Durable Growth

Catching a ballgame with the car still in the driveway

Elizabethton ballpark

Elizabethton ballpark

Baseball is my game.  Not to play, curve balls were always a mystery to me, but to enjoy, whether in a ballpark or through a boxscore.  I avidly follow the football and basketball fortunes of my alma mater, but I’m more alive in the spring and summer when baseball is being played.

There’s something about the game that grabs hold of one and doesn’t let go.  I agree with Lowell Cohn of the Press Democrat about loving the sights, sounds, and smells of the game.

For years, much of my summer travel has directed toward minor league ball.  I’ve seen four of the top ten ballparks from this list in The Street.  (Although I think the list is too Midwest-centric and misses good ballparks near the three coasts.  The parks in Fresno, California, a jewel in a flawed setting, and Birmingham, Alabama, an urban catalyst in the making, quickly come to mind.)

I expect to visit one of the missing six this summer.  I also have a tentative plan to catch a ballgame of the Toledo Mud Hens, the favorite team of Corporal Maxwell Klinger, and a firmer plan to visit small town ballparks throughout Appalachia.

Baseball has a complex relationship with urbanism.  On one hand, much of mythology of baseball is rural, with stories of fireballing pitchers like Bob Feller discovered in pastoral settings and farmers mysteriously drawn to lay out diamonds on land that everyone in the town thought needed to be planted in corn.

On the other hand, the game was first codified in New York City and first game of organized ball was played on a bluff above the Hudson River in New Jersey.  And, as the late commissioner of baseball, A. Bartlett Giamatti, was found of noting, the word “paradise” is derived from an Iranian word for walled garden, which is a spot-on description of an enclosed patch of an emerald green outfield in the midst of a city. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Affording a $400 sidewalk repair

160425002 Cracked Sidewalk on Broadway(Note: If the message below seems familiar, it may be because I wrote on the same subject a couple of months back.  But new and better targeted quotes have come across my desk that allow me to make the point more effectively.  Perhaps it’s intellectually lazy, but some days are like that.)

Today begins with a one-question quiz.  It’s not an easy quiz, perhaps SAT level or above, especially for those who still believe in drivable suburbia.

Here we go.  Can you spot the logical inconsistency between these two excerpts?

Excerpt One – A question and answer from a City of Petaluma leaflet about a new program to encourage sidewalk repairs, a program that can include financial assistance.

“Question: What can I do if paying for sidewalk repairs is too expensive for me right now? Answer: The City is offering loans, at below-market rates, for qualified property owners.”

Excerpt Two – Taken from “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans”, an article in the current issue of Atlantic.

“The Fed (Federal Reserve Board) asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency.  The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.  Four hundred dollars!  Who knew?” Continue reading

Durable Growth

Coming together to learn and to explore

Downtown Petaluma on American Graffiti weekend

Downtown Petaluma on American Graffiti weekend

For my few last posts, I’ve been obsessive.  I’ll acknowledge it.  Besides, obsession is sometimes the correct reaction.  But it’s now time to close the door and to move on, although not until after today’s post.

For readers entering the conversation here, I’ll give a quick recap.  About ten days back, a video was published on social media listing all land-use projects proposed for Petaluma.  Although we likely differ on tactics, the poster largely agrees with my walkable urbanist land-use philosophy.  Unfortunately, his video didn’t use that perspective, but was instead a simple recitation of projects as interpreted from City data, with a disappointing number of inadvertent errors.

From personal experience, I know that information in that form can often result in a public furor.  The uproar may quickly pass away, but often leaves more harm than good in its trail.

So, as the commotion began, I joined the conversation with a series of posts.  First, I recounted a personal experience in which similar public hubbubs resulted in new rules that pushed us incrementally down the road toward climate change.  Next, I wrote about how education, persistence, and opportunity are essential factors in effective public input.  And then, I described a week in my life as an example of public participation, acknowledging that I give more time than most people can, but still hoping to provide inspiration.

Throughout these posts, I often noted the need for a gathering where ideas can be exchanged, building community knowledge about land-use practices, processes, and opportunities.

Luckily, the gathering already exists.  Early in the history of this blog, which now goes back nearly five years, a couple of eager readers suggested  meeting for a discussion on the topics about which I was writing.  We picked Aqus Café as a meeting place, assembled on the designated date, and had a great conversation.  We decided to meet again the following month.  From that beginning, Petaluma Urban Chat was born. Continue reading

Durable Growth

A week of public involvement and urbanist advocacy

A walkable urban setting in Sonoma

A walkable urban setting in Sonoma

This is a post about which I’ve often thought but never executed.  I feared it might seem selfish or self-aggrandizing.  But having recently participated in an extended discussion on the effort needed effect change in land use policies, I decided to share what a week in my life can entail.  It can be an example of what public involvement and advocacy requires.  The topic also builds upon my last two posts (here and here) about public involvement.

I should begin with a disclaimer.  Doing what I describe below doesn’t make me a great guy.  Most days, I enjoy the involvement, so what I do is largely a labor of love.  Also, I happen to be at a time in my life when I can devote the hours.  But I’m not in the league of teachers who spend unpaid weekends grading papers or of parents who juggle work obligations to be home for dinner and homework checks.   They’re the heroes.

With that understood, here is a recent week in my civic life.  Perhaps a little busier than most, but not greatly so.  To avoid complicated and tangential explanations, I’ve simplified a few details.

Monday Morning: The week began early.  A project was the agenda for City Council approval that evening.  At the last minute, the developer was asking for relief from a requirement to build a bike path.  Several people contacted me, asking that I attend the City Council meeting to argue against the request.  I agreed to attend, but without speaking on the bike path issue.  I’ll explain why a little later.

Monday Early Evening: To prepare for the City Council meeting, I had dinner with the Chair of the Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee (PBAC) to talk strategy and philosophy.  As the appointed liaison from the Park and Recreation Commission, I’m also a PBAC member, so we’ve often chatted.  Plus she’s a fun person.

In addition to the pending Council decision, we conversed on many points, including coordination between PBAC and the Transit Advisory Committee (TAC) which I chair.  (For those counting, yes, those are three city commissions and committees on which I sit.) Continue reading


VTA’s Incredible Shrinking Bus Ridership

20150905_181050A bus ridership crisis at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) has publicly reared its head. Gary Richards of the San Jose Mercury News reports on how VTA bus ridership has dropped 23% since 2001. Richards’ report details highlights of a presentation from worldwide transit planner Jarrett Walker detailing solutions to the bus ridership crisis.

More details on that story, the report, and what YOU can do follow after the jump.

The Rest Of the Story

Gary Richards interviewed me on this story last week. Here is an email exchange with his inquiry for the story and my comments on the Walker Report.

One key fact that Richards’ story got wrong was the final cost of the Walker report. Here is how Richards’ story detailed the cost of the two-year report:

Currently, about 30 percent of VTA bus service is geared to covering areas where bus rides are vital to the very few riders those lines carry. The two-year, $50,000 report by consultant Jarrett Walker + Associates said if that was lowered to 20 percent or 10 percent and money was redirected to the most heavily used routes, ridership and fare revenues would likely increase.

An email to VTA’s Office of the Board Secretary revealed a final cost over 20% higher:

Question: How much did VTA spend in hiring Jarrett Walker & Associates last year?
VTA Staff Response:  VTA paid $63,496.00 to Jarret Walker and Associates for work performed in calendar year 2015.
Question: In what portion of the budget did the expenditure originate from?
VTA Staff Response:  The expenditures were paid from the VTA Transit Fund Operating Budget.

Recall the last time VTA reorganized its bus service, back in 2007. While it was supposed to make VTA more efficient and increase bus ridership, as of 2015 it still has nearly the same 106,000 riders it had as when the bus reorg took effect in 2008.  VTA’s bus system statistics detail this fact, and are found below.

Continue reading on Silicon Valley Transit Users…

Durable Growth

Finding the elusive public input sweet spot

Walkable urban setting in Napa

Walkable urban setting in Napa

In my last post, I wrote that public input can sometimes go awry, with concerns about flawed ideas triggering rules that consume both good and bad ideas.

The examples I cited were from my personal history with small-scale hydroelectric projects.  In that field, logically dubious demands for “cumulative impact” studies, raised by those who had legitimate concerns about projects proposed in inappropriate locations but lacked a bigger perspective, bogged down the review process such that few power projects, even the good ones that could have slowed climate change, moved ahead.

I then expressed a concern that something similar could happen to walkable urbanism if a long list of projects, undifferentiated as to their impacts on traffic, water usage, or other local hot buttons, triggered a public demand to slow all development.

A new reader to this blog might interpret my concern as a preference for little or no public input.

That interpretation would be wrong.

Long-time readers know that I encourage public input.  Indeed, a primary thrust of this blog is trying to motivate people to participate in the land-use process, hopefully in support of walkable urban development.

But that motivation can be difficult to incite because effective public participation isn’t easy.  Instead, it often stumbles on three hurdles, education, persistence, and opportunity.  I’ll expand on the three. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Dealing with the spectre of “cumulative impacts”

Walkable urban setting in Petaluma

Walkable urban setting in Petaluma

The term “cumulative impacts” had an unfortunate effect on my formative years as a water resources engineer.  The psychological impacts were painful enough that I still twitch when I hear the phrase.  Or even when I only feel it in the air.

Earlier this week, I twitched a lot.  I feared that the cumulative impacts argument might soon be aimed at the incipient walkable urbanism of Petaluma.

I’ll start at the beginning.

I first heard the phrase “cumulative impacts” in about 1984.  I was a consultant for an electrical utility near Seattle.  They had plans for a number of small hydroelectric projects on the western slopes of the Cascades, north of Seattle.

Before anyone begins visualizing giant dams and inundated valleys, let me explain the scale.  Small hydro often means a low diversion dam, perhaps 6 feet high, a pipe bypassing a steep section of stream, and a small powerhouse at the end of the pipe where the water was returned to the stream.  A project wouldn’t be without environmental impacts because everything we do has environmental impacts.  But small hydro is often environmentally benign compared to most alternatives, especially if the fishery issues are minimal.

Although every project was unique, a typical project under consideration by the utility was an upgrade of an existing project where early 20th century settlers had placed boulders across a stream, diverted water into a carefully excavated a tunnel through a rock ridge, and constructed a powerhouse with an under-sized turbine and generator near the toe of a waterfall.

It was a great piece of history, but produced only about a fifth of the energy that it should.  The utility proposed to leave much of the history in place, while upgrading the plant to generate the inexpensive, carbon-free energy that was being lost. Continue reading

Durable Growth

April Fools’ Day – Part 4

Photo by Matt Howell (from momentummag.com)

Photo by Matt Howell (from momentummag.com)

Having built up the suspense over three previous posts (1, 2, and 3), it’s time to count down the top six places on the list of my top April Fools’ Day stories.  As I’m written before, the whimsy and quirkiness of many of these stories aren’t necessarily equivalent to the pranks typically associated with April Fools’ Day.  However, urbanism can provide good settings for whimsy and quirkiness and those elements deserve to be celebrated.

With that preamble, this is my best of the best.

#6  Playing Pac-Man in Your Own Downtown – Those of a certain age likely have the Pac-Man grid engraved in their memory banks.  But some aficionados may also have pondered the strategic implications of other grids, maybe even using grids drawn from real life.

Recognizing the possibility, City Lab ran a story announcing that Namco, the owner of Pac-Man, will make Pac-Man grids drawn from real places available for a limited time.  Among the street grids to be used are Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Moscow

However, before anyone rushes out to play, I should note that CityLab ran the story on the day before April Fools’ Day 2015.

#5  Clearing a Bike Lane by Brute Force – Some car owners just don’t get it, deciding that their need to park a car trumps the need of bicyclists to use a bike path.  A sturdy biker, faced with a lightweight car, found a solution.  It’s not a solution with universal applicability, but at least one group of onlookers was thrilled. Continue reading

Durable Growth

April Fools’ Day – Part 3

Bottomed-Out Bud Light Truck in San Francisco (Photo from Kurt Varner via Twitter)

Bottomed-Out Bud Light Truck in San Francisco (Photo from Kurt Varner via Twitter)

Continuing on the heels of Parts 1 and 2, this is Part 3 of my annual April Fools’ Day summing up of stories that tickled me most over the last twelve months.  Previously, I’ve counted down from #24 to #13.  Today, I’ll continue with #12 to #7.

#12 Reverse Graffiti – Admittedly, this particular story has no urban connection, but the technique could have wide application in urban areas.  Very wide application.

Tasked with scrubbing the grime from the face of a concrete gravity dam, Polish energy company Polska Grupa Energetyczna asked a comic book artist to design a mural commemorating the vegetation and wildlife native to the woodlands near the dam.  Workers then selectively removed the grime to “paint” the mural.

Of course, this leaves a question.  If the dam wasn’t harmed by leaving much of the grime in place, was it necessary to remove any of it?  Or has Poland fallen into the same “job creation” trap as the U.S.?

#11 Cool Buses North of the Border –Following the lead of a Danish transit company that has tried to make buses cool, the transit department of the City of Edmonton offers their own cool bus video.  I give the edge to the Danes, but love that there’s competition. Continue reading

Durable Growth

April Fools’ Day – Part 2

Mexican Mural, Image from The Guardian

Mexican Mural, Image from The Guardian

As described in my last post, I use April Fools’ Day as an excuse to do a yearly summing up of the most whimsical and quirky urbanist stories I’ve stumbled across over the past year.  In the last post, I counted down from #24 to #19.  Today, I’ll continue downwards from #18 to #13.

#18 Why Buses Run in Packs – Almost anyone who has tried riding buses in a congested big city has experienced the frustration.  After a tediously long wait for a bus, several buses arrive in a pack.  This perverse phenomenon isn’t the product of a transit dispatcher with a warped sense of humor, but is the predictable result of the first bus traveling more slowly as it stops for long queues of waiting passengers, allowing the following buses, which have relatively few passengers to load, to catch up.

Even worse, the problem doesn’t self-correct, but spirals out of control with even a slight delay in the first bus.  It only takes one barely-missed signal or wheelchair loading for the first bus to encounter greater and greater delays until the following bus is on its rear bumper.

Graduate students at the University of California assembled a simple simulation to explain the cause of bus bunching.  Try playing with the model by clicking on the buses in the box to the left to delay one or the other.  It takes only a short delay to destabilize the system, with one bus soon catching up to the other.

One reason this simulation caught my attention is a personal coincidence.  Buses aren’t the only vehicles that tend to in packs.  The same phenomenon can be seen in elevator cars.  I first noted it as a freshman at Cal.  I was standing in the mathematics building, Evans Hall, watching the board showing the elevator car locations and chatting with another freshman about how the cars seemed to travel together.  (Growing up in a town that had few buses or elevators, I’d been deprived until arriving at Cal.)

Another student, of more advanced standing, overheard our conversation and gave us a quick introduction to the theory.  So my introduction to bunching came in 1971 in Evans Hall on the Cal campus.  Oddly, the model linked here was developed in McLaughlin Hall, also on the Cal campus.  Per Google Maps, the front doors of Evans and McLaughlin Halls are only 250 feet apart.  So in 45 years, I’m back within 250 feet of where I started.  I don’t mind.  Instead, I find myself reassured about the path of my life.

(One other coincidence.  Readers in the Bay Area may have seen the recent obituary for the last surviving founder of Save the Bay, the organization often described as having started the environmental movement.  Her name was Silvia McLaughlin.  She was the widow of Professor Donald McLaughlin after whom McLaughlin Hall was named.  More proof that the world can be surprisingly small.) Continue reading