But its manufacturing base is significantly eroded and continues to experience significant threats. Ford, which manufactures the Explorer here, has downsized considerably. General Electric’s appliance division is based here, employing 5,000 people, including a large number of white collar employees. But GE is planning to dispose of that division, and it seems likely Louisville is going to experience significant job losses, and perhaps the near total disappearance of that business.

So what should Louisville do?

I’ve long argued that Louisville should focus on being a Geneva-like jewel of a city, not a “big league city”, whatever that means. That is, focus on having the best quality of life, the best neighborhoods, etc. Strengthen the traditional city assets such as the park system, the local restaurant scene, unique architecture, and the arts community. Louisville has long appealed to offbeat, funky types of characters. It is sort of reminiscent of a college town in that respect, so taking a page from the Austin playbook and self-consciously cultivating this would be a great thing. The clear focus of civic development should be the neighborhoods, with downtown in a supporting role. This is a reversal of current priorities.

I don’t believe 21st century jobs are going to rain down on Louisville like manna from heaven, so the onus is on the city to principally drive its economic future through organic growth. I’m don’t believe attracting the creative class is the only things cities need to do to be successful, but Louisville is definitely well positioned to attract that sort of person and indeed has traditionally attracted it. The question is how to turn that creative firepower into economic growth.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention Museum Plaza. This great proposal was vintage Louisville. It was innovative, unique, and would really show the world the differentiated character of the place. However, this project appears to be on life support, and likely not to secure financing. If it fell through, that would be unfortunate, but as with bridges, arenas, etc. Louisville has always seemed to find an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

This post originally appeared on May 18, 2008.

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

After Daley’s Retirement, Chicago Needs a New Approach by Greg Hinz

[ Greg Hinz, reporter and columnist for Crain's Chicago Business, would have to be on anyone's short list for the best journalist in town. I'm a religious reader of his blog and if you're in Chicago you should be too. This is one of his columns from a couple months ago that Crain's was kind enough to allow me to reprint for you today. They didn't make me say this, but if you want to be sure to read all of what Greg has to say, you should subscribe to Crain's. - Aaron. ]

Note: The arranged period with Crain Communications for the re-publication of this article has expired and it has been removed.

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Indy: Livability Starts Now

CEOs for Cities recently held an event called the Livability Challenge in Indianapolis. You can view a collection of many of the excellent presentations on the event web site. Among its major themes was creating more beautiful cities.

I did not attend this, but someone who did told me, “The last 3 days have been some of the most inspiring days of my civic life in Indianapolis.” I’m not surprised. CEOs for Cities a) just gets it and b) puts on the best events I know, both from a content and organization perspective. If you ever get the opportunity to attend one of their events, I can’t encourage you enough to do so.

But having an inspiring conference does nothing for you if you don’t follow through on it and execute. The real problem in cities isn’t coming up with good ideas, but actually executing them. I know for a fact that Indianapolis has no shortage of good ideas. I’d like to think that I’ve provided a large number of very low cost good suggestions over the last four years on this blog. But what has been done?

In the spirit of livability and beauty, I want to highlight a couple of concrete actions that can be taken right now, immediately, that require little to no money and would contribute to a more beautiful, more livable city in Indianapolis.

Old City Hall Sign

Indianapolis will proudly talk about the world class Indy Cultural Trail downtown. But right along this $75 million show place is the remains of an old city-owned sign in from the old City Hall building:

Pretty ghetto to put it mildly. This building was temporarily used as the main library during a renovation and expansion project of the central library building. The top portion of the sign used to hold a library logo. Someone went to enough trouble to remove that, but left this behind.

Here’s the sign in context along the Cultural Trail.

Now is the time for someone to pick up a phone, call DPW, and have them send a truck over immediately to get rid of that thing.

What kind of message does this send to an outsider who has heard Indy brag about this Cultural Trail? What are they likely to think when they see this in the core of downtown right along it?

Keystone Ave. Big Green Signs

There’s an interchange on the North Side at Keystone and 86th St. that used to be owned by the state but was taken over by the city many years ago during the Goldsmith administration. The state ripped down their SR 431 logo off the two big green signs there, and they’ve sat rotting away ever since:

This looks like a still from a post-apocalyptic thriller.

What’s crazy about this is that it isn’t in some run down, blighted ‘hood. Directly on the other side of that bridge is a large office park with the tallest building in suburban Indianapolis and the Keystone at the Crossing mall, which is the most upscale shopping center in the state, with stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s.

Again, you’re a visitor, prospective resident, someone coming to a job interview in one of those office buildings, and you see this. What are you likely to think about Indianapolis?

The fact that this sign says “Carmel” is telling. The border of Carmel is one mile north. And once you hit it at 96th St., everything is pristine. They wouldn’t tolerate this kind of blight, certainly not when the government owns it. Combine stuff like this with better schools and lower taxes and it is any wonder that those with choices are bailing out of Marion County?

Someone once told me they thought INDOT still owned that sign. Does it look like INDOT thinks they own it? Send a crew out there one night ASAP and take both of these things – and all the brackets and such – down. There’s no need to even replace them. Many cities avoid the use of big green signs at just this type of interchange.

Our central cities like Indianapolis are in a brutally competitive market. To win you’ve got to bring your A game every day. You’ve got to show that you have some pride in your city. Cleaning up obvious blight in high profile locations is an easy place to start.

Let me stress that I don’t blame the current administration for this situation. As I noted, those green signs are on their third mayor now, for example. No, this sort of thing has been standard operating procedure for far too long. It’s time to get serious through both words and actions on walking the real beauty and livability walk. There are huge numbers of low cost items just like this that could be done starting today to begin the process of building momentum, racking up wins, and showing that the quality of space in the city is on an upward, not downward trajectory.

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