Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Amtrak Should Innovate with Hiawatha Service Pricing by Jeramey Jannene

[ I'm delighted to provide a sample of what you'll find over at Milwaukee's premier urbanist site: Urban Milwaukee. It is of course very Milwaukee-centric, but this piece has a lot of interesting ideas with potentially broader applicability - Aaron. ]

If you want to ride Amtrak’s Hiwatha Service line between Milwaukee and Chicago, the cost is $22 per ticket. If you buy your ticket in advance, the cost is $22 per ticket. If you ride on the weekend, the cost is $22 per ticket. If you want to ride in the middle of the day, you guessed it, $22 per ticket. With Interstate 94 under construction between the state line and Milwaukee for the next few years, new equipment on the way from Talgo, a new Milwaukee Intermodal Station train shed coming, and a route extension to Madison under construction, it’s time for Amtrak, iDot, and WisDOT to explore new pricing models for the state-sponsored rail service to encourage more riders and raise more revenue.

Amtrak, to their credit, does offer discounts for children (ages 2-15) who ride for $11 each with the purchase of an adult ticket (up to two discounted tickets per adult ticket). They also frequent rider discounts, in the form of a ten-ride ticket for $165 (that expires in 60 days) and an unlimited route ridership pass for a calendar month for $358. Those options leave a lot to be desired though.

Before I propose my list of pricing suggestions, it’s worth noting that the 2010 Amtrak Fiscal Year (October 1st, 2009 – September 30th, 2010) resulted in record ridership and record ticket revenue for the Hiawatha Service (and Amtrak as a whole). The Milwaukee to Chicago route had 783,060 trips and generated $14,092,802 in ticket revenue, for an average of $18.00 per ride. More valuable than the average revenue per ride would be to know both how many riders paid full price (and at what time of the day and day of the week), but unfortunately Amtrak doesn’t release that data. For the sake of this article, we’ll use my informal observations from riding and the data we have available to assume that a very high percentage of unique, adult riders pay full fare.

The pricing suggestions I propose are aimed at increasing ridership and marginal revenue simultaneously, while not requiring any service changes. They might have the added positive externalities of reducing congestion, reducing pollution from automobiles, improving the reputation of Amtrak, and encouraging travel and business between Milwaukee and Chicago, but if any of those things happen it’s merely a bonus.

Pricing Suggestions

Megabus Model - Megabus is famous for their $1 tickets, despite the fact that rarely anyone actually gets to buy one. The service is sold on a yield management pricing model, where the first one or two tickets are $1 with prices increasing incrementally from there. Amtrak could offer the Megabus pricing model not on all trips, but on the lowest ridership ones. This is likely to be especially valuable given that Megabus has drastically scaled back service out of Milwaukee.

Badger Bus Model – Badger Bus, the bus company that currently offers inter-city bus service between Madison and Milwaukee, has a pricing model for frequent riders that allows the company to collect interest off future ticket purchases. Amtrak currently offers a 10-ride ticket for $165, but it expires within 60 days. Using the Badger Bus model, Amtrak would allow customers to give the customers a large sum of money up-front in exchange for a discount whenever those funds are used to buy a ticket. In the case of Badger Bus, a $125 deposit gets you $175 in purchasing power (29% discount). The benefit maxes out at a $325 deposit ($485 purchasing power, 33% discount). If Amtrak were to offer something similar, they could be collecting interest on my money just like Badger Bus is (the last time I put $125 with Badger Bus it took me two years to use it all). An added revenue bonus is available with the model in the form of permanently unused funds, similar to gift cards that go unused. Amtrak would need to analyze exactly what deposit amount to collect, and how big of a discount to give.

Hessenticket Model – Germany has an innovative weekend pricing model available with their national rail system. The state of Hesse (home to Frankfurt) offers a weekend pass for 29 euros, where you and up to four others can ride the system’s non-high-speed all day on either Saturday or Sunday, anywhere you wish to go, getting on and off as you please. Their is a national pass with similar rules available for 33 euros as well. Implementing the idea between Milwaukee and Chicago might not work quite as well, but with future service extending to Madison it might make more sense. It seems reasonable to assume Amtrak could offer up a four-rider, $50 weekend day-pass with the requirement that the riders sit together (to prevent abuse).

Off-Hours Pricing – The current system prices every single-ride ticket equally, regardless of the time of day or day of the week. It’s worth exploring the idea of pricing lower ridership trips at a cheaper fare.

Wisconsin Vouchers – Scott Walker has managed to make an Amtrak service extension as political as possible (see: The victor on November 2nd would be wise to explore sending a non-transferable voucher to every taxpayer when the new Talgo equipment is put into service, giving them one free one-way ticket on the Hiawatha. It would be great for Illinois to do the same (tourism dollars on top of increased revenue). It’s hard to find someone who has ridden the service, but dislikes the quality of the ride. It is, however, easy to find someone who thinks the service is a “boondoggle” and has never ridden. The vouchers would serve as a new-customer acquisition strategy, generating a lot of new customers who would effectively be getting a half-off first trip. The long-term value of those new customers could be enormous. As an added bonus, angry Journal Sentinel commenters no longer can argue they get nothing in return for the state sponsorship of the rail line.

Corporate Pass – What if businesses got a discount when they purchased tickets? Could the company car be replaced (or the least supported) by the company rail pass? A program where the more tickets a business buys annually results in a greater and greater discount could increase revenue.

Advance Purchase Discount – Hotels often offer a price discount for booking your room early, Amtrak should do the same. Even if it’s only a 5% discount, or the ticket has to be bought at least 6 months in advance, Hiawatha ridership might increase (and Amtrak might collect interest) if customers book their tickets early.

Buy-One, Get-One – As one boards the Hiawatha they notice that the greatest unused inventory isn’t two empty seats together, but the empty seat next to a rider. To make better use of the marginal inventory, Amtrak should offer some form of buy-one, get-one free (or half off) for riders that sit together.

What are your ideas for Hiawatha Service pricing?

This post originally appeared in Urban Milwaukee on October 25, 2010. Reprinted with Permission.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

Le Flâneur

Here’s another super-cool city video. This one is a series of photos combined into a time lapse video with nice music. It’s about Paris and is only two minutes so definitely worth a watch. (If the video doesn’t display, click here).

Of course, it is very much like the similarly awesome You’ve Got to Love London.

Topics: Civic Branding
Cities: Paris

Monday, April 4th, 2011

The 31-Flavors of Urban Redevelopment by Rod Stevens

Aaron Renn’s March 24 posting on “The Logic of Failure” and his reference to “silver bullet” solutions for redevelopment and revitalization reminded me of my visit to the “Creative Cities Summit”, about revitalizing cities, three years ago this fall. The setting, timing and venue could not have been better, at least in terms of provoking thought about how to do things better.

The setting was Detroit, the time was October, 2008, when the financial markets were crumbling, and the venue was Renaissance Center (“RenCen”), the Robocop-like mixed use center that is headquarters for General Motors. I flew in the night before and opened my door that morning to a newspaper lying in the corridor on which the top headline read “GM in Merger Talks With Chrysler”. This was the beginning of the end as the auto industry had known it for the last 100 years, and those very same corporate managers were coming to work 30 floors above me.

This was my first trip to Detroit, so I decided to take a quick ride on the People Mover to see the city. With a station attached to RenCen, this automated system took me on a loop around the city, on elevated tracks 20 feet above street level, without my having to set foot on the street.

The first thing I was conscious of was that this was supposed to be rush hour and no one else was on the people mover. For that matter, there were few people on the streets. Some cars streamed off the freeway and almost directly into the RenCen parking garages, but not many, and even fewer people were out walking.

Most of the buildings between the stops also seemed to be empty. Most of were of the same pre-WW II vintage and quality as those on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago and in Mid-town in Manhattan, but there was no one in them. It was like an old Star Trek or Twilight Zone episode in which something has happened and the population has disappeared.

I gradually became aware that many of the stops were at Sim-city like attractions – the kind you are allowed to build when your city gets to a certain size- such as the convention center, an arena, a baseball park, a football stadium, and a casino. Each of these must have taken hundreds of millions of dollars to build. I thought, “They’ve been spinning the roulette wheel, hoping to get the tourists and suburbanites back into the city”. But what had the city fathers done for the residents themselves? Later I was to walk through Campus Martius, a center city park that people take considerable pride in, but even in the middle of the day it was largely empty. On the last day of my trip I walked up Woodward Avenue, the grand street at the center of the city that used to be the main place where people shopped. The buildings on one side were largely empty. The buildings on much of the other side were simply gone, some torn down for underground parking garages that were to be the new base of new office buildings to be built by private developers. These office buildings didn’t materialize.

After this trip I began to compile a list of the “silver bullet” solutions, of redevelopment projects that city leaders have put in place in various places across the U.S. over the last sixty years like those I saw in Detroit, and that I present here. Early in my career I prepared marketing and feasibility studies for these things, so I knew there would be a number of different kinds, but I was still surprised at their number when I stopped counting. Like Baskin Robbins, there are 31 flavors on the list, and it would be easy to add to it.

Graphic by Carl Wohlt from an original chart and information by Rod Stevens/Spinnaker Strategies. Please do not re-use without attribution.

I have divided these into three kinds of projects: business, retail and tourism, and transportation. The bars show the decades they span, from the 1950s through the 2000s, with the earliest kinds of projects shown first. Expos, first on the list, actually started with the Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition in England in 1851, which later inspired Chicago’s “White City”, but my time frame here starts after WW II, when American cities began to consciously redevelop themselves in the face of suburban competition. For each kind of project I have also included an example and the year that example opened. The examples were not always the first built, but they inspired others to follow. For example, the Ontario Science Centre came before the Exploratorium as a modern, hands-on science center, but it was the Exploratorium that most of the other centers in the U.S. looked to as an example. San Diego’s Horton Plaza was not the first downtown mall, but it excited a lot of talk in the world of urban development.

Notice that the largest category is retail and tourism. If you really looked behind the rationale for most of these projects, you would find that most were in fact aimed at tourists or at suburban shoppers who had fled the city. The grand-daddy of all redevelopment projects is Ghirardelli Square, which remains vital to this day, although the upper floors have now gone condo for rich people who want to keep a place to stay in the city. Ghirardelli inspired the festival marketplaces of the 1980’s, many built by the Rouse Company, and many of which are now struggling. These later morphed into the food halls inspired by Granville Island in Vancouver and the Pike Place Market in Seattle, and, more recently, the market halls or sheds for farmers markets that have recently begun to show up. Notice the trend here for an ever-more-local clientele. Partly this is due to retail trends. When Ghirardelli first opened, it was filled with unusual boutiques selling clothing and glasses not found in the malls. Today you can buy these things at suburban “town centers”, where chains like Crate and Barrel keep a good selection of wine glasses and linens.

There is almost a flavor-of-the-month approach for transportation as well, which really started with the downtown connector freeways aimed at whisking shoppers to ailing main streets. More and more cities are now tearing out these freeways and converting the space to parkland. What’s more interesting is the evolution in rail, from heavy systems like BART and the DC Metro, to light rail in places like San Diego, to the current passion for street cars. Transportation is becoming lighter than air, and now this is even an urban gondola in Portland, with Vancouver planning a second on Burnaby Mountain. Years ago Disneyland had one of these, for frenetic visitors eager to punch all of their E tickets.

Notice how few kinds of business-related projects there have been. Science parks, which started with Stanford and the Research Triangle, have mostly been in the suburbs, but a few are in the city, such as Yale’s Science Park, and more are on the drawing boards. Carnegie Mellon’s Collaborative Innovation Center may be the best example of integrating academia, industry and the city, for here private sector tenants come together on a campus in the middle of a very urban city.

Notice just how briefly projects like Renaissance Center were popular. John Portman, an Atlanta architect, designed the most prominent of these, including not only Renaissance Center but the Hyatt Regency/ Embarcadero complex in San Francisco (which is connected with sky bridges), Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown L.A. At the time these were the wonder of their cities, and tourists came in to gaze upward at the atriums and light-bedecked elevators that moved through these. They almost all included office buildings, hotels, and mini-shopping malls, and almost never housing. Many of these were introverted, arrived at by car in special drop-off lanes, with the pedestrian entrances being hard to find. Few or no lobby windows faced out onto the street. At Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, the main level of pedestrian activity is one floor above the street. and for about 20 years it had a thriving trade of office workers from nearby buildings eating and shopping there at noon. Now most of that lunchtime activity is out walking along the Bay, on the true Embarcadero, or eating in the Ferry Building next to it.

And then there are the truly wacky projects, which may or may not work in their own right. Projects like the automated people movers in Detroit, Miami, and Morgantown, West Virginia. The canal in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown “entertainment” district. And the submarines and battleships, like such as a submarine in the prairie land of Muscogee, Oklahoma and the dreadnaught Olympia at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. The Olympia ship may be headed to the scrap heap, for lack of support and visitation and Penn’s Landing has struggled because of its isolation. Fish don’t shop.

Why is it that these projects work in one place and not in others? And why is that Portland has pioneered so many of these projects? I believe the answers are related, and having grown up in Portland, with a family that was involved in creating some of these solutions, I can offer some insight.

Aaron Renn uses the term “silver bullet”, and that is exactly why many cities copy other cities’ solutions: they hope these will magically solve their problems. But as Aaron points out, these other cities frequently fail to adequately define what problem they are trying to solve, and what their priorities are. The approach that works well in one city for one set of challenges will not work well for a different set.

But why has Portland been so successful? I believe there are three reasons: 1) crises and political turnover that opened the community up to questioning and new leadership; 2) a growing facility with problem definition and problem solving; and 3) the attraction of “outsiders” who joined the community and brought fresh new approaches and energy.

Without getting into too much detail, the political crises included a revolt and mobilization of the citizenry in the 1960s, when private interests tried to take over the public beaches. Never before had the legislature seen so many private citizens flood its conference rooms, and this led to other conservation measures like the bottle bill, land use planning and the Willamette River Greenway. This activism, growing at the same time as Vietnam War and Watergate, brought a new generation to power in the early 1970’s, including Neil Goldschmidt, who pushed forward light rail system when citizens revolted against more freeways. And the final event was a very, very deep recession in the early 1980s, when most of the major timber companies closed shop or left town, leaving behind a vacuum of power in which it was easier to make broad-based decisions. Oregon’s growing environmental reputation and the easier entry into the circles of power drew in like-minded people from throughout the country, and some of these people helped push the city in new ways.

Most importantly for Portland, and perhaps for other cities, the community got better at problem solving, at not simply reaching for off-the-shelf solutions. In the 1970s, relatively strong retail, on the street downtown, led the community to reject a multi-block retail project connected by sky bridges that was proposed by Canadian developers. That first light rail line took care of a transportation need when citizens said no to a freeway that would have wiped out miles of neighborhoods. “Fareless Square”, downtown, was a response to federal air pollution rules that made it tough to build new parking garages. The streetcar that opened in 2001 simply connected an already-strong downtown with Northwest Portland, a strong residential neighborhood that is the densest in the state. Portland has had its failures and misspent money – the Rouse project is now ailing and the extension of the transit mall has killed retail along its length- but its successes come because they are rooted in local needs.

Hopefully this trend is developing nationally. The failed Rouse project in Milwaukee, aimed at drawing tourists back into the city, is now re-oriented to more local shoppers, largely because Mayor John Norquist would not give it more subsidies. Money is flowing out of big downtown projects and into more neighborhood-based retail projects, like those sheds and squares for farmers’ markets. And we are putting more of an emphasis on “productivity” projects, aimed at creating good places to work, and fewer on the “consumption” side, retail and housing. More cities are realizing that great places draw good talent, and that they need to focus on the work side if they are going to participate in the modern knowledge economy. Already we are seeing more collaboration between the city and the universities, and while much of this new development still takes place within the walls of the campus, in some places like downtown Phoenix, where the new Arizona State University campus has opened, the city and the university are one, without walls. It will be in leveraging the talents of our people, and our anchor institutions, that we do our best problem solving, and create the most interesting and durable of places.

Rod Stevens is a business development consultant on Bainbridge Island WA, specializing in urban ventures.

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Conscious Urbanism: The Heidelberg Project by Brendan Crain

[ I'm extremely delighted to be able to begin sharing today a series of posts that previously appeared in the Where blog. This blog, which ran from 2007 to 2010, was one of the single most inspiring urbanist sites on the web. Originally a project of Brendan Crain, it grew into a very popular group site before going the way of all blogs. I've previously shared some material from Where contributor Drew Austin, and I'm stoked that Brendan himself has allowed me to re-post some of his pieces as well. They certainly deserve to be read far and wide. Brendan himself is not blogging at the moment that I'm aware of, but some of his old Where contributors are still going over at Polis, which is definitely worth checking out for an international take on cities. Thanks so much to Brendan and I hope you all enjoy these posts that will appear in the coming weeks and months. - Aaron ]

As the city that has fallen on the hardest times (in America, at least), Detroit has the most potential as a proving ground for new solutions. The city is a massive laboratory for urban theorists, developers, and boosters alike. How, many wonder, can Detroit be saved? Or can it be saved at all? Certainly one of the more interesting answers to these questions has come from Tyree Guyton, the man behind the Heidelberg Project, which has appropriated several blocks of the city’s near east side into a spectacularly off-the-wall community art project/revitalization effort.

It’s certainly not what you’d traditionally refer to as “revitalization,” but that’s kind of the point. On its website, the Heidelberg Project explains its vision thusly: “The Heidelberg Project envisions neighborhood residents using art to come together to rebuild the structure and fabric of under-resourced communities and to create a way of living that is economically viable, enriches lives, and welcomes all people.” What this translates to in the physical environment of Heidelberg Street is a collection of abandoned houses — and their surroundings — covered in murals, knick-knacks, mannequins, coins, pie tins, pieces of repurposed trash, stuffed animals, and (literally) just about anything else you could think up. It’s like the Watts Towers, but even more organic.

The Heidelberg Project teaches people who live and have grown up in desolate surroundings how they can change the public spaces that make up their neighborhood and how this change can affect them. It serves as an inspiration and a source of hope. So, of course, the city government has tried to kill the project several times. It has demolished a number of homes that were a part of the project on several different occasions, even though Heidelberg Street is an internationally-recognized project that attracts 275,000 visitors each year. As the project’s Executive Director, Jenenne Whitman, observes, the fact that the city tried so hard to “squash the project … shows how powerful art can be.” Indeed.

In contemporary society, public places themselves are not often thought of as art; actually, they are more often viewed as containers for art. The design of high-end contemporary places is sometimes considered artistically merited, it’s true. But the more interesting and subtle artistic expression in the public realm is community usage. The creation of great places, after all, absolutely requires heavy human interaction. This is usually considered a confirmation of the artistic integrity of the place’s design, but is it not an art form in and of itself? After all, don’t communities transform unplanned spaces into vibrant public places as frequently if not moreso than they do planned places?

The bustle of urban streets and other public spaces in the city is sometimes refered to, quite poetically, as a great pedestrian ballet. And if this is true, it can be logically assumed that, while policy and planning choreograph parts of this ballet, each individual person moving through the city takes part in its choreography by making their own independent choices. People go to parks and plazas and promenades for so many reasons: to eat, to play, to run, to chat, to meet, to dance, to stroll. And by doing so, each person becomes an artist, taking part in the endless urban ballet. Simply to use the city, to exist within it, is a work of art. It’s a lovely idea, no?

The Heidelberg Project is a very concrete visual manifestation of this ballet. It teaches the disenfranchised and the isolated how to shape the world around them into something beautiful. In a way, it is the most public kind of public place: the kind where the planned social infrastructure failed, and the people moved in, did what they do, and created something really useful.

The Heidelberg Project
Heidelberg Turns 21 (Model D) (Photo credit)

This post originally appeared in The Where Blog on August 27, 2007.

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Pushing the Racial Dialogue in Cincinnati by Tifanei Moyer

When I think about my experiences in Cincinnati in the context of the dark hue of my skin and kinkiness of my hair, a reel of uneasy experiences plays through my mind:

“You should have a better sense of humor,” my boss told me once after making a joke about people that are black.

“I’m glad I’m not black, because I like my good hair.” My roommate once informs me while she watches me struggle in the mirror with my locks.

“My brother has never dated a black girl, but he has dated trailer trash.” A coworker laughs. She only gets uncomfortable and confused when I ask her about equating the two.

“You’re a shoe-in. They need more black people to represent them on the other side of town.”

“The University of Cincinnati doesn’t graduate one out of three of their incoming freshman of African descent.” A counselor urged black freshman to use tutors to even the alleged graduation gap.

“She calls black people nigger all the time, Tifanei. Like it’s nothing! I don’t know what to do.” A friend (not from Cincinnati) told me about a native Cincinnatian that she roomed with.

“Tifanei, the GM is racist, everyone knows it. There is no way he’s going to let them hire you unless you want to be a ‘busboy’ or a bouncer.” A friend whispers to me at the door at a popular establishment downtown. “He wouldn’t even serve the UC football players until I promised him they were athletes.”

“During the riots my friend was just walking downtown and black people beat him up; he was just minding his own business!” A friend tried to explain the stemming of racial tensions to me.

“Why would you date a white man? Are you tired of black men? Did someone do something to you?” A black colleague confronts me after I introduce him to a boyfriend of the time.

I can’t say I’m a native to Cincinnati. I lived there for four years (18-22) and it’s honestly the longest I have lived in any one city. But while I lived there I never met anyone who denied Cincinnati’s pride and just the same, not a single person denied the segregationist structure that many prideful(!) Cincinnati communities embody.

Even with the substantial African-American Cincinnati history, it’s in my humblest opinion that the segregated communities noticeably affect the consciousness of race related issues and identity.

People will tell me that the “racism” I experienced was just ignorance and not in any way a representation of Cincinnati. But that’s just not true. When you grow up in a community where integrating with people who don’t look like you is not valued, then it affects how you identify and interact with others as an adult.

For a long time I felt that Cincinnati didn’t want to be “burdened” by any anecdote of race. But I started to realize, as I engaged more conversation, many people in Cincinnati don’t feel like they have a safe place to discuss race among a diverse group of people.

As I started to learn more about black history in America, it became my nature to probe people around me for their opinions. I had probing conversations with a lot of Cincinnatians who identified as being white. They would tell me they never discuss race to address social problems or economic-barriers because it wasn’t an obvious reality to them. It was a trend for people to tell me that they felt manipulated by the ‘race card’.

I met a lot of people who identified as black, that only wanted to cross racial community lines when they needed a job or wanted to start a career. I witnessed many of same people, myself including, silently struggling with their identity, because they were trying to understand the difference between “success and failure” versus “suburbs and urban areas” versus “white and ‘other’”. These are not easy conclusions to come to when homogeneous communities with clear socio-economic distinctions are what’s accepted. Cincinnati is where I began to understand how the notion of beauty is affected by having so much pride in a homogenous community, especially when one community is considered more successful and educated than the other.

I know I’m mostly a nomad at heart, but I fell in love with Cincinnati for many reasons – those reasons had nothing to do with race. The heartbreaking lack of racial-consciousness in Cincinnati will change, it has to, but it will take more than just hope. In my opinion it’s going to need a shift in values towards heterogeneous community building and a collective effort to address an individual responsibility that defies race. All hues of human color have to accept responsibility for the reality that we maintain by just “going about our business”.

It’s very, very hard to sum up a large and somewhat ambiguous topic, like being black. But, if I have to, I want to end by saying two things: 1)These are my very personal experiences, I am not Cincinnati, but my experiences are real. I don’t blame people I met for anyone’s struggle with beauty or success. I don’t think that one neighborhood is right or wrong about their interpretation of race and what it really means for someone’s livelihood. 2) I have lived in a lot of different cities around world. Cincinnati’s segregation is unique in a lot of ways, but it’s not unexpected in the framework of the U.S. There are many cities that claim to be successful, but are disturbingly segregated at the expense of their youth and social growth. I know all of the powerful minds behind UrbanCincy are influencing the changes of that.

This article originally appeared in UrbanCincy. Reprinted with permission.

Topics: Urban Culture
Cities: Cincinnati

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

Civic Iconography Done Right – Chicago’s City Flag

I’ve written on a number of occasions on why cities should look to strengthen their visual identity and distinctive character using civic icons or images that can provide a powerful graphical or design representation of the city. For example, I wrote about I wrote about how London’s use of its civic icons – it’s red buses, black cabs, bobby uniforms, phone booths, and tube logo – had assumed an almost totemistic stature there.

In the United States, I’d have to rate Chicago far and away #1 in the use of official civic symbols (maybe the best in the world for all I know), and also note the overall high level of design quality of these objects. Today I want to focus on one particular aspect of this, the city flag and its uses.

The city flag is pictured at the top. I included a border on the image because of the white field. This was rated as the #2 city flag in America by the North American Vexillological Association after Washington, DC. I actually like Chicago’s better, because the aggressive asymmetry of DC’s flag is a bit off-putting to me.

The Chicago flag is also highly symbolic. The two blue stripes symbolize the cities waterways – the top Lake Michigan and the North Branch of the Chicago River, the bottom the South Branch and the I&M Canal – while the three resulting white stripes represent the North, West, and South Sides of the city. The stars also symbolize various things. There were originally only two stars, with the others added later, and there are periodic calls to add a fifth star, though four seems about right to me.

If you come to Chicago you’ll notice that the city flag is ubiquitous. In fact, the first place you notice it is when you arrive at O’Hare, where you see a large row of huge alternating US and Chicago flags at the roadway leading into the terminal. You’ll notice that the Illinois flag is missing. Illinois has, like most states, a lousy flag. While you see it at government buildings and around downtown, it is much more rare than Chicago’s own flag, giving what I think is a powerful sense of how the city likes to think of itself as a standalone entity in its state and region. (The contrast with Indianapolis is an interesting one. Indy also has a fabulous city flag, but one much more rarely used. And despite Indiana also having a somewhat dubious state flag, it is much more common to see in Indy than the city’s own flag. Of course, it is the state capital as well, but I don’t think that is the full explanation).

Here’s a picture of the bridge over Michigan Ave, featuring bold use of flags:

One thing that sets Chicago apart is not just the city’s own use of the flag, but its widespread adoption by others. Here’s one flying over the entrance to Marshall Fields on State St.

An office building Michigan Ave. This will mark our last appearance of the Illinois state flag, so let’s wave goodbye to it.

This extends far beyond downtown, however. Here’s a bank in West Lakeview:

Even this Irish bar on Southport couldn’t resist getting into the act:

But what really puts Chicago into a class by itself is the way that the city and its citizens have embraced the flag imagery to infuse into the design of other objects, and even sometimes themselves.

First the city. Here’s Chicago’s police car livery, which is based on the city flag. It’s also one of the finest police car liveries in the world. I’m not sure how far back this dates, but it’s as least as far the Blues Brothers movie. I don’t recognize the font (though I’m sure someone will post it about 5 seconds), but I love its aggressive blockiness that is perfect for the City of Big Shoulders:

There’s an actual city flag in gold trim near the rear of the blue stripe if you look. When you contrast more current designs with this classic, you can see that in Chicago, as in any number of cities, quality of public design has actually declined in some regards.

Here’s someone who did their bicycle up in city flag style:

Both the Sun-Times and the Red Eye (a free daily distributed by the Tribune) used the city flag for their election day issues:

Local bookmark sharing site the Windy Citizen uses the city flag as the basis for its site design:

If you’ll note the social media sharing icons at the bottom of this post, the one that enables submitting to Windy Citizen is a star from the city flag.

You can even buy Chicago flag soap:

Sorry, I don’t have a link to where you can buy this, but again, I’m sure one will be forthcoming from a commenter.

Here’s one even I think it a little crazy. People are starting to tattoo themselves with the city flag. Here’s a picture of local mixologist Charles Joly I found via the 312 Dining Diva.

I’ve personally seen multiple people in my neighborhood with city flag tattoos on their arms. Talk about pride and loyalty. But I guess that level of fanaticism is what Chicago has managed to inspire.

Friday, March 4th, 2011


The next leg of our voyage also requires us to attract and keep people in our city. We must commit as a city to build our neighborhoods like we built our downtown and do the things which make our neighborhoods inviting for new residents, new ideas and new hope. That requires neighborhoods with better infrastructure, better education and better amenities. Basically, we must build an attractive urban environment. – Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, 2001 State of the City Address

Yours Truly was featured in a Swiss Public Radio feature on segregation in Chicago. It’s in German, but if you speak it, you can listen here.

I was also featured in this Indianapolis Star piece called Indianapolis Neighborhoods Battle Blight.

I get some interesting feedback on the links I tweet and post here, so I thought I’d make my editorial policy on these clear. I’m trying to provide a diversity of views and perspectives on cities, so I don’t necessarily have to personally agree with or endorse every aspect of the articles I link – or even the ones I repost from elsewhere. I’m a bigger fan of New Urbanism than Will Wiles, for example, but I think he brought an interesting perspective to the table that was worth listening too and made some important points. There’s far too much dogma out there, and I want this to be a place where all of us, including myself, get to listen to contrary views from time to time.

Top Stories

1. Ellen Dannin: Crumbling Infrastructure, Crumbling Democracy – This paper in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy looks at various contract provisions in privatization contracts that end up hurting the public. I think it’s fair to say that Dannin is no fan of privatization. I’m certainly more favorable to it than she is, but this paper does an important service in highlighting contract provisions that are seldom discussed, the sorts of things that constrain our ability to adapt public policy to changing public needs and desires over time. She also highlights how contrary to popular belief, often very little risk in these deals is actually transferred to the private company. A lot of the provisions that protect the private companies in this instance actually seem to have come out of contracts used for investment in third world countries. This is definitely recommended reading.

2. Newsweek: Chicago: America’s Hottest City – This profile is a bit over the top frankly, but still great press for the city.

3. San Francisco Chronicle: Low-flow toilets cause a stink – Bleaching the Bay

More Urban Data

In addition to my own urban data web site, I wanted to highlight a couple of other cool data apps.

The first is called FasPark. It’s an app for your phone that helps you find parking spots. Unlike other parking apps that failed because they tried to track the inventory of individual spots and couldn’t do it, FasPark works by giving you a route that is, based on historic spot availability, the fastest route for you to drive to find a spot. You can choose whether you want free, metered, etc. Right now it’s in beta and is only available in Chicago. My friends who created this are looking for people to test it out though. So visit their web site at and download the Android app (iPhone coming soon), or browse the app online from your phone. Here’s a screen shot:

The other is from my friends over at IBM and is called City Forward. It’s also a data terminal of sorts, though I think has a bit of a different focus from me. I like that they have data for some international cities and also that you can start collaborative discussions around a visualization. They got a nice mention in the Journal, so check them out.

World and National Roundup

Phillips has announced the finalists in their 2011 Livable Cities Award. You can actually vote on who should win if you’re interested.

The Economist: Londonism and Its Adherents

This Big City: London’s Transport System to Become a World Leader in Ticketing Technology

NYT: China Rail Chief’s Firing Hints at Deeper Problems

Politico: Transportation’s road to recovery

NYT: Broke Town, USA

Otis White: The Mayor as Manager

Rust Wire: Pros and cons of “Triumph of the City” – A review of Glaeser’s book.

Ed Glaeser: Plenty of reasons people want to live in Houston

NYT: Larger than life city of Dallas is barely growing

NYT: In Indianapolis, the World Comes to Eat – I refer the right honourable gentleman to the answer I gave some time ago. You might also be interested today’s Indy Star piece on the subject. Jolene Ketzenberger has also written on this area in the past as well.

UrbanCincy: Pushing the Racial Dialog in Cincinnati

ChicagoTribune: City conducts first bike count study.

Dennis Byrne: Wanted: The Suburbanization of Chicago

NextStL: Extracting the Silver Bullet from the Heart of St. Louis

NY Observer: Is Detroit the Next New York?

State of Downtown Chicago

The Chicago Loop Alliance published a very interesting report will all sorts of facts about downtown Chicago. The most troubling was featured in a Sun-Times article discussing how employment in the Loop fell from 338,000 in 2000 to 275,000 in 2010, a 63,000 decline or 18.6%, which is a whole heaping bowl of Not Good.

But there is plenty to celebrate in the report as well, including an exploding residential base, rising residential real estate prices, and a huge college presence. The colleges known collectively as “Loop U” now have 65,000 students, making the Chicago Loop in effect the state’s biggest college campus. There’s also strong pedestrian traffic downtown, as this cool chart shows:

Love the Future

Daniel Lippman pointed me at an interesting short from BMW called How We’ll Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Future about transportation technology changes. (Click the link if the video doesn’t display for you).

Post Script

Via Dezeen, here’s a very interesting looking orange cube of a building:

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Census 2010 and Urbanizing Indiana

I have another post up at New Geography called “Census 2010: Urbanizing Indiana.” Similar to my Chicago piece, this looks at the latest Census results for Indianapolis and Indiana.

For Indy, the story has some similarities to Chicago. The core (Center Township) badly missed expectations, but there were differences as well. Black population growth in Indy was strong, and the inner suburban (township) areas fared better than expected, particularly on the south side.

For Indiana as a whole, growth continued to be heavily metro focused. The map below says it all. It highlights those counties that grew faster than the statewide average:

Check out the piece for full details.

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Collective Pride, Worthy Choices by John L. Krauss

When you ask people locally where they’re from, they’ll specify an area of our community. They’ll say, “I’m from Fishers,” or Avon or Greenwood.

But when traveling, those same people will answer the question differently. They’ll say, “I’m from Indianapolis.”

Indianapolis is Central Indiana’s focal point. If our region were a newspaper, Indianapolis would be the banner headline. If we were sports apparel, it would be our swoosh. If we were a hit song, it would be our chorus.

But while the region needs Indianapolis to be strong, Indianapolis cannot sustain and grow its national status without strong surrounding communities.

In other words, to be a super city, we must be a super region.

To explain our interdependence, choose your favorite cliché: “You can’t be a suburb of nothing.” “We’re all in this together.” “A rising tide lifts all boats.” All these notions are true. So rather than erect more barriers born of fear and parochialism, it’s in our individual and collective best interest to celebrate and invest in regionalism.

Too often, when people hear “regionalism,” they fear we have to become homogenous – that we must evolve into a one-size-fits-all, nine-county Uni-Gov where all the shots are called from the 25th floor of Indianapolis’ City-County Building.

Our super-city status, however, depends not on homogeneity, but on ever-expanding choices available to all of our residents, visitors, businesses, students and more.

From arts to sports, libraries to restaurants, established neighborhoods to new exurbs, choice is what makes our community superb.

We’re more likely to sustain and grow our job market with a broad choice of industries and businesses.

We’re more likely to build value in our homes and control our cost of living with a choice of transportation (e.g., cars, commuter rail, buses).

We’re more likely to have affordable, desirable housing for all if we have choices in every price range and living style.

We’re more likely to have a well-educated work force if we have high-quality school choices for all of our students.

We’re more likely to enhance human health if we have choices for recreation, medical research, health education and treatment of disease.

We’re more likely to stem the brain drain, raise children who want to live here, and attract workers from other places if we have choices in education, enrichment and entertainment.

We’re more likely to succeed in a global economy if we have cultural choices that attract, retain and engage diverse people. Call it a mosaic, a cornucopia or quilt, choices are Central Indiana’s linchpin, our point of difference, our brand. Rather than flee from those choices or isolate one another, we must encourage and invest in them.

In so doing, it’s important that we value and acknowledge the ideas and choices of all kinds of people from all over the region, not just those that emerge from the center outward or from the top down. In considering those diverse ideas and choices, we must value not only our self-interest, but also our collective interest; not only short-term investment, but also long-term return on that investment.

Decades ago, when Uni-Gov was passed, Indiana lawmakers decided that Indianapolis wouldn’t be allowed to grow beyond its Marion County boundaries. Consequently, we are fiscally landlocked.

Today, that puts Indianapolis at risk from a tax base too small to support the city itself and to drive the region and state that depend upon it. Indianapolis is, after all, the principal economic engine not only for Central Indiana, but also for the state.

There’d undoubtedly be great resistance (as there should be) to such alternatives as commuter taxes. But we do need to explore region-wide, issue-specific investments in such measures as mass transit, quality of life or quality water – areas with collective responsibility that reap collective benefit.

We’ve come a long way since the days when we had few choices. Many people from within this city and beyond take pride in telling the world, “I’m from Indianapolis.” But we can’t have it both ways. A community worthy of collective pride depends on choices worthy of collective investment.

John Krauss directs the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and its Center for Urban Policy and the Environment.

This column originally appeared in the Indianapolis Star on February 6, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Chicago Takes a Census Shellacking

I know I’ve been on a negative streak about Chicago lately, and here’s another one. But rest assured good news is coming soon, starting with a post tomorrow. I’ve got several others in the hopper, but they still need some development.

At any rate, the census results just released for Illinois were bad news for Chicago. I discuss this over at New Geography in my post “Chicago Takes a Census Shellacking.”

The city had a negative downside population surprise, losing 200,000 people and coming in well under the 2009 estimates. It particularly bled black population, but the non-Hispanic white population declined too. Hispanics increased, but Chicago actually added fewer total than Indianapolis, a city less than 1/3 its size.

More troubling is rampant exurban growth, with Cook, DuPage, and Lake all struggling a bit while places like Kendall County explode. Is it any wonder we’re broke and our traffic congestion is so bad?

Here’s the Illinois population percent change map:

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